(Tim Seltzer, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sunlight was shining down through breaks in the clouds.
The smells of early morning Konoha were invigorating. The bakeries had their wares in baskets outside their doors, and the restaurants were beginning to build their soup stocks.
In contrast to the quiet background of the forest, the streets of the village began to show a growing level of noise. Shinobi and civilians were going about their business, and the various shops and services were setting up for the day.
Leaning against a tall post, Naruto closed his eyes and drank it all in. The warmth of the sun on his face felt wonderful . The tantalizing odors in the air had him salivating. The sounds of village life told him he was home.
It was great to be around people again. Human people. Not Kitsune… not Yaksha… not Nagas… not Pretas, Kumbhandas, Ogres, or Pisacas. Definitely not a giant blue-faced pop-eyed sword-wielding Deva King!
Yes it was definitely wonderful being home. Not only that, it was heavenly, not having a kitsune hanging all over him every moment of every day. As it was, he still felt a little edgy every time someone walked by him. He couldn’t help but wonder if everyone was who they seemed to be.
He and Hinata had gotten back to the village late last evening. Tsunade had taken one look at their tired faces and sent them home to get some rest. It felt strange in a way, being away from Hinata. He never would have guessed that he would feel that way, seeing that he hadn’t ever given her too much though before the two of them had left on their epic journey.
His traveling companion should be showing up soon. When she did, they would head over to the Hokage’s office together, to give their reports. At the very least, he needed to pass along the Oracle’s answer. But, being a nosy old woman, Tsunade would want all of the details. That had him feeling anxious as he began to remember everything that had happened.
“Hinata…” Naruto scratched behind one ear. “Hinata… Hinata… Hinata…” In the past, she had been a friend of sorts. He had admired the way she fought to improve herself, after seeing her stand up to Neji at the Chuunin exams. But, before the business with Kuko and the other fox women, if he dreamed about any of the kunoichi, it had always been Sakura. “Sakura who?” He smiled, shaking his head.
His dreams last night were certainly not about Sakura. While Kuko and the kitsune had made guest appearances, the person who visited him in those fantasies had been a white-eyed Hyuuga girl. Naruto began coughing. He chased away those thoughts. There was no way he wanted to be thinking that kind of stuff when Hinata showed up in person. As it was, he hoped that the stirring inside his pants settled down before she arrived.
“If life wasn’t confusing enough without this kind of thing...” Naruto sighed. But, he wasn’t unhappy. ‘Confused’ may be a better choice of words. Maybe even ‘intrigued.’ If he were honest, he would add ‘embarrassed,’ only because it had required a legendary adventure to get him to realize how Hinata had felt about him over the years.
Now, he had a lot of things to sort through about his own feelings. Friendship. Lust. Love. What did any of that mean? What had he felt for Kuko? What had he felt for Hinata? Where did one draw the line between all of those feelings? He also found himself wondering which of his feelings and emotions might have been his own, and which might have been the result of the fountain water and the mystical gemstone. Did the magic simply highlight things he had been secretly feeling all along?
“Kuko…” Naruto tugged at one of his earlobes, making a face. In a way, it was a relief that she was gone from his life. While it had been exiting to have a sexy mature woman interested in him, the total impact of the situation had been overwhelming, and the continual stress had run him ragged. But, he found that he missed her too. They had certainly been through a lot together, not the least of which had been his first sexual experience.
Looking up at the clouds, some took on the form of a rather voluptuous body. The stirring inside his pants returned, making him feel self-conscious. Smiling, he congratulated himself for being a man now, not a boy. Thinking about the life ahead of him, he was very happy that he wasn’t about to become a father any time soon.
“At least I hope not…” There was no guarantee that the kitsune wouldn’t seek him out again. Would that have to be a bad thing? Maybe in a few more years, he might want to take advantage of the opportunities. That was just his glands talking. He knew that the fox women would not simply be looking for a good roll in the hay. They all wanted more children. None of them were looking for a long term companion or soul mate, which were precisely the things that he thought he wanted some day.
It was Hinata. She wore her chuunin vest, which was not anything out of the ordinary. The light reflected off of something she wore at here ears. She had put on the red jeweled earrings that she had won at the temple. Those were definitely out of place on a kunoichi in her ‘work’ clothes.
“Good morning, Hinata.” Naruto smiled seeing her.
“Would you like one, Naruto-kun?” She offered a bag to Naruto. It was filled with steamed buns stuffed with jam paste. “I made them this morning. Do you think that the Hokage will like them?”
“Thank you,” Naruto said, bowing with a grand flourish that had his fellow ninja giggling. Breaking open one of the pastries, he took a deep breath, and then smiled. Biting into the bun, he began talking before he had finished chewing. “I don’t think so. I don’t think that she will like these one bit.” He tried to keep a smile off of his face. Crumbs fell down on his jumpsuit. “You probably worked very hard. I’d hate to see her refusal make you feel bad. So, don’t even mention these to her.” He licked his lips and started reaching for the bag.
“You can have more,” Hinata said, a large smile coming to her face. Naruto liked what she had baked! “You shouldn’t eat them all. It will make you sick.” She felt a sudden urge to wipe the paste off of his chin, but didn’t feel forward enough to do such a thing.
“Want to bet?” Naruto asked. “They’re really good.” He plucked another bun out of the bag. “You’re a great cook, Hinata-chan.” He grinned, seeing her blush. “I hear that the Temple of Virudhaka is looking for a pastry chef….”
Hinata twitched, pulling apart her own bun further than she had intended. Bean paste dropped down onto her sandal. She turned an accusatory glance on Naruto.
“I just can’t take you anywhere, can I?” Naruto chuckled, watching Hinata bend over to wipe off her foot. Staring at her rear end longer than he usually might, he quickly looked away. That damn stirring had returned big time!
“My father and Neji were skeptical of my claims,” Hinata said, wondering why Naruto was blushing. “But, Hanabi had me talking until I fell asleep.” She looked up at Naruto, an odd look in her eyes. “It really was real, wasn’t, Naruto-kun? It only seemed like a dream…”
“It was real alright,” Naruto said. The two of them began walking towards the administrative building. “But, I guess I didn’t find it as strange as you might have…” He pointed to his navel. “Not with you-know-who in here.”
“I won’t tell anyone your secret, Naruto-kun.” Hinata promised. “And… ummm… I hope you won’t tell anyone… ummm…”
“Huh?” For a moment, Naruto wondered what had Hinata turning so red in the face. Then the answer struck him. “Oh! Don’t worry. Uzumaki Naruto is a gentleman.” He paused, looking down at his feet. “The only person I will tell is Granny Tsunade. There’s no way we can lie to her.”
“Thank you,” Hinata said, feeling a whole lot better.
“But…” Naruto pulled at his lower lip. “Hmmm-mm-m…” He shook his head sadly. “I probably won’t be able to keep the story away from Ero-Sennin. He really likes that kind of stuff….”
Hinata didn’t say anything. She was fairly certain that Naruto was joking.
“Kakashi would probably like to hear about it, too,” Naruto added. “He’s always reading one of those Icha Icha books, so I know it will be right up his alley. He’d probably be discrete. I’d be surprised if he went and told Asuna or Gai about it.” He looked over at Hinata, disappointed that she wasn’t fluttering her hands or biting her lip.
Hinata just kept walking serenely. She was doing her best to ignore Naruto now.
“Shikamaru would think it was bothersome. Choji would be more interested in the bag you’re carrying. Lee would get all excited and question my honor as a shinobi of the Leaf. Neji might decide to kick my ass.” Naruto snapped his fingers. “Kiba! That’s who’d really like to hear about it!” Rubbed his hands together, trying to sound excited.
Hinata stumbled but kept from falling. She was not going to let Naruto get to her.
“No,” Naruto sad. “Kiba can’t keep a secret to save his life.” He stopped, trying to look very serious. “I should tell Kurenai, though. It’s probably something your sensei should know.”
“Ummm…” Hinata came very close to walking into a lamp post.
“I won’t tell her if you give me some more of those buns,” Naruto said. He looked at the bag hopefully.
Hinata handed him the rest of the pastries.
There was a moment of silence.
Naruto had just knocked on the Hokage’s door, after having been told by her aide that she was expecting them.
He looked over at Hinata. She looked nervous, too. This would be a difficult debriefing for both of them. The thought of the word ‘debriefing’ had him coughing. At that moment, he imagined it to mean the removal of one’s briefs.
“Maybe we should knock again,” Hinata said. Without stopping to think, she brushed the crumbs off of Naruto’s outfit. The bag she had given him was now empty and crumpled up.
“We could come back later…” Naruto said. He knew that a delay wouldn’t accomplish anything. The past was the past. It might actually help to get things off of their chests, so to speak. Just as he raised one arm to bang on the door again, a voice called out.
“Come in.” It was Tsunade’s voice.
The two shinobi walked into the room, standing in front of the large cluttered desk. Behind it, the Hokage sat rubbing her temples.
“Take a seat,” Tsunade said. She lifted a steaming cup of tea to her mouth and took a sip. A plate of cut fruit sat near her other hand.
Hinata sat first, choosing one of the middle chairs. Naruto pursed his lips a moment, looking at the remaining chairs. Two of them would put him next to Hinata, while one would not. He chose the other middle seat.
Tsunade raised one eyebrow, and then tapped her cheek with one finger. “I’m glad that you’re both well.” She smiled, looking very relieved. “You were gone longer than anyone expected. I imagine you must have some stories to tell, after visiting a Shi Tenno temple.”
“No.” Naruto shook his head. “Not a thing.”He kicked Hinata’s foot, wanting her to follow his lead. Tsunade would expect him to start off this way. He could get down to the truth of the matter soon enough.
“Yes,” Hinata said, brushing a finger against one of her earrings.
“Now that you’ve gotten that out of you system…” The Hokage furrowed her brow, looking at Naruto. “…And seeing that you have already managed to stuff yourself…” She noticed the crumbs that Hinata had missed. “…I’ll offer these to Hinata, while you give me your report as team leader.” She passed the fruit to Hinata, before leaning back in her chair and making a steeple of her hands.
Hinata bit her lips, seeing a few more crumbs. She reached out to flick them away, blushing when she realized that she had done so in front of the Hokage.
“OK… Old Lady…” Naruto almost put his feet up on Tsunade’s desk, but thought better of it. “It started when just about every girl I knew seemed to want to take her clothes off for me. It turns out they were really kitsune.” Not having the contrariness out of his system yet, he restated the obvious.
Tsunade began tapping one nail against her tea cup. The best thing to do was simply to be patient.
“But you knew that!” Naruto winked at Hinata, who just shook her head. “My first decision came when I chose my team. You already know what Kuko’s requirements were. So, I decided to choose only one kunoichi. Hinata.” He folded his arms over his chest. “It was the right choice.”
Hinata looked over at Naruto shyly, happy to hear him say that. At the start of the trip, she had been so worried that she would be a burden. And, during the first part of the trek, she had been feeling rather critical of herself, wondering if one of the other girls might have been a better choice.
“Kuko called her ‘Little Sister’,” Naruto added. “She teased Hinata a lot, even after we saved her life.”
“Saved her life? At the temple?” Tsunade took another sip of tea, and then added a bit more lemon to it.
“No.” Naruto shook his head. “Things happened before we even got there.” He put his hands together, cracked his knuckles, then leaned back in his chair, feeling more relaxed. “When Kuko went hunting, she came back with more than dinner.”
“The other female kitsune?” The Hokage asked, raising an eyebrow. She could imagine what kind of trouble something like that might have led to.
“Yeh.” Naruto made a face. “They said they were there to protect us. It might even be true. But, you can guess what was on their mind.” He sounded a bit smug. “I showed them who was boss!”
“Really?” Tsunade asked. “Did he?” She looked over at Hinata.
Hinata nodded her head. Naruto went on to tell how he had his clones dance with the fox women, and described the the trick he had pulled with Kuko’s star ball.
“Was he a good dancer?” Tsunade asked Hinata.
“Ummm…… he was very… ummm… enthusiastic……” Hinata rubbed her fingers together.
“Two left feet,” Tsunade said, nodding. “I understand.” She tried to keep a grin off of her face, seeing the look Naruto gave Hinata.
Scowling, Naruto went on to tell about the rogue kitsune, mentioning the new deal that he had worked out with Kuko.
“That was a stroke of good fortune,” the Hokage said. “I was wondering if you would end up in her clutches.” The Hokage stared at Naruto for a few moments, seeing him squirm in his chair. She clutched the arms of her chair tightly, when he explained how Hinata could have been at risk of more than death from the mikkyo. She listened with professional interest when he went on to describe the battle with the male kitsune.
“Are you alright now? Completely? Should I send you over to see Shizune?” The Hokage stared intently at Hinata, a concerned look on her face.
“I‘m fine, Ma’am.” Hinata said. “Kuko saved my life and took care of the initial healing. The shaman at the temple finished the process.”
“That was quite a risk you took, Naruto.” Tsunade folded her hands together again, and then rested her chin on them. “Were you certain that giving Kyuubi even a little bit of control wouldn’t have given him an opening?”
“No,” Naruto said, looking down at his lap. “But, I couldn’t see how it could affect Yondaime’s Seal.” He put one hand behind his neck, and then grinned. “Sometimes I just take chances. You know that.”
“Yes, I do.” Tsunade looked at the necklace that Naruto had put back on, now that he was home. She sighed. “I hope your choices keep turning out well.” Looking over at Hinata, her eyes suddenly went wide. “I take it Hinata knows about the Nine Tails.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Hinata said. “Kuko was going to tell me. But, Naruto did it himself, so she couldn’t blackmail him.” She put a hand over her mouth. She had volunteered more information than she needed to at the moment.
“I see.” Tsunade frowned, looking over at Naruto. “Didn’t you make her promise not to tell? Was a kitsune actually going to go against her oath?” It was an important fact to know, if they ever dealt with fox women again.
“Well…” Naruto swallowed hard, looking over at Hinata. “You see…”He studied the designs on the carpet for a few moments. “I might have forgotten to make her promise that…” He stuck his chin out. “The Yaksha mentioned Kyuubi, any way.”
“You will be discrete, I presume.” Tsunade eyed Hinata. “There are still people who are unaware of that secret.” She looked out of the nearest window. “I wonder if it’s time for the elders and I to revisit that issue.”
“I promise I won’t tell anyone at all, Ma’am.” Hinata replied.
After that, Naruto spoke about kami, described the Umbrella Pine, and gave a detailed report on their passage to the other realm.
“I miss having the ability to move from village to village,” Tsunade said, sounding somewhat wistful. “It must have been nice, seeing so many new things.”
“You mean you miss the need to move from village to village, don’t you?” Naruto asked. “One step ahead of the bookies and moneymen.”
“Listen, brat!” The Hokage raised one finger. Shaking her head, she sighed. Looking over at Hinata, she asked “Was he like this the entire trip?”
“You have my sympathy,” Tsunade said. “I’m amazed you got out of the temple alive. I can’t wait to hear that part.”
Prompted, Naruto began a cursory description of their sojourn at the temple. He purposefully danced carefully over certain facts and events. That fact did not escape the Hokage’s notice.
“A little more detail, if you please.”Tsunade said firmly. “You should not expect to be going anywhere soon. I have cancelled all of my appointments for today, and will be doing my rounds at the Medical Center later this evening.” She yawned for a moment, and then drank more tea. “Something you might not think is worth mentioning could very well be very significant. Let me be the judge of what is important or not.”
“Granny Tsunade, I doubt that the Leaf has anything to fear from the Guardian or any of his underlings.” Naruto shrugged. “They didn’t seem too interested in our world at all, right Hinata?”
“No,” Hinata said. “And they seemed glad to see us leave.”
“I can imagine,” Tsunade said. “Things were peaceful in Konoha with a certain troublemaker gone.” She motioned to Hinata. “Why don’t you take up the tale, starting back where the three of you entered the temple. In addition to the things you saw and did, I’m interested in how you viewed Naruto’s effectiveness as a team leader.” She also knew that Hinata was honest to a fault, and wouldn’t try to gloss anything over.
Hinata had a very good memory, and was terrific with minutia. Her honor wouldn’t let her purposefully leave out even a single embarrassing detail, a characteristic that left her blushing on more than one occasion.
“You took a bath? Together? All three of you?” Tsunade’s look was penetrating. “Naked, I presume?”
“Y-Y-Yes,” Hinata said. “It was necessary. A shinobi must do his or her duty.” After that, she described the room where they experienced their visions. She mentioned how her choice of the sapphire door had won her the earrings, and gained them all access to the temple proper. She talked about the sacrifices they had be obligated to make.
“That was a noble thought, Hinata.” The Hokage said. “Save those earrings. They are part of a very memorable mission. I’m certain that your children will want to see them some day.” She shifted her gaze to Naruto. “Coupons?Discount tickets? For Ramen?”
“They took them,” Naruto answered, sounding defensive. “It was that, or navel lint.” He folded his arms over his chest and stuck out his jaw.
“Why do I even bother?”Tsunade rubbed her forehead. “Did you all visit the healer together, Hinata?”
Hinata shook her head. She went on to describe her experiences, mentioning the riddles forced on her by the eldest Yaksha, and ending with her arrival outside of the fountain room.
“That was where Naruto and the kitsune were waiting?” The Hokage asked, seeing the look of discomfort in the girl’s eyes. “Were they expecting you, when you showed up?”
Hinata shook her head, and then gave Naruto an apologetic look.
“It’s your turn to take up the tale again, Naruto.” Tsunade watched the boy’s face like a hawk. She had a feeling that the story was going take a very personal path from that point onward.
Speaking with an uncharacteristically quiet voice, Naruto told the Hokage everything that had happened in the room, not leaving anything out in an attempt to protect himself or Hinata. Sitting there in that office, he found it hard to believe those events had actually taken place.
“It’s a ninja’s duty to give his all for the Leaf,” Tsunade said after listening. She was not making any kind of joke. “That is true whether the shinobi is male or female.” He looked over at Hinata.
Hinata blushed. But, instead of feeling embarrassed, she realized that she was proud of her actions. She might not have been able to do what she had done, for anyone else other than Naruto. But, it still hadn’t been simple doing it for him.
“It….” Naruto didn’t even know how to get his words out. “I guess it wasn’t all bad…” His memories of that time were a blur feelings and physical sensations. “But…” He was feeling somewhat proud himself, but for an entirely different reason. But, he also felt somewhat sheepish, and couldn’t help but feel victimized.
“Yes,” the Hokage said. “I understand.” She nodded. “Good and bad. Yin and Yang. Excitement and regrets.”
“Ma’am… my father… you won’t…” Hinata couldn’t help but stammer.
“No,” Tsunade answered softly. “Don’t worry. You were very brave. In some ways, your choice was the most courageous of the entire mission. But, that is yourbusiness.” She looked over at Naruto. “Yours and Naruto’s.”
“Thank you.” Hinata looked relieved.
“I expect it to stay between the two of you.” The look Tsunade gave Naruto promised instant pain and prolonged punishment should he prove to be the type of guy who kisses and tells. "You were lucky that things didn't go any further than they did." She shivered a moment, imagining Hyuuga Hiashi storming into her office, followed by half of the Hyuuga clan.
After promising to keep things secret, Naruto went on to talk about the mikkyo, the Naga, and the plan that nearly sent them to their doom.
Tsunade slapped the desk with both hands. “Naga. Yaksha. Ogres. Pretas. Kumbhandas. Temple Maidens. Rogue kitsune. I should be writing this all down.” She grinned, massaging one arm. “No. That will be your job. I will leave it up to the two of you.” She took a sip of tea. "You can exclude the personal parts."
When Naruto got to the part where Virudhaka had made his appearance, Tsunade looked somewhat taken aback. But, her shock soon gave way to resignation when she heard how flippant Naruto had behaved.
“Hey! It’s who I am,”Naruto said, somewhat annoyed. “I think he liked that. He was amused.” He poked his thumb against his chest. “The Yaksha said we would all end up dead. Because of me, we didn’t.”
“It must have tough to be a spectator,” the Hokage said to Hinata, a look of sympathy on her face. “I might need to give you some time off duty.”
“Women,” Naruto said, turning to look out the window. Then he mumbled something under his breath that he refused to repeat, even under threat of death.
“Naruto-kun!”Hinata shook her head. “Behave.”
Hinata’s choice of words earned her a salute from Tsunade. Seeing that, Naruto shook his fist at the Hokage. “Old Lady!” You already have Sakura acting a lot like you. Don’t you start doing that to Hinata, too. I like her just the way she is.” He grimaced, realizing how that sounded.
Hinata blushed, but kept her eyes on Naruto’s face. The Hokage rubbed her hands together, a calculating look in her eyes. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, she asked Hinata to pick up where Naruto had left off.
“Kuko showed her true nature in the Oracle chamber,” Hinata said. “Even though she was no longer… ummm… fertile…she tried to make Naruto promise to… ummm… try again next time.”
“Oh?” Tsunade’s posture straightened some. “How?”
Hinata went on to describe the kitsune’s trick. After that, Naruto described their meeting with the true Oracle.
“Only time will tell if we can use that clue
to out advantage,” Tsunade said.
The door to the room opened.
The Hokage’s aide stuck his head into the room. “Pardon me, Ma’am, but we have a visitor asking to see you promptly. She claims to be an Ambassador.”
“Ambassador?” Tsunade asked. “To what nation?” She suddenly grew very suspicious. Any representative from a recognized village or nation would make arrangements far in advance. An assassin wouldn’t be foolish enough to believe that such a ruse might succeed.
“She would not say, Ma’am.” The aide looked behind him. “I asked a number of times.”
The Hokage signaled to Naruto and Hinata silently. They took up strategic placement near the door, in case this was some kind of underhanded plot.
“Pardon me,” someone said in an imperious tone of voice. “But, I am not accustomed to be kept waiting.” It was Tenko. “My apologies at arriving in such a hasty and brusque fashion,” the silver-haired woman looked first at Naruto, and then at Hinata. “But, I had hoped to speak with you while those two fine shinobi were still here.”
“You!” Naruto clenched his fists. He thought he was done with kitsune at least for a little while.
“Yes,” Tenko said. “Me.” She bowed to Hinata, a sparkle in her eye. “Kuko wanted me to send her as our representative; but, you know how things might have gone then.” She laughed. “Right, little sister?”
“I take it that you are Tenko,” Tsunade stated, standing. “For what do we owe this… honor…” Her voice had an arctic feel to it.
“I hope you are not still angry at me for using your form before.” Tenko shrugged. “After all, the boy seemed quite smitten with it.” She smiled at Naruto, who had suddenly gone pale. “I would have had my way with him, if little sister hadn’t helped the other women see through my trick.”
“I… you… that…“ Naruto cleared his throat, not able to look at either Tenko or Tsunade. “That’s old news!“ His face turned bright red.
“The girl ended up foiling a number of our attempts,” Tenko smiled at Hinata. “We tried to recruit her, unsuccessfully. Our loss… your gain….” She worked at her hair for a moment. “Have you ever thought about having little sister move in with our young hero? She could keep a close eye on him that way.” Her jest had both teenagers looking away from one another.
“I will take your suggestion into consideration.” Tsunade’s tone of voice clearly said that she would do anything but that. “I take it there was something else that prompted this visit?”
“Indeed there was,” Tenko replied. “I wish to discuss the idea of an alliance. It is the kind of thing that we kitsune have never entertained before.” The Prime kitsune sat down in one of the chairs uninvited. “You have something that we want. We can offer skills and services that would prove invaluable.” Here eyes glittered with mirth, seeing the look on Naruto’s and Hinata’s faces. “I things work out well with our family, one or two of the other families might want to get a piece of the action.”
“P-P-Piece…” Hinata began coughing. She knew too well what piece the fox women were interested in.
“Action?” Naruto’s eyes went wide. He did not even want to think about the havoc more than one kitsune family to bring to his life.
“An alliance…“ Tsunade drummed her fingers on her desk top for a moment. “Why exactly should the Hidden Leaf village wish to have an alliance with a group of amoral yokai?“
“I think that we can both agree that the world is a dangerous place,” Tenko said. “One that always seems to come up with new dangers on a regular basis.” She met Tsunade’s gaze as an equal, not a supplicant or beggar. “For us… our temple is encroached upon more and more… and the natural order of things seems less stable than it once was.”
“And for us?” The Hokage took her measure of her visitor. There was an air about her that could not be faked or put on at a whim.
“Your village has many powerful enemies, not the least of which is the organization known as Akatsuki.” Tenko looked over at Tsunade’s teacup and raised one eyebrow ever so slightly.
“Naruto, ask my aide to bring our distinguished guest some tea.” Tsunade pointed to the door.
“Should I ask him to bring a field mouse too, Ma’am?” Naruto didn’t bother looking at Tenko. “Maybe a rat. The basement under the storage buildings have been overrun by them.”
“The tea!” Tsunade looked over at Tenko and sighed. “He’s a handful.”
“I know,” Tenko said. “But he has a world of potential.” She smiled. Just the same, she would have to think of some way to reward the boy for his insolence.
“If I understand you correctly, you are offering to help us in our efforts against the Nine, if we in turn are willing to offer assistance against the threats that encroach upon your family or families?” Tsunade knew there was more.
“Yes,” Tenko said. “The saying ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ is especially appropriate amongst the fur bearing races.” She looked over at Naruto when he returned. “As you can guess, we are interested in more than mere scratching.”
“I figured as much,” Tsunade said. “That’s where I run into issue with your offer.” She narrowed her eyes. “I do not run a butcher shop. I do not intend to treat my shinobi like cuts of meat to be tossed to anyone with a large appetite.”
“That’s one of the things I find so amusing about humans,” Tenko admitted. “You’re willing to throw your men and women into battle, knowing that many of them will die to protect your village.” She accepted her cup of tea when the aide walked in. “But, you take affront at being asked to ask a single young man to make an entirely different type of sacrifice.” She sighed. “The approach one risks death to preserve life. The other merely brings new life into the world.”
“We are what we are,” the Hokage said. “If Naruto were to volunteer for such a role, I would have to give it more thought. Otherwise, we are merely bargaining over matters of mutual assistance. Even so, having kitsune around the village would present a different kind of risk, knowing your race’s love of mischief and vengeance.”
“We are what we are,” Tenko said. “I should also add, that we may well get the one thing that we want without an alliance.” She smiled, seeing the defiant look on Naruto’s face. “Some of the girls are very persistent. Not only that, but they have taken a great liking to a certain young charmer.”
“I should have asked the Oracle how to get rid of the kitsune!” Naruro scowled at the fox woman.
The door to the office swung open again. This time it wasn’t the aide. Jiraya walked in unannounced and uninvited. “Tsunade! I heard that the boy is back. Did he learn anything that I should know before visiting my contacts again?”
“What makes you think you can just walk into my office whenever you please?” Tsunade clenched her fists. Under her breath she muttered “Aside from the fact that you do it all the time.”
“The great need no excuses,” Jiraiya said. “There he is.” He caught sight of Naruto. An instant later, someone else had him standing straighter. “Who is this fox?”
“Exactly,” Naruto said. “Ero-sennin, this is Tenko. Tenko, this is Ero-sennin.”
“DON’T CALL ME THAT!”
Jiraiya’s shout had both women spilling their tea. They exchanged glances and sighed.
“He’s the one who made me what I am today,” Naruto said, not necessarily meaning that as complimentary. “You might say that I’m nothing but a smaller version of him.” He missed the shocked look on Hinata’s face. “So, maybe we can trade you the Frog hermit instead.” He folded his arms across his chest and nodded his head, as if he was the one caught in the middle of diplomatic matters.
“Don’t mind him,” Jiraiya said, flashing a smile at Tenko. “He got hit one too many times on the head during practice.” He continued to smile, but his eyes suddenly looked very serious. “I take it you are an emissary for the kitsune?”
“That I am, large and powerful one.” Tenko fluttered her eyelashes, finding a way to tease Jiraiya and annoy the Hokage at the same time. “Naruto really is quite remarkable. You must be an exceptional teacher.”
“Are we talking about the same boy?” The Frog hermit gave his pupil a sour glance. “Do you mean that Naruto? The one standing over there trying to look clever?” Suddenly, he thought of something and rubbed his hands together, a light coming to his eyes. “Did he do me proud? If you know what I mean…”
“I don’t think we need to talk about that now.” Tsunade looked like she was getting rather steamed.
“I won’t say a word,” Tenko said. She winked at Jiraiya. “You might ask little sister instead. She watched.”
Naruto’s mouth fell open. Hinata froze, feeling like she might pass out. Jiraiya began chuckling.
“That’s it!” The Hokage stood up, her eyes flashing. “This meeting is at an end.”
“She sounds cranky,” Tenko said to Jiraiya. “Perhaps she’s tired and needs a good night’s sleep.” She stood and stretched, causing the Frog Hermit’s eyes to bulge. “Or, maybe she’s the possessive type…” She looked over at Naruto. “If you know what I mean…”
“You…” Tsunade’s hands began to shake. She had to fight to keep her temper.
“Maybe you’re not as smart as you think you are,” Naruto said to Tenko. “That is not the way to get something out of the Old Lady.”
“’Old Lady?’” Tenko grinned. “She’d be a youngster among us.”
“Yeh,” Naruto said. “But if she was a kitsune, she wouldn’t need to use magic to look good.” He knew he shouldn’t have said that, the moment the words left his mouth. It didn’t help matters that Jiraiya was giving him a ‘V’ sign. “I… that is…”
“It might make your life easier, If you let him come with us.” Tenko laughed.
“Don’t tempt me,” the Hokage said.
“Let’s go, boy.” Jiraiya said to Naruto. “It sounds like you have a lot to fill me in on. Tonight, I treat you to Ramen. One bowl for every good story you tell me.”
“Ero-sennin treating?” Naruto rubbed his eyes. When he looked, it really was the Frog Hermit standing there. “That’s stranger than anything we saw.” He looked over at Hinata. “Want to come too, Hinata?”
“Yes,” Hinata said, smiling. Naruto had invited her! She had worried that things would have gone back to the way they were, before they headed out on their assignment.
“Tsunade… you work too hard… that’s going to give you wrinkles…” Jiraiya smiled. “Feel like joining us?” The look he gave the Hokage was one part humor and three parts challenge. But, there was also a tiny spark of something else. None of that escaped Tenko’s notice.
“You must be joking.” Tsunade shook her head. “I’ve had enough aggravation for one day.“ She looked at the huge stacks of work covering her desk. She couldn’t put it off any longer.
“Suit yourself.” Jiraiya frowned. Then, a huge smile lit up his face. “Tenko?” He raised one eyebrow, seeing Naruto shaking his head and waving his arms.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Tenko said. She eyed Tsunade. “I can go as I am… or like this…” She took on the Hokage’s form. “Clothing is optional…” She was totally nude for an instant. Jiraiya dropped his Icha Icha book, telescope, and scroll case.
“Out!” Tsunade was not amused.