Elementary, my dear Naruto
I. Think, Naruto, think
"Naruto Unzumaki, are you stalking me?" Tsunade twirled around and confronted him so suddenly Naruto was thrown off balance tripping over his feet as he tried to back up. He caught himself from falling on his face but landed flat on his ass instead.
"Of course not," he denied hotly jumping quickly back to his feet. He tried to pretend nothing had happened, but he couldn't stop involuntarily rubbing his sore backside nor the reddening of his face at being caught out. "I was—ah—just coming to see you."
She placed her hands on her hips and tapped her foot on the ground. She stared him down quite easily. She enjoyed having the upper hand with Naruto which his temper inciting her own rarely allowed. For once she'd caught him at an obvious disadvantage—plus he was behaving more subdued than normal. She could guess what that was all about, but she'd enjoy the knowledge much more if he inadvertently revealed it himself.
"I see. You really should follow protocol and make an appointment, Naruto. Everyone else does. However, in this case I'll make an exception. I have a little time now, so you might as well come along with me. You and I can have a nice little chat." Turning back in the direction she'd originally been headed, she motioned for him to follow her as she continued down the hallway towards her office.
Now that he'd gotten her attention, Naruto wasn't so sure he wanted it. What did she mean by a nice little chat. That sounded ominous. He'd certainly been following her, but he wouldn't go so far as to call it stalking. Stalking implied a sinister motive, and he had nothing sinister in mind as he'd lurked outside all morning following her into the building when she'd finally arrived at work.
All he'd wanted was to ask her a question. Just a simple question that had been preying on his mind for the past week. He just hadn't gotten up the nerve to ask it yet. It was a rather revealing question and he needed to be subtle and nonchalant about it. If he didn't ask it the right way, he knew the Hokage would tease him unmercifully for as long as she could get away with it. He wouldn't willingly give the Fifth that kind of ammunition. She was a tough, old broad and had no scruples about using any piece of information in her possession to make a guy feel about three feet tall—even a guy who knew the worst about her. And he knew some pretty bad stuff about the Fifth.
Of course, he wasn't the only one in on her little secrets. But as far as he knew only Jiraiya, Shizune and he knew about her little gambling problem, her complete and utter inability to win any wager, and the fact that she'd owed a lot of money at one time and had used her considerable powers to avoid paying off her debts. Only the idea that she was a sannin and the Hokage made him respect her authority at all. The real stumbling block was that she hadn't even wanted the job of Hokage at first—and that still really bothered him. He couldn't imagine anyone refusing the job. Wasn't that the dream of every real shinobi?
His only experience with Hokage's was with one of the best. Until Tsunade, Sarutobi, the Third had been Hokage all of Naruto's life. He'd never known the kind of stuff about the Third that he knew about the Fifth. Of course, that hadn't stopped him from treating the Third about the same way he treated the Fifth and all the other adults in his life—with the familiarity of family.
"Sit down, Naruto. Would you like some tea?" Tsuande asked pleasantly gesturing to the nearest comfortable chair.
"Unh?" Why was she being so nice to him? Usually, she just yelled and kicked him out of the room when he was bugging her. Actually, he didn't even have to bug her to get kicked out of the room. She only had to see him to want him immediately out of her sight.
"I'm trying to be a gracious hostess, Naruto. Please, sit down like a polite guest. Let's behave like the adults we are for a change." She sat down behind her desk and waited for Naruto to sit in the chair on the opposite side.
"I never sat down in your office before," he observed as he did just that. It was true. He was always standing in front of her desk awaiting orders or being chewed out. Those weren't the best times to be seated and relaxed.
"I know. Ours has not been a typical Hokage-shinobi relationship. You've picked up far too many of Lord Jiraiya's insubordinate insolence. He's one of the few shinobi left who knew me when so I allow him a little latitude. You, on the other hand, have no good excuse for your usual disrespectful behavior. If I didn't appreciate how talented you are and how much potential you have, I would have demoted you by now. Of course, you wouldn't have far to go since you've only managed to obtain the second ninja level," she observed conversationally.
Naruto flushed darkly at her comments. He wasn't good at this polite stuff. Ordinarily, he would have blown up by now forgetting who and what she was. He didn't know how to revere a position let alone the person holding it. The position of Hokage was important to him, because he knew it garnered general respect and recognition from almost everyone. He longed for that respect and recognition—something that he'd never had from anyone in the village, and thought the only way to achieve it was by becoming Hokage. He'd failed to notice that his own abilities and behavior were garnering some healthy respect and admiration in many quarters. He still thought he needed the title of Hokage to achieve his ambitions.
He never thought he'd say this to her, but she'd made him feel somewhat ashamed of his usual behavior. "I'm sorry. I—ah—"
She held up her hand. "You don't have to say any more. I've forgiven you many times over. You and I met under less than ideal circumstances. I always take that into consideration. I know I only hold this office until you're ready to take over," she said solemnly then winked at him.
"What? Unh?" His mouth gaped open in surprise.
She laughed. "I never thought to see you so tongue-tied, Naruto. Something has certainly mellowed you out. I could hazard a guess, but I don't think you could get any more embarrassed. Let's just get down to business, shall we?"
"That's right. If I hadn't bumped into you, I was planning to summon you to my office sometime today. I have a mission for you."
He groaned. Not another mission so soon. She'd been keeping him hopping for almost two months. He hadn't spent more than two days at a time in Konoha since he'd returned from a long-term mission overseas. He hadn't even had the time to wipe away the dust his room had accumulated in the year he'd been gone. He no longer had a personal life, and that thought had been preying on his mind a lot lately. In fact, it was part of the question he wanted to ask the Hokage—if he got a reasonable opportunity.
"What's the problem? Isn't your bank account swelling nicely with all these missions you've undertaken lately?"
"Sure, but who has time to spend it?" he grumbled.
"Hasn't anyone taught you the virtues of saving? If you're frugal, you can have an early retirement instead of working till you're my age." She winked at him again. Anyone who didn't know her would think they were looking at a woman in her early thirties. But Tsuande was somewhat vain, and had learned the secrets of maintaining a youthful appearance. Her actual age was at least twenty years older.
"No. Mostly I'm stuck with old people who want to spend all my money for me," he retorted darkly thinking of Jiraiya. He couldn't count the number of times Jiraiya had borrowed, wheedled, or outright taken every cent he carried with him. If he didn't know that Jiraiya made tons of money on those books he wrote, he would have thought him a beggar. Of course, he was always wasting his money and Naruto's on liquor and women. Maybe he'd wasted too much and he really was as poor as he seemed. But that wasn't Naruto's problem. He wasn't about to waste any sympathy on the perverted sage if his chosen life style drained his pockets. He completely disapproved of that aspect of his sensei's life.
Tsunade laughed. "Well, I believe that particular problem hasn't returned to the village yet so your money is safe for now." She knew he referred to Jiraiya. He had been on the overseas mission with Naruto, but had chosen to do some traveling on his own before returning home. He'd left Naruto to make his way back to the village by himself which hadn't been the smartest decision he'd ever made. However, Tsunade had foreseen the difficulties of Naruto's homecoming. She had assigned the young kunoichi, Hinata Hyuga to bring Naruto home through the hazards of a new, wealthy and persistent enemy on his trail. The story of their return trip had been an interesting and monetarily rewarding adventure (See Operation: Bring home Naruto). Just thinking about it made Tsunade smile.
"He can stay away as long as he wants as far as I'm concerned," Naruto missed her smile as he indulged in his own thoughts about Jiraiya. He was the strangest and best teacher he'd ever had, but he treated Naruto with a careless affection that was dissatisfying to an orphaned boy. He supposed if Jiraiya had ever had any fatherly instincts he would have married and had children by now so he really shouldn't fault him for being something he wasn't—but he did anyway.
It wasn't exactly that Naruto was looking for a father, but he did miss having a stable father figure in his life. There were only two men in his life that he'd felt some of the affection he would have felt for his own father. The Third and Iruka Umuino. He hadn't realized how much the Third had mentored and meant to him until he'd died, but then the Third had been a father to the entire village not just Naruto. Almost every shinobi in the village had grown up solely under the Third's leadership. Everyone had been saddened at his passing.
Iruka was a teacher in the ninja school and mentored many young genin. However he was really too young for the role of father, but he was the closest thing Naruto had ever had to a father in his life. He was the first adult who had shown Naruto any personal interest. Maybe because he was also an orphan, he knew how lonely Naruto was. And despite the fact that they rarely worked together since Naruto had become a chûnin, they still met regularly over a bowl of ramen. He was definitely Naruto's favorite teacher and always would be no matter how interesting Jiraiya was.
Naruto's face was an open book. Tsunade could see the conflicting emotions wipe away his usual cocky grin. "I think you should cut Lord Jiraiya a little slack, Naruto. He's seen practically every friend, relation and teacher die before his time. Is it a wonder he styles himself as a hermit?"
"So have you. So has Kakashi sensei. So has Iruka sensei. I don't see any of them turning their backs on the village," he insisted stubbornly.
"Neither has Lord Jiraiya. He's put himself in danger many times to investigate some of Konoha's most powerful enemies. He just doesn't play well with others."
She eyed him thoughtfully. "You'll come to appreciate him better as you grow older. But I didn't arrange this meeting to become an advocate for Jiraiya. He's often a thorn in my side, too. The three of us, Jiraiya, Orochimaru and I were a very unwilling team. I really don't know how we managed to work together unless it was the Third's influence. We were all extremely competitive, powerful, and jealous of one another. It's not surprising that each of us became so independent." She stopped and shook her head. As she grew older, she had more and more of these spells of reminiscing on the past. There was no point to it. It only made her melancholy for what might have been.
"What's that got to do with me?" he asked when her gaze drifted off to somewhere across the room, her attention left him, and the silence grew to an uncomfortable length.
"Nothing and everything," she told him cheerfully and focused her attention and gaze back on the bright-haired, blue-eyed young man slouched and scowling in the chair opposite her. For all of his almost 19 years, he still seemed very young. She sometimes forgot what the world looked like to a teenager—even an old one. Impatience, arrogance, and seeming invulnerability were the obstacles they had to overcome. However, all too soon war, hazardous missions or betrayal worn these away.
"Naruto," she continued more serious, "by now a majority of the shinobi from your age group have become jônin. They have exhibited the necessary physical, mental and leadership skills to lead and perform missions on their own."
"That's not my fault. I haven't been here four out of six years since I was 12."
"I'm aware of that. I'm also aware that everyone develops at his or her own pace. However, I'd like to improve that pace if I can."
"You've proven that you have the physical skills necessary to be a jônin, but I want to develop your mental and leadership abilities. I'd like you to focus on analytical thinking and strategy."
"Think, Naruto. I want you to learn to think. Thinking's an important part of being a Hokage, you know. I don't go missions any more. I have to be able to assign the best people available for every mission."
He flushed. "I can think. I've come up with some good attack plans on plenty of missions."
"Yes, you have, but you've done this more on instinct and with yourself as the focus. I want you to learn to think of the team. I want you to be able to analyze a situation and use the best abilities of the entire team, not just your own. I know how tempting it is to take on every danger yourself, but as the leader of a team you don't have that luxury."
"I don't do that!" he protested.
"You forget, I read all the reports of missions. I've seen how difficult it is for you sometimes to follow the direction of your team leader. I know you've come a long way. The mission you and Hinata had together demonstrated just how much you've matured, but I feel you still have a lot to learn."
At the mention of Hinata, he flushed. She was what he had come to ask the Hokage about. She'd been gone for almost a month recuperating from the injuries she'd suffered on their mission together. He wanted to know when she was coming home, but now wasn't exactly the time to ask. He had to wait for a better opening. He didn't want the Hokage to get the wrong idea—or actually the right idea about why he wanted to know. He couldn't handle the teasing.
"So I have to learn to be a leader. How do I do that?"
"I want you to observe one of the best analytical thinkers and strategists, I've seen in a long time lead you in a mission. I want you to ask questions and understand reasons for decisions made, but not to needlessly question decisions. I want you to take notes if you have to, but I want you to start using your head not your heart when handling difficult problems."
"Okay. You want me to think," he agreed half-heartedly. He didn't see anything wrong with the way he thought. He'd been on a ton of successful missions with everything going just fine.
"Not just you. There are two other chûnin from your age group who need some special training, too. The shinobi from your age group have all shown remarkable talent and ability. I don't see any reason you all shouldn't be jônin. In fact, I'd like to see the last of you make jônin in the next year."
"Yeah? Who besides me?" He straightened up. It didn't sound like he was being deliberately singled out after all.
"You'll find that out tomorrow when you meet your new team for your mission."
"Who's the leader?"
"I'm going to keep that as a surprise for tomorrow, too." She gave him a teasing smile.
He frowned. "That's mean. Why can't you tell me now?"
"Don't spoil my fun, Naruto. You can wait until tomorrow. Be ready to meet the group at the North gate at eight a.m."
"I'm going to get mad, aren't I?" he asked shrewdly.
"Mad? I don't think that's the right word. But you do tend to get a little over excited when you aren't happy about something."
"Well, then what's the mission?"
"I'll let your leader explain that to you as well. It's not a typical mission for you. It's more of a puzzle you'll need to solve than a fight to win."
"I don't get it. Why all the mystery?"
She grinned at him. "That's it precisely. It's a mystery for you to solve. I hope it turns out to be an interesting one. I'd hate for you to travel all that way for nothing."
"All that way? Where exactly are we going? Come on, you can at least tell me that?" he asked in a wheedling tone.
She shook her head smiling. "No, I don't think so. Let's make this a mystery all the way around."
"Can I guess?"
"No. That's a pointless waste of time. I don't intend to give you any clues."
"Come on. Give me a few hints at least."
"It wouldn't do you any good. You'll just have to wait until tomorrow."
"You really are a mean, old lady!"
"And don't you forget it, Naruto Uzumaki. Now go away. I've got better things to do."
"What happened to being a polite hostess? What happened to tea?" he demanded.
"Too late. You should have taken me up on that when I asked. I'm no longer in the mood to be polite. Go away before I get mad."
Naruto stood up and sauntered to the door grumbling under his breath. "How come she's allowed to be rude, but I can't be? Just 'cause she's the Hokage doesn't mean she can treat me like this."
"Yes, it does," she answered hearing everything he'd said not quite under his breath. "Now get out!" she ended with a roar.
He left pretty quickly after that. Even he knew when he'd outstayed his welcome.
He was late.
How could he be late? He was never late. Was Kakashi's bad habit finally wearing off on him after being a member of team Kakashi for so many years? If Kakashi were going to be on this mission, he might get away with it mainly because Kakashi would probably be even later, but he didn't think anyone else would tolerate it. And he needed to make a good impression on his team leader if he wanted to get the Fifth off his back. Despite that off-handed remark about his talent and potential, she really didn't appreciate him.
He didn't understand what she was talking about. He could think. He did it all the time. He'd had plenty of successful missions lately. That should count for something. He wasn't the same goofball he'd been as a genin. He'd grown up considerably since then. He could think as well as anybody in this age group—Kiba, Shino, Lee—anybody. Who the hell was this great analytical mind—this great strategist the Fifth had talked about anyway? Had he ever been on a team with the guy before?
Maybe he'd overslept because he'd been sleeplessly puzzling out who that guy could be too long last night. He'd gone over every shinobi he knew. He hadn't teamed with all of them. He'd never been on a team with Asuma sensei, or Kurenai sensei, or Ibiki sensei just to name a few. He tried to remember if he'd heard anything special about them, but nothing came to mind.
He didn't have the time or patience to puzzle it out anymore. He was only minutes away from finding out first hand who this mystery man was. He ran full out after locking his door to the North gate. He only stopped to catch his breath when he reached the checkpoint manned by Kotetsu and Izumo.
"Hey, Naruto, you're late. The Fifth said your team would be heading out at eight am."
"I know. I know. Where is my team? I seem to be the only one here."
"I think they got tired of pacing and waiting for you. They all went outside the gate a little while ago."
"No, wait a minute. Here comes your team leader now."
Naruto had been leaning over, hands on his knees, facing the ground, while he caught his breath, but after Izumo spoke he quickly raised his head.
"Are you going to be this troublesome the entire mission, Naruto?" Shikamaru shook his head at the last member of his team to arrive. "We've been waiting for you forty minutes."
Naruto pointed at him in shock. "Shikamaru!? You're the team leader? You're the great analytical thinker and strategist?"
Shikamaru scratched the back of his head. "You don't need to flatter me. I'll let your unpunctuality slide this time, but don't let it happen again."
"I'm not flattering you!" he retorted. "I never said that. That's what Granny Tsunade said."
Shikamaru shrugged. "Well, if the Fifth said it, it must be so."
"I don't believe this! What can I learn from you? You're the laziest shinobi from our class," he said angrily. Okay, so Shikamaru made chûnin first. That didn't mean he was that much better a shinobi. Was the Fifth just teasing him all this time?
"I never noticed you working very hard back in school either, Naruto. Believe me, if I could avoid this mission I would. You're the most troublesome shinobi in all of Konoha. If I'd been allowed to pick my own team you wouldn't be on this mission, but the Fifth gave me no choice."
"Hey, I wouldn't be here if I had a choice either," he said hotly.
"Good. We understand each other. Just don't live up to your reputation."
"My reputation's just fine. You just live up to yours."
"I can't believe you're the team leader. Who else is on this training mission?" How could someone he used to get in trouble with have surpassed him so significantly? Shikamaru had been the first chûnin in their class, but only because the exams had been terminated when the village had been attacked. But he was the second of that year's group to make jônin. How did he get to be so much better than Naruto?
"The other two are just outside the gate sitting on a log waiting for your sorry ass." Shikamaru put his hands in his pockets and sauntered towards the gate.
Naruto kicked at the walkway as he followed. No wonder the Fifth wanted to keep this a surprise. He sure would have made a stink when he found out. He had the most difficulty following the leadership of those shinobi who had been genin the same time he was. He resented that most of them had already surpassed him. At the time he'd felt his greatest rival was Sasuke. How could he have guessed that Sasuke would be the least of his competition?
Just as he approached the gate Chouji stepped around the opening and stopped to wait for them.
"Chouji's on this mission, too?" That was just great. Chouji and Skikamaru were best friends. They could gang up and force him to follow anything they wanted. Now he felt at an even greater disadvantage. What was the Fifth thinking when she set this up? Did she hate him this much?
"That's right. Chouji needs some expert training, too."
Just as Naruto opened his mouth to make some disgruntled crack, their last team member came out from behind Chouji.
"Hi," Hinata said welcoming him with a shy smile. That was the only evidence she gave of her nervousness at meeting Naruto after a seven weeks absence while she recovered from wounds received on the mission they'd shared. She kept her head up and her hands loosely at her side. She'd been making a great effort to control her usual revealing gestures of timidity. She wanted to retain the feeling of confidence and power she'd experienced on that mission. And she was succeeding. Even her father was beginning to treat her differently.
"Hinata!" Naruto greeted her with a huge grin. "You're back! You're okay now?" All of his dissatisfaction with the mission faded away completely when he saw her. The Fifth was forgiven. He had absolutely no problem with this mission now.