Operation: Bring Home Naruto
I. Kunoichi tea party
She drummed her long fingers with their dark red lacquered nails on the desk as she stared thoughtfully at the four names before her. She felt she knew relatively little about these young kunoichi even though she'd personally trained one of them. It was difficult to know the true capabilities of any shinobi unless one had successfully entrusted his or her life to one. She didn't have the luxury or time for personal testing. Her instincts would have to be enough. She studied the names again.
All of their instructors praised them highly, but that was to be expected—they were chûnin. The question was: Which one could successfully undertake the mission she had in mind? She needed more than a good fighter. She needed a convincing actress—or better yet a young woman who cared. Which one of these young kunoichi could handle a mission requiring subtly and nuance? Well, she would soon find out.
She pulled out a handful of stationary, and began to compose invitations.
Hinata hesitated before the fifth Hokage's reception room door.
She'd been sent an invitation to tea. It had come as a total surprise to her. She thought she'd barely registered on the Hokage's radar screen. Her teacher and friend for many years, Kurenai Yuhi had always been the only one to notice and have faith in her abilities. That faith and the curiously invigorating but sporadic encouragement of Naruto Uzumaki, a fellow shinobi, had helped her succeed when she'd needed to. Although she'd only passed the chûnin exam on her third try, since then she had managed one successful B, several C, and a great many D missions. Her skills were improving slowly but steadily.
Her real problem was that despite the special Huyga ability, the byakugan, she couldn't maintain and sustain an adequate degree of self-confidence. It was her lack of confidence now that kept her hesitating at the Hokage's door wondering why she'd been sent for. Surely, there were any number of chûnin and even jônin who were more successful and capable than she. Why would the Hokage seek her out above the others?
She would still be standing at the door wondering if there had been some mistake if Tenten hadn't reached around her to knock then swing the door open. She ignored Hinata, brushing by her and walking confidently into the room. Knowing now that she wasn't being singled out, shyly ducking her head and pushing her index fingers nervously together, Hinata followed.
She walked forward into the room behind Tenten and slowed as she noticed Sakura and Ino sitting in opposite chairs glaring at one another. It suddenly dawned on her that this tea may indeed be a social occasion and not some special recognition by the Hokage. For some reason that made her feel more at ease. She hurried forward again and sat down on the nearest chair to the door.
"So you've been invited, too." Sakara stated the obvious looking from Tenten to Hinata and making no effort at further greetings.
"Why shouldn't they be invited? You didn't think you were special, did you?" Ino retorted. "I'm surprised you didn't dress better in that case."
"There's nothing wrong with the way I dress. I'm wearing my favorite outfit. I've had many compliments on my outfit."
"Only from boys—and they're more interested in what you're not wearing which in that outfit isn't very much."
"Who made you the fashion police? Besides, I don't see you dressing like a nun. You're practically falling out of that blouse."
"Why don't you both shut up? You both look like sluts," interrupted Tenten in a bored voice. She wore the same thing she always did. She was as ready as always to begin fighting.
I'd rather look like a woman than a boy," Sakura thought, but said nothing aloud. She didn't feel as comfortable insulting Tenten as she did Ino. She didn't know her very well and wasn't sure she wanted to. "I thought I'd been invited to be congratulated on my engagement." Sakura said instead and flipped her hair back with her left hand showing off her ring. "Tsunade was my teacher after all."
"As if the Hokage cares about that. She has more important things to think about than your stupid engagement," Ino sneered.
"You're just jealous," Sakura said smugly.
Ino almost gaped at her nerve. "Of you? As if," she said indignantly, but truth be told Ino was a little jealous. She'd been working on a particular shinobi herself who still didn't seem to notice her even though she'd thrown herself in his path every chance she got. It wasn't fair that Sakura had gotten engaged without even trying. Ino was much better looking than she was—and nicer—and stronger. Why wasn't someone pursuing her as persistently as Lee had done Sakura? It wasn't fair.
"My fiancé is the best chûnin of his age in the village."
"Says who? He's never beaten Neji. They're close enough in age."
Sakura waved her left hand dismissively. "Of course Lee won't beat Neji. They're teammates. He hasn't had any reason to fight Neji."
"As if boys or men need a reason to fight. I seem to remember being teammates didn't stop Sasuke and Naruto from fighting against each other."
Sakura flushed. "How dare you mention Sasuke to me! I never want to hear his name again. The Uchiha name has been banned in the Leaf Village."
"I'm not talking about the Uchiha's. If Sasuke were here, you wouldn't be engaged now," she said knowingly.
"Liar!" Sakura clenched her fists. "I'm so over him, and have been since he left. Maybe you're the one with a torch for the traitor."
"As if I'd betray my village in any way. I don't even think about him anymore."
"Then why did you mention him?"
Ino shrugged. "It was just an example."
"If that's the best example you can offer you should have kept your mouth shut."
"Maybe both of you cats should shut your mouths," Tenten finally interrupted again. "Where's the Hokage? When's this party starting?"
"What do you care? When was the last time you were invited for tea?" demanded Ino.
"Never, but if I'd known it would be this exciting, I'd have stayed home sick."
"How can you say that? It's an honor to be invited by the Hokage for any occasion," Sakura rebuked her.
"Save your sucking up for the Hokage, Sakura. It doesn't do you any good with just us."
Hinata sat listening wide-eyed to the bickering. She hadn't realized there was such a fierce rivalry between Sakura and Ino, or that Tenten was so bitchy. She didn't have any friends among the shinobi except for her teammates Shino Aburame and Kiba Inuzuka. And they probably wouldn't be her friends if they hadn't been forced to work with her on a team. She'd always been shy and never knew how to make friends. Even when they were in classes before ever being accepted as a jônin, she rarely talked to anyone. It was a surprise to find that the other kunoichi in her year weren't exactly friends, either.
"For your information, Ino, I don't suck up. I think Hokage Tsunade is a role model for every female in the village."
"Model is certainly the right word. If I hear one more guy talk about her chest, I'll barf," said Tenten.
"And how young she looks! No one would ever guess her real age," Sakura said admiringly, completely ignoring Tenten's contribution.
"She certainly is beautiful. Beauty, brains and power—that's some combination," Ino was for once in agreement with Sakura.
Before the Hokage admiration society could go another round of compliments, the woman herself entered the room followed by a serving girl bearing a tea tray. She was everything the young women had said of her plus blonde and elegant. She would be a hard act for any woman to follow of any age. Not one of the young women in the room could stifle the small spark of envy they felt while watching her voluptuous figure cross the room to sit gracefully in the remaining empty chair. However, the smile she gave each of them wasn't smug, pitying or superior. It was merely the friendly smile any of the older generation would have given the younger one. It made each of them feel comfortable and welcome.
"It's very nice having you here, my young kunoichi. I find this business tends to become very fraternal if we're not careful. Men generally outnumber women, but that doesn't mean the kunoichi aren't just as valuable as the male ninja. There are definitely things women can do that men can't especially in undercover work. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Yes, ma'am," answered Sakura promptly hanging on Tsunade's every word. The fifth Hokage was definitely her role model.
"I hope you all like green tea. I think it's the most healthful tea of all the varieties. I've drunk it all my life."
Sakura took the initiative to respond once more. "Really? I've never had green tea."
"I drink it everyday myself, ma'am," Ino was pleased to find something in common with their beautiful leader that Sakura didn't already have.
Tsunade poured out the tea for each of her visitors. She waited for them to add lemon, sugar, milk or nothing to their cups, stir and take a sip before speaking again. "What do you think? Tenten? Hinata?"
Tenten grimaced. "I think I like oolong better even if it isn't healthy."
Hinata nodded her head, but after Tenten's remark had to make a more accurate response. "It's good," she said.
"Have a cookie?" Tsunade offered around the table. Once all her guests had their mouths full, she asked another question. "I suppose you're wondering why I invited you to tea? I thought I'd like to get to know my kunoichi better. I want to be certain there's equal treatment between the males and females of the shinobi. Tell me what do you think of the quality of your missions?"
"I've never been assigned an A mission. When do we qualify for the better missions?" Tenten demanded fearlessly.
"Even as chûnin your work is being judged and your performance weighed. Experience is the important thing you lack. Once you've proven yourself on enough smaller missions, you'll be eligible for higher quality ones."
"How long does that take?"
"That depends on you. You must always be learning and improving your skills. Do your teammates trust you to be there for them or are they generally rescuing you from tight spots? You must take initiative whenever possible to prove yourself competent and confident to handle any situation."
"Why are we always with the same teammates? Can't teams be mixed up more?" Ino asked thinking of one particular teammate that drove her crazy sometimes with his lack of seriousness and demands for barbeque.
"There will come a time when your teams will change. However, we've found that there's nothing as formidable as knowing implicitly the skills of those you work with. Trust develops more quickly when you know exactly what your team is capable of doing. If we move teams around too frequently, you won't know when and how you can count on a teammate. After working with the same teammates for the last six years, you should know them fairly well. If you fall, you know who will catch you."
"I guess that makes sense. I know my teammates pretty well, but I'd still like to work with some of the others," Ino reluctantly agreed.
"You will soon. You need to know the skills of all the other chûnin before you're qualified to teach others. If any of you are interested in teaching the younger students, that can be arranged, too. Teaching is one of the most important chûnin roles. However, before we set you on teaching tasks, we'd like you to have as much experience in the field as possible which will eventually mean a few A level missions. You need to have the respect of your students which is based on your own skills as well as your accomplishments."
"You are so wise, ma'am," Sakura told her admiringly.
"I hear you're to be wished every happiness, Sakura," she responded changing tack.
Sakura touched her hair with her left hand then brought her hand down for her ring to be admired. "Yes, ma'am. He finally wore me down."
Ino couldn't let that ridiculous statement pass without comment, "Oh, get over yourself, Sakura. You've been leading him on for years,"
"Have not! I'm only 18. That's still a little young to be tied down permanently."
"So you just want to get engaged—not married?" Ino demanded. "Is this another game of one-upmanship?"
"Of course not. I don't know about marriage, yet, but Lee's the only one who's kept my attention all this time. I've dated a few other boys, but no one else has really held my interest. Lee's the strongest, handsomest shinobi in the village." A sudden mental image of Sasuke popped into her head, but she hadn't seen him in six years so could only image him as fifteen. There was no comparison to a muscular, handsome 19 year old Rock Lee.
"What an ego! You don't deserve him, Sakura. Why don't you just wait until Sasuke comes to his senses and comes back. You can moon over him for the rest of your life."
That was hitting too close to home. "Shut up, Ino!" Sakura told her angrily. "I told you, I'm over him. Even if he came back tomorrow and was welcomed back to the village, he wouldn't compare to my Lee."
"Yeah, right. I feel sorry for Lee if Sasuke ever really did come back. You'd flock to him in a second."
"I always thought Naruto Uzumaki was rather fond of you, Sakura," Tsunade interjected. It had been an interesting interchange, but it was time to bring the conversation back under her control.
Sakura laughed. "Naruto! He might have like me, but I never really liked Naruto. I know he was my teammate, but he was really hopeless. You should have seen how long it took him to learn to control his chakra. I had to give him tips. I'm really amazed he's gone as far as he has. I don't know how he's done it. Luck is a strange thing."
"He beat Neji and Gaara of the Sand Village. That wasn't luck," Hinata surprised herself with her outburst, but Naruto wasn't here to defend himself. Someone had to do it.
"That's right, Sakura. Lee admires him. You should know that," Tenten, also spoke up. She was Lee's teammate. She disliked the way Sakura acted as if she knew him best just because they were engaged. She respected Lee's abilities, but seriously doubted his taste in women.
"That's right and he's got one of the best teachers around. I'd say that qualifies him for more than just lucky. Lord Jiraiya's on your level, isn't he, ma'am?" Ino asked eager to jump on the 'find Sakura wrong' bandwagon.
"There may be some truth in that," Tsunade said dryly. "However, I wouldn't choose Lord Jiraiya to teach just anyone. He has some peculiarities that should remain to himself alone."
"So has Naruto learned something weird?" Sakura asked curiously.
"Lord, I hope not, but I'm sure to find out soon. Naruto is on his way back to the village even as we speak."
"He's been gone a while."
"He was on a special mission overseas with Lord Jiraiya."
"What was it?"
"Was it successful?"
"Was it an A mission?"
"I can't give you any details. They were sent to protect a very important person. It was an A mission, and it was successful. Naruto saved his life."
"Way to go, Naruto."
"How did Naruto manage to get an A mission?" Tenten asked in a disgruntled voice.
"The skills decided the mission. Naruto and Lord Jiraiya have specialized skills that were necessary to this mission. That's all I can tell you."
"Damn. You used to be teammates with Naruto, Sakura. You could have been on an A mission if you'd stayed on his team."
"What do you mean? We're still teammates—when he isn't being pulled off for special missions. Everything changed when Sasuke was injured during the chûnin exam. He and Kakashi went off. Naruto and I get different teachers. Then Sasuke went off completely. Nothing's been the same since," Sakura almost whined. It was true. Sasuke ruined her career. Now she was relegated to healing instead of fighting. She had even more reason to hate him besides his deserting her.
"These things happen. You've done very well with your new skills, Sakura. Your career is going quite nicely. You should have no regrets."
"What about me?" Ino demanded. She was tired of hearing about Sakura.
"You're doing well, too, Ino. I think you're almost ready for a change in your training."
"Really? What kind of change? A new team?"
"Maybe. We'll see."
"I want an A mission." Tenten didn't wait to be asked.
"When the right one comes in, you'll have your A mission."
"When will that be? Lee and Neji are my teammates. They are the best shinobi of our year. Surely, we're qualified for an A mission by now."
"I don't control the type of missions we receive. We don't accept all the A missions that we're offered. We can't afford the loss of life some so obviously require. Just be patient, Tenten. Patience is an important quality for a shinobi."
"If you say so, ma'am."
Tsunade turned her head and suddenly it was Hinata's turn to be in the spotlight. "What about you, Hinata? Have you anything to ask about your missions?"
She shook her head.
"Well, then, have you had enough tea? Cookies?" When Hinata nodded, Tsunade asked, "Sakura? Ino? Tenten?"
They declined more tea and cookies, too. "If no one needs anymore tea or cookies, then I proclaim this tea party concluded. Thank you for coming, young kunoichi. We'll do this again sometime."
Tenten was the first out the door. Ino waited for Sakura to give her gushing goodbye and left with her. She didn't want Sakura to get the jump on her for the Hokage's attention, and she wanted to needle her some more about Sasuke on the way home.
Hinata was ready to scamper quickly from the room after them when the Hokage stopped her.
"Hinata, may I speak with you for a moment alone?"
She nodded and came back into the room sitting down in the same chair she'd previously occupied.
"This tea party was more than a simple getting-to-know-you tea. I wanted to access the four of you for a special mission. I need a young kunoichi for this mission—a kunoichi from Naruto's age group."
Hinata caught her breath, and felt her heart begin to race.
"Naruto made a few powerful enemies on his last mission. I'm worried about his return to the village. I'm afraid he may be intercepted. Lord Jiraiya won't be returning just yet. He was injured and requires some medical treatment. Naruto will be alone when he arrives by train in the city next week. I don't want to draw any attention to his return. I want Naruto to be warned of the dangers, and accompanied back to the Leaf Village with as little fanfare as possible. This mission must be accomplished subtly," she paused waiting for Hinata to acknowledge her understanding thus far.
"Yes, ma'am," she replied softly after a few silent moments.
"I've thought a great deal about how this mission may be accomplished. I decided that the subtle approach would be someone pretending to be Naruto's girlfriend, meeting him at the train, and accompanying him home. What do you think about this approach?"
"I—I think it's a good one," she answered breathlessly.
"I'm glad to hear you say that. Would you like to take on this mission, Hinata?"
"Me? Me? Why did you choose me?"
"You seem to like Naruto. I think you'd make a credible girlfriend since you already like him. My first thought was Sakura, but since she's gotten herself engaged, I wasn't certain it would be a good idea. Then after I learned she didn't like him—well, I don't think Sakura has the acting skills to pull it off. Neither Ino nor Tenten seemed particularly interested in Naruto as a friend or otherwise, so I quickly ruled them out, too. If you prove not to be interested, I can always fall back on one of them, but I don't think either choice is ideal."
"No, you're right," she agreed violently shaking her head. None of them liked Naruto. She was the only one who could undertake such a mission.
"Will you accept this mission, Hinata?"
Hinata stared at Tsunade. This was like a dream come true. She'd finally be working with Naruto, and more than that—she'd be pretending to be his girlfriend. Finally, he might see her as other than the small, plain, dark and weird girl he'd thought of her up to now. Finally, she might make a more positive impression.
"Yes. Of course, I will," she said forcefully with more confidence than she'd displayed for a long time.
"Good. Then let's discuss all of my ideas for Operation: Bring Home Naruto."