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The Darkest Light

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Darkness is My Friend CHALLENGE: Recently, I have acquired a taste for Blind Naruto fics. I would like to see a fic in the mold of Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman. Naruto would have a nodachi hidden as a cane (using shikomizue instead). He was born blind, none of this 'angry villagers poked his eyes out' crap. His sense of hearing and smell, taste and touch are all enhanced. He still contains the Kyuubi, but I leave its involvement up to you. Pairings are what you wish. If you wish to take up this challenge, I would suggest renting the Zatoichi movies. Not only are they good, but you would get a feel for the fighting style and the facial expressions of a blind person. Watch the old ones (1962-1973), not the ones with the guy with white hair! Good grammar required. -- Pudgypudge


 

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Sarutobi watched as the candles arrayed around the baby flickered. Without warning, an ugly black splotch began to emerge on the child's torso, centered around his navel. In time, the seal, as it became more clear and precise, would encircle his navel with a radius of four inches. On a baby though, an eight inch diameter circle equated to roughly a third of the child's overall length.

Sarutobi sighed with resignation. 'It is done, my young friend. May the Shinigami be kind to you.' With the arrival of the seal, he knew that Namikaze Minato, the Yondaime Hokage for less than a year, was dead, and with his death, the defeat of the dreaded Kyuubi, the Nine Tail Fox, was complete.

He knew of the reason for this, at least on some level. This was their penance for failing Uzushiogakure a generation back. He was quite aware that the treasure sought was that of Kyuubi's power by the three nations and the thousands of ronin who attacked Konoha's deepest ally. So great was the bond that all of Konoha's Kages had taken brides from that island nation, renown for their sealing prowess. Despite that filial bond, internal politics and squabbling had led to their assistance being far too late to do anything except provide housing for the refugees.

For many on the council, this had been their desire all along. Sarutobi also knew of this, which led to his placing their village symbol in red upon all of Konoha's shinogi gear to the point that some thought the red whirlpool had always been part of Konoha's symbol, sweeping up all with their power and prowess.

His opponents in the Council, notably his former teammates, propagated this myth so as to mitigate their own hand in Uzushiogakure's destruction: they thought it all a trap to weaken the other nations so that Konoha's might could shine forth, never minding the fact that their own sensei had been wed to an Uzumaki who had once contained Kyuubi through her own will and power. Though the history of the Kages was taught, no mention was made of the Uzumaki women who made those men complete, nor the island nation who had defended Konaha and contributed to their strength.

Shameful things were best left alone.

Still, he had been caught unprepared. Thirty years had come and gone with no hint of anything from that submerged ruin. Something must have changed, perhaps decay or malice forethought, for the Nine Tails emerged that fateful day and went straight for Konoha.

From the coast to Konoha ran a ruler straight swatch of destruction, two hundred feet in width. Some villages had been in the way, and anything within that width was gone. Not destroyed leaving rubble, simply gone. Outside of that range, grass, trees and houses were pristine and untouched, baring not even the slightest hint of damage.

The path was not only straight, but level. It went through forests, literally through hills and over freshly debris-filled lakes. His inner micro-manager began to smile seeing the possibilities. Konoha was landlocked, and the Kyuubi had just given them a rather direct road to the ocean. Though Konoha did have rivers and waterways winding through it, some pouring their contents into the distant ocean, none were navigable for barge traffic past a certain point. He was snapped out of his musings by a cry of pain.

The sound was primal and quickly escalated in decibel to the pain threshold. The boy's toothless mouth was open, the untrained facial muscles spasmodic as the sound warbled and keened while his small limbs thrashed. The newly reinstated Hokage saw the seal stabilize as dark marks appeared on the child's cheeks, like whisker tattoos. Then his eyes snapped open, revealing the intense blue iris common in most newborns and Sarutobi felt the bottom of his stomach drop.

As he watched, unable to assist the baby, not that he knew what he could do to stop what was happening due to a very strong containment seal and his own rising panic, the sclera and iris began to fill with another color, that of old blood. Within moments, fresh tears leaked from completely black eyes.

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"Do you want the bad news or the more bad news?"

"Might there be any good news?"

Tsunade scowled. "In this Kami-forsaken village? Have you gone senile, you old fool?"

From the corner, an apprehensive Jiraiya snickered at Sarutobi's discomfiture.

Taking a deep draw from his pipe, the Hokage grimaced at how badly he had failed as a sensei and motioned for his former student to continue. As for the connection of the sealed Kyuubi, release by their former ally, he had left for his students to deduce. This was his nature.

Tsunade glanced at the bassinet, where the baby slept thanks to her anesthetic techniques. "The bad news is that he's blind. From what you've told me, he wasn't born blind but he might as well have been."

"And the 'more bad news'?"

She shook her head in resignation and frustration. His eyes confounded her, despite her immense medical prowess. "He's beyond blind, meaning it is untreatable. He doesn't even have a pupil anymore."

Jiraiya started from where he sat. "Hime, are you serious? I mean, how is that even possible."

Her cheeks dusted slightly. 'I thought I told him not to call me that!' "I'm at a loss. This is quite besides the fact that his eyes are black." Her face turned away, to hide the evidence, before snapping up with a narrowed visage at Jiraiya's next words.

"Black eyes do exist you know. Look at the Uchiha."

"I'd rather not, and thank you for mentioning the clan directly responsible for the demise of my family. And you're wrong. Black eyes in humans do not exist. Even the 'Uchiha onyx,' as they call it, is merely a very dark brown, not black. My training and experience allows me to determine colors by wavelength. His are black, solid black."

"By solid, do you mean solid?" asked Sarutobi, rejoining the discussion. "And you know that's never been proven."

"I know what I know, Sarutobi. I'm the last Senju left and I know the Uchiha were behind it, just like I know your Favorite was behind those civilian disappearances." She paused for a bit, eyes lifting briefly to find her former teacher's own. "There used to be thousands of us, you know. We founded this village that you call home." She lowered her eyes as his face paled. "As for the eyes, solid, as in 'my diagnostic scan could not penetrate it' solid. For all intensive purposes, the boy's eyes are highly polished rocks. Whatever the substance is, it even filled the cornea."

Sarutobi winced at her accusation, as that was, unfortunately, true. For neglecting two of his students to favor the one who would betray them all, he was more than a fool. It was more than neglect when it came to Tsunade, as there had been thousands of Senju not even thirty years ago. How much had he missed to have missed another clan's genocide under his nose?

Uzumaki, Senju, Kurama...how many had fallen before the red and white kiln fan, and for what purpose? He knew of their greed and lust for power: their reckoning was long overdue.

Jiraiya glanced at his sensei with a little bit more sympathy, but only marginally. A generation ago, there were still thousands of Senju, yet there she was, the last direct descendant. Guessing correctly that Sarutobi was also following this thought, he picked up the questioning. "His eyes are solid rock?"

She shook her head, her trade-mark pigtails in motion. "Not literally. I had to initiate my scan on the side of his skull, by the temples. Only then could I see the scope of damage. His chakra coils behind his eyes had exploded, for lack of a better word. This blew apart the capillary network and detached his retinal tissue. The amazing thing was that the wound had already healed."

"So the retina was reattached somehow?"

"I wish. I could sense it, with a good quarter of an inch between it and where it should be. No, the area healed without it in place, like it had never been there to begin with. I've never seen anything like it, in all my years of studying medicine. The long and short is that it is not repairable. I probed and prodded but the back of his eyeball did not respond to anything outside of muscular twitches. The optic nerve is still intact and functional, but there's nothing to feed it signals."

"An orphan like his own father, the container for the most powerful bijuu, and blind to boot? Someone up there must really hate him." Jiraiya opined.

Tsunade frowned. She had done all she could, but there were just too many complications. Kushina had lived just long enough to name him. Sarutobi returned from his contemplation of past mistakes. None of them quite understood that Kyuubi's path went directly to Kushina. Had her Kumo kidnapping succeeded, he was certain that the demon's path would have been more northern.

"I made sure that Minato and Kushina had their ashes mingled. I don't suppose either of you would be willing?"

"I've nothing against the child, but I do have more than enough against this village. If I adopted him, would you allow me to take him away from here? The life expectancy of my name is marginal at best here."

Sarutobi's eyes widened slightly, before becoming sorrowful. He shook his head, once.

"I see. Is a shame, really, but I refuse to stay in this village any longer than necessary. Once the current batch of injured are dealt with, my apprentice and I will be leaving. This place has taken far too much, and given back precious little." On the way here, an Uchiha had even smugly remarked "Can you really be a clan with a single person?"

The Gallant Jiraiya leapt to the fore, as Tsunade was laying things on a bit thick. Yet, being raised an orphan, Jiraiya had no inkling as towards familial bonds, that of family, kith and kin being systematically murdered. Her loss and his lack of true understanding had always been their disconnect, but never stated. Instead, she had focused on his fallacies as a deflection against the harsh reality of everything loved being killed.

"Likewise, I've nothing against the kid, but I can't very well take him with me. I've spent decades building up my spy network and I'm constantly traveling. If you won't let him leave with Tsunade, then I know you won't let him leave with me. My spy network, which is pretty much Konoha's sole Intelligence source, will not run itself, nor could anyone take my place. It would take years for any replacement to build up the trust and rapport needed with my agents."

"I see. Well...this is rather troublesome."

Tsunade, not having all that much experience with reading Sarutobi, simply ignored him, still caught up in her own issues. Jiraiya, on the other hand, was very well versed in reading people, especially Sarutobi. "Sensei, what did you do?"

At the question, Tsunade perked up and glanced at a suddenly much smaller Sarutobi, who in turn was rather fascinated with the process of refilling his pipe.

"Sensei! What did you do?!" Jiraiya repeated, an unknown panic entering his voice.

The elder man lit his pipe and took a deep drag. Upon releasing the plume of smoke, he lifted his heavy eyes. "When the reinstatement papers were submitted, the Council had questions about Minato's death and the defeat of the Kyuubi. During the discussion, which became rather heated thanks in part to my former teammates, the information regarding young Naruto slipped out into the open."

To the sound of wood complaining of too tight a grip, he continued, "I was quick to lock down this little...faux pas, and passed a number of edicts regarding not just Naruto's role as the Kyuubi's prison, but also of his parentage. It would not do to have Minato's enemies outside of the village and inside the walls to target his son for the father's actions. He is officially an orphan of the attack and a Ward of the State.

"The clans were very interested in him, though only a few saw him as a baby. Even those few would eventually use the boy as leverage to get decisions favoring themselves passed. I was hoping one of you would be willing, but I simply cannot have him leave. He is too important to this village, being both Minato's only son and heir, as well as the container of the most powerful demon to walk the lands. Both of you, however, have made your intentions clear."

Tsunade narrowed her eyes dangerously. "You complete fool of a man, are you trying to guilt me into changing my mind?" His startled glance told her all she needed to know. "I see, still playing your Shogi game with living pieces. To hell with your wounded, we're leaving now!" Fluidly, she stood and stormed out of the office, the slam of the thick oaken door as she closed it rattling several vases.

Jiraiya, in a short burst of speed, steadied one of the larger ones, wobbling on its base. "That was real smooth, Sensei. Tell me, what did Danzou add to the discussion?"

For only a moment, Sarutobi showed surprise before he shook his head. "You are a cagey one. Yes, he was there and was of the opinion that he should have young Naruto, though he doesn't know of the blindness. That wouldn't stop him from molding the boy into some form of weapon."

"He's a very dangerous man, Sensei. Do you want me to take care of him?" Jiraiya knew just how much of a threat the alleged cripple posed, and had recently uncovered possible evidence of a connection between Danzou and Orochimaru. Sarutobi hadn't wanted to hear it, as it had touched upon the student he felt he had failed the most.

Sarutobi slowly shook his head. "No, there has been too much death of late. I will deal with him and the Council, as is my duty."

It was Jiraiya's turn to narrow his eyes. "I see. Let me know how that 'hands-off passive approach' works out, Sensei. I have the sudden urge to check on my contacts. See you around." In a show of great disrespect, not even waiting for a response or dismissal, Jiraiya Body Flickered out of the office.

It was too late for anger, and even stretching out his senses, he could not locate his former students. Withdrawing just a touch inwards, he sighed once more. For better or worse, one thing was certain: it was good neither was witness to the papers Sarutobi signed, relegating Naruto to the orphanage system. His hope was to place him among the others displaced by the monster's attack, that a non-shinobi family would show compassion and be able to adopt him. He wasn't against a shinobi family filling the role of parent, but unless both retired from the ranks, further weakening Konoha's overall strength, either could die while on assignment, and that just wouldn't do, especially not with this child.

He loved his village, and was both honored and humbled to be their Hokage. He believed in his village, and in the people who comprised it. There was also the debt of an ally scorned. He was an optimist and knew of the inherent goodness and the strength of the Will of Fire, which made this village great. He would not fail them, and in return, they would not fail him. That was his hope, at any rate.

As was his way, he neglected to factor in the human element. It would only be a few weeks, and his attention would be diverted as Kumo invaded, having learned of Kyuubi's passing somehow and the losses engendered. For him, this would be a tiring five years. For a growing child though, the first five years were formative, shaping the person to be, though the person in question might not recall the stimuli.

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As with any other topic, the typical Konoha native had a plethora of views, some of which centered around the senses where improvement was found when another was lost. Common Knowledge mandated that when Hearing was lost, Scent improved first, followed by Sight. When Sight was lost, Hearing improved first, followed by Touch. This was the Rule and frankly was never questioned, just like the notion that everyone had the same internal body temperature, conveniently forgetting that such is the average temperature of quite a large sample.

Naruto's non-identity, when he was first left on their doorstep, lasted all of fifteen minutes. The moment they unwrapped his blanket and saw the seal, they knew both who and what he was due to connections within the Council. The Hokage had paid them all an unscheduled visit shortly after this discovery, and with a voice of steel laid down several rules regarding what Naruto held and the penalty for breaking this law.

Further consequences were given in the event that Naruto should end up dead or missing, chief among them that everyone who worked there, and their immediate families, would be summarily executed without trial. It was good for them that Sarutobi had no way of knowing that his former teammates had already passed down instructions.

Since they already knew of his blindness, measures were taken to ensure he never heard them move. Since his Keepers believed it was Hearing which would improve first, they all were quick to don woolen socks while indoors, and removed from their uniform any fabric which made a motion sound. The intent was to isolate, break, then gift to Danzou.

Hearing was not the first sense Naruto had improved, though he was blind. That honor fell to Scent. From their diets, types of pomade, herbs used in soaps and perfume ingredients, each and every worker had a very unique scent marker. It was the sweet scent of dead 'flowers,' whatever those were, which first gave away the Head Matron; Naruto knew better, even at age three, than to volunteer this information, though it was a hard thing not to wrinkle his nose when she was around.

The Head Matron, having a very real fear of water, used scents in lieu of bathing. The hot and humid months were rather pungent.

By his fifth year under their instruction, still unbroken, he had obtained the raw basics of echolocation out of necessity. After breakfast was over for the other orphans one day, their number increasing rather suddenly, Naruto was permitted out of his under-stair cupboard and given the end of a length of rope. The end of a rope was all he knew when it came to non-violent touch.

He was surprised then, that once outdoors, the rope was pulled from his hand before being engulfed in a much larger human hand, soft and female. Stunned by this new sensation, he was pulled along stumbling across the backyard, and into a back alley. Still dazed, a hand briefly tousled his hair before he was roughly spun several times and shoved away. He was too startled to cry out as he fell into a pile of soft and hard things.

Though he knew how to speak, and had a fairly large vocabulary, all things considered, his voice was not something often used. The kindly man, with the old and warm voice and scent of smoke, had ensured he was educated through a series of visits, though those had seemed to have tapered off as of late. Regardless, this was not a skill often used, as he had been partially conditioned not to speak by a series of unseen punishments.

Disoriented and alone, his sense of smell was overloaded by the piles of rubbish which had yet to be collected. He stood shakily, and with arms wide, slowly edged sideways. He didn't know a cat was in his path, but did hear the yeowl of pain as he trod on its tail. The sudden sound of the animal, along with sounds of falling things, caused Naruto to fall backwards, curling inwards and shielding his face instinctively.

He wasn't sure how long he lay there in the squalor of split trash bags, as he had no means to measure the passage of time. He did notice something odd once he calmed down from his frightened blubbering. Thinking back briefly, when that thing had made that sound, it had echoed around this place. Some things also in this place seemed to have bounced the sound back quicker than other things.

Crawling slowly, so as not to bump his head, he moved towards one of the things which bounced the sound back quicker, and discovered a rather large (to him) box, cool to the touch. Even standing and stretching out his arms while on tiptoe, he could not reach the top.

Naruto tsk'd in annoyance, as he was getting hungry, and was surprised to hear his sound bounce off the box. He turned his head slowly, listening as he made 'tsk' sounds and slowly began to smile for the first time in days. Nodding to himself, he made the same noise in the same pattern, then reached out and touched the corner of the box he couldn't see but could feel.

This experimentation did not bear instant fruit, as it seemed to the boy that he could only 'sense' something if he was right up on it, all the while making some sort of sound with his tongue. It would have to do though, as he didn't know where he was, where anyone was, nor how to get back to that hateful place. His world had always been dark, even inside his mind. Though he could picture basic shapes, he couldn't color them; black on black was his predominant scheme.

This had been the longest...scratch that, the only time he could remember being outdoors. There was something warm on his skin, and despite not knowing what the feeling was called, it wasn't bad in the least. This he compared to Inside, where bad was felt more often than not. Unbidden, he began to worry that Someone would come for him, maybe even the feared Head Matron.

But then, he was outside, and if he was to be found, he would make it hard for them. After a moment of contemplation, he nodded to himself and slowly, standing to the left and following the contours of the alley, he made his way forwards.

He was still troubled by the sensation of human touch. It wasn't normal, and what did she mean by 'thrive'? Unknown to him, he had been watched the entire time, his silent caretaker restraining herself. She knew of his lineage, understood what was coming and knew the shame of his treatment, even at her own hands. As he stumbled away, the rope in her hands twisted. She glanced down, and nodded once.

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"Daddy? He's still there." Ayame, going on ten, had first noticed the small boy sitting across the way from their stand earlier that morning. He was still there at noon and again after the mid-day rush. He had stayed crouched in the shadows of an alleyway. She knew he wasn't dead or sleeping, since she saw him swivel his head from time to time.

Though Konoha was prosperous, there were still those who had fallen through the cracks. Even at ten, Ayame was accustomed to finding death having claimed another in an alleyway, though it was usually suicide or exposure to the elements.

Her father came up besides her, big and strong and capable in all things, scent thick with flour and spices. "So he is," he rumbled out. She loved his voice, the way it would vibrate in her chest when she hugged him. "Be a good girl and invite him. He might be a very good future customer, and we could always make do with more customers."

"Yes Daddy! You can count on me!" Full of purpose and a strong desire to make Daddy proud, she smartly exited the stand through a side door, looked both ways several times, as he had instructed her, before boldly marching up to the mouth of the alley. She stopped a respectful five feet from the child and cleared her throat. She didn't notice how startled that sound made him.

"Are you hungry? Daddy told me to bring you to the stand. I don't think it matters if you don't have any money, at least not this time."

She waited for a response, as her father had instructed her, though her patience was wearing thin. She was not an abrupt person, and was, by all accounts, a very pleasant young lady. She did tend to get a bit cross when she was tired or frustrated, and today had been a long and busy one.

The boy shifted around before turning his face towards her. Due to the shadows of the late afternoon, she could not see his features clearly. "Money?" he croaked out, clearly unused to speaking.

She placed her left hand on her hip and cocked it to the side. "Yes, money. You buy things with it. How can you not know this? Wait, how old are you?"

He seemed to mutter to himself before reorienting on her. "I think I'm four, but don't get 'buying'...how's that work?"

Ayame gave a sigh of sufferance. Daddy told her to bring him to the stand, so that's what she would do. "I'll tell you while you eat, now come on! Daddy said, so you have to." She heard, and could have sworn she felt it, when his stomach rumbled out in protest. "So you are hungry. Well, come on then."

The boy stood, leaning his weight on his left hand against the alley wall. He had cleared his sinuses not too long after leaving the trash piles behind, following the distant scent of something tantalizing. He could smell it strongly all over this girl in a very distracting fashion. Every time he opened his mouth to say something, drool would pour from his lips. Mutely, all he could do was nod in her direction, though he was apprehensive about moving; her scent made his tummy hurt as it twisted and gurgled.

Taking this as assent, Ayame turned on her heel, looked several times in both directions, and began to walk back to the stand. When she didn't hear him behind her, she stopped and glanced back over her shoulder. "Well, what are you waiting for? You blind or something?"

To her horror he slowly nodded his head. She felt the shame immediately, along with the heat on her cheeks. She wanted to blame him for making her out to be a fool in front of her father, but she was mature enough to understand that this was not his fault. She had jumped to a conclusion, the very thing her father had warned her not to do too many times. Beating herself up on the inside, she quietly made her way back to him and held out her hand. When he made no motion, she stretched out further and touched his arm.

She was expecting him to grasp her hand, so that she could lead him back to Daddy. She was not expecting what actually happened, and almost shrieked when he flinched away violently, tangling his legs and landing in an undignified heap. After a moment to see if he was going to do anything else, she hesitantly shuffled forward and crouched besides him. He tried to shift away when she touched his shoulder softly, but he was in no real position to move.

Her touch elicited a keening wail of distress. This was his second time being touched in a non-violent way, and he simply didn't know how to respond. He tried to scuttle away, but his limbs were too tangled to obey.

"Hey, hey, it's just me. I'm Ayame and I'll be ten soon. I help Daddy make ramen. Now who are you? I've already introduced myself, so it's only polite that you do the same. Besides, I can't go on saying anata or omae: it's rude."

"Na-Na-Naaaaaa" She could feel the raw tension beneath her hand, but misunderstood his distress. Unknown to even herself, while one hand was working on his back, the other gripped his shoulder to prevent movement.

"Shhh...it's okay. I can wait until you're ready. Daddy is expecting us though, so we need to move soon." She rubbed his back, as that was the only real part visible to her, in slow circles as Daddy did for her when she was upset about something. It always worked on her, and she released a held breath when she saw it work on this boy, the tension draining. "Think you can stand? I want you to take my hand, and I'll walk you slowly back. Daddy's waiting."

Naruto had gone slack, as he had learned in the orphanage, his muscles loosing so as to soften the blows. She had prevented his movement, so this is what would come next. He seemed to collect himself and turned a tear-stained face towards her. She barely held in a squeal when she saw the cheek markings, almost like a cat! 'Those are beyond cute! I wonder if they're real?'

"Are you gonna push me too?" It was his rebellion, in his croaky, disabused voice, which caused him to speak out. Never would he have done this back there in that hateful place.

She could not keep the shock from her face, nor her voice, from that question. "Push you? Heavens no...Daddy would be very upset with me if I did anything like that! Only a bully or other bad person would do that!"

The boy seemed to shrink. "Please don't say anything. Someone might hear and get mad."

"I'll have to tell Daddy, but I promise not to say anything to anyone else."

This Daddy person seemed to be very important to this girl. He could tell she was upset about something, some quality in her voice and the movement sounds she made. He had already decided to go with her, justifying that abuse from consent was preferable to abuse from noncompliance. This was in addition to her pervasive scent of unknown spices which made thinking difficult.

Regardless, he was hungry and she had promised to feed him, at least for today, and she smelled really, really good. He slowly unfolded himself, shakily stood, and held out his right hand. He propped himself up against the alley wall with his left and waited for the pain.

Slowly, and feeling a bit of an idiot, Ayame opted for caution and vocalized her actions. "Okay, I'm moving my hand to touch your hand. Don't freak out again, okay? Almost there...almost there...and tap. Okay, no flinch," she said as she ignored the recoil, "so I'm going to grip your hand now. Okay, now I'm pulling you to my side...my other hand is moving to your left shoulder...almost there...almost there...and tap. I'm going to grip your shoulder slightly so you don't fall, okay?"

With all of his twitching, it was proving difficult to walk.

Naruto nodded and was grateful for the verbal cues despite his body's automatic rejection of touch: it was just too foreign. He fell back to common greetings to mask his unease. "Th..Thank you, Ayame-san. It is nice to meet you. My name is Naruto, please treat me well. I'm age four, I think," his stuttering paused briefly to swallow his collected drool, before trying to follow her example of something he did, "and Head Matron said I killed my parents and made all the orphans."

Belatedly, he bowed low in greeting, bringing Ayame with him.

Chapter Text

Teuchi watched with barely concealed pride as his little girl made her way across the street, using the safety methods he had taught. Without looking, keeping his gaze on his daughter, he smoothly backed up and shifted a boiling pot to a warmer burner before adding a bevy of fresh ingredients with nary a spared thought. It was when he was idly stirring this fresh batch of noodley goodness that he saw his daughter emerge from the alley, not that she had ventured far within, holding a small boy in such a way as to lead and protect him.

Despite his normally serious outlook, visually, his smile of pride was evident to any who happened to glance within Ichiraku's Ramen Stand. It vanished in a single instant, as did Teuchi, as he saw his daughter collapse on her knees not five feet from the alley, dragging the boy with her as her sobs rent the early evening sky.

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Had it not been for the intense feeling of personal shame at her blunt question about his reticence, meant in derision, Ayame thought the boy's comment, delivered in such a dry manner, as if he was simply stating fact, would not have affected her as it had. As it stood, it was more than enough to drive her to her knees as her eyes blurred and her breathing became suddenly ragged.

Naruto, as the boy's name proved to be, was pulled down with her, though he had pulled her first. Needing some sort of comfort, she squeezed him as she would a stuffed toy, albeit a rather stiff one. Then a few things happened which made her bawl all the harder: he had wrapped his small arms around her, as far as they would go, and was awkwardly running his hands in small circles on her back, just as she had done for him. This action of kindness, added to his intense apologies for upsetting her, when it should be her helping him, only served to open the floodgates wider.

'Why do they blame him for Kyuubi's actions?' She wanted to ask this aloud, but opening her mouth only brought forth wracking sobs. She managed a few hiccups when strong Daddy arms of pure security wrapped around the two of them. The strong scent of flour and spices gave her instant comfort.

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As luck would have it, traffic was sparse, and Teuchi was able to get his daughter and her charge back into the shop before a crowd of gawkers could gather. He would not have his daughter discussed by the ne'er-do-wells, those who seemed only truly happy when spreading the misery of another. To further shelter them from scrutiny, Teuchi lowered the awning, which served as a counter blind, and stepped out just long enough to hang a 'Closed for Resupply' sign out. That done, he turned his full attention to his guest, the guest who was currently prostrate in apology.

"Why are you on the floor?" Above him, he could her Ayame move around as she changed her dusty clothing and washed her face. He noticed the boy shrink in upon himself at the tone. "I'm not angry, if that's what you think. This is just how I sound."

The boy didn't move, but Teuchi could make out the apologies being whispered fervently, as if a litany. The boy looked akin to a pillbug, all closed up on itself. His brow creased as the thoughts ran through his mind on the kid's conditioning. This was learned behavior, of that there was no doubt. He crouched down to be closer to the boy's level and touched an outstretched hand. The recoil was instantaneous, before he frantically began pleading again.

"Boy...I'm Teuchi, Ayame's Daddy, and I'd like to know your name. I can't very well call you Boy if your name is something else, now can I?" His touch had sent the child scuttling backwards several feet, and for some reason, he felt shame.

"Da..Daddy?" The boy had at least stilled, somewhat.

"Ayame's Daddy. Do you have a Daddy...um..."

"Na...Naruto, Teuchi-sama." He cringed at the sudden sound, before he recognized it as gruff laughter. "I...I don't have a Daddy or Mommy. Head Matron said I killed them and made all the orphans."

The chuckles at being called nobility faded as his ears registered Naruto's words. "Head Matron, hrm? I don't think that's true, Naruto-kun, not true at all." He paused, weighing his options. "Shouldn't you be in the orphanage? I do know there's one close by here...are you from there?"

These were obviously the wrong questions as the child curled in on himself even more so, moving his arms close to his torso so his hands could protect the head.

'Not good, not good at all. Real smooth, Teuchi-baka!' "My apologies, Naruto-kun, at my rude questions. Tell me, would you like something to eat?" The question brought forth an odd, undulating grumble, which turned out to be the boy's stomach. "How very rude of me. Please, there is a small table just around that wall. Have a seat, and I'll bring you something to eat, on the house."

He turned for a bowl, and almost dropped it when he saw the boy's eyes for the first time. The inky color which filled the boy's eye sockets seemed to suck the light out of the room as the whisker marks came into view. Running a ramen stand meant a lot of customers from all walks of life, customers who would idly chatter with one another. The name and markings pulled up a larger description, that of the Kyuubi's jailor, his wife's murderer, watching as the child slowly unfolded and stood unsteadily.

Teuchi blinked past sudden tears at the memory of his dear Ayana's broken body, bowl forgotten in his hands and blinked again. This boy tried to comfort his daughter, something he couldn't superimpose over the monstrosity which had towered over the village walls not that many years ago. He glanced at the bowl before mechanically filling it from the fresh pot.

"Teuchi-sa...Teuchi, um...I, I can't see." This time the bowl did slip from his fingers, shattering on the slate floor, the contents splattering every which way. The creature had flinched back violently, pressing its back against the far wall before sliding down into a tucked crouch, head down and covered with shaking fingers. A puddle formed beneath him.

"Daddy!" Ayame bolted down the stairs, took one look, and leveled her fiercest scowl at her father. "Daddy, you're scaring him!"

Teuchi could only stare mutely as his daughter went up to that Thing, and crouched down. "Naruto? This is Ayame again. I'm going to touch your hand, okay?" She continued to tell him what she was doing as she slowly stood him up and walked him to their break table. Once she had him situated in a chair, having used a box as a booster seat, she quietly went to the counter, ladled a glass of water from a bucket, and glared once more at her father as she went past.

Teuchi's mouth was dry and he wanted to reach out and stop her, but he could only watch as she talked to It again, then directed Its hands to the glass. She began walking back to him, then past him, then past him again with cleaning supplies.

"You told me to bring him here, Daddy, and it wasn't so you could scare him like that. I brought him like you asked, which makes him my responsibility, and I won't have you scaring him, I won't!" She looked up at him defiantly, only for her eyes to widen and her young limbs to wrap around his waist. "Daddy...I'm sorry Daddy, I didn't mean to say those things to you...I just heard the sound and thought...they say such cruel things of him!"

Teuchi slowly crouched down and pulled her close, only to pause as saw their guest gently rubbing Ayame's back in smoothing circles. His eyes flicked to the vacant table and back. "I am sorry for upsetting your family, Teuchi-san. I will go. Please let Ayame-chan know that I am sorry for making her cry again."

For Teuchi, time seemed to slow as he saw his left hand rise up, then come to rest on the boy's golden hair. In a thick voice he barely recognized as his own, he asked Naruto to join them for dinner.

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Having a guest for dinner would have been an oddity in and of itself. The guest in question on this occasion only served to raise the bar. 'Maybe it's because he is still a child, and a young one at that...perhaps that's the reason. Some parenting reflex,' thought Teuchi, listening as Ayame slowly coaxed Naruto's story out of him as Teuchi prepared the meal. Though he wanted the child gone, once the offer of hospitality was given, it could not be rescinded, not without a huge loss of honor and prestige.

This was quite besides that fact that either the boy in question contained a very powerful demon, or was the demon itself who had yet to grow into its power. It was fairly common knowledge, among those who served meals to shinobi, that those of the Summoning realm were also demons. If there was one thing you never did, it was to insult a demon.

Also, though one might think they were unobserved, there would always be someone who would bear witness and who would report. That was the joy of neighbors. As far as Teuchi was concerned, neighbors were but a lower class of demons. He really had no choice but to see this through to the end.

His eyes widened briefly at the memory of making the demon soil itself. Seeing as he wasn't observed, as Ayame, even at this age, was really strict with their budget, he added extra meat to the bowl.

He was more than a bit concerned about Ayame, as she seemed enthralled by the boy's eyes and markings. He could tell there was no romantic intent, just unfettered curiosity. 'Does the Hokage even know he was thrown out? This may be for the best...no, no, he's a child, a human child who happens to hold the world's most powerful demon behind a scribble of ink. Him staying here would surely put us in danger.'

Teuchi glanced back at the table, where Ayame was trying to describe what colors looked like. Unknown to himself, the pronouns used for the boy had already shifted. 'She doesn't know, but for the now, he makes her happy.' "Ayame-chan, a moment please."

She looked up and nodded. "I'll be right back, Naruto-kun."

When she reached her father, he knelt down to be eye-to-eye with her. "Musume," he said, using a rare term of affection, "he cannot stay here. If word gets out that he is here, people will come, bad people, and it would put both of us at risk. Do you understand?"

He could see the tears form in her eyes. "It's not fair," she whined. "Are you just going to throw him away like the orphanage did?"

His glare made her drop her eyes. "No, I'm not going to throw him away, but he cannot stay here. I...I know someone who might take him in, teach him a trade. With that, you could see him whenever he came to the stand."

He frowned at her tone as she responded, "So you only care about customers and profit?" That others would paint her new friend with Kyuubi's brush had made her rather defensive of him.

'She is barely of ten years and is already rebelling?' Teuchi had never struck his daughter; he didn't need to even raise a hand. The loud snap of his fingers to the side instantly drew both Ayame's and Naruto's attention. Ayame knew she had crossed another line, the knowledge sure that she would be pulling top-to-bottom kitchen detail for the next month.

"Naruto, do you want to work?"

"Um, Teuchi-sa...Teuchi, what is 'work'?"

"It is when you use your skills and talents to either serve or provide service to another person for a fee, wage or other compensation...that word means 'instead of money you get something else.' Not only would you learn a trade, or work-skill, but you would be paid and would be able to buy things, such as clothes, toys, or even ramen." Despite his misgivings of having the boy inside their shop and home, Naruto did show great and fervent appreciation for Teuchi's ramen, once he was allowed some.

"I could buy ramen?"

"Yes." The extra meat was worth it.

"Really?"

Teuchi could feel the raw hope emanating from the boy. "Yes."

"You're the best, Teuchi-sama!" Naruto paused, idly scratching his head. "But what are 'toys'?"

Teuchi, who was still at Ayame's eye level, suddenly felt her arms around him again, as she sobbed that it wasn't fair into his chest.

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Teuchi, standing outside the tradesman door, wanted nothing more than for this day to be over. He had left Naruto in Ayame's care, having little choice. Bringing Naruto could stymie the negotiations from the onset, and that was something he would not want Ayame to witness, this he told himself. She had been on an emotional wave since bringing the boy into their shop, complete with crests and troughs. He was fairly certain she would be safe until his business here was complete; this was his rationale.

On the pragmatic side, he had also welcomed either a demon or carrier of one into his home and provided a very appreciated meal, drink and company. Even demons were honor bound by the rules of hospitality, which is why literature and stories were rife with examples of demons being just rude enough for the host to break the rules, so they could be consumed. So far, the boy had been unnervingly polite. The extra meat had been worth it.

He knocked thrice, paused for a two breaths, then knocked twice more. A small hatch in door slid back, revealing a small grill with an eye behind it. Recognition bloomed, the hatch was slid shut, and the door was opened after a sequence of bolts were thrown.

"Ichiraku-san, please, come in. Rest here and I will inform the Boss. Tsuki-chan, attend to our Honored Guest!" Though everyone knew that Teuchi had full rights to use the main door, he always came to the tradesman one.

Teuchi sat on the wall mounted bench as the young woman removed his sandals and bathed his feet. This service was usually reserved for those who came through the main door. Provided with his personal house-slippers, she then escorted him to a side door and bowed him through.

Shortly after entering the small receiving room, designed to show intimacy, another young woman arrived carrying a tray. Kneeling at his side, she poured for him a saucer of sake, presented it to him, and then scuttled backwards until she was outside the ring of light cast by the table lamp.

Her scent had lingered. Teuchi was not just a widower, but also a man in very good standing. Though weatherworn, by society's standard he was still a desired catch. That all said, nobody could replace Ayana: he hardened his heart and waited, adjusting his body language.

A far door slid open, and in strode a man of Teuchi's age, dressed in long sleeves. These he wore even during the height of summer. With a grin, he greeted his guest as Teuchi stood to receive him.

"Teuchi-san, it is good to see you again. You have been a stranger for too long!" Ikiri's smile and warmth was far too genuine, something for which Teuchi had to turn away: five years was far too soon for such an honest expression.

"Ah, true true, Hentai-san."

"I really wish you wouldn't call me that, Teuchi-san. I run a respectable establishment here, I would have you know." Ikiri knew of Teuchi's disposition and history, so played along.

"Of course, Ikiri-san, of that I have no doubt. Tell me, how is your health?" Teuchi lowered himself again as his host sat. The serving girl appeared from the shadows, poured for her master, and slid back into the dark.

Ikiri nodded and took a sip before answering. "I am doing well, Teuchi-san. It has taken some time, but I am slowly regaining usage of my right hand. Not that the fools in the village care," he groused. That entire arm had suffered major burn damage, and though the medics eventually were able to restore some functionality, the thick layers of scar tissue prohibited further movement.

"Ah, yes. The folk lore of never taking things from the left hand, the hand which wipes the bottom. I daresay that was an earlier time, but some beliefs take longer to fade." Teuchi surprised his host by reaching out and gripping both hands. "I know better though, for you are a good man, regardless of the hand you offer."

"You honor me greatly, Teuchi-san. I know you are a busy man, as am I. For what end are you here tonight? I know it can't be for pleasure," he said with a grin, hoping to hide his embarrassment at Teuchi's rather direct and honest manner. He gave a gentle squeeze, then withdrew his good and warped hands.

"This is true. I do have a matter to discuss, though I would ask for discretion."

Ikiri nodded and motioned for his servant. "Another bottle for our guest, and then you're excused. Ensure we are not disturbed." With a silent nod, she moved to do her master's bidding. "You have your privacy; please, speak your mind." Both had noted her subdued nature.

Teuchi took a long sip and poured another for his host and then himself. "I have a favor to ask of you. An orphan, male, has been brought to my attention. Based on testimony, I do not think it wise to return him to the orphanage. They have not been overly kind to the lad, for things quite outside his control. I wish for you to teach him a trade."

"Oh? Well, that is something. Why me though, hentai that I am? Surely there are other establishments with more...legitimate trades to be learned."

"This might well be true were it not for a condition of his birth. He is blind, though he has good hearing and a large vocabulary for his age. He does need a trade if he is to make it in this world, and there are relatively few where sight is not a requisite. Indeed, for what I have in mind for the boy, sight might very well be a detraction."

"You intrigue me, my friend." This time, Ikiri poured the drinks. "Just to be clear, which trade did you have in mind."

"Masseur." Teuchi waited patiently while his host tried to clear the sake which was swallowed incorrectly.

"Ma..masseur? Surely you jest." He glanced at Teuchi's face. "You're not joking in the least, are you. Seriously though, a massage specialist?"

"Yes."

Ikiri couldn't bring himself to look into his stoic visage. Teuchi always had craggy features, and when set a certain way, in a certain light, became a dead ringer for Ikiri's deceased father, the one man he could never refuse. "Who is this boy, that he should capture your interest?"

"Uzumaki Naruto."

"Uzumaki? That name doesn't really ring any bells. Is he actually from Konoha, or was he a refugee?"

"There was an Uzumaki here, briefly. His mother died in the attack, along with his father. Since whoever named him didn't know who the father was..." Teuchi had already connected the dots, but had little power on his own, and dared not speak his mind, even here.

"Yes, yes, I see."

Teuchi paused, considering his next move. 'Might as well get this part over with.' In hushed tones, he continued, "He's also the Jailor."

Ikiri frowned in thought, as the manner of delivery was not like Teuchi at all, unless... "By Jailor, you don't mean..." At Teuchi's nod, the color drained from his face, before quickly refilling. He slapped the table, making saucers jingle. "I refuse! I will not have that...will not it here. How dare you even suggest such a thing?! If you've nothing else, there are other matters to which I must attend."

"Please."

The single word gave Ikiri pause. It was rather rare for Teuchi to ask for anything. If memory served, this was the first and only time in all the years they had known each other.

"Why should I not throw you out?"

"A favor."

This time Ikiri's pallor returned and stayed. "You...you're calling in a favor? That favor?" He got a nod. "Why?! Why go so far?"

"He made Ayame weep, laugh and smile brightly all within the span of thirty minutes. She actually defended him to me. I owe it to my daughter."

"Does she even know?" Ikiri, not knowing what else to do, fussed with his garments, then rearranged the low table. This was a topic best left undiscussed.

"No, nor does the boy. He has been told that he is responsible for his parent's death, as well as all the others who left children behind, and he believes this is true. He is only five, Ikiri, and doesn't know why he is treated as he is."

"You ask a big thing, Teuchi. Hypothetically speaking, what would happen if I were to refuse to honor this favor." Teuchi's cup was pulled towards Ikiri, quite without his understanding.

Teuchi did not miss the lack of honorifics, and carefully pitched his tone. "Hypothetically? Well, hypothetically speaking, I would have to inform Boss Takada, since he was our witness. He is a very traditional man, Boss Takada is, holding to the old ways, values...and punishments. Aside from all that, you cost me my wife, Ikiri-san."

It was through strength of will alone that Ikiri was able to control his bladder. He had always known Teuchi to be a shrewd negotiator, but never before had the ante been increased so quickly. In his own experience, threats only came hours into the discussion, not at the beginning. Ikiri's own rudeness hadn't yet filtered through, given his agitated state, though Teuchi's full cup had been positioned correctly for his guest.

The problem was that Ikiri, Teuchi and Takada all knew that Teuchi had saved Ikiri's life at risk to himself. Five years prior, Teuchi had left his wife to protect their young daughter, and wrestled the burning beam off of Ikiri, which had pinned his right arm. Had it not been for Teuchi, Ikiri would have either burned to death, or been crushed, as the rest of the building fell shortly after Teuchi had pulled him clear.

Teuchi had had his entire focus on saving him, and was unable to move in time to save Ayana when a dead Konoha shinobi had been flung over the village walls, only to land on her back. The impact drove her forward into a stone wall, killing her instantly. Despite all that, she protected Ayame. Ikiri knew that if Teuchi had not stopped for him, odds were strong that Ayame's mother would still be alive.

To refuse Teuchi's request now would mean taking his own life to repay the debt, especially once Boss Takada found out. His was the rule of law in this quadrant of Konoha. Ikiri's refusal would shame Takada before the other quadrant bosses. Such might not move the territorial lines, but it could create movement between them. Those consequences could only roll downhill.

"What...what are your terms, Teuchi." Ayana was the reason for Teuchi's superb treatment, and having her death tossed back in his face had hurt. His self recrimination increased, vowing even better service for the one who had saved his life.

Teuchi, hoping to move negotiations forward, let the disrespect slide, unaware of Ikiri's thoughts. "For what it is worth, I am truly sorry for bringing this to you, Ikiri-san. Know my sincerity."

"A moment, Teuchi-san." He pulled a bell from his robes and rang it once. "I have need of a fresh drink, and I would not begrudge you the same." Once things were situated and they were again alone, Ikiri motioned for Teuchi to continue, quite aware that through all this, only he had lost his composure.

Nodding his thanks, he paused to order his thoughts. "You will provide room, uniforms, training and wages, along with a light lunch. I will provide breakfast and dinner, delivered by Ayame, and additional supplies, such as toiletries and extra clothing, as well as the laundry service.

"She will serve him privately and will engage Naruto in conversation. As far as I can tell, she is the first person who has ever spoken to him without anger or malice; she has his trust. She, in turn, will report to me.

"If I learn of any abuse or mistreatment, our agreement is off and it will be as if you had hypothetically refused me. It is my wish that he learn this trade, that he might provide for himself wherever he should go in life."

Even Teuchi knew that apprentices did not get a wage. Only the very lucky even got meals and clothing on top of lodging inside the main building. He was expecting some pushback, and was prepared.

"I...I will relent. Tell me plainly, Teuchi-san, tell me the whys that I might understand. I still cannot fathom why you would go so far."

Teuchi was momentarily taken aback at the lack of disagreement and blinked a few times. "It is hard to explain, my friend. You know that I am a parent first and a cook second. Until you have kids of your own, I do not think you will fully understand, no matter how long you spend in meditation."

"It may very well be as you say, my friend. I am not angry with you, Teuchi-san, just the situation."

"I agree. It has been tense all around. I do have a final request, if you are amenable." At Ikiri's tired motion, he elaborated. "He seems to take well to verbal instruction, has no other options, I imagine, so I urge you to make use of his mind. If nothing else, I think this would be good for the village, as a strong mind, like the body, is not so simple to overthrow."

"Do you really see him as a child?"

"I, I think I do, Ikiri-san. I cannot rationalize a demon trying to give comfort to my sorrowful daughter while asking for nothing in return. For most of my clientele, I could not picture them doing the same. Speaking of which, do right by both me and young Naruto-kun, and I will personally ensure your business prospers. Many people come by my stand, some wanting company while others merely want tired muscles rubbed."

Teuchi took a sip and played another card, slightly unnerved by how passive Ikiri had become, hoping to cheer the man somewhat. "I also hear things, Ikiri-san, some troublesome things regarding some of your industry. If you wish, I will speak with Boss Takada on your behalf to clear up some misunderstandings, as well as elaborating on your generous repayment of our life debt. I think such would go a long way in gaining his approval."

"You...despite this mess, you would still do that for me? At what cost, Teuchi-san?"

"None, so long as you are good to both me and the boy. Scratch my back as I do yours, and we will both prosper, you even more so once you are highly regarded. I will bring him by in the morning, after breakfast."

Once his guest had been seen out, Ikiri lit his best incense sticks and tapers at her shrine. While Teuchi had been focused on saving him, Ikiri was witness to Ayana protecting their child, and her death while still protecting young Ayame. He had seen it all and had been reminded this very night as towards why he was still alive, and why she was not.

Chapter Text

"We are here," Teuchi rumbled as the trio came to a stop. He had wanted to renegotiate the terms regarding his daughter, but knew such was needed. This was in addition to Ayame's happiness at being able to see her new friend, though he was half her age. Running the stand meant scant time for socializing, outside of chatting up customers, which meant that Ayame had precious few, if any, friends of her own. He knew it would be cruel to take this from her.

It wasn't as if he hated the boy. Aside from lineage, his personality was annoyingly pleasant, which made such more difficult than it should be, especially since there was no hint of guile. The problem was what was inside the boy. Teuchi was a practical man who lived a practical life. His touch with the supernatural extended towards an ambiguous acceptance that Kami-sama was out there somewhere.

This made it very hard for him to place that much faith in a smear of ink responsible for holding the most foul demon at bay, no matter the boy's parentage. It was simply too much for him to wrap his practical mind around at present. He would have to put his faith in Ayame, infinitely easier by comparison, and her personal judgment as towards Naruto's stability.

The boy nodded and turned his head a bit to the side to address Ayame. "Thank you for the lessons, Ayame-san, and for helping me. I will try to visit you when I can."

"No, do not call me Ayame-san." She watched his face slacken as he began to get upset. "You must address me as Nee-chan. That's the new rule."

"Nee-chan?"

"Yes, just like that...right, Daddy?" She had to turn away, unnerved at how easy it was for him to hide negative emotions. Their very candid talk the night prior shook her world view and unknowingly carved the boy into her mind. Even if she herself was not aware, his features and traits had been catalogued.

Teuchi watched all this with a critical eye. Ayame was looking hopeful and the boy was bouncing while standing still, keeping his limbs close and movements shallow. 'He doesn't know how to express joy?' He cleared his throat to gain their attention. "Boy."

That was as far as he got, seeing Naruto cock his head slightly before stepping to the side, away from Ayame. It looked as if he was clearing the way for someone, but there was no one else around them.

"Naruto, I meant you. It is appropriate to clap your hands together when you are happy."

"Even if you feel bubbly and fuzzy, like your skin is too tight, Teuchi-sama?"

Teuchi sighed on the inside. He had tried to break him of that habit, gently, but nothing seemed to stick. For whatever reason, Naruto held him in very high regard. "Yes, even if so."

Hesitantly at first, Naruto began to clap happily. Ayame's smile was blinding as she beamed at her father.

"Now then...Son..." The word had slipped out unbidden. His waist was being hugged tightly, and he could have sworn he hadn't seen her move. Flicking his eyes back to the boy, he was bent over at the waist with his hands at his sides.

One thing was clear, whatever else had been done at the orphanage, they seemed to have beat into him social respect. It was a sobering thought that chased that one, which opined that 'beat into him' should probably be taken very literally.

Not unkindly, he disengaged her arms. "Attend, the both of you."

Instantly, Ayame was back at Naruto's side, hand lightly brushing the boy's own. The way her eyes shone reminded him strongly of Ayana, making Teuchi's heart clench.

"Now then, Naruto, I called in a big favor on your behalf and gave some strong offers. Listen well to Ikiri-sama and address him as such. He will instruct you if he has another preference. Our family honor is on the line, Naruto. Do not break our trust of you."

"I...I will not, Teuchi-sama, I promise!" His recent memory flashed back a to part of a story which Ayame had read him last night, something about a gutsy ninja. "I give my word, and I never go back on my word. Believe it!" That story had even had someone with his own name in it, which made it very special to him. He wanted to hear more of it, but that would have to wait, it would seem.

"Nee-chan," Teuchi cleared his throat, as something had momentarily stuck in it, "will bring you breakfast and dinner and will sit with you while you eat. She will also talk with you, and I want you to answer her questions honestly and completely. This is important. Do you understand?"

"Hai, Teuchi-sama!" The boy shuffled his right foot in the dirt. "If Nee-chan isn't too busy while sitting with me, could she maybe read some more, maybe?"

"We will see, perhaps as a reward for strong, honest effort." Before he could get any more uncomfortable, as the boy looked more and more like a young Minato the more he thought about it, he knocked upon the tradesman door.

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"Remember well our agreement."

That had been Teuchi's parting words, having left Naruto in Ikiri's care.

"Boy, what is your name?" He knew it, but wanted to witness the response away from the Ichirakus. He did not have Teuchi's knowledge of things, but did know that this alleged child had cost him a good night's sleep. One thing was for certain, he was scared out of his mind, hiding it with bluster, bravado and rudeness.

The boy actually bent at the waist before answering. "Uzumaki, Ikiri-sama. Uzumaki Naruto."

Ikiri was doing his level best to keep on an even keel. Teuchi and Ayame had both noticed his glare, the girl even going so far as to pull the boy behind her, in a protective fashion. He knew he would have to move carefully, as it would be his actions which would either thread the noose, or keep him from it. He knelt down to be on the boy's level.

Slowly, he moved one hand close to Naruto's face, positioning a finger directly in front of one of the black eyes, something he had only seen before in poison victims. The other hand stretched out to the side. His left poked towards the eye, not to touch but to make him flinch, while the other snapped loudly. The boy ignored the finger and turned his head towards the noise.

"So you are blind."

Naruto stumbled backwards, caught off guard from the man's voice being right in front of him. "Hai, Ikiri-sama." His scent kept blending into the building.

Ikiri tilted his head. "Do you trust me, Naruto?"

"Hai. Teuchi-sama said to trust Ikiri-sama."

"Is that so. Stretch out your right hand to shoulder height." The hand went up immediately. Ikiri nodded to himself and gripped it, noting the recoil. "I thought you said you trusted me. Your body says otherwise."

"I...I trust Ikiri-sama. It is that...I am not used to being touched like this."

"Is that so. Tell me, Naruto, what type are you used to?" The boy's body rejected human touch, if this really was a human child.

"The other kind, Ikiri-sama, not that I liked it much."

"Other kind? Elaborate." Remembering the age of the child, he amended, "That means 'explain more fully,' Naruto."

"Ah, thank you, Ikiri-sama for teaching me so soon. The kind with feet and shoves and sudden movements."

"This was at the orphanage?"

The boy got still, and made to pull his hand away. Ikiri kept his grip, firm but gentle. "Please don't tell, Ikiri-sama. Head Matron will...please!"

"Hrm. I will keep your secret, but you will owe me a favor, a small one. Does that seem fair to you?"

"I...yes, Ikiri-sama."

"Ah, Shinobi-san, could I have a moment of your time?" Ikiri had noted one coming from the massage rooms.

The man in question coughed lightly. "Ikiri-san, of course. And thank you for the wonderful service. My shoulder feels almost new."

"You are most welcome, Shinobi-san." That was Ikiri's title for those that served the Hokage. It was simple, safe, and easy to remember. "I need you to bear witness to a favor."

"Is that so...with this little one then?"

"Indeed. Now, Naruto, I want you to repeat this: I, then state your name, do ask this favor to keep a secret."

"I, Uzumaki Naruto, do ask this favor to keep a secret." The shinobi blinked at the name and face, and filed them away for later.

"I, Tsubiki Ikiri, do receive this favor to keep a secret."

"I, Gekkou Hayate, do witness this favor to keep a secret. What's the secret, if I may ask?"

"A secret, and so it is sealed. Thank you, Shinobi-san, and here, take this voucher for a free session."

Hayate blinked bemusedly at the answer. "You are most generous, Ikiri-san. I will make good use of this. Be well, and you too, little one."

After the man had left them, Ikiri knelt back down. "When a favor is called in, young Naruto, you must honor it, or take the punishment for not. Do you understand?"

"Ha...hai, Ikiri-sama."

"Good. Now then, reach out for my hand and I will show you where you will be staying. I expect you to be familiar with our layout by tomorrow. As per my agreement with Teuchi-san, I have provided you with a uniform, which you will wear at all times except on Sunday. On that day, you may dress in casual clothing and may even go outside. You will be instructed on boundaries, as I should not be forced to waste my time looking for my apprentice."

He waited patiently, actually curious if the rejecting body would actually grip of its own accord. He could see the reluctance but was content to wait. When the much smaller, soft and warm, tiny and childlike hand was engulfed by his own, unwelcome thoughts made him stand quickly, almost pulling the skinsuit with him. 'It's not human, despite appearances.'

Naruto nodded his agreement, walking quickly to keep up. It was that or be dragged.

"We are approaching stairs going up, so step carefully. You will be living in the attic, and it has been furnished for your needs. While I could have placed you on the ground floor, I consider this part of your education, as you will need to learn how to move through a multi-floor building sooner or later." Even before the Ichirakus had left, plans were formed for possible accidents.

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Naruto would wear a cotton head wrap and veil, which hung loose to below his jaw, as part of his uniform, a condition which was agreed upon by all parties as being appropriate. This was particularly true for Naruto once it was explained that it would allow him to be anonymous while still advertising that he was both blind and an apprentice, three things which would prevent mistreatment by staff or clients. The latter two items would actually be written, in red, on the thicker cloth band which would cover his eyes.

His eyes were the unspoken reason for it all, that full black color, lacking the white others shared. It was also impossible to know exactly where the boy was looking, never mind that he was blind. Ikiri had never dealt with such a thing so up close and personal, and thought it would be better to hide such a thing than have to see those ebon depths, so empty. Out of sight is out of mind.

For Naruto, this whole experience was sublime: terrifying yet beautiful in its own way, the trepidation intense as new experiences were placed before him. Before Ayame, never before had he experienced a kind touch, and kinder words. Teuchi-sama gave him his first hot meal, full of things he had only smelled before, but never tasted, and was the first to ever rub his scalp.

No mere words could encapsulate that singular experience of warmth and intimacy. The words he did not lack, merely the means of conveyance. These things had also been done by the lady who was filled with sadness, but his isolated mind could not reconcile her gentle touch at the end with the painful ones before.

Then came Ikiri-sama. He could smell the same fear which Teuchi-sama had expressed, yet the flavoring of anger was vastly different. Teuchi-sama's was sharp and sorrowful, whereas Ikiri's was more along the lines of heavily displeased. The colors might be the same, but the tints were different. There was also the same scent about him as the caretakers, when he could hear them giving instructions to the other orphans, that of being up to no good.

Teuchi-sama had reasons to trust this man, so Naruto knew he had to do the same, no matter the difficulty with one with such an underhanded scent. Above all, ruling all, was the singular notion of family. He would not betray Teuchi-sama's trust, nor Ayame-neesan's kindness. She had read of such to him, and it had resonated so deeply as to leave him bereft of any tangible expression. She, thinking him sleepy, kept jostling him so she could keep reading to her new friend, unaware of the damage her spoken words did to his conditioning.

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"I will come for you when this buzzer sounds. It is set for thirty minutes, and I expect you to be prepared to continue your lessons." This was another test, as the alarm clock was one floor up and several rooms distant.

"Hai, Ikiri-sama."

Ikiri slid the door shut on the small room, adjacent to the kitchen, while the boy had his lunch. Still not quite sure why he had done so, Naruto had been introduced to Kobuta, the brothel's head cook. Ikiri had been grilled for details before the boy was turned this way and that by thick hands on thicker arms, before she declared that the child was far too thin and small for his age. He wasn't sure if the boy could actually eat that much in a mere half hour.

Making a tactical retreat from the only person he allowed to prepare his meals, he went in search of the brothel's personal physician. For liniments, salves, birth control measures and any other contingency, Ikiri found it best to have his own clinic instead of traveling to and from the general hospital. It was also discrete, another perk.

"Well? Have you finished your report?"

"That I have, Ikiri-sama. It is a confusing thing, of that there is no doubt." Hibari adjusted his silver-rimmed frames with turquoise temples, a personal conceit given that so many frames were still of brass.

"Your meaning?"

"Well, I couldn't detect a retina at all, not even floating around. I assume it was never there to begin with, a birth defect, if you will, or it was reabsorbed by the body, which is not all that uncommon. The optic nerve had atrophied to the point of nothingness. This too is consistent, as it had not be used at all in all this time. As for the rest, there was evidence of some broken bones consistent with serious falls, but the mends seemed very strong. I put that down to his young age, as children are rather resilient, and possibly as a side-effect from his Tenant."

By now, both were well aware of his time spent in the nearby orphanage, and had to wonder just how so many of his bones were broken. Hearing and reading that report had hardened something in both men, despite their personal feelings towards the nine-tails.

At that both men repressed shudders. Seeing the simplistically complex seal up close and personal had frightened them, fully realizing that only a few layers of inked skin prevented the Kyuubi no Kitsune from turning them into a thin paste. Ikiri knew he could do nothing but see this through, as Teuchi had called in that favor, and Ikiri had made a binding promise. It was a marvel that the village and country hadn't already been leveled. One never abuses a demon without severe consequences.

"I would ask for your discretion there; it would not do to cause a panic among the staff or guests. About the eyes...tissue has been regrown from other tissue before, right?"

Hibari nodded his agreement. "Well, I believe that to be true, Ikiri-sama. It is best if the sample is from the same body though. The genetics can be tweaked to regenerate most small things. For larger things, such as major organs and limbs, this does not hold true. I am of a mind that with the withering of the optic nerve, an eye transplant would either fail or be rejected."

"That is a shame. Could you though, could you perform such a thing with the tissue regrowth? I am of the belief that if we could provide the boy with sight, it would bode very well for both of us. As a loophole, I could even open discussions with Teuchi-san again towards orienting this boy into another trade, one which would not put this location in danger."

The child had been systematically abused. If it was a demon, or if he was protected by the demon sealed within, if other demons responded...or if, perhaps, the boy was fully human with all those mended bones; there would be consequences.

"That is a shrewd thought, Ikiri-sama. Even if it doesn't work, if you treat the boy right, demon incarnate or not, he will hold great loyalty to you. As for the procedure, regrettably, it is quite beyond my scope. You would need someone of Tsunade-sama's caliber."

"Tsunade-sama? The Tsunade-sama?"

"The same. Compared to her, I am but a rookie. I am not dismissive of my own talents. I know I am good, but she is that much better."

"I see. And where might she be, I wonder."

"That is the question, isn't it. She has not been in Konoha these past four years, though I do hear that she has one infamous reputation among the gambling halls."

"That good?"

"Quite the opposite. Rumor says she owes many powerful families quite a substantial sum. Perhaps she could be enticed to perform this operation. Hell, I would gladly pony up what I could just to sit in on it. Not many get to see her work who are not her patients."

"Perhaps, if Teuchi follows through, I will explore this option more thoroughly." Ikiri glanced up at a wall-mounted clock. "I thank you for the information, Hibari-san. I need to return to my charge."

"Of course, Ikiri-sama. Be well, and remember well my words."

Stepping outside the clinic, Ikiri couldn't keep the grin from his face as he heard a young voice calling for him. 'So he still heard the alarm and came searching for me? Impressive. Perhaps Hibari has a good point.' Turning a few corners, Ikiri stopped and observed, before hailing the boy. Naruto had trailed a hand along the wall, walking with a rolling, bandy-legged gait. From the exam, there wasn't anything wrong with the boy's legs. He would think on it more later. "Now Naruto, how did I instruct you to walk today?"

"Ah, Ikiri-sama, I found you...and I remember." Naruto instantly crouched down on the balls of his feet and began duck-walking towards Ikiri. "That way was quicker though, and I knew that you shouldn't be forced to waste your time trying to find your apprentice."

Ikiri could detect no sarcasm, or anything improper. The boy actually seemed happy to be duck-walking? 'Oh, has nobody ever given him positive attention? Well, there's a thing. I may have to give Hibari a bonus if he keeps being right.' "Right you are, Naruto, right you are. Come to my voice and I will guide you. Keep that position though, as it will help your balance and leg strength. Now, let us review this morning's lesson."

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The first day was not without hiccups. Several times, the conversation would turn towards Naruto's time in the orphanage, and things would become complicated.

"I could not help but notice, my apprentice, that you sound older than your stated age. Why is this?"

"Ikiri-sama, I am confused. Does not every child speak as me? If I fumbled in speech, why, Head Matron..." The boy trailed off and seemed to shiver, before clenching his legs together.

Ikiri almost didn't recognize the motion, then rushed to scoop the boy up. "Naruto, if you need to relieve yourself, you need to let someone know!"

"I am sorry, Ikiri-sama...please don't...Head Matron said to never speak..."

They didn't make it in time. The moment Ikiri held Naruto, the boy had shuddered and his bladder wept. The child in his arms, a first for Ikiri and Naruto, become a damp and acrid stone, and the elder of the two was at a loss. He was not equipped for such a thing, and could only call upon an aide to take the child to Kobuta, as he went for a brisk scrub and change of clothing.

As it stood, Ikiri decided it would be prudent to list that as a taboo subject for now, though it was one hard to escape completely. There was some loathing, but mostly fear from the boy when the Matron was mentioned. There was a lot of fear, enough to cause the child to almost lose control of his bladder. Ikiri already knew the cost, as those floor mats merited an early pull and cleaning.

After careful prodding, Ikiri had pieced together part of that story. Apparently, outside of linguistic lessons, the boy was prohibited from speaking. This included asking to go to the bathroom, which he could not do otherwise without permission. It was a tidy cruelty, as either way, the boy would be punished. On some levels, Ikiri stoked his anger, all while justifying the cause to be something else.

The other issues were a touch more distracting, and only concerned Naruto peripherally. Apparently, Teuchi was true to his word, and spoke to Boss Takada on Ikiri's behalf. Teuchi was a man in very good standing, something which went far in swaying Takada's judgments regarding some of Ikiri's female staff and allegations of drugging clients and theft.

It could not be helped if some men of growing stature lost their wits when it came to a beautiful companion, lacking the burden of stoic matrimony and family obligation. Those types were too free with their money and gifting, and had only themselves to blame, especially when it came to how much they drank to escape their own situations.

What Ikiri didn't know was that when Teuchi went to relate the life debt fulfillment, Takada had sent runners to gather the other bosses and their chief subordinates, that they might also hear this tale. Those men also knew of Teuchi and his good standing.

Hearing how generous Ikiri was in honoring this favor, not that they were privy to all the details, made three of the four bosses glower, as they had none in their ranks which could equal this deed. This was especially true once they heard the story of Teuchi's bravery and personal sacrifice. To repay the lost life of a mother and spouse by granting a young blind orphan a new beginning...precious few things could top that, and they knew it.

Takada's smugness was the most galling thing to Clan Kazawa, they who held the other quadrants.

So it was that Ikiri received several important guests throughout the day, most bringing gifts of favor. This was a good thing, in Ikiri's mind. The not so good thing was when there was a very timid knock, followed by the door sliding open, as Naruto was working on his balance in a small training room.

Bushari, his chief bouncer, was ashen-faced as he personally bowed through Boss Takada and his security detail. Within mere moments, a low table was carried in, set with a selection of light peasant dishes and a pot of bitter tea. One of the guards made to comment, halted by Takada's quirked eyebrow. The man focused his considerable attention upon the boy and man kneeling before him, their heads touching the floor.

"You honor me greatly with your presence, Boss Takada-sama." His scent of fear changed in intensity and direction.

"Hrmph. What is this that you present to me?"

Ikiri shivered slightly, hoping his intelligence was correct. He was currently between two demons. "A light mid-day meal as your blessed Mother would make."

There was silence, a grunt, and then a sharp guffaw of deep laughter. "You know me well, Ikiri-san. Give my regards to the cook, a skilled person to have done this on such short notice." He paused while one of his guards poured the tea. "I see the story is true, if this is the boy. Rise and present yourself."

"Uzu...Uzumaki Naruto, Boss...um"

"Takada-sama," Ikiri whispered.

"Boss Takada-sama, Ikiri-sama's apprentice." Ikiri's scent changed again, the fear shifting to wariness and resignation.

"Uzumaki?" Takada mused. "Had I not heard Teuchi's tale, I would assume this some sort of joke. Interesting."

"It is no joke, Takada-sama. I will honor Teuchi-san's favor."

"To teach the boy your trade?"

"Indeed, Takada-sama."

"Well, there's a thing. I do not see you teaching him anything." Though smiling, there was a hard glint in Takada's eye.

Ikiri started and nudged Naruto. "Come, let us return to your exercise." At the nod from the older man, Ikiri led Naruto back to the balance beams vocally. For some reason, he was unwilling to display Naruto's aversion to touch.

Takada watched as he ate, nodding at the quality of the dishes, as the boy stood on the low beam with only his toes. He raised himself up, then began to lower himself before he lost his footing.

"Again. Remember to flex your knee to keep your balance." Ikiri stood to the side of the low beam, in profile to Takada's table. It would not do to turn his back on his Honored Guest. Naruto moved quickly to stand once more on the beam, adjusting his position until the bulk of his foot hung off the side. Then, with slightly bent knees, he rose up, and began to lower himself down.

"Again. You are doing well, especially considering you cannot see your where you are in relation to everything around you. Think of how you did the duck walk." Without complaint or sign of frustration, Naruto stood again on the beam from where he had slipped, and resumed the exercise.

"What is the purpose of this?" asked Takada.

Ikiri turned his head, keeping one eye on Naruto, as he answered. "It is to build his balance and toe strength, Takada-sama. Given his size and age, I thought it best to focus on that early for back walking."

"That is indeed a prudent choice." He tilted his head in thought. "Why the veil? Is the boy disfigured?"

Naruto had successfully completely five calf raises in a row, and was side stepping, again using only his toes, on the edge of the beam. He paused at the question and waited.

"Naruto, you can trust Takada-sama. Do you think you can find him?" Though they hadn't covered this, Ikiri was curious about how sharp Naruto's hearing actually was.

Naruto nodded, stepped off the beam and bowed to Ikiri. That was expected. What surprised the man was when Naruto seemed to be sniffing the air, tilting his head slightly up and to the side. Appearing to nod to himself, the boy started forward in that wide ambling gait he had exhibited prior, past the side tables which held blocks of clay used for finger conditioning and grip strength.

It struck him, as he watched, just what the boy was doing. Each step was measured, with the full weight balanced on one foot. The other would come forward and lightly press, before the weight was shifted over to that one. It was as if he was testing each step before taking it fully, all the while keeping a low center of gravity. This was learned behavior, and spoke of both conditioning and abuse.

Takada had seen it too and quirked a fuzzy eyebrow at Ikiri, who in turn shook his head briefly. "Where did he learn that?"

"The orphanage, I believe, Takada-sama." He paused as he saw Naruto stumble slightly. "But that is a rather touchy subject currently."

"Is that so."

Naruto resumed his counting of steps. He knew up to ten, but he wasn't quite sure of the counter word, so he opted to substitute other words internally. This room was more-two steps wide and more-six long. The hall outside was many-eight steps long and three wide.

He thought that Takada-sama was roughly eight or nine steps away, maybe ten. When his forward leg bumped the low table lightly, he nodded to himself, took a large step backwards, and settled into a bowing seiza position.

"Boy, I am over here."

Naruto started at the voice and quickly shuffled two feet to the left, bowing his apology.

"Let's have a look at you then."

Nodding, Naruto silently raised both hands to feel for the bottom of the veil, before lifting it to rest on the head-wrap. Tucking his fingers under the band which went across his eyes, Naruto pulled the entire head piece off and opened his eyes. He frowned at the sounds of surprise.

"Is...is it bad, Takada-sama?"

Takada flicked his eyes to Ikiri, who shook his head slightly. Reorienting on the boy, he regained his composure, though the loss made his voice a touch gruffer. "No, there is nothing bad, little one. We were just surprised at your eye color. It is...different." Noting the hair, he pitched his question to Ikiri. "Is he a lost Yamanaka?"

"Not to my knowledge, Takada-sama, though I do not think it so. Given how socially conscious that clan is, I'm sure we would have all heard about it by now." Takada grunted his agreement.

Takada motioned to his guards as he made to stand. "I thank you for the meal. Come, walk with me."

"Naruto, continue your drills. I will be back shortly."

"Hai, Ikiri-sama. Takada-sama, may fortune find you."

Takada nodded as his detail slid back the door. Ikiri walked just behind him as they walked past his complete staff, kneeling in respect on one side of the hall.

"Teuchi explained the agreement, but omitted some details. The other houses had nothing which could even compare with what you are doing, willing participant or not. That is a good thing." He paused at the entrance as a brace of servants readied their footwear. "Keeping information from me is not. You have six months. At the end of that time, you will send him to me for testing. If he pleases me, when next you expand your business, it will be a gift from me. You really do not want to fail."

He left with his detail, leaving a rather shaken Ikiri. 'What did I get myself into?'

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Needing council, Ikiri had requested Teuchi's company during Naruto's dinner hour.

"I think Boss Takada might have been a bit upset with not knowing all the details, Teuchi-san."

"That could not be helped. I did not find it prudent to let the other families and their subordinates know that Naruto was learning your craft. I could not very well give his name and description, nor what he holds."

"Still, that puts me in quite a bind. True, an adult can learn the basics in a few weeks, but I do not think Boss Takada will be satisfied with mere basics." Ikiri slid his fingers through his hair.

"How is your staff reacting to him?"

"They know him as Naruto, and that is it. They see not his hair, eyes or face. He and I agree the head wrap and veil is a needed thing for now." 'Especially for me,' Ikiri thought.

"How very thoughtful of you both," came a voice from the hallway. The door slid open and the very last person either man wanted to see right now stepped through. His focused will washed over them.

Both men bowed deeply from their seated positions. "Please, Hokage-sama, make yourself at home." they stuttered out, hearts racing and breathing difficult.

"Oh, I intend to, Ikiri-san. Now, I think it's time we had a chat."

Chapter Text

Naruto paused, the noodles in his chopsticks slipping back into the bowl. He was still learning how to handle those. "Nee-chan," he whispered, "someone new is coming."

She closed the book around her fingers, both to keep her place and to throw it if necessary. Father had taught her that if you are drawn into a fight, fight to win and use everything you can to achieve victory. Straining her ears though, there was naught but silence. "Are you sure, Naruto-kun?" she whispered back. "I can't hear anyone."

He tapped his nose with his free hand as he laid the sticks down upon the low table, ready to curl himself into a ball to protect his vitals. This was a tactic he learned quickly to avoid serious damage when drawn into a fight. With a sure motion, he tugged the veil back over his face.

Ayame, though a civilian child, was both perceptive and bright. She sensed his fear and saw the first motions of his withdrawing upon himself, something she first witnessed in the alley. She hummed gently, catching his attention as she slid the fingers of her free hand across his back. "I won't let them get you, Naruto-kun." Gently, so as not to alarm him further, she nudged him behind her.

In contrast to when she first touched him, there was zero recoil. If anything, he almost seemed to be leaning into her touch.

Then she heard it, the soft cadence of footsteps, the kind taken by those wishing to not make noise. All her senses were straining for any hint of intent as she cocked her arm back, ready to bean the first assailant through the door with The Gutsy Ninja. She almost swallowed her tongue when Naruto reached up and tugged on her throwing hand.

"Nee-chan," he whispered fervently, "don't...that is Nice Man. I can smell him now."

Her eyes shifted to the door as it slid back, allowing a visibly shaken Daddy and Ikiri-san entrance, followed by a serious-visaged Hokage. Ayame 'eeped' and quickly ducked her head in reverence. Casting a quick glance at her charge, she shifted enough to grip his hand and tugged him down to her level. "It's the Hokage, Naruto-kun. Pay respect," she whispered urgently.

Naruto was quick to comply as the adults looked on, the two other men waiting until Sarutobi had situated himself before they sat behind him. Naruto raised his head, the veil masking his face but not hiding the sound of sniffing. "Nice Man? Is that really you?"

Most of the anger bled out of Sarutobi's eyes. "Yes, Naruto-kun, it's me. How could you tell?" His well trained eyes took in the details of the boy's new clothes, admitting to himself that they appeared of higher quality than what the orphanage would normally use when it came to Naruto. His self recrimination increased.

"You always smelled of sweet smoke. But...Nee-chan said Hokage-sama is here, so did you pay respect too?"

"All the time, Naruto-kun, since I am the Hokage. Would you mind showing me your face?"

The boy was motionless for a few seconds as he sorted through this information. All those times he smelled sweet smoke, all the times the Matron was actually nice...all the language lessons and rules of civility. At times, it was almost like they were training an animal, teaching it a new trick, much like a dog being taught 'shake hands.' For him, it was show respect, act properly, and speak clearly, the doubt thick that he was actually capable of any of it.

He was the one blamed for the slowness of lessons, though others needed extra time to get things down. Those slow ones were always the most angry at him, and broke the most bones.

With shaky fingers, Naruto lifted the veil up and over, laying it across his covered hair. The influx of strange emotions was visible on his face and Sarutobi was quick to realize that the boy didn't know how to express himself. Seeing those soulless black eyes, he couldn't help but flinch, his mind replaying past mistakes. This did not prevent him from seeing Ayame move in front of the boy with a stern expression.

"Don't look at him like that! It's like those people on the street when we brought Naruto-kun here, that look...I may not know what they all mean, but I won't have it!" Her expression was fierce, and she felt Naruto's fingers grip the back of her kimono. Realization of just who she addressed widened her eyes before she dropped to the floor, pulling Naruto with her. "I...I'm sorry, Hokage-sama! I...I..."

"Be at ease child. That was a brave thing you did just now, and I see just how protective you are of him. I don't hate Naruto-kun, if that's what you think. I was merely remembering mistakes of the past, and I apologize if that came across poorly." He oriented on the boy. "Is that why you are upset, Naruto-kun?"

"Am...Am I just a pet, Hokage-sama? The way they taught me...I'm a trained animal?"

Sarutobi stiffened, noting the formal change in address. "Is that what you were told in the orphanage?"

"Ayame-chan, get Naruto to the bathroom quickly! My apologies, Hokage-sama...mention of that place causes some issues."

Ayame turned to Naruto. "Climb on my back, Naruto-kun. Do you think you can hold it?" A whimper was her answer, his eyes scrunched up in painful thought. Turning, she backed into him and pulled his arms up and over her shoulders, before leaning forward and standing shakily. She pounded out the door, sliding on the wooden floors with a heavy thump as her socks lost traction. Acting on an odd instinct, she pulled him around while falling, curling her own larger body around his.

"Sorry about that, Naruto-kun...I'll try to be more careful. Are you okay there?" She could feel him shiver and knew he was doing his best to control his body. Unlike earlier with Ikiri, Naruto would do his utmost not to shame his first and only friend.

"Be more careful," chided her father gently. "It would not do for you to slide through a wall or door into a private situation."

"Yes Daddy, I'll be more careful, I promise. Here we go, Naruto-kun."

She rocked back on her knees then feet, and with an expressed grunt, used the much longer and stronger leg muscles to power both her and her charge upwards. Taking a bit more care while moving as fast as possible on the polished wooden floors, she set off once more.

Sarutobi did not turn as he spoke. "There is something you left out of our earlier discussion, Ikiri-san."

"Forgive me, Hokage-sama, but I made a promise to the boy to keep his secret."

This time, Sarutobi did turn, giving Ikiri his full and considerable attention. "A promise to keep a secret?"

He got a fervent nod. "Witnessed by a Shinobi in good standing, Hokage-sama."

"I see. Does it involve adults?" Though Sarutobi could force Ikiri to give up the secret, he felt the need to keep trust with the boy, regardless of if the boy was present or not. There had been too many mistakes already with the child's handling, all at his own hands. Sarutobi knew he had damned the child to misery from the onset.

Ikiri saw where Sarutobi was going. He could answer these questions so long as he did not divulge the secret itself. "It does."

"Does it involve an institution for children?"

Since 'orphanage' was not said, Ikiri felt it safe to answer. "It does."

"Does it involve mistreatment of a child?"

Child was vague, and mistreatment was broad, both safe terms. "It does."

"I see." With a single snap of his fingers, four ANBU blurred into being, nearly causing Ikiri to swallow his tongue. "I want the entire staff of Naruto's orphanage taken into custody. Conscript as many Genin teams as you deem necessary to tend to the children until the staff has been questioned." Within the span of a blink, the room became less crowded.

"Ikiri-san, it would seem you left out some details. Teuchi-san, if you would, please see that refreshments are brought here. It wouldn't do to have either of your throats go dry."

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She knew her time was approaching. Yesterday, one of the staff was tasked with keeping the stain out of sight during a fee-free Open House. Things became even more hectic when her orphanage's review rotation came up, the timetable always unknown, and several inspectors carrying clipboards showed up around noon, while the Open House was in full swing. Though a civilian, she noted the masks they wore were a bit different than the ones who had come with Hokage-sama.

The little urchin was found to be missing when things finally settled down around the time of the evening meal. A very discrete search of the premises only served to discover Asaka Ume, the staff charged with hiding Uzumaki, hanging by a short length of rope in the utility shed near the back gate to the alley. As they gently cut her down and lowered her cold body, Matron Hachi felt her world crumble. Knowing Sarutobi, it would not be long before his promises many years ago were brought to bear.

Sending out as many workers to scour the local area as she could while still maintaining the orphanage took a little bit of juggling and some very fast runners. It served its true purpose, however, placing a hastily worded message of love, regret, and revenge in her husband's hands, with instructions to take their family away from Konoha before noon. She would stay and buy them time.

It was evening when she had the staff gather up all the children, a recent influx stretching their budget and housing: the grounds were peppered with hastily erected tents. "I have been honored to have watched all of you grow, missing those who have gone on to new families and comforting the new additions brought here by loss. I will be leaving soon, and I want you to remember a few things after I'm gone.

"Mind the staff, treat those around you like you want to be treated, and never forgive the demon who attacked this village and wears the face of Uzumaki Naruto! He is the shadow beneath your beds, the butcher of your parents, the killer of our beloved Yondaime! Never forgive, and seek vengeance when you are older!"

The staff was struck dumb at the gross and flagrant breaking of the Sandaime's Law as some of the children began to cry and scream from loss and in anger at what had been taken from them, and how they had been tricked by the demon. It was then that several ANBU rushed through the main orphanage door, one grabbing Hachi by the shoulders. "By order of the Hokage, all staff are hereby under arrest pending the investigation regarding child abuse and abandonment. Please give us your full cooperation."

When they heard what the children were saying and saw the cruel smirk on the Matron's face, they knew their job had just gotten harder.

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Shortly after the ANBU were dispatched to the orphanage, one of the original ANBU appeared, whispering fervently into the Hokage's ear.

"I see. See to it that Uchiha and Yamanaka are notified of the security breach, as well as the delicacy of the situation. Ikiri-san, Teuchi-san, I am not happy. Teuchi, you should have notified someone immediately. I can understand your reasoning, and it seems your fears were well-founded.

"Ikiri, you should have notified someone immediately as well. Your life-debt would have been taken into consideration, and this entire situation could have been handled a bit more discreetly." Sarutobi sighed and made to stand. "As it stands now, you will finish what you started, the both of you. Ikiri-san, since you are his instructor, you will present to me your lesson plan tomorrow, at o-eight hundred hours. If you do not have one, I suggest you spend some time rectifying that oversight."

He paused at the door and spoke over his shoulder. "If anything happens to Naruto while under your care, Ikiri-san, you will beg for death, that I can promise. As for you Teuchi-san, if harm comes to the boy, I will personally ensure Ayame-chan finds a good foster family. Do both of you understand me?"

The two shaken men pressed their foreheads to the mats. "Hai, Hokage-sama!"

"Give my blessings to the children. I will see myself out." Sarutobi wasn't actually angry with either of the men, but appearances needed to be kept, so threats were made while diluted sakki was sloshed around. It was controlled though, there being no need to alert others that he was here. If anything, Sarutobi was pleased.

One day was all it took.

Naruto had been missing for one day, and already he was accepting the touch of others, was clean, had sturdy clothing which fit, and even looked a bit healthier. The biggest change had been his facial expressions, which had been absent all the times before. One day was all it took. He would have to find the one responsible for this and thank them with all that Konoha could offer.

'Tsunade-chan, is it too late to take you up on that offer?' It was a pointless thought, since he knew that she would never speak to him again, so great was her anger and his own sins. He had even taken a census, and found none outside herself with the Senju name, though the Uchiha were almost a thousand strong. He was old enough to know of their deep feud, as well as the condition for the sharingan.

It was time to bring them to task, though there was another one at this time. He had noted her skinned knee from flesh on wood, and followed the scent of blood. He caught the pair heading back to the room, but far enough to hide conversation. Sarutobi could not help but sense her wariness, and how she defended young Naruto.

She also needed to be compensated, as well as Teuchi for raising such an upright and exemplary child. Once back at the office, he would search for a suitable family into which she could be wed, one that would secure both of their fortunes, once she was of age.

He bowed low to the ground. This was the very least he could do, despite his social standing, to compensate for his many mistakes with Naruto. "Be at ease, child. I thank you for watching over Naruto so carefully."

"Ho...Hokage-sama...ah, um...raise...uwaaa!" Despite her distrust of adults in general, this one was her village leader. It could not be helped that she stumbled backwards, seating both her and Naruto. It was then she noted her bleeding knees. "Ah!"

"Shh, be still young one. Please, allow me." Raising up slightly, Sarutobi needed to only point a finger and her torn flesh was healed. Producing a piece of cloth, it was damped with Suiton and passed into her passive hand. "Please, wipe your knee and witness my thanks."

He couldn't help but be embarrassed by all of this, and flickered away when she glanced at the cloth. "Ah, he's gone!"

She instantly saw Naruto face upwards. "He's on the roof, with others...and they moved away."

Ayame shuddered slightly at the whole ordeal, when wiped away the blood. Unblemished skin was found beneath. She turned towards Naruto. "Naruto-kun, whatever you do, don't trust that man. Yes, he's our village leader and all, but he looked at us like he was...playing some game, like shogi."

"What's shogi?" Naruto already had issues with Nice Man and Hokage-sama being the same person, so Ayame's warning was readily accepted.

"Let's...let's ask Tou-san." She was a bit embarrassed that she wasn't really good with that game. Something in her gut warned her against mentioning this meeting.

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It was several minutes before either man stirred, and then, only to glance at each other. Without a word, Teuchi poured the drinks, they tapped saucers, and downed them in a single gulp.

It was Ikiri who first spoke. "We are dead men walking."

"It cannot be helped. We made promises, and as men we must see them through, regardless of the consequences. Moaning about it won't solve anything."

"You are right, Teuchi-san. What a mess though...and what does a 'lesson plan' involve?"

"I...I am not entirely certain. I will ask my daughter. She graduated from the Civilian Academy earlier this year and might still recall what her teachers used."

"Ah, that sounds like a good idea, and congratulations on her accomplishment. We didn't have those when we were children. If not destined for the Shinobi Academy, it was up to relatives or your Master, if you were lucky enough to get apprenticed, to teach you what they thought you should know."

"Thank you my friend. She actually finished two years early, spending but four years in a six year program."

"That must've been expensive..."

"Only the first year," Teuchi injected. "After that, the tariffs on the Eastern Trade Road started pouring into the village coffers. Hokage-sama used a good portion of those to subsidize civilian education to bolster our long-term economic prospects. That was a wise move."

"Have you actually seen it?"

"I have, once when I needed to inspect a large shipment. It is a marvel of Shinobi engineering. Did you know it is rumored to have been the same path Kyuubi created?"

"I had heard that."

"It is true. That road is straight enough to shave by, amazingly level, and not a curve in sight. They did something when they laid down the road deck."

"I hear it was Earth specialists who created that surface."

"I would not doubt it. Not a seam or blade of grass anywhere, with a slightly rough texture for sure footing. Water simply sloughs off, refusing to pool...the strangest thing is moving along it."

"Eh?" Ikiri poured the drinks this time. "What means you?"

"It is difficult to explain. When walking along that wide expanse, you move faster...or so it appears. Much faster, if my memory serves. I had planned to be gone for several weeks to allow for the travel time to and from the coast. I was back in three days, and that was with an oxen-drawn wagon loaded with supplies."

"Eh? How is that even possible?"

"I know not, just that it is. It is no surprise that Konoha can both demand and get a travel tariff. Travelers don't have to pay; they can always opt for the much slower routes if they so desire."

"I might check this out, circumstances permitting. How much is the toll?"

"One ryou for a round-trip."

Ikiri spluttered. "One ryou!"

Teuchi nodded gravely. "Yes, it is a touch expensive, especially since much longer wagon or cart travel from the coast is generally around ten bu per day. Seventy bu for a week long trip from Port City compared to five hundred bu for the same travel in a single day? If a civilian and in a hurry, there is nothing I've witnessed which is faster. Granted, a loaded wagon will probably take about two days, but still worth it if you have time-sensitive cargo. How is it do you think we have fresh ocean fish now, instead of dried or smoked?"

"So a day, you say, from here to Port City? Isn't that roughly five hundred miles from here?"

"It is, and I could scarce believe it. Still, if you factor in the cost of wages for your drovers and feed for your animals, in addition to anything extra for meals or lodging, well, five hundred bu doesn't sound that bad at all."

"Was it crucial for you, Teuchi?"

At this, Teuchi actually turned a bit red with embarrassment. "No, not in the least. Curiosity it was. As I said, I had prepared for at least a two week trip."

Ikiri gave a snort of laughter. "You do realize what killed the cat, yes?"

Teuchi took a sip and grinned. "And satisfaction brought him back."

That rejoinder caused Ikiri to laugh openly. Teuchi himself smiled a bit as he felt the tension drain from the room. They both knew they were simply nattering away so as not to dwell on things stated to them. Noticing his daughter and charge waiting in the hallway, he motioned them to enter, feeling his heart clench at the very thought of her being in the same place which abused the boy.

"Very timely, Ayame-chan. Ikiri-san, seeing how we were discussing tolls, perhaps this would be a good time to introduce Naruto-kun to currency. I will talk with Ayame-chan about her school's curriculum."

"Ah, a sound plan, and we can go from there. If you'll excuse me, I need to make a stop by my office."

Teuchi nodded and turned to where Ayame had led Naruto. "Did you enjoy the ramen, Naruto-kun?"

"Hokage-sama came in before he could finish, Daddy. I think it's gone cold," Ayame answered.

"That is fine, Nee-chan, I don't mind."

"No! It's a rule."

"A rule?"

"Uh-huh. Cold ramen is bad, right Daddy?"

"Indeed it is," replied Teuchi with a smile.

"Oh...um, okay. I can always wait until tomorrow then."

Ayame quickly turned to face her father, pleading in her eyes. He gruffly cleared his throat.

"It is no problem, Naruto-kun. I don't mind getting you a fresh bowl, since it was us who interrupted your meal-time. Ayame-chan, take good care of him, and when Ikiri-san returns, I want you to write down the basic format your teachers used. Can you do that for me?"

"Do you mean, like, read a few chapters and then a quiz, followed by writing exercises and a break?"

"Exactly. This is for Naruto-kun, so we can train his mind as he's learning these other skills."

"Train like a pet, Teuchi-sama?" His voice was flat, face lacking emotion.

"No, not at all, Naruto-kun. These are things every person should know." Despite his earlier misgivings, Teuchi felt the embers of rage begin to be fanned at the boy's treatment.

"So...that means I can be a person?"

Ayame looked fit to cry as Teuchi answered, "Absolutely. Be good for Nee-chan, and I'll be right back with your ramen." He had to leave the room quickly, before Ayame saw the anger on his face or the whiteness of his clenched fists. 'She could end up there, where he was abused. I will never, ever allow that, for either!'

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"Do you trust Nee-chan?"

"I trust Nee-chan."

"Okay, hold out your hands, palm up and fingers spread. How many do you have?"

"Ten fingers."

"And if I add three more?" She curled two of his fingers down. "How many would you have then?"

"Many-three," came the prompt response. His fingers were warm.

Ayame blinked. "Many-three?"

"Uh-huh. Three many more than ten."

"So...what is ten more than ten?"

"Two-tens, of course."

"That...that is absolutely right! Naruto-kun is smart!" She wasn't trying to be condescending. Given his stated age, along with how small he was for that age, Ayame actually thought him to be younger, so was gauging ability. She couldn't quite explain why, aside from 'I like him, but not that kind of like!', but she felt the very real need to not only protect him, but to help him grow as well. Given that her own father seemed vested in Naruto's education, she would help out as much as possible.

The boy blushed heavily, turning his head away. It was obvious, even to Ayame, that he was very unused to being praised for anything. "I only know a few of the counter words though, so I would need to learn more of those."

"Ah, I probably know some, but not many more than that. As a civilian child, it's not often someone my age has to count suits of armor or small rafts, though I do have to count noodles and bundles of noodles, which most kids my age don't."

"We could ask Ikiri-sama...he might know more of them, the counter words adults use for things."

"Maybe...we'll see when he gets back."

"Gets back? He's been outside in the hallway for a little bit. I thought you knew."

With his cover blown, not that he was skulking about, Ikiri entered the room carrying several items. He had been content to observe this...boy without an adult present, with someone close to his age. For some of the gossip he had heard of the boy's nature, so far none of it survived close scrutiny. 'Maybe I should move him downstairs.'

"I didn't want to interrupt is all. Where did Teuchi-san go?" asked Ikiri as he knelt and cleared a space on the low table.

"Ah, he went to bring Naruto-kun fresh ramen, since his meal-time was cut short. Are those for me?" Ayame asked, indicating the papers and writing kit in his hands.

"And for your father and I. If you could write down things your teachers usually did, like any type of lesson order or covered material, that would be helpful." He kept his demeanor open and friendly, as to not add extra pressure. He noted even the boy had relaxed a bit at the non-verbal cues, though body language could not be seen. He would think on it later.

She nodded her assent and moved to a low table, where Ikiri had laid down most of his burden.

"Your lesson had good timing, Ayame-chan. Come, Naruto-kun. I will teach you about currency."

"Currency, Ikiri-sama?"

"Correct. Ko is the counter for small round objects." As he set down the small chest and opened it, he opted to explain a bit more, seeing the boy's confused expression. 'Well, at least he is learning how to express himself a bit more. When his face goes slack, I get uneasy. Why do I get uneasy?' "Currency is a system of metal coins worth a set value, which can be traded for goods or services. Their names are based on units of weight."

Naruto was still as he digested this. "So," he began carefully, "with currency, these metal coins as units of weight, I could trade some of them for something else, like ramen, a bowl for its weight in metal?"

Ikiri blinked while Ayame stifled a giggle. "I...yes, I suppose you could, if you wanted to, Naruto-kun." 'Why do I get uneasy?'

The boy nodded sagely, the fingers of his right hand supporting his chin. "Then this is something important to learn."

'He actually sounds eager...not that he complained any today. Whatever task I set him, he did without question and gave not even the slightest hint at frustration...nor pleasure. It was just what was expected of him. So why the eagerness to learn curr...it can't be just because of ramen...that would make no sense! It must be something else, but what?' "Indeed, now hold out both hands, palms up."

He nodded at the instant compliance, and placed in the right hand a small and thin iron coin, while in the left went triangular pieces of an iron coin. The flinch this time was slight.

"In your right hand is an older currency still used in some lands. It has largely fallen out of favor in Fire Country and Konoha."

"It has...lines?" asked Naruto, running his fingers over its surface.

"Indeed. Those lines allow it to be broken into four pieces, just like you hold in your left hand. When they are in pieces, they are called mon. Four mon equals one shu, which is the whole coin in your right hand. Note the thinness of the metal and light weight. Again, these coins are not used often, but you should still be aware of them. Place them on the ground, and we'll move on.

"Next is the basic form of our currency, the bu." He placed the small copper coin in the boy's open and empty hand. "Four shu equals one bu, for reference. Again, it will be not be that often you will come across the lesser values. Note the weight. Go ahead and pick up the shu, which is by your right knee, and compare how they feel."

"It, the bu, I mean...it is smaller? Ah...smaller than the shu, but thicker; there are no lines on it either."

"Correct. Anything else?"

"I feel something on it, bumps and things, but I don't know what those are."

"Most coins, if not all, have their denominations, that means their value, stamped on them. They often also include designs, or simple drawings of objects, such as plants or buildings. Sometimes, such is purely for decoration, while other times it is to prevent forgeries. That word means fakes."

"Ah, thank you, Ikiri-sama. Are coins faked often?" Naruto's fingers roved over the designs, curious on what they were called.

"Not as often as one might think, Naruto-kun. There are very strict laws which are rigidly enforced in the case of false coinage. The punishments are even more severe when the blind are victims."

"Really, Ikiri-sama?"

"Indeed. In those cases, it is to protect the blind person from being swindled or cheated. If one is found to have knowingly used false coins, they lose a finger for each infraction. Not many continue in the forgery business afterwards, as losing too many fingers is a sure indicator to everyone else about your past.

"If you make a fake ryou, which we will cover soon, the penalty is death. The ryou is worth a lot more than a bu. However, if a blind person is knowingly given fake coins, even a single mon quarter, the person responsible loses a hand for the first offense and their life for the second."

At the gasp from Ayame, he continued with a nod. "It is a harsh lesson to prevent the blind from being wronged due to their loss of sight. If nothing was done, or the punishment too light, it would not be long before those who could still see were treated the same." 'Why do I care if he's wronged?'

Ikiri pulled out two coins from the box and placed them in Naruto's hands. "Now then, compare those against the others. What is different?"

Naruto, still digesting the earlier information, ran his fingers over the new pieces. "They...they are larger than the bu, and about the same size as the shu, but have the same thickness as the shu and no lines. The new coins are the same size...why does one have a hole?"

"Very good, Naruto-kun. The new coins are the five and ten bu. You can always tell the five bu coin by the center hole, which the ten bu does not have."

"So," began Naruto slowly, "this five bu coin, with the hole, is worth five single bu? Who decides how much each coin is worth?"

Ikiri chuckled. "Good question, Naruto-kun. The short answer is the Daimyo. We will discuss the historic Summit between the five major countries after the last Secret War at a later date. Suffice it to say, it was that Summit which standardized the currency values and materials used for the minting, which is the process of making coins. The counter words for their weight became their currency names."

He handed two more coins to Naruto. "Tell me about these." Despite his morning thoughts on the boy, Ikiri began to enjoy teaching him. It would be some time before the rest of his mind caught up to this sensation.

"They are even larger than the five and ten. One has a hole like the five bu. They have more designs...and the edge feels bumpy, where the other coins are smooth."

"Very good, Naruto-kun. The one with a hole is valued at fifty bu, while the other is worth one hundred."

He could see the boy's brow knit in deep thought. "So...the value is the same but more coins are squished into the larger ones? I mean, if fifty bu coins equal a single fifty bu coin..."

"That is one way of looking at it, Naruto-kun. So instead of needing to carry a handful of smaller and lesser coins, you can use a larger and higher value coin instead."

"I think I'm beginning to understand, Ikiri-sama." Naruto wasn't sure why, perhaps it was the meeting with Hokage-sama, but he kept the scent of the different metals to himself.

"That is good to hear. Do not worry if you do not grasp things immediately. We will be going over this several times in the coming days. Years from now, when you are on your own and traveling, you may not have someone there to count out your change for you. So it is important that you learn how to tell the various coins apart early on, so you are not taken by surprise or cheated."

He paused in thought, before nodding. "This is the last of the round coins." He placed it in Naruto's hand.

"It is...large." It filled his small palm. "It also has the bumps on the edge like the fifty and hundred?"

"Correct. That coin is worth five of the hundred bu coins." Turning his head slightly, he caught Ayame's stunned expression.

"I take it you haven't seen this one. Would you like to?" He got a slow nod as she shifted closer. 'She will report this. It is good that she is here.'

"This is worth more than most people make in a month, well, except for Shinobis," she said breathlessly. "That what I understand from listening to customers, at least."

"They are right. I keep this coin around mainly for a training aid for new hires, so that they know what it looks like just in case one is used. That one as well as this." He pulled from his coin box several small ovals, golden in color, roughly an inch by two inches in size, though very thin.

Ayame's jaw dropped. "Is...is th-th...wow!" she stammered and exclaimed.

Ikiri chuckled. "Yes, this is a ryou, and yes you may examine it, both of you can, but I want those back." He passed the other one to Naruto. Those used to be much thicker, but recent times had seen the ryou get thinner and thinner. Ikiri had three of the thicker ones, passed down through generations, buried in a lockbox beneath the brothel.

There was once four, but his father had used one to hire, transport and feed a fighter from Tanzuka Gai after their quadrant boss, Kazawa Gozu, was made an example and object lesson. Ikiri had not had them valuated, since such would give away the secret, yet even then he estimated they were at worth at least an oban each, if not more.

"It is shaped different," the boy said.

"Indeed. The shape and metal is different. For the shu, very thin iron is used. For the bu, it is copper for the single, five and ten; then the metal changes to silver for fifty, hundred and five hundred. Ryou, though, is gold, a very precious metal.

"I usually have only a few ryou on hand. Each one is worth ten of the one hundred bu coins, or one thousand bu."

"Thousand?"

"Yes, Naruto-kun. We will go over numeric counters later, so let this be your introduction."

The boy nodded as he ran his thumb across the oval. "Um, Ikiri-sama...since the bu have different size coins for different values, some with holes or edge bumps, do the ryou also?"

"Very good question, Naruto-kun. There is not. A ryou is a ryou. Now, stacks of ryou do have other names. Ten ryou is usually called an oban, and are generally wrapped in paper or fashioned into a much larger oval shape. Ten oban are often called a kan, which is also stacked and wrapped in paper."

"Oh, so a kan is worth...a hundred ryou?"

"Correct! It is great wealth. There is one man of whom I've heard who is very wealthy. He is Gatou of the Hundred Kan, a shipping tycoon, who runs his empire from a flotilla of ships far off the coast. Ah, Teuchi-san, perfect timing."

"Oh, what did I miss? Ah, let me set this down...I hope beef is agreeable for everyone. Ayame-chan, Naruto-kun...eat and rest while Ikiri-san and I go over some details." He glanced at the work Ayame had done. "Musume-chan, this will come in very handy. Thank you."

She dipped her head to hide her blush, passing the coinage back to Ikiri before helping Naruto collect his samples.

"We covered the basics of currency and coinage. There will be reinforcement lessons along the way."

"Very good start. Come, Ikiri-san, we have much to do yet."

"Ikiri-sama, a question!" Naruto had even raised his hand to draw attention. "Shogi, what is it?"

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Sarutobi had been on the roof briefly, though he was unaware that Naruto had sensed him. He had not wished for his embarrassing display, needed to cement alliances within the village, to be seen by others. So it was that he was not seen collecting his footwear, donning them on the roof, and briefing ANBU.

"Is that so. Let them think they have evaded us, then crush their hopes and dreams. Hachi will know despair before she and her family dies. Put their heads on pikes and scatter their ashes."

Sarutobi knew he was being ruthless, but this was a special case. She not only broke his Law regarding Naruto's identity, but also taught it to so many young children. But he was not Danzou, capable and willing to kill off as many children as needed to preserve peace. Once upon a battlefield, he was, and that part sickened the current self. But with Hachi, even her children needed to die.

An example had to be made, with instructions to put the children of the rest of the staff in Shinobi or Civilian Academy dormitories, or lacking children, a member of their family to be placed under Village care. Sarutobi didn't like the taking of civilian hostages for political reasons, but this was, again, a very special case.

'How deep is the taint? Where does that rabbit hole lead? Should I have done this from the start?' Sarutobi shook his head as he currently stood on the Hokage Monument plateau. Before him was an unlit pyre, both of them shielded by a strong cloaking genjutsu which would only show the night sky, no matter how bright things were inside. It was a variant of the Bringer of Darkness technique, modified by Jiraiya.

His foot tapped the ground and the pyre was consumed by flames. Upon it, cleansed and robed in white was Asaka Ume. Though a suicide, this was the least he could do, while praying to whomever would listen that her final act to a blind orphan would supersede the final act she did to herself.

"I remember you, Ume-chan. Washing out of the Shinobi Academy, I saw your compassion so clearly, and placed you around children. Even though you witnessed so many deaths when Kyuubi came, and even after it was contained, you still pushed Naruto out of the gate and into the arms of family. Why did you do such a thing?"

Sarutobi was reminded of that bleaker time as he watched the flames alone, flames which consumed his wife, his own daughters, daughters in law, nieces and their unborn and living children. For many, including his own clan, two generations had been lost during those years. "Your compassion shames me. I would gladly take you as my own daughter. Is it too late for that?"

There was no family of her own left. Her entire world was the orphanage, one she sacrificed. 'What did she know?' He increased the heat, watching the pyre collapse, bringing the rest of the body into the core of the flames. Before his kneeling self was a fine silk cloth, upon which was an urn and chopsticks, specifically for collecting her remaining bones.

"Ume-chan, this might be presumptuous of me, but I would very much like to place your ashes alongside my daughters and wife. I so deeply regret not knowing more of you. I feel you would have been a wonderful daughter, a blessing to any home." He shook the remnants of his hair, scalp marked by sun spots.

"Never again. Naruto is in good hands at present, but if ever there is something I or the Village can do for him, it shall be done, no matter the cost. Too many mistakes have been made with him, all of which I own. Ume-chan, please forgive this fool of a man, who only wanted the best for a child, and failed. Your courage shames me."

He spared no thought for the ANBU he could sense in a cordon around his location. They could share in his penance as he knelt on the raw stone until the pyre was consumed. Then, with the popping of knees and other joints, he stood and moved forward with his instruments towards the differently colored ash.

He had performed these same rites so many times before, always careful to start at the feet. The only family he had left was an estranged son, and a widowed daughter in law with an unborn son. "Ume-chan, as you protected Naruto, please protect your sister and nephew, my only grandson. The Taint has weakened, but it has claimed so many. Should he live, I will name him after this Village which produced such a wonderful daughter."

Chapter Text

The week following the orphanage fiasco was a busy one, and in an odd twist, remarkably efficient.

Matron Hachi seemed almost excited to be 'martyred,' as she put it, right up until her family, whom she presumed escaped, were moved into her holding cell. They had made good their escape, but runaway civilians usually don't think things through. They had been found, rather easily, by the Hunters while they were en route to Tanzaku Gai, a resort town of sorts some hundred and fifty miles southwest of Konoha.

They had no way of knowing that every step had been monitored, and that her family was rounded up only after they breathed that first sigh of relief. Sarutobi had wanted them to feel full despair as punishment. In a show of kindness, he allowed them to die together.

As for the rest of his promise regarding Naruto, the Hokage was a bit more lenient, understanding the issues which could arise if the entire staff was suddenly replaced. The current staff also had the benefit of knowing the children, their quirks, and medical history. That said, hostages were still taken to ensure compliance.

The true efficiency, something he never thought he would see in a bureaucracy, was in the selection of a new Matron. As far as Sarutobi was concerned, though his former teammates were less enthused, Asuru Nodoka was almost perfect. Chuunin, crippled in the last global conflict, who earned Jounin status as an Administrative Shinobi. She was known among her peers as being detail oriented, and often deplored the state of the current crop of Konoha ninja as being 'more concerned with looks than skill.'

Her interview before the Shinobi Council went rather well. Sarutobi was intrigued by her notion of introducing physical fitness regimens into the orphanage system, as well as measures to better screen for shinobi aptitude. Even if the orphans never became ninja, being physically fit with some martial training could still benefit the village as a paramilitary defense, should the need arise.

Sarutobi was surprised such had never been implemented before and signed the orders for a pilot program. The orphanage under her care would have monthly reviews, in addition to the random inspections. If the program proved to be successful after six months, then it would be integrated into the other two orphanages.

After moving into her new office, greeting and appraising the staff of the new program, and introducing herself to her new charges, Nodoka had a moment for quiet introspection. She tugged on her left earring, a bemused smile of victory on her lips. "Phase One complete," she whispered in the dark.

"Acknowledged," the earring buzzed gently, "continue as planned."

Nodoka let go of her earring, and moved around to take a seat behind her new desk. 'Danzou-sama will be pleased.' Glancing around her office, she noted the gifts granted by the Village Elders, who had pushed for her nomination all along.

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Naruto was quickly introduced to new concepts after Ikiri's presentation of his and Teuchi's hastily cobbled-together lesson plan to the Sandaime Hokage. The lessons of his first full day in the Twisted Knicker were repeated and reinforced each day following his morning chores. The second morning was a little disorientating, as that was another night of waking up in a different place, and it took a few extra minutes for him to remember where he was and why.

It was in that initial week that Naruto was introduced to clay. While Ikiri reinforced the earlier verbal lessons on currency and counting, it was Naruto's task to knead the clay to press out air pockets, being itself an exercise in finger and forearm strength, before rolling out three inch long snakes or ropes. Ikiri had him count aloud as each one was made, from one to one hundred. This was done to reinforce memory with the counters for 'small straight thing' and 'bundles of things', and to allow Ikiri to see how Naruto grouped items. Once that task was complete, Ikiri began instructing Naruto in kanji.

He would form a noun, name, or number, while stating it throughout the creation, out of those bits of clay. Naruto would then run his fingers lightly over the bas-relief construct, before attempting to recreate it. Once each kanji was done perfectly, Naruto would repeat the process ten more times, with any mistake resetting the count.

This would be an ongoing lesson, but a crucial one. Ikiri understood that inked paper wasn't the only medium for conveying a message. Doorframe carvings, wood and stone markers, statue and plinth inscriptions, all these also gave information which could both be seen and felt. He knew this from his wilder teen years, when he took to marking screen tracks in his parent's house so he could navigate in the dark while hung over.

In a pragmatic move, which Ikiri saw as insightful, Naruto requested and was allowed to carry a lump of clay with him following that first time, wrapped in waxed paper. During his other lessons, unless his hands were needed for something else, he would knead and shape the clay, so that he could create an image of the words he knew if one of them was said.

This was the starting point of Naruto's fragmented literacy, as verbs and adjectives would not be taught for quite some time. If taught nothing else, he would still owe Ikiri a lifetime debt of gratitude: his very first crafted word was Uzumaki, followed shortly by Naruto.

Ikiri would be hard pressed to defend this decision. The best he could tell himself was 'Names are important.' This was still the second day there, though not for a moment did he craft 'Kyuubi' for Naruto to learn. Aside from that, for a reason he couldn't quite understand nor name, he had patiently sat with the child, no matter how often the clay constructs were reset.

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After six days of instruction, Naruto was given the day off. This would become part of his schedule during the length of his apprenticeship. More to the point, Ikiri needed some time to flesh out an idea both Teuchi and he had came upon, long after the children were put to bed, and after many more drinks.

Back with Naruto, he was given access to the fenced-in property behind the brothel; the space was generally used for outdoor tea ceremonies, light meals where a patron could be hand-fed, and for games of chance which required extra room.

One such was the Crescent Moon Arc, which involved two two-foot stakes set into opposite ends of a forty by three foot box of raked sand. Stylized wooden crescent moons, capped with bronze on the tips with a band of iron around the much thicker center, would be tossed from behind one stake with the goal of landing the closest to the far one. Each crescent moon weighed two pounds, with a span of six inches.

Naruto had spent several hours here, using the sand to draw the kanji and other syllabaries he knew. Originally, he had tripped into the pit while navigating the backyard with a crude walking stick to aid him, of which he was still growing accustomed. Pushing himself up from where he had sprawled, he found that his hands had made impressions in the substance, and from there it was a simple transition to writing practice.

Opting to explore more, he had slowly navigated the rest of the grounds in a slightly more careful manner. That was how he found the tied bundles of straw, stacked one atop another. It was on the same end of the property, but on the opposite side from the sand box. Running his hands over it, he found metal links hooked together, both running up higher than he could reach, and through, disappearing midway down the expanse.

Carefully moving around the thick composite stack, he found the links again as they exited the midsection and ran down, terminating in large metal rings which had been set into the ground. This was initially puzzling to the boy until he straightened, his shoulder bumping into something. The something turned out to be a large disc of sorts, suspended from the twin chains. Naruto understood then how the circular object was held aloft.

He moved his hands over it, feeling the cloth under his fingers, along with something beneath the fabric. It took a bit of time before he realized what he felt fit the descriptions of spider webs, only this one was hard to the touch. It seemed to be concentric circles, with some of the circles closer together to form bands. All of these, in turn, were intersected by twenty lines of the same material, which seemed to meet at a central ring, several inches wide, which had an even smaller ring inside of it.

He would ask Ikiri-sama about it later.

Moving back around the bales, he swished his walking stick to the side, noting the sound it made. So he swished it to the other side, and then up, to the side and other side, diagonally from left to right. In a blink, he was Naruto, the Gutsy Ninja, facing...shadow warriors made of shadow attacking him with their shadowy swords in a shadow world. He lost himself in the combat until a voice cut through the melee.

From a window, Ikiri had loitered, observing his charge and the many changes in demeanor after a week of residence and lessons. It was then he noted someone land and balance upon the back fence.

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?!"

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Gekkou Hayate, Jounin of Konohagakure and resident Kenjutsu Master, was a nice, easygoing guy. He was pleasant, worked well with others, and was always willing to lend a helping hand. His family had been in the sword business for generations, even going back to when massive armies of samurai prowled the lands for the feudal lords which dotted the landscape.

The mystery of steel was in the blood, and some had claimed it was a kekkei-genkai of sorts, as almost every member of the expansive family had the proclivity of crafting or wielding that sublime weapon. That brings up the possible bloodline, as those with that inclination could either craft or wield; they could not do both.

The rest of the family, which generally meant those that married into it, ran periphery industries. Some operated coal and iron mines, others handled logistics and provisioning, while the rest ran equipment stores to sell the finished goods, the latter often carrying the needed supplies for the other family businesses.

It was tidy and kept within the Family. Hayate even had a niece entering the Shinobi Academy this year, Higarushi Nadakai, though the girl only seemed to answer to Tenten, a nickname garnered by the little squib's habit of giving scores to things she liked or disliked when she was younger.

'I can only give that a six, but I'm worth ten. No, ten tens, I'm ten tens and you're not!'

He'd pick something up for her on the way; already she showed a disposition towards thrown weapons. A little nudge might be all it would take to bring their 'bloodline' to the fore.

Despite the family's wealth and clout, despite his friendly and helpful nature, Hayate had very little, if any, close friends outside of relations. One must understand that Hayate breathed swords. He lived for swords, obtaining obscure ones for his collection and learning the art with near religious devotion. Hayate was passionate about all things swords.

While a boon within the Family, outside was another matter altogether. Whenever the subject touched upon swords, their crafting or usage (and around Hayate, these topics came up fairly often), Hayate went from gregarious to garrulous, shifting to an anally retentive, obsessive compulsive, mulish ass in the blink of an eye.

As with everyone holding this type of temperament, he had several personal pet peeves, one being sloppy footwork. Even catching a glimpse of a shoddy or lazy stance was enough to thoroughly ruin his day.

Today was a day where he really should have traveled closer to the ground.

As it was, though, Hayate was enjoying the sensation of the wind rushing past him as he leapt from roof to roof. Even on days off, such as today, this was still a favored activity and offered far less congestion than typical road travel. That was when he glimpsed something out of the corner of his eye, and before his brain caught up with what his mouth was saying, he found himself perched on a fence, glaring down at a blond kid who had been playing by himself behind a large pile of bundled straw.

"Just what the hell do you think you're doing?!" he exclaimed, indignant finger outstretched and vibrating at the abysmal stance which first garnered his attention.

The kid looked up and Hayate froze. He had seen those black eyes on one other person and realized that this had turned into a Bad Day. He kept still, hoping the kid wouldn't hear him and eventually wander off. Instead, to Hayate's mounting horror, the child, dressed in a pair of black shorts and shirt, looked all the world to be sniffing the air.

"Ah, greetings, Shinobi-san. Shall I go and inform Ikiri-sama?" Naruto, though still very much surprised by the abrupt appearance, remembered some of the house rules and gave a partial bow. 'Ikiri-sama did tell me that not everyone comes through the front door.'

Hayate said nothing, eyes frantically looking for something suitable for a Kawarimi to get him out of this predicament before he was noticed by onlookers. 'Dammit, I knew I should have walked!'

"Shinobi-san?"

'Screw it!' Hayate, instead of answering, used his crouch to propel him backwards and up in a tight flip, landing him on a nearby wall. Within the span of a second, he was several blocks distant. 'Of all the people...sheesh, it had to be him, the Jinchuuriki. I knew I knew the name Uzumaki from somewhere. No matter, it's not important, just keep on moving.'

There was once another Uzumaki. Tomato-head, that crazy Kushina tomboy, went on to marry... Hayate shook those thoughts from his head. 'There's no way they could be related. There's no way that skinny and underfed orphan is Minato-sama's son.' He had been part of the Yondaime's security detail, with Kushina herself contributing much to his swordsmanship.

He jumped across two more roofs before he came to a stop, dislodging idle thoughts for something more urgent. 'Dammit! That stance...the sloppy footwork, the way he was just swinging that stick around willynilly...it's an affront! It's an insult to my Art!' He sighed, knowing himself well. 'There's nothing for it. If I leave him to his slovenly ways I won't be able to sleep...but...that's only if he was pretending to be using a sword.'

His eyes widened at the realization. 'That's it...maybe he wasn't...it could have been a whip or even a kunai. But I'll have to be sure, otherwise I just know this will keep me up all night.' Turning, he made the easy hops back to the property, choosing to land in a tree by the grounds instead of on the fence. He almost fell out of the tree when the kid's head swiveled and locked in on his location.

"Ah, Shinobi-san, I was wondering where you had gone off to."

Gruffly, as to change his voice, Hayate answered, "I think you may have me confused with someone else, little one."

The boy seemed to pause a bit, before rallying with a shake of his head. "Then you two must be twins. You smell the same."

"What? I think you are mistaken..."

"You even have the same smell of wax on your hands as I do. Do you polish floors too?"

This time, he did fall out of the tree.

"I'm fine, I'm fine...no need to be alarmed." Hayate had managed to twist around, though the landing was still rough on his legs. He paused and slowly blinked. 'Did that curtain just twitch?'

"Um...yes, so shall I inform Ikiri-sama of your arrival?"

"No!" Perhaps that had come out a tad forcefully, as the boy had backed up against the bales. "No," he continued a bit gentler, so as to not spook the child, "there is no need. I...I simply had some questions for you is all. Is that alright?" 'There's no way they are related.'

Taking the silence as assent, Hayate pressed on, "I was...curious about what game you might have been playing. Does it have a name?" 'Not ninja, not ninja, not ninja...'

"I, well, I was pretending that I was a ninja..."

The kid was saying more, but Hayate didn't hear him, being a touch preoccupied with his rising panic. 'Was that another curtain?' "Um," he continued, speaking over the child's explanations, "what weapon did you say you had again?" 'Please be kunai, please be kunai...'

"Oh, I had a sword! It was long and..."

'Shit!' Hayate counted his options. He had a feeling he was being watched, and knew that anything even remotely aggressive would be answered with force. This would be even worse if it was one of Ikiri's staff keeping tabs. 'I can brush him off and pretend this never happened, or I can...fix his stance so I can sleep tonight.'

"...swords?"

Hayate blinked. "I'm sorry, could you repeat that question? I'm afraid my mind was elsewhere." 'He looks so much like him.'

"I asked if you knew anything about swords."

"Of course I do, being the resident Sword Master of Konoha." No sooner had the words passed his lips did Hayate clamp a hand over his mouth. 'Dammit! I...this is not good. Wait, what's he doing?'

Naruto had dug into his pocket and pulled out a small rectangle of paper. "Then you must know a lot, Shinobi-san. I'd like to trade, please."

"Huh?"

"Trade. Ikiri-sama has been teaching me about currency, that there's more than just metals coins. In some places, rice is used for currency, and in others it's information. So...I was wondering, Shinobi-san, if you would trade this coupon for information."

"Information about swords?" Hayate was struggling not to enter full blown lecture mode. 'Someone up there hates me. A village full of ninja, and nobody is interested. And of all the civilians, only one is interested, who just happens to be the Kyuubi reborn. Fan-fucking-tastic!'

"Mmmhmm. Teuchi-sama said this coupon is good for a two-for-one offer. I'm not quite sure what that means, but he did ask that I give these to any Shinobi I might come across."

"Means that if you buy one bowl, you get two." Hayate sighed. He really hadn't meant to give the kid any information, but he couldn't keep his trap shut. What he really wanted to do was discuss the beauty, mythology, and history of the sword, just not with this particular person. 'There's no way Minato would sacrifice his own son to become an unwanted Jinchuuriki. Kushina-sama was so swollen with child...what became of it?'

He brushed away those uncomfortable thoughts, discreetly coughing into his hand, an act which garnered him the reputation of poor health. 'Yep, I'm being watched. One on the street, another up high and behind, probably on a roof, and the third one...oh hells, I was that close to him in the tree? Aaaand, since I didn't know, odds are high they are cloaked by a Genjutsu. There will be a report. Crap.'

He reoriented on the boy as Naruto made coughing sounds. Hayate narrowed his genetically droopy eyes. To an outsider, the boy was simply coughing, but Hayate was no mere plebeian; he could tell the boy's coughs were hitting different pitches, as if searching for the right one.

"What do you think you're doing? You're not fooling anyone, you know." 'Especially with how you look like him.'

"Um...ah, Shinobi-san...how do I say this? Um, when you coughed, I heard it bounce. Off things."

"You are mistaken." 'You are not his son.'

"But..."

"You are mistaken!" 'You can't be his son.'

The boy shrank back before turning, dropping the coupon as he did so. "I...I should go. Keep the coupon, since Teuchi-sama did say I should give one...oh, if you could," he continued, digging back into his pocket, "please give these to the other shinobi." He held out three more coupons, dropping them when no move was made to take them from his hand.

"There aren't any around here." Hayate forced a chuckle. "You must have a very active imagination."

"Who else smells of metal, oil, and old blood? I should go. Have a good day, Shinobi-san." He turned away from a stunned Hayate and began making his way back to the building.

This time Hayate knew the curtain moved, because he could see, quite clearly, Ikiri-san's face wearing an unreadable expression. "Um...wa..uh...hold on there, um, boy. Th-there's n-n-no reason to get hasty! So, why...why are you interested in swords?"

To his relief, both the curtain fell back to hide Ikiri and the boy stopped walking, in that odd bandy-legged manner. "I want to be a ninja," 'Like Naruto, the Gutsy Ninja!' "so I can protect those important to me."

"That's fine and all, but what does any of that have to do with a sword?"

"Ninjas use swords," he said, as if stating the obvious.

Hayate blinked. "No they don't, well not always." 'Kushina-sama was a demon with a sword.'

"Yes they do! Nee-chan said so."

It should be noted, perhaps, that though Ayame was a bright and intelligent girl, she didn't know all the kanji or counters out there, especially those used by the military. She knew what a knife was, having used several varieties and styles in the kitchen, and knew what a sword was, having seen such on the backs of some shinobi. Kunai, she had never seen, being outside her sphere of experience, so knew not that word, in addition to most of the rest of the shinobi's arsenal.

So when those tools were mentioned in the Gutsy Ninja readings, she substituted 'knife' or 'sword' depending on context. If the tool was thrown or stored in a thigh holster, it was a knife. If held in battle and used to cut, slice, or behead, it was a sword. Since she was his primary source of printed information, such went far into shaping Naruto's world view.

"Look, ninjas don't use swords, despite what this 'Nee-chan' person says." 'Except that they do. Kushina-sensei, is this your son, or just a relation?'

"Yes they do!" The boy was clearly getting upset.

Hayate tried to shift the conversation. "Why are you so hung up on the sword for anyway? You can't be a ninja, you're blind."

There was an uncomfortable silence and Hayate could have sworn he heard a chuckle, once his own words caught up to his brain. 'Oh shit...I'm screwed. I am so screwed.' Part of him wanted to apologize to his dead sword mistress, which left him further confused.

Naruto had turned to face him bodily, a dark expression on his face. "I don't care what you say. I will be a messer...a mobster...a person who gives massages, and when I do, I'll make good money and then I'll pay someone to teach me to be a ninja with a sword. So you can just go away!"

The boy turned back around, and once again made his way towards the building, his gait stiff and his walking stick tapping the ground a touch more forcefully than necessary.

"Th-the f...the first stance is the most basic, but all else builds upon it." He saw the angry boy slow, as if waiting. Hayate closed his eyes and tried to pretend Naruto was a random kid in a park. If he didn't go through with this, he would be up for days obsessing over it. Already he felt the need to research his parentage. 'There's no way it could be true.'

"Set your feet shoulder width apart, toes forward, then bend your knees and sink down into a crouch. The tops of your thighs, that's the long part between your hip and knee, it should be even with the ground. Now, slowly rise up from that position until you feel your body weight settle on equal parts of your feet, with your lower half no heavier than your top. You should be able to tell.

"Once your weight is equally spread," he continued, opting for easier to understand words to speed up comprehension, "keep your knees bent slightly and your back straight, like you were leaning against a pole. Move your left foot inward just a...hold. It may feel a bit odd."

"This is how I normally walk, Shinobi-san. It's nothing special," Naruto groused.

Hayate blinked. "Ah, moving on then...from here you can move easily into any of the other foot stances. Slide your right foot forward, as if taking a short step, while turning your left foot slightly outward. Be sure to keep your balance centered.

"From there, slip your right foot to the right, until you feel your left foot form a ninety degree angle. Your hips should twist naturally, and if done correctly, your body will form a straight line. This will present your opponent with a very narrow target."

He watched as the boy followed his instructions, without question or complaint. 'Were that he was anyone except who he is.' "Good." 'Perfect.' "Do that a few more times from a normal standing position, and I'll accept your trade. Enjoy your day, Naru-ichi."

One quick Shunshin later and he was in the clear. 'Now I'll be able to sleep tonight. Glad that all got sorted out. There's no way he's their son.' He was pulled from his thoughts as several signatures formed around him.

"Gekkou-san, Hokage-sama desires a word with you," one of the ANBU tucked a folded piece of paper into Hayate's chest pocket, "and you forgot your coupon."

Mere moments later, having been briskly escorted by Naruto's security detail, Hayate was standing outside the massive oaken doors as they seemed to open of their own accord.

"Ah, Hayate-kun, please come in. It seems there has been a civilian complaint leveled against you, and I was wondering if you could indulge an old man." The Hokage's eyes were anything but genial.

'Yep, I really should've walked today.'

Chapter Text

Repetition.

That word was his entire focus. Step by step, word by word, clay string by string, long hours were spent improving his accuracy, agility and finger speed. For him, this was the very least he could do to repay the massive debt he felt inside himself.

He knew he was nothing more than a trained animal. Even Nice...even Hokage-sama had stumbled upon the answer of whether or not such was true. That could only mean one thing.

So Naruto was thankful for this chance. He promised his whole being into becoming the pride and joy of his Master, striving to become a better pet.

All that being said, the boy felt slight comfort in being allowed to bark, as it were. When Shinobi-san had been...rude outside, Naruto knew it was allowable to bark, or be slightly rude back. Ikiri-sama had averred that such was within bounds.

Except for twice daily, gone were his slight smiles, though never had there been any sense of frivolity; all that mattered was his learning how to better serve. Towards this end, he focused his mind, absorbing every detail of every lesson as best he could, asking keen questions when the solutions eluded his young mind. Ikiri-sama had said that he was learning things every person should know, which Naruto interpreted as things which must be learned to become a person. Since Naruto was still in the process of learning those things, he figured that he was not quite there yet.

He had always been a light sleeper, a survival instinct honed during his years prior, and found he had little issue with twenty-hour days. Long after he would be released from his daily duties, Naruto would practice, deep into the night, honing his dexterity, agility and finger speed. Someday, he knew he would be a person, so long as he worked hard and applied himself diligently.

Naruto was the Head Matron's personal pet fox for years. It was all he knew. All that had changed, as far as he was concerned, was ownership, though this new one was infinitely kinder. It had only been a week, and already this was true.

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It was during the second week that Naruto's schedule changed to include more practical applications. The first week was used for basics and introductions, upon which the rest of his education would be founded. From the second week onward, part of his day would include lessons under Hibari-sensei, the brothel's in-house physician.

"Welcome and be well, young Naruto. Ikiri-sama has requested that I assist in your education in a more practical sense. We will start with the hand, from fingertip to elbow, as well as the foot, from toenail to knee. For those two areas, one never goes past the insides of the elbow or knee."

"Why is that, Hibari-sensei?" The boy's eyes were visible, though it was impossible to track the pupil's movements. His entire posture stated his attentiveness.

"There are too many fiddly bits which could be damaged accidentally; nerves, tendons, ligaments and thin muscle strands, not to mention the blood flow network passes through a tight spot in both locations. That is why we must avoid it."

"Under your care, I know I will understand in time, Hibari-sensei. Um...will I be learning on myself?"

"Yourself, volunteers, and Bones. Bones is a skeleton, a person with no skin or muscle. We will be using him to understand the various muscular directions. The deep muscle groups often go against the grain when compared to those closer to the surface."

He had been asked for input, as he had gone through formal schooling, by both Teuchi and Ikiri. He had agreed that others than themselves should share a part in the boy's learning of things, and that they should include as many things as possible to be learned. The boy was still young enough to absorb things as a sponge.

As well, he had counseled for non-combat things to be taught, to highlight the myriad of things out there which gave delight and joy. Already he viewed Naruto a neglected and abused child, for he knew full well that a demon would never tolerate such treatment. So too did he yearn to give him positive experiences.

Naruto paused, his young mind replaying the bit about no skin or muscle.

"No need to fidget, Naruto. He donated himself, upon his death, as he was a longtime customer here. We will use clay sheets, bundles and strands to mimic the varying muscle layers."

Hibari recalled the Kyuubi mess, as that's what it was. So many who died that day did so by indirect friendly fire. Weapons thrown at the Kyuubi either melted into slag on the spot, or where blown back purely from the creatures aura. Those returned weapons, often a single step away from a molten state, had to land somewhere. 'A sky blackened by kunai' worked both ways.

Bones, as he was now called, had been the victim of blunt force trauma to the skull. Taking a kunai handle to the forehead could do that to a person, especially if the kunai in question was traveling on a flat horizontal trajectory at terminal velocity.

He had retired from the Medic Corps after that, as did many others. Some left the field entirely, others opened up private practices and clinics. Hibari chose to work for another, and it was here that he found respite. There was a lot less gore, and a higher quantity of vaginas. Truthfully, he preferred it that way.

"We'll begin with the feet, something true with so many things in life. So too, we'll start with a foundation, for solid footing, then move forwards towards the head, or skills from that foundation. Now then, extend your foot and let's get started."

It had been two weeks, and the flinch was slight. Hibari, from that very first physical exam, knew that Naruto was human. He was as twitchy and nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, so great was his aversion to touch. The trick would be teaching the boy that he was human.

Already such had been done with regards to Ikiri. Hibari knew full his disposition, that conclusions had to be reached by oneself. That is why he had taken the extra steps to have results of the physical printed up, so they could be held and read, instead of just an oral report. A horse led to water might not drink, but it still needs to be led.

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Three months into his training, Naruto was allowed to practice foot and hand massage on the staff, through volunteers. In part to fulfill education requirements, each participant was to share knowledge in exchange for Naruto's services. This could be through direct recitation, anecdotes, oral lessons, or stories. The only common theme was educational: the boy was to learn something, anything, by the end of the half-hour session.

For the most part, this was a success on a multitude of levels. For Naruto, he found the exchanges exhilarating. Not only could he put theory into practice, he also found his efforts appreciated, granting an unknown but pleasant feeling which he had yet to name. He also got to speak with people from all backgrounds in a controlled fashion; for him, this was a needed safety feature as he acclimated to open discussions with relative strangers.

On the knowledge side of the equation, his young mind was set ablaze with how much there was to learn. Everyone taught something from their life, their life as a person, and every instance was unique. It would seem that there were more requirements towards being a full person than he had initially realized.

The staff, the majority of which had only known of the boy through the in-house gossip network, now had a chance to actually see him, though their opinions were mixed. They didn't necessarily know of his Tenent, few who worked there did, but there were views on his temperament. He was polite, nice and pleasant, though in a cool and professional manner. Some found him to be a bit detached and serious, a bit too socially awkward, especially for one so young.

Those views did not extend towards a negative change in their treatment of Naruto. By and large, the mixed-gender staff became rather protective of the boy, speaking amongst themselves on what they could do to make him feel more welcome and at ease. What did change were their views towards those in charge of his education and growth.

Ikiri was aware of the mood shift against Management, which meant against himself. Towards this end, he had many private chats with his more adamant staff, trying to figure out the root of their opinion change. It all went back to Naruto, and for the life of him, he couldn't quite figure Naruto out. So far, the shared education plan seemed to be working, so something else must be at play.

The boy was attentive, driven even. Ikiri knew how the boy's 'day' typically went, long though it was. Fortunately, the brothel was a twenty-four hour establishment, so there was always someone on rotation should the boy need anything during his training marathons. He was at a loss, however, on what occurred to cause such a behavioral change. So though the establishment's overall mood shifted towards the positive again, Ikiri was no closer to understanding Naruto's mentality.

One thing he knew for certain was the only time Naruto ever smiled was when he was in the company of Ayame-chan, and even then, they were slight ones. It had been that way ever since the very first lesson, the very first day. There was something he was missing, some factor overlooked.

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"Ow! Not so hard, Chibi!"

"My apologies, Shinobi-san. I am still learning." His facial cowl shifted with his movements.

"Hmph! And don't call me Shinobi-san!"

"Even if you say it like that, Shinobi-san is Shinobi-san." Naruto's fingers probed the muscles of her upper back.

"Now it's too soft! And don't call me that! Say Anko!"

"Anko?" 'Red bean paste?' "Ah, I thank you for the thought, but I must decline. This is not the proper time, and I've already eaten."

She blinked, nonplussed, before rallying. "No, I don't think you get it...my name is Anko, and you will address me by my name!"

"I do not think that proper, Shinob..."

"Anko! Call me Anko, damn your eyes!" She had sat up, turning to her left to grip his hands in hers, giving them a strong squeeze. Noting the flinch in his shoulders, as she couldn't see his face, she grinned. 'Now I've got your attention, Chibi!'

Any further thought was derailed as the door slid back with a bang on its tracks. Ikiri's eyes quickly took in the scene, noting how quickly Anko had placed her hands in her lap. "Is there a problem?"

Anko's move to answer to cut short by a curt movement of his hand. "I was not addressing you, Shinobi-san."

Naruto could hear her knuckles pop. He was beginning to understand why her name seemed important to her, just as his was to himself. "I...I think I need more time with Bones, Ikiri-sama."

Ikiri was pleased at how that experiment had worked out. Using clay to simulate muscle layers had been a stroke of genius, and four months into Naruto's apprenticeship, Ikiri was finding himself less concerned about Naruto's performance with regards to Takada-sama or the Hokage.

Instead, he found himself worrying that he would fail Naruto, that the education and training would not be sufficient to prepare him for the outside world. There was a modicum of fear that he would fail the boy as a person. 'Teuchi-san, I think I am beginning to understand you now.'

"There is time enough for that later. Though a good substitute, there is nothing like having a live person for this step. Is this what the yelling was all about, Shinobi-san? You may continue, Naruto-kun."

Nodding where he knelt, the boy slid his hand across the floor until he bumped into one of her legs. Finding little resistance, he repositioned himself so that her calf rested against his thighs. 'Perhaps it's best to start over, so as Hibari-sensei has said, begin with the feet.'

'Kunoichi, always so fit,' thought Ikiri with a hint of approval. "I believe I asked you a question, Shinobi-san."

Anko's bare back faced him as she glared over her left shoulder into his eyes, struggling to say something which might help her defense. Finding naught, she dropped her gaze as her cheeks darkened in anger. She pointedly refused to cover herself, leaving her yukata pooled around her waist, though he did note her twitching from the foot rub, trying to keep her stern visage.

She started as she felt the material of a lap blanket as it was draped across her shoulders, hanging as to cover her back and front. She never heard Ikiri move, her raised eyes finding his own perilously close. She could feel his breath hot on her ear.

"You are known to me, Shinobi-san," Ikiri began in a low but stern voice. "For some reason, when I opened up Naruto's training to Shinobi volunteers, Hokage-sama put forth your name as the first candidate. I am certain that you understand your position, as well as your responsibilities."

She blinked first, and he could see she understood the implications. "Indeed. This is a trial run so that for Naruto's sake, he can adapt to the ninja population. They tend to have different needs than civilian clients. If the first impression is a poor one, how do you think Hokage-sama will react? On whose shoulders will the blame rest?"

Anko swallowed heavily, her mind both frantic and fuddled. This too was known to Ikiri.

"Naruto, move your right thumb to the right just a tad...there. Now run the outside of your thumb gently up the edge of that bony ridge, applying a touch more force on the down-stroke."

Wordlessly, Naruto complied, and Ikiri was pleased to see Anko's left eye get drawn inward, towards the nasal bridge, as the right eye became slightly skewed upwards. That an ahegao face could be created through foot massage was testment towards Ikiri's knowledge and skill.

"In return for these ministrations, the Shinobi clients will provide something both educational and appropriate for the boy's age. Be advised, Shinobi-san, that Naruto and I have a frank discussion following each session. This is so that I can ascertain what was taught, that I might both better screen volunteers, as well as answer any additional questions Naruto might have regarding his latest lesson.

"I generally do not know the specific topics beforehand, merely general areas. This is to allow some liberty and variety in what is taught. However, since you, through your outburst, have involved me directly, I will know exactly what it is you plan on teaching my apprentice."

For the first time in a long time, a sense of panic welled up within her chest. 'I'm expected to teach something? I...oh hells...I'm screwed.' "I...might...maybe I was, um, mis..." She paused, finding it difficult to form words.

"You were not misinformed nor mistaken, nor could you be since I quite clearly stated your objectives for the benefit of your full memory. Now, your answer, if you would be so kind. We still have a full twenty-five minutes left on the clock. How do you plan on filling them?"

He kept his features steady, though he couldn't contain his inner smirker at her confounded, gob-smacked expression. Never before had the notorious Mitarashi ever gaped like a fish! He noted how she shook her foot free.

"I...I could, um...teach him...uhhh talking, yes! I'll teach conversational skills!" She seemed to visibly brighten as she sold herself on the notion. "Just leave it to me, Ikiri-san."

"Conversational skills? Very well. There will not be any more yelling, am I clear?"

She nodded slowly, before she frowned. "But...he won't say my name!" She bit her lower lip, looking all of her fifteen years as her mood dimmed towards despondency. "And it's hard to think or talk when he rubs my feet."

"There's a reason behind using Shinobi-san, Mitarashi. The less we know, the safer we become in this trade. As well, that shows a job well done, yes?"

"But...a Shinobi is a thing, a job title. I'm me, Anko. I'm not just a thing! I...I just... And that's not the point! How can I answer questions like that?"

Ikiri sighed. Had he ever acted so strangely? He wondered at those who envied youth, as personally, he had no desire to return to his teen years. In her case, this was compounded by her association with a dangerous traitor. "Naruto-kun, for this particular person, until further notice, you are to address her as Anko-san."

"Hai, Ikiri-sama. Anko-san, would you please stop moving your other leg away?"

Releasing her petulancy now that her sole condition had been met, she allowed the squib to catch the foot she had kept out of reach. She wasn't trying that hard, as his footrubs really did make it hard to think. Anko wasn't against it.

Ikiri stood and made his way back to the door. "I look forward to our discussion, Naruto-kun. Continue your good work." His slid the door closed behind him.

There was a brief moment of silence. Naruto generally made little sound when he worked, and Anko's mind was busy trying to think her way out of this situation. For Anko though, there was a limit to the amount of quiet she could handle, as well as the sheer difficulty in thinking. So, after roughly thirty seconds, she tossed out, "So, are you really blind or what?"

"Yes, Anko-san, I am really blind."

"Are you sure?" She shrugged off the blanket, brought her hands to her chest, and jiggled her breasts. She tweaked her nipples for emphasis. There was a small part of her which recalled her cursing his sight; it was viciously squashed down.

Her antics were either ignored, or the kid couldn't see what she was doing. She doubted he was into men at his age.

"Positive. Since birth, Anko-san."

"Oh...well that's too bad." She lifted the bottom of her yukata, settling the fabric across her hips, revealing a trimmed vulva and dampened lips. "There's bound to be so many things you are missing." Despite her antics, he continued working on her foot and calf, oblivious to her enticements.

She didn't feel she was doing anything bad. She was just trying to get a reaction out of the boy, using the tools at her disposal. Knowing Ikiri was hovering around somewhere close by, she dared not try anything more...excessive. It was then her dampness registered, granted by a little boy rubbing her feet. She felt a sudden chill, reminded of her Sensei.

"You're no fun, no fun at all, Naruto-kun." She twisted slightly so she could lay on her front. Feet were off limits until he was much older.

"For reference, I am at work presently. Speaking of which, is this the meat of your lesson, discussing how 'no-fun' I am while working?" Her position had changed, which had confused him. Even her body was an arm's length distant. He shuffled forward carefully, but still his fingers grazed the sides of her breasts and ran the length of her armpits, taut from outstretched arms.

She started and scowled, hoping to hide her scandalized embarrassment, made aware once more of the ticking clock as well as where fingers had touched. "Wa-work on my shoulders again while I work things out in my head. And there's a new rule...you must call me Anko-nee." Her body had demanded that her arms be tucked in, but she had refused even as her hips tried to buck. 'Armpits are also off limits.'

"Anko-nee? As in Nee-chan?"

"The same!" Even though a teen and dismissed by many, Naruto was an open book to her. She could see so much of her past in him, and so made no sudden or jarring movement, no matter how his ministrations made her twitch.

"But...I already have a Nee-chan."

"Oh, Naruto-kun has been a busy little boy. Well, who is it?" 'Were you a pet too, Naruto-kun?' Some part of her prevented the question from being voiced, afraid of the answer.

"I am not certain I should say."

"Oh really? Do you not trust Nee-chan?"

"I..."

"And here Nee-chan is letting you put your hands all over Nee-chan's body. Nee-chan hurts boys who touch Nee-chan's body, but Nee-chan trusts Naruto-kun. Naruto-kun doesn't trust Nee-chan?" Her voice ended in a slight warble, sadness filling her tone.

Naruto paused, hesitating as he parsed through this. If she was trusting him, it was only right for him to give the same. Ikiri-sama had said this was one of many things which were two-way streets. "I...I trust Nee-chan."

"You don't sound like you trust Nee-chan."

"I trust Nee-chan."

Perhaps it was the way it was said which caused Anko to feel so warm inside. He sounded like he meant it. For Anko, orphaned at a young age and isolated, even when apprenticed, his words, delivered so sincerely, gave her a slight pause. "So, who is it, and should I be jealous?"

"Ayame-nee, daughter of Teuchi-sama."

Anko gave out a low whistle. "Teuchi-san is highly regarded. When it comes to snagging sisters, you don't play around, do you Naruto-kun. I approve. One can never have too many Nee-chans, Naruto-kun."

"Really?"

"Really. Of course, Anko-nee will be there to make sure they are good enough for her bratty Otouto." She shifted slightly as Naruto's small hands began working her lower back. This was a first for her, as before it had always been adult-sized hands. The smaller fingers ended up giving a slightly different sensation. She could even feel the toughened digits digging into problem areas, well, problematic for adult-sized hands.

"Okay, brat...I think I have it worked out now. We're going to do an informative question and answer session. This is the basis of some conversations. Think of it as a lecture or lesson where you are allowed to ask questions during the lesson, instead of just afterwards. With me so far?"

"Hai, I understand and am ready, Anko-nee."

"Good. Let's begin then. Tell me, what do you know about where babies come from?" That had been one of Kushina's jokes to mint-green genin, which cemented her as Anko's personal idol. A female refugee, not knowing the local culture or customs, still grasped Life by her own hands and excelled, even wedding and bedding Minato-sama. This kid was also an Uzumaki, so as a relation to her idol and hero, she shared a bit of her most favorite person.

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Anko expected a little fallout from her practical joke, but not quite this.

"I'm what?" The dango skewer paused halfway to her jaw.

"Banned, Shinobi-san."

"What...why?!"

"I think you know why." Ikiri was not pleased, not in the least. After his talk with Naruto following the lesson, a talk he never would have dreamed he would be having with a child, Ikiri had left the brothel and tracked Anko down, finding her at a dango stand.

Thanks to her 'joke,' as she called it, Ikiri had ended up giving Naruto, all of five years old, The Talk. Anko had left out large portions of information, giving just enough to plant question seeds. Of the information she did give, the bulk of it was lewd, such as twenty-six different terms for a penis. He was not privy towards where Anko had first learned this, from Uzumaki Kushina.

"But..that's...that's not fair!"

"I warned you, Shinobi-san. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a report to make."

Anko paled, all traces of humor gone. "A report? About me?"

Ikiri glanced over his shoulder. "No, not about you, Shinobi-san. This report is about the introduction of Shinobi volunteers into my apprentice mentoring program."

She licked her suddenly dry lips. Dango no longer held any appeal. "But I kept my end of the bargain. I gave a lesson, I taught something, something important. I taught a Life-Skill!" 'It was a joke!'

"He is five, Shinobi-san. Your lesson was inappropriate for his age. Was this all a joke to you? Naruto's education is not a game."

There was something in his eyes which made her response die on her tongue.

"He called you Anko-nee. I could tell that to him, calling you that meant something important to him. It is truly a shame you never intended reciprocation." He paused, and she could easily sense the anger radiating off of this crippled civilian. "You even cursed his eyes. He's already blind, so what more did you want done to him?"

For the second time in the same day, Anko was left gaping. "It..I did..."

"Until such time as his training is finished, you are no longer allowed to participate. Following the program's completion, your inclusion into our client list will be reconsidered. Good day to you, Shinobi-san."

Anko watched his retreating back, words caught in her throat, before glancing down. She was left staring at her plate where rested three full skewers. Woodenly, she pushed the plate aside, her hunger gone. 'But it was funny when Kushina-sensei said it! What went wrong?'

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Despite the rocky beginning, the Shinobi addition was resumed towards the end of the fourth month of Naruto's apprenticeship. Given what Shinobi knew from their line of work, screening was a bit more stringent on Ikiri's side of the equation, following Hibari's recommendations. He allowed history, war stories (if not too graphic), and discussions of non-lethal techniques. He really didn't want Naruto exposed to the many interesting shades a person turns when poisoned in a certain way, at least not now.

Once he was done with the apprenticeship and entered the journeyman phase, then Naruto could learn whatever he wanted to learn, irrespective of topic. He had to chuckle when he recalled his initial reticence in even having the boy step foot inside his establishment. Now, Ikiri couldn't picture this place without Naruto.

"This will be a special session, Naruto-kun, so expect a full hour instead of half of one." 'I once thought of him as a skin suit. I need to apologize for that somehow.'

"A full hour, Ikiri-sama?"

"The first half will be massage and discussion, with the last half being application. I will have some clay, ink and paper brought in: your lesson is an introduction into Fuuinjutsu, the Sealing Arts." Hibari had quickened a yen for history some time back, and having an Uzumaki in-house had reminded him of another one not that many years back. If his name was true, and not simply granted, this was his birthright from Uzushiogakure.

Naruto bowed to his Master. "I have heard it is a difficult skill to learn. I will do my best, Ikiri-sama."

"I have full faith and confidence in you. This will be a good experience for you, Naruto-kun. Use what you have learned from our literature lessons to fashion the seals from clay. Do not worry about the need for chakra, as your instructor will handle that aspect. You will make the seals, just as you fashion kanji, and your teacher will test them for functionality. Use your mealtime to reflect on what you already know. I will collect you when it is time to begin."

"Hai, I will follow your counsel and prepare myself. Thank you for this chance, Ikiri-sama."

"Enjoy your meal, and thank you again Ayame-chan for being his friend." There were things he could not say just yet, so he bowed instead.

The girl in question blushed and bowed her thanks even deeper. Once Ikiri was gone, she had waited as Naruto made his way to her. This was one of their games, where she would stay as silent as possible while he had to find her. She hadn't quite figured out that even if she bathed, the scent of the ramen stand got into everything, even stored clothes.

"Nee-chan, you always smell so good."

"I think you are confusing me with your meal again, Naruto-kun."

"Oh, are you as tasty?" Visible to her, a slight grin ghosted across his lips.

She could not help but flush before batting his arm playfully. "You are horrible! Eat, and I'll pick up where we left off." He made her heart go all doki-doki, which had puzzled her to no end. 'He...he won't always be so young.'

"Ah, yes. The Gutsy Ninja had sprung a trap, finding himself encircled by Grass Nin, high up in the boughs of magnificent trees!"

"Correct! Otouto is smart!" This time, it was his cheeks which reddened. "Are you worried about the lesson?" They had twice-daily exposure for months, and she had picked up on so many things regarding Naruto.

"Huh? Oh, um...a little bit, Ayame-nee."

"I could tell...you grip your sticks in a slightly different way when you are thinking too hard about something."

"Is that so?"

"Mmmhmm...say, um...after you eat, if there's time, if I taught you something, could I get a massage? You haven't offered one yet, that much I know."

"I am not yet a Masseur, Ayame-nee. I can't just give everyone a rub yet."

"But I'm not just everyone, I'm Nee-chan."

Naruto nodded as he swallowed. "Nee-chan is Nee-chan, this is true. Nee-chan is special too, and I want to be skilled enough to bring Nee-chan happiness. I do not think I am there yet, but soon."

"Ah, but what I have in mind could help you get there quicker." Only rarely had he actually touched her by his own actions.

"Oh?"

"Mmmhmmm...something I learned from Daddy. Scalp massage."

"Scalp massage? One can do that?"

"Indeed...it feels really good too. Tension and light headaches just melt away."

Naruto nodded, then took up his bowl and emptied it in three large slurping gulps.

"Naruto-kun, you're supposed to taste the ramen, not drink it!"

"Even if you say it like that, training time is training time."

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'I wonder what Teuchi-san would say if he saw this. Regardless, they do look cute.' Ikiri took in the scene with a bemused expression. He could tell both of them were very relaxed, which was a good thing, he supposed. Naruto being as serious as was his wont needed a way to unwind, at least a little bit.

Currently, the boy was straddling the older girl's lap, their arms interlocked, faces resting on the other's shoulder. Splayed fingers rose up from behind, moving gently along the scalp and nape. Ikiri took a moment to memorize the movements, as this was something he really hadn't thought of before. That was all quite besides the situation, which among anyone older, would have been highly intimate in nature. Perhaps it was what it was.

He knew he only need wait for a little bit. Naruto always knew when Ikiri was around.

"Ayame-nee, it is time for my lesson."

"Muwaa? Oh...Oh!" She took in their position, her face flushing right before her neck popped from the speed in which she turned it. "Ikiri-san! This isn't...it's not...uwaaaa!"

"Far be it for me to break up something so blatantly comfortable, but Naruto-kun is correct. For the sake of my own curiosity, what exactly were you doing?"

"Scalp massage, Ikiri-sama," stated Naruto immediately. "We thought it best if she taught me at the same time I practiced on her. For a skill of this type, I really couldn't think of other options, well, not without wasting time from switch-outs."

Ikiri grinned. Leave it to the boy's sharp mind to find a justifiable and defensible position. That, along with the complete lack of guile, sold Ikiri on the boy's honesty. Not that the boy was anything but; he was borderline tactless in some things.

"I take you at your word, Apprentice. Teuchi-san will only learn of this if you so will, Ayame-chan. You have been a good friend to Naruto-kun, so this is the least I can do."

"Thank you for the meal, company, and lesson, Ayame-nee. I'll see you again in the morning." Naruto had untangled himself and stood, pulling on his cowl.

For Ayame, she couldn't wait until he finished his training. Maybe then, he would stop hiding his beautiful black eyes. She felt a touch warm knowing that she was one of the privileged few who got to see Naruto's face. She had a feeling he would make for a very handsome man in time.

'I can wait a few years.'

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"There should not be any problems. At any rate, I will only be a few rooms down, just in case. Do your best, give your best, and know that I'm proud of you."

Naruto bowed his thanks, holding his position as he heard and smelt Ikiri move away. It warmed him to know that all his hard work was beginning to bear fruit, that he was becoming a pet any Master would be proud to own. Perhaps soon, he could begin to repay all that Ikiri-sama had done for him.

He shifted to a kneeling position, rapped on the frame once, then slid the door back, keeping his cowled visage pointed downward in respect.

"Thank you for this opportunity, Shinobi-san. I will do my utmost to ensure this lesson is duly compensated." Sliding the door shut, Naruto turned and slid further into the room, his nose catching the sweet tang of sake.

"Soooo...yer da, tha, small kid aincha. Thinks a small kids laks youse can rele...reale...calm my strrresssssses? Ha! A good joke! Your face, why hiding?"

The scent of sake wafting over him, stunned that his client/teacher was drunk, something which hadn't happened at all in the past thirteen weeks, Naruto barely registered the movement noises. Too late, he tried to move, only to feel the clip of an open hand brush against the side of his face. Panic began to rise as he felt, actually felt, the man's hot breath waft against his uncovered cheek.

"Wealls, I be damned! Yer tha demony kid, Kyuubi! I thoughts you were dead, ya damn foxt! Don't you fears, Subati is onna job! Awh'll finish whut da Furth started!" He raised up his hand, fingers still wrapped around a freshly emptied sake jar, right before he tumbled backwards.

"Youse, youse stay right wheres ah kin sheese ya, Kyuubi brat! Gonna...gonna nap...get strength, then awh'll's killin ya good, you'll sheeses! Just a...na...na..." The sound of ceramic tinks filled the room as the Shinobi's body settled among the empty bottles which had been stashed behind him.

Then there was nothing.

Naruto hadn't moved, his worthless eyes wide as the words of his caretakers and peers washed over him again. His thoughts spiraled back to that unhappy place. There were some things he had always known.

"He killed them, him! Don't let him get away with it!"

"Monster!"

"Beast!"

"Animal!"

"Butcher!"

"Killer!"

"Get it! Don't let it escape for what it did!"

"Demon!"

"Die, just die already!"

"Life is wasted on filth, Filth!"

"You are not a person, let's get that through your head! You are a pet, my pet, and don't you ever forget it, you worthless bratty fox!"

All the hate, all the hurtful things said, all the kicks and punches and being pushed around, those many broken bones and pain, all of it made sense now. The conditioning, below stairs cupboard, meals eaten from the bare floor, the overheard whispers; it all slotted into place.

"If the seal breaks, he could slaughter us all!"

"Think of the children...we don't even know if it's human!"

"The Kyuubi wears the Uzumaki face. We should keep him isolated so he doesn't eat an orphan. He already consumed the Yondaime's family and child."

There was a single hiccup, followed by a thin keening, warbling in its intensity as the pain, all that locked away pain, came back to the fore. He howled in duress, just like the beast he was. Some things were known in the bone. All his life, he had been a pet; it was all he knew.

Subati shifted in his drunken sleep.

Chapter Text

The panel was slid back with enough force to shatter the wooden tracks and rend the paper into ribbons. Ikiri took in the scene, his first thoughts on Naruto.

"Are you hurt? What's wrong, Naruto-kun?" He knelt, fingers gently probing his son for damage.

The boy turned his dark and runny eyes towards his Master, facial muscles spastic, while struggling to control his breathing. "He...he...he...saaaaayed..." Heaving sobs clenched his chest. "Kyuubiiiiiiii...!"

Ikiri paled, feeling his world crumble. 'Shit!' "Bushari!" he snapped out.

The head bouncer was quick to respond. "Your...will? The hell!?"

"Get Naruto to the kitchen. Send a runner to the Tower and Ichiraku's. I'll deal with...this."

"Hokage-sama might...that's one of his Shinobi."

"Yes, I know. Attend to your duties and don't worry overmuch. I'm just as curious as to what this bastard said."

Thankfully, there was little issue in Bushari picking up Naruto. Within moments, Ikiri was left with the slumbering nin.

With sure motions, stemming from the more erotic side of his enterprise, Ikiri removed the Shinobi's clothing before using the same to fashion intricate binds. When turned a certain way, cloth could be stronger than steel. The knots were extra tight.

That done, he turned an already weary eye to the rest. Counting them up revealed fourteen small sake bottles. Shinobi-san had been alone for less than ten minutes. 'How the hell...it was all going so well.'

"Daizu, Hachi!" He wait was measured in moments. "Take this trash to the cellar."

They went to pick the Shinobi up, questions in their eyes. 'Time to nip this in the bud.' "He hurt Naruto-kun."

Their resolve instantly firmed. "Want that we should educated him on his error in judgement, Ikiri-sama?" Privately, Naruto was referred to as 'Little Brother'.

"I don't think the Hokage would appreciate that. Make sure he's unblemished, but securely bound. One mistake was enough."

When alone again, he found his Head Mistress and had her clear the building of guests. He had the feeling his tact would be found wanting. That done, he went and kept station by the main entrance.

He hadn't long to wait.

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"Ikiri-san."

"Hokage-sama, my apologies for the abruptness." Ikiri's bow was slightly disrespectful.

"It is fine. Where is he?"

"Ah, a moment if you could."

Sarutobi raised a tired eyebrow. "Yes, Ikiri-san?"

"Um...your footwear, if you please."

"Footwear?"

Ikiri stared at him, releasing his held bow. "Hokage-sama, we are not the guilty ones here. Why should this place be disrespected due to one of your men?"

"What?"

"It's as I said, Hokage-sama. The man you sent caused all this."

"Fine."

Ikiri snapped his fingers, five of his cutest ladies giving attendance, all wearing suitably subdued clothing.

"There, decorum is upheld. Now, where is the boy?" The pacing of things, Sarutobi was thrown off kilter. This is not how he expected the evening to go. Ikiri had requested a sealing instructor out of the blue, even offering to pay for the lesson.

"Kitchen."

"Lead."

Within moments, Sarutobi was brought into a large stone room, filled with people. 'They are arranged in defensive ranks?' "Where's Naruto?"

At Ikiri's nod, the staff parted to reveal a grim-faced Teuchi holding Ayame who in turn held Naruto. One of her hands made small circles on his back while the other moved through his hair.

Before words could leave his lips, the Head Cook, all fifteen stone of her, moved into his line of sight. He noted the rolling pin clenched in a heavy hand. *

"Hokage-sama...what are you going to do to fix this?"

Sarutobi blinked. "Madam, I don't think this is the proper time." Her chins quivered in indignation.

"It is. That boy ain't no demon!" There were nods behind her. She suddenly flinched, gripping her ample chest as Sarutobi gave her his considerable attention.

"What did you just say?"

"Hokage-sama...it's not us, but your man. We have him in the cellar right now," stated Ikiri as he moved to support her with his good arm.

The cook heaved a breath, leveling a fierce glare at her village leader. "He's no demon! He likes my pies!"

Sarutobi blinked, noting the murmurs of assent. "Pies?"

"Nothing so vile could ever appreciate one of my pies, and that boy loves them he does." This was stated with the firm nod of utter conviction.

"We all like your pies, Cook..."

"Not like him! That boy knows how to appreciate a good pie."

"That...but...he has more taste buds...all kids do!" protested Hibari.

"Excuses!" She reoriented on Sarutobi. "Aside from that, Hokage-sama, he gives me gifts, words made of clay. No demon would do that."

"Words of clay?"

"Hokage-sama," Ikiri interjected, "it's been in my reports. You were so adamant about a lesson plan that I made certain to include learned word lists."

At the brow crease, Ikiri continued, "He's learned about six hundred words, Hokage-sama."

"Six hundred and thirty-eight! I saved every last one, wrapped in wax paper. As our village leader, how are you going to fix this, Hokage-sama?"

Sarutobi let his eyes sweep the room, noting all the expectant stares, all except Ayame and Naruto, as the former tended to the latter. For the first time in a long while, he felt a bit out of his depths. Sure, he was used to dealing with people, generally, just not a group of highly expectant and intensely silent civilians.

A soft voice, laced heavily with sadness, sifted through the room. "Six hundred and thirty-nine, for Kobuta-san." Naruto shifted his arm and reached inside the folds of his scrip, removing a clay construct. He passed it to Ayame who passed it to Teuchi who passed it along.

"Nightingale," the group murmured in one breath as they laid eyes upon the crafted kanji.

Kobuta, the Head Cook, turned too-bright eyes to Sarutobi. "Please, Hokage-sama, please fix this."

"Just so you know, Hokage-sama, never once was Kyuubi a crafted word." Ikiri felt the deep need to say this.

"I...would like to see the accused."

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Despite the pounding headache, the cellar offered a level of peace. The sheer weight of their expectations had been heavier than anticipated. Sarutobi was good, skilled even, at handling large and impersonal problems. Something like this though, so particular and focused...he felt every one of his years.

In truth, he felt partially vindicated that his hopes for Naruto had proven correct, though a cynical part of him was quick to remind the rest that Naruto's life only turned for the better once he was expelled from the very place Sarutobi had placed him. At present, there was no internal reconciliation.

He had seen the room, the sealing scroll with the empty matrix, and the haphazard array of empty bottles. Now he was down here, with firm eyed bouncers at the top of the stairs confident he would 'do the right thing.'

He moved to Subati's side, running his fingers through the seals for a medical technique to purge organic toxins. Touching the man's bare shoulder, he noted with satisfaction as the jutsu took hold, causing the man's eyelids to flutter open.

"Ah, Subati-san, good to see you awake." 'This man taught that word.'

"Ho...Hokage-sama!" His eyes flickered around briefly. "Where...where are we?"

"Someplace safe, Subati-san." 'Kyuubi, he broke trust, broke a child.'

"Oh, thank the Heavens! I'm so very grateful you found me."

"Found you? Were you lost?"

"I...I must've been, Hokage-sama. Um...I can't feel my hands."

"Your clothing was removed and used to restrain your limbs, Subati-san."

"Eh? Wha...what's going on, Hokage-sama?"

"Tell me," said the Hokage as he settled into a knee-popping squat, "tell me the last things you remember."

"I...I was in the Twisted Knicker, rather happy that I was finally to get a student, if even a temporary one. Not many are interested these days in Fuuinjutsu...it's just not flashy enough," he groused.

"These things go in cycles, Subati-san. If I recall correctly, you were one of thirty in my Sealing class, all those many years ago. Is that all you remember?"

"I...I might have had some drinks, with friends, to celebrate my good fortune."

Sarutobi sighed. He knew the man was a loner by choice, enthralled by the mystery Seals presented. It was also known that the man had precious little in outside connections. "Would these friends be Shadow Clones?"

Subati's face went through several shades of coloration. "It...it's, well, um...they know me best and, well, I don't like to drink alone."

"You do realize that their experiences get added back to your own, yes?"

"Of course...I, I might've gone a bit overboard. If you could see fit to release me, Hokage-sama, I'll do all I can to get to the bottom of this. I've even been working on Detection Seals that can identify respiration and perspiration amounts, a sure sign of if a lie is being spun. This could be the perfect time for a trial run!"

"I will be blunt, Subati-san. There were fourteen empty bottles up there. How many clones?"

"Four, Hokage-sama."

"I see. So between the five of you...the bottles were unsealed?"

Subati had the decency to look ashamed. "Yes, Hokage-sama. Like I said, a small celebration."

"Had it been five different people, yes. Instead, you got the effects of all fourteen sake bottles."

"I...um..."

"While in this state, you assaulted a child, Subati-san. Physically and verbally, you struck out at him. He will be six in a few weeks. You have caused a lot of harm."

Subati paled even further. "No...I would never...there must be some mistake!"

"Does the name 'Uzumaki' ring any bells?"

"Uzumaki?" His throat produced a crude chuckle. He had always detested that woman, nay, her entire clan, no matter how much they contributed to the very art he loved more than anything else. Then she went and birthed a demon. "Whew, for a moment there, you really had me worr..." The rest was exhalation as the head and neck slid apart from each other. A quick seal from Sarutobi's other hand, the one not holding the Wind Blade, smacked against the stump to prevent blood from escaping.

'Was it you who failed to learn, or was it me who failed to teach? The bulk of our knowledge on sealing came from Uzumaki and Uzushiogakure. Perhaps it's a bit of both.'

"Seal the body and burn the scroll. Ensure Vital Records has him down for a Dishonorable Discharge." He stood, a touch shakily knowing he had just executed one of his own students, and made his way to the stairs. He was not surprised to find Ikiri waiting for him in the hallway.

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"Hokage-sama...I...I would like to speak with you, now if possible."

"Can this not wait, Ikiri-san? There is much on my mind at present."

"I misspoke. I would like to talk to you, Sarutobi-sama, now if possible."

Sarutobi couldn't miss the tone. It was one he himself had used from time to time. He allowed himself to be led into a room across the hall.

"Thank you for your time, Hokage-sama...could...would you please remove the Hat?"

"Oh? Do you plan on striking me, Ikiri-san?"

The man's eyes flashed hard. "No, Hokage-sama. Even with the man, whom you sent, though I wanted to pound his flesh, I knew there were laws in place. They go both ways with regards to Shinobi and Civilian altercations. So no, I ask so that I might address you, not the Village."

"Semantics. Either way, you would still address me."

Ikiri scowled and glanced away, rubbing a hand through his hair. "Let me say it like this then. I would prefer to speak to Sarutobi-sama as one father to another."

Sarutobi quirked a tired eyebrow. "Master-apprentice is not quite the same as father-son."

"He might as well be! I have done my utmost to prepare him for the world outside. When my own knowledge was not enough, I enlisted my staff. To better prepare him for work in Konoha, I enlisted your aid for Shinobi candidates. Even then, I fear it just won't be enough, that I will fail him in some way!"

He paused, raking his hand through his hair again. "That sound Naruto made, I never want to hear it again. It hurt my own heart to hear it. And there you are, the Author of his misery!"

"It is good for you that I am Sarutobi the Father at the moment," Sarutobi said with hard eyes. "It is rare to see such passion in you, Ikiri-san."

Ikiri paused to collect himself, thankful for this degree of latitude. "That man, the one you sent...what the hell happened?"

"An error of judgement on my part. I had no idea he would celebrate a new student in such a manner. They weren't all like him."

"No, they weren't all like him, but how did him even happen? First Mitarashi, and now this...forgive the impertinence, Hokage-sama, but just what the hell are your Personnel vetters doing?"

"Just what is it you want me to say?!" barked Sarutobi, losing just a bit of his patience. "Do you think I can just wave my hands and make the world conform to my vision, a world where infants didn't get their optic vessels blown apart by the demon sealed within them to save everyone else?!"

There was a long moment of silence.

"No, no I suppose not. It was an unfair expectation," stated Ikiri with a bow of his head. "And to think you threatened bodily harm to myself and Teuchi if we screwed up."

"What is it you are trying to say, Ikiri-san? You should know by now that I only have Naruto's best interests at heart."

"Ah, I apologize then, Hokage-sama. For all your care, I found it odd that he never mentions you, nor Nice Man for that matter."

To Sarutobi, it felt as if he had been punched in the gut.

"I merely run an establishment with fifty-six employees. I find time for them, our guests, and Naruto. Even Teuchi-san, despite the heavy daily volume at his eatery, even he has found time for Naruto. His lesson was on herbs and spices, and how they can be identified by scent. Those two half-hour sessions were very informative." Ikiri paused, letting that last bit sink in. "I believe your detail is waiting for you."

Suddenly clumsy fingers picked up the Hat from where he had placed it, donning it once more. He hadn't wanted to be seen showing favoritism, either to the establishment or the one ensconced; even he could feel how very weak that rationalization was.

Ikiri slid the panel back to reveal the majority of his staff kneeling on one side of the hallway. Gathering what little of his pride was left, he moved past the bowing Ikiri and down the line, only to be stopped at the end by an attendant.

"These are also Hokage-sama's." A paper bag with weight was offered. "These are soaps made from the burnt adoption applications which Ikiri-sama receives each week." He took the proffered bag numbly, yet another shock to his system. Once he had exited the premises, expectant eyes turned to Ikiri.

"Kobuta-san, how is he?"

His Head Cook dipped her head before rushing back to the kitchen. She returned with a slight shake of her head. "He is still upset. It must be so much to take in, given all the poor boy has been put through before coming here." All eyes turned back to Ikiri.

"We'll get through this. We always take care of our own, don't we?" He saw the beginnings of grins as the affirmation filtered through. "Well, that's not going to change now. I would ask for your help in keeping his secret. Given how Shinobi-san behaved, I don't want more problem people causing our Naruto-kun any grief. Is this understood?"

"Hai, Ikiri-sama!"

"Good! Enough with the drama...back to work everyone!"

"Hai, hai!"

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"Ikiri-sama?"

Ikiri looked up from his ledgers, spotting the young boy in the doorway. "Ah, Naruto-kun. How do you feel?"

"I'm...I...can I talk with Ikiri-sama?"

Ikiri frowned. It had been several days since the incident and the boy had seemed to be in recovery mode. 'Something is going on.' "Of course, Naruto-kun. You know my door is always open to you."

"Ikiri-sama is...gracious."

'Yes, something is going on, something new.' He slowly stood, noting the hesitant gait and subdued motions.

Ikiri's eyebrows rose into his hairline as the boy knelt in the seiza position before pressing his forehead to the floor.

"Ikiri-sama, I...I'm sorry. I...apo...apologize! I'm not a good pet!" Naruto bawled out, unable to contain his shame at failing the one who did so much for him. He knew there was only one way to deal with a bad pet, readying himself for the expected beating.

Ikiri was there in an instant, pointedly ignoring the flinch. A few days ago, it had almost vanished completely. "You listen well, young man...you are not a pet, you are not an animal! You are Uzumaki Naruto, do you hear me?!" Taking a page from Ayame's book, one hand slid into his hair, the other began small circles on his back. "Naruto-kun is Naruto-kun, and this place is better for having you here."

Naruto was held in a firm embrace, finally putting words to the sensations he felt, that of security, respect, and affection. Matron Hachi had tried to break him with hate for years; Ikiri did it in a few months with love.

"Who told you those lies, my son? Was it the Orphanage?" He felt the boy stiffen. "Naruto, say it with me. Sometimes we must face our fears. That's the only way we overcome them."

"Or...orpha..." He paused as he went through a spate of hiccups. "Too...is too hard!"

Ikiri let his grip slacken. "Naruto, you have your clay, right?"

Blinking, the boy nodded.

"Good. I have mine too. We're going to make a word now, so get ready."

"Ha...hai, Ikiri-sama." 'He called me son. Wait, he carries clay too?'

"Ko...come now, Naruto-kun. Ko." 'This the least for my son.' Ikiri did indeed carry clay with him, wrapped in waxed paper, just so he could make words alongside his son.

"Ko."

"Good. Next is Ji."

"Ji."

"Last is In."

"I...In."

"Koji-in. Very good, Naruto-kun. Now, pick it up very carefully. Are you ready, Naruto-kun?"

"Ha...this is hard."

"Not for my son! Hold it carefully...and squeeze! Rhaaaaaar! Come, Naruto-kun!"

"Rhaaaaaar!" Naruto could feel the clay squish between his fingers.

"Can you say the word now, Naruto-kun?"

"Orph...I..." He shook his head, frowning lips tight.

"I have extra clay. First we make Ko."

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"You are expected."

"Thank you for receiving us on Takada-sama's behalf, Dashi-san." Ikiri turned to Naruto. "Do your best, Naruto-kun, and no matter what happens, know that I am very proud of you." He shifted his eyes back to Dashi. "If you could have a runner sent when he is through, I would be very appreciative."

"Of course, Ikiri-san. Takada-sama has also agreed to provide a meal following the exam, irrespective of the outcome. Ikiri-san is also welcome."

Naruto was ushered inside to change his footwear, leaving Ikiri out on the street. Though Ikiri knew he really should head back, his feet just didn't want to move. Releasing a held breath, he turned and settled into a squat, leaning his back against the wall while tipping this geta sandals forward.

'No harm in simply waiting, now is there... Teuchi-san, is this what you meant? I have called him son, but now I feel it. It hurts, Teuchi-san.'

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"Takada-sama is inside."

"Thank you, Dashi-san. May Fortune be kind to you."

"Hmph. Just don't do anything stupid in there."

Naruto was careful not to let his pleasant smile slip. He had spent the final weeks with Ikiri-sama and several of the staff, memorizing pleasantries, topics of discussion, and what Ikiri's spies could relate regarding Takada-sama's hobbies and history. On top of that was the learning of Takada's primary staff and any related trivia, such as family size and details.

Hardest of all had been the positive facial expressions. Naruto had to memorize how each position felt after his eyebrows and lip corners where shifted for a new emotive. Eyebrow raise, and correct height to not seem arrogant. Proper height for eyebrows and eye size to convey an uncontrived surprised expression. Correct tension of cheek muscles to draw the lips into a lopsided grin. The list went on, every aspect going through verbal drills and scoring.

Kneeling, Naruto rapped once upon the door frame and waited.

A gravelly "Enter." came from within.

He slid the panel open and scooted inside, keeping his body alongside the door track as he closed the door, head tipped in a bow. "Thank you for your time, Takada-sama."

"Hrm. Come over here, boy."

Bowing once more, Naruto began moving in his low position towards Takada's voice.

"Is there something wrong with your legs, boy?"

"Na...No, Takada-sama. Takada-sama is low to the ground. One such as myself should not stand over Takada-sama."

"Is that so...why is your face still covered?"

"I...I am still an apprentice, Takada-sama."

"Be that as it may, I would see your face and expressions."

"Ha...hai, Takada-sama." Naruto removed his veil and headpiece, slipping the item into his baggy sleeves.

"I take it Ikiri taught you how to move around your superior. What else were you taught?"

"Aside from massage, Takada-sama?"

He nodded, before remembering the condition of his guest. "Yes."

"A...aside from massage and learning muscle placement, Ikiri-sama taught me words and history."

"I am given to understand that you already knew speech."

"Hai, Takada-sama. Ikiri-sama taught me words, made from clay."

"Oh?"

"Hai, Takada-sama. Pottery clay, which we use for pressure conditioning where one pushes and kneads. It is more dense than modeling clay or that used for bricks."

"Show me."

Naruto pulled his wrapped clay from his sleeve and presented it.

"I have a house in Konoha." Before his eyes, two separate words were crafted. "Interesting. No verbs?"

"They, the verbs I mean, they aren't often used in signposts, Takada-sama."

"I see. Ikiri is a sly one. Need you anything?"

Naruto rewrapped his clay, storing it in his sleeve. "No, Takada-sama."

"You seem very sure. No hot water, stack of towels, or oils?" 'How many props do you need?'

"I...I need none, Takada-sama, though I do thank Takada-sama for offering."

"I make you nervous." It was given as a statement.

"I...Takada-sama, Takada-sama is a very important man. I would not wish to offend Takada-sama."

"For one so young, you show wisdom. You may begin at your leisure."

He watched as the boy began work on his feet. Takada could tell by the set of his jaw and the small creases around those bottomless eyes that the boy was completely focused on the task at hand. Takada gave a grunt of discomfort as he shifted position.

"Is...did I hurt Takada-sama?"

Takada watched Naruto for a moment, as the boy continued his ministrations. "No, boy. It is an old back injury."

"Does Takada-sama want that I should move there now?"

"No...there is time enough for all things."

"Hai."

Takada observed him again, as the boy shifted from one foot to the other. 'He doesn't act like one possessed. His markings are slight, compared to the Inuzuka. Had I not seen for my own eyes, I would not think that this boy held the Kyuubi. Such a strange thing.'

It was when Naruto was working on Takada's left shoulder and upper arm, giving light slaps and quick full-finger kneads, that Takada asked the question on his mind. "Boy, do you know who you are?"

Naruto didn't pause, though there was a slight, but brief, frown and a crease in his forehead. "I am Uzumaki Naruto, apprentice to Ikiri-sama, Takada-sama."

"That is not what I asked."

"Ikiri-sama says that I am a hero who keeps a monster from killing everyone. Ikiri-sama said that I did not kill my parents and make all the orphans. I trust Ikiri-sama."

"Is that so."

"It is, Takada-sama."

"I see." They lapsed into an awkward silence.

"I...I, um...I need Takada-sama to lay down."

"Ah. Of course." He grunted as he shifted position, biting down on the sudden gasp of pain as his lower back flared.

Naruto probed gently with his fingers and palms. "It is very tight there, Takada-sama. I will take great care." With slow and sure motions, Naruto climbed onto the much larger man's broad back before raising himself into a standing position, arms out for balance.

Rolling the balls of his feet, working his heels and even splaying out his toes in a wide array, Naruto applied pressure in multiple directions and depths. He made sure to alternate the leading foot for maximum weight distribution.

"I have a request for Takada-sama."

"You dare ask a request while standing on my back!?"

"Takada-sama did not say I could stop!"

Naruto suddenly wobbled as his work surface shifted, feeling the deep reverberations of laughter.

"You've got guts! I like that in a subordinate. You want to ask something on Ikiri's behalf, yes?"

"Hai, Takada-sama."

"Hrm...ah! Careful there, boy...Ikiri and I already have an arrangement, one made between men. He made a mistake, and your labor here is the vehicle for fixing that mistake, nothing more." Takada knew full well the connection between Ikiri and himself, but appearances had to be kept.

Takada thought for a moment further. "Just so you know, all that before does not count. When we first met, you were doing exercises for back walking, so you are to be tested on that and that alone. All else is bonus."

Thankfully, Naruto's poise held true, missing not a step or beat. His mind, however, was quickly moving towards full panic.

'No! Nonono! If...no matter on if he liked the other things, it's all on this? But...that's not...Ikiri-sama...I cannot fail Ikiri-sama. I...I won't fail Ikiri-sama, or Teuchi-sama, or Ayame-nee!'

His breathing increased as his stressful thoughts churned. 'I can't...I must succeed. For Ikiri-sama...for Teuchi-sama and Ayame-nee, for Hibari-sensei and Kobuta-san...for them, for them I must...I will WIN!'

There was a flare of slightly tainted chakra, and Takada's shout of surprise and pain.

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Dashi has been waiting outside the room, catching snatches of muffled conversation, when he heard the ruckus. In an instant, the door was slid back and he rushed inside, right hand tight around his sword hilt. There was the boy, standing atop his Boss, both very still except for the empty grasps of Takada-sama's hands. A decision was made.

Lowering his left shoulder, he caught the boy on the left side, below his outstretched arm. Dashi felt the ribs flex as the boy was propelled through the air and into a wall. In the span it took for the demon to travel the fifteen feet, Dashi's blade had already been drawn and was slashed downwards with both hands.

"Stop!"

The blade obeyed, steady as if wedged in a block of ice. The breeze from the motions washed across Naruto's face in halves, split by the nasal bridge.

"Step away from the boy and put that thing away... You assault an Honored Guest!"

Dashi was a picture of fluidity as his eyes widened. With no wasted motions, in a blink the blade was sheathed and his forehead pressed against the mats.

"That was a hasty thing you did, Dashi, attacking my Honored Guest."

"I...I understand Lord. Where does my Lord desire?"

"Courtyard. Your service will not be forgotten."

"The pleasure was all mine, my Lord. I'll see to this immediately."

"This is no idle thing, Dashi. Raise up your eyes and look. Look you, gaze upon what this boy has wrought!"

Dashi did as told, his mouth falling open as Takada raised up on one elbow, brought the other arm across the back, and twisted at the hip. A few of his vertebrae snapped off sharp pops. "Im...Impossibru!"

"That is not all. Attend!" He placed both arms under him, resting on his forearms, then arched his torso back, pressing his chest forward. "Ha!" There were grunts of pain as the rest of the spine sounded off, followed by a sigh of pent up relief.

"Twenty-six years, Dashi. For twenty-six years, my back has pained me. Doctors, healers, acupuncturists, herbalists...all they could do was treat the pain, but never the source. But yet this boy..."

He paused in thought, turning his head slightly as his brow furrowed. The snap of his fingers was loud in the silence. "Naruto, that's his name! Naruto did what they could not. I owe him a great boon."

"For what I have done, I understand and accept fully. I will ensure my death does not stain your great name, Takada-sama."

There was a gasp of pain, drawing each man's eyes to the third party.

"Naruto, are you well?"

"Thirsty, Takada...ah! Ngh! My arm...it burns!" His right forearm was buckled, forcing the hand into an open spread.

"How many lives do you have, Dashi?"

"I...I've but the one, my Lord."

"That is a pity. You will attend my Guest and then you will die slowly. Is this understood?"

"It will be as you command, my Lord."

"But...why? Ah! Dashi-san was...was merely doing his job."

"It is the way of things, Naruto," stated Takada. "An assault on an Honored Guest is an assault on the Lord of the House. Dashi knows this."

"I...a boon, I ask for Dashi-san's life!"

"Naruto, there is no need for such things. You should not spend my goodwill so frivolously."

"It's...Dashimaru should have his father! Nobody should be sent...be sent to...that...Orphanage!"

Dashi had stilled at mention of his son's name. 'How does he know of him?'

"I understand that you have issues with that word, and yet you shout it out. How curious."

"Ikiri-sama has been very patient and helpful."

"I see. You want that I should allow Dashi to live, despite what he's done to you, for the sake of his son?"

"I...ow...I do, Takada-sama."

"This is a hard thing to refuse, but I must. This will not be from my boon."

"Birthday!"

"Pardon?"

"Birthday...I had one Wednesday, and am Boss Takada-sama's subordinate through Ikiri-sama."

"Look you, Dashi, look how hard this boy fights for your life. Naruto, wouldn't a child your age prefer to have toys?"

"Toys? People keep using that word but I still don't what it means, at least not for me. Ngh! Ha..ha...what...what's a toy?!"

"It's enough to make you weep, Dashi. All he wants is for your son not to have his own childhood. What do you say to that?"

"I...thank Naruto-sama, but will attend Takada-sama's will."

"Sama? Naruto is Naruto...ah!"

"I...I can fix that, well, brace it, if you want. It'll hurt though." All Dashi could feel was respect. Even if this boy was a demon, or one robed in human skin, he had still pressed for Dashi living, merely for the sake of his son, with nothing asked in return.

"I...I've been...been hurt before."

Under Takada's watchful gaze, Dashi pulled loose his wakizashi from his belt, drawing the blade to cut ribbons of his own shirt. He carefully removed Naruto's outer robe, mindful not to spill the items he could feel in the sleeves. Placing a hand above the elbow and gently grasping the wrist, Dashi pulled the forearm true as Naruto muffled his pain noises.

Before the swelling could catch up, the scabbard was placed along the underside of the forearm and lashed in place. The wakizashi blade, edge down and point towards the elbow, was placed over the wrapping before it too was secured by a series of knots.

"You are strong, Naruto-san."

Despite the pain, as the numbness began to overtake it, Naruto was able to use his practiced facial expressions. He gave a slight lopsided grin and shook his head. "Dashimaru is better for having you in his life."

All Dashi could do was blink at the sincerity, as nobody had ever said that to him before. Mutely, Dashi pressed the hand of that broken arm to his forehead.

Takada loosed a rumble of deep laughter. "Look you at how far he goes. Even as a birthday gift, I will not relent. Instead, this is a personal favor from me to Naruto. Ah, and Naruto, we are not yet done."

"Hai...Dashi-san, can you lead me? I do not know if things are in the way." Naruto was confused by Dashi's last action, as he didn't know what it meant.

"Of course, Naruto-san." Naruto was led back to Takada and assisted as he stood upon the man's back. Despite being a young child, Dashi's method of address had changed.

"Naruto, ahhh...now I can really feel that. Be at peace; you pass, boy...I would still have the entire massage though."

"Hai, Takada-sama."

"You mentioned birthday. What did you receive?"

"Ah, for my first birthday..."

"Wait, what means you by that? You are...six, correct?" *

"This is true, Takada-sama, but is still my first birthday." Others had done the math and corrected Naruto's timeline of things.

"Ah, I think I understand. So for this first birthday, then." The orphange in question was actually in another quadrant, but Takada knew enough.

"I had ramen, a small cherry pie just for me, and spent the day with Ayame-nee."

"That is all? How frugal! Ask of me, Naruto. As my subordinate, I will gift you."

"Whaaa? Um...I...Iki..."

"No, none of that, Naruto. I do not want you to think of others. Not Ikiri, not Teuchi, not even Konoha. Be selfish! What does Naruto want?" Takada's philosophy was simple: Treat others well, and they will treat you well, be it demon or human; else it was a Life Lesson. Both would work out in the end.

"I...I want..." 'Swords!' He was apprehensive about saying anything though. Only Ayame-nee knew of his desire. That rude Shinobi-san didn't count. "Sa...swords."

"What? What's that?"

"I think he said 'swords,' my Lord."

"Ah, then he shall have one. Go out and buy one as if for myself, in a size he can easily grow into."

"Wa...wait...um...I want, want to use swords. Just like...um, like 'Gutsy Ninja,' " Naruto finished in a small voice.

"What is this 'Gutsy Ninja'?"

"I, I'm not sure, my Lord. A book, maybe?" He got a nod from the boy. "Ah, it's a book, my Lord."

"Buy this book for me, Dashi, that I might understand my young subordinate better."

Dashi moved away from Naruto's side, poking his head out the opened door. "Oi! Maki!"

"Eh? Ah, Dashi-san! What do you need?"

"Boss wants a book. Go out and buy 'Gutsy Ninja'...I'm not sure who it's by though."

"I'll get right on it. Thirty minutes, tops!"

He moved back by Naruto's side, catching the boy by the shoulder when he wobbled. "Boss, you'll have it in the half-hour."

"You are a good subordinate, Dashi. I am glad you did not die. Who is the best swords user in Konoha?"

"Ah, that would be Gekkou Hayate, Jounin, I believe."

"Is that so. Send a request to Ibiki-sama, asking on my behalf as a favor. Naruto, as a gift from me, will learn to use swords from the best!"

He paused briefly. "Keep those feet moving. Though, if tired, hungry or thirsty, you can pause for a bit."

"Ah, this...this one is fine, Takada-sama. This one thanks you for your care."

With a wiggle of his finger, Dashi went to the door and shouted commands, before coming back to steady the child. Takada already knew, shortly after that first meeting, that this was the neglected and orphaned child of their beloved Yondaime and Uzumaki wife, tasked with keeping this village safe without consent. He was far too thin for his age, not to mention his social standing not being what it should be.

Chapter Text

"Hibari-san, welcome! It is not often you grace our store."

"Ah, my apologies, Musuki-san. Ikiri-sama has had me very busy, so when I caught some downtime, I made haste to my favorite supply shop."

Musuki bowed, pleased by the patronage. "You honor us. We just got those brushes in last week: elder boar bristles, at least ten years in age," he said, noting the display by Hibari.

"I see. I will take two of those, three five-year boars, and a Red Pine inkstick, if you have any in stock."

"Indeed we do...special or regular?" asked Musuki, heading around the counter to collect the order. "The chief difference is the natural oiliness of the pine soot has been augmented with Oil Tree extract in the special, granting greater fluidity."

"Ah. Hrm, I think I'll stick with the regular. My medium may prove a tad too porous for the other...do you know, Musuki-san, that I've been coming here for years, and never knew you stocked books?" As Hirabi approached the counter, a particular book cover caught his attention.

"Oh? It could be that you had no need to see them before. While we don't have originals, we do carry copies of sanctioned treatises by seal masters and calligraphers of note, mostly in scroll form."

"Is that so...even this one?" He held up the item which caught his eye.

"Ah...that. Yes, if a master of this craft branches out, if you will, we try to carry their catalog. We would like to carry more of...that person's work," Musuki's eyes darted to the left momentarily, before centering back on Hibari, "but this is the only one of his which does not contain...dubious content. I'm afraid it isn't really popular by comparison."

"I'll take it...and a pint of fresh turpentine. Ring all that up for me, if you would."

"With pleasure, Hibari-san. That will be two hundred and thirty bu...ah, thank you, and please come again."

"That I will." Hibari bowed his thanks, before moving to the left side of the store. Rounding a scroll shelf, he saw a rather large man in garish clothing, rubbing parchment corners between his fingers with a contemplative frown. Blinking, Hibari opened the back cover of the book, glancing between the portrait presented and the man not ten feet distant. "Ji...Jiraiya-sama?"

A lone eye swiveled in his direction. "Oh? There have been some who have called me that, but not before I knew who they were..."

"Ah, my apologies for calling out so abruptly. I am Hibari, Koshimaru Hibari."

The lone eye turned back to the sheets, as fingers turned one to highlight the grain. "What can I do for you, Koshimaru-san? I'm a little busy here."

"Ah, yes! Um...could you, ah...could I get an autograph?" He held out the book. 'This one taught Minato-sama.'

Jiraiya turned fully, standing a good foot over Hibari. "Is this some sort of a joke?" he ground out, having caught the book's title.

Hibari shuddered as the focused intent washed over him, made purposefully weak to give warning. "No...not at all, Jiraiya-sama! This is for a young girl who reads to a boy who has come into our employ. I saw it and thought it would make a good gift to thank her."

"Hmph. Forget about that book...wouldn't you much rather have something like this for yourself?" An orange dust jacket appeared before Hibari's eyes. That title had brought up unpleasant memories of family lost.

"Icha Icha: Paradise?" He took the book and turned a few pages. Jiraiya beamed to himself as he snared another reader, before the reader wrecked that train of thought. "No thanks, I really don't need something like this."

"What?! How can you possibly say that? Are you not a man with red blood pounding through your veins? Oh, or are you...one of the gentler folk?" he added with a smirk.

Hibari kept his visage smooth as he handed the book back to an increasingly incredulous author. "I don't need it. Why should I read what I already experience every single day?" Though this wasn't precisely true, it was close enough if looked at obliquely.

'Gold...I've struck gold!' "Is that so...and what is it you do, Koshimaru-san?" asked Jiraiya in a disinterested voice.

"I'm the private physician for a brothel, Jiraiya-sama." He blinked as he was suddenly turned around, with a heavy arm draped over his shoulder.

"Hibari-san...can I call you Hibari-san? Ah, good. How about we head back to this brothel of yours and we play Twenty Questions. If you help with my research, no names are needed in case you're worried about that, then I'll sign that book of yours. Deal?"

"Deal." 'Maybe this will be a good peace offering. I can't believe how angry that girl got when she caught me reading to Naruto.' "Also, If you would, could you look at our young worker? He has an odd seal on him, and we'd like to know what it is and does, for all of our peace of minds. It could be a difficult thing if it turns out he has a slaver's mark and is a runaway."

"I will think on it, but first, the research!" Further talk was lost as Jiraiya force-marched the two of them out onto the street.

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Ikiri had noted Naruto's impromptu brace with a frown, but kept his peace. There would be time later, when it would not insult their host, to debrief the boy. Once Takada-sama had left them to their private meal, they had stayed just long enough to be respectful.

It had been rather sumptuous, heavy on the fruit and vegetable side of things. Ikiri had a feeling that most of these were for Naruto, as Kobuta had also been insistent on feeding the boy things which would help the most in undoing the nutritional damage done at the orphanage.

"Before we head back, Naruto-kun, I have something for you."

He held out the parcel, kept within his own robes all this time. Naruto ran his hands over it as the paper wrapping was removed. "It is...another outer robe. Is it like the one I wear now?"

"Almost the same, with one key difference. Feel the back, up by the collar." Despite his attempt at being serious, Ikiri just couldn't keep the smile from his voice.

"Ah...ooooh...the...patch? I have a patch?! And...bumps, it's bumpy. This..." He paused while his ran his fingers over the raised stitches. "This is my Atma license?"

"Indeed. Normally, those are silk-screened; I had yours embroidered. Congratulations, Journeyman Uzumaki." For a moment, he observed his student. "Naruto, it occurs to me that I have been remiss in teaching you an important lesson. Tears when you are happy, those are the best kind to have."

"Ha...hai, Ikiri-sa..saaaaa..."

Ikiri ducked into a side room, luckily vacant, pulling the boy with him. Naruto was hugged tightly, then held in a loose embrace.

"I need to run a quick errand, Naruto-kun. First, how does your arm feel...better?" He got a brief nod. "Then I will take this blade back to its owner. Do you think you can stay in this side room until I return for you?" He got another nod. "Good, good. I will speak to Dashi-san then, so he can direct me to the proper owner. I will be back soon."

After ensuring that Naruto had his privacy to recompose himself, Ikiri went in search of Dashi. The few men he met pointed him in the right direction, recognizing both the blade and the glint in Ikiri's eye. In his wake, wagers were made.

"Dashi-san, might you know the owner of this blade, the short one of a full set?"

Dashi started, then turned with a serious expression.

"Hai, it is mine."

"Splendid. It is good the two blades were reunited so quickly. How very auspicious."

"Hai...I thank Ikiri-san." Taking the proffered sheathed wakizashi, he knelt, resting on his heels. The blade was placed before him, handle to the left, as he settled his hands upon his knees. Composed, he tilted his face up to Ikiri and closed his eyes.

Nothing more was said.

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"Are you ready to go, Naruto-kun?"

"Hai, and thank you, Ikiri-sama. I will be sure to keep that lesson scribed on my heart, that I might teach others in time. It is important enough to share with strangers."

"This is very true. Sad tears, try to hide...those against you will try to make them a weapon. Happy tears though, those can fall whenever. Take my hand now, and we'll head back. Um...the other hand, if you would. I seemed to have hurt my left one."

"Eh? But Ikiri-sama was only gone a short time!"

"Ah, this may be true. I will have Hibari-san take a look at it."

They walked out the door and through the compound gates in silence, before Naruto asked, "Ikiri-sama...how did you hurt your hand so quickly?"

Ikiri turned his face to the noonday sun, answering nonchalantly, "Ah, that was probably from when Dashi-san's face ran into my fist."

Naruto gaped, before closing his mouth in thought. There was a complicated feeling, as he didn't necessarily want Dashi-san hurt, but was...happy that Ikiri-sama had stood up for him in such a physical manner. As far as he knew, this was the first time anyone had done such a thing.

It was a warm sensation, not unpleasant in the least.

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"You mean there's more to learn?"

"There's always more to learn, Naruto-kun," stated Ikiri as they sat in Hirabi's clinic. "Your Apprenticeship was a bit rushed, so we had to cram a year into five months. Takada-sama gave us six months, but never said at the beginning or end of the month, so I opted for caution. Now that Takada-sama is pleased, we can review material and add new techniques. Many of these you would have learned regardless.

"Also, there are some on the staff who have asked to teach you one-on-"

"Let me see what you did to yourself this time, Ikiri...how did this happen?" interrupted Hirabi as he came through the door.

"Dashi-san allowed me to strike him after he broke Naruto's arm," Ikiri stated in a calm matter-of-fact manner.

"Naruto! Arm! Now!"

The limb was instantly raised and prodded. "Do you feel any pain here? How about here?"

"There is nothing, Hibari-sensei. It feels fine. Dashi-san set the arm and applied a brace made of metal and wood."

"Wakizashi and sheath," supplied Ikiri. "I'm guessing that your...tenant helped things along. It's probably best not to look a gift horse in the mouth."

"Hai, if you say so, Ikiri-sama. I still don't like it though." There was a thoughtful pause. "What was that?"

"Huh? What that do you mean, Naruto-kun?" asked Hirabi, his Mystic Palm technique hovering over Naruto's forearm.

"That...um...right before the soothing feeling there was something else. I...I don't have the right words."

"I think he means the chakra you were gathering right before your Palm started."

"Curious. I'll cancel it and start afresh. Tell me if you feel it again, Naruto-kun." He slowed his sealing sequence as he gathered the required energy output.

"There! Oh, it's gone...all I feel is the soothing thing. For a moment, there was something almost familiar, I think."

The two men shared a glance. "I think I know what you're talking about, Naruto-kun. Give us a little time, and we'll get a lesson ready for you." Hibari turned his attention then to Ikiri.

"It may take a few days though...I was told you have a guest, Hibari-san?" His facial muscles made small twitches as Hibari shifted the bones in his hand back into position manually before he began healing the damage.

"Indeed. I went out for some writing supplies and ran into Jiraiya-sama. He agreed to follow me back here for to check on Naruto-kun's seal, among other things."

"The Jiraiya-sama is here? Does he know about Naruto being here?"

"No...I did not feel it prudent to disclose such information in such a public place. Merely a boy in our employ who has an odd seal on him."

"Good man. Come, Naruto-kun. Jiraiya-sama is a Seal Master, and could probably tell us many things about the one you wear, as well as if anyone at that place messed with it."

"Ha...hai," said Naruto softly, his fingers tracing the seal beneath his clothing. He knew it well enough now from memory, thanks to Ikiri-sama guiding his fingers, that he could trace it out in sand had he wanted. To date, he had no such desire. He reached into his sleeve, fingers gripping his head wrap.

"You don't have to wear that now, Naruto. You are no longer an apprentice, and the staff fully backs you. The choice is up to you though, and I understand if you choose to wear it." said Ikiri gently.

"I...is...this is another fear to overcome?"

"It is as you say, Naruto-kun," began Ikiri. "Know though that if you do decide to wear it, you won't be able to take it off. It will become part of your identity. Also, if you go without it, you can never wear it again. Your face would have already been known once you begin your rounds. Whatever your choice, I will support it."

"I...I like the way the sun warms my skin." He released his wrap, pulling his hand out of his opposite sleeve.

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"Jiraiya-sama, I apologize in the delay in greeting you. Welcome to our humble establishment. It is my hope you find our service agreeable."

Jiraiya glanced at the bowing man by the door, then turned his head to bite the offered morsel of fish by the lady on his right. The one on his left held the saucer to his lips, while the one behind began another scented brushstroke through his mane.

"You are Toshi's boy."

"It is as you say. I am Ikiri, proprietor. I take it you've already met Hibari-san."

"Indeed. I need not remind him that our interview is not yet over." Jiraiya's own hands rested on the table, where his right loosely held a fine-tipped charcoal pencil over a writing pad. "I am told you have a marked boy in your employ."

"That we do, Jiraiya-sama."

With a snap of the fingers, Naruto shuffled over the threshold as he knelt, his fists raising him up and forwards. He kept his head bowed, as he was informed that this person was very powerful and to be accorded all possible respect.

Jiraiya observed the blond mop of hair, feeling a slight shiver race up his spine. 'Who the hell cut the kid's hair?' "Well, let's have a look at you then."

Jiraiya really wasn't one for regrets, preferring to live in the moment. That being said, he came very close to regretting that slight command as the dark cheek marks and bottomless orbs of oblivion came into view.

It should be noted that one's eyes do not change in size all that much from the moment of birth. Generally, the size growth is in the order of a few millimeters, which usually stops around age five in most children. So the ones which met Jiraiya's own were very large and prominent, as the rest of the boy's body had yet to grow into them.

A slight tugging sensation on his right hand broke his stare, the eye shift showing Hibari on the other side of the low table, gently tugging pieces of a fine-tipped charcoal pencil from Jiraiya's palm and fingers with a pair of tweezers. His eyes turned back to the kneeling boy.

"You are Uzumaki Naruto." Though he tried for a stern disposition, he could not hide his relief that his lost godson was still very much alive. Jiraiya could read the mood though, and if he had flipped the table to hug one once believed dead, it would be a disaster. He could tell that he was a stranger to this child. This also made him wonder if the boy's parents were also strangers.

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Hayate wearily presented his credentials at the Southern Gate before slowly winding his way through the evening streets. 'Debrief and then sleep...in an actual bed,' the Jounin thought languidly.

The sword specialist had spent the past several months on patrol, the Fifty to be precise. There were three official bands around Konoha, the Five, Twenty and Fifty, the names indicating miles distant from Konoha's epicenter. Five almost always had Maito Gai at some point during the day, doing his laps outside the village walls.

Twenty was a bit more strenuous, but not overly so. It was on this patrol that most Chuunin cut their teeth, solidifying squad leadership skills while still close to Konoha.

Fifty was, for lack of a better term, the shit shift. It was a three hundred and fourteen mile loop, winding through dense woods, often high in the limbs, across multiple rivers and through the northern mountain passes, themselves part of the much larger Elemental Divide. Konoha actually was nestled in a wide valley at its southern end.

Though there were ostensibly thirty two-man teams on the Fifty, their composition was always in flux. One person was stationary, while the other ran as far as they could within sixteen hours. Where the runner stopped, the closest stationary guard would switch off for the next day's run, giving the first runner a full day of recovery time.

Every Jounin pulled at least one monthly rotation here as a matter of course, once every five years. The Fifty had another purpose though, that of punishment. Sarutobi knew that one could reach a meditative state from long-distance running, so this was one way to allow his ninja to think about what got them assigned this route while still providing a needed service to Konoha. For them, the screwups, the length of the patrol was highly personal.

Hayate was just returning from a four month rotation, one month of which was his one-in-five only bumped up by several years. Sarutobi took civilian complaints against shinobi very seriously, as he believed that all military personnel should be held to a higher standard. That the complaint centered around Naruto only exacerbated the issue. Despite his obligatory 50 being bumped up, he would still have to pull his scheduled month in a few years.

Thirty minutes later, he was standing in his entryway, letting exhaustion take hold as he leaned into the wall for support. Then there came a pounding at his door and in his skull.

"Oi! Hayate, open up already. Got something for ya!"

"Genma, go the fuck away!" Hayate ground out, in no mood for any foolishness.

"Aw, don't be like that, Hayate-chan...unless you really want me to tell Hokage-sama that you are indisposed..."

The lock clicked and the door opened a crack, showing a tired droopy eye wreathed in bags.

"Oi, you look like warmed over puke, Hayate...the hell happen to ya, three-day bender or somethin?"

Hayate grunted in response, before stating, "Just came off a long Fifty."

Genma whistled low, rolling his trademark senbon around with his tongue. "You must'a really pissed off Hokage-sama. Speakin' of which, this is for you." He held out a sealed mission scroll.

Hayate took it, nodding his thanks, before abruptly slamming the door home in his friend's face. Hayate was in no mood to see that superior smirk any time soon. He had scarcely nudged off his sandals before there was another knocking at his door, this one closer to the knob.

Irritated beyond any rational manner, Hayate wrenched the door open, glaring balefully at the...civilian who stood beyond, one hand partially raised to knock again while the other held a sheaf of papers.

"Gekkou Hayate, Jounin of Konoha?"

Hayate stayed silent, quietly pondering where he could hide the body so that he could finally get some sleep.

The un-named civilian consulted his paperwork again, then cleared his throat in a meaningful manner.

"Gekkou Hayate, coming from the Right Honorable Takada-sama, allow me to personally congratulate you upon your new teaching position, as you pass along your well-honed and seasoned knowledge to another genera..."

The rest of the speech was lost on Hayate, mind stilled before reeling furiously at the singular word: teaching. "Wha...what was...teaching?!" his voice rising towards the end.

The civilian stopped, finger marking his place on the scroll. "Yes," he replied, just a tad put-out by the interruption. "Takada-sama has shown marked interest in your new student, and has high hopes not just for his continued education, but also for your personal health and well-being."

Though sorely fatigued, Hayate felt the chill run though him. "Is that so?"

He was fastened by a gimlet gaze. "Indeed, Gekkou-san. You like this area, yes? It's clean and quiet, the rent reasonable. Would you like to continue to like it?"

"Is that...is that a threat?" Inwardly, Hayate held on to hope. His night thus-far had been fraught with interruptions, and he felt the need to let off some steam, legally.

"Oh no...nonono...Takada-sama's messenger would never threaten a shinobi in good standing. It was merely a thought about this place, that it would be a shame if the rent were to fluctuate, what with a shinobi's signature being absent on the vouchers which would have kept his rent current while he was running the Fifty."

Hayate felt his blood turn cold as the unnamed messenger continued. "It is only our hope that you perform well on the morrow and that your student prospers. Who knows, you might as well."

With that, the messenger rolled up the scroll and placed it in Hayate's unresisting hand. His mission complete, he turned and calmly walked down the stairs. Hayate lost sight of him as a corner was turned, his eyes flickering down the to the scroll in his hand.

For a moment, he stood there in his doorway, subtly sending out his senses to check for any other annoyance, before he finally stepped backwards and engaged the multiple locking mechanisms, checking each three times before nodding in satisfaction.

Finally convinced that he would no longer be bothered, he dropped off both unread scrolls on his kitchen table as he passed it, before he stepped into his darkened living room and screamed like a girl.

"That was...unnecessary," intoned his uninvited guest.

"Ji...Jiraiya-sama!" Hayate felt faint. One of the Sannin was sitting in his...dusty living room. Panic rose in his breast as his eyes darted around his apartment, knowing full well the browbeating he would receive once the Family found out for not having better prepared for Jiriaya-sama, no matter if he was running the 50 or not.

Jiraiya, sensing his host's disquiet, raised a placating hand while flaring a bit of his intent, shutting down most of Hayate's mental facilities. His control was such that he could cause panic in a single ant deep in a mound, without disturbing the rest of the colony around it, even if that ant was being crawled upon. So too, no neighbors were disturbed, not even the animals highly sensitive to energies. "Care for some tea? By the by, your fish looks surprisingly healthy, given the time you've been...absent."

It was all Hayate could do to retain control over his bladder. Jiraiya, the Jiraiya of the Legendary Sannin, was here, on his couch, offering...his own, Hayate's, tea. Despite how tired he felt, he crumpled to the floor, kneeling in shame.

"Now, now...none of that. Up you come, and have some tea...I find it rather refreshing, with the barest hint of jasmine." He upped the pressure, watching as the blood drained from Hayate's cheeks. This wasn't mere bullying of a junior. No, this bullying had a very specific reason.

Jiraiya really couldn't help himself. Most of his multiple bad habits, though present before, only strengthened after he lost his sole apprentice and surrogate son, as well as his adoptive family, his godson believed dead. There had been no mention of Naruto at all, in any un- or official missive, for five years, leading Jiraiya to speculate upon the boy's demise.

It may have been treasonous, but Jiraiya couldn't help but think that Sarutobi-sensei might have covered up such a thing 'for the greater good.' Added to this was the singular fact that Jiraiya had never imagined that he should have been spying inside of Konoha's walls instead of being solely focused on the threats outside.

This very day, he found the boy not only alive, but thriving under the care of a relative stranger, in a brothel of all places. Now, Jiraiya had precious little against brothels in general, but when it came to his not-quite-dead godson...things got complicated.

What was simplistic in comparison was the treatment his godson had received, first at the Orphanage, from which he was still awaiting a report from a scouting toad, but also from a few people, one of which was before him.

"I hear you have a new student." Jiraiya watched Hayate with a critical eye, noting the flinch. "He's my godson."

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The morning sun rose far too early for Hayate's liking, though there was precious little he could do about it. It was as he was making a strong pot of tea to more fully awaken that he spied the twin scrolls on his kitchen table.

Eyes comically wide, he recalled his absolutely horrible evening. The great Toad Sage had lectured him as one would a churlish child, yet never once actually said who his godson was. Inference and inflection, yes, just no name was given.

If he was lucky, news of that incident would not reach the main household. The shame of not being prepared for a guest of Jiraiya's stature could spread beyond the compound walls with the very real possibility of harming all of the family's industry. It was imperative that such not be allowed to happen.

Absently, he broke the seal on the mission scroll with his thumb as the other hand poured the tea. Raising the mug, the scent of jasmine soothed his troubled mind as he attempted to find his center. Opening his eyes after a moment, he cast them downwards to see what task Hokage-sama had entrusted him.

There was a moment of utter stillness as Hayate's eyes widened once again, before they flicked up and over to the clock on the far wall, the eyes and tail of the wooden striped cat swishing back and forth as temporal time was maintained. *

In the span it took the dropped and untasted mug to shatter on the floor, Hayate was already outside, running from roof to roof.

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Ikiri watched for Hayate as he stood alongside Naruto. "It will be dawn soon...are you ready for this?"

"Hai, Ikiri-sama. I will...will do my best to not bring shame to your name."

The elder man couldn't help but grin as he tousled the boy's hair. "Let us not dwell on failure, but success."

Naruto could only nod, not quite trusting his voice. The early morning breeze shifted, bringing a scent. "Someone is coming, moving fast."

'That must be him, since Naruto has already pointed out the someones surrounding this location. I need to find a way to help him train his other senses in case something shuts down his nose.'

A haggard and disheveled Hayate landed not too far from them, bent over and holding his knees as his lungs struggled for air. His self-imposed perfectionism was sorely bruised when he heard Ikiri intone darkly, "You're late."

Wheezing, he lifted a placating hand. "By how...how...long?"

"Five minutes." Ikiri turned his gaze up and to the East, watching the shifting hues for a moment, before reorienting back on Hayate. "Is this going to be a problem? I mean, if your...lifestyle is going to be...burdened, I can always bring Naruto-kun at a later time."

The words were conciliatory, though the tone was not. Hayate was being measured and judged, a very rare occurrence to be sure, but one which made him intensely uncomfortable. "No, no," he began, finally bringing his breathing under control. "This time is fine. In fact, an earlier slot would suit just as well."

Though this was not entirely true, it was something Hayate stated in an attempt to save face. He really should have expected his bluff to be called.

"Oh? Well that is good news. Naruto-kun is a light sleeper and has boundless energy." His left hand rested on the boy's head, tousling the silken locks. "Four in the morning would be just about perfect, wouldn't you say, Naruto-kun?"

"Hai, Ikiri-sama. That would allow me to have full and productive days, if it does not burden Ikiri-sama, that is."

"It would be fine, Naruto-kun. If I am unavailable, there is always the night shift. Bunta or Shikuri would always be willing to ensure you arrived here on time." The latter two, and slightly stressed, words were directed towards Hayate.

"I...I...um, yes, yes, that would...um, that would be fine. Yes. Oh Four Hundred it is then." 'Stupid stupid stupid. Hayate, you are more than a fool to try bluffing Ikiri-san.' He could have sworn he heard a slight chuckle on the breeze.

"I will leave you to it then. I do expect you to walk Naruto-kun back at noon, at least until he learns the route. He is a quick study, so long as his questions are answered, and is very tactile. Given this field of study, such a trait should prove beneficial."

Ikiri crouched down to speak in Naruto's ear. "Do your best, Naruto-kun, and I want a full report when you get home, both the good and the bad. Understood?"

Naruto could only nod, his mind busy with the word 'home,' it leaving a comforting warmth in his chest.

Ikiri stood and bowed towards Hayate, an action returned, before leaving the designated training field and the ring of hidden watchers.

Hayate turned his attention fully on the boy, bent in a bow. "You will address me as Hayate-sensei. Every morning, you will demonstrate Respect for the Sword before beginning a regime of exercises and movement drills. Attend!"

For Naruto, Hayate-sensei would prove to be a good teacher, though in some ways the opposite of Ikiri-sama. For starters, while Ikiri-sama was very demonstrative physically, Hayate-sensei never touched him directly. On this, their first day together, a long stick, found on the ground, was used to indicate posture changes.

Something or someone else was employed, one who sounded like Hayate-sensei and filled the same space as Hayate-sensei, but had no discernable scent. That latter detail really threw Naruto for a loop, since everything had a scent of some sort, except for these Hayates who were not Hayate.

The non-Hayates would touch Naruto, usually to prod or position his limbs initially. As for the actual Hayate, who did have a scent, he preferred to stand back and poke and tap with a stick. Unknown to Naruto, though Hayate was a bit aloof, even under normal conditions, his distance from Naruto was a type of insurance, knowing just whose godson he was.

This would be their very early morning routine.

Chapter Text

It had been a solid three months, eight months since Ikiri-sama first took him in, and Naruto had yet to hold any semblance of a sword aside from whatever stick Hayate-sensei permitted. And with each stick, chosen to be as un-sword-like as possible while still being a stick, Naruto would demonstrate Respect for the Sword and the Twelve Stances drills. He held many a twig.

The drills were becoming easier, as Naruto's body began to remember the exact postures and swings. Hayate-sensei then began using substitutes to throw Naruto off. Since there were twelve stances, numbers, months, and their allegorical animals were used. As progress was witnessed, the strings became longer, the substitutes mixed with actual stance calls.

During this time, Hayate had become more and more impressed with Naruto's skill development. Due in large part to his blindness, the boy showed above average spatial awareness through the usage of his remaining senses. If Naruto had been anyone else, Hayate would have been boasting of his student at every turn.

As it was, however, Hayate just could not bring himself to like the boy, could not even permit himself to like the boy. To do such would be to prove that Hayate had been wrong all along regarding his views on Naruto. Though he knew this was a personal flaw, internally Hayate mitigated it to a mere foible, a mild quirk. With mastery of self, there could be no flaws, so it had to be called something else.

That self-rationalization only fed into Hayate's tutelage, creating long chains of numbers, words and stances, all in the hope of making Naruto fail. If the he failed, then it would validate Hayate's opinion of the boy.

Naruto was still taught, despite Hayate's misgivings. A mission was a mission, and he was not only watched by ANBU, who gave reports, but he himself had to file daily and weekly reports on his instruction. So in addition to katas and muscle memory exercises, there was a soft style of Taijutsu (to balance the hard style of Kenjutsu) using deflection and misdirection, and physical conditioning of core muscle groups.

Though voluntary muscles could only be improved so far, due to Naruto's age and development, the involuntary muscles could be trained regardless. During breaks in the primary routine, Naruto could be found performing four-count jumping jacks, or running around a pole while holding a tethered rope. In this, Naruto's energy and stamina found good outlets, while improving lung capacity and cardiac efficiency.

There were plenty of times in which Naruto had actually messed up, missing a strike or stance in the fiendishly long and complex instruction chains. In those instances, the clones would deliver a few hits to throw him off balance and trip him up, signaling the end of that lesson. Naruto would then be handed the end of rope, and he would run in circles for the rest of the session.

It was time, however, and Hayate could not put it off any longer. So it was on the morning of the fourth month of training, or the first day of the new year, that Hayate called Naruto over in the early morning darkness. The time slot was a cause for much vexation on Hayate's part, but he eventually was able to get some good out of it through his echolocation cough. Training was training.

"Naruichi, come. I have something for you."

"Hai, Sensei."

Naruichi had started as a term of derision, Hayate's cruel jest which told Naruto that he would always be alone in his mind. Never would he commit a face to memory, and had no visual basis for his reality. Lacking the tangible connections all others shared, he was solitary, one. Sarutobi had gotten the gist rather quickly, hence the four months Hayate spent running the Fifty.

The moniker had become an accepted thing, however, and with good reason. Although Naruto loved his name, as it was his name, he was made to understand that very few people in Konoha actually knew who he was. They knew of the name but not the face which went with it. As far as the populace was concerned, Uzumaki Naruto was either dead or held in confinement far away. Most people hadn't heard a whisper of the demon child being around for years. Out of sight meant out of mind.

It was Jiraiya who cemented the notion, calling it a stage name. "Often," he said one evening when this was brought up, "we can only be ourselves among close friends and family. For everyone else, we are who they expect us to be. Outside, we wear a face or name different than our own, as if we were on stage with those around us being both audience and fellow actor."

"Hold out your hands, palms up."

As Naruto did so, a long weighted thing was placed in his hands.

"Show respect!"

Realization blossomed in Naruto's young mind as he shifted his hands to find the balance point. It wasn't heavy, but was long, which made it a bit awkward and bulky. His grip was sure though, and strong for his age, thanks to several months of physical conditioning.

He held the saya in a right overhand grip, the tsuka pointed to the left as the whole was kept even on a horizontal plane. His left hand automatically went to his belt as he knelt before Hayate. With a smooth motion from months of practice, he bowed at the waist from this position, bringing his left hand forward to rest beneath the right hand which held the scabbard.

The sheath was never to touch the ground through carelessness. Only if knocked from the hands in combat, or if the wielder was dead, was the saya ever allowed to rest upon the soil. This was the Rule.

Naruto held this pose until Hayate barked, "Present, Arms!" whereupon he straightened his back, left hand back at the waist, as the right hand turned clockwise. With the saya's tip resting against the inside of his right knee, the whole was brought into his centerline, the scent of oil telling him when to stop. Due to the length of the sheathed blade, his right hand ended up higher than his head, instead of just under his chin.

There was a tugging sensation and a metallic sound, a 'shnischt' of sorts, was heard. Hayate spoke for his benefit.

"As you have practiced, this will be part of the new routine. This will be your practice blade and you will care for it in a rigorous manner. Each morning, you will present yourself and this sword as one, and I will inspect the blade. If it is not found to be up to my standards, there will be a punishment of sorts to reinforce the notion that one should care for their tools. And why is this, Naruichi?"

"Hayate-sensei, the sword is but an extension of the whole. It is a part of me, by which I might extend my reach. Therefor, I should treat it as my own arm, since it is."

"Very good, Naruichi, but there is a problem. This blade which you presented to me, the one which you gave respect...it is dirty, Naruichi. I am afraid there must be punishment." Hayate had chosen this practice blade for a reason, knowing full well from his own past that once hands held a blade, ownership was transferred. He had forgotten that he once held this very same blade.

There was a sensation of filled space around him, but no scent. This could only be the non-Hayates. As per the norm, the real Hayate stood back, as not once during the disciplinary beating did his scent come even remotely close. It was a good thing that Naruto had long ago decided to wear workout clothes to these lessons, keeping his work clothes in a separate bag.

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The walk back was a slow affair, as parts of him still ached. The disciplinary action came at the beginning of the lesson, which made everything afterward painful to perform. Though he could complain to Ikiri-sama about this, prior discussions made him aware that a sensei could not interfere with another sensei's lessons, excepting in the case where death could be the outcome. Seeing how the hidden watchers had not intervened, that made the beating legitimate.

That didn't mean Naruto liked it, grumbling to himself about non-Hayates as he walked past a dango stand, it being one of his scent landmarks. Diagonally across his back was the katana entrusted to him by Hayate-sensei. It was as long as he was tall, though he was very careful to prevent it from trailing in the dust.

Unknown to Naruto, Anko sat within, her eyes tracking the boy, now with a new accessory, responsible for so much which was wrong with her life. Well, not her life as a whole, just the months since her little prank blew up in a spectacular fashion. After Ikiri had tracked her down that day and banned her, word had somehow gotten around that she had done a Bad Thing.

How was she to know that Naruto was the Golden Child, the orphan picked up off the street and given a new life through the power of a melodramatic life debt? That part was not in her briefing when Hokage-sama sent her as the first shinobi 'tutor.'

Word got out though, and to the right people, though the slight done to Naruto was never described with his name, only Ikiri-san's apprentice. It was as if they, whoever they were, didn't know his actual identity, and she was in no mood to enlighten them, not after what she had gone through.

The first indication something was amiss was when she received notice, the morning after the prank, that she was late on rent. She was never late on rent, ever. But now she was, back-dated to when she first signed the lease agreement. Then she had issues with utilities and dry cleaning.

The true horror came when her precious dango was rationed, and any threat against the cooks or staff only made things worse, such as the first time she was given a single dango skewer as her full order. That little episode led to her most favorite brand of sake being taken completely off the market in Konoha and surrounding environs. The worst part was that her name was given as the reason.

Even now, Bear Country Super Select was not available anywhere within a two hundred mile radius. In that same space, her name and likeness, as towards why that sake was not sold, were very well known. She had even received bona-fide hate mail.

Konoha bigots might sneer, point and mock, but they never sent hate mail. They and she both knew that she was unstable enough to take the letter and physically shove it up their ass. So to receive angry letters marked 'Mitarashi Anko, c/o Konohagakure no Sato' from out of town was a new and thoroughly unpleasant sensation.

Hints on redemption had been given though...something about making it right, whatever that meant. What could she, the beautiful and single Mitarashi Anko, give a blind kid who had teachers, good meals, and a healthy environment. She couldn't very well get him anything bright and colorful, since even she knew such would have been very poorly received. As far as his primary job, all he needed to perform it was already attached to the ends of his arms.

Her teen mind was at a loss, not even knowing where to start to get back in Ikiri's good graces. There had to be something. It should come as no surprise that effusively apologizing never once crossed her mind. This was quite besides the point of Kushina-sama's own joke falling flat. Had nobody told the boy of his aunt or cousin's sense of humor?

She did, however, catch his grousing, as this was the first time she had ever heard him complain about his Kenjutsu training. She caught the words 'Hayates' and 'no scent bastards' and the light went off in her head. It was obvious that the boy was complaining about a jutsu, since Hayate's knowledge of the Kage Bunshin was well known in Konoha, it being part of his signature sword dance.

'Jutsu, jutsu...I can teach him something useful like that! And if it's really awesome, that should put me back in Ikiri's good graces...then maybe I'll get my dango and sake back!' She paused for a bit, absently picking her teeth with her single dango skewer. 'I'll bet Sensei still has some stuff laying around. Time to raid a stash.'

She paused, mind rifling through memories. 'Kushina-sama taught Hayate, so that part is covered. What about Minato-dono? Though an in-law...he was so awesome with cloning things. Yesh, clones it is!'

Anko had never given all of Orochimaru's locations in Konoha. She did give some when she was first reintroduced into the ranks, but seeing how that gift made little difference in how she was treated, she did not volunteer the rest. Most people saw her for Orochimaru's student even now, two years after she was found washed ashore in Tea Country, unconscious and alone. They never quite realized that she was more than just a student, but his apprentice.

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Naruichi, as he was known as along this stretch of commercial residences, continued on his way, unmindful of the thoughtful expression on Anko's face as she set off in another direction. It was along this route that he had begun to establish his own clientele list once word got around that he had an Atma license on the back of his jacket.

That license, just like with anything else, had to be earned. For one so young to have been awarded one garnered a lot of attention, though it was exclusively to this path he traveled from the training ground to his place of residence. Although there had been a few who had hinted that they could well make do with his services, they were in parts of town which were unknown to him as of yet. He would need to have someone show him the routes a few times.

He turned right at a lantern pole, those constructs used to hang oil lamps provided by the nearest establishment. They in turn would be reimbursed for fuel usage and provided new glass lamps when needed. This was learned during a massage session with a wainwright.

He navigated the road, both counting steps and using what he could of his echolocation skill, initially discovered in an alley in what must have been another life. He had not been able to improve much since then, as he thoroughly lacked any visual clues.

This skill was rare, true, but not completely unknown. Ikiri-sama had done some research, along with Hibari-sensei, and they found a common thread. Those practitioners who were blind or nearly so, once had full sight and retained the memory of shapes, sizes and colors once sight was lost to them. They still had mental references; conversely, Naruto had been born blind, or close enough, and lived completely in a world of darkness.

As it stood, his grunts, coughs, and tongue clicks only served to 'paint' an area roughly three feet around him, and then only things with some mass to them. He would be able to sense a box, since it had mass and a shape, but not a rope stretched across a path. Also, since his bubble was a yard on either side, it was really only useful for walking.

In dense settings, such as a crowded plaza or in a forest, the usefulness of this skill waned, as there was simply too much background noise. Were it not for his other senses, he would not be able to discern between a wall and a copse of trees or dense crowd on echolocation alone.

At running speed or higher, pending chakra augmentation, the usefulness was completely negated. At that rate of travel, the distance interval was simply too brief to allow for any reflexive action. For running, Naruto would need at least a fifteen foot detection radius, at a bare minimum. So for anything faster than a sedate walk, something else would be needed to aid in object detection.

He paused in his musings as he reached the fourth door on his right, roughly halfway between the training ground and the Knicker, his bodily aches already fading. During the prior month, Naruto made it a point to stop by two or three different businesses a week, where he would offer his on-site services as well as mentioning Ikiri's male-oriented amenities and Hibari-sensei's clinic.

His fee was the going rate: 50 bu. As a child, however, Ikiri had given Naruto an optional fee, one in keeping with his prior arrangements. So prospective clients had a choice: pay the fee, or teach Naruto something age appropriate.

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The Twisted Knicker, despite its playfully naughty name, was considered one of the better brothels within Konoha and neighboring environs. It did not traffic solely in sex, though there were establishments who offered nothing but, even to the point of fetishes or deviancy.

This is not to say that society was prudish. On the contrary, the Land of Fire was rather libertine when it came to the subject of carnality, but even so there were limits. And with those limits came those who pandered to the clientele who felt the need to cross that line every now and then.

The Knicker was not one of these, nor was it part of the higher end of things. There were veritable emporiums within the Land of Fire, the most famous being in Crater City. The Top-Naughty Twist, their sign displaying a leering samurai with a twisted top-knot being erect, even had an in-house barber and restaurant.

A client to the Knicker could request sex if he so wished, but the choice was always up the his female host. Every blue moon, a civilian client would come along who would force the issue and those were always handled delicately. The offender would be dragged outside, stripped naked, decorated with a sign around his neck stating his misdeeds, and given a public beating until he passed out from the pain.

For shinobi clients, ANBU was summoned.

There was never a repeat offender from either caste.

Generally speaking, the female staff of the Knicker were usually hired out for some level of companionship. Marriage was a complex affair, almost always arranged between families for a variety of reasons, though most were business related. Internal duties, however, were fairly consistent across the board. The man was head of the household, and provided financial security. The woman provided domestic security, and was tasked with producing children, preferably a male heir for starters.

This type of relationship was typical, their roles born out of duty and responsibility to their respective families towards their societal obligations. Very rarely was the union born out of love, though a couple could grow to love in time, despite it not being a foregone conclusion. The very notion of marrying out of love was the stuff of fiction, and made for the most popular plays, at least those not reenacting a famous battle. Though even then, love was found from woman masquerading as men, bent on revenge.

So it was that brothels came to be, to provide the 'feminine mystique' missing from dutiful and dull matrimony. This was what the Twisted Knicker provided to their few higher class patrons, with the bulk of the business coming from the growing middle class. For the latter, there was even a greater reason than base companionship: it was their attendance which proved to society that they were wealthy enough for such non-essential amusements.

Within the clean, illuminated and well-appropriated rooms, one could find multiple things which were not strictly necessary. One could have a worldly dinner companion, be entertained, get pampered, or acquire a beautiful arm-hanger for a play or concert, with most clients opting for those things. Others came just to be seen, proving by their presence that their industry was financially sound.

To better distinguish the Knicker from its competitors, Ikiri petitioned the Grand Dowager of Fire in the Capital and was permitted to hire his two geisha, though only after an extensive application and interview process. Their roles, aside from plying their own trade, was to teach the female staff the 'womanly arts.' This included calligraphy, origami, flower arrangement, seduction, conversation, poetry and some form of musical expression, be it voice, an instrument, or dancing.

The host's primary responsibility was to make the client feel special, empowered, and masculine. Into this realm came the more physically pleasurable arts, erotic massage and prostitution, though again, that discretion rested solely with the female host.

The Twisted Knicker had another distinction, that of a health center. Due to Ikiri's training in varied massage techniques and Hibari's med-nin background, the Knicker had become rather popular for shinobi and civilian alike. A connected annex, built after Ikiri inherited the brothel from his father, granted massage, acupuncture, acupressure, and aromatherapy for them seeking such in a relaxed environ.

Several games of chance were also provided, to give the patrons something by which to pass the time as they received their varied treatments. So long as Ikiri stayed in Takada-sama's good graces, this activity would be permitted.

The months following Naruto being awarded his Atma license had been spent drawing up blueprints and floor plans. With Takada-sama's backing and endorsement, along with the increased business from Naruto's own clients who preferred the Knicker over their own abodes, more room was needed. There was even thought of having a separate building just for tea ceremonies, though such would be rather extravagant and a first for Konoha.

Extra space was needed for another reason as well. Jiraiya the Toad Sage had made the Twisted Knicker his unofficial haunt while in Konoha, due only from Naruto being in residence. With Jiraiya came Jiraiya's fame and reputation. He was given one of the few rooms with its own outside door on the ground floor, with a side massage room for those whose feet ached from standing in long autograph lines. At fifty bu per foot rub, as a massage is a massage, Jiraiya created even more wealth for the Knicker.

They would soon be changing their name, however. They would remain a brothel, though not the sex-dominated enterprise his father had envisioned. In honor of their first apprentice and his godfather, the Toad Sage, the Twisted Knicker would be renamed Thighs and Sighs upon the construction's completion.

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"Good afternoon, and blessings upon this shop and home," greeted Naruto as he pushed open the door to the fourth shop. There was something both sweet and bitter in the air, along with the scent of something cooked, the likes of which he had yet to be exposed.

"Thank you boyo, and welcome to the Takagura Street Confectionery. Are your parents with you?" It was then that the lady who had greeted Naruto took in the eyes and the blue outer robe, her eyes widening in recognition. This child was known in these parts.

Before Naruto could answer, she continued, "I am Amaiyatsu Yashobi, wife of Amaiyatsu Shobaru, proprietor. You are that young masseur, yes?" She couldn't help but see the sword hung diagonally across his back, as it was about as long as the boy was tall.

"Hai, it is as you say, Amaiyatsu-san. I am Naruichi, Journeyman of the Atma massage school under Ikiri-sama." As he finished he gave her a polite bow.

"I see." Yashobi cast her eyes downward and slightly dipped her head. "I shall call my husband for you. This way please."

"Ah...um...Amaiyatsu-san, I am unfamili..."

"Oh...I was unaware the stories were true. Apologies, Naruichi-...san. Come, I will guide you." Inside, her mind was distracted and busy, as they were not expecting any company this early in the afternoon. Most of their business was early morning and late afternoon. 'I don't even think I have any tea ready.'

Despite his apparent age, this Naruichi was still here on business, as one tradesman to another. She would have to work quickly so as not to shame her husband.

"In here, Naruichi-san...I must say it feels rather...odd to be speaking to you in such a personal manner. Is there no family name?"

"Ah, apologies, Amaiyatsu-san. I am an orphan from birth, so was never blessed with one." Naruto scratched his head in mock confusion. "Ichi could work as one, yes?" Inwardly, he grinned at his clever pun.

She flushed in embarrassment, left hand rising to her lips involuntarily. "Yes," she said faintly, "Ichi-san will work just fine...allow me to fetch my husband for you, Ichi-san." She fled before she could create another verbal gaff.

Naruto chuckled to himself as he slowly toed his way through the room, stumbling slightly on the floor cushions, though the low table itself was easy to pick out. 'She has a pleasant scent...I wonder how deep it goes.' Naruto settled into a squat, palming his face. 'Uncle is corrupting me.' Taking care, he removed Hayate's katana from his back, placing it hilt-forward on his right side.

He centered himself as he waited for the store's owner. This too was part of his education: socializing with strangers, proper greetings, negotiations and selling of one's skills. He was still very nervous, taking great pains to control his breathing and heart rate, but it was getting a little easier with each person he met.

He heard the door slide open, before shutting heavily, though no footfall was heard within the room. A whispered conversation reached his ears.

"There's a child in there, Yashobi. Is this some sort of joke?" came a man's voice.

'That must be Shobaru-san.'

"It is not, Husband. Ichi-san bears the Atma license on his back. I believe he is here as a tradesman, as his visit is outside of our normal customer hours."

"Hrm. You could be correct, Wife. I will see him then, just lock up the shop and douse the fires."

The door slid back open, the sound not quite masking the footsteps leading away.

"Ah, Ichi-san, welcome. We weren't really expecting company this day. I am Amaiyatsu Shobaru." The voice was anything but welcome.

Naruto had stood at his voice, bowing at the waist. "Thank you for receiving me, Amaiyatsu-san."

"Please, sit. To what do I owe the honor, Ichi-san?"

"I would like to offer my services." Shobaru's eyes shifted to the sword on the boy's right, then back.

"Massage?" He got a nod. "Do you know what we do here, Ichi-san?" Naruto shook his head in the negative. "We make chocolates and confections, such as candied fruit pieces. This industry is both time and heat critical."

Naruto got the hint. "I will not take much of your time. I am of the Journeyman rank, proficient in various massage techniques from the scalp to the foot."

"Is that so...ah, Yashobi, come in."

Naruto could sense both her scent as she moved towards them and the patronizing tone from Shobaru.

"Your tea, Ichi-san," said Yashobi softly. Aware now of his blindness, she tapped his hand and gently maneuvered the cup into his palm. Turning to serve her husband, Naruto was thankful for the distance. Her scent was a bit distracting on a different level than Ayame-nee. It toyed with his sense of smell.

"Now, where were we...ah, yes. Massage. Who was your tester for your Atma rank?" Shobaru sported a smirk as he took a sip of his tea. He wasn't really fond of unsolicited guests and took some pleasure in knocking them down a few pegs before running them off.

"Ah, that would be Takada-sama." Shobaru spluttered as his tea went down the wrong pipe, and just like that, the conversational control shifted. "He was rather pleased with my techniques."

"Is...is that so. I had heard that someone fixed his back or something similar," spoke up Yashobi, as Shobaru was caught in a slight coughing fit.

"Yes, he told me it had plagued him for decades. I don't think I did anything special though...just walked on his back is all." Naruto scrubbed the back of his head in embarrassment, hearing the sucked in breath.

Shobaru glanced over to his wife, face still flushed from clearing his lungs. "So...I take it then that you have Takada-sama's ear?" she continued.

"Oh, no. Nothing of the sort," the boy stated, waving a hand in dismissal.

The Amaiyatsus let out a held breath. Yashobi knew of her husband's personality quirk, despite the brevity of their arranged marriage. It would not do to insult someone so highly placed.

"That would be Ikiri-sama, my master. I am Takada-sama's subordinate through Ikiri-sama. I simply tell Ikiri-sama of my day when he asks such of me, being his apprentice, and he tells Takada-sama of the places I visited, if he feels the need. Takada-sama likes to know if shops in his quadrant are doing well, or if they are having issues."

Naruto paused to take a sip of tea, letting the unspoken words filter down. "I trust business has been good to you?"

The Amaiyatsus locked eyes again, the absurdity of this scenario, of having such a serious conversation with a child, not being lost on them.

"This Ikiri-sama," began Shobaru, finally regaining some semblance of composure, "he is a masseur as well?"

"While Ikiri-sama holds a Master rank in three different massage schools, his main occupation is proprietor of the Twisted Knicker."

Naruto was content to use the ensuing silence to drink his tea. He knew Ikiri-sama had a good reputation, as did the Knicker, but Naruto had been made aware through his lessons that familiarity counts for a lot. Given the choice between a poor place which is known, and a better place which is not, there will always be those who choose to stick with what they know.

He could tell they were a bit nervous after the mention of Takada-sama, if their motion sounds were anything to go by, so in accordance with his advanced massage studies, he subtly shifted his body into the No Threat/Good Listener stance. Body language, Naruto had learned, was just as important as verbal skills. One's mouth saying one thing while their body said another creates a conflict most people cannot ignore. Towards this end, Ikiri-sama and Hibari-sensei educated him in various non-verbal cues.

He had to become the formed word, his body the clay to be shaped by his teachers to reflect the desired statement. Aggressive, Trustworthy, Playful, No Threat, Good Listener...these and other postures were merely tools used to manipulate the subconscious state of the intended target. His lesson as he walked Jiraiya-sama's back was all about the various cues which comprise Killing Intent, as only a portion of that skill was actually focused chakra expression.

The Amaiyatsus shared a glance, before Yashobi placed her hands upon her knees and bowed her head. "Husband, forgive your foolish wife. Could you please check to ensure that all the fires were doused?"

Shobaru blinked, before he slowly nodded. "I will see to it," he simply said, taking the hint. Rising smoothly, he exited the room.

Once alone, Yashobi turned to face Naruto, pitching her voice in a whisper. "Ichi-san, this place, the Twisted Knicker, I have heard of it. What sort of person goes there?"

Naruto caught the tone. 'Interrogative but not condemning.' He slightly tilted his face upwards, tapping his chin with his right index finger, the rest of the hand curled beneath the jaw. Canting his head to the side away from her, he cut his eyes in her direction, the shape of which proclaimed Playful. The action looked so natural that she quite forgot that he was blind.

"Before that, might this one have a bit more of your tea?"

It was then that she was reminded of his blindness, for though his cup was pushed towards her, his hands remained on its sides. Her own siblings would do this, but while they looked up, Naruto looked down. She could tell that is was not a habitual action.

"Was it that pleasing?" It had been made hastily, after all.

"Indeed it was. The taste of honey was on the tongue, but not strongly. It was just enough. If possible, might I have some to take back to my master?"

She couldn't keep the warmth from her smile. Though they were currently in negotiations, and despite such a gift being able to create openings, this boy still appreciated her attempt at tea. A moment before, something had tickled her memory, preventing human touch, but now her fingers bumped into his own as she lightly held his teacup.

"I can't give names, mind you." Unseen, she gave a slight smile to match his own. "While we, being the Knicker, do receive some wealthy patrons, the bulk of our clients are merchants. Traders, suppliers, shopkeepers...shops which make things for other shops. Does that answer your question, oku-san?"

She blinked, nodding slightly. "Yes, yes it does. Thank you, Ichi-san." She glanced at the boy, worrying her lower lip as she weighed her options. 'Though young, he holds an Atma license, and seems to be learning the sword though blind. That speaks of a driven nature, another mark of a professional. He also liked my tea. Perhaps...'

Firming her resolve, she nodded to herself. "My father, a grasping man, is a lieutenant for Goru-sama."

"Ah, he is the Boss for the Uchiha quadrant. I had heard that he is rather unpleasant and bitter, blaming the Uchiha for stealing his clients."

She smiled slightly. "You know much for your age. Yes, he's the Yakuza boss for that sector, and it is as you say. Though the Hyuuga clan is also in that sector, along with other growing families, his focus is on Uchiha, feeling they have wronged him personally.

"My father arranged the marriage between my husband and I, hoping to gain new business for Goru-sama, showcasing opportunities outside of the Uchiha's influence. Shobaru's family, you see, owns and operates several farms outside the village. They provide sugar from beets and potatoes, as well as honey from apiaries. This is where they derived their name."

"Oh, I see...I thought it might have come from this store, since you do make sweet goods." He took a long sip, steam visible from the mug. "I can taste the flowers. The honey your family produces really is the best!" He took another taste.

She pinched the bridge of her nose. "No, that was my father's idea. Actually, it was a poisoned deal. He hopes for this business to fail, blaming it on Shobaru's ineptness. By shaming him, my father hopes to gain a hold on his family's assets through the guise of restitution. Why else place a candy store on a street with farriers and jute weavers?"

She paused, clearly embarrassed by this next admission. "Neither of us was trained for this trade. We are...learning as we go, with whatever books and scrolls we can find. There is a lot of trial and error." She glanced at his teacup, already half empty, and mentally added combs to the honey jars.

Naruto nodded, as this was explained to him. This road was geared towards trade, as in the products used in trade. Ironworks, rope, barrels and carts were the prime commodities, those things used by other businesses to move their goods.

"Well, the people that work at these places, they like to eat and drink too, right? Who says you just have to make candy?"

Yashobi blinked, and then blinked again as possibilities filtered down. She barely registered Shobaru entering the room.

"Everything was fine, Yashobi. No mistakes were made."

"Ah, thank you for that, Husband. I have a request of you, if you are willing." She glanced at him demurely. "I would like for you to visit this place."

Shobaru blinked. "But...Wife, they, um...have...uh..." He found himself at a loss for words. This was not something he expected to hear after a month of matrimony.

"It is important, Husband. Shobaru, you must be seen with your peers to cement your place in society. At this place, the Knicker, some of the other men from around here go there. They relax, have fun, and talk. Some of the things they talk of, I'm sure their work finds a way in. I think this would be good for you, for us."

"I will think on it." He glanced at Naruto, having heard their conversation through the door. Nothing Yashobi had said was news to him, though he was a bit surprised at her openness with a relative stranger. This boy though...could other things be made at a confectioners? This would need some mulling, and perhaps a friendly chat over drinks and a game with the local shop owners.

"In the mean time, attend to my wife. What are your rates?"

"Either fifty bu, or something taught," stated Naruto, slightly dipping his head.

"I see. Does the recipient have to be the one to teach something?" He got a shake of the head. "Splendid. What do you know about the candy-making process?"

Chapter Text

It being the weekend, Kenjutsu was not on the agenda. Even then, Naruto did not play the sloth, still keeping his early morning routine. Saturday morning was Geisha time, with Ai (written Sorrow) getting Naruto for ninety minutes before a short break, followed by another ninety minutes with Ai (written Love).

They were not twins, nor even remotely related despite the passing similarities. Nor did Ikiri choose them. All he had to go on were their profiles and skill sets. It was the Grand Dowager, the most senior of all Geishas, who decided not only the varied contracts, but also who would serve in those capacities.

Despite Love having seniority, Sorrow was allowed the first session due to Love's lessons, which revolved around etiquette, origami, and dance. It was the dancing which was at issue, as Love had been teaching Naruto not only folk and court styles, but also the very secret Geisha styles, those that she knew.

This was taboo, done solely for the sake of enhancing his perceived survivability as a blind swordsman. The styles relied heavily on flexibility, silence, and balance, as well as spatial awareness and weight distribution. She wasn't teaching him everything, but the little she had passed on would be sufficient to not only be recalled, but also to have her back stripped of skin before being dressed in a fine silk kimono, minus the underdress.

The silk would bond with the blood and raw flesh, becoming a second skin. To remove the kimono would mean pealing off her skin a second time. Neither could it be cleaned properly. As time went on, her crime would be visible to all through her stained and unkempt kimono.

Sorrow wasn't guiltless either. Though she was well versed in tea ceremonies and flower arrangement, those were two areas Naruto just couldn't use outside of tea etiquette and traditions. It was her other skill, that of musical instruments, in which she placed her focus. She not only taught him the single hand flute, which was legal, but also the thin-neck shamisen in the Kouta style, which was not.

Unlike others, this style did not use the triangular bachi, or plectrum. Instead, the strings were plucked by fingers and nails, these also used to strike the skinned body for the percussive aspect. Although this particular playing style had been employed by the Blind Man Guild and various temples in the past, it had largely fallen out of favor with the rest. In this way it became one of the hallmarks of a trained Geisha.

It was for this sole reason that teaching it to outsiders was taboo. The punishment, were it discovered, would be the breaking of her playing hand and the loss of her shamisen. This would have been especially shameful for Sorrow, as her personal shamisen was wrought of cat skin, with the double row of nipples perfectly in line. This rare example of construction had been passed down through four generations, and was only played at Ikiri-sama's request.

For Love and Sorrow, those were not the only risks. After the administration of their punishments, they would be removed from the field and promoted to the Grand Dowager's personal assistants. While this may seem like a good thing at first, it should be noted that the far flung Geishas were the Dowager's eyes and ears. To be kept by her side, little more than a scullery maid, would be as if blind and mute. Their sole role would be to serve the Dowager, and in her presence, no candle was allowed a brighter flame.

They both risked much, trusting greatly in the distance from the Capitol as well as in each other. In the many years within Ikiri-sama's employ, never had they even considered teaching a non-Geisha these things. For the staff, they kept to basic and intermediate social and musical skills which were common within polite society. When it came to Naruto though, both felt that some cruel joke had been played on him, that he was not born female.

The lack of sight really wasn't an issue. Though admittedly rare, there had been enough instances of successful and blind Geishas to make a precedent. Given his appearance and demeanor, they both knew he, if a she, would have been fanatically protected by the Guild's Sisters.

For Love, the choice had been simple. It was a hunch, simply a gut feeling that he was important and one to spread their wings early. She felt it her personal responsibility to nurture this fledgling, and had put in the request to Ikiri-sama shortly after Naruto's Incident. The request would have been sooner had he been on her radar at that point.

Sorrow's decision had been roughly a month later, but before she learned of Love's forbidden tutelage. She and Love had been practicing a Spoken Word routine; this type almost always had musical accompaniment. Naruto had been in the room working on his origami basics. Hours later, during the common meal, she had heard Naruto humming the score she had played earlier. Though soft, it was in perfect pitch.

It was after she discovered what Love had been doing that she decided to throw her lot in the ring. The boy was a natural, his hearing superb, and she felt it a tragedy that he had not been born female. Add to that Love's heresy and Sorrow really had nothing left to lose. If she was the one to report Love to the Dowager, she would be castigated by her Sisters; if Love was discovered without her intervention, she would have been viewed as an accessory.

There was yet another angle, one she breathed to none. She was an artist, a musician, and had certain views. One such revolved around the usage of a bachi, finding it not only awkward but simply wrong on levels she could not explain. Her more rational parts understood that the Kouta style was Geisha-specific and could not be taught to anyone who was not a Maiko. She also knew that most players preferred not to touch dried and stretched animal intestines directly.

The artistic side, however, was adamant that the usage of tools was aberrant: strings were meant to be plucked by fingers, and Naruto was very good with his hands.

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That weekend also found Anko lurking about the rear delivery doors of the Twisted Knicker, a rare form of uncertainty painting her movements. She loitered restlessly, sliding a hesitant foot forward before resetting her brazen resolve. She had been there since dawn.

"Mitarashi, is there a reason behind your darkening our stoop?" Ikiri had been notified when the troublesome girl arrived across the street. "Monitor but don't engage," he had said then, but now it was approaching nine.

Despite her nature, she started somewhat guiltily. There was just something so paternal about Ikiri-san. A quiet corner of her mind wondered if that was why she kept coming back here.

"I couldn't quite make that out, Mitarashi," ground out Ikiri as he observed the nervous teen.

"I have something for Naru..."

"My apprentice," stated Ikiri as he interrupted her with an impatient hand gesture, "is busy. This is quite besides the fact that you are not exactly welcome here. I trust that you know why this is."

She nodded slightly, her eyes finding the scuffed dirt around her sandals suddenly interesting. "I know, but, um, I thought I could, maybe, teach him something useful?"

"Useful?! Do you mean like the last time you were entrusted with such a responsibility?"

Her cheeks continued to darken, her anger at herself slowly increasing. "But I got something really useful this time, honest!" Her hooded eyes flicked upwards and then down again.

She tensed slightly as she heard his footfalls descend the steps from the Knicker's cargo bay, his cadence slow and measured. The toes of his worn sandals moved into her downward view. Though Mitarishi feared no man nor woman, there were a few from whom she keenly felt disappointment.

"Convince me, Mitarashi. Explain to me why you should be trusted again."

"I...look, I just wanna...I thought...I just wanna make things right. Is that so wrong?" Anko paused, feeling hot tears prick her eyes. She shook her head briskly, as if to dislodge the evidence. "I...fuck, I'm sorry, alright?! I'm, I shouldn't have come." She made to move away with as much pride as she could salvage, only to feel Ikiri's breath hot upon her ear. She didn't even sense him move.

"Anko-chan," he began in a soft whisper, "had you only said that from the beginning."

Anko blinked, confused. "Eh?"

Ikiri had already moved away, rubbing the bridge of his nose tiredly. "Well, come on then. Let's see what you have."

Ever mercurial, Anko's smile was brilliant, finally figuring out the means by which she could reclaim her precious sake and dango. She followed Ikiri back to the rear deck, though he made no motion to invite her inside. Instead, he slid open the heavy doors and sat down on the threshold, feet resting on the approaching steps.

"Well?" His gaze was sharp and expectant, as was his tone. Anko found herself suddenly nervous once more.

'It's like he's my Dad or something. Huh, what did he look like again?' She shook away those misty memories, reached inside her left inside coat pocket and pulled out a worn scroll, bound with a black ribbon. "Um...I heard him, Naruto I mean, talking to himself earlier this week, something about a technique from Gekkou-san. So, um...I thought that maybe I could teach him a jutsu."

Ikiri held up a hand to pause her. "Jutsu? What type of jutsu?"

"A, uh, cloning technique," she hedged.

Ikiri could only stare. "Anko-chan, I've never been a ninja, but even I know that those types of techniques are restricted from civilians. They are Shinobi Only."

"But...but he's learning Kenjutsu, and...and he's been taught a whole buncha stuff from other shinobi. This is useful, I swear it...just, just take a look, alright?" Internally, she was growing more frustrated. She couldn't even say their names, being, for various reasons, state secrets. 'Why should it be so hard for him to learn about family?'

There was a long and uncomfortable silence, until Ikiri leaned back slightly and called inside. "Someone go and fetch Hibari. I think I'm going to need him here...oh, and bring refreshments. Mitarashi-san will have tea."

"No sake for me? That's just mean, Ikiri-san!"

Ikiri ignored her pout. "Orders are orders, Anko-chan. Besides, I'm older, I own this place, and dealing with you is too troublesome to attempt completely sober."

Anko grinned impudently, before a glance from Ikiri wiped it from her visage. Despite how irksome it was, she knew she had to behave if she ever hoped to see her precious dango and sake again.

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"Are you insane?!"

All Anko could do was cringe at the tone as Jiraiya stood behind the seated Ikiri. He and Hibari had asked for Jiraiya's professional opinion, though such interrupted his session with Naruto. Just when things were getting interesting with the boy's notion of using clay as a medium, inking it once the carvings were complete, and using those molds to create copies on scrolls, that troublesome slip of a girl had to throw a wrench into the works.

"This, where did you find this?" he asked, waving the scroll as one would a baton.

"I...I found..."

Though he was a good ten feet distant, Anko still felt the hard slap of the scroll against her cheek, whipping her head viciously to the side. Before her mind even registered the injury, she was jerked bodily into the brothel and sent rolling against the hard wooden floors. In the cargo area, mats were never used: pieces of Anko's skin were smeared behind.

Instinct, honed by her tutelage under that bastard of a sensei, blossomed, driving her pistoned legs towards the doorway as her fingers twisted into seals. Before even half a step was taken, she was lifted, slapped against the high ceiling and then against the floor. Gasping, her lungs feverishly hungry for air, she noted that Jiraiya had not moved a mote. She had been manhandled by his hair.

"Do not presume to lie to me, especially when it concerns my godson!" With a sure motion, the scroll unrolled. He pointed with his right hand. "I was his teammate for a good twenty years, girl. I would know 'Roachy's script anywhere. Now then, where did you get this?"

She tried to dissemble, lie, she really did. But then she found she couldn't breathe, nor close her eyes as Jiraiya calmly asked Ikiri to clear the building, that Ikiri could use Jiraiya's name this one time to pin the disturbance on a particular customer, named Hibaru, who had struck one of Ikiri's girls the day before.

'I really wouldn't want to be him tomorrow,' was her singular thought before her back hit the ceiling and her belly met the hardwood floor for a second time. It was a twenty foot difference, and Jiraiya was angry.

"Focus, Anko-chan. Where did you get this scroll?" Jiraiya saw her bloody face begin to scrunch up in rebellious mulishness. "Do you intend to actually defend him, of all people?"

She recoiled from where she lay upon the floor, the words almost a physical blow to the gut. After a moment, she spluttered out, "Sa..safehouse."

"I see. How many more are there?"

"Many...is dat my toof?" *

"I believe so, yes. Does Hokage-sama know?"

Her face twisted angrily. "Yeah. Gabe one up, an I still got tweated wike shit. Wike wecycled shit!"

"That's a fairly graphic image."

"Well, shenshay wav alwavs a bit litewal. A bit moe dan a bit, da fweak. Can I get up now?"

"Soon, and yes, he was always a bit literal. That and his habit of answering rhetorical questions in as precise and accurate a manner as possible, just to piss off the questioner."

Despite her situation, Anko snorted through her broken nose. This led to a bout of hacking and a fresh blood smear on the floorboards.

"There is a reason for all this, Anko-chan."

"I'm all ea's, ya bastid." She gave him the finger for good measure.

"You almost killed my godson."

She shivered as the room temperature plummeted, the pressure upon her battered body squeezing her against the floor. 'Be softer, dammit!' "No, deh is no way...dis is a mishtake, honest!"

"Anko, I want you to listen very carefully. You know that he always had time for practical jokes. Now then, do you think it beneath Orochimaru to place a trap, like say a seal to siphon chakra linked to another seal activated by that chakra, all in lemon juice and beneath unrelated scroll contents? Most people, when reading in low light conditions, will hold a scroll before a flame, using it as a backlight. Now, what does that do to 'invisible ink'?"

Her eyes grew wide as she shook her head violently. "No...no way." A distant memory bloomed of a grinning Orochimaru regaling her with stories of his past missions.

"Oh yes, I can see you understand now. Another question then. How likely do you think it that such might very well be on a scroll penned in his own hand, hrm? While it is true that Naruto can't read in the normal fashion, I do know that Orochimaru had a penchant for wide-area jutsus. He would always remark that they were more...efficient."

His eyes never left her own, though hers were beginning to flutter as the repeated mental shocks filtered through her defenses.

"I thought him gone to me once. Was told and believed Naruto dead, and will never abide something so...so insipid to steal him from me again!" Blearily, she saw several chibis clutching Jiraiya's leg. His right hand rested on their heads of spun gold.

"Is Anko-nee okay? She sounds...off and hurt."

"She'll be fine, Naruto. This here is a Life Lesson, an important one, which she needs to learn. You understand about Life Lessons, yes?"

"Hai, I do." She muzzily saw him focus on her. "I am sorry for your pain. Please forgive Uncle for this hard lesson." He then bowed at the waist, and Anko, for the first time since her betrayal, bawled.

"Pwease...I'm so sowwy! I din mean...I'm sowwy!" She found herself swooped up in strong paternal arms, despite the bloody snot she just knew was leaking from her busted nose. A thick leathery hand was gently pulled through her matted hair.

"Shh...it'll be okay, Anko-chan. Funny though, I found you in just about the same condition. Do you remember that?"

She nodded against his shoulder and clung to Jiraiya will all her might. She felt a small hand grip her dangling ankle. There was no exaggeration; by giving an untested scroll as a gift, from Orochimaru's own hand, could have killed so many, herself included. She could have killed the closest person to a father she had ever known. "Tou-sama, I'm...I'm very," she whispered into his shoulder

"Hibari-san, fix her up. Ikiri-san, some dango and Earth Country sake, if you would." He had spoken over her to mask her words, though the extra squeeze said what words could not. Among men, for many things, words were merely complications.

After she was untangled and deposited, Jiraiya came back to the loading bay and spat out a gout of mud. The clone which formed was meticulous in absorbing and cleaning the various fluids and patches of skin, even on the distant ceiling. Ikiri could only shake his head and mutter 'Ninjas' when he passed through a pristine cargo bay some five minutes later.

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"Read it." Jiraiya had already deemed the scroll safe, but felt the need to hammer home the lesson.

"But...this could really kill me...you said so yourself!"

"Anko-chan, though I consider you a beloved niece, Naruto's my godson. Frankly, he outranks you, so read the damn scroll!"

Anko wanted to rebel again, but the memory of her recent Lesson, not to mention the cause of her anguish hand-feeding her dango as he brushed out her freshly-washed hair, gave her pause. "But...what you said..."

"Could all be true, yes. Or not. You, of all people, should know just how mercurial he could be."

Gulping, and praying to any deity who might be listening, Anko raised the scroll which she believed would be helpful to the candle, read through the backlit rice paper and didn't die. Then she was forced, by very stern look from three angles, to perform the technique in the case that Orochimaru had hidden something in the instructions.

Though Jiraiya knew the Shadow Clone technique, he preferred to keep an open mind to the possibility that any and every technique could be improved upon. Quite besides that, Anko had brought one of Orochimaru's personally written scrolls for the express purpose of teaching Naruto 'something useful.'

To her credit, despite the emotional and physical rollercoaster some ten minutes prior, Anko managed to produce three Kage Bunshins before she succumbed to chakra exhaustion.

Jiraiya paused for a moment, then spoke to said godson. "She made three clones. Think you can do better?"

He had been there during Naruto's multiple exercises in chakra accession. Only the first had given him concern, when Ayame, who was present, had rushed into the containment array to give comfort to a frightened Naruto. The Kyuubi had awoken, albeit briefly, and from Naruto's own report had asked about the darkness, before concluding that 'it must be time for sleep.' In his personal opinion, Hibari-san had done a bang-up job in healing Ayame-chan of her chakra burns.

An hour later, given extra readings of the now-deemed safe instructions, Naruto managed to produce twenty clones, their bodies filling the small treatment room. It was an awakened Anko who broke the horrified silence, as several of them were a bit too close, as in pressed up against the edge of her bed.

"Um...Naruto-chan? Um...they're...they're naked...could you, yanno, give them clothes or something?"

They were not, in fact, naked. They just lacked skin, the translucent membranes stretched over glistening red muscle, with off-white cartilage found in stark contrast. Though on a second glance, the bodies seemed to be more like clay and paper.

Naruto had no inkling as towards how he looked. He had, however, absorbed Hibari-sensei's lessons in all their imagined graphicness and had found definitions for certain colors, along with the medium of which he was most familiar.

He blushed darkly, stammered an apology, and robed them in shadow, quite literally. He reasoned that Shadow Clones must be made of shadows, which he understood to be cool, dark and corner lurkers. The shadows, which did indeed exist in the corners, shifted and flowed, the clones' surface resembling a glass of water into which a prepped inkstone had been dumped.

In truth, the look more resembled some sort of parasite scrabbling pell-mell over the endodermic membrane, as the shadow-fill was not uniform in the least. In the end, not even was there a stalk of yellow hair: every clone was the shade of his eyes. Perhaps in the entire history of that particular technique it was made manifest in the most literal fashion. Naruto's clones were of pitch and made no sound, since shadows are silent things in Naruto's experience.

As Hayate-sensei had once, and rather often since, said, Naruto was was singular and alone. Though it was true that he had connections and bonds, there was always some un-named aspect missing. Now though, now he could actually feel where his clones were, a new experience altogether. Lacking sight, reliance had always been on the other senses to determine placement. Now, he could actually feel where his clones were in relation to himself.

He didn't have to think about it or anything. On his little mental map, there bloomed points which he knew to be his clones. Granted, his internal map was rather full at the moment, as the clones packed the room, but the suspicion had taken root that he would always be able to 'see' where his clones were. He really couldn't find them by other means, as they seemed to be rather quiet in their movement sounds and had no discernable scent.

Since he had reasoned this from the clones Hayate-sensei would make for his lessons, he assumed such to be true for this new skill. When it comes to jutsus, intent trumps expediture. Had Naruto believed shadow clones to be corporeal beings, things might have been a smidge different with a heavy scent of iron and a tacky touch.

Despite Hibari's ministrations, Anko's body was still sore on the muscular level. One of Naruto's first implementations of his new talent, once the room had been cleared a bit, was to massage away her pain from six different points, all at the same time.

In this particular case, the ends did indeed justify the means, and though she got roughed up quite a bit, the massage she received more than made up for the cost. She might've been tempted to try another scroll had not Jiraiya nipped that in the bud.

"I would strongly advise you to either turn over all contents to Hokage-sama, or burn the lot in secret, musume-chan. There's no telling what surprises are hidden among innocuous scrolls." That much he had whispered in her ear, as it was meant for her and her alone.

She knew him to be right, the knowledge that she could have killed not just Naruto, but everyone within this sector of the village leaving a twisting feeling in her gut. Given her sensei's 'penchant for play,' destruction was the safest option. However, that was a concern for later, as the present contained at least one Naruto on each limb, one on either shoulder, and one on her scalp. She was going to milk this moment as long as humanly possible.

It was said that certain clones gained their creator's experiences and skills. Anko could personally vouch for this, as every Naruto, be he shadow or real, was very good with their hands. As well, the flushed skin was good at hiding her heavy blush from what Jiraiya had called her.

Chapter Text

Every technique, skill, or talent has a price. Often, this is time investiture or a portion of the user's life energy. Other times, there might be a material component such as ink or parchment. For Naruto, the cost of the Kage Bunshin was his spatial awareness.

He could still feel them in his head, even when the technique was unused, and found himself reaching for surfaces which were not directly under his fingers, but a dispelled clone's. In short, he wasn't exactly aware of where everything was in relation to himself anymore.

It was Jiraiya who was with him currently, though all the staff were up despite the early hour. They had grown accustomed to the soft pat-pat of Naruto's feet as he cleaned the hallways each morning before leaving for his Kenjutsu training. It was soothing and predictable.

This particular morning had Naruto veering off course, crashing into banisters and smacking himself into poles and doorframes. The staff had rushed out expecting criminals, only to find a suddenly-clumsy boy. In time, Naruto would look back on this and laugh; at the moment though, it presented a most vexing setback. Most considered it dumb luck that the boy hadn't gone through a wall, or off a landing.

"Get it out of your system yet, or do you need more time to compose yourself?"

Naruto wearily nodded, brusquely pulling his wide sleeve across his face one last time. The reality of the situation brought home just how fragile his world actually was, coupled with the high frustration of all that hard work washed away in a single moment.

The jubilation of being connected, of actually feeling that connection for the very first time...was that really yesterday? There were lectures and learning, warnings of just how deadly this technique could be.

Naruto found himself not winded from the creation of so many clones, but from the overwhelming feeling of not being alone. Yes, he was surrounded by love and care, but there had always been something missing, something he didn't even know wasn't there until those clones came into being.

He could see them, his clones. Perhaps not physically, but as lights in his mind where they were in relation to him. They were lights in a world of darkness. The illumination had left him breathless.

Now he questioned the cost. That said, if this feeling of connections, of physical memories in his head was normal, then perhaps the loss was worth it.

"Thank you for your care, Sensei." Jiraiya nodded as Naruto showed his respects, before his right eyebrow quirked upwards.

"And this? What exactly are you doing?"

"Well...back to basics, Sensei. This is the duckwalk."

"Ah, now that's using your noggin. Besides, it's not quite as bleak as it seems. It's not like you've forgotten how to walk, just that your perceptions have shifted a bit. There's more to come, you know."

Naruto paused, getting back into the walking squat position after having tipped over to the side. "There's more?"

"Oh yes. You should know this from Hibari-sensei. You won't always be this height, Naruto. In years to come, your body will grow. Now, what do you think that will do to your center of gravity?"

Naruto paled, perhaps the first child ever to actually dread getting taller.

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For Jiraiya, the following week was painful to watch as he helped his godson relearn so many things. He didn't even have the heart to rearrange the furniture, as was his wont when he normally would visit.

This was also the longest he had stayed. Usually, he would pop in during the afternoon, shortly after Naruto's return from the training field, and stay through the evening. Often, he would sit in on Naruto's lessons. Come morning, he would be gone again.

'Perhaps I should have left out when I could've...no, no...I made this mess.'

And mess it was. During this time, there was no Kenjutsu, no massage appointments, just the painful task of retraining the brain's perception of what the body already knew. In the history of the technique, this had never before been an issue.

Though there had been shinobi who knew the Kage Bunshin who subsequently went blind, they didn't often use it post-injury. Though they knew what they looked like from years of observation, once blind, they often couldn't control a clone's expression.

Saying you are just fine while your clone is sporting a scowl is bound to send a mixed message.

Nobody ever thought to teach a blind person the technique before, considering it not just a waste of time, but also a not-so-subtle cruelty.

Jiraiya didn't hate Naruto, not in the least, and was only cruel in the 'rearrange furniture for snickers and pseudo-training' sense. If asked, not that he was, he would have been hard pressed to defend his rationale for having Naruto taught this skill.

To his relief and consternation, since he did want to explain himself, the staff didn't press the issue and never mentioned it. They were polite and civil, and very, very cold. They were downright angry at him, but didn't let that get in the way of their professionalism.

Though there had been other people present during the whole ordeal, one was a teen, another the in-house physician and the last was their boss. Jiraiya had been the most senior shinobi present and Naruto's godfather. So despite Ikiri-sama being the de facto guardian and mentor, Jiraiya-sama still outranked him, especially when it came to shinobi-only things being taught.

As for the boy himself, Jiraiya really didn't know what to think. This being his longest exposure to the child, he was able to get a very good sense of his personal interactions. He came to several conclusions.

One, Naruto never smiled. Oh, he was respectful, friendly even, but he never smiled. Jiraiya had even asked that Ayame girl, which almost brought the budding teen to tears. Naruto used to smile just for her and their meals together, but not since the Incident. He had become more serious and driven.

That's not to say the boy didn't smile; he did. But he didn't smile. The ones he used were practiced, an exercise in facial muscle control, just another tool used to put his clients at ease.

Secondly, despite all the crap in the boy's past, including the cruel conditioning, he was gracious. Before this whole mess complicated his relationship with the staff, he had wiggled a story out of Bunta.

It would seem that a farrier, not long after Naruto began his rounds in town, decided to have a bit of fun with the kid and tossed him out on his ear after paying him with a lead coin. It was little more than a roundish piece of slag. The shiner under the boy's eye came from the discussion about false coinage, and the man's umbrage at having his character called into question.

Naruto had left the scene only to return with ten men, which including Ikiri. They actually had to drag the man out by his hair once the reality settled in of what he had done. He didn't take the claim of Naruto being blind seriously, nor the authenticity of his Atma license, at least up until Ikiri showed up.

It was what followed which confused Jiraiya. The boy, just as he had done for Daishi, interceded on his behalf. Though Naruto agreed the man should be punished, he did not think such should ruin his industry, as the loss of a hand would, both in skill and reputation. That's not to say Naruto did not have terms. To Jiraiya, the loss of a hand might have been preferable.

As Naruto's Master, Ikiri would have been well within his rights to exact justice right then and there, and means were at hand to remove one of the farrier's.

So not only was a sign hung around the man's neck so the public would know, and not only was he beaten to unconsciousness, but he was then roused and forced to travel to Takada's compound. In his physical state, the best he could manage was a crawl, escorted by Ikiri's crew in case he passed out again. It was not a short trip, nor were the streets empty.

At Takada's, there was a confession. Bunta had done a passable imitation of Takada's voice during the retelling.

"Ho! What is this?" Bunta had coughed into his fist, not being as prepared as presumed in impersonating Takada's gravely voice. "What is this you drag before me?"

"Takada-sama," Ikiri had started as the group bowed in respect as one, "Taro-san has something to say."

Taro had fallen to the floor in supplication. "Takada-sama, I have given the blind false coins. Please, show mercy!"

"Eh? You did such a thing?" His eyes slid over to Naruto. "Hrm, I fail to see what the problem is. Daishi, cut off his right hand."

"Takada-sama! Can I ask..." Bunta had coughed again, as the transition from gruff Takada to Naruto's youthful tenor had placed a strain on his throat. "Can I ask of you a favor?"

"Let me guess...he has a child you don't want to see be an orphan, yes?"

Naruto had blinked his unseeing eyes, before shifting them over to Taro. Though he could not see him, the stink of fear and the too-rapid heartbeat were easy enough to locate.

"I, I have none, Takada-sama." Taro had clenched and released his undamaged hands. Though his face and body had been beaten roughly, Ikiri's group had left his hands alone.

"See? There is none to suffer your childhood." He paused, shifting his considerable gaze to Ikiri. "I trust Ikiri-san has been good to you?"

"He has been very good to me, Takada-sama. This one thanks you for asking."

Takada had nodded, pleased by the answer. "Ikiri-san, since you are here, when ready, bring by your building plans. As agreed, this will be a gift of me. As for you, Naruichi-kun," with Takada using Naruto's alias, given the present company, "why should I show leniency? The law is very clear here."

"I...I do not think he thought me as blind, or that I was entitled to the license on my back due to my age. I guess I moved too easily around his shop for one who shouldn't see."

Takada had nodded sagely. "This could be true. Were I not more aware, I might have had doubts as well. Well, what say you to this? Somebody wake him up!"

Taro had been roused from his pain-induced torpor, none too kindly.

"You! On your feet! You dare to slumber as your fate is discussed? Where is your shame?!" Takada had grunted in displeasure. "You are naught but a washer-woman, meek and fumbling. Where is your pride?! Ugh..the very sight of you...as a man, I am embarrassed to even be in the same room with one such as you.

"Taro-chan, you should at least have enough sense to fall on your blade. Maybe then, looking at you wouldn't hurt so much." He saw Naruto's face drawn in a deep frown. "Well, what would you do in my place, Naruichi-kun? If nothing is done, others might get bold and bring further harm."

Naruto had paused, taking the rhetorical question literally. "If he lost his hand, then he would lose his livelihood. Who would learn his lesson if he wasn't around to teach it?"

Naruto shook his head. "No, a teacher should be able and allowed to teach. How about if he shoes animals for free around town as a penance, for a month, while wearing a sign or something stating what he did, or phrased in a way to draw questions?"

There was a heavy pause before Takada slapped his hand on his desk with a bark of laughter. "Ha! This is why I like you: you've got guts! Look you, Taro-chan!" A thick finger pointed at Naruto. "Guts!" It shifted to Taro. "Washer-woman! Be more like my subordinate over there!" he continued, indicating Naruto with his thumb.

"You still have your journeyman pack?" Takada got a shaky nod. "Good. That shall be your forge for a month."

Jiraiya had, actually, seen the man during that first month, wearing a sign which read 'By the mercy of the blind.' as he plied his trade from the rack on his back. Though known by the staff and a good number of shinobi, it was through Taro that so many civilians learned of Naruichi, the young blind masseur. It was a lesson well taught.

The boy wasn't always so magnanimous, however, for not a week after that incident, Takada's prediction of another getting bolder came to pass. In that instance, Naruto was given a wax slug from a tallow-man. That shop was more of a clearinghouse for waxes and resins from plant and animal sources, being one of the favorite sites for candle makers, perfumers and scribes.

Being within the same district as Taro's forge, there was no excuse for the tallow-man not knowing of Naruto. One of Jiraiya's contacts located the man two weeks later, in a small village some forty miles northeast of Konoha. The man claimed he lost his right hand in a bandit attack, and had been reduced to begging as not many held any faith in his ever-changing story.

Jiraiya had made certain of this.

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In the aftermath of having taught Naruto the Shadow Clone technique, Jiraiya once ventured to the upper floors of the former Twisted Knicker. He knew that Naruto was in a session with Ikiri's Geishas, but there was important stuff to teach to the squib.

Resolute, and full of purpose, Jiraiya strode up to their door and, despite his nature, knocked. It was Sorrow who answered, her eyes narrowing as she spied the Toad Sage.

Naruto, due to the issues with spatial awareness, was unable to play the shamisen. Despite formerly having excellent hands and finger placement, today he was off key, and had told her why when questioned.

So instead of music lessons, Naruto had been given to Love for the lesson on Disrobing the Client, using a Geisha as the benchmark. Both Love and Sorrow knew just how many layers they wore when in full ensemble, and Naruto had to undress and redress each one so that all fabrics hung properly.

To Jiraiya's visage bloomed Love's back, nape, and just a hint of side boob. Of minor note was Naruto balancing on a step-stool rather precariously, given that he couldn't distinguish axial directions. Right before he tottered off the side in a heap of limbs, Sorrow moved into his view.

"Jiraiya-sama, is there something you wished to see?" Her eyes were averted, dark and untamed hair swishing against her cheek.

The Sage's jaw went slack, even has his face reddened, for this was his critical weakness.

"So strong and silent," she purred, her hair parting to show the pale nape of her neck. Sorrow could feel his heartbeat quicken. Her face became stormy in an instant. "Then be silent!"

The doorway slammed closed on its tracks, and the stunned Jiraiya could hear both the seals slapping against the doorframe and Sorrow's heavy breathing. She was very angry.

He could have pushed through the ofuda, had he wanted. When all was said and done, there was very little in this world which could prevent Jiraiya from doing as he pleased. One thing which could still him was his critical weakness: Geisha.

He was a product of six-year-old, graduated early, and formed into teams during wartime shinobi. Most of his compatriots would not see their next birthday, and not always from direct combat. The mind is a delicate thing, and can break. Their Jounin-sensei, Sarutobi, had taken them on a C-rank mission to the capital, after several engagements, the ranking purely from it being outside the village. It was essentially two weeks of rest, relaxation, and rehabilitation.

It had been then when the ever curious Jiraiya, already with the mindset of creating his own intelligence web, discovered the Geisha Quarter. It was directly opposite the Blind Man's Guild, which was his original pursuit.

However, once he spied those porcelain beauties practicing their dances, he was entranced, leading up to his being brought up on charges for spying upon the Maiko named Harujin Tsubaki, who would in time become the Grand Dowager.

Tsunade, his own teammate during this time, would not remember that his marked interest in her did not begin when her bosom began to expand, but when she would paint her face and impersonate a Geisha for a mission.

Even to this day, there was a standing Arrest on Sight should Jiraiya come into contact with the Grand Dowager, so great was her anger. She was his first love, unrequited at age seven, though she was a decade older.

Having Ai and Ai angry at him was the first time this had happened since Tsubaki, as he had always been careful around them since then, so great was his respect and admiration. To have his weakness not only show a face of anger, but to restrain a door against his entry...something broke within the gallant Sage.

He had stood there for some time, staring blankly at the paper door. It was Ikiri who came for him, once reports were received that Jiraiya-sama's expression of chakra was worrying patrons. The Sage was hugged, which broke him from his torpor, and led away towards a good smoke, and even better sake, hand-served by his most nubile of workers.

Jiraiya, despite his own failings, was a hero of Konoha, not to mention Naruto's godfather. This single gesture, above all others, would cement Ikiri, a crippled civilian who ran a brothel, as one of Jiraiya's closest confidants.

In the weeks to come, Ikiri would have to ask Jiraiya to focus on other things, since the influx of flowers and gifts to Ai and Ai, as his own form of apology for upsetting them, was cramping not only their workspace, but also their living quarters.

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A lone figure quietly stalked through a rubbish filled alleyway, pausing when he reached a small access gate set into a six-foot wall. A frown grew upon his features.

'So this is where it all began.'

With that, he slipped past the gate and moved through the compound. No caretaker nor child saw his passage, for he did not wish to be seen.

Though seeming recalcitrant, the reports he was given by his erstwhile student were indeed read. It was not within his character to act rashly, in most instances. His usual way was to ponder and verify, all while hoping that things would resolve themselves without his intervention.

He watched with interest as a group of thirty children performed synchronized calisthenics, never once looking at the adult on a low podium. Their young voices seemed dull and monotone as they called out each repetition.

With quiet dignity, he paced through their ranks before moving behind their instructor. He recognized her, having spoken to the class she was in many years ago.

"Chuuza-chan, how is their training?"

With a yelp of surprise, Chuuza whirled into a combat stance before her eyes registered the Hat and Robes of State.

"Ho..Hokage-sama! This...this is a surprise!"

There was a fair bit of muttering from the group of children, something which pleased Sarutobi if what was happening here was correct.

Sarutobi smiled indulgently. "Is there a problem, little one?"

After a brief huddle, one of the children raised her hand. Getting a nod from the old man, and a panicked glance from her instructor, she introduced herself.

"My name is Seiki, oji-san, and I'm going on seven, and you look nothing like Hokage-sama. Even we know that is a crime."

Though he didn't let his frown show, her toneless delivery worried him. It lacked inflection. Her accusation worried him a bit more than that.

At his side, Chuuza flickered through a few one-handed signs, which Sarutobi did not miss. No jutsu, but hand-code, giving her charges instructions. He made a mental note to include silent communication in the upcoming Academy curriculum.

"This is indeed Hokage-sama," she stated for their benefit, before turning to address Sarutobi fully in a very low bow, her hands pressed to the platform. "My apologies, Hokage-sama. We know your schedule to be busy, so we thought it best to have an impersonator dress as you so that the children would recognize their Hokage by his clothing."

"As a training aid?"

"It is as you say, Hokage-sama." She still hadn't risen from her position. "We meant no disrespect."

"Of that I am sure. Now then, I know this isn't all of them. You will fetch the other children, no matter where they are, and return them here. You will not alert any other worker to my presence."

"But.."

"You will not. That should be plain enough for you." He paused, then pointed at the ground to the side. At the gesture, a figure rose from the soil. "My clone will accompany you. Do not fail me in this, Chuuza-chan."

The earth clone, wearing a standard ROOT uniform and blank facemask, moved to the side and gestured for her to join him. Sarutobi had already given it instructions to drop Danzou's name if ever questioned as well as insubordination measures.

Casting his gaze once more across the awed, confused and so very young faces, Sarutobi knew he had his work cut out for him in igniting the Will of Fire within them. It was also time to correct a long-standing issue.

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Danzou sat within his private study, some fifteen meters beneath the Forest of Death, and was secretly pleased with the foresight of having this location. Though ROOT did have facilities within Konoha proper, those were in the process of being cleared and sealed by his soldiers.

Word had come down of a large number of the Traitor's bolt-holes and storage rooms, not to mention derelict labs, being discovered and raided. Sadly, the message had come too late for his troops to get there first, and all the agents who could've easily infiltrated the survey groups were all accounted for.

They had not been selected, not a single one, for any team. This alone was disconcerting. The activity though was enough to warrant a relocation to the current facilities. A discrete marker on his desk glowed briefly.

"Enter," he rasped out. How he missed the rough and gravely voice of his youth. Back then, he never thought of what it might cost. The shouting matches with old teammates didn't help either.

A track door slid open, housed within stone, and Bird entered, bowing low.

"Why have you interrupted my thoughts?"

"This one begs your pardon, Danzou-sama. A message marked 'Urgent' arrived for you via Postal Nin."

"You may approach."

Bird did so, placing the small parcel within reach before stepping back five paces and kneeling.

One thing of interest was on the parcel, a seal keyed for Danzou himself using ciphers from when he was a child. Sarutobi was the only member left of that youthful cabal.

Ignoring it for now, he opened the parcel, knowing the Nins and his own ROOT would have checked for traps. Inside was a folded piece of brown wrapping paper and a length of twine. He cast his visible eye and hidden one at the seal, then activated it.

The only thing within was a single sheet of paper and some honeysuckle throat lozenges. The latter made Danzou scowl, but he still unwrapped the wax paper of one and placed it under his tongue.

Sarutobi always was one to 'kill others with kindness.' The more upset he became, the nicer his actions. That is, unless he was truly angry. Sarutobi never wasted niceties on the dead.

Danzou, I know you tend to like damp and stony places, so I thought to send some good medicine to help your throat.

At this, Danzou nearly swallowed his lozenge. 'It can't be...he knows?'

You know how I enjoy walking the village streets, meeting those we shelter from the horrors of war. Imagine my surprise when my meandering steps took me to a certain orphanage. Since I was there, I decided to make a surprise inspection.

I think it safe to say there were many surprises.

Danzou's frown grew even deeper, quite aside from the frown lines stemming from the loss of the Vessel. One day It was in that orphanage, and the next day It was gone, completely off the map.

The only things he had been able to glean was that Jiraiya had invoked his rights as Godfather and had taken the Vessel, leaving It in the care of parties outside of Konoha. To date, there had been no leads on where Konoha's Weapon was housed.

Even agents on the streets and market hubs fared no better. The public view was even more confounding. Though the name of Uzumaki Naruto was known, often followed with spitting, nobody could remember It ever being seen.

It had been at the orphanage, and then elsewhere, and so long as It wasn't around here, that was good enough for the general populace. Danzou hadn't had such an intelligence lapse in...well, since that unfortunate business in Rain which cost him his right arm and eye.

He shook himself from his thoughts and went back to the letter, a ball of dread forming in his gut.

It has come to my attention, though the bluntness of youth, that one of the Official Clothing of State was missing. Being curious, I ordered an inventory, and was not pleased at all to find the accusation correct. It is here where I ask of you a favor, old friend.

I will gladly admit that your sources and contacts are vastly larger than my own. As a personal favor, and a favor to our beloved Village, could you use them to cast a wide net to see if the missing Clothing of State is still within our walls?

Danzou's left eye flickered to his closet door, and then down to the wrapping paper and twine. The eye widened.

'He not only knows, but he's giving me a way out. He must be more upset about the Robe and Hat than I thought. And here I was merely performing a public service...but he's being too nice.'

During and after the interviews with the orphans and their caretakers, your name came up quite often, laced heavily with words of praise. Indeed, credit must go to you for the creation of a training regime for the orphans, though I do quibble at some of the methodology.

That all said, a vacancy has come to my attention, and I could think of no one more well suited for such a leadership role. Though I prefer to leave the retired alone, this is a special commission. Congratulations are in order then, Shinobi Academy Headmaster.

This time, Danzou did indeed swallow his lozenge.

His eyes, wide with shock, read the last few lines.

Hoping this finds you in good health, Sarutobi Hizuren, Sandaime Hokage.

P. S. Thank you also for the communicator gift. Our research teams are even now replicating the design, and what fortuitous timing. Now I can cancel the diplomatic envoy which was slated to leave for Snow Country later this week to negotiate the purchasing of this very item.

You have saved our Village a substantial sum of money. I will be sure to add your donation to your permanent record.

The lozenge was inhaled, and only the quick thinking of a waiting Bird saved Danzou from an inconvenient death. Though displeased with being man-handled, a reward was still due.

"You have my thanks. As a reward, you may have personal free-time from now until midnight tomorrow. You are dismissed."

Bird bowed low at his master's side, rather surprised that he had not been executed for laying hands upon Danzou-sama. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, he bowed his exit and left Danzou to his troubled thoughts.

After a short span, taking to time to unwrap another lozenge as they did soothe his throat when he wasn't choking on them, Danzou stood and made his way to his office closet, opening the door and removing the Robe and Hat of State.

As he carefully folded and wrapped the garments, his mind churned through facts. Sarutobi knew he was in stone and dampness. Konoha proper, even basements, were relatively dry, despite the high water table.

None of his agents were selected for the raids upon Orochimaru's old holdings. This had to mean they were compromised.

Sarutobi had the communicator which Danzou issued to all of his field agents, stating that Konoha was already reproducing them. 'That must be how he found my agents.'

Added to this was the rather upsetting news that Danzou was selected as Headmaster. He knew that the Headmaster reported to Yamanaka Inoichi and did not have a seat in the council chambers. Danzou, who never really had any business there to begin with, was now banned, for all intents and purposes.

As he thought about it all, his visible and hidden hand absently finishing off the knots, he could see some good of this. Of late, the graduating genin were becoming less and less effective, taught more about history and philosophy than shinobi tactics and skills.

Most of them, even from clans, could not tree-hop, much less Tree Walk. Where they stepped, grass was bent.

Gradually, Danzou's frown lessened. The old Monkey had just handed him the means to show Sarutobi the superiority of ROOT training, which Danzou had himself formulated.

What Danzou did not realize, indeed was never informed, was that his vision of training and the realities of what his handful of hand-picked officers taught were vastly different things. His trainers taught his cadets what they thought Danzou wanted, instead of what was actually outlined in Danzou's training program.

Danzou never had a genin team of his own, and never taught any of the ROOT cadets. That task he had delegated to Jounin-sensies who had signed onto his dream of Konoha and all the Elemental Nations.

Now he would be delegating the same authority to chuunin instructors, deeply steeped in Senju nonsense. Still, Danzou was never one to turn away from a challenge, especially one issued by his only true rival.

Chapter Text

During Naruto's ninth year, several events changed his world for better, for worse and a mixing of the two. The first of these involved the Hyuuga Clan.

Though not on his path from the training ground Hayate used and home, the name of Naruichi, the blind masseur, had spread quite beyond his standard client list. This was aided by Thighs and Sighs, the re-christened Twisted Knicker, being one of the main places for businessmen and men of means to rub elbows.

As it were, Naruichi's name was passed along with high praise, ultimately being overheard by Hyuuga Neji, as he skulked about the Main House of his clan, all the while deeply embittered about his place as a slave. This was despite the fact that he never associated with the rest of the Branch House, staying exclusively in the Main's lavish quarters.

Learning the typical location of Naruichi only took a few questions, though the greatest shock was the boy's apparent age. Once the knowledge was in hand, however, it wasn't long before a wicked smirk appeared on his face.

'How would it look for the sweet little princess to be manhandled by a common tradesman, in front of the rest of the Clan no less? A masseur is barely a step above beggar. I'll have to wait until Uncle,' he sneered in his mind, 'is busy with Clan affairs to make my move.'

A few weeks after Neji's discovery of the boy masseur, an appointment was made and approved, and Naruto was escorted to the Hyuuga grounds, led by his walking stick. Due to Neji's inexperience in the world, the appointment and receipt were both made in his name. In his defense, he was ten.

Naruto knocked on the screen rail, then slid the panel open with his head lowered. "Please excuse me, I am to see to Hyuuga-sama."

Hinata's primary servant stared for a moment. "Hyuuga-dono is busy at the moment...are you lost, little one?"

Naruto paused, then pulled the receipt from his sleeve. "My apologies, but I was informed Hyuuga Hinata-sama was within. My skills in massage were requested specifically for her, but if this is the wrong room, I'll need better directions, if you would be willing."

Hiasa moved towards the kneeling boy, noting the license on his back, and plucked the paper from his hand. A glance told her all she needed, and she placed it back firmly on his open palm.

"Though not notified of this appointment, this appears valid. You may begin your work, Atma-san. I shall bear witness, and will report completion of the task to Hyuuga-dono." She knew Neji to be Hiashi's personal servant, so assumed that the receipt originated with the Clan Head.

She knelt down and whispered to him, "Hinata-sama is...she's a mild person, easily startled, so it's best if you take charge of the situation if she hesitates with instruction."

Having said her part, she settled back against the wall and resumed her knitting, noting with approval when Naruto moved in a proper low position, as Hinata was seated.

"Hyuuga-sama, I will need you to lay on your stomach. Being told you have back issues, let's start there."

"A-ano.."

"I am Naruichi, at your service."

Hinata stared gobsmacked at the boy kneeling before her. He was a licensed tradesman of some repute if Father requested him, but barely looked older than herself.

"Hyuuga-sama?"

"Ah! Ah, y-yes. L-l-like th-this?"

"Servant-san..."

"Hiasa-san, Atma-san."

"Thank you for that, Hiasa-san. I am Naruichi. Um, could you be my eyes? I would not like to make any mistakes with one so highly placed."

"You are...blind, Naruichi-san?" Though he was a male child, the license on his back made him a professional as far as terms of address.

"Since birth, Hiasa-san." He could hear the intakes of breath and the rustling of movement sounds. "Given Hyuuga-sama's placement though, I really do not want any mistakes. Such could damage my master's reputation."

She moved to sit alongside him. "I understand completely, and thank you for such consideration. Hinata-sama, on your stomach please."

Hinata jolted out of her rather blatant observation of Naruto's black eyes. All the ones she had seen were variants of white. 'White eyes are All-Seeing, but his black ones are blind. He lacks the White.'

"She is in the requested position, Naruichi-san."

"My thanks, Hiasa-san." Naruto moved his hands forward until they touched the girl's side, feeling the flinch and choosing to ignore it. He was no stranger when it came to avoidance of touch. "May I call Hyuuga-sama Hinata-sama?"

The girl timidly nodded, the sensation of gentle hands upon her being an odd experience, not one well known.

"She agrees with the change of address, Naruichi-san."

"Thank you again, Hiasa-san. Hinata-sama, I was told you have back issues, so we shall start there, okay? I'm just going to trace your spine with mild probing."

As he spoke, his hands moved over the back of her kimono. Though he had learned from his Geisha instructors on the proper way to robe and disrobe fully clothed men and women, he did not feel this was the proper place to exhibit those skills.

He frowned at what his fingers were telling him, something quickly noted by Hiasa, who was alternated between watching Hinata, his hands and his face.

"Is there a..."

"Her back is crooked, twisted," Naruto stated with a hint of anger. He could tell this was a young girl, and to feel such a deformity, when nothing suggested she was born with it, upset him. It reminded him of the Orphanage.

There was a gasp beneath his hands and a flinch he could not ignore as the girl in question tried to curl into a ball.

"Hey...hey, hey, what's, what's wrong? I'm not angry at you, if that's what you're thinking..."

"Gom..gom..." she hiccupped.

"Hey, it's alright, it's alright," stated Naruto softly and his left hand made slow circles on her upper back. "It'll be okay, and I think I can fix this, maybe."

"Ng?"

"She asks, 'Really?'."

"Really, but I won't lie, it will probably be rather painful, but the pain will be temporary when compared to a lifetime of discomfort."

"Gh."

"She gives her assent. Have you...have you done this before, Naruichi-san?"

"A few times, being trained on how to do this by my master's personal physician. It will look rough, I'll admit, but I ask you to not interfere. Give encouragement to Hinata-sama instead. And Hinata-sama, I'll need you to stretch out on your stomach again."

With the knowledge of pain on the horizon, her movements were sluggish.

"Hiasa-san, take her shoulders please." Waiting for the affirmation, Naruto scooted to Hinata's feet, gripped both firmly, and pulled the girl taut.

A muffled shriek of pain came from the girl as portions of her spine were forced back into alignment from the sudden move.

"Bear with it, Hinata-sama...we're almost done." He looked up in the direction he could hear Hiasa breathing and spoke for her benefit. "Lend her your strength."

In a crouched squat, he straddled Hinata's legs, reached down to her waist, and pulled upwards. He gave two firm shakes to either side, then dropped his load.

"Naruichi-san! Must you be so rough?!"

"Hiasa-san, trust in me and the license on my back. This is necessary, and I take no joy from it."

Naruto reached and traced the line of her spine, before repeating the lift, shake and drop. Hinata was openly weeping at this point.

It was when he had hefted her hips for the fourth time, along with a second foot pull, that strong voices were heard from outside the room.

"Neji! Why are you here instead of the dojo? What were you up to, hovering around this door?" The screen slid back with a bang, and Hyuuga Hiashi walked in on an awkward scene, the space behind him becoming crowded with onlookers.

There was his eldest daughter, with her servant holding her shoulders down, while an unknown boy had her hips hoisted in the air as he stood over her legs. Hiashi was strongly reminded of dogs, and didn't like that at all.

"What do you think you are doing?" barked the angered man.

Naruto gently set Hinata's hips down and moved away from her, settling in a seiza position. He bowed to the floor, and pulled the receipt back out of his sleeve. "I was performing a service as requested, Hyuuga-dono."

"Neji!" Hiashi gripped the boy from the back of his robe and shoved him towards the recumbent Naruto.

Neji staggered forward and snatched the paper from Naruto's hand, paling when he saw what was written.

"Neji? Neji! Hand that over this instant!" Hiashi had noticed his nephew attempting to destroy the paper and strode over, gripping the Neji's hands in his left and the boy's robed back with his right.

His narrowed eyes made quick work of the receipt and he scowled mightily. Off to the side, Neji was shaken with each displeased remark, feet inches from the floor.

"Your back says you do massage, but that wasn't massage. What was the meaning of treating my eldest child like a sack of rice?" When he didn't get an immediate response, and glared down at the boy. "I'm waiting, boy."

"Hyuuga-dono did not grant this one permission to speak, Hyuuga-dono."

Despite the situation, Hiashi found himself slightly mollified by this admission. "You may speak, boy." He glanced down at the receipt. "Naruichi, is it?"

"Hai, Hyuuga-dono. I was straightening your daughter's back, before I did the massage."

"And who are you to decide that, boy?"

"It was requested, Hyuuga-dono."

Hiashi frowned down at the receipt again and found this was so. "So it would seem. Neji, dojo. We have things to discuss. Don't look at him, don't look at her. Dojo." Neji was released then shoved towards the exit.

He walked to the door and paused. "Your labor here is done. Escort him to the gate."

"Um...Hyuuga-dono? What about payment?"

Hiashi turned around bodily. "What was that? Payment?! Why should I not simply toss you over the wall myself?"

Naruto had yet to move from his position. "A service was requested, Hyuuga-dono. It was requested and I was performing said service. If Hyuuga-dono states the service is complete, then I should be paid for the service performed.

"If Hyuuga-dono is dissatisfied with this arrangement," he continued calmly, though his insides were anything but, "then I shall take your displeasure personally to Takada-sama that your grievances can be made known."

"And how much was this...service?" Hiashi ground out. Having Takada's name dropped so easily had given him pause.

"Fifty mon, Hyuuga-dono." Naruto was not about to mention alternate means of payment, given the man's hostility.

Hiashi turned to his daughter. "I warned you about your posture, now look at the shame you have brought to us." He reoriented on Naruto. "You will finish what you started, and I had best be pleased with the results."

He paused as he walked through the doorway. "A meal will also be provided, as it is for any tradesman who provides goods or services to the Clan. Let is not be said that the Hyuuga are not hospitable. The rest of you, return to your duties!"

With that, he slid the door shut behind him, leaving a prostrate Naruto, stunned Hiasa and softly weeping Hinata. Throughout the angry meeting with the Clan Head, not once did Naruto raise his head, nor did any Hyuuga engage the Byakugan. Hiashi was ignorant of the fact that Konoha's jinchuuriki was not only within their compound walls, but was also ministering to his eldest child.

After a moment, Hiasa cleared her throat. "Naruichi-san, I'm not sure whether you are brave or a fool."

He raised himself back into a kneeling position. "Can't it be both?" He raked his shaking hands through his hair. "Forgive my lack of composure...if you both can grant me a moment, I will resume."

"Nh!"

"Naruichi-san, I do not think Hinata-sama wants to continue."

Naruto shifted over to the girl and ran his fingers gently down her spine. "That choice is out of all of our hands, though it shouldn't take much more. We don't always have the luxury of take-backs. What we say is what we must do."

"Those are not words I expect out of...if you do not mind my asking, just how old are you?"

"Eight, Hiasa-san. I've been doing this since my sixth year, and am currently in my ninth."

"You are Hinata-sama's age then. Be at ease, Hinata-sama. I will lend you my strength again."

Naruto would twist her hip and lower back two more times before he moved up to her shoulders.

"Hinata-sama...I have done what I could, and though very tender, you should see a marked improvement."

The girl shook her head slightly.

"I don't think she wants any more, Naruichi-san."

Naruto paused, then turned his face to Hiasa. "I will just give a demonstration of the less-painful bit. If Hinata-sama then wishes me to stop, I will stop immediately and will remove myself from her presence."

With that, he gently began to knead her shoulders and neck, pausing after a few seconds. "Is it Hinata-sama's will that I continue?"

To his relief, he got a slight nod.

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She was led to her private bath by Hiasa and left alone once she was situated. Given that Naruichi was her guest, it would be up to Hiasa to serve him, which was fine. Hinata needed some solitary time to come to terms with her feelings.

She knew she was not actually alone though, as the outline of a maternal fourth cousin, whose name eluded her, was visible through a screen off to the side.

For the first time since her mother died, Hinata had received kindness. While it was very true that there was a significant amount of pain involved with that kindness, it was still there.

Reasons for the pain were given, the boy's gentle voice had been constant...he had even rubbed her back when she had been ashamed about her crooked spine. And then he kneaded her back, shoulders and neck, and she had never felt something so good.

It was wonderfully good, better than even the flavored shaved ice she had when she was four. Her brow creased slightly as the realization filtered down that she had not had another since.

Sinking lower in the water and feeling the heated mineral bath easing the rest of her aches, she flushed at the memory of his eyes, so soft and apologetic for the distress he was causing her, and so very black.

It was as if they pulled the light into those ebon depths, deep wells which were never filled. If the simple truth be told, she could scarcely remember anything else about him, aside from his hair.

It wasn't dark, not like his eyes.

Young Hinata, in her bath, thought of those black eyes and gentle hands.

'He's a commoner, a tradesman.'

She thought briefly of pain, followed by pleasure. Her family only gave the former. Naruichi had given her both.

'He will serve me. I will have that kindness again, no matter the cost.'

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The 'tradesman' meal was a simple affair though not unpleasant. Naruto was a bit surprised by Hiasa's request after he had eaten.

"You wish to see my other skills in massage?"

"This is correct, Naruichi-san. Neji-chan's actions showed how irregular this appointment actually was. Standard procedure is a demonstration prior to services being accepted."

"Ah, I think I understand. Like a merchant showing wares before a purchase is considered, yes?"

"It is as you say, Naruichi-san."

Naruto nodded, then shifted from his seated position into a kneeling one, his back slightly bowed. "This one then shall demonstrate proper disrobing and clothing of the client."

Hiasa flushed. "I beg your pardon?"

Naruto frowned slightly. "Hinata-sama's massage was a-typical. Usually, it is skin on skin contact, irrespective of gender. I did not think it prudent, given the situation, to disrobe the client."

He paused, then continued. "Given the ruse Neji-san attempted, I am glad I did not. Hyuuga-dono might've tried to kill me for allegedly raping his eldest child."

Hiasa nodded distractedly, unconsciously gripping her neckline tightly. "I...", she swallowed and steeled herself, not expecting this turn of events. "I submit to your demonstration...um, where, where should we do...this."

Naruto relaxed slightly, shifting into No Threat and Professional. "A private room would be ideal, and you have nothing to fear from me. My condition ensures your modesty will be preserved, as it would be for any client."

Hiasa nodded, reassured by his words and posture, not to mention his age, blindness and professionalism thus far. She was also twenty-three, considered unmarriageable at that age, and was quite barren, her ovaries having been crushed by precise strikes when she was chosen as Hinata's primary servant.

She was not entirely thrilled with her nudity being seen by the boy...this man-boy, even if he was blind. He would know she was naked, even if he couldn't see her physically. Regardless, screening services of any sort was just part of the job.

Hiasa was a bit surprised, however, and rather pleased that when she offered to take his hand to lead him, he gave instead the tip of his walking stick. She knew this to be another sign of his professional distance.

After a few stumbles, by which she was once again reminded of his blindness, she pulled closer to him, guiding him from the shoulder with soft words until they reached her room, which adjoined her charge's.

"Thank you for guiding me, Hiasa-san. Before the demonstration, allow me to show you some of the tools I use in my services."

He lightly opened his robe, where she could see a series of scrolls in individual tubes strapped across his chest. He ran his fingers across their caps, stopping when the clay dimples baked into them registered the proper scroll.

A moment later, it was unrolled, activated, and a low table, upholstered in padded leather, came into being.

"This is a massage table. The low height gives greater strength to the legs, so it can handle quite a heavy load for those clients desiring its use. Also in this scroll is a kimono stand, for the proper storage of removed clothing while services are rendered. Have you need of the latter?"

Hiasa, standing stiffly, shook her head before remembering to vocalize. Her eyes flicked to the other scrolls across his chest, wondering as towards their contents.

"There is no need, Naruichi-san. Several such stands are kept here for Hinata-sama's usage."

He nodded, fingers once again dancing across tube tops. Though the action drew the eye, she could feel his chakra spike for a moment, and movement from the corner of her eyes led to her activating her bloodline.

Bodies, the size and mass of her guest, stepped out of shadows. There were five of them, each with a glowing network of chakra pathways, yet black as the shadows from which they came. She noted they had no discernable face.

"Naruichi-san?" Her eyes had seen Naruto's yellow pathways, all of them. At first she marveled at how thick the coils were, and how plentiful, before the crimson and orange registered, along with the facial markings.

"Ah, those would be my assistants. Be not alarmed, they are but clones."

"Could it be that you utilize shinobi skills in your massage?" Her heart raced, even while she tried to keep her voice even and level.

"It is as you say, Hiasa-san. One of my relatives is a strong fighter, and wished for me to gain an education in various arts, shinobi, civilian and craftsman. As the clones know what I do, this makes them rather useful as assistants."

He paused while withdrawing another scroll. "In this one are kept various sizes of towels, for the client's modesty."

Pulling a knotted cord from his sleeve, he passed it to one of the pinpoints of light he could see in his mind. "Measure from Hiasa-san's shoulder to her knee and tell me how many knots."

The number given, he opened the towel scroll and traced his finger along its length until the embossed brush strokes indicated the correct one. The released towel was handed to a clone, passing one end to another clone so that the item could be stretched in front of Hiasa.

"Your scrolls are a bit odd, I must say." Her heart calmed a bit, confident that Hyuuga-dono not only knew about this guest, but had contingencies in place to subdue or kill if needed.

"It is as you say, Hiasa-san, a bit more cart-before-the-horse, but it works for my needs. The word or number is embossed on the paper before the item is sealed, so there's a little more preparation time needed in the scroll creation process."

Naruto ran his fingers over the knotted cord again, before nodding, pulling yet another scroll from his bandolier, and unsealing a step stool.

"Naruichi-san?" She knew of the other name, but chose not to use it. Such might cause alarm, and this...this boy had been nothing but professional so far.

"Ah, this one is not yet tall enough to properly arrange the drape across your shoulders." He bashfully rubbed one hand behind his head. "I have been told I will get taller, but it hasn't happened yet...soon though, soon."

Despite the awkward situation, she couldn't contain the giggle, instantly sobering as the step stool was positioned behind her. She could tell by the elbow orientations that the two clones holding the towel before her were turned away, which would have preserved her modesty even if they were sighted.

She started as she felt young hands gently kneading her shoulders. Kyuubi's jailer was touching her directly.

"Hiasa-san, I know this is difficult, but I need you to relax, release your grip, and position your arms by your sides."

Forcing herself to reach that level of calmness, she felt her front knotted obi loosen with the touch of young arms around her waist from behind. Activating her bloodline once again, she watched through the back of her skull as the item was handed to a clone, who carefully draped it across the kimono stand.

So it went, layer by layer, stepping lightly out of her shift as the clones before her walked backwards, wrapping the towel snugly around her torso. Each garment was carefully hung and arranged, further highlighting this young masseur's professionalism.

"And there you have it, Hiasa-san. From here, the client would be led to their preferred posture, be it sitting, kneeling, or laying down. The next demonstration will be robing the client."

She noted with satisfaction, and a bit more ease, that the towel, which went from shoulder to knee, was not moved until her shift was already ascending.

"What other tools do you use?" she asked as she felt the shift tied across her right shoulder before it was straightened and draped properly by unseen and unseeing hands.

"Unguents, oils, pomades. Strips of cloth for washing or applying liquids. Metal bowls for heating water, prepared herbs and powders for pastes, and a mortar and pestle for making more powders if needed from a pantry scroll, if you will.

"In addition, I have glass bells, candles for heating them, and acupuncture needles. The latter I am still learning." he continued as her underdress was arranged and fastened by the inside belt.

"That is quite a selection. I was unaware so much was needed."

"Ah, most is not, Hiasa-san, but it is good to be prepared for when it is. Different clients have different needs."

With sure fingers, her obi was tied across her kimono, complete with a frontal bow. *

"It is my hope that the bow is correct. There are so many styles these days, it can be challenging to get the right one."

"It was close enough to true, Naruichi. You are a credit to your profession, I must say." She watched him as he deftly resealed his items, while his clones stepped back into shadows and vanished. It made her skin prickle, along with the knowledge of just who this person was.

"If there is nothing else, it would be appreciated if you could escort me outside, Hiasa-san."

"Of course, Naruichi-san. Right this way, and we're coming up on a door panel." Despite the demonstration, or perhaps due to the trust it engendered, Hiasa found she had no problems at all in taking the boy's shoulder, guiding him with soft words and gentle touches. He had been nothing if not polite, so she would be the same. She wasn't sure if the demon inside could also hear, but better safe than sorry.

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Later that same day, Hinata was summoned and made to go through a serious of stretches, katas and postures. Even when she entered in a kneeling position, Hiashi could see her height had increased by at least an inch.

He turned back to his letters. "Hiasa?"

"Despite his age, he is well skilled, taught well and has minimal wasted movements. Though his musculature is still ill-defined, again due to his age, his finger and hand strength are well above average. He keeps the tools of his trade sealed in scrolls upon his own body."

"Oh? Now there's a thing. How does the blind know which is which?"

"From what I could see, Hiashi-dono, there are scroll caps of clay, with pips or dots denoting a personal filing system. He also knows the Kage Bunshin, utilized as assistants when needed. They are black, devoid of any other color."

"That is most irregular, a child knowing such a life threatening skill. How many were made?"

"Five, Hiashi-dono." Though stated plainly from her low position, her mind still boggled at the implications. She was not a shinobi, but lived in a clan famed for them. Even second and third hand, she knew the cost of that skill.

The ensuing silence crept into uncomfortable, which unfortunately was always readily available. After nearly five minutes, two words were uttered.

"I see."

Another void was had, but neither female moved from their respective positions.

"Hiasa, you allowed this untested...tradesman to work upon my eldest child." Despite his firm demeanor, Hiashi did indeed love his daughters. It was a fierce love, coupled with the strong desire that they live and thrive.

As he was taught, so he taught, not really knowing other ways. The end result was a rather hard love, harsh and unforgiving to some. Had his wife of five years lived longer, perhaps a gentler way could have been learned.

Hinata, even at this age, reminded him so strongly of the dead to make his chest ache.

"Despite being a ruse, you allowed him to work his trade. A spine was straightened, movements improved. For this you have my personal gratitude."

Hiasa, fearing the seal due to her lack of proper vigilance, was stunned.

"You shall be accorded a free day tomorrow. If you happen to find yourself by Takada-sama's or Ikiri-san's places, be sure to give these missives. Else, the two of you are dismissed."

With shaky hands, Hiasa moved forward and took both letters, before tapping an equally stunned Hinata on the shoulder. Giving proper respects to the Clan Head, they made their exits. 'Had he known, it would have been mentioned, yes? Does he even know?' Given how poorly Hinata had been treated by her own father and family, in an act of rebellion, she kept this information to herself.

The next day, Branch Hyuuga began showing up at Thighs and Sighs for a foot massage while they took breaks from errands.

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Ayame was missing. It had been a few months since the Hyuuga affair when Naruto noticed that Ayame had not been by for the afternoon meal. Having received word that she was ill, he waited a few days before visiting her.

She was not there.

"She is gone, Naruto-kun."

"Teuchi-sama, was she spirited away? Surely she is not dead...please let her not be."

Teuchi could withstand the scrutiny of adults, but for this child once abandoned, he could not, especially given that the boy had traveled here by himself though bereft of sight. "Be at ease, Naruto-kun. She is alive and her future secured. She is part of the Tsugawa house now, and shall be wed to their eldest in three years."

The noodles slipped from sticks into the stock. "I...I do not understand. Will she still be able to read to me?"

Teuchi sighed, dreading this talk. "Tsugawa-sama approached me a few months back, asking for my daughter's hand. They make baskets, barrels and containers, and do a brisk trade. I really could not deny their request. They are one of my suppliers.

"She will spend the time learning their household duties and recipes, before wedding their eldest. I am sorry, Naruto-kun, but she will not be coming by again."

Naruto's breath was stricken. Eventually, he managed "But...she is my friend. Will I be able to see her again?"

Teuchi's heart twisted, the implications of what he had done to secure his daughter's future becoming more clear. "Given that you are male, it would not be proper, Naruto-kun, even once she is wed."

He paused, measuring his words. "Do not think ill of me. All I do, I do for her sake. Would you do any less for her, her future?"

He knew he was browbeating the boy, but he desperately wanted to get his reasoning across to him, so that he would understand and not hate the man who saw Naruto almost as a son, perhaps more as a nephew. He still blamed himself, quite unaware of Sarutobi's movements on this very same issue.

"What lengths would you go to protect her, to secure her future, to drive away want and hunger? It is true that this has impacted you greatly, but tell me...were the positions switched, would you do anything less?"

In the back of the ramen stand, where Teuchi had served Naruto since that first fateful day, there was silence.

Naruto understood. He didn't like it, but he understood. He knew that although Ayame accepted and loved him, despite the Kyuubi, were the village to think as the Orphanage did, she would be targeted.

Coupled with this was his profession. Socially speaking, he was a step above beggar, though his employment and backing of Ikiri and all of Thighs and Sighs, not to mention being a favored subordinate of Takada-sama mitigated much of that.

Naruto knew he would inherit the business in the fullness of time. Even now, he was being taught business practices and resource management.

Despite all that, if word ever got out about his...other status, things could turn sour quickly. So far, through a systematic misinformation campaign waged by Jiraiya and Naruto's chosen family, the average citizen believed the Kyuubi's host to be elsewhere, and had been gone for years.

Out of sight is out of mind. Of course, the Orphanage did shelter Naruto from public scrutiny, so afraid were they of losing potential parents and monies by having him be seen. Ultimately, that played into his favor.

Still, secrets had a way of becoming known, and he knew his could not last forever. When the news broke, were she with him, her life and livelihood would be in peril.

"I..." for the first time since he learned of his burden, clear tears leaked from black eyes. "For Ayame, I would burn the world to protect her."

Teuchi nodded slowly, as he would do the same. "Naruto, may I touch you?"

Scrubbing his eyes roughly with his sleeve, shamed at losing composure, Naruto replied, "Teuchi-sama, you don't have to ask that."

"Yes, yes I do, Naruto-kun. I am the instrument of your pain, and have voided my rights." He didn't get any further as Naruto had stumbled out of his seat, colliding haphazardly with Teuchi. On contact, young arms wrapped around a thicker waist.

"Teuchi-sama, this one forgives Teuchi-sama!" babbled the young boy.

"Uncle. In private and with Ikiri-san, you may call me uncle. He is your father, by all rights, I am his brother, so that makes you my favorite nephew." Teuchi still recalled the rejection of touch when they first met.

Naruto squeezed tighter, before a hint of humor broke into his distress. "That would make me your only nephew."

"Ah." The blond mop was rubbed affectionately before heavy arms wrapped around the smaller child. "Winning by default is still winning."

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A month later, Naruto would kill make his first kill.

Chapter Text

Mistakes were made.

If there was a single phrase to sum up the rest of Naruto's ninth year, it would be: 'Mistakes were made.'

Mistakes were made by Takada, in keeping his word and humoring a small child. He really wasn't expecting the boy to excel in the art of the sword given his condition.

Mistakes were made by Jiraiya, who knowing full well the single use of a sword, had a shikomizue, or swordstick, commissioned for his godson. Naruto used it constantly as his walking stick and even Hayate saw it as a cane, nothing more.

After all, Naruto knew how to keep secrets, quite aside from his knowledge of Hayate's obsession with the sword. He would not have put it past his sensei to attempt to add the swordstick to his private collection.

Mistakes were definitely made by Hayate. He alone was responsible for Naruto's training, when all was said and done. His dislike of the boy, for to admit he had been wrong would make him fallible, led to the fiendish exercises and drills. This attitude stemmed directly from his dislike of being wrong, projected onto the boy.

Naruto, unfortunately, excelled under pressure, for his body was forced to quickly adapt and learn. There was an innate and hardwired desire to improve. He really had no option but to be a kinesthetic learner, and it showed in his growth in skill.

Another failing, and a critical one at that, was Hayate's reluctance to desensitize the boy to the sword cutting into meat. Normally, for those learning Kenjutsu, visits were made to local butcheries and livestock farms. This was to not only acquaint the student with death and killing, but also the feel of muscle being severed and the scent of blood and offal.

Slaughterhouse field trips were even used by the shinobi academy, and by other martial arts trainers for civilians. The hope was that such would protect the initiates the first time they were called to kill another, that hopefully they would not freeze and meet death too early.

He could not rationalize this failing away, except in terms of the boy holding a demon known for bloodshed and destruction. By now, he fully knew that Naruto was not the Kyuubi wearing a skinsuit, just its jailer. That said, Hayate was ruled by Hayate.

In addition, to take the boy on such a trip would be to acknowledge him as being ready for the next step in mastery of the blade. At first Hayate had not wanted to train the boy at all, then found he was looking forward to the sessions despite his reluctance. Again, Hayate being Hayate, he found it just too difficult to be honest with himself.

A final mistake was made by Naruto's ANBU detail, which had been tasked by Sarutobi to watch over the boy since that very first meeting at the former Twisted Knicker. It has been said that familiarity breeds contempt, and this could be seen in their approach towards this soft job.

The Mole, as the assignment was termed internally, was considered to be a gravy mission. All they had to do was watch from the rooftops as the blind child made his way to the training ground, and then back to Thighs and Sighs. The original intent had been to ascertain if there was any other threat to the Kyuubi's host.

It had been several years since then, and though ANBU knew of Uzukami's presence within the walls, the bulk of the non-shinobi did not, and of the shinobi, one had to be jounin or higher to have that level of clearance. Only a handful on chuunin knew of Naruichi's given name and condition, Anko being one through her sensei.

Back to the point, the detail had become lax in their attentiveness, especially around a particular section of road where the surrounding architecture spread overhead, blocking view of Naruto from above for several minutes. This was remedied in the beginning by having an ANBU or two on the street in disguise or simply hidden.

There had been zero threats in all that time, and gradually, the street-level part faded away until only roof reconnaissance remained.

The small group of teenage thieves who had been watching this stretch of road for less than a week were unaware of the boy's security. They did know that this was a hidden village, and that there was no guarantee that someone wasn't watching from above, so they had sought out areas with blind spots and took note of who used those routes.

One of their pack had spotted the boy with the sword, and paid him little mind. The blade was obviously too big for the kid to wield proficiently, which meant a low economic caste. Had the child been of wealthier stock, the sword would have fit his smaller stature better, as well as assuring a higher ransom.

It was on the third day of people watching, which meant seeing that blond child twice a day, when the kid made a detour into one of the residential shops which lined this stretch of road. It was then that the Atma license was discovered, which meant that little boy was a tradesman, and that meant money.

The four teens of this coterie, hoping to make enough of a reputation to find work with one of the Yakuza families in and around Konoha, were not above stealing from children. That said, they were not indiscriminate.

There was no money in bullying the poor, not really, and there were enough cases of that ending badly for the bully, often at the hands of Yakuza enforcement.

To target a tradesman though, there was a some wealth to be had, and a means to silence the target through intimidation and other acts of coercion. Young as they were, they knew better than to murder a civilian without permission. Besides, if you killed the golden goose, where would you find more eggs?

After a quick conference, it was decided to wait a few days before the attempt. To make this work, while showing their professionalism, would take a few practice sessions. If things worked out as planned, Atma-san would be their first of many meal-tickets.

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It had been a month since Ayame's final visit, and though he had no way of knowing at the time, Naruto just couldn't get her off his mind. It wasn't as if the last session was acrimonious, far from it. Promises were made though, as they always were, to come the next day.

Ever since Naruto made Journeyman rank, the initial deal between Teuchi and Ikiri had been fulfilled. Since then, Ayame bringing him lunch, sitting with him, and reading from Gutsy Ninja had all been voluntary on her part. She had wanted to visit her friend, and he looked forward to her visits.

He was happy for her, and wished her all the best in her future life. When the time came for her husband to visit Thighs and Sighs, as he would eventually, Naruto planned to give him the best experience possible, as that would please Ayame. He would do anything for her, even so far as to give her up.

Despite that sentiment, there was still a part of him which was angry, jealous, and embittered. Talks with Ikiri-sama let him know that those feelings were normal and should not be repressed. However, care must be taken to keep them apart from his professionalism.

For his walks to and from the training field, he was not on the job, and so allowed himself to work through his feelings as he moved on autopilot. This had been his route for the past three years, and the only unknown at this point were pedestrians.

Even the shops along this two mile stretch had gone so far as to put out guide ropes. The network was piece-meal, with most instances around businesses with loading bays or open storefronts, such as Taro-san's smithy. It was found that even those with sight would use those ropes if the weather was foul, and plans were being discussed to replace them with handrails of wood or metal.

This was in addition to the notion of having specialized walking areas right by the shops. Not only would it keep people out of the middle of the road, but would bring them closer to the businesses, so they could see the wares and services being offered within easier.

It was when he was approaching the Takagura Street Confectionery, where his sensitive nose could catch the scent of the distillery process for their line of liqueurs, that he heard the sound of running. He could also smell who was running, but paid it little mind. Most of this stretch of road had some rather strong scents, and people in a hurry.

He was very surprised then when two bodies collided into his own, sending him crashing into a wall. He felt the sting, and the flow across his face as his brow was split.

"Shit...watch it you fool. We weren't supposed to damage the package...move him back to the alley before anyone smells the blood."

Dazed, he was quickly hauled out of the street and shoved against a wall. He coughed at the impact and counted. There were four people in front of him.

"Search him, and be quick. Thanks to your mistake, we're on a time limit," said the angry voice to the far right.

"Jiro..." There was a meaty slap in front, and to the left.

"Dumbass, don't use my name! Shit, where is your brain?! Guh...just search him before a patrol shows up, idiot."

Hands reached for him, and he smelled Jiro moving closer as a hand ghosted over his right shoulder towards his training sword. Instinctively, his left hand pushed away the one at his waist to the side, before curling over the thumb mound and twisting.

The sound of a wrenching pop and the cry of pain as the left-most person cradled his broken wrist stopped all but Jiro, who went to pull Hayate's sword free.

"You stupid shit. We were just going to relieve you of a few coins, then you have to get all uppity with your seniors!"

Naruto wasn't listening though. His mind had slipped into training mode. His thumb depressed a small catch and he pulled his hidden sword from the cane in a smooth underhand position, stabbing it down where he guessed a foot would be.

It met resistance with the sound of pain, which gave positioning, so he pulled it free and flicked the blade up as his left foot slid forward. It was a shallow cut, as he was used to sparring with Hayate's clones, who only took a slight nick to dispel. It was a shallow cut from the scrotum to the chin, slicing into the larynx, roughly a half-inch in depth.

It was still deep enough to slice through clothing, skin and muscle, the body those belonged to falling away from him in a gurgle. At the display of violence against them, two of the four made to flee.

Naruto twisted to the right, the rest of his cane in his left hand moving into a high block with a reverse grip, hearing Hayate's sword slide out of its scabbard. His own blade came diagonally down across his body, before flicking upwards in a swipe. Again, the cuts were shallow.

The first caught Jiro's left inner thigh by the knee, causing him to pitch to the left into the opposite wall. The second cut slid the length of his right forearm. Had the injury occurred on the shoulder, for instance, it would not have been quite as life threatening. The resulting half-inch deep trench laid open Jiro's forearm. They were quick flicks, honed by years of multiple opponent training.

The screams of pain and the scent of blood was heavy. Jiro's voice was getting faint, as twin footfalls gained distance. He begging for something or other. It was hard to focus on the words.

Completing the movement, his reverse grip moved from right to left, at shoulder height as the cane rotated to point towards the right knee, his left foot sliding backwards towards a defensive stance. There was a whisper, and something wet and sticky was sprinkled across his face.

He had simply reacted, the motions ingrained after several years of tutelage. Soft style for physical attacks, hard style for weapon attacks was the rule, and each was met swiftly. He had always been good with his hands.

He was unaware of ANBU dropping into the alley, the tears which mixed with the blood from his head wound and from others, nor how he had sunk to his knees. The way his sword was positioned in his backhand grip, the tip resting on the ground, it looked like he was presenting the blade for inspection.

They spoke with hand-code. "Fetch Hayate. That one?"

"Dead, throat. Split has shock. Orders?"

"Kill. Attempt made. Clean stick, sheath, Jiraiya. Hayate might steal. Bad for us. Blood other, proof."

The training sword slid across the boy's torso wound to bloody the edge, before the his carotid artery was sliced. Once done, the blade was maneuvered into Naruto's unresisting hands. The shikomizue was cleaned and sheathed, becoming the boy's constant walking stick.

"Hayate approaching. Orders?"

"Observation, roof and shadow. Hunt other two, feed 44."

One of the ANBU went off in pursuit, unsealing his Companion before both vanished in a cloaking technique. The second one blended into the alleyway while their squad leader took to the roof, where he was met by the fourth member who had alerted Hayate of an emergency, but left the details vague.

"Hokage shit brick when learn."

"Yes." Their captain saw Hayate enter the alley and freeze. "So no learn."

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Hayate didn't know what to think when an ANBU had stopped him on the way back from the training field he used for Naruto's sessions. All he had been told was that there had been an accident of sorts, and his presence was needed. He was given a location, and rushed to the scene, mind whirling with scenarios, all centered on his extensive family.

All thought stopped when he found the alley. Apart from the three bodies and the blood, it was rather clean as far as alleys went, used as a narrow pathway between streets, wide enough for a pushcart or barrow.

'Wait...three bod...oh no.' While he might not have recognized the dark haired teens, the long blond mop, in Jiraiya's style, could only belong to one person. That person was squatting, back against the wall with a bloody training sword in his hands, his breath shallow and quick.

There was red on his face, red on his clothes, red in his hair, and red on the blade. His eyes flickered to the non-breathing bodies, then back to the hyperventilating one.

Hayate had no children of his own and had never trained up a team. Up until now, he had never had to deal with any sort of childhood drama outside of his own. Within his large family, things like this had always been handled by others and it would be fair to say that he was very ill-equipped for the role of caretaker.

All he felt was rising panic. This led to him scooping up the boy, his cane, and the stained blade, noting with some satisfaction that the saya was still firmly secured. He paused, and in his first act of kindness towards Naruto, he quickly cleaned the sword and sheathed it.

It wasn't his sword, which was important. Sheathing another's blade while still soiled was often used as a training aid in the Kenjutsu circles. It was to serve as a reminder to always care for your body, since the sword was but an extension of yourself. This time, however, this time he would give Naruto a break. Despite everything, he was a phenomenal student.

Once everything was situated, he picked up Naruto again, and made haste along the rooftops to Thighs and Sighs. This was the first time he had actually touched the child, and he didn't even notice. Once there, he did something foolish.

He listened to his own rationalization, that being that Naruto was on his way back from training, not in training. This meant that Hayate had no responsibility in the matter, outside of concerned citizen. The incident did not happen on the training field.

To be fair, he had never taught another, not by himself at any rate. With family, he was an instructor, but not the sensei. The difference was hierarchy, pecking order and experience. With Naruto, he was by himself, and if he were more honest with himself regarding the boy, he would have done more.

Had this been anyone but Naruto, he would have hunted down the assailants himself. But...it was Naruto and Hayate had issues.

So, he went up the steps to the open loading bay and deftly set Naruto inside the shady room, propped against a box. Taking a moment, he penned a hasty note which he left with the boy, and vanished.

It being a slow day for deliveries, Naruto was discovered twenty minutes later.

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Jiraiya sat in stony silence in the kitchen. It had been Bushari, the head bouncer, who had found the boy as he was making inspection rounds. Naruto had been brought to the kitchen, as it had a large adjoining washroom for the staff and was on the main floor.

Kobuta, the head cook, had almost fainted when she saw the limp form of her favorite pie taster. She had rallied soon after, taking Naruto from him as she gave him orders, before she hollered for assistants to heat up some water and steam some towels.

Bushari had fled like a scalded cat, and quickly found Ikiri, Hibari and himself. Kobuta had, by then, stripped the boy down to his loincloth and was waiting for Hibari's exam. The boy was unbloodied, but there were basins of pink water and ruddy towels.

The toad he had discreetly sent had returned. The alley was found, but nothing to show how or why Naruto had his own and someone else's blood on him. There were no bodies, no fluids...but the scent had remained. Naruto had been given cause to not only draw his sword, but use it.

One thing of note was the absence of Sarutobi, which meant he had not been informed. If his own sources were to be believed, no report of this had yet to be filed.

His blood had been found elsewhere, in a place the cleanup crew must have missed. Beneath an overhang, near a confectioners, there was a red smear on a wooden wall, of the right height and the right scent. On the ground beneath it were a few stains in the dirt.

Hayate's scrawled note only said that Naruto had been found in this state. Again, no mention of anything else, only that he had been found this way. The truly odd thing was that both swords, the hidden and overt, were clean.

Jiraiya was angry that some fool had touched his godson like this, and even more upset with Hayate. For a sensei, or any sort of teacher, to leave their student as Hayate did with his...it was untenable.

He stood slowly, so as to not startle the boy. Naruto was whole and hale, without even a mark from his head wound, but was still a mess inside. Though his breathing had leveled out, the dark eyes seemed cloudy. It might take hours before they got any sort of story out of him.

"Jiraiya-sama?"

"Going to take a walk, Ikiri-san, see if I can't find me a confession." He paused at the doorway. "And you don't have to be so formal with me, you know."

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As had been noted before, Gekkou Hayate came from a rather extensive family, their clan one of the premier weaponsmithing families along with being noted for their many weaponsmasters.

There was plenty of competition in this industry, from other old families who had provided these services for generations. To be awarded a contract with a hidden village was no small thing. In the name of parity, though, contracts were no longer perpetual, but were open to bids every couple of years.

This kept things fresh, fostered an environment for innovation, and made reputation more valuable than gold.

Jiraiya knew this, which is why he did not visit Hayate. Quite besides the temptation to cause very real bodily harm to the man, he had already been visited once before, when he began teaching Jiraiya's godson. That lesson did not seem to have stuck, so it was time to up the ante.

It wasn't long before Jiraiya stood before Higarushi Outfitters, the store belonging to a major sept of Clan Gekkou. It was their flagship store, signifying their importance to the village.

He slid back the door to the store, and stayed there. Not one foot did he step inside. The sound of the door opening did garner attention though.

"Ah, welcome to...Ji...Jiraiya-sama? Mother! Jiraiya-sama!"

The matron of the shop appeared as if summoned, bowing low.

"This one welcomes the Gallant Jiraiya-sama to Higarushi Outfitters. This one is Higarushi Yuki."

"Ah." That was all he said, content to let the silence draw out.

She shifted a bit as the five minute mark came and went. "There is tea for Jiraiya-sama. Please, be welcome and allow us the privilege of tending to your needs." Her dark eyes flickered just high enough to see that his geta were still outside, with him in them. Behind him, she could see a crowd forming.

"It would seem that I am not thirsty, well, not for your tea. You can dampen the ground with it later." He let his idle gaze sweep across the store languidly.

"Have...have we in some way offended Jiraiya-sama? Please, tell us, that we might make amends." By now, there were about twenty people kneeling on the floor, the foreheads low.

Jiraiya was not just the vaunted Toad Sage, one of the Legendary Sannin, was instrumental in the defeat of Kyuubi, and one of the greatest war heroes ever produced. He also taught the Yondaime, and was student to the Sandaime, who in turn was student to the Shodai and Nidaime. Those accolades and that lineage could make or break reputations.

If he were to endorse a rival supplier, it could cripple them for a very long time.

"Oh yes, yes you have. Your clan, your entire family and all your industry have offended not only myself, but have caused very real harm to my godson, my only godson and heir.

"How can I say this...there is nothing you produce, nothing you sell, and nothing you were born with...none of that will erase my anger."

Through it all, his deep voice stayed pleasant, as if discussing the weather. He didn't even let a single sliver of intent seep out, not one iota. It was as if he couldn't be bothered to actually show his displeasure to them.

He stood there a moment more, then turned away and walked off through the gathered crowd, showing Higarushi his back. He didn't even slam the door, nor did he close it.

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Early in Konoha's history, in the interest of keeping the peace, the Nidaime had appointed the arrogant and prideful Uchiha as Konoha's police force. For all civilian criminal matters, their clan had jurisdiction.

They even went as far as to put the police headquarters on clan grounds, with their personal symbol placed large and prominently upon the building's roof. It being on clan grounds, outsiders needed permission to access it, which included applicants.

As the village grew in size, so did the crime rate, and it wasn't long before criminal groups evolved into Yakuza families. Police corruption was not far behind.

When Sarutobi was made Hokage, he turned a blind eye to the whole affair for almost twenty years. It was an act of appeasement to keep the Uchiha happy and the village, as a whole, stable.

What changed was Konoha's evolution, especially the military aspect. While other clans were diminished from the deaths of their shinobi volunteers, the Uchiha flourished. Being the police force, and having little outside representation, it was staffed with Uchiha.

Their own shinobi volunteers rarely made it past the Academy, for some reason. There were just enough to rise through the ranks to dismiss any allegations of shirking community obligation, but those were the exceptions, not the rule.

This trend, coupled with a rather high murder rate despite the large number of active police, led Sarutobi to enact drastic measures. He knew of the condition for evolving the Sharingan, but instead of confronting them, he instead had the heads of the largest criminal families brought before him for a meeting. The hope was to shame the Uchiha so as to be a bit more discreet.

At this conference, where all within were given the royal treatment, the call was put out for them to choose four from among themselves to represent their interests. Sarutobi knew that it was human nature to want a piece of the pie, so instead of smaller slices, he simply enlarged the pie.

If there was going to be crime, it might as well be organized crime. Quotas were to be set and met. Quarterly reports would be submitted. Taxes would be collected with a portion going directly to the Village coffers. They would not answer to the Hokage personally, but to the Head of Security.

As newly created community leaders, with all due respect given their elevated station, they would be responsible for policing themselves and their quadrant. This cut both ways, as any illegal crime, especially murder, would be as if they themselves had committed it. They would join the criminal in punishment.

It should be noted that such was for illegal crimes. Part of this new system was perfectly legal crimes, such as business insurance, trade protection, and pest removal. For a modest monthly fee, one could live in relative peace and security, protected from the Yakuza's usual activities.

The Uchiha, naturally, were incensed, though not much could be done legally, as there had been caveats and conditions in the police charter, which Sarutobi had enacted. The more astute knew of Sarutobi's game, but they had their pride. They were angry enough to speak of leaving Konoha, but not quite angry enough to give up their life of comfort and security.

It wasn't as if they had asked for this, the murder of their most loved and trusted person to evolve their blood limit. Not many knew, however, that the Uchiha council had pushed for these personal connections to be outside of the clan. This too was known to Sarutobi.

One offshoot of the entire ordeal was a marked increase in the Uchiha graduation rate and more of them entering military service. The cash cow known as Konoha had been given to new owners, so other sources of revenue were needed.

The crime rate didn't go down overnight, but it did diminish somewhat in the following months. The murder rate fell precipitously when an example was made of a Boss who failed to keep his subordinates in check when a fight broke out over a disputed dice game. Twenty-seven were killed and a further thirty-two injured in one night.

Boss Gozu and his family were drawn and quartered, with the pieces being sent to each quadrant and close villages. It was a bloody affair, and no mercy was given, regardless of age or gender. Though it deeply pained Sarutobi to show such violence towards civilians, a clear message had to be sent, especially towards Clan Uchiha.

Into the void left by Kazawa Gozu stepped a young enforcer from Tanzuka Gai. Despite having an oar broken across his back during the application process, Takada, through his will and his fists, took control of the Second Quadrant.

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Almost thirty years later, Takada frowned.

"You are certain of this?" He indicated the scroll in his hands.

Dashi nodded. "Jiraiya-sama handed it to me himself. What do you want me to tell the others?"

Takada's frown deepened as he glanced over the missive once more. An hour ago, Naruto had been debriefed. The boy had been forced to kill after being attacked in broad daylight before being pulled into an alley. It had all the earmarks of a mugging gone bad, an unauthorized mugging.

His grandson, not quite nine, had been forced to kill after being attacked, in Takada's own quadrant. What was more was the absence of any official incidence report, according to Jiraiya.

"Rally the boys. We need to do a show of force, quiet-like, to let any elements out there know that we look after our own." He held the scroll to the flame, as per Jiraiya's instruction.

"What of Gekkou?"

"Leave him and his to Jiraiya-sama, and let this be a lesson when dealing with men like him. The first time, he will speak with you, the second time will be with your family. The third time, there will be no words, only blades.

"Have Ginka as supervisor. He's been wanting more responsibility, so this will be a good test for him. I will speak with the men, and after, will leave to give comfort to my young subordinate."

He stood and waited as Dashi adjusted his clothing.

"While doing that, select gifts appropriate for this situation."

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Two hours after the incident, there was a rather loud knocking on Hayate's door. Inside, Hayate was allowing Uzuki Yuugao, his girlfriend of a year, to massage away his stress. Her budding medical techniques helped to soothe the pounding headache he had felt after his delivery of Naruto.

Unknown to him, Yuugao had stalked him for years, even when he began instructing Naruto as one of the hidden watchers. Despite being ANBU, it took a while for her to work up the nerve to not only approach Hayate, but to ask him his opinion on a specific weaponsmith. She had done her research well.

"Ugh...that, that feels really good." He paused as the pounding began anew.

"It's unlocked, so come in if you want. Just stop making so much damn noise!"

Behind him, Yuugao grinned as she ran her fingers through his hair. She knew Hayate disliked having his pampering interrupted.

The door opened with a bang, causing her hand to reach over her...empty right shoulder. It was just as well that she was unarmed, as she noticed several familiar faces in the crowd that filled Hayate's living room.

Her grin vanished and her knees hit the floor in cadence with Hayate, for Gekkou Akane had strode forward. Yuugao noted that everyone else in the room had lowered themselves so as not to stand above the clan head.

True to her name, she had a mane of red hair, loosely held back with a series of green ribbons. It swished behind her as she came to a stop before her kneeling son.

"Boyo, what have you done?!"

Hayate had a feeling where this was going. "Ka..."

She cut him off with an angry gesture. "Don't. Just...don't."

Akane took a deep breath to center herself. "You will answer me plainly, Hayate. What have you done to so greatly anger Jiraiya-sama? He came to our Higarushi shop, refused to enter, refused our hospitality, and refused his patronage. Why did you not tell us you were teaching his godson?!"

"I...I was trying to protect the family from any backlash, just in case the boy...in case there were complications."

"Protect us from backlash? Boyo, you have failed in that regard, and you really couldn't get much more complicated than this. Even now, enemies are at the gate, threatening our industry, and all because you didn't want to involve the clan. Do you think you could teach better than us, eh? Tell me, sword hoarder, tell me how your protecting us from harm has worked out!"

The two kneeling shinobi winced at the slight, though for Hayate, the insult rang true. Sword hoarder, or one who refused to allow the study of their weapon collection for the betterment of the clan.

"You selfish stupid boy. Up you come, and you as well, girl. Hayate, for whatever you have done to offend Jiraiya-sama, you will go there, and you will apologize on behalf of yourself and your family, and we will be there to bear witness. Following that, we will have a heart-to-heart, and by 'we' I mean you will address the united clan.

"And you, girl, this will be a good test for you. I know you treasure our son now. I wonder if you still will once the luster has faded."

As a group the apartment was vacated, with Hayate reluctantly leading the procession towards Thighs and Sighs. When they arrived some fifteen minutes later, only a single glance was needed to show they had been expected.

In the rear courtyard, designed to give carts and wagons plenty of room to maneuver for delivery of goods and discreet clients, several people were waiting for their arrival, chief of which was Boss Takada upon a low dais filled with cushions beneath a silken awning, his chief bodyguard kneeling behind and to the right.

On Takada's right was Jiraiya, who held Naruto loosely on his lap. To the left was Ikiri followed by Hibari. Behind Jiraiya and Ikiri were Ai and Ai. Forming the rest of the semi-circle was the full staff of Thighs and Sighs.

Takada took another sip of bitter tea, before handing the cup to a waiting attendant and clearing his throat.

"Gekkou-san, you are late."

Chapter Text

"And who might you lot be? I do not recognize any of you aside from Hayate." Takada's eyes of displeasure never left the jounin.

"We are family, to bear witness. Gichi-sama controls our quadrant." spoke Akane, the sole person to stand on their side of the delivery yard. "I am Gekkou Akane, clan head."

Takada dipped his head briefly. "Our business is not with you, but your...son, yes?"

"For now, yes."

"You are welcome to join us, if it pleases you, as befitting a clan head." Takada, even in these instances, was not above drawing business away from the other bosses.

She hesitated briefly, then strode forward with poise and purpose, giving Hayate a solid swat against the back of his head as she passed.

"Here, you shall have a place besides me. Ikiri-san, if you would be so kind as to provide for Gekkou-sama."

"It is already done, Boss Takada-sama."

Takada could only grin internally at the efficiency of this subordinate. Ikiri knew him well, and had gears in motion the moment Akane was noticed. Perhaps something could be awarded for the many times Ikiri had given honor on such short notice.

Akane's eyes widened before she could regain her composure. She was to be seated at the same level as a quadrant Boss? 'We shall see how this plays out. Perhaps a shift in allegiance, once Jiraiya-sama's forgiveness is granted, might make for a lucrative future. The issue will be where to house them all, or shall it be where housing can be found again? Time enough for all of that after this...whatever this is.'

Takada had her seated at his immediate left, but not behind. This was to show respect for her position, but to still remind her that she was not an honored guest. Given the injustice, he would have been well within decorum to not invite her at all, or have her sit behind by five paces.

By her nervous gestures, he knew she knew this as well.

"Before we begin, a drink for Gekkou-sama. The iced tea is odd, but very refreshing."

She nodded uncertainly, not used to this level of respect when her family was in the wrong. She knew what game he was playing, at least parts of it, and understood he was wooing her industry.

The drink was lemon grass ice tea, flavored with a touch of honey. In the heat of the waning day, it was indeed very refreshing, despite the odd serving temperature.

"Takada-sama, if you have a moment, I'd like to propose something."

"You have my ear, Jiraiya-sama"

"This is a family affair, between families. On one side, we have representatives of Gekkou-sama's family, and on the other side, we have my godson, Ikiri-sama's son, and your grandson and favored subordinate."

Akane choked on her tea, only to find a large hand patting her soothingly on the back. Her eyes shifted to see Takada smiling at her gently. "Be at peace, Gekkou-sama. My quarrel is not with you, and drink a bit more carefully. It would be a waste for one of such beauty to pass away stupidly."

Unbidden, her cheeks flushed, quickly averting her eyes and leaning slightly forward, focused solely upon her idiot of a son.

Jiraiya noted all this with a shrewd glance. 'If this works out right, Takada gets a rather nice bed warmer, and I get more spies.' "As this is a family affair, allow me to perform a technique for our security.

"It is based upon the infamous Bringer of Darkness technique, created by the Senju, only instead of blinding the target to all outside the darkness, it will blind those outside from observing the proceedings in any form.

"This should preserve Gekkou-sama's honor and integrity, and prevent the other Bosses from undermining Takada-sama's compassion."

At Takada's nod, Jiraiya's technique sprang into being, it being prepared except for a single hand-seal. Since Sarutobi had not been informed of Naruto's incident, it would not do for passing shinobi, nor his security detail, to bring unwanted attention.

For the benefit of those within the dome, he voiced for their peace of mind, "Be at ease. As you can see, we each can see each other, but those outside cannot, nor can they hear what is said. In this way, Clan Gekkou has complete privacy. Nothing said or done shall leave this place."

Jiraiya neglected a detail: from the outside, all within the loading area simply vanished. There was no dark globe, nor any other suspicious construct which could and would be easily seen. There was but a slightly static image of the dusty loading area, with clouds of dirt stirred by the wind, played at random.

To the outside, there was no meeting between families. Had anyone entered the area, they would see the image, but none within, while those within the area of effect would be able to see the interloper.

Akane could only gape. That despite the inquest, such protections for her clan's reputation were freely given...all she could do was bow before her family. "Jiraiya-sama, Takada-sama, it is not worth much, but thank you. Ikiri-sama, on behalf of my clan, this one humbly apologizes for whatever Hayate did wrong."

It was Jiraiya who answered her. "Raise your head, woman. Look at your son as he answers. Hayate, describe the scene. Be warned, boy, I already have most of the details."

Hayate was shaken where he knelt. Not only did he see the unwarranted respect being given his mother, but there was also the power of Jiraiya's jutsu. For such a large area to be protected, and he could feel the boundaries, spoke of great power and strength. Jiraiya-sama didn't even look winded, just...disappointed.

He nodded, and withdrew his tanto.

"Oh no you don't, boyo. You can kill yourself later, after we hear what happened. Mizu, restrain the idiot, if you'd be so kind."

Hayate only had a moment before black and green mottled and webbed hands grabbed both his arms and wrenched them back. His head tilted back involuntarily, and found his gaze locked upon that of a disapproving battle toad, geared for war.

From Jiraiya's lap, Naruto stirred. "Mizu-sama is here?"

"I am here, Naruichi-kun." The Toads had been coached on how to address the boy in mixed company. "And I thought I told you not to call me that!"

"But...Mizu-sama is Mizu-sama." Came the faint reply, which earned Hayate an amphibian knee in the small of his back. "How are the sons, Mizu-sama?"

Clan Gekkou and their Sept could only gape, the implications of the wounded boy, his pedigree, and familiarity with the Toads filtering down.

"Bizu is learning how to walk, instead of hopping everywhere, and Sozu has been asking of you. His dance has improved thanks to Naruichi-kun. We are very thankful."

"This one thanks Mizu-sama for the kind words. I will summon Sozu-kun soon...there have been...there were...I have murdered!" came the sound of anguish.

There was another silken sound, before Takada firmly gripped Akane's wrists in his much larger hands. "None of that, Gekkou-sama. I will not permit such beauty to die in so stupid a fashion. You can kill yourself after we dine."

"Wha..." It had been pitched just for her ears, Akane still stunned by the events and how quickly Takada moved, and how warm his hands felt.

"You will dine with me tonight, you and your family, all of them."

She could only nod faintly, her attempt at seppuku thwarted. Akane had understood not just the connections to Jiraiya-sama, but also the Yondaime's unspoken son. As clan head, she was still responsible for the actions of those within the clan. Akane dimly noted that, though now disarmed, Takada had yet to release her hands.

"Did you plan on their deaths?" came the voice of Mizu.

"I...no...attacked."

"So you defended yourself?"

"I...I don't know...the blood, it hit my face, I could smell it."

Mizu forced Hayate to the ground. "Did you not teach the boy about death and the cycle of life?" His displeasure was thick.

"I...I did not!" came the pained response. Hayate vowed to never underestimate the strength of summoned animals.

Among the gasps of surprise from those knowing just how important those lessons were, Hayate found his limbs free, and his body skidding across the hard-packed earth. Above him, eight feet of angry toad towered, spiked double-bit axes in each webbed hand.

"Mizu-san! I would ask that you stay your blow." The spike from one ax hovered just above Hayate's throat. "If you would be willing, I would see what Naruichi learned from this man before you gut him." said Takada.

Mizu only paused when he saw Naruto stand, turn and bow multiple times towards his family. clutching only his cane in his left hand. With a gruff nod, a gripped ankle, and a tumbling Hayate, he moved aside to sit besides the upturned man. "That boy is favored by my clan. If I am displeased, I shall skin you, human."

Takada, his voice pitched just for Akane, whispered, "Have you someone his possible age and ability? He asked of me to learn the sword, and I am eager to see the fruits of that promise granted, of your son's tutelage."

She turned fully to see his eyes, surprised that Hayate, her Hayate, had been requested by name for Jiraiya's godson. Part of her noted that she had yet to release Takada's hand. Glancing towards the rest of her kneeling family, she spotted twin buns.

"Higarushi Nadakai, though she also answers to Tenten," she whispered back. Her mind more stable, she poured through what she knew of Takada, and found that a possible match might not be all that bad. "I had heard your back was broke."

"It was. That boy there, Naruichi, fixed it where all other failed." He turned his eyes forward, noting the gobsmacked expression. "Is there a Nadakai-chan here or someone called Tenten-chan?"

There came a series of nudgings, and a slip of a girl stood and shakily walked forwards. Takada nodded when she bowed low. "Have you a blade, girl? I would test you against my subordinate. I expect you to give it your all, and if you throw the match intentionally, I will have you whipped."

"You cannot!"

He turned towards Akane. "I can! For the harm your family has done, I could have every woman raped and pressed into servitude. This is my mercy. You would be well advised not to squander it!"

Akane lowered her head, fully knowing the societal rules. To set up a student to freeze and perish upon their first kill was a cardinal sin amongst their family. It just wasn't done. Who would wish for death for their own kin?

"Raise up your head, woman," came Takada gravelly voice. "I would have you bear witness, as that was your original intent." Pitching his voice outwards, he asked, "Is there a blade for this young one? It shall be sheathed, but should fit her properly."

With a glance towards her matriarch, Tenten understood that she was to go all out, sparing nothing, for their clan's reputation was on the line. She had nothing against the boy who oddly approached her with a bandy-legged gait, but she would right the wrongs against her clan, though she understood little about them.

She bowed to her opponent, noting that he had done the same, then instantly shifted to a double handed overhead strike. It was out of pure reflexes that she leaned out of the way of his cane, which thrust upwards.

She still felt the sting from flayed flesh, from the corner of her left lip, along the nasal ridge, and around her left eye's orbital socket, the wound ending over her left eyebrow.

Shortly after, the blade was pushed across and through her right shoulder, cutting deep into the bunched up muscle. She then felt the mune levered across the back of her neck, and her right arm cleanly severed as the sword was pulled across and through it. Part of herself thumped dully in the dirt.

Now in shock, she felt her heart falter and skip as she tumbled backwards, her seeing eyes clouded with absolute darkness.

There was silence as the girl hit the hard earth. Naruto had distracted her, then using his cane as leverage between her neck and right arm, tripped her, having slid his right foot into her guard with the thrust, and then around her right ankle.

Naruto coughed slightly, before bowing first to his family, then turning and bowing to the Gekkou clan.

"Oi, Naruichi, I don't think she's breathing."

"Hai, Hibari-sensei!" He knew where she was from the cough, so he moved towards her feet, tapping with his cane. Once in position, he gripped both and raised her legs suddenly, keep them straight until her body formed a right angle.

He backed off a bit, and then repeated the move, stretching and contracting her diaphragm. On the third iteration, Tenten's eyes shot open, a ragged gasp passed her lips, and her left arm felt for her right's stump, only to find the limb whole and hale.

Her hand then flew to her face, only to feel the slight sting from a scratch which went from the edge of her lips, along the nose, and above the eyebrow, narrowly avoiding her actual eyeball. The fingers of her right hand tingled, as if asleep.

Naruto dropped her feet as he felt her scuttle backwards, frowning slightly. He had not wished to fight, the clouded memories still intact, but orders were orders. This is why he ended the contest as quickly as possible, in as non-violent a way as he could.

This was the first time he had coupled hard and soft styles, using his hidden sword and stance to ground an opponent.

A rough cough drew the girl's attention. "You did well, girl. What have you to say, Gekkou-sama?"

Akane nodded slightly to her niece, it not being lost on the wide-eyed girl, still bewildered by her non-death. "Her stance was solid, grounded in the mountain. Naruichi though, what he did was different. It was an unorthodox maneuver."

"Hayate, did you teach this to the boy?" With a motion, he allowed the girl to move back amongst her pack. Takada did not verbally move Naruto, wanting him to be focal to this discussion.

"I...I did not, not that exactly." His pride of the boy warred with his family pride and his personal...pride.

His skull bounced off the ground. "Your head is too high, human. You shame even myself."

Nobody moved on his behalf.

"What did you teach the boy, Hayate?" came Takada fierce question. "And what other wrong did you do?"

"I...stances, drills, multiple opponents, stamina exercises...and...I cannot say."

"Why is this?"

"My...it's my pride. I misjudged, but could not admit I was wrong. I...I am proud of Naruichi!"

"Then why did you leave him like a parcel? A sensei is a teacher in all things, even grief," came the angered tones of Jiraiya.

Hayate didn't answer for a while, finally understanding. When he did, his voice was thick.

"It was my pride. This pride made me a sword hoarder, jealous of the sensies, and a failure of one. I have but myself to blame."

Jiraiya saw Naruichi crouched before Hayate and Mizu, though Hayate had yet to raise his head. Not wanting Naruto to experience another killing, he grunted, "Flog him."

Takada glanced at Akane, squeezing her hand. She nodded, knowing the gift given. Though he would be hurt, her son would not be killed, not today. She noted the terse nods of all the rest present on this side, all of the boy's family.

Unbidden, shrugging off Mizu's hand, surprising the toad, Hayate stood, then stripped to the waist. "Mizu-sama, this one is ready."

The first blow almost sent Hayate to his knees, before he saw Naruto's face and those ever-present ebon eyes. "This one believe in Sensei. It is this one's hope you that you learn what is being taught."

Hayate stood, and was almost felled again. Getting the same look and whispered message, he stood straight.

On the tenth blow to his mangled back, he asked, "May I touch you, Naruto?"

The boy was shocked, since this was the first time he had been called by name. Then came the second surprise. "But sensei has never touched me."

Mizu being the only one in on their discussion, Hayate continued, "I was wrong, so very wrong. I did carry you, from that place."

"My sword, it was clean! Was that sensei?" Even now, the sword stick was kept secret.

Hayate nodded, them both knowing what that meant. "Mizu-sama, allow me to attend to sensei."

The toad paused, as this was Naruto asking, and nodded, taking the time to stretch out his very long and limber webbed fingers. A flick of the wrist sent a sprinkle of crimson to mix with the dust.

There had been silence in the yard, as both sides had been shocked by Hayate's actions.

Naruto's hands were a brilliant forest green. "Oi! Too much, Naruichi. scale it back a bit, okay?"

"Hai, Hibari-sensei, and thank you again for teaching me."

"Note that he did not turn away from the patient?" whispered Hibari to those present. "That boy is a good student."

"Mizu-sama..."

"I thought I told you not to call me that!"

"But Mizu-sama is Mizu-sama...could you give a little water, for Hayate-sensei's back? Just a little, please."

Mizu huffed, embarrassed at being so highly regarded in front of a crowd. His webbed fingers twisted together, and a small rain cloud formed above Hayate. With a wrinkle of concentration upon his brow, fat drops began to fall.

Naruto felt them. "This one thanks Mizu-sama." At his first touch, the output still a bit high, Hayate arced his back.

Oblivious to his sensei's discomfort, thinking it muscle spasms from the pain inflicted, the boy stated, "Be at peace, sensei. This one will fix you right up."

From above came a throaty chuckle as Hayate bit back a scream. There was natural energy within the localized rain, and a slight taint of chaos to the healing green of Naruto's hands as they moved in circles on his back, wiping away the blood and mending the wounds.

Blearily shaking his head to retain awareness, Hayate reached out his hand to tousle golden hair, startling the boy. "I am proud to have you as a student. I vow to teach you proper this time, right here, so your family can see." 'Kushina-sensei, with your blessing, I will teach your style.'

He stood shakily, then looked over his shoulder. "You and I, we aren't yet done here, yes?" Mizu saw the muddy face, and nodded at the request that he continue the punishment.

The dynamic had shifted, as all had heard Hayate's proclamation and request. Even those on Takada's side winced at each blow, each time Hayate was driven to his knees, and each time he stood with Naruto's assistance.

And each time, Mizu would strike, holding nothing back. He wasn't sure if Hayate had heard him, but this was his respect to the human, to give his all behind every blow, as Hayate had proven himself worthy.

To hold back now, to go easy on Hayate, would imply that the man was not strong enough in body or spirit to take his own medicine. It would be the same as calling him frail, weak, or feeble.

Though Hayate would grunt in pain, not once did he cry out, nor did he beg for quarter nor mercy. By the twenty-fifth blow, he was caught by both Naruto and Mizu, as he blacked out.

One who had not moved at all was Yuugao, stunned mind crunching through information: blond, demon toad, Jiraiya, Uzumaki, Kyuubi. Her own family name, Uzuki, was from the same ravaged island nation which produced Uzumaki. Despite the many years, she had never forgotten Kushina's face, and saw strong traces of her in this young boy. This was the first time to look at him properly, as before her entire focus had been on winning Hayate. Connections were made: she and her future husband would be having a talk soon.

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He awoke once more, gasping for breath, wiping his face of the blood which wasn't there. Struggling out of his futon, he staggered drunkenly for the door, still addled with sleep.

"Problems again, otouto?"

"Bu...Bushari?"

There was warmth in the voice. "Got it in one. I was just sitting out here, just in case you needed anything."

"This is the end of the stairs, Bushari-san. Nothing is up here but me." Naruto gradually became more aware of his surroundings, and coughed slightly. There were four others sitting on the steps.

"We are here for you, Naruto, and each of us has taken a life before. Did you make a plan to kill those boys?"

At the hastily shaken head, Bushari continued, "Sometimes, things just happen. Mistakes are made, accidents occur...or you find the need to protect yourself or the ones you love. Did you delight in their deaths?"

This time the shake was vehement. "I...I feel blood on my face, but there is none."

"It will fade in time, Naruto. It eases my heart, as I'm sure it does the others, that you take no delight in killing. Keep this lesson close to your heart: when you enjoy their deaths, it is time to retire the blade."

He paused as the other men nodded. "Come, since you are up. We will teach you some things to take your mind off dreams, just don't tell the Boss."

There was a slight smile, a real one. Ikiri had puzzled out the issue, which had begun once Naruto learned that Nice Man and Hokage-sama were the same person. So ingrained was the conditioning, and the shock from learning that the one who placed him in the orphanage was the same who tacitly allowed his abuse while being Nice Man, it had taken the better part of a year for a breakthrough.

"Outsiders might consider you a child, but among the staff you are a man. You have a trade, you pay the same rent as us, and you have taken lives. We only see it as fair that you enjoy the other perks of an adult. Well, except for sex...I'm sure we all would be flayed for that."

He nudged Naruto as the other men chuckled, getting a wider grin. "Now come. Since we are all up, we might as well make the best of it."

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"I heard it!"

"Eh? What did you hear?" questioned Zomo, one of the drovers and warehousemen.

"This..I heard something under the cup. The...I counted four somethings, twice."

The gathered men shared a look, then Bunta lifted the cup, showing twin threes upon the dice. They had only been teaching Naruto Chou-Han for barely five minutes, explaining the rules, then how to roll the dice.

Bunta, the dealer, lifted one of the die, showing its bottom of four pips. Shirtless, his tattoos were visible in the low light.

"Bunta, roll them again. Naruto, you correctly called the underside. Do you remember what the top would show?" asked Bushari.

"Um...three, yes?" His hair was tousled fondly.

"Correct! Roll them, Bunta."

"Hai." Dropping one, then the other into the bamboo cup, he swished them around with his left hand as his right remained flat against the tatami mat. The cup was inverted, three inches from his hand. "How many, Naruto?"

They all knew of his heightened hearing and sense of smell.

"Han is odd, yes?"

"Correct, Naruto. Do you think it an odd number?"

"I counted one and six, which means...one and six is showing?"

Bunta raised the cup, revealing an odd seven. Both eyebrows were raised at his coworkers.

"It would seem you have a gift, Naruto. You would do well with keeping this to yourself, and we will preserve this secret," stated Bushari. "Let us continue, then I will have a word with the Boss about something else once the dawn breaks."

The rolls would continue as Naruto was taught the game, as well as how to bluff, how to bet, and how to read the mood of the players. It was here where he would learn new body language positions and expressions, as well as proper etiquette for a dealer.

Of twenty rolls, nineteen were guessed correctly, giving a ninety-five percentile. As the early morning hours passed, the only time this fell was when loaded dice were used. With those, it wasn't long before Naruto could tell the difference in how they sounded in the cup and on the mat.

Thighs and Sighs had acquired several fake die in their time, using them as training aids for the dealers. Under Bushari's authority, they were brought out and used against Naruto. Though he could not always differentiate by weight, he could almost always pinpoint the sound of the fake.

Getting a nod from the head bouncer, Bunta taught Naruto how to throw extra dice, even when bare-chested, and the rule that only dice under the cup would count. Being good brothers, they taught their youngest sibling how to cheat at dice.

Chapter Text

The needle pricked her finger, causing Ayame to pause in her embroidery. Looking up, her brow creased as she tried to determine time from the waning sunlight, not that it much mattered. Her days, from her first entrance, had blurred.

They came for her in her sleep, waking in a bed not her own with a stern-faced matriarch tapping her nose with a willow stick. It was long and flexible.

She learned just what it felt like as well, as she was forced to learn so very much about her new surroundings. There was family history, traditions, recipes, secrets and anniversaries. Song, dance, and spoken word were also part and parcel.

It had taken a bit of time, mulling things over while busy with other tasks, for her young mind to come to terms with her new situation: she was to marry into a wealthy house when she turned eighteen.

She was bright enough in her public schooling to realize that her father had bought her time, as most arranged marriages created brides at thirteen, though that was an average age. Rarely were brides found over twenty.

In truth, it was whenever the bride-to-be had first blood, but time and tradition had eventually placed the marriageable age at thirteen for both male and female. That she was given so much extra time, under the auspices of learning their ways, was no small thing.

This was her duty, though she really wasn't looking forward to a loveless marriage. For her father though, she would and could do this, if for no other reason than to secure his standing and security.

By going along with the planned wedding, she knew that in time her father would not want for anything.

Her heart though, that was another thing entirely. She still dreampt of ebon eyes, framed by golden hair.

Stirred from her musings, she returned to the task at hand, nodding her thanks as a servant lit oil lamps.

When next the Chuunin Exams came to Konoha, she would be wed. She was sixteen.

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Sarutobi had a long standing habit of not entering the Hokage's office first thing after arriving at the Tower. Instead, he went into an adjoining room, and would contemplate the daily delivered flower arrangement, before creating a single piece of calligraphy.

As per tradition, this meter width by two meter length paper would be hung in his waiting room, to be burned with the sunset.

While he was doing this, his personal method of centering his mind and spirit, forms of various sorts would be brought into his office, and placed upon the low table to the right.

The room would be swept for anything nefarious, the cushions plumped, and the tea service prepared, all before the first stroke of his inked brush.

When he did enter his office, as always he was drawn to the wide, room spanning window and its gentle curve. Though there had been glass, even individual panes of such under Tobirama, Sarutobi had all of them removed, with a bamboo awning to keep out any inclement weather.

He wished to be connected to Konoha: her wind, her rain, her scents and sounds, not to mention the way the setting sun would strike the Hokage Monument, the reflected light bathing the office in hues of gold.

Eventually, he turned away from the panorama and arranged himself behind the largest of the low tables, set upon a small dais. Chakra strings, felt but not seen, made subtle adjustments to his cushions and pulled his personal tea mug, crafted by his cremated wife, closer to his reach.

As he sorted through this morning's paperwork, one form in particular caught his eye. It was an application for the Shinobi Academy, with classroom attendance until the next Graduation Exam.

Though uncommon, this occurrence wasn't all that rare, generally utilized by those in the larger clans who had been taught at home. The village instruction was more formality at that point, being instead an introduction to future team members, as well as Shinobi certification.

As he read, his frown deepened. Shaking his head, he called for a fresh registration, filling it in once received as a favor to the boy.

"Perhaps I should see him once more...it has been years since the Incident," he mused aloud as he carefully copied Ikiri's handwriting. Blotting 'Uzumaki Naruto' with fine sand, he returned to filling out the rest of the application details.

"Today, I will visit after the Academy lets out. Perhaps I stayed away too long, though so much has kept me busy. This afternoon though, I will make the time."

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"I am very nervous." Now in his twelfth year, the once short child had grown, looking to be mostly knees and elbows at this point. He had been prepared for the growth spurts, recalling all the steps he had gone through to regain his spatial awareness and balance after he learned the shadow clone technique.

"Good," joked Jiraiya. "That should keep you on your toes and very aware of your surroundings. There have been blind shinobi before you know, though not all of them started as such.

"Still, enough is known to teach even one such as yourself the Shinobi arts. We've done well enough, even without formal training."

Naruto nodded, thinking of the oversized dartboard in the backyard, hung off of stacked bales of hay. It was used for kunai, shuriken and darts, the kind used for hunting small animals, for games and competitions among the clientele, alongside the ubiquitous betting pool.

He might not always hit the targets, especially if he had been turned around first to be disoriented, but he knew from spars that you didn't always have to hit, as even the motion would serve as a distraction.

"Hayate mentioned that your suppression was impressive. I have to say he's correct, as even next to you, it appears you have enough chakra for an academy student." Jiraiya had worked hard in this area, yet another way for his godson to fit in easier. The more average he was in comparison, the better. Him being blind, yet having reserves to rival a Jounin, would not be hard to miss.

As for Hayate, peace had been made, as the style created by Kushina was taught by Hayate as part of Naruto's birthright. Yuugao, Hayate's wife, also directly contributed with the more general sword style of Uzushiogakure, which had been a village secret, taught only to the core clans. Jiriaya couldn't help but wonder, for a moment, on if that lost island nation would still be around had their public and secret crafts been switched.

He shook those thoughts away, being immaterial. The nations which sacked that place were after Kyuubi, and the only ones to leave that place alive had been village refugees.

"Sensei said when I first started with him, he could detect me from a thousand meters, though he's not that strong of a sensor. It's taken years not to interfere with Mika-chan and Tanabi-chan."

Jiraiya chuckled to himself as he let those darker thoughts fade, thinking of Ikiri's sensors, well-trained ones at that. Though Takada was never a shinobi, his reserves were enough for them to detect, and they were Ikiri's first line of defense when it came to serving his Boss, even the surprise visits.

Speaking of the Academy, Jiraiya was torn. On one hand, Sensei had placed that bastard as Headmaster. While he had no love for the crippled war-hawk, results could not be argued. He had returned the Academy to a war footing.

Students were required to be able to stand and walk upon three different surfaces, two of which had to be a tree trunk or wall, and upon water. They had to know the ciphers and codes used by Konoha, and be fluent in Shinobi sign language.

Aside from the basic three techniques, the Henge, Bunshin and Kawarimi, students were also required to demonstrate proficiency in half of the listed camping, logistics, and communication techniques. These minor, but very useful jutsus had fallen out of use, so Danzou brought them back.

The problem had been peace, and the laziness that comes with it. The Families and Clans all thought the others were learning those minor techniques, so no time was spent teaching their own charges. Like all things, it starts slow, and within a decade, the Academy no longer taught them, assuming the students had learned them at home.

Three of the more controversial things had been the Academy students performing E and D rank missions, those specifically being within the village walls, gender neutral classes, and the issuance of uniforms.

The missions highlighted both teamwork and solo operations, and the students were expected to use everything at their disposal to complete their tasks. That the students were young was not a consideration. If they could not use chakra or techniques to finish a task, then they would use their bodies, to condition them and to teach them that there were usually multiple means towards completing a job.

The controversy was about the impact this had on the rest of the forces. While Genin teams could still do in-village D-ranks, they had to compete with Academy students. This led to more graduates going on C-ranks earlier than their predecessors, their teamwork ability already expected to be in place. That said, Genin D-ranks still paid the team members; for the students, all mission payouts went back into the Academy budget.

The gender neutral aspect meant that there were no male or female students, and therefor no gender based classes. Both sexes would learn the traditional male and female skills, and would have to demonstrate at least one of them to graduate. So with his start as Headmaster, came the entrance of boys into the flower arrangement and tea ceremony classes, as girls entered the world of poisons and weaponry.

One such girl, the one who had sparred against Naruto several years back, even made a name for herself as a weaponmistress, even going so far as to be certified as one by the Shinobi Council. That she had achieved this honor even before graduating last year was no small thing, and would not have been possible without Danzou.

The dress code though, that drew the most scrutiny from all quarters of society. All students were issued three pair of gender neutral, knee-length kimono, dark green with a brown belt. Every student would be measured each term, and reissued clothing if they had grown any, their previous garb being recycled for smaller students.

There were no clan markings, no family crests, and no individual flair permitted with the Academy uniform. So long as they were students under his authority, they would all wear the same thing while on school property or at a school event. What they wore on their own time was none of his concern.

The instructors were not exempt from the dress code either, being issued their own sets of uniform clothing to be worn while on school property or at a school event. It was the same as the students, with the standard issue vest and utility pouches being allowed those who had earned Chuunin rank or above.

The uproar had been intense, but Danzou would not be budged, even going so far as to suspend students and teachers who failed to comply.

Inwardly, Jiraiya praised that shift, as it made things easier for the orphans. Jiraiya, being one himself, had learned to play the fool while a student to lessen the hurt of their snobbery, them with family and clans backing them.

Glancing down at his godson, this would mean more clothing for the lad, though Naruto never once complained about his current uniform. If he continued to grow as he had been, he would need a new set regardless. He was already fast approaching the five foot mark. Given that he had earned the Atma license on his back, however, might be the source of some contention...not to mention the mane of hair.

Jiraiya liked Naruto's hair. It was like his own, as well as the boy's father. He had even passed along techniques for use with long hair. But along with the dress code came other codes, such as hair length. 'Looks like I'll be teaching him the jutsu to shorten and lengthen hair. Would be a shame to have to cut all that off to above the collar.'

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Hinata bowed to her father after the morning meal, receiving a nod back from the man. She had grown into her heritage, and he was proud of her drive. Hiashi had even gone as far as giving her compliments in private.

He had asked her, however, to always allow Hinabi the win when they sparred. "Make her work for it, but throw the match. This is the only way I can keep my daughters safe." had been his words when Hinata's skill had been enough to stalemate her little sister.

He knew the time frame for her marked improvement, but wasn't precisely aware of the catalyst. That boy was central, the young masseur, but Hiashi was fairly certain it was the act of having her entire posture corrected. His eldest child had even averred such, stating that now that she could do the katas without pain, she would not squander the second chance to excel.

In the safety of her own mind, Hinata's drive had another reason. She knew that she had to be both strong enough to lay claim to those dark eyes, and strong enough to keep her claim against all others. He would serve her, and only her, if she had anything to say about it.

Speaking of which, she hadn't properly thanked Neji in all this time. Her growth had not been overnight, but over the course of many years. Neji, her dear cousin, was always there to tear her down, never knowing nor caring that he was helping her grow.

Entering her quarters, she saw Hiasa had her Academy uniform ready, along with her supply pack. They had a rather special relationship.

"Nee-chan," Hinata whispered, a rare smile on her face, "thank you for preparing my things." Hiasa, to Hinata, was closer family than her own younger sister.

Hiasa blushed and bowed, still unused to Hinata's highly personal form of address. Over the years, she alone had born witness to the girl's injuries from training, the bruises, bleedings, and broken bones from Neji. The offshoot of that was that she had gained her medical certification through necessity. Such a thing creates bonds.

As she helped Hinata dress, the girl she had grown to love as a daughter, or sister, turned her head to the side, catching Hiasa's eye. "I thought that this morning, before we head to the Academy, we should visit Neji first, to thank him for everything."

She noted the hardening of the elder woman's face, turning to embrace her tightly. "Don't look so, nee-chan. He won't land a hit on me this time, I promise. But to not thank the one who was instrumental in all this, that would be rude."

There was something in Hinata's smile and eyes which calmed Hiasa, smoothing her brow. Though there were several in their clan she disliked, that mutual cousin was the only one she loathed. If it wouldn't have left Hinata in the care of another, she would have killed him in his sleep long before now.

Stepping back, the girl raked her fingers through her hair, cut high in the back to sweep along the jaw line. It was a fairly unique style in their clan, where long hair was part and parcel of their culture. Even with Hyuuga in the Academy, techniques had been taught to either shorten the hair, or hide the extra length through a Genjutsu. She knew this to be Hinata's rebellion against the clan which had shunned her.

It had been a rare show of leniency and a concession from the Headmaster. He would not enforce actual short hair for males, and mid-back for females, so long as the lengths looked like they were following policy. This meant techniques for hiding the excess were allowed, so long as nothing broke the technique. There had been enough cases of someone's child becoming suddenly hairy, and having a haircut right there in front of the class, to enforce the training.

"We should be going, Hinata-chan, if we hope to catch Neji before his team meeting." Hiasa couldn't help running her fingers through the girl's hair, before giving it a quick brush. As she moved towards the door, she looked back and nodded, adopting a properly servile demeanor as she slid the door open. Their closeness had to be kept a secret.

They didn't need to go all that far. Ever since the Cloud Incident, Neji had been housed under the Main's roof, though he was marked as a Branch member. Given their actual family placement, Hiasa rapped once on the doorframe, before sliding the panel open. Since Hinata was the Heir, even a single knock was sufficient courtesy, especially given the occupant of the room.

To his credit, Neji was dressed and seemed to be taking inventory, carefully packing the materials he might need today. He stood as he saw who was at the entry, sketching a bow which reeked of offense.

Hinata stepped inside, shielding Hiasa's hands as a privacy jutsu was activated. The boy didn't seem to notice anything amiss, his hate-filled eyes focused solely on the reason for his father's death.

"Hinata-sama, what is your need of me?" Though the words were polite, the sneer in his voice was blatant.

Hinata only smiled at him. "Neji-nii-san, it occurred to me that I had never thanked you. After all, it was your hiring of that masseur which fixed my back. You made all this possible."

Her fingers flickered into a seal, and the boy dropped to the floor screaming. She shut it off almost immediately. "Thank you, Neji-nii-san. Thank you for all the pain."

Again he writhed on the floor as she applied that hated seal for another second. "Thank you, seriously, for everything. All of this is due to your efforts. Thank you, cousin."

This time, the pain didn't end until he blacked out. Releasing the seal, Hinata stepped back, and found herself embraced. "I know that must've been hard for you, Hinata-chan. You've never used it before, on anyone."

She melted into the embrace. "Had it been anyone but him, I don't think I could have done it. Thank you for lending your strength once more, nee-chan."

She turned and returned the smile she saw on the woman's lips. Though she herself was marked, there was pride in Hiasa's eyes, along with vindication. "Come, let's get you to the Academy."

She disengaged the technique, then adopted her servile demeanor once more as they left the room and moved towards the compound gates.

Neji, once he awoke some thirty minutes later, was left with the realization of that mousy scared little girl, the weakling who was destined for failure, had just used the binding seal on him. This was the second time in his life it had been invoked, the first being a test after the tattoo was applied. Even the punishment for his ruse had been a beating at his uncle's hands, though it was called training. Not even then, when he had put the man's own daughter at risk, was the seal used.

He also knew fear for the first time, knowing too that none could hear of this, not that any would believe that sweet little Hinata had done such a thing. He slowly returned to the task of packing the day's supplies, his fingers not yet over their tremors. One thing stuck in his mind: nobody came, so no one had heard his screams.

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Their walk through the village gathered stares for multiple reasons. First and foremost, Jiraiya was walking through the village, instead of hopping from the rooftops. Secondly was the boy walking besides the legend, himself known in certain quarters. Never before had the two been seen in public together, and yet there they were, chatting amongst themselves in soft voices, the much larger of the two with his hand sometimes resting on the boy's head, and other times on his young shoulder.

This was a planned action, a rather unsubtle display of connection. Known by some as Naruichi, the rest clueless as towards his name, it was evident that he was under the Toad Sage's protection. This brought about a slight sense of urgency, cataloging the child's features for solicitation and favors.

Those with long enough memories were especially diligent. The last time Jiraiya-sama had done anything like this before, the child under his protection became Hokage. Even if the current child did not reach that most sacred of mantles, treating the lad well would surely go far in gaining the Sage's favor.

Jiraiya noted every single business, though overtly no attention was given to them. He knew that Naruto's secret would not last forever, especially in a shinobi village. It had taken a rather large effort to shield him up to this point. Eventually, it would come out, and he planned on seeing just how those panderers reacted.

In time, they found themselves in the Administrative Sector, one of the few parts of the village which were not contained in a managed quadrant. Jiraiya whispered to the boy as they approached the Academy proper, "I'll take you up to the wall, and from there it will be the third window. Just walk on the left, and enter the first open one."

Naruto could feel the Chameleon Technique around them and nodded. Upon reaching the wall, he turned to his godfather. "Thank you, Uncle, for everything." This got him another hair tousle, before he scampered up the wall using his hands and feet.

Jiraiya watched him go, still holding the technique, a tear of pride slipping down his weather-worn cheek. 'I guess I can loiter a bit. If memory serves, there should be a calligraphy supply shop close by. We can do lunch.' Nodding to himself with a slight smile, he turned and made his way to that shop. 'Minato, Kushina, you'd be so proud of him.'

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Finding and slipping into the open window was easy, as well as locating the row of low tables. A few subtle coughs told him that the room was roughly thirty feet in length, twenty feet in width, and was pitched to a sloped depth of ten feet. This meant he was on the upper-most tier.

He could smell others here, his initial coughs only giving a broken wall of sorts, but those segments had scents and heartbeats, quite aside from voices. None were close to him at present, nor were there any indications that he had been seen. Making his way forward in his bandy-legged gait, he came across a padded zone, set in the floor before the low tables. Nodding to himself, he sunk down into a seiza upon the softer surface, nudging forward until his hands found the wooden structure.

He knew he would be picked out after the initial roll-call. The first day was the only time a student could be out of uniform, as they were sized on-site and given their clothing and materials. According to the pamphlet, read to him by Sorrow, following this would be orientation, the official tour, and the filling of paperwork for the military contract with its mandated years of service.

He would be released at lunch, expected to return the following morning in proper dress uniform, whereupon he would begin the final year of the Academy for his age group. All he had to do now was simply wait until the class instructor took roll and introduced him to the rest of the students.

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Hinata entered the third floor room, seeing most of the same faces as she had when she was first accepted into the Academy. Classes tended to stick together, the only real changes being the floor level. First, third and fourth years were on the first, second and third floors, respectively. Second year was the only oddity, being taught in the basement since it was the grade in which chakra was accessed and the first techniques taught. It was heavily insulated and padded.

Immediately, she knew something was new, though most of the students hadn't caught on at all, busy in their little cliques. There was a pair of very familiar eyes on the upper tier, with the Nara and Akimichi the only others on that row. Hinata moved towards him, deftly inserting other students between her and the Inuzuka, that insufferable panty thief.

Hinata, like all Hyuuga, were very traditional in their undergarments, and was determined that Kiba never discover that fact for himself, nor that she needed to lightly bind her growing breasts. Her eyes darted back to the blond, her pale cheeks dusting slightly from inner thoughts.

The Nara lazily glanced at her from his position at the far end, before he curled up like a cat on his student cushion. Besides him, the rotund boy chuckled and gave her a slight wave, before resuming his whispered chat with his lazy friend. Those pleasantries done, and no Inuzuka invading her space, she made her way over to Naruichi.

He turned towards the approaching sound, though she was careful to walk silently and nodded slightly. She paused as she took in his ebon eyes, the ones which had haunted her dreams, the dark blind eyes which lacked the White.

"I'm not in your seat, am I? I figured the back row would be the least populated, but wasn't aware of any arrangement." His posture was friendly and open.

"Not at all, Naruichi-san." She saw him straighten a bit. "May I sit by you? I'm Hinata, Hyuuga Hinata. You fixed my back several years ago." She knew of his other name, as well as what he contained. Her future servant was a demon host.

"Ah yes. Please, sit. I like to talk to each of my clients to find what they liked or disliked, how my service could be improved, and how treatments may have helped or hindered. My apologies for not seeing you sooner, but one needs an invitation to access a clan's estate, and I never received one after that first visit."

Hinata sat at the table on his right, lowering herself onto the in-floor cushion. "Hiasa-san says that she has seen you often though. She goes to your...business place for foot massages." She kept a tight lid on her jealousy, as she had yearned for his touch again, always knowing when Hiasa was given a foot rub outside of the walls. For her, the Unmarked, rarely was she allowed outside of the compound. Even for the Academy, she had a full escort.

Hiasa, always able to read her moods, was diligent in learning those techniques, granted to Hinata and none other. Though such as always appreciated, it wasn't the same. Naruichi, Uzumaki Naruto, jinchuuriki no Kyuubi, had personally rubbed her feet those many years back.

"Ah," she could see the playful slant of his empty eyes, "it would not be proper, even with her, to discuss your state. A client's privacy is always protected, even from their own servants."

Hinata blinked, never thinking of that angle. Her esteem for her future servant increased, knowing that all of her secrets could be entrusted to his care, and that he would take them to the grave. Part of her wondered on if a demon host's promise was as binding as it was with summoned demon.

"To answer your question, I have been well. I've been very well thanks to your treatment, and it was as you said. It was painful, yes, but thanks to that pain I was given a second chance. By your hands, I became well enough to enter this Academy. Now if you could entertain one of my questions?"

"Of course, Hyuuga-sama."

"Please, call me Hinata." She noted his features and hair. She had been so enthralled with his eyes during their first and only meeting that she scarcely recalled anything else about him, aside from his hair. She hadn't been sure of the actual color until today, only that is wasn't black, like his eyes.

She noted his blush as he bowed from his position. "Hinata-sama honors this one. What is your question, it shall be answered."

"I'm guessing that you are not lost, so are you planning on becoming a shinobi? And why only the last year?"

"Ah, Hinata-sama, it has long been a dream of mine to become a shinobi, to protect my family and village."

"Not village then family?" she interrupted, a little annoyed that he refused to be more familiar.

"Family always comes first, Hinata-sama. I was an orphan until my chosen family found me. They will always come first. Besides, it's the families which make the village, not the other way around. As for the second part, it was explained to me that those who had received instruction at home could complete the final year of training and receive their registration."

She had known this, given that it was used by Neji. The Branch quota had already been met, but every eligible Main member had to complete the Shinobi Academy. When she was in her third year, he managed to petition her father to take the final year by itself, and ended up as Rookie of the Year, beating out those who had been in the program from the first day.

It was all to show his superiority when compared to the Main's useless Heiress, as it was a rather notable achievement in and of itself. She would have to thank him again later for teaching her humility.

Her eyes were drawn by pink and blond, as the Yamanaka and Haruno vied for the Uchiha's attention. She couldn't recall him all that well from their first year, except that he wasn't nearly as bellicose as he was today. There had been a coup attempt from within the clan, with several septs trying to wrest control of the Konoha Police and the clan leadership away from the clan head, which had been Uchiha's father.

It had been quite the drama during their second year, as their eldest son had gone on some sort of rampage upon the murder of his parents and extended family. Initially, it was thought that he was felled as well, but that turned out to be chakra exhaustion. In the end, only he and his younger brother were left alive. Though the elder had been forgiven by Hokage-sama, he still entered self-imposed exile, joining some monastic order or something.

His brother though, he was too young to understand at the time, being a rather sheltered child. To his mind, as Hinata had heard his mutterings several times over the years, Itachi had killed everyone, and he would murder his elder brother to avenge his fallen clan. As far as she was concerned, they had always been a cursed clan. Her own family might enslave their own, but they didn't need to kill their most loved person to unlock parts of their bloodlimit.

Her further musings were cut off as the students' instructors entered and moved to the front of the room. Mizuki-sensei, being the junior instructor, had the class show their respect, before Iruka-sensei captured their attention.

"Class, it is an honor to greet all of you today. This marks the beginning of the end for most of you, for by the end of this year, you will either be found in groups of three for private instruction, or will be folded into a larger Genin pool with rotating instructors.

"Though some of the other classes may have Genin who are sent back to the Academy for extra instruction, I have full faith in all of you. I am sure that once this class passes the end-of-term tests, I will not see a single one of you until you are presented for your next mission as a shinobi of Konohagakure."

He paused, taking in their faces and looks of determination. His eyes stopped on an unfamiliar boy, wearing both a bluish robe and long blond hair. "You there, back row, blond. Are you one of the new students?" There had been a teachers meeting that morning with a rather surly Headmaster. He got a seated bow from the child. "Your name, please? Inuzuka, eyes front!"

"Naruichi, sensei."

Iruka moved back to his low table and picked up his roster, flipping through the sheets. "I'm not seeing your name." He paused as he looked at the small painted portrait clipped to an application. Naruichi wasn't the name given.

"Uzumaki Naruto, is that your name?" He didn't notice his own hands shaking. The Kyuubi, he had the Kyuubi in his class of clan heirs.

His question wasn't answered by the boy asked, but by several of the orphans on the front row. As one, they stood and turned, shock written on their faces.

"Kyuubi!" they howled, as they drew weapons and threw them with practiced ease.

The rest of the class had reacted as well, most seeing the stranger for the first time. That name was known by many, though most had believed him to be outside of Konoha. Iruka and Mizuki were too stunned by the very unwelcome news to intercept, at least that would be their official excuse.

Naruto had flinched as his name and tenant were exposed, wondering how it had happened. Naruichi had been the name Jiraiya had put on the application. He stood, kicking his table up and turning it lengthwise. The thrown weapons impacted against it.

His eyelashes brushed the tip of one, before he chambered a kick and sent the table back at his attackers. Using it as a distraction, he turned and dove out the open window, releasing the tight grip on his chakra. Hinata, who had moved up to defend her future servant, screamed in pain before she dropped. He had flared his considerable chakra right as her Byakugan had activated, leaving her temporarily blinded, right before a thrown kunai lodged itself in her shoulder.

Every single budding sensor in the entire building added to the cacophony at the unexpected migraine as they registered his signal. It's one thing to be expecting a signal, but quite another to be blindsided.

Before the visibly glowing child hit the ground from his flight, another large signal exited a Shunshin while in the air, caught the boy, and Flickered away before either of them touched dirt. The unknown chakra source winked out, leaving only lingering headaches for them trained to detect energy emissions.

Two seconds later, two ANBU touched down in the same spot, surprised to see each other. The one with the small kanji on his mask reacted first, by stepping into the other agent's shadow and vanishing. Unseen by either of them, a small scouting toad made its way into the Academy.

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Danzou had been annoyed for most of the day, having woken up with a headache. His morning started on that tone and got worse as it progressed, up to and through the staff meeting held at the beginning of each week. It was one for which he was unprepared, not having time that morning to access his office due to traffic congestion on the streets. He was unaware that Jiraiya was the reason for the heavy turnout.

Danzou hated not being prepared, and tended to take this out on his Senju-steeped subordinates.

As he was walking through the building after the meeting, in the hopes of reaching his office, an aide ran up to him.

"Disturbance in 304, Shimura-sama. This needs your attention, as some students are claiming that the Kyuubi..." She found herself alone in the hallway.

He had Flickered to the door, noting that other teachers had their heads outside of their classes, concern and fear on their faces. With a snarl, he slammed the door open, breaking it off its track. The disarray inside the class stilled instantly.

"Umino-sensei, just what is going on in here?!" He had also registered that enormous energy signature, but was content to let others handle it.

Iruka and Mizuki both bowed to their Headmaster. "Headmaster, forgive the impropriety, but why was that one put in this class? I was given charge of the clan heirs, and yet that beast was put among them."

"What are you talking about?" Danzou had a sinking sensation. 'It can't be.'

"Uzumaki Naruto, Headmaster, only he went by another name. Naruichi, I think it was." Iruka had yet to straighten, but Danzou could sense the fear and anger radiating off the man. "So why was one so dangerous put in this class?"

"I want to know the same. What else happened here?" He could see the Hyuuga girl being escorted down from where she was seated, bleeding from her shoulder. 'That doesn't bode well.' On the bottom row was a broken table, and several of his orphans clustered around a bloody one who didn't look to be breathing. 'That really doesn't bode well.'

Fifteen minutes later, he stormed into his office, grabbed everything inside his In-box, and rifled through them. There was no mention of the Jinchuuriki being entered into the Academy, nor anything to give a hint of when it was brought back into the village. 'Perhaps it never left in the first place.'

Calming his anger, he pressed his intercom button. It would appear that there was only one copy of the records in this building, which meant his office had been infiltrated. "Have Umino-san see me at his earliest convenience, and make sure that he has his class roster."

Danzou hated intelligence failures. Outside, it began to rain.

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"Hokage-sama will see you now, Jiraiya-sama." Takako felt something was off. Jiraiya hadn't hit on her once. All he did was stand, with that serious expression, and thank her politely.

"Ah, Jiraiya-kun. I wasn't really expecting you today, but this is just as well. Will young Naruto be available later on? I wish to visit him, after the Academy lets out for the day."

"Sensei, do you have any idea what you have done?"

The question, not to mention his student's demeanor sobered the Hokage. "What do you mean, Jiraiya-kun?"

The Sage simply stared at his teacher, doing his level best to contain his anger. Out of his sleeve, he pulled a slip of paper, and set it on the low desk. "Recognize that, Sensei?"

Sarutobi picked it up, seeing the forgery he had created earlier. "Where did you get this?"

"From the Academy, of course. I'm curious why it was submitted, and not this one." He pulled out another application. "On a hunch, I had filled out several copies, just in case one got lost. So, perhaps you could tell me why you just assassinated Naruichi?"

"That insult was not his name!"

"Of course not. It was his stage name, one by which his clients knew him. Only now the news is out, and it won't be long before they call him something else." Jiraiya clapped slowly. "Good job. You just killed his career."

Sarutobi began to get an uneasy feeling. "How was I supposed to know?!"

In answer, Jiraiya flicked a kunai upwards. A moment later, a body fell through the pierced ceiling panel. Jiraiya flipped him over with his geta. The mask had a small kanji on it, above the left eye.

"It was his secret, and secrets aren't safe here, nor with you. As Hokage, this information would, of course, be passed along to your senior councilors. Look how well the initial sealing information went. The boy's name was known almost instantly after a certain...faux pas, I think you called it.

"Though this information was not included in the lesson reports you had required from Teuchi-san and Ikiri-san, if you had come by, this would have also been made known to you. Thighs and Sighs is a lot more secure than this office, that's for certain. So much effort to keep his secret a secret, all undone by a few strokes of your well-intentioned brush."

Sarutobi could only stare at the body, before his gaze moved down to the applications. 'No...what, what have I done?'

"Can you hear it, Sensei?" Jiraiya had moved to the window. "Down there, on the streets, news is spreading like wildfire. By tonight, most, if not all, of the village will know that the Kyuubi's container never left Konoha" He turned his eyes of betrayal and hurt to the older man. "So can you do him a favor, and stop doing him favors?"

Its message delivered, the clone vanished in a plume of smoke, dropping the kunai holster it had worn. It wasn't Jiraiya's though. After scent testing, it was discovered that the holster and the weapons it contained belonged to the dead ROOT agent.

All Sarutobi could do was stare out of the windows, his hearing also catching the shouted rumors. Turning, he made his way to the council chambers, knowing a meeting would be called sooner or later. On the way, he passed Loyalty, the piece of calligraphy he had created that morning. That word rang hollow, however, given how greatly he had betrayed the boy's trust.

Chapter Text

The weeks following the Second Sarutobi Incident, as it was known internally at Thighs and Sighs, were interesting and rather busy.

At the onset, given the way in which Naruto's closely held secret was openly aired, there was a very real sense of anger. For the majority of the past twelve years, the Kyuubi and its container were believed to be outside of Konoha and controlled, by most of the village's population. In all that time, there had been no mention of the boy at all from visiting merchants, hawking more than just their wares. Outside the walls, there was no gossip or news regarding Uzumaki Naruto.

For the village to learn, and by nightfall of that first day most did, that Kyuubi's Container was not only in Konoha all this time, but had actually walked among them in plain sight, it was a great shock to the system. Of course there was anger, but it didn't last long. That is to say, for most it didn't last long.

There's always a few bitter souls who cling to misery. This is in addition to the orphans who were housed alongside Naruto during those early years. Those children, despite the ensuing years and Danzou's modified regimen at the combined orphanage, still suffered a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Their beloved Matron telling them the truth, right before she was hauled away to be martyred, had left a deep wound.

Perhaps, in time, it would have healed as the years went on. His name had been a bane, a dark thing to haunt their dreams on the edge of madness. The Academy had given some respite, with not only the useful lessons on meditation, but also weapons training. So when that beast was found to be in a confined space with them, they reacted in one of the few ways they could.

Of those involved that day, one child died of his injuries during the brouhaha, when he was impaled by the weapons lodged in a table when it fell on him. The other orphans in that class were removed and never seen again as the Sandaime's Law was invoked, though it was a thoroughly broken thing. Despite that fact, the law itself was never revoked, hoping now to prevent knowledge of their Jinchuuriki from reaching other countries.

For most, the anger couldn't last, especially among the adults. They remembered all too well the sheer scale of malice as that gigantic fox towered in the sky, wreathed by its flaming tails. This was in addition to the notion of animals summons being common knowledge, along too with the fact that every single summoned creature was a demon of some sort. And if there was one thing you didn't do, it was to incur a demon's wrath.

The children might not know better, but the adults did. The anger would not last long. Even before the morning of the second day, it was already shifting into fear. After all, the Kyuubi's Container had been attacked. The greater demon, whether wearing the boy's skin or kept captive inside of a seal, would not be pleased. There was a very real fear, as parents held their children, of the Taint once more appearing.

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Hiashi stared balefully at the females kneeling before his desk, still nursing a headache from the Village Council meeting. It had been far too loud. Once again, there had been a few idiots calling for the boy's death, but they had been literally browbeaten by others fearing the demon's return should the seal fail. Twelve years was enough time to put things into a better perspective.

That all said, his eldest daughter was at the center of all this. From every report he had seen, Hinata had stood in defense, and been wounded for it. His daughter was hit with a kunai in a classroom while taking attendance. His little girl was hurt at school. Hiashi found himself angry again, and the headache intensified.

"Why?"

Hinata shifted, still in her low position. "I do not understand the question, Hyuuga-dono."

"Why were you injured?" he ground out. He could feel his pulse in his temple. His daughter raised her head slightly, and he could see the confusion in her eyes.

"I am, I don't understand. I get hurt here too, so, why should it matter?"

"Why should it matter?!" His hand smacked the top of his low desk, making his inkstone jump, trailing its black blood. Gravity never had a chance to assert itself, as his other hand whipped out, driving the stone through a wall. Hinata barely had time to blink before she was hauled up by a fistful of her kimono and given a firm shake.

"You stupid, stupid child! Training is one thing, but to be injured while taking class roll?!" She found herself in a peculiar situation. Feet still not touching the ground, she was pulled into a fierce hug. She remembered that the last time this had happened, Kumo had been involved.

"Stupid girl, throwing yourself in front of weapons, making your father worry. Show more care for yourself, my stupid daughter." He was muttering into her hair, and she could feel the tension in his body. Cautiously, she lifted her arms and snaked them around his torso, feeling him stiffen.

"Tou-sama?" she spoke into his chest. "I'm sorry for worrying you."

The squeeze tightened briefly, but he didn't relinquish his hold. "Stupid daughter doing stupid things..." She could tell there was no real heat in his words. She blinked as a cloth blotted her dampened cheeks. Hiasa smiled at her gently, before she returned to her low position, facing away from them to give the semblance of privacy.

Hiashi blinked, having forgotten all about Hinata's servant being in the room. Before he could mull too much on that fact, he was distracted by his daughter saying something into his chest. Dimly, he was aware that he had yet to set her down.

He glanced down, surprised to see his wife's eyes looking back up at him. "Tou-sama, about Naruichi..."

Hiashi grunted roughly. "Uzumaki will not..." He stilled, heart suddenly racing as he recalled that person inside their clan walls, hands on his eldest.

"Naruichi. I will still call him that, as he will serve me," she interrupted. Ah, it was his daughter, not his dead wife. "Even if a demon host, I will add his power to the clan. He will serve me."

She tightened her hold, such as it was. "Tou-sama?"

He was silent for a bit, before he firmly stated, "You are my daughter."

She turned her eyes away, the blush prominent on her cheeks. For some reason, this made him feel something long forgotten: protective. He was shaken from his thoughts again.

"Tou-sama? Um, where is Neji-nii-san? I need to thank him for something he taught to me."

"You wish to thank Neji-kun? Though your cousin, he is still beneath your station."

"This one's neck is not so stiff, that it can't bend a bit in gratitude." Hiashi blinked, as that had been one of his wife's sayings.

"I believe he is in our dojo, practicing forms." They lapsed into a comfortable silence.

After a bit, he felt his daughter tapping his back. "Tou-sama, not that this isn't nice, but I can't go and thank Neji-nii-san until you put me down first."

With a start, he gently set her back down, then turned around to mask his embarrassment. "You are dismissed, the both of you." As he heard the door slide open then shut, he found himself restless. For the first time since his twin's death, Hiashi wasn't quite sure what to do with himself.

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Naruto moved through forms slowly, the soft deflection Gekkou style, taught to him by Hayate. The slow speed, coupled with breathing techniques, was used to center oneself and meditate while in motion, and there was much thought to be had. Behind him, in Takada's main dojo, forty-seven others moved with him, their steady heartbeats and breathing meshing with his own.

In the wake of his reveal, it was decided that his security would be better served at Takada's compound. While Thighs and Sighs did have marvelous security seals, it lacked muscle, as it were. Takada had plenty of muscle, and just cause to flex. As the wait progressed to see how things stood outside the compound walls, Naruto had been given quarters close to the primary dormitory.

Takada's compound, being Gozu's old habitat, had been a bit too large for him, despite housing those under his command. In the past three years, however, much of the idle space had been put to good use after his marriage to Akane. Though he was now Gekkou Takada, having chosen to take their clan name, having none himself, he was still known largely as simply Takada.

For the former widow Akane, this was also a good way to offer, through her second husband, a single roof for her extended family, for those who lived in Konoha. For those living in the village, housing had always been where it could be found, leaving Gekkou and their septs scattered. Though there was a proper clan compound, it was situated many miles north of Konoha.

The transition had been rather smooth, for the most part, with only a few hiccups. One such hiccup was glaring at the blond boy, visibly upset at seeing him in her dojo. Before the merger, her only training room had been the Academy's, once she was moved to Konoha from the ancestral clan holdings.

Her potential at weapons had been realized here at Takada's, her tutelage boosted by his own soldiers, in addition to the Gekkou training. So it was that her territorial nature asserted itself. It was here where she was recognized for her skills, the dismay sharp at seeing that boy here.

It was the first time she had seen him since her disturbing and one-sided defeat. The complete domination had shamed her, and served as her drive to improve with the hope of completely destroying Naruichi.

But now, that wasn't his name, nor had it been. He was Uzumaki Naruto, the boogeyman and demon host. That must've been how he had beaten her, using the demon's trickery. And now, that beast was sullying the one place where she had been seen for herself.

"That demon has no place here, the cheat. How could Takada-sama be taken in by such a foul creature? Of all the stupid things to do, he put everyone in danger." Though her mutterings were low, Naruto's ears were sharp enough to hear her, along with other more familiar heartbeats.

"What a failure, a coward who fled the Academy. He shouldn't be here. He should just disappear."

She stepped back in surprise as Naruto was suddenly in her space, the ranks which had been behind him pausing as the kata was broken. She froze as her brain seized at the signals his stance was sending, barely feeling the elbow shoved in to her sternum.

Her body reacted though, doubling over as the breath was forced from her lungs. The elbow whipped up, breaking her lowered jaw and rattling her brain, before it descended on the back of her skull. She bonelessly dropped to the mat. Above her, Naruto bowed to Takada and Akane, who were standing behind Tenten.

"This one greets Takada-sama and Akane-sama. Dashi-san, there is no need to sully your blade. The problem has been resolved." He could hear the angry mutters of others who had heard the girl, and heard the muttering spread.

Akane had dipped her head as Takada turned hard eyes first towards the disrespectful girl, and then to his wife. "Please, Husband, have mercy on my foolish niece. She is still young."

"Well, Naruto-kun," Takada began, no longer needing to hide his name, "what would you have me do in this instance? This Genin just insulted not only a quadrant Boss, but also her clan heads." Takada enjoyed asking for the boy's opinion, given his penchant for honest and thoughtful answers.

Naruto, from his bowed position, calmly stated, "For what she said and insinuated, that your reasons for having me for a subordinate were flawed, as well as your decision to have me learn from Hayate-sensei being faulty, she should be cut down. However, this would cause Akane-sama pain, and might breed resentment in the Gekkou Clan.

"Takada-sama, with your blessing, she will be educated. I will school her."

Akane turned widening eyes to Naruto. Though she had been kept up to date with the boy's training, this had been the first time actually seeing him violent. Given the rumors she had heard in the past few days, they could not begin to dent the image she had of her personal masseur.

One of Takada's runners had informed them of Naruto's impromptu class, and they had come to watch. This also led to them overhearing Tenten's diatribe. Before Dashi could draw his blade, Naruto had already dropped the girl, viciously.

Both she and Takada had, briefly, registered the boy's intent. His posture during the attack was Threat, Danger, Flee, Death and Pain, each of them a nonverbal bodily cue, all delivered at the same time. For that single moment, her heart had paused, Takada's grip on her arm being the single anchor which kept her from otherwise reacting to the threat.

Even if the hushed whispers in the markets called the boy a monster, he was their monster, poised to savage anyone who went against his family.

"See? This is why I like this subordinate! Naruto-kun, it will be as you say. Dashi, arrange her transport to the infirmary."

"Dashi-san," began Naruto, "please handle her carefully. I understand your anger fully, but she is mine."

Dashi smirked, before signaling two subordinates to bring out one of the dojo's stretchers. "And what if they slip while transporting her?"

"I will trust in the honor of Dashi-san."

"You heard him, boys. No mistakes with this one, you hear?" All those present knew that Naruto had full rights to her punishment, as Takada's proxy.

"You got it, Dashi-san, and no need to worry, Naruto-kun. We'll make sure nobody messes with her." That said, Tenten was carefully lifted onto the stretcher, her head placed in a padded mold to keep it facing up so her jaw would not touch anything. As they left the room, Akane stepped towards the boy.

"Naruto-kun, will you walk with us?"

The boy nodded, before he straightened. "I will, but first I must do something." He turned towards the group twenty feet behind him, and bowed deeply. "Thank you for joining me in exercise."

"Thank you for leading us in exercise."

"They are bowing in respect, Naruto-kun. I would like to join you next time, if that would be okay with you."

The boy could only blush and nod, before she took his hand gently, with a squeeze, and led him from the dojo.

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Nadakai shot up with a gasp, followed by a groan of pain. She was in a bed and her jaw ached something fierce. The last thing she remembered was, was that boy, that demon. It had attacked her, unprovoked. She needed to warn her family.

"Nadakai, are you feeling better?" The voice caused Tenten's head to whip to the side, seeing her Clan Head. Akane's face was impassive, with only the tightness of her eyes showing her displeasure. "You did a very stupid thing, girl."

Tenten shook her head, the undone buns swishing around her neck. "That thing is dangerous, Gekkou-sama. It attacked me without reason!"

"That thing's name is Naruto-kun, and he actually saved your life. Or did you not know that both Takada-sama and myself were behind you when you slandered Naruto's name? My husband was within his rights to have you cut down right then and there."

"Wha..." The girls face had paled as her voice faltered.

"Dashi-san, as befitting Takada-sama's bodyguard, was already drawing his blade when Naruto-kun defused the situation. He saved your life. Had that boy not moved, you would have been killed for the disrespect you displayed.

"Quadrant Boss, Clan Head and Lord of this house, and you stood there slandering both him and his subordinate. Had Dashi-san not acted, another would have taken his place. Even now, Naruto-kun protects your life."

The teen could only shake her head in disbelief, her limbs trembling and cold. Movement caught her eye by the open doorway, as a patch of blond hair moved into view, before it stood. Her bane stepped into the room, bowing deeply to her aunt. He had a naked blade resting against his shoulder.

"They will not reach her, Akane-sama. I have called in my rights after the sixth person, though they were going easy on me, I could tell." He straightened and turned towards Tenten, an ugly look on his face.

"As for you," The term used was incredibly rude. "I am only dangerous to those who threaten my family. Takada-sama met me on the very first day under Ikiri-sama's instruction, and gave his blessings. He allowed me to learn, thrive and survive under that roof

"Then, he had me tested, with his own body no less. That level of trust, given to someone like me. He then allowed me to learn the blade by Akane-sama's own flesh and blood, her son. And then you go and slander all of that."

Something shifted in his stance, and she found it hard to breathe, much less think. "You shat on all the ones who gave me a family to love, and I will teach you just why that is a bad idea."

The shadows beneath the bed surged upwards, wrapping the girl in her own sheets, before bodies formed completely and trundled her out of the room. Naruto, once more, bowed deeply to Akane.

"I will not go easy on her, but I will do what I can to ensure she does not die. This is one of the few gifts which I can give the woman who has completed Takada-sama's life."

He heard her clothing rustle as she stood, and then there were warm hands on his cheeks and a soft kiss on his forehead. Akane grinned as she saw his face redden. "You will owe me a full massage after this, to sooth my worked up nerves. Though she did a stupid thing today, she is still my niece. My husband as well, you will attend the both of us."

She saw his eyes proclaim Mischievous. "So long as Takada-sama and Akane-sama don't start making out again. I'm too young to be subjected to the hormones of my elders."

The hands on his cheeks became fists which ground into his temples. "Brat! You're a brat! And who's fault was that anyways?!"

"It was the both of you, being in such a state! Hibari-sensei and I got called out in the dark of night to tend to the wounds you both received." He stepped backwards, away from her vengeful knuckles. "But that showed Takada-sama's great respect for you, to fight you as he would anyone. He did not hold back just because you were a woman, even a desired one."

Now it was Akane's turn to blush, feeling her pulse quicken at both the memory, and the surge of feeling she had for her husband. Once the worst of their wounds were mended, he had asked for her hand in marriage. Her eyes moved fondly to the boy, snagging his shoulder in a quick hug. "Come, nephew, you have a cousin to educate."

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As they each moved from different sections of the village towards their training ground, the new members of Team 9, under the instruction of Maito Gai, had something in common. Though it would be some time before this common ground was broached, it was still there, in each of them.

Lee was not from the same orphanage as Naruto, but as the children were consolidated from the three buildings into one, stories were shared. His own parents had been killed by the Kyuubi, and now he knew that the beast wearing the face of Uzumaki Naruto had been inside the village all this time. He would have his vengeance, for their sakes.

Neji moved in a sedate walk, the pace slow to give his bruised muscles time to mend. The seal caused ones body to lock up, which brought very real pain and harm to the core muscle groups. While he might despise and fear Hinata, he found himself truly hating the boy who was instrumental in fixing her in the first place. He would have his vengeance, ignoring the fact that he was the one to request the boy's services initially.

Tenten moved even slower than Neji, large swaths of her skin painted in hues of blue and green. In front of everyone, she had been given a sword, and had been beaten down by a decorative willow branch pulled from an urn. It was a stick, barely two feet in length, and with it was killed several times, only to wake with phantom tingles.

Barely able to stay conscious, that infernal boy bested her again by not only beating her sword skills with a twig, but also displaying healing techniques to fix her broken arm. Immediately afterwards, she had been thrown and beaten down again. This had continued for a solid hour, when most kendo spars and matches would be over in minutes.

He had only healed breaks and things which bled, leaving the rest of her exhausted body to mend on its own. He had only said one thing, and that was at the beginning as the two of them were surrounded by the combined clan.

"With these two hands, I will restore my family's honor."

She had been shamed and humiliated, hearing her own clan praising the boy's techniques and raw stamina. He had demonstrated no mercy nor quarter, even when her quivering limbs could no longer lift the blade, nor the times she dropped from chakra exhaustion. Even in such a state, the twig had descended, and she was killed. She would expose him for the beast he truly was, and then she would have her vengeance.