Part Six: The Offer and More Revelations

Sasuke frantically rushed through the village toward the hospital. He had to talk to Sakura!

Sasuke suddenly stopped. He shook his head, disgusted. He was acting like a girl! He was an Uchiha! Uchiha didn't freak out over something as simple as a kiss.

Uchihas don't kiss other men either, he thought and resumed his mad dash to the hospital. He wouldn't mention the kiss, but Sakura was always good for a distraction now that she had given up on a relationship with him.

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Naruto still sat in the clearing, fingering his now-healed lips in a dazed fashion. He and Sasuke had done no more than touch lips when Sasuke had jumped up with panic in his eyes and left.

He should have expected something like this to happen. They had always been in each others' faces when they were younger and with this new attraction between them it was bound to happen sooner or later. But…it had been nice. For something that had started out so violent, it was astonishing how gentle the kiss was, even considering how short it had been.

He needed to talk about everything with someone. Inutaisho was out; he wouldn't understand and would probably make some perverted comment. He would give anything to talk with Iruka or Tsunade but they couldn't give a useful opinion without knowing the whole story. Kakashi was definitely out since both of those points applied to him. He hadn't felt so alone since he had left the village eight years ago.

But there was someone who would listen to him without judgment. He had promised her he would come that night, but it wouldn't make much difference if he came early. No one was around to follow him, not that it would do them much good anyway. He was extraordinarily fast even when he didn't use his teleporting technique, which was an improvement on his father's Hirashin (although it used a lot more chakra and didn't really work too well for distances shorter than twenty miles).

He was just about to get up and run to his old den to talk with Nibi when he sensed someone on the edge of the clearing. "I thought you would be too busy helping out in the hospital to take the time to come out here just to chat with me." He turned his to face Tsunade and he sat up.

Tsunade scowled. "I didn't come out here just to see you, gaki! I came to check to see if you were alright after dealing with Nibi. I saw what she was capable of back there." She knelt down and started to examine him with her chakra before he waved her away.

"I'm fine, just a little low on chakra but nothing a good night's sleep won't fix. It took all I had to break the seal they put on her. That's one reason why I'm not too worried about her coming back. If my information on Nibi is correct, then she is one of the few demons who think of humans as something other than inferior beings. She actually likes them, er, us. She won't try for revenge, especially after I set her free of the Akatsuki's control."

Tsunade stared at him. "You do know that what you say you did was impossible right? Breaking a seal strong enough to contain a biju shouldn't be able to be done, even by a seal master on par with Jiraiya, who, much as I hate to admit it, is probably the best seal master in all the elemental countries."

Naruto shook his head at her. "Jiraiya-sama," he shuddered at having to use that suffix, "would be the first to tell you that nothing is impossible when dealing with seals as long as you have enough chakra to power them. Normally it is extremely difficult to break a seal, especially one of that caliber. But I have a kind of gift when dealing with demons. You could say it is similar to talent the Shodaime had in soothing demons. Anyone other than me most likely would have died if they tried to break the seal. But why don't you get to the real reason you followed me out here. You should be at the hospital or in your office dealing with the fallout of the battle. You definitely shouldn't be checking on the health of a ninja who is not even a Konoha shinobi. You could have just sent that Sakura girl, Shizune, or an even more junior medic-nin if that was all you wanted."

Tsunade sighed, she was definitely right in her decision if she was so obvious even someone who didn't know her very well could see through her. "You're right, I could have. But I finished up with the wounded some time ago. It's been a few hours since the attack after all."

Naruto looked at the setting sun in astonishment. He had been sitting out here thinking way longer than he realized.

"But that is neither here nor there. The real reason I came all the way out here to check on you is that I wanted to put forth a proposal to you at the request of the Konoha council. At first I was completely against it, but as you have done more for this village than most shinobi—hell, even most kages—in the short time you have been here, I rethought my position and decided to at least give you a chance. If you will consent to becoming a Konoha shinobi-"

Naruto held up his hand and cut her off. "Allying myself with one village will only hinder my ability to help people. Becoming a shinobi of the leaf would-"

This time it was Tsunade who interrupted him. "You didn't let me finish. I wasn't just offering you a position in our forces, I was offering you the chance to become Hokage, provided you prove that you can be loyal to the Leaf Village above all others." Tsunade sat back and enjoyed the kid's open mouthed reaction. It wasn't everyday someone offered you the highest position in the village. To her knowledge, no kage position was ever offered to someone not born in that village. She was also surprised. Offering the position to Naru wasn't nearly as distasteful as she thought it would be. Maybe it was because he possessed an uncanny resemblance to the kid she had picked to be her successor—or rather that he had deemed her as his predecessor—but she had thought it would be harder. Maybe she was even more eager for retirement than she thought.

"You're crazy…" Naruto whispered hoarsely. Here was Tsunade—at the beheast of the council no less, the same council who had opposed him at every turn—offering him his old dream on a silver platter, the thing he had long ago accepted as being impossible and the kicker was…he couldn't take it. He couldn't live in this village again under the cover of a lie, even if it meant the resurrection and realization of his old dream. "I can't."

Tsunade had expected this answer at first. She was pretty good at reading people, even though she was lousy at gambling. Stupid Lady Luck. "You can. Normally this offer would never come to the table, but I think your reputation as a protector speaks for itself if even half the tales about you are true. You have the charisma to be an excellent leader and I have seen how people rally behind you on your missions, no matter how low-ranked. You are a natural leader. You were born to be in a position to exercise your talent and it is wasted as long as you continue to make your way alone in the world. Konoha needs a strong and able leader and none of the other shinobi available are suited to be Hokage. Don't get me wrong, we have some extremely strong shinobi, but none were made to be Hokage, and you have to be made for it to put up with all the crap you have to deal with. I won't sugarcoat the position, for the most part it is a mixture of boring paperwork, heartache, paperwork, anxiety, paperwork, regret, paperwork, headaches from dealing with stupid shit and the council (which are not mutually exclusive), and let's not forget the fucking boring, never-ending paperwork. On top of all this, you have to be ready to give your life for your village at a moment's notice and know when this is necessary and when you have to send other shinobi in your place to die. Then you have to deal with the guilt of those who you sent to their death…and even children will occasionally get killed on missions. Our shinobi force isn't near what it used to be, so this happens more often than it should and the Hokage has to deal with it. As the Hokage, you are responsible for the welfare of every single person of this village, making this doubly hard. Becoming Hokage isn't like any other profession; it's not even a profession, it is a calling. I believe you have what it takes to answer that calling. You can think about it as long as you wish…just don't wait too long because eventually, no matter how much I don't think anyone available is cut out for it, I will have to pick my replacement. I'm getting old, much as I hate to admit it, and I can't do this job forever. I want to live out my old age in peace." And I want to get away from the village that has taken almost everything I love away from me. If Naruto hadn't been so dead-set on protecting this village, I would have left office a long time ago. Responsibility only takes a person so far.

Naruto was silent as she left the clearing. Now he had even more to think about. He could never accept, of course, but he had to wonder why the council would offer an outsider the position. It could be just as Tsunade had said, but somehow he didn't think so. They were too devious for that. No, they wanted something…and he had to figure out what that something was.

He rose from the position on the ground he had fallen in and dusted himself off. He had more to discuss with Nibi than he had originally thought.

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"Sasuke! You never visit me at work, is something wrong? Was any of the retrieval team hurt? Was Nibi defeated? What-"

Sasuke removed his hand from her mouth and sighed. "No one was hurt and Nibi is probably far from the village at this moment. Nothing in particular is wrong-"

Sakura had gotten a calculating look on her face once she was assured of everyone's safety. Was it just her, or did Sasuke seem a little flustered? Sakura's jaw dropped as she noticed something else. Not that it would be noticeable to just anybody, but Sakura—in addition to being one of Konoha's top medic nin and Tsunade's apprentice—had at one time been co-president of the Uchiha Sasuke Fanclub and any fanclub member worth her Uchiha Sasuke Limited Edition Life-Sized Poster (which she now had protecting some old china) would have noticed the slightest disturbance in the stone that is the Uchiha's usual expression. Oh, Sasuke was trying, but…his lips are slightly swollen! Sakura thought with glee. And is he blushing! He is!

Sasuke didn't like the look on Sakura's face. It was like she knew everything and was going to enjoy slowly torturing him with the information until she had extracted every last bit of pride he had. He just knew he wasn't going to like the turn this conversation was sure to take.

"Uchiha Sasuke, are you blushing?!"

He was right. He hated it when he was right. Well, he didn't really hate it, he was actually almost never wrong and he was quite proud of that fact, but for once he wished he had been wrong. "No." The red of his cheeks got even darker and once again he cursed his fair complexion.

"YOU ARE! Oh, this is priceless. I wish I had a camera…" Wait, there are security cameras all in the hospital halls. We just updated them too, so it would have color. I can just freeze a frame from the security footage, zoom in, enlarge it, and then I'll have my proof! The ice-cold Uchiha embarrassed! Now, I just have to dig out the details and my life will be complete. "So, what could have made the ice water flowing through your veins warm enough to bring this about, hmm? Could it be that someone we both know who shall remain nameless," Sasuke breathed a sigh of relief. Sakura, noticing this, allowed Inner Sakura loose to start rubbing her hands and cackle evilly in her mind and continued, "Oh well, what's the fun in that? Let's just call this person Naru. Could it be that the famously untouchable Uchiha Sasuke finally thawed enough to engage in his first lip-lock? Wait, no, on second thought, your first kiss was with-" Sakura said, absentmindedly distracted, realized what she was saying and shut up with a pang in her heart. Sasuke now looked stricken and pale, much paler than he was normally and that was saying something. "I'm sorry, Sasuke! I didn't-"

He shook his head. How could he have forgotten Naruto? That kiss he had shared with Naruto had been mortifying at the time, but, however accidental, it was still something special they had shared. Naruto had been the only person he had ever kissed. Now, that wasn't true anymore. He had betrayed Naruto's memory in a moment of temper.

Sakura—allowing Inner Sakura to take care of the cursing of her big mouth and cursing Sasuke for being such a melodramatic brooder—worried about the scarily visible emotions on the Uchiha's face. Maybe what he really needed was to acknowledge just what Naruto had been to him before he had died and what could have been between them. "Sasuke, I think it has been long enough ago that we can talk about it. I may not have seen it at the time, but I had an inkling of what was between you and Naruto when I asked him to bring you back when you left with the Sound Four. You guys might have said it was because you were like brothers, but I knew it was more than that. Then, the few times we met trying to retrieve you, you only had eyes for Naruto; you hardly even looked at the rest of us. That was when I really started to become suspicious. During a time when your hormones had to have been going crazy, I never saw you look at a girl with even a fraction of the intensity you looked at Naruto with. I don't think you even looked at Itachi with that much intensity, which is something considering how much you hate him." It said a lot that Sasuke didn't even react to Itachi's name. "Naruto wouldn't have wanted you to miss your chance at happiness because of him, or because of your stupid pride. You might never love Naru, but if he could make you happy for just a day, Naruto would be the first to tell you to go for it. He always cared more about you than he did himself." Sakura took a deep breath and left Sasuke to think over her words. Hopefully she hadn't done more harm than good.

Sasuke walked away from the hospital in a dazed fashion. Him and Naruto? What was Sakura thinking? And, from the sound of it, she had had these thoughts for a long time. What a joke…Although, he had seemed to take Naruto's death worse than anyone else, not that he had been aware of many other people at the time. But that was just guilt right? Even Hinata had finally gotten over Naruto's death and moved on. How did she do it when he couldn't? Did he really consider Naruto as a brother, or was it something more? What exactly was love?

He went to the place he always went to feel closer to Naruto. He spent more time here than anyone who knew thought was healthy. He knew they didn't like it, but they couldn't really do anything to prevent it as it didn't interfere with his work.

He couldn't deny he was acting like a love-sick girl. Or at least what he thought a love-sick girl would act like. His fans had always been a little too crazy for him to draw a comparison between him and them.

He thought back to how his parents had acted around each other. His father had always put up with his mother's babying, just like he had always put up with…well, maybe that wasn't such a good comparison. Naruto put up with more from him than he had from him. Now that he thought of it, Naruto had always been there for him for just about whatever he needed. If he needed to let off some steam, he could always count on Naruto for a good fight. If he was brooding too much, Naruto had always done something stupid to lighten the mood or just started an argument to take his mind off whatever he was brooding about. At the time he had thought Naruto was just naturally stupid, but it was just in his nature to try to make everyone around him as happy as he could. He had effectively put his dreams on hold, while he tried to rescue Sasuke from making the worst mistake of his life.

All this just proved was that Naruto was a great friend and too stubborn for his own good. He was trying to figure out if he loved Naruto, not affirm something he already knew. He was really out of his element. He never thought he would ask himself this but…what would Sakura do?

Sakura and Lee! That was it! Any idiot could see the two loved each other. Sakura was always putting up with Lee's idiotic ramblings about youth and Gai-sensei and Lee would do anything to make Sakura happy. And Sakura was never afraid to punch Lee in the head when she felt he was being a little too stupid. But she would walk through fire for him and kill anyone who hurt his feelings. Sasuke had to admit he would do the same for Naruto. No one was allowed to make fun of him but Sasuke. He had never liked it when Sakura had put Naruto down. And he always got the urge to punch anyone who mocked him or tried to hurt him. Wait…Did that mean he, Sasuke, would have been the girl in his and Naruto's relationship?!

Sasuke shook his head and shuddered. No, it just meant Sakura was the man in her and Lee's relationship. Everyone knew who wore the pants in that relationship. Just as no one would have had a doubt who would wear the pants in his and Naruto's relationship if they had ever had one.

It hit him like a bolt of lightning. He had loved Naruto. Maybe he still did. He had never felt the least bit of desire for a female in his life, and, if what he was feeling around Naru was what he suspected but was in denial about, it was a safe bet he could kiss his plans of reviving his clan goodbye. The council was not going to like this. But there was always artificial insemination. But then he would have to deal with the mothers after the fact if he wanted to be any part of his children's lives. So that was out. He just had to resign himself to being the last of his clan and alone for the rest of his life.

There was still the question of what had happened with Naru, but Sasuke had done enough soul searching today. He would fall back on his old strategy: ignore it and pretend it never happened.

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Not too long after Sakura left Sasuke, she realized she had never pried the story from him.

An enraged yell was heard throughout Konoha.

Sakura stopped screaming suddenly and shrugged. Oh well, tomorrow's another day! Now I'll just go to Security and get a copy of that tape… Inner Sakura rubbed her hands together in glee.

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Naruto gazed at the cave that had once been his home. Well, one of his homes. But this one was special. It was where his kits were born, only a few days before they died. It was the most suited, being protected by high cliffs and a very strong genjutsu. It should have been perfectly safe.

He shook his head. There was no use dwelling on the past. It would be almost another 2000 years before he could generate the energy to have more kits. And this time he would make sure nothing happened to them.

He made the steep climb to the den. He could feel Nibi inside waiting impatiently for him. No sooner had he made it to the top than he was pulled the rest of the way up and sat on his feet by an impatient curious cat. Naruto chuckled. "Haven't you ever heard the saying 'Curiosity killed the cat'?"

Nibi smirked. "You forgot the rest of that saying: 'and satisfaction brought it back.' Besides, you're one to talk. Kitsune have an even more curious nature than cats. You especially."

Naruto scratched his head. "Okay. But there isn't a saying about curiosity killing the kitsune. That's because kitsune are too smart to let that happen." Naruto gave a smirk of his own.

They got to his sleeping area. Furs from past kills filled the cave, free of must because of a special spell. They each took a seat.

Nibi gave a feline stretch and yawn. "So, why do remain in that form? Not that it isn't very handsome, but it must be uncomfortable."

"Not really." Naruto explained while he made himself comfortable. He took off his mask for the first time in front of somebody in ages and sighed. He had a long story to tell before he could even begin to ask for advice on his present problems. Oh well, better sooner than later. He began.

A couple hours later a dazed Nibi was shaking her head. "And you still love this guy? I guess it is true, you don't pick who you fall in love with. But…are you sure it's impossible? They accept Inutaisho just fine. Who is to say they won't accept you when you have proven your loyalty more than any Hokage Konoha has ever had? But, then again, I would be the first to admit that half the time I don't understand human reasoning." Nibi shrugged, trying to inject some lightheartedness into the discussion.

Naruto shook his head. That last remark was typical Nibi. "Inutaisho may have almost destroyed the village, but he didn't cause near the destruction, loss of life, and abject terror that I did when I attacked the village twenty-three years ago. I may not have been in my right mind when it happened, but the villagers won't take that as an excuse. And I doubt that after they treated me like dirt for the first fifteen years of my life that they will suddenly welcome me with open arms when they find out who I am. And my friends will feel betrayed when they find out I have been lying to them all this time. Most of all, I don't want them to be afraid of me. I couldn't bear to see the look of hate and fear in their eyes like every other human I encounter in my other form. We of the tailed beasts were meant to always be alone, with only each other for the occasional companion."

Nibi yawned, which made Naruto want to strangle her. Why did he want to talk to her again? Oh yeah, despite the fact that it seemed she could care less what you were saying, she somehow always managed to get to the heart of the matter and give semi-good advice.

"I still don't see why you don't just go on as you are. They never have to know who you were/are. You can fulfill your dream of becoming this 'Hokage' that you wanted so bad when you were human and be around your friends until they die. Humans aren't around for very long, and in a hundred or so years they will have forgotten all about your little indiscretion in their village." Nibi waved a hand.

"You don't get it Nibi. I don't think I can keep this up much longer. Plus, there are certain people who I'm afraid will automatically see the truth. And, given enough time, I think at least half of my old friends will find out too. They're not stupid." He thought better of that statement. Hehehe, he bet that mutt was still as dense as he was in the academy. "Most of them are not stupid. And if they see me fight for real in a life or death fashion, they will certainly recognize most of my most powerful jutsu. The risks are too great." Naruto finished sadly.

Nibi was silent for a while before sighing. "I don't really know what to tell you. All I can say is to finish your business here as soon as possible and get out. We still have to deal with the rest of the Akatsuki and free our remaining brothers and sisters."

Naruto frowned, but was inwardly relieved to be through with the previous subject, despite the fact that she hadn't told him anything he didn't already know. "But there is only the leader and Itachi left, right? Between the three of us, we should be able to handle them."

Nibi cast him a look of annoyance. "Has all that humanity made you slow? We will have to fight our brothers and sisters too. The humans shouldn't be that much trouble, but I do think they are planning something. We shouldn't underestimate them."

Naruto was silent for a moment. Then he said quietly, "We may have to bring Hachibi out of hiding."

Nibi was startled. Hachibi?! "Are you sure? Shukaku is fucking crazy and he was always scared shitless of her! I am too! Even though I am her 'favorite big sister' she scares the fucking hell out of me! You punished her for causing destruction and mayhem among the rest of us—Gobi's hair has never been the same since she set him on fire—and you want to lift her punishment a thousand goddamn years too early! And in a time when there is already too much fucking chaos to go around? Have you forgotten how she died your fur pansy-assed pink?!" Nibi only cursed when she was feeling threatened.

Naruto glared at her for the reminder of his humiliation. "Hachibi is nothing more than a nuisance. She gets serious when the time calls for it and she always follows my orders in a crisis. Plus," he continued with some amusement, "she has a vested interest in stopping the Akatsuki. She won't have anybody but the three of us—well, actually the two of you as she will probably too afraid of continued punishment to mess with me—to torment. You know how she hates to do anything too damaging to the humans. She says it just isn't very sporting."

Nibi knew that look, no matter what form Kyuubi was in. She sighed. "Just please stress not causing trouble to her before she comes here. We don't have to get her right away do we?" she asked hopefully.

Naruto chuckled and shook his head. "We all need to regroup and plan strategy. Hachibi is our best strategist. We need her as soon as possible. Plus, she needs time to recover from her punishment." He picked himself up, stretched, and prepared to leave. "I just hope she isn't too insane. I still wonder if I wasn't too hard on her."

Nibi chuckled. She always felt giddy when she thought of Hachibi's punishment. "I don't see what's so bad about it. She gets food, exercise, and more love than anyone would ever need." She cracked up, howling like a loon. "Gobi and Rokubi were terrified you might do the same to them if they step a paw out of line."

Naruto stared down at her in amusement. He had always thought Hachibi's punishment one of his more inspired ideas himself. If only he had known about it when he was younger. It would have explained so much. He turned to go. "I'll be back in a couple of days with her. If all goes as planned, we will leave here in a week, maybe a few days later. If you must go out, disguise yourself. And as something normal." He continued on to the cave entrance before a thought made him stop in his tracks. He turned to Nibi in horror. "I just remembered…I have to find the Fire Lord's wife a new cat."

They were both horrified. The poor animal.

(AN: I was going to leave it here because I've gone so long without updating, but I think I've finally got back into my groove for this story.)

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The next two days flew by. Naruto had thought being around Sasuke would be awkward but Sasuke seemed to have erased the incident from his mind. Naruto tried his best to follow his lead. He was really good at deception by now, so it wasn't that difficult to appear not to remember. It was much more difficult to actually do so, but, fortunately, he had plenty of important tasks to complete. Unfortunately, Tora seemed to be taking a break from running away for the time being.

Nibi was relieved. Any extension of the time to herself without Hachibi was a godsend. But she knew Kyuubi would have her sooner or later. It was just a matter of time before Naruto got impatient and stormed the Fire Lord's house to retrieve his subordinate.

So it was a good thing Naruto got the mission to retrieve Tora on the third day. He had to fight for it though. Tsunade had had him helping with paperwork as part of his 'Hokage-training' and he used wanting to escape that for a while as his excuse for being so eager to perform the mission everyone from Genin to Hokage would not wish on their worst enemy.

It went well at first. Tora jumped into his arms again and started purring and rubbing her head on his hands. "Don't think you're off the hook, Loki. We just need all available biju to rescue our brothers and sisters from the Akatsuki. I'll find a more suitable punishment when all this is over unless you are on your best behavior."

Tora put her ears back, meekly though, and they went to the caves. Nibi was there and stared at Tora like she was the devil incarnate. Naruto threw the disguised cat into Nibi's arms. "Watch her. I think I've found another stray cat that looks exactly like Tora." Naruto took the little red ribbon off Tora's neck and they all felt a release of youki. The ribbon was what held the spell together, but it would take an hour or two before Tora's form would completely revert back to her true form. Already there were bits of black beginning to appear on her fur. "This shouldn't take long. I'll be back soon to discuss our plans for leaving and taking on the Akatsuki."

Naruto left, not paying any attention to the desperate looks Nibi sent him, begging him not to leave her alone.

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He really felt bad for the poor kitty. But at least the overeager lady got what was coming to her. This cat didn't put up with being smothered with affection very long before scratching the lady across her arm. The lady dropped her. "This is not my Tora-chan! My Tora-chan would never attack me!" the lady sobbed.

Tsunade looked like she was torn between rubbing her hands in glee and annoyed that she had to play nice and sooth the woman. She remembered those missions to find that damn cat and she knew this lady was the reason she was forced to go through that torture. But a Hokage had to do what a Hokage had to do. "Tora has a very distinct chakra signature for an animal. It feels weaker than it has in years, but that was definitely the chakra signature I remember. Sometimes animals just get testy when they don't feel well."

The Fire Lady gasped. "My Tora-chan is sick?! Fetch the medic-nins right now!" She registered she was in the presence of the most legendary medic-nin herself. "Get my Tora-chan back and you heal her! Only the best for my Tora-chan!"

Tsunade rubbed her temples from behind her desk. She was really getting too old for this. "My lady, I'm a medic-nin, not a vet. I operate on humans not animals. You would be better off going to the Inuzuka clan, even though they hate cats. They are the best vets in our village."

"Well, fetch their best immediately! And you!" she pointed at Naruto. "Find my Tora-chan again right now!" Naruto did as he was told and decided to just save time and take her to Hana right then.

Hana wasn't very fond of cats, especially this one, but she wasn't as bad as Kiba. She wasn't very surprised at the results either. The three of them went to Hokage Tower to break the news to the Fire Lady. "She's just old, my lady. I don't know exactly how old she is, but from what I've heard, she has lived far longer than an ordinary cat should. My mother remembers catching her when she was a new genin. It was only a matter of time."

The lady began to sob loudly. "My poor Tora-chan! She was a gift from my mother-in-law before she died, just after I married my lord. You can't die!" she hugged the poor cat more violently, causing it to choke and pass out.

Hana was hesitant to point out that this wasn't all that good for the cat. For one thing, you just don't tell one of the nobility what to do. For another, that damn cat caused her untold misery during her genin days and no telling how many scratched arms. Finally, she was a cat. But she couldn't stand to see a dying animal suffer. "My lady, it isn't very good for Tora to be held so tightly in her condition. I would suggest only gentle handling and only when necessary. Petting is allowed, but that too must be done gently. Older animals have more fragile bones and can't stand as much physical affection as younger ones. In order to maximize the time you have together, you need to follow my instructions."

Luckily, Hana presented herself well to the Fire Lady, plus, she was feeling helpless and she actually wanted to be told what to do. She ate up those instructions and actually followed them! She loosened her hold and patted 'Tora-chan' gently. Her sobs subsided, but tears still ran down her cheeks as she tried to stop her sniffles. "How much longer does she have?"

Hana shook her head sadly. "It is very hard to make an accurate guess, my lady, but I would guess no longer than six-months to a year. It could even be before that. I can only suggest you make her as comfortable as possible in her final months. Try not to let her outside very much and rest as much as possible."

The lady ate these instructions up and finally left Tsunade's office supported by her assistant.

Tsunade and Hana waited until they saw the lady leave through the window and then they both broke into happy laughter. Tsuande even broke out her special super-secret-Shizune-will-never-find-it stash of sake. "Finally! That cat was my first mission fifty years ago! And I know I heard Sarutobi-sensei grumbling about his genin days!"

Hana raised her sake cup. "The Reign of Tora Terror is finally over. No more demon cat!" Both saluted each other with their cups and drank heavily. Hana's three canine companions barked in agreement and Hana poured them each some sake. They had had to wait at a distance so they didn't scare the cat, although from the looks exchanged between the cat and the dogs, they were more scared of her than she was of them.

Naruto could only shake his head. If only they knew how accurate that last was. But at least it looked like he had made a good choice in the new Tora. The old cat could live out its final days in luxury instead of dying on the streets and it looked like the hell cat could control the Fire Lady if she got out of hand. It had actually turned out much better than he had assumed it would. He had no idea his replacement was old, or that Hana would give those instructions. He was just lucky that the ribbon gave off a chakra signature all of its own that Tsunade had mistaken for Tora's.

Now that all that was settled, he tried to leave, but was stopped by Tsunade's arm around his shoulders. He hadn't even seen the woman move, which was kinda scary. "You maary not kknow shish but jat cat hash caujed more shrubbbbble jan alje of Shound combinjed. It even deshroujed half the vilje onsh." After that it was more slurred stories about the trouble caused by the disguised Hachibi, otherwise known as Loki to those in the know.

Naruto finally escaped and ran into Inutaisho on his way back from the hell that is drunken women, especially when one of those women had super strength. Although Hana had tried her clan's Beast mimicry to destroy Tsunade's desk because Tsunade had bet her that she couldn't do it, so he could probably consider both of them to have super strength. The drunken dogs weren't any help as they were passed out on the floor. Luckily Shizune had come in when she heard all the racket and allowed him to escape while they faced her wrath.

He just hoped he didn't have to face it the next time he saw her for not trying harder to stop them. But, really, who was crazy enough, besides Shizune, to try to stop Tsunade from doing anything, especially when she was in that state?

"I was just about to hunt you down, Inutaisho. I released Hachibi-"

"WHAT?!"

"-and we need you to help develop our plan of attack on the Akatsuki."

The rest of the walk to the caves was filled with incoherent ramblings from Inutaisho and a little explaining and reassurance from Naruto.

They walked into the cave.

"KYUUBI!!!!" Naruto was immediately glomped by a very beautiful woman/girl with tiger ears and eight tiger tails which were currently wrapped all around him.

Naruto grinned. "And how is my big sister after her hundred and twenty-eight years of confinement? Did you learn your lesson?" he asked, already knowing the answer: NO!

Loki nodded with childish innocence. "Don't mess with you. And most especially don't dye your fur a 'pansy-assed pink.'"

Naruto burst out laughing. He had to admit, Loki was amusing when she was playing innocent. "Don't mess with my fur. And you are not allowed any of your tricks until our war with the Akatsuki is over and our brothers and sisters are free." Or dead. Naruto admitted silently, knowing that some would not want to be out of Akatsuki control. Sanbi was just too easily controlled and Shukaku was really just a destruction-driven psychopath, so both of them might be beyond help. It might be possible to put Shukaku back in Gaara, but it would take an exhausting amount of chakra even for him and it wouldn't be without its dangers to Gaara either, since he had had only minimal youki in his system these last eight years. Plus, if it was him, he wouldn't want that damn tanuki in his head, since fusing wasn't an option for them. Really, the only reason he hadn't killed Shukaku a hundred and fifty years ago was because he was family, no matter how crazy he was. He wasn't always crazy—well, not all that crazy—but something happened about two hundred years ago. Naruto as Kyuubi had punished him by having him sealed in a teapot for almost destroying Suna (he formed some majorly bad sandstorms and directed them at The Village Hidden in the Sand and lost control of his form, materializing above the village and almost flattening it), but unfortunately he hadn't been aware that it was already occupied by an utterly mad dead monk. And there were so few items capable of containing even the lowest of the biju. Anyway, the spirits fused and Shukaku became destructive, deadly, and even more crazy. They got released at some point and caused untold destruction in Suna before being sealed again. There was no way of separating the two now, just as there was no separating the original Naruto from the original Kyuubi. It was amazing the two didn't completely take Gaara over permanently, considering what utter crap the seal binding the demon to him was.

They discussed attack plans and got all the information Nibi had on the two remaining members of the Akatsuki. Nibi told all she knew which, admittedly, wasn't much. Naruto knew more than she did, but there was something new. She frowned thoughtfully. "The leader likes to talk to the statue he seals us in a lot. We didn't have any free will or thoughts of our own in there, so it's kind of hard to remember anything specific, but I think he got impatient when he couldn't find Yonbi or Hachibi. He got really angry when he got the news that you were dead, Kyuubi. When he feels strong emotions, everything gets clearer, even if we feel them with him he still isn't in complete control. That could be used to break his hold on them in combination with Kyuubi's authority as our leader. Also, during one of those rages, I got the feeling of self-loathing, in addition to hatred for the rest of the world. Whoever the leader is, he is not a very sane or happy person."

This last bit wasn't much news to Naruto, but it was part of the whole 'know thy enemy' thing. The rest of it was something they could use. They discussed the matter a little longer before being satisfied that they were as prepared as they could get with the information they had at hand.

Loki introduced a new topic in her completely random, mischievous fashion. "So, what's this interesting smell I sense coming off you, Kyuubi? If I didn't know better, I would say you were in heat."

The other demons burst out laughing as Naruto's face turned a flaming red. "I have no idea what you are talking about." He hurried to change the subject, realizing he still didn't know anything about Inutaisho's courtship. It was his turn to smile mischievously. "How's the courtship of Tsunade going, Inutaisho? I think you'll find it harder than usual to get into her pants!"

The other three laughed as Inutaisho frowned. "Tsunade-san? What ever gave you the idea I was courting her?"

Naruto stopped his laughter to give him a puzzled look. Could he have been mistaken? But he hadn't seen him express an interest in anyone else they met. "Then who were you talking about?"

Inutaisho got a look none of them had ever seen on his face before, even Naruto who had spent the most time with him and seen all his tricks to get women into bed with him. Although, at least he never lied to them to make them think it meant more than it did. The dog demon smiled dreamily and sighed a name. "Tenten."

The others were amused, but they had no idea who this woman was. Naruto, however, felt his jaw unhinge and fall to the ground in shock. "Tenten?! What-How-Why-When-"

Inutaisho chuckled, finally seeing it from Naruto's point of view. "She is completely different from any woman I've ever met. She absolutely refuses to sleep with me-"

"That's a first for a human." Loki whispered to Nibi.

Inutaisho ignored them. It was true. "-and she has certain indescribable qualities that I have never encountered before. Any time I spend with her is precious and makes me feel things I've never felt before. Do you—well, of course you all do, you're all just about as old, if not older," nodding to Nibi, "than me. Given all the years we have been on this earth, all the people we have met, all the things we have experienced, it is extremely rare for any of us to experience something we have never felt before. I intend to treasure these new feelings as long as she will let me."

Loki, in a moment of rare compassion, put a hand on his shoulder. "You do know you can never have kit- er, puppies with this human, right? In all the time you have been alive, you are the only one of us that has never taken the chance to use your youki to make your own children. Nor have you—or any of us for that matter—been able to have children with humans, or any other species. Reproduction by ourselves seems to be the only way any of us is capable of. So it is most likely you will never be able to fully make a life with her if she wants little ones. Are you sure you want to force your human to make that kind of decision?"

They were all silent after that, the levity of before covered with an air of sadness since the topic broached was a sore one for all who were present, especially Naruto. For a moment after Loki's voice faded, he was sure he saw a couple of newly born fox kits in the corner playing. Then it disappeared and the only reminder of the kits he had lost so long ago was the pain in his heart.

Inutaisho and Naruto left soon after, in a much worse mood than they had entered just hours before.

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Two more days passed and Naruto knew he couldn't put off leaving much longer. But it just felt so good to be home again. And there was also the fact that he seemed to be coming down with something for the first time in his life that wasn't induced by drinking bad milk.

It was completely strange. He felt hot all over and was perpetually flushed. His mind was cloudy and he found it extremely difficult to concentrate. He had a very hard time maintaining his current form, too. He even went outside the village to transform a little while, but it didn't get better no matter what form he took. In fact, it seemed to get worse.

He couldn't seem to keep himself from staring at Sasuke whenever they happened to meet in the hallway, either. Unusually, Sasuke seemed to have the same problem. They had been avoiding each other the entire week. Naruto had even declined the mission given to him by the Hokage. Sasuke was now followed constantly by another Anbu team. He was not happy about it, especially after the complete truth of the attack at the training grounds was disclosed. It seemed to put him into an even worse foul mood.

Naruto tried not to wonder where Sasuke disappeared to most nights, which was happening even more often than it had previously, with him leaving every night and not returning until dawn. Naruto could not explain why it made him so angry and snappish. Whenever he couldn't avoid thinking about it, he had to replace the pen he was holding and clean his hands. It seemed that paperwork did not require sufficient brainpower to shut off his brain from other problems. Or maybe it was just that he had always been extraordinarily good at multitasking. Kage Bunshin was the most wonderfully useful jutsu in the world, after all. At least he thought so.

There was another meeting between the only free biju later that night. As soon as Naruto entered the cave, all three of the others' noses flared and Inutaisho immediately put as much distance between them as possible, his eyes flashing red as he fought against his instincts.

Loki was the one to finally break the silence. "You really are in heat." Her eyes were wide and her voice was filled with awe.

Naruto's eyebrows snapped together. "That is not possible."

"Trust me, I know when someone is in heat. And you, my friend and esteemed leader, are in heat." Inutaisho growled out from his position across the cavern.

Naruto frowned. "It is not possible for any of us to go into heat as each of us are the only ones of our kind other than our children and descendents. We do not and cannot mate with them so no one is available for us to mate. We are only able to produce children asexually, so mating is not necessary and the only reason any animal goes into heat is to produce offspring of some kind. Therefore, it is impossible."

"What if this is a side effect from you merging with the human? Do you not have the body of your jin as well as your old one?" Nibi wondered.

Naruto froze. That was a possibility. But he was a boy, and boys did not go into heat. But…He frowned in thought. Men seemed to be more susceptible to their sexual urges than women. Women go into heat at roughly the midpoint between cycles. Maybe my human male side and my animal side combined and this is the result?

Inutaisho's markings stood out and youki flared. "You are in heat, Naruto. Accept it and take appropriate measures. Tomorrow you will be at your peak. I do not think it would be wise for any male youkai such as myself to be around until your time is over. Even animals will have trouble overcoming their base instincts. Confine yourself and set up a barrier with your youki. Let no one come near you for three days."

Nibi frowned. She was the oldest of the four, the second oldest of all the biju. She had seen both humans and animals evolve and knew that the urge to mate was strong. Nature would find a way and Nibi was not entirely certain Kyuubi could resist the call. "It might be a good idea for you to restrain yourself in some way also. When your animal side and instincts take over, you may not be able to control yourself."

"But how am I to restrain myself? I am the Kyuubi, with all the power that comes with it. What is a few ropes—or even chains—going to do to hold me back?"

Nibi was stumped, but Loki came up with an answer, surprisingly serious due to the occasion. None of them had ever dealt with something like this before. The other two hadn't thought of the implications yet, but it gave Loki hope that maybe all was not what they had originally thought. "If all three of us pooled our powers and cast a chain of chakra to hold Kyuubi, it should hold for at least a week. If we had to hold it longer or we had to catch you without your cooperation, I would worry, but the heat should be over by then. It would be ideal to cast it here, but I think it would be better to keep Inutaisho here rather than Kyuubi so that we can keep him grounded. What we need is somewhere no one ever goes that is far enough away from the village so that the small amount of youki needed to form the barrier is not noticed."

"The Forest of Death would be a good place. Hardly anyone ever goes there and my youki would scare most of the animals away. And nothing should be able to get through my barrier."

Nibi nodded. "Then it's settled. You will spend the rest of today saying goodbye to everyone and tonight we will set up the barrier and restraints. In four days, after you have recovered, we will make our move on those Akatsuki bastards."

*********************************break********************************

SO sorry about the delay. I know many of you were ready to hunt me down and strangle me with my own laptop cord, but I lost interest in this story for a while. I'm also not as interested in yaoi as I was before. I'm still going to finish this story, but it's just a little more difficult to write. This story isn't much longer, but there's still the sequel, which will probably be put off for a while.

It's been a while since I updated, so I hope this doesn't have too many plot holes. It's turning out a little different than what I had originally planned, but at least it's written.