Chapter One

Crying Green Eyes

Raaaameeen~

It was said about Uzumaki Naruto that if he had been a man dying of thirst in the middle of the Suna desert, and if he had been offered the choice between a glass of water or a cup of ramen… he would have taken the ramen. Happily, oh-so happily, he tucked into the steaming bowl with his chopsticks.

He ate, and ate, and ate, and ate till he was so full and so sluggish his head was muddled and his stomach aching. Then, lazily as could be, he slurped a final noodle into his mouth, allowing its end to dangle just beyond his lips, and fell to thinking.

Naruto was a boy of sixteen and a half years, with blond hair that struck up like straw, eyes that were shockingly clear and shockingly blue, and who had three whisker-like scars crossing each cheek. He was also a ninja of the Hidden Leaf Village. A very content, ramen-stuffed ninja, as the case might be at the moment.

He had just returned from a mission the day before and was now having his post-mission ramen, which was different from pre-mission ramen, post-training, pre-training or pre-bed ramen… which, in turn, was different from supper ramen! And then there was breakfast ramen, and… well, yes. What made post-mission ramen so different from all the other ramens was that it was the ramen over which he brooded over the mission he had just completed. He had been particularly eager for this post-mission ramen when he'd gotten back to Konoha because this latest mission had been a particularly exciting one, and well worth the brooding.

Most of his missions nowadays were either life tearing, soul shredding, emotionally unsound or just plan useless (aka centering around the notorious group Akatsuki, which would have liked nothing more than to tear out Naruto's innards, Uchiha Sasuke, his defector best friend, or clean-up duty around the city…Yeah). This mission, however, well… it had been awesome.

It had basically centered around this thing called The Forbidden Jutsu. A jutsu was a ninja technique. Now, there were plenty of jutsus in the ninja world. Likewise, there were plenty of forbidden jutsus which were too dangerous to use. However, this was The Forbidden Jutsu. Special? It could wipe out an entire city in the blink of an eye.

And it had happened to be implanted between the shoulder blades of a girl named Hotaru, whose grandfather had been the leader of the Tsuchigumo clan, En no Gyōja, who had created the thing and implanted into her body for safe keeping. Hotaru had been a willing vessel for years, wishing to someday restore the Tsuchigumo Clan to its former glory. However, carrying something like The Forbidden Jutsu ingrained in her back was just asking for trouble, which it exactly what it, and Hotaru, and Utakata, got.

Konoha had a pact with the old Tsuchigumo Clan, so when the latter got attacked and Hotaru and her precious jutsu were targeted, Naruto and the rest of his team had been called off of the umpteenth Sasuke-Rescue mission and had gone to lend a hand. And that was where the fun had started.

When they got there Naruto saw a man attacking Hotaru. Well, what he had taken for an attack had actually been something that he later secretly dubbed as Lovers' Spat 101. That was when he had met Utakata.

Utakata was something of an enigma to Naruto, even now. He was a guy, about the same age as Naruto, and a missing nin from the Hidden Mist Village, as Sasuke was from the Hidden Leaf. His crime? He had killed his master. …Naruto still felt there was some sort of misunderstanding there, though he had never pried. Whatever it had been, Utakata felt severely uncomfortable being considered a master and teacher himself. Well, he was a missing nin. There wasn't much of a problem as no one in their right mind would take a missing nin for a master. Slight problem? Hotaru was as head over heels for him as he was for her. Neither of them was in their right minds and Utakata didn't have much of a mind to begin with.

Naruto smirked a knowing smirk.

The insignificant bastard who had orchestrated the original attack on Hotaru's home and the attempted capture of the Forbidden Jutsu was apprehended and accordingly beaten-the-shit-there-out-of by the hero now eating ramen; Utakata had somehow not only managed to stop the Jutsu from activating, but had somehow swallowed it (as Naruto had thought: an enigma) and had also finally come to terms with the fact that he was probably the best master Hotaru could possibly hope for (being able, as he was, to swallow freakin' Forbidden Jutsus, or however he made that thing disappear).

Naruto had last left them at the gates to Hotaru's village, Utakata and Hotaru going one was, he himself and his team, returning to their own village. Damn it was satisfying.

With a contented slurp Naruto dragged the last noodle between his lips and into his mouth and-

"Naruto!"

-swallowed?

"Naruto, come quickly! Something terrible's happened!"

Naruto pushed his cash across the counter, and then slowly turned around in his seat, his mouth suddenly very dry. Sakura was running towards him, looking pale as death.

Sakura had pink hair, a fist of steal and a brilliant mind for medical ninjutsu. She was also Naruto's one true love. The girl just wouldn't come to terms with how amazing that fact was. …She was also apprentice to the Fifth Hokage, the leader of the enter Hidden Leaf Village, one of five great ninja villages in the world. What did that entail precisely? That very, very little could make Haruno Sakura's face twist with the raw distress that was now contorting her features.

Shit. Something was very, very wrong. Grabbing his orange windbreaker from the next seat, Naruto shot out of the Ichiraku Ramen Bar to greet her. Seeing that he was coming Sakura turned in mid stride and began running back the way she'd come, to the Hokage's office, willing Naruto to catch up to her as they went. He did.

"Wha-?"

"It's Hotaru."

It seemed surreal. For a moment all the sound seemed to go out of the world. Hotaru? The ramen sank in his stomach. But why? What could have…? He bit his lip. Damnit Utakata, you were supposed to take her of her! Had he abandoned her? You're her master, damnit!

...

He had seen that look of despair before. He had seen those tear-stained eyes, those dirt smeared knees… Damn. It was like a really bad practical joke. Entering the Hokage's office, and seeing Hotaru spasm at the sound of the door opening, and then turn to face him… it was like a really bad practical joke.

…It was like seeing Sakura again, the day after Sasuke had left the village… the day after her heart had broken into a million pieces for Naruto to pick up and try to patch together again. Somehow.

Damn.

"N-Naruto-san," Hotaru hiccupped. He could have sworn that he didn't see her cross the room. Suddenly, she was just there, clutching at his black t-shirt, sobbing into his chest – a sandy-blond mess of tattered hair, bespeckled with twigs and leaves and dirt. When they had first met Hotaru had behaved like the stuck-up, proud, young heiress that she had been brought up to be, even though she was only just fourteen. However, in the week of their adventures she and Naruto had gone through a lot together. They had become friends. And seeing her like this…

Naruto felt his blood boil and he pulled her into a tight hug. Naruto had never been good with girls. His campaign for Sakura, which had begun in their Academy days, was proof of that. But no one was better at recognizing sheer and raw abandonment. "Damnit Hotaru, what did he do?"

"H-He was taken!" she sobbed.

Naruto wasn't the sharpest kunai. He recognized that. But that just didn't make sense. "Eh?"

"He was taken!" she screeched, and Naruto was no longer hugging Hotaru. He was holding her up.

"Lady Hotaru has shown us this," Naruto looked over her head, past Sakura, Sai, Capitans Yamato and Kakashi, and Shizune, to the Hokage's desk at the end of the office. There sat a very pretty blond woman who looked about twenty-five, was about fifty-five, and had the medical ninjutsu to make it all look natural. Apart from her boobs. Those were very, very unnaturally huge. Sakura's mentor and the Hokage of the Hidden Leaf: the Slug Princess Tsunade. In her hand she held a twisted tube of metal which, after a few moments of scrutiny, Naruto recognized as what had once been Utakata's Bubble Blower.

He slid to the floor with Hotaru, still bracing her. "…No way."

"Naruto-"

"That thing can withstand a solid hit from a kunai! It's his best weapon, and can-"

"Naruto!" the Fifth cut him off. "Lady Hotaru has already explained all this to us."

Naruto looked back down at the mess in his arms. She had stopped crying, but had started shaking instead. Very carefully he took her by her upper arms, pulled her away from him, and looked into her eyes.

Crying green eyes.

Just like Sakura's.

Damn.

"Hotaru, what happened?" She hiccupped, shaking her head. "Hotaru," Naruto he said pointedly, not looking away from her, "what happened?" he said more gently, rubbing up and down her arms comfortingly.

She swallowed.

"After you left us, Sir Utakata and I took a rather unorthodox road out of the village. There wasn't really a specific path, and it wasn't a road. It was just a field by the Fort."

"Then why did you-" Naruto raised a hand to silence Sakura.

Hotaru swallowed again. She was on the verge of tears once more. "We had decided to take that rout... as a final farewell." She kept her eyes locked on Naruto. "Y-you see… it was through the field in which we," swallow, "…we first met." She gagged on her words, curled up against Naruto's shoulder, and broke down again.

"We should take her to a couch. Get her some tea. She'll be more comfortable."

Naruto shook his head at Sakura over Hotaru's shoulder. "Let it out." It wasn't a request. It was a command. He pressed his hand against the back of Hotaru's head. "Let it all out, now. You're with friends, Hotaru." His voice had taken on that undertone of power. It was what made him what he was – the last stand and final strength of the Hidden Leaf. "The sooner you say it all, the sooner we can help Utakata. So say it. Force it out."

"Naruto, I don't think that, given her condition-"

"We went to that field!" she practically shouted into Naruto's shoulder. He winced a little. She stared past him at the blank wall, clutching onto him, shaking. "I-it was filled with yellow flowers! The field. And- and he told me to wait there! He told me he was going to go find the ANBU of the Mist, and tell them, and-and-and-" Naruto closed his eyes. That voice in his ear. He couldn't stand it. Her words caressed his earlobe in a quiet, broken, rasp of a whisper, "and ask for permission to be my master, and train me…"

Naruto took a steadying breath. He needed his voice to be calm. He needed to be strong for Hotaru. "And then?"

She was silent.

"And then, Hotaru?"

"…The flowers were so pretty…" she muttered, almost as if she was ashamed. Ashamed of what? "And I collapsed in them, and laughed, and had a wonderful time, and the petals swirled overhead in the wind." He felt her grip tighten on his shirt. "And then they weren't petals anymore. They were bubbles." Naruto's throat tightened. "So beautiful and so wonderful," he couldn't tell if it was her heart or her voice tearing her in two at this point. Both seemed rubbed raw. "And one fell into my hand, and I saw my reflection in it, and it was a- a rainbow, and the flowers smelled so wonderful!"

That's right, Hotaru, let the poison seep out. Let it out.

"And I fell asleep!" Another howl. Another breakdown. Another recovery. "…When I woke up, it was dark." She was speaking slowly again. "I was scared. And alone. I… I went to look for him." She was shaking like a leaf in the wind. He couldn't have held her any more tightly if he'd tried. "I finally found a… a bloodied ANBU mask."

Naruto swallowed. Had Utakata…?

"And a little ways beyond," the terror in her voice was indescribable, "a crater. A terrible, ugly crater." She gulped. "That's where I found Utakata's Bubble Blower." There was silence for a moment, and then, "…Something caused that huge of an explosion…and I didn't hear it!" Her voice and her body contorted as one.

"Hotaru!" Naruto shook her. Ah, so that's what you're ashamed of. You let him leave. You didn't stop him. …Damn.

"I was sleeping while he was attacked! I let them take him!"

"Hotaru!" Damn. It's all too familiar.

"It's been haunting me ever since! Those bubbles that fell all around me, they were like pearls! Pearls of tears and I watched them and fell asleep to them!" she croaked out. She was positively hysterical.

"Are you Utakata's student or aren't you!" Naruto tore her from her contorted position, and faced her against him. She spluttered. "Well?" He shouted, shaking her shoulders. He hated this. He knew too well what it was to lose someone irreplaceable. And he knew too well what it was to live with regret. With the shame. "Where is that strength I know you've got?! The strength with which you bore The Forbidden Jutsu all those years!?"

Three and a half years ago, when his best friend Uchiha Sasuke had turned his back on the village, he, Naruto, and a handful of his comrades, had set out after the Uchiha. However, Sasuke had not been alone. He had had guides, so to speak, to lead him off the path. Ninjas from the Hidden Sound. One by one Naruto's comrades faced off against Sasuke's guides. One by one they defeated the guides. In the end only Naruto and Sasuke were left. In the end, only Naruto had not been strong enough to stop his adversary. His best friend.

He was tired of the tears.

With one swift heave he pulled Hotaru back on her feet. "Stand." He let go of her. She teetered. And stood. "Now," Naruto said, bringing his windbreaker up to Hotaru's eyes and rubbing them clean non too gently. "You have to tell us everything. Everything you know about Utakata. Past, Present, and why you're saying that he was taken, and not killed?"

"Naruto!" that was Kakashi-sensei. He could piss off.

Hotaru licked her lips. "There wasn't a body."

"That doesn't mean much." Naruto shot back, crossing his arms. "We've met ANBU from the Hidden Mist before. Or rather, ANBU posers." He remembered Haku, a young boy he'd met on his first A-class mission. "They have professionals who specialize in the destruction of missing nins' bodies – Hunter-nins." It almost seemed ruthless for Naruto. Almost. The fact was that he wanted her to fight back. The fact was that he trusted her to counter him.

"But they left his Bubble Blower," Hotaru answered without missing a beat. Clearly she had thought this over already. Continuously. Clearly the thought that Utakata had been taken, not killed, had become her last and most desperate hope.

Naruto nodded. "Point. Now... what do you know about Utakata?"

Another moment of silence. Hotaru bit her lower lip.

"Hotaru-"

"-I know!" she cut him off. "…I know…" She broke eye contact, and looked to the vacant wall. "It's just…. Knowing his life as I now do… these were the first, the only secrets that we've shared." She smiled at last. A bitter, sad smile. "I had hoped, the first of many secrets. I was honored… when he chose to confide in me. Surly you must know," their eyes met again, "the extraordinary honor it is… to be given a secret to cherish by someone not open to secrecy."

Hotaru's smile mirrored on Naruto's face. Oh yes. He knew, remembered, all too well.

...

"Oy, idiot."

"What?"

"…You actually answered to the name of 'Idiot'."

"…FUCK YOU, SASUKE!"

"Hm."

"…"

"Oy, idiot."

"WHAT!"

"…"

"…fuck."

"Come with me, I'm going to show you something."

"What am I, your pet? The hell I'm going with you!"

"Fine then, I'll just leave now."

"…Oy, oy, oy! Wait up for me!"

The two twelve and a half year old boys walked in silence for a few minutes. "So where are we going?"

"The dock."

"The… dock…?" Naruto, who was usually very slow, cocked his head to the side as they walked. "The one on which you sat all the time when we were kids?" He could see the surprise on Sasuke's face. Bastard shouldn't have been surprised. After all, if anything, Naruto had been the only one to notice that the dock had been Sasuke's regular haunt after…. after the slaughter of his entire clan.

Naruto suspected that for that which Sasuke had used the dock, he himself had used the swings in the Academy – a place whereupon to erect a sort of shrine of glumness. Nasty place. Naruto never went near that swing now. He was glad that it had been where he had brooded before. It meant that his sadness had been concentrated. He wasn't reminded of it wherever he went in Konoha. Just that one swing set.

"Why the hell do you wanna go back there?" he asked, looking ahead now.

"Because, when I was a kid, I learned how to make fireballs there," Sasuke said with a smirk, pushing back his black hair. It was a habitual movement. And it was a pointless one. His hair still stuck up as if it was static's best friend.

Naruto didn't need the translation. It was where his mom or dad had taught him how to make fireballs. He smirked himself now. Oh, he got it. Rather than leaving it like Naruto's swing, he wanted to make it into a place like the Forth's Head.

That needed an explanation.

Naruto had never known his parents. But he had had an idol for as long as he could remember: The Fourth Hokage, who had died protecting the village. Behind Konoha there towered a mountain into which the faces of the Hokages had all been carved. It was atop the Forth's Head that Naruto sometimes sat, looking over the entire village for which the hero had died, and wondered if having an idol like the Forth was something like having a father figure.

So that was what Sasuke wanted to turn his dock into.

It was funny, how Sasuke and Naruto never really needed words. They just understood each other. They were in harmony.

Hence, the instant they got to the dock, Naruto conjured up half a dozen Shadow Clones and threw Sasuke headlong into the water.

Ah, the harmony.

...

That smile still on his face, Naruto wetted his lips, thinking. He'd carried the bruises from the following fight for weeks. And that was with his recovery rate. "You said something about 'knowing his life as you now do.'" His mouth was a little dry. "You know his life story?"

Hotaru's mouth quirked a little, her voice just as dry as Naruto's, and just as clean of any regret. "…I know his life story."

...

"Come in," Hotaru sang in response to the knock on her door. She grinned down at her traveling pack. Everything…. everything was like a dream. Sir Utakata had banished The Forbidden Jutsu from her back. Sir Utakata had formally taken on the role of her master. Sir Utakata had promised to take her with him on his travels!

"Hotaru."

She spun around. "Sir Utakata!"

There was an awkward pause.

"Ah. Yes." There, on the other side of her room, stood Sir Utakata. He was, without a doubt, the most handsome man she had ever met. He had dark brown hair which fell over one eye, just brushed over his shoulders and looked much too soft and silky to be allowed. He had amber eyes that, quite frankly, put amber to shame. He was over a head taller than she, was lanky, and wore a light blue kimono which he never bothered to fasten properly. However, far more importantly, he was an the most incredible ninja Hotaru knew, and handsome as he was, what she truly valued about him was his great skill, which he had now promised to pass on to her, so that she might one day restore the honor of her clan and-

"Hotaru!" She suddenly realized that he had been trying to get her attention for a few phrases now.

"Yes!" she squeaked, swallowing hard.

Silence.

"I… would like to talk to you." And then, quite suddenly, with one sharp movement, Sir Utakata slid the screen clean shut. She was alone, in her room, with Sir Utakata. That is no matter. He is my master now. We shall be alone all to time, when he is training me.

Ah… this was going to take a little getting used to.

"Do sit down?" She muttered. He did, and then gestured to the space before him, as though wishing her to sit too. She did.

Silence.

For a few moments Sir Utakata seemed to be having something of a silent debate in his head. He rocked back and forth a little while chewing on the inside of his cheek. "I would like-" he blustered out, and then reconsidered. "I think you ought to… know about me." He nodded in agreement with his word choice. "Hotaru," finally he met her gaze. She gulped. "I need you to know everything about me, not only so that you can consciously make the decision to travel with me, but because, being who I am…what I am… I have my share of enemies and I want for you to know enough about me that you could never learn anything from the mouth of an enemy. I… I want to be the one to tell you everything, in my own way."

"Sir Utakata… are, are you alright?"

He nodded distractedly at her. "Perfectly." Another silence. He licked his lips. Why did she notice that? "During the time that I have lived with you at your estate I did not tell you anything about myself because I felt that I was only here as a temporary resident, and because I party feared you would throw me out if you knew what I was."

"Sir Utakata I!-"

"-I did not want to be thrown out!" They stared at each other. She didn't understand. He had left her all too readily when Naruto and the other Hidden Leaf ninjas had arrived. She did not understand. And yet…. And yet… she wanted to believe she did.

Hotaru nodded. Sir Utakata took a deep, steadying breath. "To cut through everything, first and foremost, I am a Jinchuuriki."

She stared into those amber eyes in silence. "A…a what?"

"A Jinchuuriki. You've heard of the nine great beasts, have you not? The Bijuu? Well…I am the host of such a Bijuu. It is sealed in my body as-"

"-I know," Hotaru cut him off, "what a Jinchuuriki is. I just never thought…Sir Utakata?" she looked over him now and, for a moment, tried to find something that related him to the terrible monsters she'd heard of from legend.

Nothing sprung to sight or mind. He was just – if 'just' could ever be applied – Sir Utakata. And anything, everything actually, that was so extraordinary about him stemmed, not from any monster, but from him – Sir Utakata. Her master.

He cleared his throat. "I shall continue." Again a silence. Again he seemed to brace himself for his own confession. "I did kill my master. However, now, I believe… I believe I did so unjustly. You see, I thought he was trying to kill me." He pressed his lips together thinly, staring firmly into her eyes as if they were the last anchor he had. "He was…. He was trying to remove the beast from my belly. I don't remember everything now. I think…I turned into the beast, and killed him." Hotaru stared at him, wide eyed. He smiled wryly. "I am not the angel you have made me out to be, but neither am I the devil the Mist Ninjas would have brought back in irons. I tell you everything, now, so that you can make the choice here. I know that, out there, in front of Naruto and everyone, you might feel compelled to come with me. We will be saying our farewells to them at the village gate soon. However, here, you can tell me truthfully."

Hotaru fidgeted. She looked around the room. Looked at the clothing she had scattered while packing, and then looked back at Sir Utakata. "Have you ever told anyone else about this?"

"No."

She nodded, looking around again. This time, she did not look back, but was careful to avoid his eyes. "Do you want me to come with you?" She could sense his gaze boring into her at that.

"Yes." A pause. "More than anything."

Her heart leapt up into her throat and she looked at him again. "Y-you could have kept it a secret. It would have insured my traveling with you."

"For how long?" he smirked, a quite sort of defeat coming over his face. She had rejected him now, knowing what he was. "How long until you found out? And then we would be far from here, and you would be scared and would hate me and I would bring you home and on the entire journey back you would hate me and I could not deal with-"

"You can be so stupid, Master! Such an absolute idiot!" Hotaru was standing up again. She glared at him and he, his face molded into absolute astonishment, just stared back at her. She'd called him an idiot before, but it had been to his retreating back. Never like this, eye to eye, to his face. Very, very slowly he swallowed.

"I…I just wanted to-"

"I showed you my monster before," she cut him off. "I wanted…I wanted you to know everything about me then," she couldn't fight the blush now. "And I trusted you to accept it and accept me. You were the first person outside the Tsuchigumo Clan to learn of The Forbidden Jutsu's true location. And the only person I ever really wanted to know of it," she was breathing erratically now. She had never actually been angry with him before. Upset, frustrated, even hurt by him. But never angry. "…was you! And…and even after that you doubted me?"

They stared at each other for a span longer. Rather, Utakata looked as if he was ready to melt into the floorboards and Hotaru looked as if she was all too willing to help him on his way. He swallowed. "A-allow me, in that case, to make amends for my inconsideration by teaching you as best I may?" He smiled up at her sheepishly. This had been meant to be a solemn confession. It had become a farcical apology.

Hotaru was able to hold his gaze for a moment longer. And then she squealed and threw her arms around his neck. "O-oy!" he spluttered, trying to pry her off.

He's going to teach me! I'm so excited! He's going to teach me!

"Lady Hotaru, why is this door closed?" Tonbee, her manservant, slid open the door, knowing as he did that Hotaru did not like closed doors inside the mansion. He froze in place.

There was Sir Utakata, who was to be Lady Hotaru's teacher, sprawled on the floor and looking very red in the face. There, on top of him, was Lady Hotaru.

"Ah! Tonbee!"

...

Her mouth quirked at the memory. That quickly reminded her that she now had a split lip. There was silence in the office.

Finally, Naruto spoke. "Ukakata's a… he's a…." he swallowed hard, "a Jinchuuriki?" Just like me. Why hadn't he seen it before? How else could he have kept up with Naruto's chakra level when they had fought side by side? Had Utakata been aware about him, Naruto? Suddenly something Utakata had said came flooding back into his memory: "Having too much power only gives rise to suffering. Right, Naruto?" He had known.

Damn! He, Naruto, should have seen it!

Hotaru nodded.

"Sakura," the Hokage spoke again, "I want you to escort Lady Hotaru to the infirmary. Please, make her comfortable, then report back here."

Sakura bowed. "Yes, Lady Hokage." However, as she approached Hotaru and Naruto, Hotaru again latched onto Naruto's shirt.

"You'll save him, won't you, Naruto? You'll save Sir Utakata." It was amazing how, in midphrase, it even stopped being a question.

Naruto stared down at her. He was the ultimate optimist. Everyone knew that. He was the last one to give up on anything and he was usually the reason it came through. People simply couldn't doubt anything that Naruto had taken in hand because it was a hand that simply wouldn't brook failure.

He swallowed. But even he had to wonder about this one. He hadn't even been there when Utakata had been captured.

Captured…

Damn. I'm slow.

Akatsuki.

He remembered Gaara, a fellow Jinchuuriki and, aside from Sasuke, the only guy who had every fully understood him. He remembered how he had been taken. Remembered how he had been taken, killed… reborn.

And then there were those green, tear-washed eyes. And a memory…

"Naruto…this is the only favor I will ever ask of you…" Sakura had wrapped her arms around herself, as if she would simply fall to pieces if she didn't clutch it all together. "Please… please bring Sasuke-kun back! I couldn't do it… I couldn't stop him. The only person who can stop him… who can probably save Sasuke-kun now… is you…Naruto…only you…"

Naruto smiled brokenly, closed his eyes, and looked away from her. "Sakura-chan, you really love Sasuke, huh?" She blanched, and looked up at him. …She recognized what it cost Naruto to acknowledge that fact. "….I know how much pain you're in. I can understand."

There was a long silence, broken only by Sakura's hiccups and murmured nothings, until finally she broke into fresh sobs. "Naruto…Thank you."

Naruto twisted his face into a smirk, jolted his head back to look at her, threw out a thumbs-up, and proclaimed–

"Don't worry I'll bring him back for sure! Promise…" his voice caught in his throat, but he forced it out, "Promise of a lifetime!" He held Hotaru tightly.

Sakura's quiet, sharp, intake of breathe was lost on all but Naruto. His hand had shaken then as he'd held up that thumbs-up. There would be no shaking now.

"…Now then," Tsunade said matter-of-factly when the door had closed behind Sakura and Hotaru. "Kakashi!"

"Yes, Lady Hokage." Kakashi-sensei stepped forward. He had been Naruto's teacher and team Capitan since Naruto was twelve. A mop of silver hair that stuck up wildly, a face that brimmed a mask from chin to nose and a forehead protector that sloped over his left eye, Nartuo still didn't really know what the man looked like, and this was four and a half years later.

"You're a smooth talker. I want you to go to the Hidden Mist, explain the situation to them and request them to allow us access to all of the documents concerning Sir Utakata and his master, with specific focus on this project his master was working on concerning the Bijuu. This… extraction. Then use Paku to meet up with the rest of Team Kakashi immediately! "

"Yessir." He bowed, then paused, "…Ma'ma," he said, scratching he back of his head, "I'm flattered by your 'smooth talker' complement, but even so, what makes you think they will just fork over a classified Jinchuuriki file to another country?"

Tsunade seemed to wage an inner war with herself. Finally, she sighed, and reached into her desk, pulling out a perfectly ordinary looking scroll. "A trade. You will present this to Terumii Mei." She smirked sourly. "Female Kage to female Kage. She'll understand."

"Is that…" Shizune, Tsunade's secretary, blanched at the scroll.

"Silence!" Tsunade barked at her assistant. "It's not like she or any of hers will ever have the chakra control to implement it anyway," she muttered. Then, turning a sweetest of sweet smiles back at Kakashi, she offered him the scroll. "But remember, if this falls into the wrong hands, or you give it to her before you have the data we need, I'll cut your balls off. This is my life's secret Kakashi~"

Naruto swallowed. Women were scary.

A swift bow and an anxious puff of smoke later, as if he couldn't wait to be out of the room, Kakashi was gone.

"Right then. Yamato. I want you to summon Team Gai, and Inuzuka Kiba !" It was amazing how, with just a freakin' flick of the wrist, the woman could just summon and banish Jounin-level ninjas as if it was nothing.

"Naruto. Sai." The two boys stood to attention. "Get your things. Your mission is to find Utakata of the Hidden Mist and take him back from his kidnapers who are, as you have probably guessed by now, most likely Akatsuki S-Class criminals. Details to be explained after Kakashi has obtained all necessary data, and has met up with you. Be at the gate in precisely one hour. Dismissed!"