EDIT 4/20/11: Finally got around to fixing the missing scene-breaks for this story (assuming ffnet doesn't see fit to remove them for a THIRD time).
On the southwestern border of the Lightning Country...
Hiroshi sneezed twice. "Sorry. You were saying?"
"Bratty kid," Jiraiya repeated. "Blonde, noisy, wears orange? Seen anyone like that?"
Hiroshi practically snarled, unconsciously rubbing at his blackened eye. "Yeah, I seen the little punk, and if I never do again it'll be too soon!"
Jiraiya sighed, rubbing his eyes. "You didn't badmouth his Hokage dream, did you?"
The old man quirked a questioning eyebrow, but shook his head. "Just tried to enlighten him on the obvious superiority of delicious, full-flavored yakitori as opposed to some second-rate soggy noodles in broth."
Jiraiya sighed harder, shifting his rubbing to his temples. It had to be one or the other... "How long ago was he here?"
"Couple hours, I suppose," Hiroshi grunted, not really caring to talk about the boy.
The Toad Sennin considered that. Unfortunately, with Hiraishin involved, missing Naruto by a couple hours was the same as missing him by a few seconds; he could still be equally far away with a single flash.
Well, there was nothing to be done aside from continuing what he was already doing. "Before I get out of your hair, there should be a seal somewhere in this shop that I need to get rid of."
"Already did it," Hiroshi informed him, gesturing to the stool whose surface had been scratched and shaved away to nearly nothing.
"Ah, well... alright then. Guess I'll be on my way."
He turned back, seeing a conflicted expression on the cook's face.
"I just have to know; was he Minato-kun's kid?"
A flash of panic swept his face for a split second before he forced it away. Only a very select few people knew about Naruto's lineage, and with very good reason. If word managed to spread far enough that Naruto was the Yellow Flash's son, the boy's life would become even more hectic than it was now. As if being a jinchuriki and, by proxy, a target of one of the most dangerous groups of people on the continent hadn't been bad enough, he certainly didn't need old enemies of Minato's coming for his head on top of it.
And of course, Minato had managed to garner a looot of enemies in his time.
Even if this old guy was a long-time friend of Minato's, they were currently in the Lightning Country, who had about as much love loss for Konoha as Iwa did, and one slip of the tongue could prove disastrous. That in mind...
"Him? Minato's kid? Ha ha! That's a good one. But no, they're definitely not related at all. And I taught both of them, so I should know!"
Hiroshi eyed him skeptically. "They did look an awful lot alike, thought."
"What do you mean?" Jiraiya demanded. "They were completely different! I mean, Minato was taller, for one thing. And he didn't have any whisker marks on his face. Plus several other key differences that distinguish them completely from each other!"
Hiroshi remained skeptical.
"And besides, what kind of son of Minato's would choose ramen over yakitori?"
"I know, right!"
Back at the main plot...
"Gesundheit," the masked boy sitting next to him said.
Naruto rubbed his nose. "Thanks. What were we talking about?"
"You were explaining why ramen should be its own food group and I was periodically nodding my head in agreement."
So they continued in that fashion for several more minutes before the owner of the now obliterated ramen shop asked them to move along.
"I am so glad I met you, Tobi," Naruto admitted as they walked through the town, other people giving them a wide breadth to avoid the overstuffed sack that Tobi was dragging. "I've been all over the place today and I was honestly beginning to think that just about everyone outside of Konoha was completely freaking nuts."
Tobi laughed good-naturedly. "Well, Tobi certainly isn't nuts."
"Glad to hear it," he replied with a small laugh of his own.
"Now, the evil man that lives inside of my head? Woo, that guy's REALLY nuts."
"...In light of our newfound friendship, I'm going to ignore that."
"That's good. After all, he hardly ever gets out anyway, so really there's no need to-"
"Getting harder to ignore now, pal," Naruto informed him.
The two walked in companionable silence, Naruto having, for the moment, forgotten about his troubles, while Tobi watched naruto carefully behind his mask. There was something that he really wanted to ask him, but wasn't sure how he would take it.
"We're friends now, right?"
Naruto nodded. Sure, he might be with Akatsuki and all, but they'd just finished bonding over ramen. That made them like blood-brothers as far as he was concerned.
"Good, good," Tobi said with a trace of unconcealed eagerness. "Well then, since we are friends, and since friends often share things with each other..." He paused, pushing his fingertips together.
"Yeah?" Naruto prompted, curious to what the masked boy was driving at.
"Could I have your jacket?"
Of the many things Naruto had thought he might hear, this was not on the list. "Pardon?"
"Your jacket," Tobi repeated, pointing at the jacket in question. "I was wondering if I could have it."
Naruto glanced down at his orange outfit, frowning deeper. "What for?"
"Weeell, as you've clearly noticed," He gestured to himself. "My mask clashes really badly with my Akatsuki cloak."
"...Clearly," the blonde nodded.
"So I figured, if I wore more orange clothes, maybe it wouldn't look quite so ridiculous."
"I...see." Naruto looked down at himself again. He didn't see any harm in giving it away. Sure, there was some sentimental value to it; it was the only one he had and he'd been wearing it since he was ten. But on the other hand, maybe he should think about buying himself a new one. One with a little more black to it...
Tobi sensed his hesitation. "If you want, I could trade you something for it. ...I know, I'll trade you your jacket for my mask!"
"But doesn't that defeat the whole purpose of having my jacket in the first-?"
He was stopped in his questioning of the obvious when Tobi pulled his swirly orange mask off, revealing a second, identical mask underneath the first.
"...Do you know Hatake Kakashi, by any chance?" he asked as he accepted the offered mask.
"Nevermind." He removed his jacket a bit reluctantly and handed it over, examining his new possession as he did. "What's with the one eye-hole?"
"It let's me see through it," Tobi explained as three objects slipped out the opening of his enormous bag. The first two landed with a hollow thump while the third made more a metallic clang.
"Silly me. What was I thinking?" Naruto grumbled as he picked up Tobi's spilt goods and stuffed them back in, seeing as Tobi was too busy trying to force his new jacket on OVER his Akatsuki cloak.
"This is great!" Tobi declared once he succeeded. He did a little twirl with his arms spread, letting the cloak and open jacket twist around him. "I'm at least thirty percent more stylish this way! Now if I could just remember where I left my awesome hat, I'd be all set."
The now-more-fashionable Akatsuki member happily hefted his coupon-extorted goods and flashed Naruto an unseen grin. "Well, it was nice meeting you, Naruto-kun, but I'd better get this stuff back to the lair before Zetsu-san gets mad. I hope we can meet again and have more ramen together someday soon."
Naruto nodded his agreement. "Thanks, Tobi. And I hope, um...well, I guess I hope one of the other Akatsuki guys dies so you can take his place," he responded for lack of anything better to hope for his new friend.
"Oh yes, I'm sure one of them will soon enough. Very soon enough." Tobi answered with a surprisingly dark laugh. Naruto felt that had Tobi's hands not been holding onto his bag, he'd be rubbing them together fiendishly as he spoke.
"Well, bye!" he said, all traces of darkness gone as he turned and walked away, whistling merrily which his bag dragging behind him.
Naruto watched him go for a while, then shook his head in bemusement. He briefly wondered how it was possible to meet so many psychos and weirdos in the span of one morning. He really needed to get back home before he started acting like them.
He looked down at the spiraly orange mask in his hand. "So, what am I supposed to do with you?" On an impulse, he decided to try it on. The single eye-hole was a bit of an annoyance, but he could deal with it. Walking over to a shop window, he stared at his reflection and found that he kind of liked it. It was a shame that he'd given away his jacket, it really would have gone well together with the mask.
"...I really need to get back home," he declared and, without further delay, formed the hand-seal that would, hopefully, accomplish just that.
Haruno Sakura sank slowly into the steamy hot spring, the heat instantly soothing tense muscles and weary bones. She didn't stop until the water reached her chin, at which point she gave a low moan of contentment.
"Geez, Forehead. You make studying under Hokage-sama sound akin to spending time in the Interrogation cells."
"'s more accurate than you know, Ino-pig," she mumbled in reply. "She's an absolute slave-driver. This is the first day off I've had in months, and honestly I'm not sure why I have it. I showed up at her office at the same time I always do for training but there was no one there, just a big hole in the wall and no one could tell me where she had gone." She stretched her limbs out, intentionally poking her best friend in the ribs with her toe in the process. "So I figured I'd make the most of my time and just hope she doesn't get upset over me skipping a day."
Ino grabbed the extended foot and pulled, dragging the pinkette off the raised edge and under the water. She had time for only a few laughs at her friend's expense before Sakura resurfaced, glared angrily and sent a wave of steamy water into her face, which she briefly choked on.
The two glared at one another before launching into another attack. Water throwing quickly gave way to grappling, headlocks, hair-pulling and mouths full of hot water until they were sidetracked by the arrival of another.
"Sorry for taking so long," Hinata announced as she walked out of the dressing room, clad in a towel and feeling rather self-conscious. It wasn't often that she used any baths that weren't part of her family's land, but she'd been invited and hadn't wanted to be rude.
Sakura and Ino had stopped mid-tussle to stare at the young heiress, or at least, at a part of her.
"W-what?" she asked, feeling even more uncomfortable under the envious gaze of her former classmates.
Ino glanced at Sakura, then to Hinata and back again, reluctantly releasing her head. "Well, at least I still have you beat, Forehead."
Sakura got in one final elbow to her friend's stomach before sitting back to relax again.
"So," she said one the three had all settled in. "You two didn't have training or missions today, either?"
"We did, but Kurenai-sensei left early to visit Asuma in the hospital."
"Hospital? What happened?"
"Damnedest thing," Ino told them. "We were training out in the forest when all of a sudden, a paperweight comes flying out of nowhere and wangs him in the head. Knocked him out cold."
"...Paperweight?" Sakura asked, bemused.
"That was pretty much my first thought, too. We figured it probably wasn't some attack on us, what with it being...you know, a paperweight and all, so we lugged sensei to the hospital, and afterwards I ran into you two, and here we are."
Sakura wasn't sure what to say to that, so she opted for nothing and the group slipped back into silence.
"Speaking of training," Ino spoke again after a few minutes. "You're still planning to enter the next Chunin Exam with Choji and me, right?"
The blonde groaned. "We're not going to go through this again, are we?"
"It just doesn't seem right, that's all."
Ino rolled her eyes; apparently they were going through it again. "Look Sakura, I get that you really want to wait for Sasuke-kun and Naruto to get back so you can take the exams with them, but you really need to consider a few things."
"Like what?" Sakura grumbled stubbornly.
"Like the fact that you're already talented enough that you could probably solo the entire exam if they would let you. I mean come on: you've been training under the Hokage herself for almost two years now. You should be on your way to becoming a jounin with Neji right now, and yet you're stuck as a genin with me and Choji. And I'll also point out that the only reason Choji and I are still genin is because we're waiting on your procrastinating ass. Believe me, we'd both rather have you join us than some younger newbie who's more likely to slow us down than help us."
"More like want me to carry you through it," she muttered under her breath.
"And another thing: You don't even know when Naruto will be back. You could end up waiting for him for another four or five years, for all you know. You really want to still be a genin that far down the road?"
"Well...no. But then I'd probably have to deal with him whining and complaining about how I got to become a chunin before he did," she claimed, trying to rationalize her decision.
"I'm sure Naruto-kun would understand and be happy for you, Sakura," Hinata said. That was Naruto after all. She could already see it: Sure, he might be upset at first, but it wouldn't take long before he'd be congratulating her on her success and then dragging her off to Ichiraku's to celebrate, and then...
Damnit. Even in her own fantasies Naruto was chasing after Sakura! Although, maybe if she found Naruto first and showed him how much she'd changed in the time he'd been gone, then he could take her to Ichiraku's to celebrate, and then...
Oh yes, that was much better.
Ino and Sakura stared at Hinata, who was staring off into space and giggling happily, before getting back to the matter at hand.
"And on top of that, there's the issue with Sasuke-kun."
"What issue?" Sakura asked.
"Well, even if you do manage to-"
"When we do," she interrupted firmly, already knowing what Ino was implying.
"...When you manage to bring him back to Konoha, who's to say that he'll even be allowed to take the exams?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Sakura demanded.
Ino held her hands up placatingly. "I'm just saying that for all the time and effort you're going through to bring him back, he's still a missing nin, and if even half the stories that my dad has told me about recaptured missing nin are true, having his shinobi status revoked could end up being the least of his worries."
Sakura shook her head, not even wanting to consider the possibilities of that statement, much less argue about it. It wouldn't happen that way; things would be fine, if for no other reason than Naruto would make certain that they would be.
Everything would be fine.
"Fine, I'll join you for the next exams," she relented.
Ino sat back against the rock ledge, folding her arms. "Good."
Sakura did likewise. "Good."
Hinata glanced back and forth between the two, not liking the mounting tension and wondering how best to ease it. ...Might as well go with the tried and true method.
"So, what do you think Naruto-kun has been up to lately?"
Hey, thinking about Naruto always made her forget about her problems.
Sakura smiled, happy for the abrupt change of subject. "If I know anything about Naruto, he's probably begging Jiraiya-sama to teach him some new super-cool jutsu."
"Let's just hope those are the only things he's teaching him," Ino commented. Seeing the identical looks she was receiving, she added, "What? Haven't you ever heard the saying that people start to emulate their role-models after spending enough time with them?"
Blushing at the implication, Hinata sank a bit deeper into the spring. "I'm...sure Naruto-kun would never behave like that."
Ino arched a perfectly managed eyebrow. "Oh really? You don't think a boy who created a jutsu that turns him into a naked girl when he was twelve would be even a little curious about looking at real women as he grew older?"
"If he knows what's good for him, he won't even be thinking about it," Sakura growled while cracking her knuckles menacingly.
Hinata bit her own knuckle in thought. Would Naruto really become a voyeuristic pervert like Jiraiya? That would certainly be bad. Unless he was planning to peep on her, then maybe it would be okay. But if he was to peep on other women, that would be very bad. Perhaps she could give him some kind of incentive to only look at her...
But before she had the chance to get lost in another fantasy, a newcomer dropped in on them. Literally.
All three girls pushed away from the thrashing person who had just appeared completely out of nowhere and promptly stumbled and fell under the water. All three girls subconsciously took up an aggressive stance as the person finally surfaced, coughing and sputtering behind a strange-looking mask.
"Damn you and your damn bathhouse fetish to Hell, Minato! If you weren't already dead I'd find and kick your ass eight ways to Sunday! And then I'd...I'd..." The ranting boy, as they now realized he was, stopped dead when he saw who he was currently sharing the hot spring with. "Oh sh-!"
And then he was gone, vanished just as quickly as he'd appeared, leaving the girls gawking in confusion, anger and embarrassment.
"Who the Hell was that?" Sakura shouted, sounding as pissed as she looked. "Where did he even come from? That wasn't a Shunshin that he used!"
Hinata was on the verge of passing out from too much blood to the head. A stranger saw me naked! Before Naruto-kun had the chance to!
"Hey, was...was that Naruto?" Ino wondered.
"What!" the other two shouted/squeaked in unison.
"Well, he had that blonde hair like Naruto's, and I don't know anyone else who would be caught dead wearing such an ugly orange mask."
Far away, Tobi had the sudden urge to smack a bitch.
"It couldn't have been," Sakura surmised. "He's still out somewhere with Jiraiya-sama. If he were back already we'd surely have heard, right?"
Ino shrugged. "Well, his voice was deeper and he had that mask on, but still..."
Hinata tuned them out. So...Naruto-kun might have seen her naked. That might make it okay. Now she just had to wonder if he would be expecting her to return the favor...
Oh yes, that would be nice, wouldn't it?
Naruto looked around frantically, making absolutely certain that he wasn't in the presence of angry, naked female friends and teammates any longer. Finding himself lost within an unassuming jungle of some kind, he heaved a deep sigh of relief.
"Man, that was way too close!" He slipped the mask off his face, thanking Tobi and promising to kill the very next Akatsuki member he might happen upon just to pay the boy back for this. "If it hadn't been for this mask I'd be a broken, smoldering corpse right now. I can't believe of all the places I would happen to show up at, in would be in a bathhouse... in... Konoha."
A cliched breeze of awkward silence blew through.
"...I was in Konoha," he stated in a voice devoid of life.
As the truth of the matter finished hammering itself home, he slowly walked over to the nearest and sturdiest of redwoods, reared back, and headbutted the innocent tree as hard as he could. He then repeated the action sixteen more times until he could no longer stand up and calmly allowed the blissful darkness to take him, if only for a few short hours.
You know, looking back on this story, I feel I may have gone overboard with all the naked women scenes. I should probably tone that down before I accidentally turn this comedy fic into full-blown porn. Course, some of you would probably like that, wouldn't you?
Ah well, more to come when it's written. 'til next time.