Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or The Wheel of Time series. If only I did, though, I wouldn't be looking for a job to help pay for college.

Rant: I like this story and concept, a lot. I hope you guys do, too. Don't worry about my other stories, though: they are continuing. This was a bit of an experiment for me, however. I've never written anything longer than a few paragraphs in the present tense, so this – while not my usual style – is something that I hope you enjoy. As different as it is, I know I enjoyed the writing of it.

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Gambler: An End and a Beginning

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Matrim Cauthon is eighty-seven when he dies. A group of a hundred soldiers working with a group of a dozen assassins have stormed the palace, and he isn't about to let that stand. He's old – that for sure – but he's fit. All of his skills and some of his strength are still with him, so he grabs his ashandarei, and with a contingent of his guards wades his way through the masses of men and women who have barged their way into his own home to kill his wife. Luckily, Fortuona – his sweet, lovely wife, still so young-looking thanks to using the power (and boy is he glad of that, which was something that was completely at odds with his set of beliefs as a youth) – was out, having left to respond to emergency in the northern reaches of her Empire.

His blade cuts deep into the flesh of one of the assassins, and as he throws a knife at the head of one of the others, he gets a flash of memory. Another life, another man perhaps, but still it's a memory of something similar, and can almost feel the cold steel of the sword that pierced his ribcage, nicking his heart. He can almost smell the blood leaking from his chest, almost see it stain his gold-embroidered fine blue coat, and he knows.

He spins, blade gleaming in the torchlight, and as he stops he sees one of his men lunging at an enemy soldier, over-extending himself, and he throws another blade, saving the man from the enemy behind him. He continues on, and it's been ten minutes, and other guards have come to aid them. He hears the enemy soldier command his troop to find one of the princesses or princes and use them as leverage, and sees red. Not only trying to kill his wife, but they dare try to harm his children! He will not allow it, so surges forward, mindful of the enemies around him.

A thrown dagger – blood and bloody ashes, it's his last one! – stops the man who had begun run off to find hostages. He forces his weary body to move, and then cuts through the soldiers before him, moving towards the commander. One of the man's soldiers blocs his way, and he's good. His spear whirls, dancing and ravens on it seem to be flying like a whirlwind around him. Sparks fly as the metals of their weapons meet, but his spear was Power-forged Ages ago, and cuts through the admittedly well-crafted blade of his opponent, biting into his neck and splattering his life-blood on the ground.

His eyes dull before Mat, and when body is kicked out of the way, all he can do at the disrespect the enemy commander was giving his loyal soldier is give a distasteful grimace. The man gives him the smuggest of looks, before boasting, "I may not be able to kill the Empress, but you're a decent enough prize, Prince of the Ravens. I'll get rewarded highly for your head, old man."

They fight, and the kid's good enough. No master, certainly, and nowhere near as good with a sword as Rand used to be, before he died. He's not even as good as his lackey whose body he kicked aside, but Matrim was tiring. He gets under Mat's guard when he slips on a puddle of blood, and the cold steel slides into his chest. It's the lung that the boy hits, and by the Light does it hurt!

"Ha," the man cried, "You dead now, you relic of a bygone Age! You're head is mine, and I'll be rich off your corpse." With that rather dramatic statement, he lifts his sword up high, apparently attempting to actually behead him in a super dramatic fashion. "I may be dying," he replies, blood in his throat and mouth, rivulets spilling over his lips, "But I'm not going alone." The man looks confused at that statement, and it's all he can do not to chuckle.

He flips his blade up, even as he lies dying, and sends the black spear through the man's gut. Confusion turns to rage, and rage turns to fear. And he falls back, with the Legendary Ashandarei of The Prince of the Ravens through him. And Mat smiles, knowing that still, luck was with him, and that the guards have killed off the other soldiers and assassins, and knows his children are safe, and he knows his wife is safe. And anyway, as old Lan would say, he had died well.

All faded to a painful black, and then oblivion.

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Matrim Cauthon opens his eyes, and everything is blurry. Everyone around him is a giant, and he's yelling, and he's confused. The giant woman holding him babbles something in a language he's never heard before, but that's normal, sort of, he knows loads of languages no else uses these days. It's odd that he cannot understand what she's saying, though. He doesn't understand just how he's still alive, however. He remembers killing that man, with his dying breath, and now he's here.

Then a giant beast of some sort breaks open the roof of wherever he is, covered in crimson fur and eyes like those spinning pinwheels that he saw in a fair in Lugard once, and the creature has nine huge tails writhing behind it. All he could think in that moment in time was that this was something Rand really should have dealt with before he sacrificed himself to seal the Dark One away.

The giant woman with hair like an Aile sends out golden chains and binds the creature – fox; it's a bloody fox! He loathes foxes, and snakes as well. One of the tails spears her through the gut, and she screams. Blood leaks from her mouth, and she looks at him, speaking to him, or so it seems, and tears begin to pour down her cheeks, mixing with the sweat and blood already there.

Then a blonde man appears, slams his palm onto the ground, and glowing squiggles of some sort spread from his palm. A being – the only way he could describe it was being. Looking at it was like looking at a hero of the Horn of Vallere: far above his level of comprehension, only completely lacking any semblance of humanity – appears. It begins dragging the chained fox towards him. Energy of some sort from the redhead and the blond surges towards him, and then did something upon his stomach, and some more glowing squiggles form on his abdomen. Then the being comes, doing the same thing by creating squiggles on his stomach. Only instead of the energy, it's the fox slowly being dragged inside of him. It's painful, it hurts, and damn it all – it burns! Then all faded to black once more.

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Naruto Uzumaki has always been a bit odd. It wasn't just the fact that he was the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi no Kitsune. The fact that he is a human sacrifice is something he had figured out by the time he was six, after overhearing dozens of civilian's gossip about the fact that he was a demon, and hearing a ninja talk about him having one sealed inside of him. No, the reason he is so strange was not just because he contains a giant fluffy being of destruction, but rather something else.

He dreams of a village, a real village, not the near-city that is Konohagakure no Sato; in those dreams his hair is dark, rather than a sunny blonde, and his eyes are like honey, and are a warm brown rather than a sky blue. He has friends there, in that village, in those dreams – something he doesn't have in Konoha, while he is awake. He dreams of stealing pies, of playing jokes, and of teasing a pretty girl who he's pretty sure his best friend has a crush on. But most of all, he dreams of truly living, alongside two of his best friends, and his family.

In his dreams he sees a blaze of crimson hair, stormy eyes and an easy smile on a tall, lanky frame. He dreams of another boy as well: stronger and bigger than he is, with warm brown eyes and a gentle manner. Laughter and smiles, with them, its always good, even in bad times, as together they can get through anything.

It's the three of them, on a mountainside – The Mountains of Mist, in the Two Rivers – and together they explore, and hunt, and thrive off of the land, and they are getting a taste of danger and excitement, though in truth they are close to home, should anything truly terrible happen.

While exploring a little ways of from the others, he finds a stone, with a strange shape – almost like an eagle – and he pockets it, keeping it on his person in the hope that it's a good luck charm.

It is, sort of, because later that day something interesting happens. When the three of them are exploring together, they find two huge statues. It's sunset and what would have been an otherwise uninteresting pair of stones catches the burning colors of the dying light, and a pair of statues is revealed. Two people, a man and a woman, carved in some white stone and standing taller than five of the surrounding blackwood trees put on top of each other. The man looks like a king, wearing his pride like a crown and standing tall against some unseen foe, a circlet on his brow and giant stone sword in his hand. The woman stands just as tall, wisdom practically radiating from her, wearing the shawl of an Aes Sedai, as well as having the ageless face of one, and her hand is upraised, as if warding off some great evil.

They all gasp at the statues, at the sheer skill of the craftsmanship seen even after ages of weathering, and the fact that once long ago, something was right here where they stood. People didn't just randomly build statues like that, especially in the middle of nowhere.

"Maybe there was a city here, a long time ago," he asks, excitement filling his voice at the thought.

"I don't know," the red-haired boy says. Rand, his mind supplies, that's Rand Al'Thor. "I've never heard any stories of anything ever being here but the Two Rivers."

The dark-haired boy – Perrin Aybara – scratches his chin thoughtfully before supplying, "I think Mat's right, Rand. Nobody just builds a statue in the middle of a forest. Must have been a long time ago, though, before the Trolloc Wars, even."

Naruto sticks his hand in his pocket, feeling the eagle-stone and fills his head with wonderings and dreams, of possibilities.

And then he wakes up, and he's in Konoha again, amid the disapproving stares of the civilians, and the guarded looks of the shinobi.

He likes the dreams, as they are more than just hanging out with friends, he learns in his dreams – far more than he learns while awake.

He remembers having a father, and a mother, and four cute little sisters he loved to tease, and whom he would have given his life to protect. He dreams of a father's love, and of his teachings.

His father, Abel Cauthon – more of a father than whoever the hell fathered him in this life – is with him in the forest, a bow of black yew in hand. The forest smells of pine and yew and shrubs; birds and bugs chirped and sang in the early morning. He notches an arrow, and then pulls the bow back, wood creaking slightly, muscles bulging with the effort, and releases. The arrow flies through the forest, whistling through the air, striking a little wooden target on a tree hanging over five hundred paces off.

"Whoa!" He gasps in delight, especially when his father hands him the bow and tells him to try giving it a try, though he doesn't give him an arrow. He pulls back as hard as he can – but the bow barely moves. He pouts sullenly, but his father just laughs and ruffles his hair, and then crouches down to look him in the eye.

"It's hard, isn't it? There's a reason for that – Two Rivers Long bows are some of the hardest bows in the world to draw, so most people don't use them, other than the folks who live around here. The upside to being so hard to use, and being even harder to master, is that the bows are stronger, and can fire heavier arrows faster. The shots fired are more powerful, have longer distance, and are harder to shift in the breeze." His father looks him in the eyes, and asks, "Are you up to it, lad?"

He smiles, and nods, determination burning its way through his whole body. It's a month before he's strong enough to pull the bow with any regularity, and after his father gives him an arrow for the first time, it's a few more months before his aim gets good enough for his own mind to call it decent. His father and his friends say its good already, especially for his age, but he can do better. So, he keeps on practicing, and he does improve beyond the others. "Son," Abel says, putting a firm hand on his shoulder as he does so, "For all that you love mischief-making, you're a good lad. I think you're old enough – certainly, you're skilled enough – that I'm going to teach you how to make your own bow. "

So he learns, and soon enough he's got a bow of his own. It's not the best in craftsmanship, but its solid, and he can use it on his own. He makes more, getting better and better each time, until he's sure he's made one he likes. He still keeps his first bow in his room, though.

Then his father, taking him once more into the forest, show's him a game trail, and says, "I'm teaching you to track now, and how to hit moving targets like animals. So he learns, and soon enough he's a grand tracker, able to spot game or men wandering about his home.

That's not all he learns. In the evenings, after working on the farm, his father takes him into the barn, throws him a quarterstaff, and begins teaching him to fight with it. It's hard, it's painful, but it's so fun! The rush of it makes him grin and feel alive, far more alive than when he's toiling on the farm. He learns to read and write, too; his father also teaches him mathematics. "I don't want anyone, in the village or out, thinking you're a simpleton, Matrim. So you've got to learn to read, to write, to be able to calculate money and make sure your not being cheated of it.

At first, he wasn't sure whether or not the dreams were real – but after he tries out some of what he learned in his dreams, he's sure. He can read and write and speak, though in a completely different language – and can do mathematics on a level beyond what everyone around him his age can do.

But it doesn't truly feel real to him until he finds a yew tree, and carves a bow for himself. He takes cords that he purchases from a merchant visiting Konoha, and twines them together as tightly as he can into a string, and then coats the string with beeswax. Putting the two pieces together one evening while in a forest glade, he pulls. It's hard, but he knows that with enough practice, he can pull it. He does just what he did in those dreams, and practices as much as he can – which is a lot more than Mat could, as nobody pays attention to him or has him doing chores; he lives alone, after all. As such, he practices nearly all the time, when he's not making arrows. His arrows have to be home made; no one will sell to him, after all. He is lucky that his father in the dreams, Abel, had shown him how to make arrows while surviving in the woods. The fletching he gets from the butcher's district or from feathers found in the woods. By the time he's able to pull the bow – two months, he's younger than he was in the dream after all – he has a stockpile of over two hundred arrows that he's made.

When he pulls the bow, in that peaceful glade with nothing but the chattering of birds and insects for company, he sees the arrow fly. It's uplifting; his heart is soaring, and its validation. The dreams are real, and he's not mad, something which occasionally worried him before now. He has to practice, he knows, but after a few months he's good enough to go hunting. He is a growing boy, after all, and he needs his meat. The stores won't sell to him, or if they do, the food is rancid. So he'll have to feed himself, and this was a way to do it.

The only people who like him in the least are the Old Man and the folks at Ichiraku's Ramen. As much as he loves them, and as much as he loves Ramen, he knows its not all he can eat, unless he wants to grow up to be short. Still, he goes there twice a week, for the tasty food, of course, but more for the people there, for the laughter and the chatter, and the fact that they talk to him, not ignore him. There is no feeling of the cold or wary gazes on his back at that Ramen stand, and that's a greater flavoring than the richest of sauces for his food. He goes there with the Old Man every other weekend. The Hokage's often busy, but he always makes time for a meal with him on those days. Naruto's grateful for it, and he loves the fact that it's not because of the demon in him that the old man visits, but for him. He can always tell when people lie to him, after all he can feel it, and he doesn't when he's with the Hokage. He feels some sadness from the Old Man when he looks at him, but Naruto's fine with that.

He's eight when, after a nice meal at Ichiraku's Ramen, he asks the old man to teach him how to read and write. The Hokage expresses some surprise at this, and asks why he didn't learn it in the school that all children are required to go to where they learn such things.

"They kicked me out the first day," he said, somewhat bitterly in reply, "Said I didn't deserve to learns things like that."

The Old Man's eyes dim, and Naruto can see the dimming of the man's joy that had filled them from their time together, a former lightness that had occupied his eyes, and could feel the bitterness and anger growing in his grandfather figure.

His lips thinned in displeasure, but he nodded, and said that the next day he'd come over and start teaching him. Then Teuchi brings them both another bowl of Miso Ramen, and the negative emotions, both in himself and what he can feel from the Old Man Hokage, retreat.

The next day, the Old Man comes and takes out a brush and a piece of paper, and begins to show him characters and tell him what their meaning is. He shows Nartuo basic sentences, using those words, as well. After three hours, he tells Naruto to practice these all week, and that next week he'd come back to test him. This continues for several months, before Naruto was up to speed with and a little beyond most of those his age.

"You're handwriting is good," the Old Man said, a glimmer of pride and wistfulness in his eyes as he said so. "That's good, just like the rest of your clan."

This is something of a surprise to Naruto, as when he had been Matrim Cauthon, his writing was considered barely above chicken scratch. The clan bit takes him by surprise as well. "Clan," he puts forward, tentatively.

The Hokage nods, looks squarely at him, and speaks. "The Uzumaki Clan were the leaders of the village of Uzushiogakure no Sato. They were renowned for their large chakra reserves, which let them use their chakra chains, some regeneration abilities, and skills in fuuinjutsu. The first Hokage's wife was from that clan, and her name was Uzumaki Mito. They were very powerful, before three of the Five Great Nations allied together and slaughtered them for fear of them using their skills in fuuinjutsu to aid Konoha in the Second Shinobi War. I'm glad to see that your living up to your heritage, as poorly written seals can be disastrous. Hopefully this is a first step to your future."

The idea of having a clan, even if they were all dead, caught him and burned through his veins. "Did you know my parents," he asked, almost desperately.

The Hokage nods, but tells him that they were strong and powerful ninja, and that he would tell him about his parents when he made chunin. Naruto assented, knowing that powerful men and women had enemies, and that those enemies might try to hurt him if anybody knew he was his parents' child.

"They didn't abandon me, did they?" He asks the Hokage quietly as the village leader is about to leave, hoping desperately they didn't abandon him out of hatred of the fox – that they were not like the rest of the village. The Hokage sags, slightly, figuring out the reason why he asked the question, and tells him that his parents died to protect him, and that they loved him very much.

He spends the rest of the evening crying, in relief and in sadness, but never tells anyone about it. The next day, he sneaks into the library and looks up everything he can about his clan.

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He's ten, and living off the land for the most part, The Old Man comes by, and asks if he'd like to sign up to be a ninja. He does, not just because it's the Old Man asking him, but because the dreams have progressed, and he has flashes of memories from other lives and other men as well. Of wars and battles, of blood and death, of backstabbing courts and dancing with pretty ladies. He doesn't think that he could be anything other than a soldier, at this point.

He nods, and decides to show the Old Man that he's more than just book smart, more than just a prankster, and asks if he'd like to go with him to catch dinner, and if he'd like to eat it with Naruto. When the Hokage asks why he has to do this, the bitter smile and "You think they'd sell good food to me?" leaves the old man almost broken. But he nods, and follows Naruto as he goes hunting. He's surprised at how skilled the boy is, how quiet and stealthy, and is even more shocked at his skill with such a heavy bow.

"It's not the usual shinobi weapon, where did you learn to use it?" He asks him, and Naruto tells him of a merchants guard carrying one, and of how he talked of fending of bandits and shooting animals for meat. "It took a few tries before I could get a bow that shot well, and it took even more tries to get the arrows down right, but I think I'll continue with this. I'm good at it, and I can hit four hundred paces away. When I get older and stronger, I should be able to hit farther."

The old man nods, and after he grabs the deer he shot and skins it, getting rid of the entrails and the other unsavory bits, he takes it to his house and butchers it on his counter, stores the excess meat in the fridge and freezer, and begins cooking a venison pot roast he'd once had in Cairhien, after adding some vegetables he'd grown in a flower bed on his apartment's roof.

The ninja classes start the next week, and last four years, the Hokage informs him. So after the Hokage leaves, complimenting him on the strange but tasty meal he'd made, he grabs the stick he'd found and carved into a quarterstaff, goes up onto the roof, and begins practicing the forms his father had taught him in what he can only assume was his last life.

After a time, he thinks on the technique that Tam, Rand's father, and Lan had been teaching him and Rand and Perrin. The flame and the void – a mental discipline that would improve focus and emotional control: "The mind is part of it, most of it," the old Warder had said, "Blank your mind, sheepherder. Empty it of hate or fear, of everything. Burn them away." He does his best to put that to good use in his practice of his skills.

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They are doing it again, is all he can think as he sits in the hallway, legs crossed, barely able to hear what the teachers are saying. They gave him the wrong books to study – he knows, having checked against the copies of some of the other students – with subtle but no doubt insidious instructions that would lead to poor habits and would make it easier for him to die later on in his career. The teachers send him out of the classroom when teaching something important, making up some excuse and harshly shoving him out the door. They give him dented kunai, warped shuriken, and gnash their teeth when he still hits the target anyways. The student's parents already tell their children to stay away from him, and when the teachers talk about how he'd be a bad influence, too, it means the other kids his age, already wary of him, avoid or mock him. Some try picking on him with violence, but he's too fast for them, and gets away.

He endures, and gets around these obstacles, though. He buys the academy book off of an orphan genin who doesn't know about him, and studies with that. He sneaks into the school and takes the academy introduction to fuuinjutsu – which shows how to make the basic sealing scroll or low-powered explosive tag – and some of the older texts kept alongside it showing some basic E-ranked jutsu or camping jutsu. All of which the teachers haven't taught in the Academy since the end of the Third Shinobi War, apparently due to some changes made by the Civilian Council and one of the Hokage's advisors.

After unlocking his chakra, and asking the old man for some control exercises, as he realizes he has a whole lot more than the other Academy students, he starts on learning the jutsu he copied from the Academy books. The Old Man agrees, and later, as his birthday comes near, he also asks the Old Man if he could get him a basic fuuinjutsu guide or book, and with a faint glimmer in his eyes, the Hokage acquiesces.

The book was titled How Not to Suck at Fuuinjutsu: A Beginners Guide to Imposing One's Will Onto Reality, and it was written by Jiraiya the Sannin. It was, in Naruto's oh so humble opinion, the most badass book he had ever read.

By the time winter has ended, he's gotten down the Kawarimi of the Academy Three, and all five camping jutsu. These were utilitarian techniques designed for anyone of any affinity to use, which served a useful purpose and familiarized young shinobi with all five elements. He had an Doton jutsu that made small holes to act as latrines or as pits for a fire, a Raiton jutsu that gave small sparks off of ones finger to give enough light to read by, a Suiton jutsu that took water from the humidity in the air and gave a bit to drink, a Katon used to start a campfire, and a Fuuton jutsu that would give a light breeze or reignite a banked fire.

He's taken to pulling pranks lately, just as he had as Mat, because if he was going to get into trouble regardless of what he did, he might as well be damned for doing something disruptive rather than for imagined slights or such.

He uses home made paint tags, which he created, from the guide the Old Man gave him. He uses trickery and guile to embarrass the teachers, to play practical jokes on them and all the students and people who ignore him.

It's after the end of the year when the Old Man asks him why he's doing so poorly in his classes, why he's such a disruption in class he gives him that wry smile again. It's the smile that tells the Hokage how his people, the people of the village of Konoha, the village that he dedicated his life to, are not living up to the hopes and expectations of those who gave their life to serve her. Naruto shows him the books his teachers gave him, and then compared them to the book he'd bought off of the orphan genin. He told the Hokage how he was kicked out during classes for no reason all of the time, so he had decided that he might as well give them a reason.

The Old Man covers his face with his hands, and began to massage his forehead.

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It's second year when Iruka-sensei starts, and while he's cold to Naruto initially, the teacher doesn't single him out; it seems, however, that all the pranks make him warm up to Naruto. He really teaches him, and even takes him out to ramen one night a week. The other teachers are still cold, but with Iruka-sensei, he has a friend.

On his birthday, he has two people come to visit him and give him a gift: the Old Man and Iruka-sensei. The Old Man casually gives him a few scrolls of advanced chakra control exercises, and a book on Fuuinjutsu theory, which was opposite of the practical book on it he'd gotten the previous year. Iruka-sensei smiles as he gives Naruto a dozen-set each of kunai and shuriken, unbent and of good quality. This was the best set of weapons he had ever had (not including the ones he had made) and he treasures them and practices with them everyday.

He still couldn't get the Bunshin jutsu, but he manages to strong-arm the Henge into a physical transformation by third year, so he thinks that should be able to pass that one when the final test rolled around. His fuuinjutsu studies were going well: he had progressed to more advanced storage seals, gotten several personalized explosive tags, and invented a nifty little piece of work he called a flashbang tag. He'd also combined a standard explosive tag with a storage tag, releasing the explosion along with a portion of sealed rubble to cause further damage. He'd carved a new bow, as he'd been shooting up like a weed. He often wore brown pants, a black shirt, and a dull green jacket he'd asked Iruka-sensei buy for him, as he often wasn't allowed in shops. His hair was long, a bit past his shoulders and he had long bangs going down to his jaw. He loved running around and playing pranks, still, though he didn't do so while Iruka-sensei was teaching; moreover, though Iruka-sensei punished him for his pranks, he also gave him advice on how to do better pranks without getting caught. Apparently it would be useful later in life and on missions, and he could see that, remembering how stealth had saved his life as Mat many a time. Its only a few weeks later when his pranks go off and nobody can prove it was him who did it. Oh, they know he's the culprit, but with Iruka-sensei's advice, he gets away clean.

It is in his third year at the academy that he makes his first friend his own age, too.

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Kiba Inuzuka feels bored, as he wanders through the village of Konohagakure no Sato one early morning. His mother is out on a mission, and Akamaru is at the vets for his monthly check-up with his sister, who's finally gotten to Chunin as a vet-nin, and most of the others in the clan made fun of him and Akamaru for his hound's small size. But as he wandered along the dirt path near one of the older training grounds, his nose catches a familiar scent, and out of a vague sort of curiosity that is feulled somewhat by boredom, he follows it. Through the brush and loam he went, following the trace until he finds Naruto Uzumaki, the class clown, doing something that, as far as he was aware, is completely out of character.

His face is set in a form of utter seriousness; a heretofore-unseen intensity is on his face as he plucks an arrow from the quiver on his back. A quarter mile away, at the other end of the training ground is six targets, five of which are studded with arrows. Only one shot of the many seemed to have missed, and it hit a passing bird on the way to the target. Notching the arrow, the blonde pulled back the string in one easy motion, released it, and watches as the arrow flies towards the far left target, hitting it dead in the center. "Blood and Bloody Ashes! I'm going to have to start putting up moving targets if I want to improve," Kiba can hear him say as he runs over to the other end of the training field and began to collect the arrows.

Intrigued, Kiba moves forward, going at a decent, ground-eating clip, but not rushing in any fashion. He is interested, but he doesn't know Naruto that well – no one does, now that he thinks of it – and so he does his best to make sure he's noticed. After all, surprising a ninja is rarely good for one's health. He slows, nearing the blond boy, and remarks in a somewhat casual drawl, "Hey Uzumaki, I didn't know you were good at archery. How'd you start on that, I don't think anyone in the village uses it?"

The boy's eyes, blue as the sky, glance at him over his shoulder, and Kiba could see that casual smirk he often had on his face. "I use it to hunt for fresh meat; I don't like the taste of the meat they sell at the grocers."

Kiba nods, understanding – his whole clan avoided the mass-produced farm animal meat being sold at the grocery stores in Konoha due to the hormones in them. "Yeah, my clan uses a butcher over by the dock market. With our family's enhanced senses, we can taste all the chemicals used in the meat sold at the grocery store. You want me to see if they'll sell to you?"

"You can ask."

"So, about the archery?"

"Like I said, I used it to get food. I sell the pelts to fur traders coming to Konoha, as well. Anyway, I made the bow and the arrows."

"Really," Kiba asks, even more interested now. An idea comes to him, and he continues, "Do you think you could teach me?"
A blond eyebrow lifts slightly, and a small smile tugs at the corner of his mouth as he nods, and hands over the bow. "First, see if you're strong enough to pull the bow."

Kiba feels slightly insulted; however, when he tries, his arms start screaming at him from the effort, and it takes a lot longer for him to draw than it did Naruto. "Wow," he says, after handing the bow back, "That was a lot harder than it looked. Why's it so hard?"

"The wood is far stronger than most bows, and while it's harder to draw, the shots are a lot more powerful. With enough practice, shots from this kind of bow can go straight through armor, even without chakra enhancement."

Kiba lets out a low whistle, and so asks, "Do you know any exercises I can do to get strong enough for that kind of bow?"
"You should probably ask your mom, she is a jounin, right? However, if you want, and with her permission, I can make some weight seals on a some armbands and give them to you?"

"Weight seals?"

He nods, his long blonde hair bobbing as he does so, "The seals take a certain portion of you chakra, and will increase their weight in accordance to the amount of chakra taken."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah, you want to know what's really cool about weight seals though?"

"What?"

"Because they are permanently taking a portion of your chakra to maintain the weight, your body is forced to make more chakra. This increases your chakra pool, and as you get used to the weight of the seals, you can increase the level of difficulty and further increase your chakra levels."
"It sounds great. I'll have to ask my sister about it before I do it, though. Mom's on a mission. If it goes through with her and she says yes, can you give them to me tomorrow?"

"Yeah."
It's the next day, when Kiba shows up at school; Naruto sat down next to him. He casually handed Kiba a small brown package, with a note in lined paper on the top.

Kiba opened it, and with carefully written calligraphy, Kiba saw the message: The weight seals are sewn onto the armbands in the package. We'll put them on you after class. It will take some time to get used to the weight, but it should help. You probably won't be going to the next level of the weight seals until next year, though, as our bodies are still in their development phase, and too much weight could stunt their growth.

It is signed simply "Naruto."

Kiba smiles, and winks at him, and Naruto winks back, a mischievous grin on his face.

It is another three weeks with the weights on before KIba can draw the bow, and when he can finally do it, he jumps up and down, and whoops with the sheer joy of the accomplishment. Naruto laughs, takes back the bow and grabs an arrow.

"Look at where I hold my fingers, Kiba."

The arrow is held between the sides of two of Naruto's fingers, not too tight but certainly not loose, his stance is easy but has a surety to it, so that Kiba knows it will take a while to get to that level for himself. Naruto lets go, and the arrow flies towards the targets. It hits dead center, or so it seems from here.

"Here, you try to hold it, and I'll fix your stance as you go, got it?"

"Thanks."

Kiba's fingers are not quite where they should be, so Naruto shifts his hand and his fingers, and then motions for him to give shooting a try. It misses, spectacularly, and as the arrow veers off somewhere to the left, Naruto gives a low chuckle, but doesn't look at Kiba in a mocking way, even after such a spectacular failure.

"Try again," is all that he says, and slowly and carefully guides him into trying once more.

It's another three hours, and the sun is dying on the horizon, but he has finally had an arrow shoot all the way to the other end of the training ground! Sure, he didn't hit the target he was aiming at, but it went far, and it felt great.

Without even realizing it, he turns and asks, "Can I meet you here, same time tomorrow?"

There is a moment of hesitation, and not-quite-shock, on his classmate's face, but its gone in an instant and Kiba is almost convinced that he imagined it. But then a smile spreads its way across Naruto's face, and his sky blue eye's light up like the sun shining on a cloudless day, and he knows he made the right decision, even if only unconsciously.

"Yes. Same time and same place."

[][][][][][][]

He's twelve years old when, rather than stick around next month for what the citizens of Konoha now call the Kyuubi Festival, he asks the Hokage if he can go to the Fire Festival – the original holiday celebrated in October in Hi no Kuni, but which in Konoha has been replaced by the celebration of the defeat of the Kyuubi no Kitsune by the Yondaime Hokage – in Tanzaku Gai. The Old Man is surprised, but after he thinks it through his eyes dim a little at the realization of just how miserable he always ends up during that celebration, and nods.

"I'll be sending some of my ANBU with you. I'll give you some money to spend at the festival and in the booths, as well as some for food. My ANBU wlll pay for lodging for themselves as well as for you. The two ANBU I'm sending will be in disguise as your parents, or some other relatives, and as such, you will know who they really are. I want your word," the Hokage pauses here for a moment, knowing how seriously the young child before him takes any oath he as given, "That if you see them at other times, you will not reveal that you know them as ANBU agents."

Naruto understands, knowing how much trust is being given to him in this moment. "I give you my word, Hokage-sama," is the solemn reply.

"Panda, Squirrel, get in here."
In a swirl of leaves, two kneeling figures appear, masked in the visages of their namesake. Squirrel is male, and seems pretty big, Panda on the other hand is a woman of generous curves and somewhat small stature.

"You two have a B-ranked mission. You are two escort one Naruto Uzumaki to Tanzaku Gai to attend the Fire Festival there. You will be posing as his older brother and his wife. You may take off your masks, and introduce yourselves to young Naruto, here."

Squirrel takes off his mask, revealing a brown-haired man with eyes as black as pitch and a wide, slightly smiling mouth. "I am called Tenzou, it seems that I am to be your elder brother."

The woman takes her mask off as well with a, "Oh hubby, shouldn't you introduce your wife to your little brother?" Her hair was a lovely shade of purple, and chocolate eyes danced with mirth as she spoke.

Tenzou rolls his eyes, as if asking for help from the heavens. When no assistance comes, he gives a small sigh, and says, "This is Yuugao, you're new sister-in-law."

"I'm Naruto. It's nice to meet you; nee-chan. Nii-sama never stops talking about you. I never did get your name, though. He just kept going on about "her jewel-like hair," how "her eyes are so deep that I lose myself in them," and that "she moves with the grace and sensuality of a tigress on the hunt!" His voice deepened to sound like Tenzou's as he 'quoted' from his 'brother's' supposed amorous musings
Yuugao snorts, "Where'd you hear that, kid?"

"My next door neighbor practices lines for trying on women in the little lot between our buildings."

"Doesn't work out to well for him, does it?"

"No. Not really."

It is three weeks later and he's waiting at the gate of Konohagakure no Sato, coin in his purse – shaped like a frog, something he'd had since he was five – a travel pack laying over his shoulder, and a quarterstaff he'd carved in hand. His jacket pockets held some of his small belongings, and he has his bow and a quiver of arrows on his back, a smile on his face, and a tingle in his whole body. Festival: a festival that he could enjoy, the first one in over a decade.

He is humming "A Pocketful of Gold" under his breath, a song that had been popular back in the Two Rivers. He greets the guards, who, from what he's observed over the years, are always paired together. Izumo and Kotetsu, their names are, and he knows them, somewhat. The two chuunin always were always polite to him, never cruel or cold, so when he greets them with a smile they return it.

"Hey, Naruto. Heard you're going out with two ninja bound for Tanzaku Gai, eh?" Izumo speaks with a bit of a lazy drawl, and he's not quite sure of whether it's due to the early morning or if it is just his usual manner of speech.

He grins mischievously, and says, "Yeah. I'm going to try out the games, see the dances, and try my hand at gambling."

"Gambling, eh? Don't lose all your money, I did that last year at the festival here," Kotetsu says, his voice crisp, and full of laughter.

Still smiling, he starts to hear the faintest rattling of dice in his head, and his grin turns into a smirk. "I don't think I'll be losing."

Yuugao and Tenzou, dressed in solid, well-made – if not terribly ornate – clothing, make their way towards him at the gate. "Nii-san! Nee-san! How are you guys doing?"

"Well, little brother," comes the mellow reply from Tenzou. "Are you all packed and ready to go?"

"Yeah!"

So they leave, making their way at a casual, if mile-eating pace that takes them quite a distance. When they ask him if he wants to take a break to eat lunch, he says no, and takes out one of the granola bars that he had made for the journey the previous evening, and offers them one.

"It has some dried fruit and honey in it, so its pretty good."

They look at each other, and nod, so he tosses one at each of them, and the expressions of pleasure when they ate it were satisfying, though he finds himself desperately glad that he can actually cook in this life – feeding himself as an orphan would have been even worse if he was unable to cook.

As the afternoon goes on, the air gradually grows still; the birds stop singing, and the buzzing of the insects cease. The sky begins to darken, and distant thunder can be heard. When the drizzle begins, none of the three of them is surprised, but as it gets harder, his 'sister-in-law' informs him that they will be stopping at the next village for the night. He nods, understanding that while they can continue on, that isn't something that normal civilians would do if they didn't have to.

The scent in the air brings a smile to Naruto's face. It smells of wet green things, of damp earth, and of life. He runs forward a bit, turning to look at the faces of the older ninja. Naruto uses the quarterstaff to jump into the air. Landing, he laughs, and it is like being in the Two Rivers again, with Perrin and Rand. It's like being in one of the oasis in the Aile Waste during the wet season, dicing with one of the warriors or flirting some food from one of the maidens or Wise Ones. It's like taking his children into the jungles near the Imperial Capitol, and teaching them the basics of woodcraft and how to track and survive should they ever be separated from their guards and stuck in the wilderness, and seeing them understand and thrive there.

With his hair soaked down his face and shoulders, with water running its way in rivulets down his face, the sheer happiness in his eyes and on his face is somewhat shocking to the two ANBU. They have both been guards for him before, and they have never seen this sort of joy in his face, a light in his eyes that's never been there – before, it's only been a sly sort of enjoyment, or an underlying amusement at everyone around him. Right here and now, though, he seems to be flourishing.

It's an hour later, and they have reached a village. They walk up to the local hostel, and while the older ninja are renting a room for the night, one of the hostel's workers brings him a towel to get the water off of him before he goes to the main part of the inn. He's humming "I'm Down at the Bottom of the Well" while he dries off, looking around at the inn. This floor was a tavern, and from what he was hearing, the rooms where folk stayed in were on the second and third stories.

Yuugao comes over to him, toweling off herself, and tells him which room they were staying in. She gives him a key and tells him to drop his things off in their room.

"When you're done," she says, her voice melodic and sweet, "Lock the door and meet us in the tavern here; we'll get dinner and listen to the performance that's going to be going on tonight."

"Sure sis," he says, a bit of laughter in his voice as he does so. "Is there anything you want me to take up there?"

She blinks, then nods, and hands him a bag that, from what he could feel, was full of clothes. He makes his way up to their room – two hundred thirteen – and looks around inside it. There are two beds, one for him, and a slightly larger one for the 'couple', a restroom is settled off to the side, and a small area for sitting and talking is over by a window, revealing the rain pouring down on the village square.

Places their things in a chest at the end of the larger bed, casually placing a seal to prevent it from being moved or opened, and makes his way out of the room. He locks the door before going back down, and goes down to the common room. He sidles up to his escorts, and asks, "Hey, bro. What's for supper?"
"Today it seems they are making a fried rice and grilled beef. Don't worry, we ordered some for you."

"Thanks."

He sits, and can almost imagine that the two casually bickering next to him really are his family, and as he waits for his meal, listening to the chatter and murmur of the rest of the folks in the common room, a sense of contentment spreads through him. This feels good, this everyday sort of casualness. He knows it won't last; but while it does, he's determined to enjoy it to the fullest.

The meal comes, and it is good. It's one of the first meals other than ramen he's had in a long time that was made by someone other than himself. It's warm, and tasty, and while it doesn't exactly rate to the standard he was used to in the Imperial Palace, its leagues better than getting kicked out of restaurants for being a "demon."

When he's done he thanks the serving girl with a smile and gives off a somewhat overdone complement, and she giggles back at him, saying how he's such a cute boy. He smirks faintly, thinking this is what Olver must have felt like back in Ebou Dar.

Thanking Tenzou, he asks permission to look around the common room. "All right," he says, "Make sure not to get into mischief."

He smiles widely, getting up and following the siren song of dice rattling at the other end of the common room. Curling up to the table where four people are sitting, dice rattling in the hand of one, he asks, "What are you guys playing?"

"Hazard, boy. Want to give it a try," comes the gruff reply from one of the men. He has gray hair, a scar on his chin, and a bit of a sly smile on his face.

"Mind if I watch? I might give it a shot after I figure out what's going on."

"Sure, lad," interjects the woman at the table, dark-haired and dark-eyed, an amused look on her pretty face, "I don't mind. Maybe your beginners luck will rub off on me."

"I don't know about beginner's luck, but I wouldn't mind someone else joining in the game." It is a younger man speaking, dirty blond hair with eyes as green as the wet grass outside. "It will be interesting to have someone other than the four of us regulars playing."

The last man, with greasy black hair, eyes him suspiciously, before muttering, "Take off your coat before you play, boy; I don't want to be scammed."
Naruto's grin fades a bit, but he nods, taking off his jacket before folding it up and putting it behind him. He leans forward, hands on the ground but open and showing that he is not palming any dice or stealing anything.

"The main is eight," the man with gray hair announces. The game goes back and fourth, and Naruto watches with interest. The game is similar to one that he once played in Caemlyn, but he watches three more games to get the nuances.

"I'd like to join now," he says, his fingers itching to touch the first set of dice he has been able to use in so long. "I'm putting twenty ryo into the bank." It was a decent enough wager, the others were betting between eighteen and twenty-five ryo, which to most people was pretty high, enough money for five days of meals at a decent tavern, like this one.

"Sure brat. The main is seven."

He wins, and the main of seven, along with a chance of five, having thrown five times, so he comes out with thirty ryo. "Cool," he says, the thrill of the gamble lighting his eyes. "What happens if you get the same main and chance?"

"You would lose. You wouldn't get any money, not even a portion of what you bet."

He plays two more times, winning both times, betting the same twenty ryo, but not winning nearly so much. Both these times he wins twenty-five ryo. He calls it quits, not wanting to seem a cheat or a thief, smiling and thanking them for teaching him how to play. He meets up with the two ANBU in their room, and he shows them his winnings.

"Won a whole twenty ryo, Naruto? That's pretty god for someone who has never gambled before. Are you going to do more of this in the capitol?"

He smirks, nodding assent. "You bet; this is the most fun I've had in a while. Better than pranking most people, that's for sure. Not as good as putting that badger in Old Lady Takahashi's shop, though."

"That was you," asked a shocked Tenzou. He continued on with a note of wary interest. "I thought that was one of the genin or more mischievous chuunin. How did you get the badger in without it fighting you?"

"That's a trade secret, sorry about that, brother mine."

"I see the seal you put on our chest for our things… Do you know much about sealing," inquired the woman with purple hair.

"Yeah. The Old Man gives me seal books on my birthdays, for the most part. I like it, it is satisfying – creating and understanding the seals, I mean."

"You're pretty good for your age, especially as you are learning just from books. I'm no seal master, but I'm at journeyman level in barrier seals. If you'd like, I'll teach you some of that."

He smiles, and accepts, because, not only does he want to learn of these seals, but because somebody offering to teach him.

It's another six days to Tanzaku Gai, and every evening, Yuugao gives him a lesson on the basics of barrier seals. Finally, after enough walking that he could swear that his feet were bleeding, the city comes into sight. Light, he mentally grumbles, what he wouldn't give to get a good mount under him. He wasn't cut out for this much walking.

Tanzaku Gai is a large city, with walls made of a solid white stone that is higher than the surrounding treetops circling it. A palace is at its center, and it is taller even that the walls, and could be seen even from outside the walls. After coming in through the guarded – though not guarded by ninja – city gates, the streets of the city themselves are packed. Stalls are being constructed or put up, the traffic of people and their beasts of burden crawling through the dusty, cobbled streets, and overall, it is a bustling city.

The buildings, for the most part, are the bright or pastel colors of red, green, tan, blue, and yellow. Signs are posted all over, showing events that would be occurring during the festival, musicians who would be playing, or plays that would be performed. Pre-festival sales are advertised: proclaiming twenty percent off kimono or hakama; buy one get one free this or that; free Popsicle with purchase of fifteen ryo or more.

He looks around, eyes drinking in the sights, and more importantly to him, the faces of the people: holding neither hatred nor rage nor wariness, but a casual smile, a blank dismissal of being just another kid underfoot, or the slightly greedy look of the shopkeepers. It is normal, and it feels good, far better than when he walks through the streets of Konohagakure no Sato.

It's about an hour before they reach the hotel they were going to be staying at, and it is beautiful. Inn is a far better word for it; the casual elegance is much better than that of what one would think of when the word hotel or hostel comes to mind. It looks to be the former home of a member of the nobility, the estate outstretching over the land, gardens lovely, and from the looks of the steam rising from a portion of the estate, it seemed there is a set of hot springs in the inn. A worker greets them as they enter, directs the three ninja-in-disguise to leave their shoes in an alcove in what Naruto guesses is the equivalent of a mudroom, and gives each of them a pair of slippers. Yuugao's slippers are a pale shade of lavender, while his and Tenzou's are a deep blue. She then begins guiding them to the desk where Tenzou would be paying for their stay.

She then takes their things to their room, and he smiles and asks if he can go with her to see their room while his 'brother' and 'sister' pay. The girl, Nobuyuki-san, looks at the two adults in their party, and at their nod of confirmation, smiles at him, and leads him deeper into the inn. The wood floor gleams in the sunlight, and he's almost tempted to take off his slippers and start sliding along them, just for the fun of it. He doesn't, out of respect for his hosts, but the idea is there in his head.

Nobuyuki seems to see it too, or at least the spark of mischief and where it is directed to, and shakes her head at him. "Please don't slide on the floor, no matter how fun it would seem."

He deflates slightly, and mutters, "I was only thinking about it. I wasn't actually going to do it."

She giggles, sleeve covering her mouth as she does so. "My little brother did the same thing when he came to visit me here. I've never heard Aunty yell so much as when he was sliding around and ended up knocking over a vase that's been in her husband's family for years."

"Is this a family-run inn, then?"

"Not quite. We're not really related, but the boss-lady likes it if we call her Aunty. I don't really mind, because even though we are not related, it feels like we really are a family."

He nods, but does not say anything on how he agrees with the sentiment. Being with Tenzou and Yuugao this past week has felt like being in a family, though with a bit more distance and awkwardness at not knowing all the other family member's quirks and habits. He merely replies, "Sounds nice."

The door she opens reveals a large room with tatami mats for floors. A large table for traditional tea ceremony dominates the room. Off to the side was a smaller area with a normal table and a few comfy-looking chairs, with gleaming, high backs and fine golden cushions. Looking out the window, he sees a lovely little garden, sporting several statues and a serene pond filled with fish, swimming around in a decidedly lazy fashion. "Follow me to where you will be sleeping," she says, huffing slightly at the weight of the baggage in her arms.

She moves over to the far side of the main room, and slides open a panel, revealing a large bedroom, with a bed that is elevated off the ground by a good foot and a half. It has a headboard of eight squares inset into a large rectangle. The bed itself is covered in a white comforter with a quilted design of the branch of a sakura tree, and sports two fluffy-looking pillows. Laying the bags down at the foot of the bed, she straightens, and stretches. He can hear bones snapping back into alignment as she does so.

"This bed's for your brother and sister," comments Takahashi-san, before wandering over and sliding another panel, revealing a bed in what he assumes was once a walk in closet. A lamp inset into the ceiling reveals a cushy mattress with plain white sheets, a pillow, and a comforter folded off to the side. "This is so your brother and his wife can have some privacy, and you can sleep at the same time," she pauses, waggles her eyebrows at him at that, and then continues, "This cubby here is where you can put your clothes, or other things you want on hand. Got it."

"Thanks."

"The bathroom is over there, and has a shower, a bath tub, and a toilet and sink. There is another bathroom off the main room; it just has a toilet and sink, though."

The girl leaves, a kind farewell on her lips as she does so, and Naruto goes and starts sealing their things away in the chest at the end of the main room's bed. He also sets a minor barrier that Yuugao taught him earlier that week, and he smiles as he writes out the seal, thinking of her and Tenzou as he does so. Like the spoken devil they come strolling into the room, and he presents the sealed items for inspection.

Yuugao looks it over, and a fond look comes into her eyes as she reaches out and ruffles his blond hair. "Good job."
He warms, a blush rising to his face at the praise, and ducks his head a bit. They laugh at this, and all is well.

[][][][][][][]

The festival begins tomorrow, and over the past several days, he has made some decent headway into making a mental map of the city. He's found several places that seem to be gearing up for some nice gambling when the festival starts. Still, he thinks that he's going to find a nice tavern this afternoon, with good food and good wine, and patrons with well-kept wallets. The luck is burning within him, the pull of his Ta'veren nature affecting the Pattern even in this life.

Looking into the mirror, he sees his eyes, slightly glazed, and the burning on his face. He understands that because of this, Yuugao and Tenzou are worried – but they don't understand. He tells them he'll be fine, but the doubt on their faces is not removed by his protests.

"Fine," he says to them, a strange fire in his voice that catches their attentions. "One of you can come with me – but I'm still going out."

It's Yuugao that accompanies him, while Tenzou is off gathering some intelligence for Konoha, and what she sees stills her protests. Naruto is dressed in good clothes that he seems to have purchased while in the city, and looks like a young lordling, a noble boy out on the town and out from under the watchful eye of his parents; more importantly, he seems completely at ease in that role. He enters a tavern; then he orders some warm, watered down sake, and some finger foods, and joins a game.

And he wins. And wins. And wins. Without any cheating whatsoever, he wins every time for about forty minutes. Not always excessively, but he's always coming out ahead. He gets up to leave, with ryo filling his bag and pockets, but before he exits the tavern he tosses a hundred ryo on the bar's counter and yells out, "For the great games, free drinks on me until this runs out!"

There is a roar and a cheer for the lad – that much money will serve drinks for every person in the tavern for a good hour and a half – and even the people feeling angry and suspicious at the winning streak join in. The barkeeper smiles and blushes when he compliments her eyes, and then tosses twenty ryo as a tip for the good service. The kenjutsu specialist looks closely at him, and sees that his eyes are still aflame. He looks at her, and says their going to another tavern. To her complete and utter shock, the evening continues in this fashion. Money is won and flows to him like a waterfall cascading down to its natural destination, and for him, it is like money making its way to him is as natural as breathing.

One time, he offers one of the more suspicious gamblers the option of making the throw for him, using the other man's own dice. The man smirks, and grabs a set that she is quite sure is weighted so no one else would be able to win, and makes the throw for the young blond. They land, all ten of them as sixes, pips staring out at the world and shocking the man, and losing him over a two thousand ryo

This near-tangible luck that he seems to be experiencing works for him in other ways, as well. When they were going through an alley, they were accosted by one of the other players from a tavern he'd been in, one who, though still quite heavy in purse, was angry over his losses and seeking to regain them through fair means or foul. He roars in rage as he surges through the alley, seeking to regain his lost money, and before Yuugao can even do anything to stop him, he trips over a loose cobblestone, and somehow in the process, his purse becomes loose and is sent flying from his belt, and lands with a solid thump in Naruto's outstretched hand. Opening it, the boy reveals an assortment of ryo – both paper and coin – along with several rubies.

He smiles, and then kicks the man in the head, and continues on down the alley. She puts then senbon she had retrieved away in the folds of her fancy clothes, and with some confusion, follows along.

Ii is near midnight when the two of them return to find Tenzou enjoying a small meal while looking out over the small garden just outside their room.

"So," he asks casually, "I take it the kid is okay? How much did he lose, anyways?"
She stands their, silent for a moment, and then answers. "Nothing."
"Really?"

"How much did he win then?"
"Naruto, let's find out."
The boy rubs at his eyes, somewhat sleepy, but nods, and takes out two sealing scrolls. After releasing their contents, revealing piles of money, coins of gold or silver or copper, and with jewels scattered throughout the heaps of wealth. He then begins emptying his pockets and money pouch, all the while the ANBU agent's eyes widen as he sees the fortune the little blonde boy brought in with a single night of gambling.

"Start counting, everyone."
After about a half hour of counting and recounting – just to make sure everything was correct – it turned out that one Naruto Uzumaki was 235,842 ryo richer, as well as being in possession of ten rubies, a sapphire, and three small diamonds. All in all, it was quite the haul.

"Holy shit," was all Yuugao could say. Repeatedly. Tenzou just stared back and forth between Naruto and the pile of riches, as if seeking for the answer to the meaning of life, and hoping it could be found somewhere in this vicinity. After a moment, he looks at Naruto. "Tomorrow, in exchange for twenty percent of my winnings, I want you gambling for me. I don't care if its in cards, dice, slot machines, a lottery, or a pachinko parlor – you do your thing and you get a cut of the profits."

A sleepy but amused smile appears on Naruto's face, and he agrees with a bit of a laugh. Yuugao, entranced by the riches in front of her, and having experienced herself how it seems liquid luck is running through the boy's veins rather than blood, offers him the same deal.

[][][][][][][]

The sun is bright, blazing in the deep autumn sky that afternoon, and Naruto relishes it, along with the breeze carrying all the scents of the food stalls. The delectable fragrance of grilling meats and vegetables, fried foods, and baking breads makes his mouth water. In the hour and a half that he has been out, he's already won over ten thousand ryo just off of the scratch-of lottery tickets. It is all sealed away in a scroll alongside a large stuffed tiger won in a ring toss game, a bonsai tree he purchased with some of his winnings, and various trinkets he won from other stands with games. He had even tried his hand at the little goldfish scooping game that seemed to be a big thing here in Fire country, but as he didn't think that he'd be able to take care of them – no one back home would sell him the fish food he'd need to take care of them – he had given his tiny little fish to the little girl whose net had broken in front of him when she had tried to play. Her smile made it more than worth it, in his opinion.

He stops by one of the food stalls, this one selling yakisoba bread, and purchases a sandwich. Munching on it, he notices a pachinko parlor, and makes his way inside. An hour later, he comes out with twenty-two thousand more ryo sealed in a scroll in his packet, and a smile on his face.

"Time for the slots," he says. He's not overly fond of them, not like how he practically lives off of cards and dice, but their decent enough, and he knows he'll get plenty of cash. He hears the dice faintly, so he knows that what he's going to do is going to go pretty well, and there is the chance that something important might happen.

It's another two hours later, and with half a million more ryo in his pocket; and far more interestingly, to him anyway, he has received an invitation to a private game the next evening. The man, dressed in elaborate robes of office, seems to be one of the movers and shakers of this town, and a private game with him and any of his associates is bound to be interesting.

It's later that evening when, after gambling his way through the taverns in a different part of the city than he was in the previous night – and winning another hundred fifty thousand or so more ryo – that he meets up once more with Yuugao and Tenzou. They all share a meal together at the inn they are staying in, done in the traditional fashion with smoked fish and miso soup and other facets of the meal laid out on a large serving tray. As he eats it with his chopsticks in this very refined setting, he muses how eating with sticks was often seen as barbaric in many places in his last life. Culture differences, he supposed.

"Would you like to see your winnings," he asks the two of them dryly. Their interested looks make him chuckle, but at their assent he continues. "Fine, I'll show you back in our rooms."

In their quarters he opens the storage scroll containing the remaining money they gave him, and gives it to them. Then he takes out his winnings from the scratch-off tickets and from the games. "This is all stuff I got for myself, from my own money. This however," he grabs the stuffed tiger, "Is for you, Yuugao-san."

She grabs the stuffed animal, and hugs it while giving him her thanks. "Now," he said dramatically, "I present you your winnings!"

Scrolls were unsealed, and they revealed over nine hundred thousand ryo, more money than either of the two ANBU agents had seen in one place that wasn't the village's or a noble's treasury. "I believe this is mine," he said, setting aside a hundred and eighty thousand for himself. The two nodded at him vaguely, still staring at the money.

[][][][][][][]

The next day goes much the same as the previous; only he uses some of his own money in the gambling. He makes half a million ryo once more, both for himself and for his 'backers.' He did this by sticking to some of the higher-class taverns and gambling parlors. Pachinko is certainly an easy way to make money, for him at least, as are slots.

Their thankful looks that afternoon fill him with satisfaction, and he tells them about his invitation by Akihiro Watanabe to the private game that evening. Their expressions of shock surprise him, and when he enquires why they are so shocked, Tenzou replies, "Akihiro Watanabe is the Daimyo's representative here in Tanzaku Gai. He is responsible for the finances of the city and manages the Daimyo's personal interests here. Are you allowed to bring anyone with you?"

"Because of my age, I'll have to. Under-aged individuals cannot come into the sorts of places that these games are being held at."
At Tenzou's raised eyebrow, he continues. "A lot of the gambling that the upper class take part in occurs in the upper crust establishments of the red light district."

"Yuugao should probably go with you, then. She's better at that sort of stuff. I tend to get pretty stiff around important people. It's something of a failing of mine."

"Do you mind, Yuugao?"
"Not at all."

"Okay, then. We'll have to get you something decent to wear, though. The clothes you have now don't really match what I'm going to be wearing."

"Huh?"

"Have you seen the clothes that I go out in? I look like a pampered noble. You're going to have to match that look, or it'll look like some farmer married a noble's brother. And while there isn't really anything wrong with that, people judge based on appearances."

"Oh, got it."
So it's two hours later, around five thirty, and Yuugao's dressed in a black kimono, with the blossoms of some red flower he's never seen on its shimmering fabric. The obi is a pale cream that goes well with the formalwear. They arrive at The Stairway to Heaven about fifteen minutes before six, which was the meeting time according to Watanabe.

The geisha house looks to be a smaller version of a traditional mansion, three stories tall and with lovely gardens. They enter, and as they make their way to large pavilion where most of the gambling will be taking place, and both of them can feel the change in atmosphere. The people are dressed in the finest of silks, in the most dazzling colors, and all seem to have a grace and poise that most people cannot even begin to match, one that practically screams of either noble birth, extensive training, or both. Some of the House's girls make their way around the room with trays full of finger foods, jugs of sake to refill the customer's cups, or elegant blue glasses of ice water. The constant thrum of chatter fills the room, and there is undercurrent of power in the finely furnished chamber. This room, after all, is filled with the movers and shakers of society – either by birth or by wealth, and most often both.

He spots the Daimyo's representative, a tall man with salt and pepper hair, eyes like flint, and with an air of amusement over the goings on about him. I polite greeting passes between the two, and Naruto introduces his sister-in-law, Yuugao, while he introduces his twenty-year-old son, Fuuta. When the games begin, he and Fuuta sit next to each other, and both of them enjoy the conversation that goes on between them.

By the end of the day, over a seven million ryou in solid cash is in his possession, not including the various properties – including a small island off the coast of Fire, near Mist country – and jewels he's managed to acquire. However, he realizes that the dice were still dancing in his head. Warily, he gets ready to depart; however, one of the other gamblers takes out a kunai and makes a lunge for the daimyo's representative's son. Fuuta stumbles back in shock and fear. Quickly, on reflex even, he has one of his own knives in hand, and with a flick of his wrist it finds it's way into the throat of the assassin. Yuugao dealt swiftly with two of his accomplices who had been going after their own targets, as well.

Gracious thanks from the noble, another million ryou reward, and an invite to next year's game are all given to him with a desperation that shows the man is well aware of just how close he came to dying. His father approached him after the game, as well, a personal word of thanks and – far more interestingly – an acknowledgement of a debt between them on his lips. Yuugao received a similar reward from the two that she saved, as well.

That evening he goes over winnings with the two agents, whom he has started to think of as friends, and divvies up the rewards. Most of what he used was his own money, for this day's gambling, anyway; however, he was feeling generous. He gives a million ryou each to Yuugao and Tenzou, and when room service brings in their tasty, evening meal, he gave a tip of over three thousand ryou. Her shocked doe eyes and rather cute squeal were more than well worth it.

[][][][][][][]

On his birthday, which he had celebrated earlier in September this year, with the Hokage and Iruka, Yuugao gives him a lovely yukata in a dark blue, with a grey pattern of maple leaves, and a deep burgundy obi. Tenzou, bless the man, gives him a hat that he saw in a haberdashery, flat topped and with a wide brim. Just like he used to have back when led the Band of the Red Hand. Though coincidental, it was all the more valued. Naruto decides to wear it while he was here at the festival, but wouldn't wear it any other time until he becomes a genin.

[][][][][][][]

Their stay continues for two weeks, and in that tie, he's charmed the inn and its workers so thoroughly, they are getting some of the best service. When they depart, the innkeeper herself asks if they would be returning the next year, and if so, would they like to reserve an entire wing for themselves, now, a year ahead of time. He accepts graciously, after glancing inquiringly at his 'brother' who nods in return, in answer to the silent question. All three of them are looking forward to the next year's journey and stay here, and not only for the enjoyable company. Naruto netted himself thirteen million ryou, dozens of beautiful gems, and properties from all across Fire Country. Yuugao walked away with a solid two and a half million, and Tenzou with one and a half million ryou. Both of them had several fine gems and pieces of jewelry as well.

By the time they meandered their way to Konohagakure no Sato, they were all pleasantly lethargic from their vacation. Smiles still lit their faces as they saw their home, however, and after signing in with Izumo and Kotetsu, the three of them made their way to the Hokage's Tower. Upon giving the mission report, the venerable Sandaime Hokage, God of Shinobi, fell flat out of his chair in shock.

Needless to say, Naruto would go back to the Fire Festival every year.

[][][][][][][]

The Hokage offers to give him lessons on managing money, and he agrees. While he knows how to do so from his past life, a refresher course would be welcome, as is learning about the local economy and the customs and traditions of the locals.

It's interesting, and over the course of the next few years the lessons helps him make even more money. Some of the properties he now owns had businesses built on to them, which now pay rent to his account. Investments are made, some risky, some not so much, but with his luck almost all of them are profitable, and even the ones that aren't don't lose him too much money.

It's only after his second time going to the Fire Festival, and consequently raking several more million ryou for both himself and his 'brother and his wife' that Naruto uses some of the money to make his first major purchase. He buys an old estate that was vacated when the family was slaughtered in battle during the Second Shinobi War using a different name, with the Hokage's permission. He'll have to hire a few Chuunin to search for traps and the like; moreover, if he's lucky, he should be able to find some of the family's old jutsu scrolls and add a few more jutsu to his repertoire, or if they are to advanced, to save them for later.

The estate has some large, overgrown gardens, a small stand of woods – which is a pretty common thing in estates located in the Leaf village – with a pond, filled with a few fish, and a large space for training. While there is no room for archery practice at long range, that is fine with him, as he can use the public training grounds for this.

The house itself is two and half stories tall, and spread out like many of the older estates in the Elemental Nations. The home takes five days to thoroughly search over for traps, and the Chuunin appreciate the bonus they are given at the end of the mission for a job well done.

'Well,' he thinks, looking at the vast expanse of near wilderness that is the gardens, 'looks like I have some hard work to do.'

It takes eight days of hard labor after school, plus a whole Sunday to clear out the gardens of weeds and other nonedible or useless plants. As he works away at that, he does so under a Henge to get in some more practice with it. It also helps that when the delivery people come to move in the furniture he bought, they did not realize that he was the so called 'demon brat.'

When he finishes it up, he decides to invite his friend, Kiba, as well as Iruka, Yuugao, Tenzou, and the Hokage. They all show up, Yuugao with her actual boyfriend – a sickly looking man named Hayate Gekkou – and Kiba with his older sister, Hana. Good food for everyone, and good sake for the adults, and everything is grand. Conversation rolls throughout the large estate, laughter and cheer filling its once empty depths, and all that Naruto can think is that life right just then is the grandest thing.

[][][][][][][]

He fails the exam due to his lack of skill with the Clone, of course. However, he knows the old man will give him a technical pass when he goes to visit, due to being able to perform all the camping jutsu, as well as the fact that he has started on the intermediate scrolls in fuuinjutsu. However, when Mizuki comes up to him tells him about a 'secret test,' he can feel the dice rattling in his head, so he grins and agrees.

Rather than do something as dumb as to try to steal something from the God of Shinobi, he goes straight to the old man, and tells him the situation. The Old Man takes a long drag on his pipe, and then lets the smoke filter out through his nostrils before speaking. "This isn't good. We have had a traitor in charge of teaching the young, perspective ninja in our academy. He could have been teaching them incorrectly in an attempt to get them all killed."

"He certainly did to me, and I noticed he did it to a few of the civilian-raised kids."

The Hokage looks at him hard, before saying, "And you didn't mention this?"
"I've known he's been trying to sabotage me for years, its not like he's special in doing that." At that comment, the Old Man's eyes close, but he nods, as if telling him to continue. "But just over the last few weeks, I've noticed him doing the same thing, only smaller."

"Smaller?"
"Yeah. Little things like how to perform certain techniques in a way that could be dangerous if there is the slightest alteration, traps were being taught that has a large chance of harming the user, and quite frankly, he is completely screwing with everyone's safety by insisting on stuff like fighting one's enemy in the most straightforward fashion possible. Anyone caught either cheating or trying to outsmart an opponent in a fight gets in trouble. Not only that, but he teaches a lot of the tactics in the classes, and while the village seems to espouse ideas like teamwork, he is always pitting us against each other, and he is always telling us that its our duty to get as strong as possible, no matter the cost and that anyone getting in the way of that goal was an enemy. Not only that, but we have never had a single even remotely cooperative exercise, and teaming up during group spars gets points deducted."

The Hokage's eyes turn as hard as the landscape of Iwagakure, and Naruto can feel the power coming off of him. "Not only have I had a traitor working at the academy, but he's been sabotaging all the candidates. I'm going to have to have all of the ninja under his tutelage come in for a competency test to see where the flaws he placed into them are, if their later teachers didn't correct it. Plus, I should let those who failed in the past few years attempt to retake the class after a crash course, seeing as they were not given a fair chance." He massages his eyes for a moment, and then looks at Naruto, beginning to speak in his 'command tone,' "Naruto Uzumaki, I hereby promote you to the rank of Genin; as such I am sending you on a B-ranked mission. Take the Forbidden Scroll and act as bait for my ANBU to capture the traitor Mizuki. Your reward shall be the Kage Bunshin no Jutsu technique within the scroll, as well as its subsidiary techniques, the Kage Buki no Jutsu and the Bunshin Daibakuha."

"Yes, sir."

[][][][][][][]

The next day, he sits in his classroom, and listen as Iruka announces the teams. He hopes that he is on the same team as Kiba, but alas, it isn't to be. "Team Seven is Sasuke Uchiha, Sakura Haruno, and Naruto Uzumaki. Your sensei is Kakashi Hatake."

He bangs his head slightly on the table in front of him, and Kiba pats his back in consolation. Akamaru whines his condolences, and Naruto really feels he needs them. Honestly, he hasn't seen someone as uptight as Sasuke since Gallad Damodred, and at least he was a pretty nice guy, while Sasuke was a complete jackass about it. Sakura reminded him more of some of the tavern wenches he used to spend a night with, and then never think of again, not having enough of a personality in her fangirlism to relate to on a personal level. Not only that, but according to Tanzou, "Kakashi-sempai is always three hours late to everything not an A or S-ranked mission. He's pretty lazy, too."

"That sucks for you," said Kiba under his breath.

"Yeah, I know."
"Team Eight is Kiba Inuzuka, Shino Aburame, and Hinata Hyuuga. Your teacher is Kurenai Yuuhi."

"Dammit," he whispered to his feral friend, "How come you get the most competent ninja in our class, and the hottest girl?"
"Luck of the draw, I guess. Your shitty luck in life balances out your freaky skill with the dice, I guess."

Meanwhile, the next seat over, a certain shy Hyuuga turns beet-red.

A bit of a smirk lights Naruto's face at that – 'Yeah,' he thinks to himself, 'I still got it.' – and he turns to roll his eyes at Kiba as the members of Team Ten – Ino Yamanaka, Nara Shikamaru, and Chouji Akimichi , under Asuma Sarutobi– are announced.

He puts his head down onto the desk, cushioned by his arms, and goes to sleep after telling Kiba about Kakashi's chronic tardiness.