Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto
On a muddy road through one of Fire Country's endless forests two messengers crossed paths. One, an official courier wearing the daimyo's colors, rode north to deliver official notice of one Uzumaki Naruto's exile to the hidden village of Konoha. The other, disguised as a trapper carrying furs to market, trudged south with a secret dispatch informing the daimyo of the new Hokage's recent antics.
The official messenger would take nearly a week to reach his destination. The spy, being an ordinary man on foot rather than a fast-moving ninja, would take more than twice that to carry his information to the capital.
The trip from Konoha had been far too slow for Tsunade's taste, with Naruto still too weak to keep up a good pace for any length of time. Anko ended up carrying the young blond on her back for most of the trip, which of course led to an endless stream of teasing comments and veiled invitations. But she hadn't gone any further than that, so Tsunade just smiled and ignored it.
Three days of travel brought the small party to Twin Falls Gorge, a small resort town in northern River Country. There Tsunade booked palatial quarters at the Twin Falls Empress, a hot spring resort on the edge of the town that boasted a spectacular view of the great waterfalls that gave the valley its name. With miles of dense woods just north of the resort and a staff renowned for their discretion it was an ideal spot for the group to pause to make plans and do a little preparation before moving on. Of course, after settling in the four kunoichi immediately headed for the private hot spring adjoining their suite.
"Oooh, this is just what I needed." Anko murmured as she sank into the steaming waters. "I tell you, that kid may be short but he's solid muscle. Next time we have to carry him somewhere we're taking turns."
"But Anko, we wouldn't want to get between you and your husband." Shizune joked. "Especially on your honeymoon."
"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. I'm telling you, that guy's going to be a prime catch in a couple of years."
Tsunade frowned as she joined them. "Anko, you do realize he thinks this is just a political maneuver? For that matter, he may be right. With any luck the council will back down, and we can repeal this whole stupid harem business before any permanent harm is done."
Anko snorted. "Good luck with that one, boss. Those geezers are more stubborn that stone, and I doubt anything short of a kunai between the eyes is gonna get through to them. But yeah, I hear you. I'm really just Hinata's bodyguard here, right? The Hyuuga have a nasty habit of assassinating anyone who tries to leave the clan, and we wouldn't want that to happen to her."
Tsuande nodded, and Hinata studied the pair silently for a moment before quietly asking the question that had been troubling her. "Um, Hokage-sama, where does that l-leave me? We can't send Temari home without risking another war, but if you r-repeal the Clan Restoration Act…"
"I know, I know. Jeez, this seemed like such a clever idea a few days ago. I guess we'll have to keep at least that part of the law active. Just don't feel like you have to, you know, rush things. You're still so young."
"I have no intention of becoming a m-mother before I make jounin, Hokage-sama." Hinata blushed slightly, but pressed on. "My chakra control is easily sufficient for, um, those techniques. But T-Temari is already, what, sixteen? Seventeen? I'm sure she'll have…expectations. I'm n-not about to let her go f-first."
There was chuckling all around at that, and Anko leaned over to muss her hair. "That's the spirit, Hinata! Grab hold with everything you've got, and don't ever let go. Oh, and let me know if you two need help figuring out what goes where." She added with a playful leer.
Hinata's blush brightened and she sank deeper into the water. "Thank you, Anko-san. I w-would appreciate… that."
"Um, what?" Anko asked, a bit stunned.
Hinata took a deep breath and gathered her courage. Think of it like one of those diplomatic training sessions, she told herself. You're making a proposal to a foreign power, and you can't afford to show weakness.
"Anko-san, it concerns me that Temari is older, more skilled and much more outgoing than I am. I've always been too shy to let Naruto know of my, um, feelings. But that has to change, quickly, or I'll be pushed aside in the end. I would greatly appreciate your help in this matter."
"Ah, Hinata, that may not be such a good idea-" Tsuande began.
"Sure it is. Don't worry, Hinata, I've got your back!" Anko beamed, and hugged the red-faced genin. "Hell, you're so cute we'll have him eating out of your hand in no time."
"But-" Shizune began.
"Thank you, Anko-san. And in return, may I invite you to consider this…um…potentially more than an assignment? If you wish. I know Naruto is a bit afraid of you, but that will change once he gets to know you. I think we could persuade him to, um, give you a chance. Besides, even if the Act is eventually repealed, his lineage entitles him to two or three wives and as many concubines as they can tolerate."
"Hinata!" Tsunade exclaimed. "How do you know about that?"
"Um, Hokage-sama, there's a gallery in the Hyuuga compound with paintings of all the previous Hokages as they appear to the Byakugan. His parentage is almost as obvious as the seal."
"Wait, whoa, what are we talking about here?" Anko interjected. "I know Naruto grew up an orphan. Are you saying…oh, I get it. Someone wanted to hide him so bad they covered up who he really was?"
Hinata looked inquiringly at Tsunade, who sighed and nodded. "Yeah. He's Minato's son. Apparently Sarutobi thought hiding him in plain sight was the best way to protect him from his father's enemies."
"Protect him? Are you shitting me? He's been more of a pariah than I am, and that's saying something." Anko fumed. "There's no way the elders are really in the dark about it either. Damn it, why is it that every time I find out a village secret it turns out to be another story about someone who deserves better getting screwed over by our own people? Wait, is that why Suna picked him for the marriage alliance?"
"That's my guess." Tsunade replied. Then her eyes narrowed as she realized what else Hinata had just revealed. "Hinata, how long have you known about the seal?"
"Since I was six, Hokage-sama. That's when my Byakugan began developing. Father wouldn't tell me what it was, of course, but he made sure my tutors covered the right topics to make it obvious. Then I saw the paintings, and my Byakugan developed enough to show me his prisoner. I've known exactly who and what Naruto is, what he does for the village and how they repay him for it, since I was eight." She smiled softly. "I didn't pick him just for his looks."
In the office of the Hokage, Jiraiya chuckled to himself as he signed an order he'd never thought would see the light of day. "Don't worry Tsunade, these bozos will be begging to have you back in no time. Of course, you may have a little trouble repealing these laws once they've been around awhile…"
The paper he added to his out box read:
By order of the Acting Hokage:
In the interests of further commercial development of the village of Konoha and environs, and to ensure the morale of its ninja, the civil code of the village is hereby amended as follows:
1) Adult females below the age of forty shall be exempt from all public indecency laws, including all restrictions on mode of dress and lascivious activities.
2) The prohibition against sexual relations between females is repealed.
3) The prohibitions against nude dancers, prostitution and personal massage services are repealed. Individuals currently imprisoned for the violation of these laws shall be released immediately.
4) Any bar, restaurant or private club which provides entertainment in the form of partially or fully nude female dancers shall be exempt from the Konoha property tax.
5) Women who are employed as prostitutes, exotic dancers or masseuses shall be classed as essential military service providers, and shall therefore be exempted from all regular Konoha taxes and special levies except those specifically directed at military industries.
The provisions of this law shall go into effect on the first day of the month following its signature.
Acting Hokage Jiraiya
"He he. That'll clear the way for Mai-chan and her girls, and since those laws are all part of the original civil code I don't need anyone's signature but mine to repeal them."
"Let's see now, what else would drive the old men crazy?"
Tsunade released her final diagnostic jutsu and smiled. "Good news, Naruto. It looks like your chakra is finally back to normal, so you can start training again whenever you want."
"Woo hoo! Yeah, finally! Hey, as long as we're all hanging out here maybe you could teach me something?"
The slug Sannin laughed. "Oh, I plan to kid, don't worry. You and Hinata both need some serious training to be ready for kinds of situations we're liable to end up in, and we may not have a lot of time. But first I need to see where you are now. What kind of training schedule did Kakashi have you on back before the chuunin exam, anyway?"
"Huh? Training schedule? Do you mean, what did we do as a team?" The orange-clad genin scratched his head.
Tsunade rolled her eyes. "Yes, dummy. What else would I mean?"
"Well, let's see. Usually he'd tell us to meet him at the bridge at seven, so we'd all stand around there until nine or ten when he finally showed up. Then we'd pick up a D-rank mission, go do it, turn it in, and break up for the day. Sometimes if we messed up he'd make us work on whatever we got wrong for an hour or two. Oh, and every couple of weeks we'd skip the mission so he could lecture us about teamwork or something, and maybe do a little sparring."
Tsunade scowled. "You're kidding. No real taijutsu training? No tactical training or practice maneuvers? Hell, what about teaching you a normal attack jutsu to work with so you don't have to rely on something as dangerous as Shadow Clone?"
Naruto shook his head. "Nah, Kaka-sensei always said we should work on that kind of stuff on our own. That's why I always spent the rest of the day out training by myself. Sasuke did the same thing, but of course he has a bunch of family scrolls and stuff."
"That does sound like Kakashi." Anko confirmed. "In ANBU he was always one of those guys who throws you off the deep end and expects you to figure out how to swim on your own. Like you're gonna just spontaneously reinvent whatever technique you happen to need if you're desperate enough."
Naruto scratched his head again. "Is there something wrong with that?"
Tsunade rolled her eyes. "Hinata, why don't you tell us what your training schedule was like?"
"Yes, Tsunade-sama. Well, our team only met five days a week. On those days I'd start with a light warm-up before breakfast, and then our team meeting at seven. Kurenai-sensei was always very insistent that we arrive promptly. We'd spend a couple of hours on taijutsu drills and group combat training against sensei's illusions, then take a break to do a D-rank mission and have lunch. After that we'd spend another two hours on tracking and reconnaissance exercises, again usually with illusions as targets. Then I'd return home for my jyuuken lesson, which would last another three hours. On weekends I'd have another jyuuken lesson in the morning instead of the team meeting."
"Wow. That sounds really cool, Hinata. No wonder you're so strong."
The shy genin blushed and looked away. Tsunade smiled, before straitening and assuming a stern expression. "That's what genin training is supposed to be like, Naruto. I hope you're still as enthusiastic about it when we're done with you." She turned to wave Anko and Shizune over.
"Alright folks, listen up. We've got maybe two weeks before we need to pack up and head for Suna to finalize the marriage alliance, and we've got a pair of genin here who are nowhere near ready to be off by themselves in that kind of environment. I'm sure Anko will do her best if something happens, but any bodyguard will tell you that clueless clients are a hell of a lot harder to keep alive than competent ones. So before we leave you two have some serious training to do. Naruto, do you think you can you maintain a couple of clones from now until this evening?"
"No sweat, Tsu-chan. I do more than that all the time." Naruto replied. "But what does that have to do with training?"
Tsunade gave an unladylike snort. "Don't tell me you haven't even figured that out yet? Never mind, you'll find out soon enough. For now just make a clone to go with Anko and Hinata. Anko, I want you to take those two up into the woods and start them on a crash course in how not to get assassinated. Awareness, stealth and evasion, illusion and poison detection, the whole nine yards. While you're at it see if you can find out what Naruto's range for maintaining shadow clones is. I'll give you a day to give them the basics, then we all start the old 'Constant Vigilance!' training on them."
Anko grinned. "Will do, boss! Come on you two, this is going to be fun. Oh, Naruto, better make a second clone so he can replace this one when he dies. You're gonna do a lot of that today."
As the manic special jounin dragged her newest victims away, Tsunade turned to her apprentice. "Shizune, I want you to take another of Naruto's clones and put him through first aid training-"
"Aw, man! What do I have to waste time on that boring junk for?"
"Idiot!" Tsunade barked in reply. "Just because you heal stupidly fast doesn't mean everyone else does. There's a good chance Hinata's family will try to have her eliminated to maintain their exclusive control over the Byakugan, and if someone gets past Anko you could easily be her only chance of survival. With serious injuries getting basic treatment in the first few minutes can make the difference between recovery and death."
Naruto stared at the older woman with wide eyes. "Those stuck-up guys are going to try to hurt Hinata? But they're family! How could even a jerk like that Hiashi guy do that to his own daughter?"
"The Hyuuga are obsessed with power, Naruto." Shizune replied quietly. "They already use seals to control both the branch family and their own children, and they were going to use Hinata as an experimental subject to try to combine their bloodline with the Sharingan. Now that she's defied them it's inevitable that they'll try to kill her. Oh, they'll come up with some ploy to make it look like they aren't the ones responsible, but Hiashi will be the one pulling the strings."
Naruto clenched his fists. "Hinata may be a little weird, but she's got to be the nicest person I've ever met. I swear, I am not going to let those assholes in her clan kill her just for wanting to live her own life. I'll stop them, no matter what it takes, and that's a promise."
"The Hyuuga have needed to be taken down a peg for a long time, kid." Tsunade interjected. "You'll get your chance. But for now you've got a lot to learn if you want to be able to be a strong partner for her. Now send a clone to train with Shizune, and you and I will stay here and see what we can do about fixing that bastardized mess you call a taijutsu style."
"Taijutsu training? Yeah, hitting something pretty good to me right now."
The council rarely met without the Hokage present, but various factions often held informal meetings of their own to plan strategy and resolve contentious issues. Tsunade's abrupt departure led to quite a number of such meetings, but one private consultation between the advisors and the head of the Hyuuga clan set the tone for most of them.
"It's outrageous!" Homura fumed. "That man is going to fill our streets with prostitutes! And the tax abatements! Why on earth would we want even more raucous clubs and gambling parlors in our city?"
"Agreed." Hiashi replied. "But what can we do? Tax policy is the Hokage's sole prerogative, and the laws he's repealed predated the council. We could pass them again as civil laws, but he'd simply veto them."
"Indeed." Danzo commented. "Besides, Jiraiya is a side issue. Tsunade thinks she can force us to capitulate by having him act the fool. We must demonstrate that such tactics will not sway us."
Hiashi nodded. "Indeed. This is a contest of wills, and the Hokage's position is the weaker one. We shall simply stand firm until she realizes that nothing Jiraiya can do will sway us."
Naruto sighed gratefully as he relaxed into the warm waters of the hot spring. He'd just gotten the best day's training of his entire life, but after being put through the wringer by Tsunade for nearly ten hours he was dead tired.
"I'm glad this place is fancy enough to have split men and women's sides, or I'd never get a chance to do this. I bet Tsu-chan and Anko will be in there half the night."
He could vaguely hear the sound of voices through the wall that separated the two sides of the hot spring, but the wood partition was twelve feet tall and thick enough that he couldn't make out details over the distant rumble of the falls. Which was probably just as well, since he had plenty to think about already.
"I can't believe Kaka-sensei never told me about using clones for training." Indeed, he'd been mystified by Tsunade's orders all morning. It wasn't until she had him release the clones during their brief lunch break, and he suddenly remembered three different versions of the morning's events, that he finally got the idea.
"Man, if I'd known about that I'd have totally left Sasuke in the dust. Um, if I could find anyone to train me. Oh well, it doesn't look like that's going to be a problem anymore. I just hope Tsu-chan figures out how to fix everything soon, especially this messed up marriage thing."
Not that he'd necessarily mind being married to Hinata for real. She was a good kunoichi, not to mention cute, and she was just incredibly nice to him. They'd been traveling together for four days now, and she still hadn't hit him once!
"Get real." He muttered to himself. "She's practically a princess, even if her family are a bunch of dicks. She'll probably marry a prince or a kage or something. I'm just lucky I get to hang out with her for awhile, until Tsunade figures out how to fix things so she isn't stuck with that bastard Sasuke."
Sasuke was still a sore subject, although not as bad as Sakura. But if he started thinking about those two he'd end up brooding or something, especially if he let himself dwell on what they were probably doing together right now. Sakura had said something about a rush wedding, so it was probably already over. That meant a honeymoon…
"Stop that!" He said to himself sternly. "No brooding allowed! I promised myself I'd never be a brooding emo-duck-butt like Sasuke, and I never go back on my promises. I've got to concentrate on protecting Hinata, and surviving that special training the crazy lady was talking about. What kind of a technique name is 'Constant Vigilance', anyway?"
As a distraction it wasn't much, but he'd make do. Of course, if he'd been able to hear the conversation on the other side of the divider Sasuke's marital activities would have been the last thing on his mind.
"Come on, don't give me that." Anko pouted. "We all know perfectly well you can see through clothes with those eyes of yours. Hell, you could get a nice look right through the wall if you wanted to. I just want to know what I've got to look forward to."
Hinata blushed and sank into the water until it reached her chin. "I w-would never d-do that, Anko-san."
"Uh huh, pull the other one. You can see in every direction at once, girl. You can't help but look. Now spill!"
"T-that's private, Anko." Hinata protested feebly. "I couldn't b-betray his t-trust like that."
"Ah, so you admit that you know. Progress!"
Tsunade noted the pair as she entered the bath. "Anko, what are you harassing the poor girl about now?"
"Hey! I'm not harassing her!" The buxom assassin protested. "I just wanted to know what kind of blade Naruto's packing. Come on cutie, you don't even have to say it. Just hold your hands the right distance apart."
Shizune giggled. "Oh, you're bad Anko. But you'd better watch out, you don't want to make the senior wife cross with you. There's no telling how long she might make you wait for your first turn."
Hinata gaped at her.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Like Naruto can't make enough clones to satisfy the whole village at once if he wants to." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "Come to think of it, there's some serious perversion potential there. I wonder if he's practiced on that girl form of his?"
Anko turned to find that the subject of her interrogation was now completely underwater. "Huh. Wonder how long she can hold her breath?"
"Good gods and goddesses, I'm going to need more sake at this rate." Tsunade grumbled. "Are you trying to give the girl a heart attack?"
"Actually I was trying to help her get over that shyness problem." Anko confessed. "She doesn't have enough time to do it gradually, so we're stuck with shock therapy. But I'll admit the way she's acting has me curious."
Shizune giggled again. "Oh, I don't think you'll be disappointed. You should have heard the way the nurses at the hospital gossiped about his not-so-little morning problem."
"Oh, really? Tell me more…"
"Ahem." Tsunade interrupted. "If we can set aside the vitally important topic of Naruto's penis for the moment, I'd like to get your impressions of the day's training."
"Spoilsport." Anko complained. "Ok, ok, you're the boss. You can come back up, Hinata, we're done for now." The former Hyuuga slowly surfaced, confirming the general guess that she'd continued following the conversation by reading lips with her Byakugan.
"There's my cute little protégé." Anko laughed and mussed the girl's hair. "We had a pretty good first day in the field. This little minx is going to be hell on wheels in close combat if we can ever teach her a little aggression. Good situational awareness, great reflexes, catches on quick. Good thing, since Naruto's a complete lunkhead. He's got incredible endurance, but he's slow and kinda clumsy and he can't pay attention for five minutes. Oh, I did notice there's something weird going on with his clones though. He didn't even know Shadow Clone has a range limit, and we got a good five miles up the valley without ever finding his."
"Interesting." Tsunade mused. "His high chakra level must make the connection more robust than usual, which would give him an improved range. The rest of that squares with what I saw, though. He's a hard worker when he's motivated but he can't stay focused for long, and getting an idea into that head of his takes explosives."
Shizune frowned. "I don't know why you two are so down on him. He was a little restive for our first hour or so, but once he settled down he was one of the better students I've had. We made it almost a third of the way through the ANBU first aid program, and that's usually a week-long course."
"Oh, come on Shizune!" Anko protested. "This guy got 'killed' fifteen times just trying to get through the basic ANBU intro to traps and ambushes. He usually doesn't make the same mistake twice, but he has to learn every little thing the hard way."
"N-Naruto can be much better than that, Anko." Hinata argued. "J-just…not today."
"Really?" Tsunade's eyes narrowed. "It does bug me that he managed to learn the Rasengan so fast, even though his chakra control sucks. Something just doesn't add up…"
"H-Hokage-sama? Could it have something to do with the seal? Or the chakra leaking from the, um, f-fox?" The young girl offered.
"Hmm. The seal itself shouldn't have any effect on Naruto, and it's designed to carefully meter the chakra it releases so it doesn't interfere with his jutsu use. Of course, the one chance I've had to really look at it he was in chakra exhaustion and the seal had locked itself down to prevent contamination."
"It d-doesn't look like an even flow." Hinata observed. "Normally, I mean. It stops and starts all the time, and it turns red whenever he does anything strenuous." She shuddered. "I don't know how he can stand it when that happens. That red chakra is evil."
The older kunoichi exchanged a look. "That doesn't sound good." Tsunade admitted. "But we've checked him over a dozen times without turning up anything odd. I wonder…"
"I wonder if the fox can feel it when you start a medical scan." Said Shizune. "I don't like the sound of this at all."
"Neither do I." Tsunade agreed. "I want us to stick a little closer together during tomorrow's training. Anko, give Hinata breaks now and then so she can keep an eye on Naruto's chakra. The real one and the clones, come to think of it. But don't tell Naruto what you're doing. If there is something funny going on with the seal I don't want to take a chance of alerting that thing."
"Yes, ma'am." Hinata agreed.
"Good. With any luck we can spot a pattern in whatever's going on before we're done here." Tsunade signed, and turned to climb out of the pool. "Now, I think I really am going to see where they keep the sake around here."
"But, Tsunade, you said you were going to cut back." Shizune fussed as the followed her mentor out of the hot spring.
"I also said that kid was going to drive me back to drink, and it looks like I was right."
Anko watched thoughtfully as they left. "She worries too much, doesn't she? I mean, if you were seeing anything different from the usual you would have said so, right?"
"Yes. It's hardly changed in years."
"Good." She nodded decisively, and turned back to her companion. "I'm glad nothing's wrong with my favorite goofball. Now," she held her hands a few inches apart. "Bigger or smaller?"
Hinata giggled, and moved her hands considerably further apart. Anko whistled appreciatively, and the shy girl smiled. "I-I keep telling you, I didn't pick his n-name out of a hat."
A sandstorm roared over the dreary stone domes and towers of Suna, battering the wooden shutters that sealed their numerous windows and forcing all but the most determined ninja indoors. But the inhabitants of the Village Hidden in the Sand were long accustomed to the local weather, and were hardly going to allow it to impede their operations. Messengers still came and went, relying on secret jutsu to protect themselves from the scouring winds, and the underground tunnels connecting key buildings were thick with traffic.
The village council had spent most of the day in session, struggling with the thorny issue of how to insure Suna's survival. With their kage dead the clan heads had found themselves without a single S-rank ninja to consider as a possible successor, and the alternative of offering their resident jinchuuriki the seat was unpalatable at best. Few ninja really believed the psychotic killer's recent change of heart, and in any event he was still terribly young for such a post. But with their own daimyo undermining the village in favor of their rivals the need for a strong leader was urgent.
The recent outbreak of political intrigue in Fire Country only complicated this picture.
Temari knew all of this, of course. As a mere chuunin, and a recently-promoted one at that, she was hardly privy to the council's deliberations. But as the Kazekage's daughter she'd been involved in politics since she could talk, and the situation would have been easy to read even without the tidbits her jounin sensei occasionally passed on. The fact that her quarters were only two floors below the council chamber, and just off the stairwell the clan heads usually used to reach it, certainly didn't hurt. A wind adept could hear amazing amounts of gossip from the less cautious elders if she was careful.
Still, she was a bit surprised when Baki broke from the throng of departing elders to knock at her door.
"Sensei." She nodded as she swung the heavy wooden portal aside. "What's up?"
"Mission briefing." He said shortly.
She waved him inside, and paused to do a quick check for eavesdroppers before sealing the door behind him. Then she considered for a moment, and set up a sound barrier jutsu before turning to join him in her modest parlor.
"Tea?" She asked. "Or are we in a hurry?"
"No rush." He replied shortly.
She nodded, and retired to her kitchen to think while the water heated. Meeting here instead of calling the team together would indicate a solo mission, which wasn't completely unprecedented. But her sensei seemed especially serious today, which hinted that something big was going on. There weren't that many circumstances where an especially important mission would require a kunoichi to go in solo, and most of them weren't pretty.
There were butterflies in her stomach as she rejoined her teacher, but she resolutely ignored them as she served the tea. Baki nodded and sipped politely before setting his cup aside.
"Temari, the council has found it necessary to assign you a mission that could prove vital to the survival of this village. Indeed, if the situation with the daimyo continues to escalate it could eventually become our only hope for survival. But if you succeed, this will be the last briefing I give you as your jounin sensei."
Her eyes widened. That sounded like a suicide mission, but as a purely pragmatic matter of policy Suna only sent male ninja on that sort of operation. After all, a Hidden Village can lose half its men every generation and still prosper, but one that looses too many women will quickly go extinct. But there was another kind of mission that would permanently remove a kunoichi from the village…
"We had to make a marriage alliance?" She asked.
"I'm afraid so. As you know Konoha took significant casualties in the war, but ours were equally severe. Worse, the return of the Sannin to active duty actually leaves Konoha stronger than before. At this point those two could probably destroy the village unaided, and that's not even considering the potential of their jinchuuriki."
Temari nodded. "Yeah, he was a big surprise. I never would have thought that little loudmouth could beat Gaara. Are we sure he's really the Kyuubi container?"
Usually Baki was closed-mouthed about that sort of intelligence, but she had hopes that he'd be more forthcoming than usual given the circumstances. Her hope was vindicated when he nodded.
"Yes. Intel has confirmation from multiple sources in Konoha, and our own operatives identified the red chakra he used during his fight with Neji as the Kyuubi's. Curiously, that seems to be the only use he makes of it. But our seal masters are convinced the Fourth Hokage must have made a major breakthrough in containment theory to seal such a powerful bijuu, so it shouldn't be surprising that their jinchuuriki's abilities are a bit different than the others."
"I suppose. He seems pretty sane, so they must be doing something right. So, who am I supposed to marry?" She wasn't exactly thrilled about the prospect of a political marriage, but there were worse fates for a kunoichi. Depending on who it was, of course.
Baki paused before answering, and her stomach lurched. Oh god, it must be bad. Don't tell me I'm stuck with some feeble old man or something. Or worse, Jiraiya.
"I believe it will be important for you to understand the council's reasoning in this. Originally they intended to propose a match with one of the more tolerable Leaf clans, such as the Inuzuka or the Yamanaka. But when intel began screening the records for possibilities we made a momentous discovery. You see, the Fourth Hokage had a son."
"Indeed. It appears the boy's identity was concealed for his own protection, leaving him to be raised as a war orphan instead of a noble. Obviously this was a significant gamble, and it may even be the source of the rift that led to the Sannin abandoning Konoha after the Third Hokage resumed power. At any rate, once we started looking into it the façade fell apart fairly easily. His appearance, his ambitions, his penchant for winning impossible battles, even his recent apprenticeship under Jiraiya – it all confirms our conclusion. At first we were thrown off by the reports on his personality, but once we received word that he'd mastered the Rasengan it became obvious that it must be a cover…"
"Wait, you're talking about Naruto!" Temari interrupted. "That can't possibly be right. Can it?"
"When he summoned Gamabunta he could have simply been tapping into the Kyuubi's chakra, but Rasengan is the sort of A-rank chakra shaping technique that requires jounin-level skill to master. So is Shadow Clone for that matter, and we have unconfirmed reports that he was actually inventing new jutsu even as an academy student. There's also the fact that he's managed to become a national hero to two of the minor nations, and emerged victorious from at least three confrontations with S-rank opponents, all while still technically a genin."
"That's…one hell of a cover. You're right, there's no way some loudmouthed idiot could have done all that." She shook her head ruefully. "I've actually met him half a dozen times, and I was completely fooled. But if that's the case… wow, at that rate I guess he really will be Hokage some day. But then why would he agree to this kind of alliance?"
"We had hoped that Tsunade would persuade him to accept it, both to secure the current peace and as a foundation for his future power base. It's not as if the son of the famous Yellow Flash is going to have trouble persuading future suitors to settle for a concubine's position, especially once he takes the Hokage's hat. Unfortunately events have overtaken us."
"After the Uchiha's attempted defection Konoha enacted a special bloodline preservation program to replenish the ranks of their Sharingan users, which essentially amounted to assigning several kunoichi a lifetime missions to revive his clan. This was not entirely unexpected given Konoha's enthusiasm for bloodlines, but some sort of internal power struggle was triggered in the process."
"At this point what we know is that Naruto, Tsunade and Jiraiya are clearly allied, but someone has persuaded the Fire Lord to exile Naruto on the pretext of keeping the Kyuubi away from his country. You'll note that this publicly identifies him as the nine tails jinchuuriki, which negates most of their previous efforts to keep him out of the public eye. But just before the edict became official Tsunade arranged to include Naruto in the bloodline program, which by Konoha law allows him to take several wives without announcing his noble status."
"She then left town with her apprentice, Naruto, the Hyuuga clan heir and one of ANBU's best assassins, leaving Jiraiya behind to run Konoha in her absence. On the surface this appears to be an attempt to pressure the Fire Lord into rescinding his decree of exile, but the chance of such a strategy working is so slim that we feel there must be a less obvious ploy in progress as well."
"When word of this first arrived from our field agents we feared that the chance of a renewed alliance with the Leaf had been lost, but this morning a courier arrived with their signed acceptance of our offer."
Temari leaned forward to regard her instructor with narrowed eyes. "We're talking full wife, not concubine, right?"
"Correct. The new law leaves that option open to clan heads, which Naruto certainly is, and there were no changes to the terms of our proposal. Obviously he intends to wed the Hyuuga girl as well, which will cement his position in the village. But you'll be a full wife, with all the usual rights and obligations, not a concubine or mistress."
"Good. So, the bottom line here is the guy you want me to marry is a sneaky bastard who has the backing of two Sannin, and he's probably going to be the most powerful ninja in the world in a couple of years. The downsides are he's a little young, and I have to share power with a Hyuuga. This power struggle in Konoha is a wash, since it's a risk for me but also a chance to show him what I can do. So far I'm liking the sound of this, so there's got to be a catch. What orders does the council have for me on this?"
Baki allowed a hint of a smile to show. "Certain parties have convinced them that it would be unwise to expect you to cut your own throat for their sakes. So we've decided to play this one straight. Get as close to him as you can, become a central figure in the revival of his clan and secure your new position as best you can."
"His faction will most likely win through their current difficulties and cement their control of Konoha in short order, in which case you'll be in a position to influence policy to maintain the alliance. In the event that they somehow loose, and another faction takes control of Konoha, the council has authorized you to offer sanctuary here to the Sannin, Naruto and any family or retainers they wish to bring with them."
"I see." Temari said. "If their faction wins you get a friendly voice in Konoha, which will be handy if the Wind daimyo tries to shut down Suna entirely and you need a place to run. But if they lose and settle here instead Suna ends up with three kage-level ninja and we can just seize control of Wind Country if we need to. Either way we're all better off. You know, I like this a lot better than most of the council's plans."
"I'm glad to hear that." Her teacher replied. "I'll have our dossiers on all the ninja involved in this affair brought up for your review, and we should have a copy of the actual text of that bloodline law in the next day or two." He paused, and put a hand on her shoulder. "I know you'll be fine, but…good luck, Temari."
"Lunch break, everyone!"
The noonday sun beat down mercilessly on the small clearing at the edge of the woods, and Tsunade fanned herself with the Hokage's hat as she waited for the rest of the group to arrive. Servants from the resort were busy unloading baskets bearing the Twin Falls Empress logo, covering the picnic table with a feast that would have satisfied twenty civilians. To Tsunade's eye it was a little on the light side for five ninja who were doing serious training, especially since several dishes were destined to go uneaten…
Naruto was trying to be alert, but the imminent prospect of food was too much of a distraction. Tsunade's call brought the real blond and the nearest clone running, while the rest of the party followed at a more sedate pace. The clone who'd been training under Shizune never noticed the senbon needles she flicked into his exposed back as he turned to go. He vanished in a puff of smoke, and back in the central clearing the real Naruto started.
"Hey! That was a low blow, Shizune!" He shouted.
"Anko warned you we were serious about this." She replied as she strolled up to the picnic table. "You need to be aware of everything around you at all times, or you'll never avoid a real assassin."
"Yeah, yeah. I get it." He turned back to the food, only to have one of the 'servants' plant a kunai in his gut. Tsunade had a split second to worry that he'd taken a real hit before he dissolved into smoke, and the duplicate she'd noticed a moment earlier emerged from the trees. "Geez, Tsu-chan, was that your clone or psycho-san's?"
Anko laughed as she led the pair she'd been training into the clearing. "That was the boss, kid. I wouldn't be so nice."
The Naruto clone behind her touched a hidden tripwire, and was suddenly perforated by a dozen kunai launched from somewhere in the surrounding trees. Hinata, who'd been walking at his side, wove gracefully through the spray of projectiles and emerged completely unscathed.
"Aw, man, not again! I didn't die this many times fighting Gaara!" The real orange-clad genin reached for a rice ball and suddenly stopped, then leaned forward to sniff suspiciously at the food. "Wait, did you guys poison any of this stuff?"
"Of course they did, Naruto." Hinata commented as she reached for a plate. There was a flash of movement among the baskets, and Naruto opened his mouth to warn her. But she nonchalantly caught the striking snake with one hand, and turned to toss it in Anko's face. "Did you lose this, sensei?"
Anko squawked and substituted to the other side of the table. "Hey! Watch it, girl, those things are deadly!"
Hinata shrugged. "Surely an elite ANBU assassin can handle anything she'd use as a training aid on genin."
Tsunade laughed. "She's got you there, Anko."
"Whoa! Hinata, you rock!" Naruto enthused. "You haven't died all morning!"
She blushed. "O-only because you keep setting things off to protect me."
"Um, yeah. You noticed that?" He kicked at the ground, suddenly nervous. Sakura would have flattened him if she'd ever caught him looking out for her.
"Yes. T-thank you, N-naruto. But don't forget to protect yourself as well." She put a hand on his shoulder. "W-we can't replace the real y-you."
He felt his cheeks heat. She was so nice! "Don't worry, Hinata. I'm not going anywhere, and that's a promise!"
Ordinarily having a pair of cute girls in skimpy clothing buttonhole him outside his office would have brightened Jiraiya's day, but the amount of screeching and wailing involved in this particular encounter was rapidly souring his mood.
"But, Hokage-sama, do you have any idea how embarrassing this is? It's indecent! This so-called skirt wouldn't make a decent belt!"
Ino tugged at the offending garment as she spoke, confirming that it was still providing what minimal coverage it could. The black pleated micro-miniskirt was barely long enough to conceal the regulation black thong she wore underneath, and she had a sinking suspicion that she was flashing everyone behind her whenever she took a step. The three-inch heels on her new uniform shoes didn't help the situation, and she wasn't at all sure what to think about the knee pads. The white shirt might have been better if it wasn't tied off immediately below her breasts, and so sheer that the black bra underneath was clearly visible.
"That's right!" Sakura seconded. "I look like some kind of slutty schoolgirl porno fantasy! How is anyone supposed to take me seriously like this?"
"They aren't." Jiraiya rolled his eyes theatrically. "Honestly, I don't know what's wrong with you kids these days. You can't fight, you can't think and you're all too proud to do anything else. What really kills me is the way none of you can figure out anything unless someone spells it out for you. What kind of sorry excuse for a ninja needs the reasons behind a new policy explained in detail?"
Sakura snorted. "What's to understand? You're a pervert with a loli complex."
"Oh yeah, and you've all forgotten the meaning of discipline too." The toad sage frowned and crossed his arms. "That little remark costs you the bra for a month, young lady. I'd watch it if I were you – you're already on punishment dress, and you're running out of items of clothing to loose. As for my reasons." He looked past them down the hall and, noting a familiar figure passing by, shouted. "TenTen, come here!"
The young weapon specialist complied with alacrity, pulling a Body Flicker to appear instantly in front of the Sannin and snapping off a crisp salute. "Sir!"
"Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. TenTen, these two junior genin seem to have a problem with their new uniforms. Perhaps you could explain their situation to them?"
Ino noted that TenTen's uniform was considerably more practical than her own, if equally sexy. Tight knee-length shorts and an equally tight midriff-baring top made it impossible to miss the girl's lithe attractiveness. But the addition of practical boots, leather bracers and gloves, and a truly staggering assortment of sharp pointy things made it equally clear that she was a fighter rather than an ornament.
TenTen looked the younger girls up and down, and suppressed a snort of disgust as she took in the situation. "Yes, sir. Ino and Sakura are wearing remedial-level kunoichi uniforms, which means they've failed to meet the new physical qualifications for field duty. Since their only hope of surviving a fight is to avoid being targeted, their uniform is designed to make them look as helpless as possible. The suggestiveness should also be a plus for them, since they've apparently decided to become seduction specialists instead of combat ninja."
"I have not!" Sakura shouted in outrage. "I'm a ninja, not some kind of glorified whore!"
"Oh, grow up!" TenTen snapped. "Neither of you has ever trained seriously in your whole lives, and you think you're going to compete with people who've lived their art since they could walk? Please. This is your wake-up call, girls, and the clock is ticking. You're kunoichi of the leaf, and you're going to pull your weight one way or another. If you don't want to make a living exploiting your looks you'd better get off your asses and develop some other skill while you've still got the chance."
"Heh. Good summary, TenTen. Now, you two trot off down to ANBU headquarters and tell the duty officer I told you to report to Cat for a code twelve blue. I'm sure she can find some way to impress upon you two what a bad idea it is for a couple of rookie genin to try to browbeat their Kage."
"Um-" Ino began.
"Are you still here?" Jiraiya growled, and deliberately turned away from them.
The shocked girls decided discretion was the wiser course, and quietly made their retreat. After a moment the Sannin shook his head and dropped a black bra into the trash can by his secretary's desk. TenTen eyed the discarded article of clothing, glanced back at Sakura's retreating back, and smirked.
"Was there something you wanted, TenTen?"
"Just to make sure my name is added to the list, sir."
The acting Hokage raised an eyebrow. "List? What list would this be?" He asked innocently.
"The list of kunoichi who'd rather be Naruto's concubine than Sasuke's, if it comes down to it. With Hinata gone he's bound to try for someone else sooner or later, and I don't have a clan to protect me. I don't know if Naruto is actually taking applications or not, but I'm sure a lot of kunoichi have figured out that he's basically a nice guy and Sasuke's a selfish prick."
"Heh. You are a smart one, aren't you? Well, I obviously can't make you any promises, but if there is such a list your name will definitely be on it."
After two days of 'dying' every ten minutes or so Naruto was about ready to explode. He was getting better, but not fast enough to make much difference, and the fact that Hinata was only suffering three or four kills a day didn't help. Even Naruto wasn't oblivious enough to think the difference in their performance was entirely due to his efforts to protect her.
Then he got an idea.
On the third day an extra clone left the resort just after breakfast, heading uphill to the top of the falls. There he found another deserted patch of partially-wooded terrain, and put forty clones to work trying to ambush each other using all the same sneaky tricks that psycho Anko kept using on him.
With the average clone dying every twenty minutes or so their experiences got passed around quickly, and his skills grew so fast Anko thought he'd been replaced with an imposter until Hinata quietly clued her in. That night he was nearly comatose as he staggered off to bed, but she'd only gotten him twice in his last hour of training.
Of course, the next day Anko just upped the difficult on him. But by that point Naruto was getting the hang of this new 'pay attention to what's going on around you' thing, and soon he was picking up new tricks as fast as the special jounin could demonstrate them. By afternoon she was forced to admit that he was finally good enough to be more than just a target dummy.
Which led to a new phase of training, in which he and Hinata roamed the woods together doing various mock missions while Anko launched an enthusiastic surprise attack every so often. In addition to honing their senses this gave the genin plenty of practice fighting side-by-side against various threats.
"You know, it must really suck to be a summon." Naruto commented as he stood panting atop the body of a forty-foot snake. "Didn't we already kill this guy earlier?"
"You mean the fight on that pond full of water snakes? I think you're right." Hinata absently replied as she examined the remains of her coat. "No wonder they always appear as a chakra construct instead of using their real bodies." The bulky garment had been ripped, punctured and slashed repeatedly over the last few days, but she was forced to admit that being set on fire by an explosive tag in that last fight was the final straw. She set it aside reluctantly, thankful that the mesh armor she wore underneath had held up better.
Naruto noted the action and chuckled. "Anko really has it in for that thing, doesn't she? We should take it back to camp and give it a decent burial."
She smiled at him. "Yes. Alas, my faithful retainer has fallen in battle. We must carry him home so he can rest with his ancestors."
Naruto would have laughed, but she'd turned to face him while talking. Her form-fitting armor did absolutely nothing to hide the lush curves underneath, and he suddenly had no idea what they'd been talking about.
"Whoa. Where'd those come from?" He blurted out.
She blushed and looked away. She'd taken to hiding herself under loose, bulky garments when she first started to develop, in hopes of avoiding the stares and attention of rowdy boys at the academy. But…she wanted Naruto to look. She deliberately put a bit of bounce in her step as she walked over to her companion, and felt a surge of pride as his eyes followed every motion.
"I w-wear the coat so boys won't stare." She explained quietly.
His eyes widened in panic as he tore them away from her breasts. "Oh, crap! I'm sorry, Hinata, I didn't mean to look. I mean, not that I didn't like looking but I couldn't help it but I shouldn't have but wow but no staring yeah I get that sorry it won't happen again so you don't need to kill me even if I am a little perv-"
She silenced him with a finger across his lips. "Y-you can look. But only you."
"Seriously?" It had to be some kind of trick. He'd never gotten out of a situation like that without serious pain before. If this was Sakura it would all be a trick, and as soon as he took advantage she'd call him a pervert and hit him twice as hard. But Hinata was way too nice to set him up like that, wasn't she?
"S-seriously." The pale girl replied. She took a step away from him and clasped her hands behind her back. "A-am I…ok? N-not too f-fat?"
He swallowed. If there was a trace of fat anywhere on her he didn't see it. But if her chest was already this big, she'd be giving Anko competition in a couple of years. "Hinata, you're beautiful!" He insisted. How could she possibly not know that? "If you went around like that the other girls would all be jealous."
Naruto put his hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye. "I don't know why you're always so shy, when you've got to be the coolest girl I know. You're smart, and nice, and a really good kunoichi, and now I find out you're totally hot too. You should never have to hide what you are, Hinata. Stand up and be proud of yourself, you've earned it."
"T-thank you, Naruto." She gathered her courage and hugged him, and to her relief he didn't push her away. After a moment he even hugged her back!
Then her finely-honed danger sense went off, and she rolled them both aside as a barrage of kunai trailing explosive tags filled the space where they'd just been standing.
Anko, blowing us up is not going to help me get closer to Naruto! She thought fiercely as she activated her Byakugan.
Usually Temari preferred to travel light, but since she didn't know when or if she'd ever return she was forced to make an exception in this case. Her usual assortment of mission gear was already squared away, but she'd spent the better part of the afternoon sealing the rest of her belongings into storage scrolls. Her formal wardrobe, some casual wear for between missions, personal correspondence, her jutsu library, the small collection of romance novels that she'd never admit to owning – it all added up, especially when she had such limited space to pack the storage scrolls.
But she didn't much mind the delay, since it gave her time to contemplate what she'd learned. Baki's briefing was mostly correct, she was sure of that. But there were details in the documents she reviewed that didn't quite add up. Hints that something even bigger was going on, if she could only figure out what.
"I don't like the wording of this decree, Temari. Seduction missions are bad enough, but at least those are temporary. Assigning your marriage as a mission, with your husband as mission leader? That's just begging for abuse."
That was Kankuro, trying to be helpful in his usual bumbling way. It would be sweet if it weren't so annoying, but his point was blindingly obvious to any experienced ninja. A team leader's authority had to be absolute, because in the field anything short of instant, unquestioning obedience was likely to get the whole team killed. But being married to a man with that kind of authority over their relationship…
….an S-rank ninja who could do anything he wanted to with her…
…just thinking about it made her breath catch and her pulse quicken. It was a disturbing discovery to make about herself, under the circumstances. But she was a professional, damn it, and she was going to act like one. "Give it a rest, Kankuro." She growled. "I can handle that little shrimp, and his shrinking violet girlfriend too. I'll be running the show there in no time."
…or maybe he'll handle me instead, and wouldn't that be interesting? A rebellious corner of her mind whispered. Fortunately her brother was oblivious.
"I know, I know. I just worry about you, that's all. What about this ANBU woman?"
She shrugged. "I'm guessing she's Hinata's bodyguard, so her dear old dad doesn't assassinate her for leaving the clan. The girl must have some serious inside backing to think she can pull that off, but I bet we'll still have to whack half the clan elders and put her in charge to settle things."
Kankuro chuckled. "That's my sister. But, are you really sure you want to do this? You know the council was expecting you to wait here until we get the official ceremony arranged."
She shook her head. "No, there's no time for that. Don't you see? We've got a Sannin, two jounin, a major clan heir and the strongest jinchuuriki in the world off doing god knows what while another Sannin runs interference for them back home. Whatever they're doing it must be important, and if I'm not a part of it I'll always be some foreigner that came along later instead of part of the original team. This is my chance to prove my worth to the people that run the strongest ninja village in the world, and I'm not going to miss it."
"Anko is only a special jounin." Her brother protested weakly. "And you aren't even married yet."
"The ceremony is just for show, dummy. Legally I was married the instant the treaty was signed. As for Anko, she was Orochimaru's apprentice but the other Sannin still took her back after his betrayal. If you think her official rank has anything to do with her abilities I've got a nice bridge in the western dunes to sell you."
Their conversation was interrupted by the opening of the door. Gaara nodded to them both as they entered, then stopped. He took in the bare room, the packed field gear, the stack of sealing scrolls and the backpack that Temari normally used only for water runs. Finally he turned to his sister.
"Where are you going?" He asked.
"To find my husband." She replied.
He nodded. "Good. He'll take good care of you. Send for me when the time comes to kill off your enemies."
She gave him a feral grin. "I'll hold you to that, brother."