Homeward Bound?

The crowd roared in approval as the twelve genin in the finals all gathered down on the arena floor once more. The Raikage enjoyed this part. He knew something about people and being awarded a promotion in front of the crowd made for good publicity. First, he renewed his announcement of the promotion for Naruto, Sakura and Hinata as chunin. They were not given vests, as that was the option of their home village.

He signaled to one of his jonin who carried out a pair of Cloud vests. This got the crowd buzzing. The fights had not been overly impressive this year but only one came to mind. Sure enough, the boy and girl from the half hour long second round fight were given promotions. The applause was loud but not overwhelming. The Raikage gave both genin a nod of approval before closing the Exams. The next scheduled exam would be in the Sand village.

Tsunade chuckled at the promotions given to the Cloud genin. Both were solid but neither one really seemed worthy of chunin rank but she knew politics worked both ways. The Raikage was not going to let the only promotions be from a rival village when he was hosting the Exams.

Team Apprentice met Tsunade as they left the arena floor and headed to the embassy to pack for their return journey to Konoha. Naruto looked troubled the whole time before Tsunade asked what was wrong.

"Well, we all made chunin now. Does that mean we are going to get moved to other teams?" he asked in a less than enthusiastic tone.

Tsunade understood his worry right away. "No, Naruto. The three of you are going to remain a team for some time yet. Don't forget, Sarutobi planned on you three being a beacon of hope to Konoha or some such nonsense. We wouldn't want that plan to go wrong simply because he died."

Naruto smiled at the reassurance. Hinata and Sakura both breathed slightly easier as well. Neither of them wanted a new teammate just yet.

Once back in the embassy, Tsunade made a quick scan of all three of her students. Sakura needed just a little work to clean the last traces of the poison from her system. Tsunade made a few notes to add to her long list of toxins to find a counteragent for. The fear genjutsu Sakura could deal with but it had no lasting effects. Hinata got her cut ear attended to and healed instead of the basic bandage the medics at the arena had used. The slice had not been bad but Tsunade healed it without so much as a scar showing. The armor had prevented bruising. It had been the impact that of the explosions that had stunned Hinata during the battle.

"The hair I cannot do anything about, Hinata," Tsunade said sadly. "When we get back to Konoha, you can talk to Jiraiya and see what he can do for you. He uses a few hair based jutsu and I think he might have something that could help. Until then, all I can do is this." The blonde pulled out a brush and a ponytail scrunchie. Hinata nodded and started pulling the hair into a tail at the back of her head. The cut strands were long enough to reach there. She would have preferred a low one but it was impossible due to the angle of the cut strands. A high one would have left her hair looking like dark version of Ino's. She left the bangs and sideburns of her hime cut hanging loose as always.

She did a cursory scan of Naruto last. Sakura had done a good job and prevented any concussion, not that it would have lasted long on Naruto. She was looking for any after effects of the genjutsu on his mind. Sure enough, she found a trace of it in his head that would have made for some serious dream issues. The location it was in startled Tsunade as it was in the area that controlled libido. That was an area most genjutsu users never went near as pain and fear tended to be the primary uses of that ninja art.

"Naruto, what kind of genjutsu did that woman use on you?" she asked in an offhanded manner.

Naruto blushed like Hinata still did at times.

"Um, it was nothing really," he said while rubbing the back of his head.

Sakura chuckled evilly. "He did mention something about Hinata looking good naked after getting hit by it."

Hinata joined the blush parade now as Tsunade raised an eyebrow.

"Really? Should I get Hiashi worried that you have been seeing his daughter naked?" she teased.

Hinata began to glow in a full body blush as Naruto paled at what the blonde woman was insinuating.

"But, I never saw her naked. Even the one in the genjutsu was wearing underwear! I didn't see anything! I mean I'm sure she would be pretty and all but I never tried to peep at her like Ero-sensei does at women …" Naruto babbled.

"Enough, Naruto," Tsunade said chuckling. "I was only teasing."

Hinata only focused on 'I'm sure she would be pretty' and went to sleep that night with a smile on her face.

The following morning, the team set out with little fanfare. They informed the gate guard of their intent to leave and a team escorted them down the mountain toward the border. As they were traveling as just a single team, they moved much faster out of the Land of Lightning than they had come in. Tsunade set the travel pace and they reached the border in only two days. Once free of their escort at the border, Tsunade decided to change the plans a bit. Instead of continuing west to Konoha she turned south along the coast. The group remained in the small country between the Land of Fire and Land of Lightning and stopped in the capital city.

"What are we going to do here, Tsunade-sensei?" Sakura asked when Tsunade checked them into a hotel.

Tsunade just grinned and replied, "Gamble."

"But we were supposed to head home after the exams, right?" Naruto asked puzzled.

The blonde haired Sannin glared at Naruto until he backed up.

"First of all gaki, we were not told to come straight home after the exams. Second, my teammate doesn't have the stones to give me such an order. He knows there is a long slow colonoscopy in his future if he tries to do it. Keep bugging me and I'll put you in for one."

Naruto blanched a bit at what his teacher said. He had learned exactly what that medical procedure was and wanted no part of one. He stayed following behind his teacher along with the girls. At last, the blonde woman stopped at her destination.

A casino.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," Naruto muttered as the team trailed in behind their teacher.

Tsunade checked them into a three bedroom suiteafter several hours of losing on slot machines. She took the main bedroom with the girls having to share and Naruto in the last. The Sannin made sure the room was paid for out of Konoha's funds so her own would not be used up. The living room of the suite had comfortable chairs and the bathroom had separate washing and bathing areas with a hot tub.

"You kids get a small vacation while I get to join in a poker tournament they are having here starting tomorrow. It is a new game to the area called Texas Hold'em," Tsunade said with glee. She had promised Sensei she would not gamble herself back into debt but this was a simple poker tournament. It only took an entry fee. She had won more than enough at the Cloud betting on her kids to cover that small amount. She knew she would be fine as long as she kept out of the slot machine and pachinko rooms.

"First, you get paid a bonus for being in the exams," Tsunade said as she handed each teen a wad of cash. "I bet on all of you to get into the Finals and won so you get the benefits. Go buy yourselves some nice clothes to relax in. Next, if you wish to gamble, just show your ninja headbands to the floor boss and it will be allowed. You three are considered legal adults as long as you have those on you. Last, leave me alone and ignore any noises coming from my room."

The girls were excited about shopping and the amount of money Tsunade had given them. Naruto was a bit more skeptical at first.

"You bet on us at the Exams?" he asked. That question made the girls stop and listen in as well.

Tsunade smirked, "Yes, I did. I bet on you all as a team to advance to the Finals. I also bet on Sakura in her individual match and your team again in the special match. However, I did NOT bet on the match between Naruto and Hinata. As that one was a conflict of interest I could not reasonably bet on that one."

The teens were smiling slightly as Tsunade turned to head for the bathroom. "Dibs on the hot tub," she said. "Girls, you can join in but Naruto has to wait."

Naruto grumbled as he went to his room. He knew it would be a couple of hours before he could get washed up.

Naruto wandered down the street alone as he had ducked out on the girls as they were trying on kimonos in a high end shop. He was having enough trouble dealing with his thoughts about Hinata since that fight and he needed some time alone. He window shopped as he walked but he had no real interest in buying anything.

Instead, he looked at families as they enjoyed their lives together. His mind went back to the stories of his mother. The nickname of the 'fiery habanero' for his mother had him thinking. She had bright red hair but his was blonde. He learned enough from Tsunade to understand that meant his father had to be blonde as well. One thing he had not told Tsunade was something else he had found in his clan book. He was related to her as well. It was not close by any means but it was there. Her grandmother had been an Uzumaki, the wife of the First Hokage.

He sighed as he went to a park to sit. The townpeople had none of the glares he got back on Konoha. He was just another face in the crowd here. A nobody who no one was angry at. He stared at the clouds as they drifted past for more than an hour. He found he was lonely so he got up and headed back to the room at the casino.

Once inside the door of the casino, the press of people moving toward one of the larger halls caught his attention. The sign over the door listed it as registration for the poker tournament. He fingered the money in his pocket for a moment and decided.

Hinata twirled in the western style dress in the clothing boutique while Sakura looked on and guarded the previous purchases. The Hyuuga heiress was nervous as she had been greatly body shy for so long. However, Anko-sensei had worked on that large problem all throughout her training and it rarely came up any more. Clothes shopping was one of the rare times that her old insecurities reared up.

"You look great," Sakura commented. "The blue suits you, Hinata. Besides, Naruto would love to see your legs in that one. You should get it." 'Not to mention those enormous boobs you hide under your jacket. I wonder how a thirteen year old got so big?' she continued to herself as she looked down at her own less developed bust.

"You really think so?" Hinata said with a hint of pink on her cheeks. "But what about my hair, Sakura? The ponytail doesn't really go well with the dress. Maybe I shouldn't get it."

The sales clerk noticed a possible sale about away and spoke up. "Perhaps of you wear it up with some hair sticks in it? We have a nice selection right over there."

Hinata thought for a moment. Her mother had taught her how to wear her hair up years before. Then she nodded and went to go see what the store offered. Besides, she wanted to look nice for her boyfriend. She got a tingle in her belly when she thought of Naruto like that.

That evening back in the rooms, the teens compared notes on the day. Naruto failed to mention he had entered the poker tournament and Hinata also failed to mention the blue dress.

In the morning, Naruto said he had plans as he rushed out early before Hinata could work up the nerve to invite him to spend the day with her. She frowned but Sakura came in with a brochure for makeovers and practically dragged her along.

Naruto signed in and had to show his ninja headband more than once to various officials before he was taken to a waiting area. He noticed Tsunade was in a more VIP area than he was but he did not mind. If he got far enough in this, they would meet at the final table.

The day wore on and Naruto cleaned out the first table he was at quickly. He needed to wait around as the second round slowly filled up. He was surprised when Tsunade had advanced as well. Her reputation as being bad at gambling did not seem to apply in lower stakes contests.

Naruto was the first person to clear off his table in the second round. Tsunade advanced nearly as quickly as he did into the third round on the second day of the tournament. Since he didn't care about who he would be facing he headed out to find something to eat.

He was heading out of the hall when some press people stopped him.

"Sir, we noticed that you are in this tournament. Could you spare a few words?" one asked.

Naruto was nervous but responded. "Um, ok I guess."

Most of the people smiled. The losers in the tournament were all cranky coming out and were bad press. This kid seemed to be doing much better mood-wise but was still leaving early.

"How is the level of competition you faced today? Does anyone stand out in your mind?" one heavily made up woman asked him.

"Not too bad, I guess," Naruto said while scratching his face. "Most of the people I played against seemed kind of boring." He was wary at first but decided he should not mention his being a ninja. It was not illegal to be one but many times he had been told to keep a low profile and not advertise his skills if possible.

"You're kind of young to be in a tournament like this. Is it your first one and what do you think of it?" asked a man.

"Yes, it's my first tournament. I was staying in town a few days and decided to enter. So far it's been fun," he responded with a grin.

"So who do you think is going to win it now that you are out?" asked a man in the back.

"Oh, I'm still in it. I just finished early. They only had two elimination rounds scheduled today."

The reporters looked at each other as Naruto took the opportunity to wander off.

Tsunade was enjoying herself immensely. This tournament setup allowed her to only pay once and play with chips instead of cash on each hand. The nervousness she normally felt when being up on money was absent and her ability at reading other players and using her 'assets' to distract them came into play. Her cleavage could even distract other women she faced. She quickly got through the first round but had some trouble in the second when she found her opponent was a flamboyant gay man in over the top clothing that hurt the eyes to look at. It took her some time to wear him down but in the end, her skill and luck managed to get her to advance.

After the round, the man talked to her. "Honey, you are one of the best players I have ever faced at cards. Most people are intimidated or distracted by my outfits. It took everything I had just to stay even with you."

Tsunade smiled at the compliment.

"You have to tell me your name, Honey," the man pressed.

After a few moments of weighing the consequences she replied, "Senju Tsunade."

The man gasped in astonishment. "Senju Tsunade! You're the Legendary Su-uurrrk."

"Finish that sentence and I finish squeezing," she said with flames dancing in her eyes and her hand on his throat.

"Sannin," the man whimpered out. "I meant to say Sannin."

Tsunade let go of the man who gasped and rubbed his throat as Tsunade strode out in a bad mood now.

Jiraiya held the results of the Cloud Chunin Exams and grinned. He knew the kids would do well and the list of recommended promotions proved him correct. He called in both of the old teammates of his sensei to show them.

"It seems that the Cloud Finals results are in. All three of the apprentices were given unanimous recommendations for chunin. I assume neither of you will raise an issue politically when I approve of the list as is?" he asked them with a gleam in his eye.

Homura shook his head no and Koharu did the same before replying. "We realize it would be stupid to stop such a thing as the Cloud has announced the results publicly. It would be a waste of time to try to protect the boy by hiding him now. It is, however, in Konoha's best interests to see that the team reaches its maximum potential as soon as it can. We would suggest that the team get harder missions commensurate to their new rank."

Jiraiya arched an eyebrow, "Why the change of heart? It isn't like you to be so pragmatic."

Homura replied this time. "Reality, Jiraiya. If we cannot keep the boy safe by keeping him hidden, then we should keep him safe by him being the scariest most deadly ninja in the Elemental Countries. The jonin reports from the Finals spoke of him facing down the brother of the Raikage and showing his power in public. Besides, that kind of publicity cannot be brought. Daimyos and wealthy customers will pay a premium for him to be on missions now," he finished with a smirk.

Jiraiya chuckled at that. "Good enough. Oh, have you heard about the grandkids lately? The latest reports from the Academy have Udon and Moegi teaming up with little Konohamaru and making a team of their own. It seems the Ino-Shika-Cho team is not the only one to span generations."

Koharu frowned. "I had heard about it. They seem to be emulating the Uzumaki boy as well and being pranksters together. I tried to speak to my son about it but he thinks it is cute and likes my granddaughter's new work ethic."

"Well, I have been thinking of giving them a little assignment. An early D-Rank mission to see how well they do as a team," Jiraiya said. "I'll be meeting them later on today."

The elders frowned and left after a few minor pleasantries.

Later in the day, Jiraiya waited outside a small house in a quiet neighborhood as the Konohamaru Corps arrive in a cloud of dust. At seeing the Hokage waiting the trio all stood at attention.

Jiraiya smirked and went to 'Hokage Mode', "At ease kids. I have a job for you three and I am glad Iruka got you here on time. You three are getting an early start on missions and if you do well, it will reflect favorably on you. Your mission is to clean this house inside and out, from top to bottom and to take care of the landscaping."

Konohamaru's face fell and Moegi and Udon took on similar looks of shock.

"But Hokage-sama, why give something like this to us?" Moegi whimpered out.

"I thought of you three first since this house will be the property of one Uzumaki Naruto and I could not think of a better team to put on the job," Jiraiya said with a smile.

"This is the Boss' house?" Konohamaru asked.

"It will be when he gets back to town," Jiraiya said with a smile. "But, I want you to keep that fact a secret until after he sees it. Even from your grandparents because that would ruin the surprise," he finished with a mild glare at Moegi and Udon.

Konohamaru nodded eagerly and his teammates mirrored it. "For the Boss, we'll get this place spotless!"

Jiraiya smiled at the kids and led them into the house.

Elsewhere in Konoha, another surprise meeting was taking place. Iruka was grading tests when a knock on his door. He had not been expecting anyone and answered it. To his amazement, it was Anko.

"Um, Hi Iruka-kun, do you have a minute?" she asked in a quiet voice.

The teacher was shocked by the woman's subdued tone and lack of usual exuberance.

"Yeah, come on in," he said and led her back to his desk.

Anko looked around the room and was so nervous that Iruka got worried. "Anko? What's up?"

"Well, things between us have been so great lately and all, I didn't want to ruin them" she started lamely.

Iruka got worried then. "Are you breaking up with me, Anko?" he asked quietly.

Anko got a look of panic and shook her head no then whimpered out, "I'm pregnant."

That evening, Tsunade was relaxing in the hot tub when she heard shouts coming from the living room. She splashed her way out of the water and put on a robe that barely covered her. She came out to see both girls yelling at Naruto.

"You're in the poker tournament and we have to find out on the TV?" Sakura yelled at the blonde boy.

Hinata just had a hurt look on her face and remained silent after her initial outburst from seeing her boyfriend on the TV.

Naruto held out his hands before him trying to explain.

"I did it on a whim, Sakura. I figured it would be something to try since you and Hinata were out shopping all day and having girl time. I didn't think I would get past the first round and I could have some fun," he said while half cowering.

Hinata just turned and went to the girl's room.

"You idiot! You should have told us!" Sakura yelled once more. "If you had, then we wouldn't be mad right now!"

"But Hinata didn't look mad," protested Naruto.

"You jerk. You're supposed to be her boyfriend now and you blew it. She wanted to spend the day with you but you ran out of here this morning before she could even ask you. She was upset about it all day," Sakura snarled.

Naruto was shocked. He had little clue what it meant to be a boyfriend. "I didn't know," he said lamely as Sakura left him standing there.

Tsunade wrapped the robe tighter around her body seeing Naruto's face as he stood there. "Naruto, come with me," she said and beckoned for him to follow. He stumbled after her to her room.

Naruto sat looking lost as Tsunade pulled out a bottle of sake. She poured a cup for him and told him to drink. He just looked until she told him again more firmly before he drank the alcohol.

"Okay. Now as drinking buddies, we can talk. I noticed you are having some girlfriend problems," Tsunade said as she settled down in a chair with her own drink.

"I'm supposed to be Hinata's boyfriend now and I just was doing the same thing I always do and I seem to be screwing up. I … I really don't know what a boyfriend is supposed to do," he finished.

Tsunade just nodded. "It's a hard thing, gaki. You never had an example to follow, did you? Then that old perv as the only male role model, I can see how you are confused." The older woman thought before speaking again.

"Being a boyfriend means you try to think of the girl first. You make sure she is happy and content with things before you go running off to do your own thing. It takes a lot of talking for the pair of you to work, more so for ninja. There is a lot more than that but most communication is the biggest thing right now. The two of you don't talk much about being together, do you?"

Naruto just shook his head no.

"Both of you are so painfully shy about personal relationships, I should have seen that one a long time ago," Tsunade said with a chuckle. "I guess none of your teachers was very good in that regard. Hmm, let's see. Growing up an orphan, no luck there. Sensei, an old guy but not too warm. Iruka, more repressed than you and grew up just as alone. Then Anko, me and the perv. You, gaki, got the worst teachers possible for having a good solid relationship."

If anything, Naruto looked more despondent.

"But you are in luck. I'll go talk to the girl on your behalf this time. Not like Anko who sided with her last time you goofed up. Just remember to talk to her, Naruto. Being boyfriend / girlfriend is a step up over being just friends like you have been. It takes more work but it is worth the effort," Tsunade finished with a smile and shooed the boy out of her room before heading to talk to Hinata.

Naruto sat in his room and could hear the girls talking through the wall. He couldn't make much out but after a time the talking stopped. Soon after, there was a knock on his door. He opened it to see Hinata standing there looking nervous.

"Can I come in, Naruto-kun?" she asked.

"Yeah, sure," he said and stepped back so she could enter.

"Door stays open! I have no intention of talking to Hiashi about anything," called out Tsunade from the living room.

Hinata had sat on the edge of the bed beside Naruto when Naruto spoke first. "Sorry I didn't tell you about the plans I made. I guess I'm not good at being a boyfriend yet."

"No, I think you are. I just am not sure about things myself," Hinata said in her quiet voice.

Both teens were nervous until she lunged up and kissed him.

Naruto felt his heart pound and he kissed back as well as he could until a lack of breathing and the stress of the moment caused both to get woozy.

Neither one noticed the flash of a camera or heard the evil chuckle of Tsunade. She muttered, "Perfect blackmail material."

The morning came and Naruto entered the casino poker hall along with Tsunade and the girls trailing behind. Spectators were allowed today as after this last round of eliminations, the final table would be decided. Tsunade got more attention as her reputation as a big time loser at all forms of gambling was well known to professionals in the field. Naruto got some notice from the crowd but no one paid him much mind. Hinata was smiling the whole time. All she could think about had been waking up cuddled close to Naruto and his arms wrapped around her that morning.

Naruto sat at his table with seven others as the first hand was dealt. It was his worst deal so far in the tournament. He had learned early on that even a bad deal did not mean much and that seeing the first two common cards in Hold 'Em was a good idea. One man pushed the bet on the first hand and Naruto saw it. He would wait to decide.

He held his grin as he found himself with two pairs. Maybe today would not be so bad after all.

Tsunade grinned seeing her first deal; an Ace and Queen of the same suit with another Ace showing on the table. She pushed more chips into the pot and the experienced players called immediately. Her reputation was working for her today. She snickered under her breath, "Lambs to the Slaughter."

The play in the third round was more intense than the first rounds the previous day. All of the players except for Naruto were very experienced and it showed. In spite of this, the boy continued to build his pile of chips as player after player at his table was eliminated. The final player he faced was a large man with a bushy mustache and an unlit cigar in his teeth.

"You got some big ones boy. But now it comes down to us. By my count, you have a small lead on chips but that will change soon enough," the man said. He looked at his cards. There was little numerical chance for the boy to win. There were three cards in the deck that would make the man lose and one was on the table from another person's fold.

"I go all in," the man said confidently. The dealer could not believe how soon the man was going for the kill but waited on Naruto. The boy looked at his hand before replying, "I call."

The chips were counted and Naruto was holding a singe chip after the dealer counted things up and the rest sat in the pot. The man showed his cards and grinned as the crowd applauded until Naruto flipped over his pair of cards. Naruto had the exact cards he needed to win the hand and the seat at the final table. The crowd applauded louder for Naruto and Hinata in a fit of excitement hugged him in public and kissed his cheek.

Photographers on hand got many candid pictures of that moment.

Tsunade heard the crowd roar at another table and she looked at her own cards. Her opponent was sweating and waiting for the buxom blonde's luck to run true to form. "All in," she said and the man called immediately. She turned her cards and the man paled. Tsunade had won.

During the break before the final table sat, Naruto was eating at the buffet for the tournament participants. Hinata was sitting beside him while Sakura and Tsunade were across from him at a table. The blonde woman was glaring at the blonde boy.

"You realize no one expected you to get this far in the tournament?" she asked him.

Naruto smiled and swallowed before talking.

"Me either," he grinned. "I expected to get knocked out in the first round. But this is fun."

Tsunade shook her head in disgust. "Only you could go to a poker tournament and get the final table on sheer luck. How did you learn to gamble anyhow?"

"Watching you and Pervy Hokage play cards," the boy said with an even bigger grin. "I learned that you normally play really bad and if I did the opposite, I should win."

Tsunade growled loud enough that the boy took off running with the only pause being long enough to grab his plate of food.

The final table sat seven players and the dealer. Naruto hoped to sit as far from Tsunade as he could. Fortunately, the seating arrangement had two other players between them. All the players began with the same number of chips, having gathered them at the tables they had won at in the previous rounds. The House decided that in a high stakes game like this, each deck would be retired after five hands and a new one in a different color used. The cards were then verified by count and content. This minimized things that ninja could do to the cards to mark them. Cheating had never been an issue to this point but the casino owner wanted to be certain.

A woman from the Land of Tea was the first to fall. She lasted for a half dozen hands before a bad bet ruined her stake. An all in on the following hand in an attempt to recoup her losses proved just as devastating. To the shock of many, Tsunade won that particular hand.

The game continued rapidly after that. Either Naruto or Tsunade would win most of the hands. Two more players fell out having never won a hand. The audience was begging to buzz as a fourth player was close to elimination.

Naruto stared as the fat man from the Land of Wind pondered a bet. Tsunade had folded at the deal on this hand so he did not worry about her messing up this hand. She had the overall chip lead and was smirking openly at Naruto's smaller pile of chips. He needed to bust one of these remaining two players to draw even with her.

"All in," the fat man called at last. The merchant from the Sea Country folded and the call came to Naruto. He looked at his hole cards and then to the three common cards on the table. He was sitting with two pair already. The fat man twitched a little bit while Naruto took his time. 'He is trying to steal one here I think,' Naruto realized.

"Call," Naruto said. The dealer tallied the pot and made a serious dent in Naruto's remaining chips. Both players had to put their hole cards up for all to see. The man gave a wide grin as he placed his cards down. He had faked a 'tell' on Naruto and the teen could see the straight. His own two pair could not beat that.

However, with two more common cards to be revealed, Naruto still had a chance. The dealer flipped the first card and the crowd groaned. The last card flipped to a cheer from most viewers. Naruto had made a full house and won. The fat man nodded his head to Naruto graciously in spite of his frown.

Tsunade promptly won the next hand and this left pressure in the merchant. His chip stack was only going to get him through one more hand unless he won. The man decided to go all in immediately on the deal. Naruto immediately matched the bet while Tsunade thought about things. She took the time to count her chips as she pondered her options. After over a minute, she declined to bet.

There were groans and polite applause when the merchant lost. Naruto smiled and shook the man's hand.

Tsunade held up her hand before the dealer could make the next deal.

"Naruto, right now, I have about two hundred more chips than you. How about we skip the back and forth and settle this in one hand?" she asked.

Naruto looked at the casino owner who nodded his approval of the idea. Ending a poker tournament in dramatic fashion always made tournaments memorable. He also did not want to wait for hours while the pair of them vied for the remaining chips the other had.

The dealer called for a new deck for the final hand in spite of it only being two deals old. The previous deck was red and a quick count revealed all fifty two cards present. After a quick shuffle of the new deck, the dealer passed the cards to each player.

"Both players will hold their cards hidden until all the common cards are revealed," the dealer instructed.

Tsunade almost fainted at seeing her cards; the Ace of Diamonds and the Ace of Hearts. She smiled and waited.

The dealer flipped the first three common cards. The crowd murmured at the sight; the Three of Hearts, the King of Clubs and Ace of Spades. The fourth card to be shown was the Ace of Clubs. The fifth and final card shown was the Ten of Clubs.

The blonde woman could barely restrain herself from jumping up and shouting in glee. As it was her bet, she had to show her cards first. She managed to look casual as she turned her pair of red Aces giving her Four of a Kind. The crowd was cheering and she gave a nervous smile. For a moment is seemed that her luck had turned for once in her life until Naruto turned over the Jack and Queen of Clubs; giving him a Royal Flush.

She had lost once more.

Tsunade closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The boy had more luck than she ever would. She clutched at her chest for a moment when an idea came to mind. IF he had luck like that, maybe he could overcome the curse. She had come to believe in the boy in the time she had known him. It was time to have faith that she was right.

"One more hand, Naruto," she said softly.

Naruto looked at her as Tsunade opened the top of her blouse and pulled out a green gemstone on a long necklace. He just looked stunned as did Hinata and Sakura. People who followed gambling gasped loudly as many recognized the necklace. It was the necklace of the First Hokage, Tsunade's grandfather. Its value was estimated so high it could bankrupt most countries in the elemental nations just to buy it. People also knew that even when she was broke that Tsunade never bet it, ever.

"My grandfather's necklace against your winnings in the tournament," she said in a low voice.

Naruto was quiet. He didn't want to bet with her on a personal level. The crowd was silent as he cleared his throat.

"Tsunade, what if you lose? I don't want if between us. I mean, a tournament is one thing. This is personal," he said lightly.

She was touched but she needed to push this into a different realm where he would accept the bet.

"What's wrong, Naruto? Chickening out? Being a coward in front of your new girlfriend too?" she taunted while she smirked. She knew all of his emotional hot buttons and which ones to push now.

"I'm not a coward! You want to lose that thing then fine, I'll bet!" Naruto said in spite of his slight blush at Tsunade calling out Hinata as his girlfriend in public like that.

"One hand. Our cards hidden until after the common cards are dealt. Since I made the bet, I turn mine first," Tsunade said calmly.

Naruto nodded as the dealer shuffled a new deck and dealt two cards to each player. He then dealt out five cards face up; a pair of jacks, a queen, a ten, and a five.

Tsunade calmly turned her cards. She showed a queen and a two. "Two pair," she said.

Naruto had not even looked at his cards yet. He was just looking at the cards. After a half minute had passed, the crowd was getting nervous when Naruto flipped over his cards. He showed a king and a seven. Beyond the common pair, he had nothing.

Tsunade had won.

The blonde woman just looked. She had expected her luck to remain bad and give ownership of the necklace to Naruto. She kept a straight face as she turned to the casino owner and pulled out a list of her debts.

"Could you take charge of the winnings and see that the people on this list are paid? Then have the balance delivered to my room later," she told him.

The owner nodded quickly and turned to take care of things.

Naruto spoke to the dealer. "Could I have the deck as a souvenir?" he asked politely.

The dealer picked up the cards from the table and slid the deck into a box. Before they were handed over, the dealer had a machine punch a hole through the deck. This would prevent the cards from being used in the casino in the future. Naruto slid the cards into his pocket as people all around were offering sympathy over his win and subsequent loss of the jackpot.

He smiled at Hinata who hugged him as they made their way out. He didn't notice a pair of brown eyes watching him as he left.

The rest of the stay in the casino was uneventful for the group. Hinata thought she needed to make Naruto feel better after his loss but she found he was normal. He just smiled and said he had fun and had only lost out on his original entry fee. The Hyuuga heiress could only shake her head at his logic but she agreed that from a certain point of view, that was true. They spent their days together walking around town and holding hands. They did manage an hour in the hot tub together. Both teens wore swimsuits and Tsunade was sitting in the room with them keepintg them out of trouble.

Sakura spent time growling at the few older males who approached her. It seems her pink hair was getting her the wrong kind of attention. Naruto and Hinata had to stop her from punching a teenage boy who asked an inappropriate question. Naruto didn't get it as it mentioned carpet. Hinata declined explaining that particular reference to him. With the bad experiences she was having, the girl was seriously starting to consider giving up on men completely at this rate.

After a week, Tsunade decided she had enough fun gambling and for the first time she left a casino in the daytime and without a disguise. The tournament winnings had erased the remainder of the debts that the Third had not paid off. She giggled like a teenager when she told her girls that they needed to be there when she told Shizune. Her original apprentice might need medical attention when she learned that fact.

The first night on the road back to Konoha, Tsunade took Naruto to the side. "We are going to play some cards, Naruto," she said as she dragged the boy to a bar without the girls. She got a bottle of sake and drank a few gulps before she began.

"Cards," she said simply as she held out her hand to him. He realized she wanted the deck from the final hand. Slowly, he pulled it out and handed it over.

She slid the cards out of the pack without looking at them. She slowly shuffled them as she spoke. A pair of cards fell out of the deck. A jack and a nine without holes punched in them lay on the table.

"Those would have given you three of a kind. How did you cheat, Naruto?" she asked quietly.

"Shadow clones henged to look like the cards. I palmed to cards I had," he replied.

"I admit that it was slick but you're still a novice. I could see at least four other people there including the casino owner and the dealer notice it. The closed circuit TV didn't notice it thankfully, but you cheated to lose. So they didn't say anything."

"Why?" she finished setting the deck on the table.

"I know what that necklace means to you," he said simply. "It was your grandfathers and is worth more than an emperor's ransom."

"There is more to it than that, Naruto. Twice before I have given it away. Both people I gave it to had something in common. Both wanted to be Hokage and I believed in them. I believed that they could be Hokage one day. The first was my little brother, Nawaki. He died days after I put it around his neck. The necklace was returned to me."

"The second was Shizune's uncle, Dan. I would have married him if he had not died in battle only a few weeks after I gave it to him. Once more the necklace returned to me."

"Now, I was prepared to let it go once more to someone I believed could be a Hokage. I felt you will be more than capable one day. But, you did something I didn't expect. You acted on my behalf and gave up enough money to make you very wealthy."

"I have enough money for my needs, Ba-chan," Naruto replied with a smirk.

"Aunt now; not granny? What brought that on?" she asked idly.

Naruto shrugged. "Calling you granny is dangerous for my health. Plus, it's more respectful than cousin. Your grandmother was an Uzumaki. She's in my book."

"I know she was. She was my grandmother after all. Just like I knew about your mom and watched out for her when I could, so did my grandma," Tsunade said with a slight smile. "Now, enough trying to change the subject. Why lose on purpose?"

Naruto rubbed the back of his head nervously. "You are known all over a being the biggest loser at gambling in history. But this time, you were having luck that you never had before. You mentioned once, when things go good for you, something bad happened after. So I figured at that last hand, you deserved to have the glory once. You were willing to give up something more valuable to you than life itself. To me, it was just money. Money would get me a lot of friends but they would only be money friends, not like Hinata, or Sakura or you or Pervy Hokage or Anko."

"But for you, it would be something more than just money. It would be that you could win in front of people. You could get all the respect that winners get for once. You have had enough bad stuff in your life that you deserve something good."

Tsunade just nodded slowly. She put the two cards on top of one another and pulled a third card off the deck. She carefully placed it over the whole cards. She stood up and walked to the bar behind Naruto. The blonde boy was tempted to look but something slid over his head. The green gemstone glittered in the dull light as Tsunade let it hang before his face for a moment before sliding it under the collar of his jacket.

"This is yours. You earned it and I think one day you will be a fine Hokage. You already act like one more than you know."

She reached an arm around him. He could see it holding a bar straw. She slammed the straw down through the hole in the top card, the pair of whole cards and into the table underneath.

"But, if you ever intentionally lose to me again, I am going to have to see about changing my mind. Got it, gaki?" she whispered in his ear.

Naruto just whimpered a quiet, 'Uh huh' as Tsunade sauntered out. He tried to pull the straw out but found it embedded too deep for him to remove. He slid the three cards off the straw and put the deck away. The now matching deck was slid into his pocket.

The rest of the trip home was quickly finished in a day.

Jiraiya looked at the apprentices with a satisfied grin on his face. Just to rub things in, he invited the teammates of Sarutobi to see the presentation. One by one, Naruto, Sakura and Hinata received chunin vests. The smiles on their faces told him more than their voices could. He asked Naruto to remain behind while everyone else was dismissed.

"Come walk with me, Naruto," Jiraiya said with a smug grin as he grabbed his Hokage hat and led the way out of the office.

The white haired man led his apprentice to a quiet neighborhood close to the Senju district. "Well, here we are," Jiraiya said with a smile.

Naruto looked to see a small house. It did not look like much. He looked at his teacher with confusion.

Jiraiya chuckled. "Remember a few months ago, you asked me to look into getting you a place to consider starting a family? Well, this place is perfect for that. In fact, the family who was supposed to be here never had the chance. It was you parents house Naruto. Now, it's yours. Welcome home, my boy,"

Next Chapter: Time Passing By, A Hokage's Diary.

End Notes:

Kind of an anticlimactic ending here but this one was to wrap up the arc and to put the story on a break. Rather than continuing to force myself to write on this and risk lowering quality, I decided to finish off where I was at since it was a decent jumping off point to move forward. I am not calling the story complete but the next chapter will be a several months in coming. I plan on continuing this with the Akatsuki entering into things but I doubt anything will be up before Thanksgiving. I need to plot out and get to writing where I want this story to go. I have ideas but nothing set in outline yet.