The loud noise almost had the waiter drop a full tray.

The patrons of the cozy restaurant all turned to see what the ruckus was.

Seeing who was involved, they merely shook their heads and turned back to their conversations.

A huge log fire burned at the center of the great room, filling a realistic fire pit built in homage to the region's ancient ancestors. The large blaze threw warm flickering light across the room, making the table candles a mere decoration.

At one thick carven table, an apple rolled and fell to the floor. It was soon followed by two peaches from the same overturned fruit bowl. A small hand reached out and caught a bottle of Sesame sauce before it suffered the same fate. The wax in the candle globe had sloshed up, extinguishing the flame, causing a small thin string of smoke to wind upwards.

Naruto grimaced. His fist hurt.

He had struck the table harder than he intended.

"I did NOT kiss Temari!" He said through clenched teeth, glowering at Jiraiya.

The Great Sennin merely smiled, taking the top of one of his row of Sake jars. He offered it to Hinata facetiously, before draining most of it in a series of gulps.

"Ahhhhhhhhhh. Good." He chuckled. The look that Naruto gave Hinata had been priceless. "I was there, remember?" He looked over at Hinata.

She looked like she was pretty certain that it was all a joke.

Pretty certain.

"Besides, I'm not in much of mood to joke, not after all that!" Naruto raised his fist again, but held it. He sighed, shaking his head.

"Naruto-kun?" Hinata reached her hand under the table and held Naruto's.

"It was the best solution at the time," Jiraiya said, a sudden sad look in his eyes. "Sometimes the life of the one must be sacrificed for the lives of the many." He put down the jar he had been about to open. "The Hidden Sand Village was in the ogre's path."

Naruto hung his head. He didn't say anything.

"Sensei?" Hinata looked at Jiraiya.

"Rokumen-happi-no-Jaki had headed into the Wind Country. He was not going there to take up residence or look for a vacation spot. No doubt his original actions were prompted by a desire to move in a direction away from Yamata No Orochi; but, once he entered that land, his destructive tendencies took over." He looked over at Naruto. "As you know, your young man was sent over to help our allies."

"Shit!" Naruto said. "Old Lady Tsunade should have just put a hook through my lip and cast me out into the damn desert. I think I swallowed half of the stupid sand. The other half fell down my pants and got stuck up my cr---" He swallowed hard. "Never mind…." He picked up a fork full of noodles, but let it slide from his hand.

"Bait?" Hinata knew that something was troubling Naruto, if he wasn't eating his Ramen. "Because the demon could sense Kyuubi, and would follow it?"

Jiraiya nodded.

"It was not a pleasant experience……for anyone. Especially since Naruto's primary task was to run again. Run and keep running, leading the monster away from large villages until the Kazekage could implement his solution." The Sennin shook his head. "They will need to find another new Kage."

Hinata looked at Naruto sympathetically, knowing how much it had bothered him to run from the mountain they had been trapped in.

"When I wasn't running, they tied me to the back of a freaking wagon and drove me around. That wasn't the best damn way to get any sleep, I can tell you that!" Naruto played with his Ramen, but still didn't eat.

"We might not have been able to return tonight, if the Kage hadn't been forced to fall back on a drastic but proven method." Jiraiya rubbed his head, his eyes looking distant. "His impatience proved his undoing."

Naruto stared over into the roaring fire. He could see images of great beasts there, remembering the final confrontation.

"Naruto-kun? What happened?" Hinata slid closer to him along the bench seat they shared.

"Those idiots wanted to see if Shukaku could handle the ogre. Stupid jerks, they should have known better , just looking at the damn thing. All they did was piss off Rokumen-slappi-his-Jaki, causing it to march on the village out of rage, ignoring Kyuubi's presence."

"The sand spirit was no match for the larger demon," Jiraiya added. "Gama-Bunta did his best as well, before leaving, acquiring a few new distinguished scars he will be complaining about for the next ten or twelve years." The Sennin downed more Sake. "That young maniac ran under the ogre's foot, grabbing his unconscious friend just before they were both turned into jelly." He nodded in Naruto's direction.

"What was I supposed to do, Ero-Sennin? Leave Gaara to die?" Naruto stuck out his lip.

"That's how he ended up kissing, Temari…." Jiraiya said, trying to lighten everyone's spirits. "It was a pretty intense kiss, too…."

Hinata turned to look at Naruto, her eyes widening just a touch.

"She kissed me," Naruto admitted. "For saving her brother's life." He scratched his head, then turned to stare in the fire again. "It was only gratitude. She doesn't have any interest in me. Besides, better her than Kankurou, right?"

Hinata looked at Naruto, then at their teacher. There was something more that had them upset. She didn't want to ruin the dinner, but wanted to know what was making her boyfriend hurt so much.

"Naruto-kun…… what else happened…… why…… why are you and our sensei…."

Naruto turned to Hinata, then straightened his shoulders. He had already wallowed enough in self-pity, during the trip home. Grateful that Hinata cared for him, he reached out and brushed his hand against her hair.

"They took the idea from me," He said quietly. "Actually, they took their idea from Yondaime's sacrifice." Naruto looked over at Jiraiya, knowing that the Kage's sacrifice had opened wounds for the older shinobi. "The Kazekage sealed the demon in a baby."

Hinata's hand went to her mouth.

Now she knew why Naruto was feeling so bad.

"But, their elders were not willing to take future risks," Jiraiya said. "I do not entirely disagree with their actions, as cold and unfeeling as they might seem." The Sennin slid a jar of Sake to Naruto, then nodded. Naruto stared at it, scowling, anguish painting his face.

He shook his head and took a long drink, sputtering.

"D-Did they…… the b-b-baby….." Hinata's suspicion had her reverting to her old habit of stuttering. She had to force herself to stop twiddling her fingers. "Did they kill the baby?"

"Yes!" Naruto didn't spray Sake over the table after his second long sip. "Bastards!" He shook for a moment, then sighed. How many times had he cursed his own existence? But, at least he had a chance to live, grow, and find precious people.

Even Gaara had a chance to do that these days, despite everything that people had done to him.

"As I said, they were unwilling to take any chances," Jiraiya said. "The Kazekage was nowhere near as strong at the Fourth had been. His sacrifice was not enough, and he knew it before he started. More of their most powerful ninjas had to make deals with the Death God for the attempt to succeed. Things could have been worse, but the Wind Country has suffered greatly."

"I wish the damn ogre had at least been busy killing Akatsuki members, like the dragon is!" Naruto finished of his jar of Sake, feeling a bit wobbly. He was not one to drink. Ever.

Hinata looked over at Jiraiya, who nodded. He slid her a jar.

"No!" Hinata squeaked, holding up her hands. She had just wanted to hear about Yamata No Orochi and Akatsuki.

The Sennin knew that.

"Go ahead, Hinata. It will put hair on your chest." Jiraiya's loud laughter startled a busboy, causing him to drop a tray. Plates rolled across the floor of the eatery. Glasses broke, and silverware skittered this way and that. "Then you won't need that coat you wear everywhere!"

Hinata kicked her teacher under the table. Hard.

"Owww!" Jiraiya groaned. He looked over at Naruto, who had actually flashed a brief smile. "She used to be such a nice and kind girl!"

Naruto nodded. "She's still a nice and kind girl. But, even someone as special as Hinata has her limits. There's only so much nonsense she will put up with!"

Hinata smiled, then leaned her weight against Naruto, closing her eyes for a moment.

"Ha! You better remember that too, idiot!" Jiraiya chuckled, before frowning and massaging his sore knee. "I bet your shin has plenty of bruises by now."

Naruto looked up at the ceiling, then began counting the tiles.

"You wanted to hear about the dragon?" Jiraiya said, bringing the conversation back to serious matters.

"I can tell her that," a familiar voice said.

It was Tsunade.

"Mind if I join you? A number of jounin had told me they saw you headed in here." The Hokage took a menu from a very attentive waiter. "How much have you told Hinata?"

"The important stuff," Jiraiya answered, sliding a Sake jar to his former teammate. "Temari's kiss…."

"Which one?" Tsunade asked, arching one eyebrow. "My official report mentions a good number…."

Hinata jerked. Her mouth fell open.

Naruto held up his hands and shook his head. He relaxed when he saw Tsunade wink at Hinata.

The Hokage was a worse prankster than Jiraiya at times.

"Any way," Tsunade continued, "We may want to name Yamata No Orochi an official member of our village." She tapped her finger nails against the table top, then took a drink of water. "After the ogre finished with his display of anger at the mountain, he seemed to have no compulsion to punish those who muffed the ceremony."

"The dragon is a different story," Jiraiya added, nodding. "That demon either holds a grudge, or was invoked in a different manner than Rokumen-happi-no-Jaki. It has followed the remnants of The Nine, removing them one by one, taking out small enclaves and larger hamlets in the process."

"Yes, but it is not a joking matter really, since many innocents have perished as well." Tsunade thanked the waiter for the soup he delivered. "Right now, the monster is ravaging the territory controlled by the Sound. I imagine our fellow Sennin is none too pleased." She sampled a spoonful.

Jiraiya scolwed.

He was not in the mood to think about Orochimaru.

"Do we know what happened to Itachi?" Naruto asked, squeezing Hinata's arm. "I heard word that he was not dead."

Tsunade sighed. She put down her spoon.

"He has been seen within the Fire Country. That is am major concern of ours. Not simply because of his past crimes, or the mischief he can cause in the future." The Hokage broke open a dinner roll from a basket Hinata held up, then motioned for Naruto to pass the butter. "If the demon follows him here, we will be the ones forced to deal with it. I would rather not be the next one to follow in Yondaime's footsteps."

"W-Would the…… would the jewel have any effect against the demon?" Hinata asked. She didn't think that the blue gemstone would have such a use, but she was wondering why Tsunade had been looking for them.

"I doubt it," Jiraiya answered for Tsunade, who was busy chewing. "It disrupted the summoning that called Kyuubi, but the dragon has already been summoned, and the call has already stopped."

Naruto narrowed his eyes. He had his own set of suspicions now.

Frowning, he looked Tsunade in the eyes.

"Why do I get the feeling that you're going to want to use me to tempt that scaly son of a bitch?" He shook his head angrily. "Let the thing chew up all of Orochmaru's people and crap them out again. It's what those bastards all deserve." He thought about Sasuke for a moment, but didn't bring up his name.

"Because the demon is headed in the direction of the Lightning Country. We have received pleas from the Village of Hidden Mists. Obviously, they have heard about your exploits in the desert." Tsunade looked over at Hinata. "I know they have a bad history with us…… but things change."

Hinata looked down at her hands. She swallowed hard. It had been someone from the Cloud that had kidnapped her as a child, setting in motion a series of events that had drastically affected her clan, especially her father and his brother Hizashi.

"So…." Jiraiya scratched one armpit. "You should have brought that fancy hat of yours, if you came here to preach politics." The Sennin was not looking forward to another mission so soon.

The fight with the ogre had taxed him as much as it had his apprentice.

"Crap!" Naruto's loud exclamation had the expected effect on the diners and restaurant staff. He didn't care. "Maybe I should go visit the Sound now!"

"Naruto-kun?" Hinata looked worried.

"I might as well go hire myself out as a prostitute to Orochimaru. That way, I will have been screwed by all three Sennin!" He shook, his frustration evident. "The Frog Hermit let that Uchiha freak slip through his fingers." Naruto knew Jiraiya had done everything possible, but he was not in the mood for logic and reason. "Now, the Old Lady is scarfing down a nice meal, thinking about making me an hors d'oeuvre!" He reached for one of Jiraiya's jars. "Again!"

A moment of uncomfortable silence was broken by Jiraiya.

"Great, Tsunade. Now you've gotten him in one of those moods. This was supposed to be a chance for us to unwind." He rubbed his temples, suddenly looking very tired. "The only thing that might bring him out of it is a kiss from Hinata!"

Naruto looked at Hinata automatically, then winced knowing that he had done so. Hinata blushed.

Tsunade actually smiled.

"There might be something else, as well." She put a scroll up on the table. "Since I haven't decided whether or not to respond to the Cloud's request."

"Huh?" Naruto focused on the rolled up parchment. "What game are you trying to play now, Old Lady?"

"Game?" Tsunade put an innocent look on her face. "I merely came to discuss something important with you. Is there something wrong with that?"

"I guess we'll find out," Jiraiya quipped. "Let me get some more Sake, first." He raised five fingers.

"We've all been busy," The Hokage said. "The village has had its share of trouble since the time when the Sand and Sound attacked. The business of Akatsuki has been hanging over everybody's head, not just you two." Her glance skewered Naruto and his sensei.

"Uh huh. Tell me something I didn't know!" Naruto folded his arms across his chest, getting that look.

"A number of years have passed. Hinata here made chuunin, even though she is often utilized as a specialist, not a team leader." Tsunade smiled at the white-eyed girl. "That won't change, seeing how much stronger she has become. In many ways."

Hinata blushed, but nodded her head.

Naruto scowled. He thought he knew where things were headed.

"But, after you failed to make chuunin during your first and only try, you never had another opportunity to take the exams." Tsunade unrolled the scroll. "The next exam period begins one week from today."

Jiraiya smirked. He knew what Naruto would be thinking. I the past, the boy would have exploded. It would be interesting to see how he reacted now.

"What!" Naruto opened his mouth, just about to shout. He didn't. Instead, he put both hands behind his head, leaned back on his seat, and closed his eyes.

Seeing that, Tsunade winked at Hinata. She passed the scroll to Jiraiya who read it, then nodded.

"You have two choices, Naruto." Tsunade's voice was stern. "You can be present at the exams….." She coughed twice. "Or, I can consider sending you to help those dealing with the dragon." She took another drink of water. "I am not joking. You have my word on that."

Naruto said nothing.

He was obviously ignoring Tsunade.

It was Hinata's turn to read the scroll. Her eyes widened. She smiled, looking over at Naruto, his eyes still shut. Seeing Tsunade gesture, she thought a moment.

"You….. you're not…… are you afraid you might fail, Naruto-kun…." Hinata began purposefully twiddling her fingers.

Naruto's eyes snapped open. He sat up, incredulous.

"HUH?"

"I'll….. I'll help you study…." Hinata managed not to smile. Jiraiya and Tsunade exchanged subtle glances, watching the Hyuuga girl.

"WHAT?!!"

"I passed it, Naruto-kun…… and…… ummm…… I'm just a girl…." Hinata thought back to Naruto's behavior at the campsite. Things had come a long way since then. For both of them.

"I….. AM….. NOT….. AFRAID….." Naruto stood up.

Tsunade laughed. Jiraiya joined her. Hinata managed a shy smile, despite the look on her boyfriend's face.

"That's good," the Hokage said, passing the scroll over to Naruto. "If you were afraid, you wouldn't make a very good examiner!"

"I…." Naruto's eyes went wide as he read. Then he shook his head and sighed. He had fallen for that one hook, line, and sinker. "Damn." he looked over at Hinata and smiled. She was getting to be a handful.

Good for her.

"Congratulations, idiot!" Jiraiya said, raising his Sake jar. Everyone held up their beverage of choice in answer to that toast.

The scroll named Naruto as a Special Jounin, duly listed in the records of Konoha.

"You both have a lot to offer the Leaf," Tsunade said proudly, ruffling Naruto's hair and smiling at Hinata. "It's about time that everyone knew that."

"Yes, and this dinner is on Tsunade. So order anything you want while… OWWWW!!!" Jiraiya dropped his Sake when Tsunade showed Hinata just how powerful a kick could be.

"He was just joking," Tsunade said.

"I will pay for dinner tonight." Hinata's words had everyone going silent, staring at her. She didn't mind. That kind of thing bothered her less and less, now. They had all been through so much. And, they all had a lot to be thankful for.

"Huh?" Naruto cocked his head. "Why?"

Hinata smiled….. leaned over…… and gave Naruto a quick kiss on the cheek, blushing.

"We all have a lot of things to celebrate," she answered.

x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

THE END