Forest of Death

Part VII

"Okay, so you do have…issues…with ghosts."

Naruto scowled at Tsunade.

"Fine, fine," the gym leader sighed and fished around in the inside pocket of her "gambler" jacket. "As proof of your victory…one Leaf Badge, just for you."

The boy accepted the green leaf-shaped badge that was decorated with a white swirl and pinned it to the inside of his own jacket. "Thanks."

"Cheer up, you earned it fair and square," the woman laughed. "You didn't even try to use that gyarados of yours. Why swap it out for a ghost pokémon that you have trouble using?"

Cheer up? You didn't scream like a baby in front of everyone when one of your own monsters hugged you! "I'm working on my ghost problem," he informed her. "And it's silly to have pokémon that you can't use."

"…Makes sense," Tsunade had to agree. Then she smirked down at him, pushed his goggles down from his forehead to dangle around his neck, and then…kissed him. "You did very well."

Naruto gaped at her.

"And tell your mother," the gym leader continued smugly, "that she owes me a hundred bucks. She lost The Bet."

"Bet?" Naruto blinked, rubbing dazedly at his forehead. "What bet?"

Tsunade just grinned at him. "Just tell her that. Now off with you! Go fix up your beasts. Shoo!"

Naruto rubbed at his scarred cheek and went to leave for the pokémon center…only to run straight into all of his friends who'd been watching from behind his end of the field.

"What a troublesome match," Shikamaru remarked, his quilava apparently nodding in agreement. "Congratulations on winning."

"Yeah, congratulations!" Chouji grinned, his croconaw and munchlax clapping.

"Did you really have to battle with that vulpix?" Ino asked with a frown, fingering the large notched leaf growing out of her bayleef's head. "Its coloration is so stunning it would surely score high in contests, even without any poffin or pokéblock enhancement…"

"Not bad," Kiba smirked, patting his growlithe on the head. "Did you watch all that Akamaru? We need to learn from that for when we fight Tsunade."

"You mean when you challenge her again," Shino said, adjusting his shades. "You already challenged her three days ago…and lost."

"Quiet you!" Kiba snapped, waving a fist threateningly. "Who asked you anything?!"

"No one," the Aburame boy answered stoically.

"P-please don't fight," Hinata squeaked nervously. The girl then turned to Naruto with a formal bow, her little riolu mimicking her. "C-congratulations on y-your victory, Na-Naruto-kun."

"Hn," Sasuke grunted, hands jammed into his pockets. "You didn't lose; good for you."

"Now that you have the Leaf Badge, what are you going to do?" Sakura asked curiously.

"Er…thanks," Naruto replied, trying to figure out what to address first. "Everyone…thank you. Uh, I don't know what I'm going to do next, except go to the pokémon center. And…Sasuke, you're a jerk."

Sakura gave him an annoyed look. "Naruto…"

Ino was a bit more irate. "Naruto, don't insult Sasuke-kun!"

Sasuke seemed more irritated by the girls than by what Naruto had said.

Naruto rolled his eyes and slipped through the small throng of old classmates on his way to the nearest pokémon center. The battle was over and now his monsters needed medical treatment. With a center close by, it made more sense to just head there than waste precious supplies that would be better used out in the wilds where medical help was hard to find.

At first, it seemed like none of them followed him, but just after he'd made it to the pokémon center and submitted his team, he found that he wasn't alone.

"That was a close fight," Sasuke said quietly, nearly making Naruto jump out of his skin. "And you say you don't know what you'll do next?"

"Aren't you worried that Sakura and Ino will track you down when they find that you've run off?" Naruto shot back as he skulked off towards the nearest sofa to wait for his monsters to be healed and returned to him.

Sasuke shrugged, trailing after Naruto to take a seat on the same sofa. "It'll take them a while. And you haven't answered me."

"I know I need to train," Naruto replied. "It's just a matter of deciding where to go, how long to train, and which gym to hit next after that. And why do you care anyway?"

The Uchiha boy shrugged again. "It was an excuse to get away from the girls and maybe get a bit of quiet."

Naruto eyed the dark-haired boy warily before shifting his stare to the carpet. Neither said anything—Sasuke because he never said much anyway, and Naruto because he found that he didn't feel like talking. But eventually Naruto found a question to ask.

"You're not going to tell anyone about…what you found out…about me…are you?"

Sasuke didn't even spare him a glance. "Your family's issues are none of my business, and I don't go around talking about other peoples' business."

That relieved Naruto…somewhat. "Okay."

"…I don't see why you'd want to keep this secret," Sasuke muttered. "You can't keep something like this quiet forever. And some people might get upset at being kept in the dark about this." The Uchiha gave him a side-long glance. "You ready for the consequences?"

Naruto did his best to ignore to Sasuke. What would he know about this? He was from a well-respected family that had always been whole. He'd never been the weirdo with the crazy mom and mystery dad. Sasuke never had anything like this to come to grips with…

One of the center's attendants brought Naruto a tray bearing his pokéballs, containing his restored pokémon. Leaving Sasuke sitting on the couch, he hurried to the nearest free terminal and went about restoring his line-up. He had no problems sending Spooky away to get Typhoon back, but he hesitated when it came to swapping Drifter for Bolt.

…If I keep Drifter with me for a while, I can teach him how to navigate to home so he can deliver letters and stuff. And it's been a long time since I've been home. It's been…almost a year since I left. Heh, if I time things right, I could be home for my 12th birthday!

After a little more consideration, he took Shadow's pokéball and swapped it for Bolt, keeping Drifter with him for the time being.

And then he used the computer terminal's phone function to place a call.

"Oh, hello!" His mother's face smiled back at him from the video screen, a smudge of flour on her cheek. "How are things going?"

"I won," Naruto told her proudly, opening the inside of his hoodie jacket so that she could see his newest badge.

"Excellent!" his mother grinned widely. "How was the match?"

"It was really hard, but I made it," he replied. "And…Tsunade says that you owe her money for losing some bet." A thought struck him that made him frown. "…Did you bet on my match with her?"

"No, of course not!" His mother frowned at him, and then looked away from the camera like she was embarrassed. "I made a bet with her long before you were born."

"What about?" Naruto asked curiously.

"Nothing important," she muttered. "So what are you going to do now?"

"I was thinking of coming home for a while." Naruto rubbed nervously at the back of his head. "That's okay, right?"

"Of course!" she laughed. "If you hurry, you can be home in time for your birthday! Hmm, I'll have to bake you a cake…"

"Can it be vanilla with chocolate frosting?" he asked, mouth watering a bit at the thought of it.

"Sounds good to me," she nodded. "So I'll see you soon…and call me if you change your mind!"

"I will," Naruto promised and, after saying good-bye, ended the connection.

Hooking his pokéballs to his belt, he headed to the upper level of the pokémon center to get his things together. It was a bit late in the day to head out of the city, so he wouldn't. Instead, he'd get organized, relax the rest of the day, and then leave first thing in the morning for home in Konoha Town…

Sending Shizune off to heal her four damaged monsters, Tsunade remained behind on the pretext of examining the damage done to the battlefield. Releasing Nawaki, she waited until she was alone in the gym. When she was, she turned to the sidelines where a clump of bushes and small trees were growing. Her brown eyes focused on a large pinkish flower hidden in the shade.

"So, did you enjoy the show?"

The flower, which seemed to bloom from a stem thick enough to be a tree trunk, shivered and then rose as the venusaur that it grew from stood up and walked out into the open…along with the human who'd been crouched down in her shadow.

"Yes," Minato grinned widely. "…And it looked to me like you had a lot of fun, too."

"So what if I did?" Tsunade shrugged, as her leafeon rubbed against her legs. "That brat of yours wasn't bad."

The League Champion grinned even wider. "Yeah, he's pretty good…" His expression turned curious. "Say…what was that bet with Kushina you mentioned to him?"

The woman gym leader smirked.

"…You're way off base, lady! Namikaze isn't my boyfriend! I don't like him like that! I'd rather kiss his poliwhirl!"

"Heh, you sound so sure… Want to make a bet on that?"

"You'll have to ask her about that," Tsunade laughed.

Minato pouted. "Aw, c'mon…" When she remained tight-lipped, he dropped the subject for another. "So, have you found anything concrete out on the 'green fairy'…?"

"No, not really," Tsunade sighed. "I've been too busy tussling with little punk trainers who want to challenge me to get much else done."

"Well, perhaps if you hadn't hidden in casinos for so long, there wouldn't be such a back-log of trainers eager for your badge," he pointed out.

"Oh hush," the older woman frowned.

Minato leaned against his venusaur's flank. "So…what did you find out?"

"Nothing really beyond local urban legends and myths that I already knew," Tsunade replied. "Celebi the time traveler and forest spirit…resembles a small green fairy…and is believed to be a plant-based pokémon…if it really exists. There is no record of one—if there is more than one in existence—ever being captured or even photographed. Researchers classify it as a "Legendary" pokémon, if they even believe that it is real." She shook her head. "I don't see why such obviously powerful and serious criminals would pursue something like that."

"A monster with the ability to travel through time would be a very powerful weapon," Minato remarked. "…And I believe that Legendary pokémon are real."

"Of course you do," Tsunade sighed. "I think they're all a bunch of fairy tales. The three birds, the three beasts, the three golems, the three psychic spirits, the guardian of the sea, the guardian of the sky, the creator of continents, the creator of seas, the dragon of the sky, the dragon of time, the dragon of space, the ghost dragon from another dimension, the great creator…it's all ridiculous! I say that different countries and regions made them up for their own mythologies, or to make themselves feel special."

"Perhaps," Minato conceded. "But I still think that they could be real. And what better way to gain power than to capture creatures so rare and powerful that they are considered legends?"

Tsunade frowned uneasily and rubbed Nawaki's leaf-like ear. As a child, her grandfather had taught her many stories of the monsters of legend. But her favorite had always been the story of the two battling firebirds and how they had inspired the first lord of Fire Country in naming his newly-formed domain.

If they are real, and this "Akatsuki" gets their hands on even one of them…then Arceus help us…

Hiruzen Sarutobi puffed on his pipe as he sat in his den and poured over the latest issue of one of his favorite pokémon research journals. There were some reviews of an article he'd written a few months back that he was particularly interested in. And there was also an article written by an old colleague, Homura, which could be intriguing.

But then his infernape slipped into the room, presenting him with a ringing portable phone.

"Thank you, Enma," the professor smiled and took the phone. "Hello? Professor Sarutobi speaking." His old eyes widened slightly at the voice he heard on the other end. "…Itachi? What can I do for you…?"