Chapter Twenty-four: Awakening and Ascension

Three days passed while Konoha walked on eggshells. News of Tsunade's arrival and her participation in healing the Hokage flashed through Konoha like wildfire through drought-dried brush. And she was not the only person subject to incessant gossip. As expected, the Chunin Exams were a highly publicized event in Konoha, virtually everyone attending, and those who didn't received detailed, blow-by-blow accounts of the fights. So it was no surprised that the Hyuuga Main House's rookie's upset victory against Branch House's prodigy garnered quite a bit attention. Naruto's actions during the invasion, and revelation to his former classmates about his Jinchuuriki status was only the cherry on top.

His vanishing act after the invasion and sudden return with not one, but two Sannin, (Jiraiya's presence prior to the invasion had not been widely known,) just added fuel to the already blazing bonfire of controversy that surrounded the boy. So when a knock sounded at the door, Naruto ignored it, hoping that whoever was a t the door would go away and leave him alone, shifting slightly and tighten his grip on Tenten, who was sprawled half on, half off of him.

Ever since Tenten had moved into her own apartment earlier in the week, Naruto had gotten into the habit of waking early, around six am and waiting for the clone sleeping with Tenten or Hinata to wake and disperse, assimilating the memories, and creating a clone to replace the one that had died. But besides these quick trips between residences, Naruto did not leave the security of the indoors much, except when he had to, such as training. It quickly reached the point that it had his wife and fiancée worried.

However, whoever was at the door was not to be so easily discouraged by their non-response. Knocking again, and a third time, the interloper finally roused Tenten from her slumber.

"Nar'to-ku... go get the door," she mumbled, rolling her head to the side so that she was not face-down in Naruto's chest and could speak out of the corner of her mouth.

Groaning and growling imprecations and whoever had dared disturb their sleep, Naruto rolled out of bed and pulled on a pair of sleeper pants, half-stumbling along the wall to the front door. He blinked in surprise, half expecting to see Ino at the head of a gaggle of their friends for a surprise housewarming party. Instead he found a masked ANBU poised to knock again.

"Residence of Higurashi Tenten?" he asked.

"Yeah? What is going on?"

"Executive summons." The messenger pressed a small scroll into his hands and leaped away before Naruto had the opportunity to reply or question. Closing the door behind him, he stared at the scroll before padding back to the bedroom.

"Tenten-chan, rise and shine. You got a summons."

Rolling over to look at Naruto, she put on a confused expression. "What?"

"You are summoned to an audience with the Hokage, forthwith apparently."

"But isn't the Hokage still in a coma?"

"Last I heard, yeah, but maybe not, if this is anything to go by. Anyways, get dressed and let's see what is going on."

Yawning, but more alert than she was just a moment ago, she got up and pulled some clothes out of the new dresser she had. Going to the bathroom, she took a short shower and dressed in there. Naruto and Tenten made good time to the Tower, using the roofs to avoid any unwanted encounters, Naruto's curiosity growing when he saw that Anko and Hinata were present, as well as Asuma's team. The clone with Hinata dispersed, the real Naruto taking a few moments to assimilate and organize the clone's memories before wrapping an arm around Hinata's shoulders and giving her a peck on the cheek. Neji had arrived with the clone Naruto and was quick to reposition himself by his elbow, silent except for a murmured greeting to Tenten.

Tenten had not been sure how to feel towards Neji at first, quietly sure that Neji was playing bodyguard under duress. However, as time passed, she became less sure, especially after Hinata had explained the strange turn of events that had led to Neji pledging himself to Naruto's service. He had always had a slightly disconcerting air about him, an aloofness that precluded anyone from trying to befriend him, had she even wanted to. There had been a quiet arrogance to him, a disdainful manner to him that said he submitted to interacting with his lessers only under duress. It had made him quite unlikable and unapproachable, even before the events of the Chunin Exam.

Before, during the few times they had the chance to interact, he had only spoken to her if he had to, and was as curt as possible. Now he was a perfect gentleman-servant, greeting her politely, with a hint of genuine warmth. There was a change in his silence, difficult to quantify, but definitely there. The best way she could phrase it was that he had gone from the supercilious noble to the old family retainer, one that had been around long enough to take a few liberties. All in all, it was a bizarre transformation.

Nobody said much as they lounged in the waiting room, waiting to see the Hokage. Ten minutes passed before they were allowed admittance. Asuma led his team in first, followed by Anko, Hinata, Naruto and Tenten, with Neji bringing up the rear. The Hokage's office was spacious, despite the oversized desk situated by the floor-to-ceiling windows. Naruto was not the only one to take a second look at the person occupying the large leather chair behind the desk.

Both Tsunade and Sarutobi were present, but not where Naruto would normally expect them to be. Tsunade was reclining in the slightly overlarge leather chair situated behind the expansive desk, while Sarutobi Hiruzen was behind and to the right, seated in a cushioned wheelchair, an IV line extending from his arm to the bag hanging from the wheeled rack that he clutched with one of his hands. Naruto had not seen the Hokage since before the Chunin Exams, but he looked to have aged thirty years in the intervening time. The skin over his skull was pulled tight as parchment, large liver-spots visible through his thin hair. His robes did nothing to conceal the unhealthy slenderness of his limbs, nor the slight shaking his blue-veined hands had acquired.

His voice, when he spoke, was thin and thready, a wet rasp causing him to speak slowly. "Thank you all for coming here today."

"We were summoned Hokage-sama," Asuma stated simply.

"Yes, I suppose you were," he replied with a weak laugh that almost sent him into convulsions. "But you were summoned here for a reason. The woman sitting behind my desk is Senju Tsunade, Candidate Fifth Hokage. I have named her as my successor, but there are some matters that must be addressed immediately, and cannot wait on her confirmation. Tsunade-chan, if you would."

"I assume that you have guessed why you have been summoned here today?"

Nobody said anything.

"While our losses were not as bad as they could have been, we are somewhat shorthanded right now. Having suffered in invasion from two foreign powers, we need to give an appearance of strength, lest we begin to lose clients and income. Asuma-san, Anko-san, I am officially removing you from your positions as jounin-sensei. You are needed on missions that are far too dangerous for genin to be assigned to."

"What about our teams?" Asuma asked.

"They will remain intact, for the time being, with some minor alterations. Hyuuga Naruto, Nara Shikamaru, will you please step forward."

Tsunade examined the pair for a moment before continuing. "Any genin wishing to be promoted to chunin must possess sufficient skill in three core areas: combat prowess, leadership ability and tactical planning. Nara Shikamaru, you have displayed a high degree of mental acuity. I have a report here from the Kiri kunoichi that you fought during the Final Exam. She says that even though she rendered your family's shadow techniques all but useless, you came up with and executed a plan that had her beat within minutes. She says that you also displayed advanced grasp of hand-to-hand combat, as well as kunai, shuriken, ninja-wire, and other weapons. Is what she says true?"

"Yeah, mostly."

"Hyuuga Naruto. Reports are somewhat disorganized, but from what I hear, you defeated your opponent in the Exams with an almost unprecedented display of strength. You contributed in a significant way to the defense of Konoha, defeating and capturing the One-Tailed Jinchuuriki and killing over three hundred enemy ninja, as well as defending the civilian bunkers and hospital to good effect."

"I was the only one who could have defeated Gaara, and I had help with that."

"Humility is a good trait in a shinobi, but it can be taken too far. You took charge of the situation in the arena, ordering everyone out and to the Tower to establish the chain-of-command. Your clones ordered and organized the defense to excellent effect, preventing what would have been otherwise unavoidable casualties. I think it would be quite fair to say that if not for you, there is a better-than-even possibility that Orochimaru would have succeeded in sacking Konoha. There are some that say that you saved Konoha single-handedly, and from all the reports I have seen, I do not think that they are too far from the truth. I have dozens of shinobi commending you in their after-action reports, and quite a few recommending you for promotion.

"Both you and Shikamaru-san have displayed more than sufficient strength, tactical planning and leadership ability. So, take these flak jackets as a outward symbol of your new status as chunin."

Naruto and Shikamaru stepped forward, accepting the green jackets. "Thanks," was all Naruto said.

"Don't thank me. You have not received anything that you do not deserve. You two have earned those jackets. Dismissed. Anko-san, Asuma-san, you two will stay. You two are going to be heading to the capitol. The Fire Daimyo has requested..."

From his wheelchair, Sarutobi agreed with everything that Tsunade had said about Naruto and more. He had spoken to several of his jounin, Kakashi and Gai included, and they both agreed that Naruto had shown an exceptional level of leadership during the invasion. Kakashi had drawn parallels between Naruto and his father, remarking that the thought of disobeying Naruto had never once crossed his mind. Privately, the elderly Hokage thought that Naruto could easily qualify for tokubetsu jounin by virtue of his charisma alone. Commanding a shinobi of Kakashi's calibre was nothing short of marvelous. The fact that Kakashi had a less-than-sterling opinion to begin with only made it more incredible. The man was a born leader, in a way that he, the God of Shinobi, had never been. Naruto had certainly proved himself to be his father's son.

Prior to the invasion, most people were of one of two opinions concerning Naruto. By and large, the greatest portion of Konoha regarded him as a civil menace, his pranks had not been forgotten in the eleven months since his graduation from the Academy. Those who did not count themselves among the former were hardly better, while not hating him, they refused to acknowledge him in any way, refusing him service at stores and restaurants, and in a few, brave cases, attempting to walk over him in the street.

Now, Konoha was still split over him, but in a new way. During the invasion, Naruto had, through his clones, evacuated much of the civilian population to safehouses and bunkers created for such an eventuality. After the invasion, tales of his actions spread, the few tales of his clones succumbing to blood-lust and battle-fever far outnumbered by stories of his heroism. Practically overnight, thousands of people began to realize the error of their ways and regret their treatment of their new hero, the Lightning Legion.

The second camp predicable was populated by those who took the events during the Final Exam as confirmation that Naruto was a time bomb waiting to go off taking his other nickname Shinigami no Naruto to heart. Fortunately, the second camp seemed to be content with talk, trying to convert those of the first camp to their views and subtly harassing him in public, coming just short of instigating direct confrontation. After all, the Hokage rarely took anything other than a dim view on civilians attempting to molest his shinobi. And there was the fact that he, in their minds, was the Kyuubi. One did not willingly enter open conflict with such a being.

For the most part, the second camp was not the one that Naruto tried to avoid, consisting of, for the most part, those who had maligned him from birth. It was the first camp, the admirers and well-wishers that drove him into seclusion. After being ignored and hated by the vast majority of Konoha's population for most of his life, he simply did not know how to react to their sudden reversal. Wishing for something was one thing, having it happen before one's eyes was something else entirely.

Tsunade's voice was cut off by the closing door, leaving the two new chunin and their genin cohorts to themselves. Hinata and Tenten exchanged a grin before they both hugged him, planting a kiss on each cheek, congratulating him on his promotion. Shikamaru rolled his eyes at the display of affection, while Choji just laughed at Naruto's blush.

Shrugging his shoulders to settle the flak jacket under his greatcoat, Naruto did not get the chance to speak before Tenten said, "you know what this calls for!"

"Yakitori!" Choji interjected enthusiastically.

"Sure," Hinata agreed amicably. "In fact, it is Naruto's treat." That elicited sputtering protest from the boy.

"I have some business to take care of at home, of immediate concern."

"Nothing that cannot wait," Hinata disagreed.

"Hiashi told me that there is some paperwork that I need to finish to..." Naruto's excuse was cut off when Hinata and Tenten, individually of insufficient strength to manhandle Naruto, grabbed his elbows and dragged him off, out of earshot of the rest of the group. Naruto's pleading look caused gales of laughter from Choji, and a sardonic eye-roll from Shikamaru.

"That, that right there is exactly why I find women troublesome," the other new chunin stated to no one in particular.

"Hah, they already have him halfway whipped," Choji chortled.

"In this case, I find myself in agreement. Naruto-san seems to have involved himself with a pair of very strong-willed women."

Before anyone could reply to that, Naruto, Hinata and Tenten return, Naruto grudgingly agreeing to accompany everyone for a celebration.

As they left the tower, the two women discussing where to eat with Choji, Shikamaru leaned in close to whisper in Naruto's ear. "You know, my dad says that men are no good without a woman around. Guess that means that you are twice the man the rest of us are." Shikamaru punctuated that statement with a quick grin, suppressing a laugh at Naruto's glower.

"You know, it is not nice to kick a guy while he is down." Shikamaru chucked aloud at that, and increased his pace to join the others, leaving Naruto at the rear of the group, alone with his thoughts.

Naruto kept a weather eye on the other passersby, ready to take to the roofs at the first sign of any of his fanclub. He really did not know how to deal with such a sudden reversal of public opinion concerning himself, so just tried to avoid them whenever possible. If he was honest with himself, having people smile and greet him in genuine goodwill had him on awkward footing in public. Hell, there had been a guy at Ichiraku's the other day that had asked him for his autograph. That had surprised him to say the least, a month ago, most people wouldn't give him the time of day, and now some random guy off the street asked for his autograph.

He tried to ignore the feeling of eyes boring into his back as they ate, letting most of the conversation pass him by.

They occupied the largest booth available, Naruto sandwiched between Hinata and Tenten, Shikamaru, Choji and Shino across from them, Neji in an adjacent booth. The conversation was light and amiable, everyone making fun of Shikamaru and Naruto's discomfort. Naruto had doffed his greatcoat after a few minutes, the slim bulk of his new flak jacket ill-fitting under his coat. Shikamaru bore the mockery in silence, mock-sulking in protest. Once everyone had eaten to their fill and Naruto, true to Hinata's word, paid, they left. The two teams parted ways, Team Ten towards the outskirts, the training grounds and clan grounds, while Naruto, Tenten and Hinata went toward the center of town, Neji flanking Naruto as had become his recent habit, in the direction of the Tower and hospital.

Unlike on previous visits, the nurse manning the lobby was more than happy to help Naruto. Sasuke's encounter with his elder brother the previous month had left him in bad shape, his psyche having borne severe damage and had been hospitalized since.

Naruto and company entered Sasuke's hospital room to find Sakura and Ino occupying two chairs, one on each side of his bed, silent. Blond and rosette looked up to see who had entered, giving Naruto a second look, seeing him carrying his black greatcoat over one shoulder and high-collared flak jacket unzipped.

Ino spoke up first saying, "Well, it is about time."

That was not what Naruto had been expecting to hear, and let her know. "About time?"

Ino waved a hand at him, taking in his appearance. "Your promotion. You are wearing a flak jacket, so I assume that means that you got promoted."

"Yeah, I did," he replied, still on his back foot, so to speak.

"Good for you. You deserve it." She smiled softly and explained, his confusion evident. "You fought well during the Final Exam, and did more than just about anyone else to save Konoha. Hell, if it were not for your clones, I almost certainly be dead, Gai-sensei and Lee-kun with me."

"I am sure that Gai would have done something if I hadn't been there."

Ino shook her head. "It happened so fast, Gai would never have been able to get both me and Lee out of there."

Sakura, sitting opposite Ino swiveled her head as the two conversed, clueless as to what they were talking about. "What are you talking about?" she asked finally.

"Gai-sensei, Lee and I had been sent out to retake a section of the commercial district that had been taken by some Sound shinobi and was being used as a staging area. A squad of Naruto's clones were sent with us, six or seven of them I think. Anyways, the Sound guys had set up shop in a little mini-mart and were apparently organizing the attack from there. Gai, Lee and the clones bust and start doing their thing, while I possessed one of their guys and attacked from the inside, so to speak. Unfortunately, the bastards had wired the whole damn block to explode. I swear, I have never see anyone move like he did then. However your clones did it, your clones managed to get us out of there before the building went up. Broke my arm when it dispersed from a piece of shrapnel, but I would rather have a busted arm than a busted head."

"My clones are expendable. You guys aren't. Even trade in my opinion," he said simply, shrugging.

"Still, you saved our lives, and hundreds more. Lee and I made sure to say so in our after-action reports."

Naruto cleared his throat and changed the subject before he started blushing. "So how is Sasuke doing?"

"I'm fine dobe," Sasuke said, pushing himself into a sitting position. "What are you doing here?"

"I came to see how you are doing. I heard that you have been stuck in the hospital ever since you lost to Ita-"

"Don't say his name," Sasuke snarled. "The next time I see that man I will kill him."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that. He wiped the floor with your face last time."

"It isn't like you would do better. If it wasn't for Jiraiya, you would be dead now."

"Well, I would say that I did better than you did against him. After all, you are the one in the hospital."

"You didn't actually fight him either."

"Well, I didn't have to. He knew that he would have lost had he attacked me."

"Right. Like he would be afraid of you," sneering through the last word.

"Hey, that is 'like he would be afraid of you, sir.' I am a chunin now, so you gotta show me respect."

"Hah, a dobe like you demanding respect? Don't forget who was the Rookie of the Year." Sasuke's words were abrasive, but the arrogant smile he wore robbed them of any bite.

"That was a long time ago. I have gotten a lot stronger since then."

"And you think I have been standing still?"

Naruto's grin was threatening to split his face in two. "You sure as hell better not."

"You were never able to beat me in the Academy. You say you have gotten stronger? Why don't you prove it. Put your money where your mouth is."

"Are you sure you are up to it? You have been bedridden for a month."

"Hah, an Uchiha never loses their edge. I could have been in a coma for a year, and I would still be man enough to thrash you."

"Okay then. You and me, right now." Sasuke pulled the sheet aside and put on his sandles, absently rotating one arm.

"Guys, calm down. This isn't a good idea." Sakura had pushed her chair back and was looking worriedly between the two.

"Nah, it is okay Sakura-chan. I have been aching to fight this guys for ages now."

"Naruto-kun, what if you get in trouble? You are a chunin now, and aren't supposed to be fighting genin. Neji-niisan, help me out here."

"He wants to fight his rival. There isn't anything wrong with that."

"Besides, what could they do to me Hinata-chan? They aren't gonna demote me for getting into a fight."

"Still, this isn't a good idea."

"Don't worry so much," Ino said from her chair, leaning back and crossing her arms under her breasts. "Call it a friendly spar and nobody can get in trouble. Boys get into fights all the time."

Still reserved, Hinata nonetheless said nothing as they all climbed the stairs to the roof. The four girls and Neji took places by the fence while Naruto and Sasuke took their places in the middle of the impromptu arena. Sasuke had already activated his Sharingan, two tomoe swirling in each pupil.

"Start off with taijutsu?" Naruto asked. Sasuke just nodded.

Naruto slid his feet apart into an attack stance while Sasuke crossed his arms over his chest, the picture of indolent confidence. Grinning fit to kill, Naruto charged, leading with a chambered right hook. Looking bored, Sasuke easily blocked the strike, dancing backwards as Naruto followed up with a knee to the liver and another punch.

The next two minutes were a blur of motion, just slow enough for perception as Naruto became a whirlwind of punches and kicks, with the occasional headbutt thrown in for flavor. But no matter how he tried, he was unable to land a solid hit on Sasuke. The precognition that his two-tomoe Sharingan afforded him proved to be an insurmountable advantage for Sasuke. For Naruto's part, he had been able to prevent Sasuke from landing any solid strikes either.

Finally the two separated, panting lightly and grinning. "You have gotten pretty good," Sasuke admitted after a moment. He shook a hand, one of his fingers hurting from when he intercepted a punch from Naruto with one of his own and Naruto's signet ring probably broke his finger.

"Thanks," Naruto replied. "You too."

Without saying a word, Sasuke drew a kunai from the holster strapped to his thigh, slipping a finger through the ring and twirling it. "Hinata-chan," Naruto called, holding out a hand. Hinata drew his gladius zanpakuto from the sheath hanging from the baldric she had slipped over her shoulder and tossed it under hand to Naruto. The blond chunin took a few test swipes, wrapping his fingers around the leather-wrapped hilt in a loose grip.

After a few seconds, both boys nodded and they leaped forward, meeting with a clang of steel. The onlookers caught a brief glimpse of a series of flame-like tattoos rapidly expand over Sasuke's features before everyone but Hinata and Neji lost sight of the pair, the ring of steel a constant sound. A section of fence on the other side of the roof was cut, a series of gouges were carved into the roof. Suddenly, an explosion of smoke engulfed the roof, quickly blowing away to reveal a couple dozen clones. Sasuke suddenly went into overdrive at the sudden appearance of so many clones, killing six in the blink of an eye, jumping up out of the way of two flanking Narutos, grabbing their heads and smashing them together. Landing, he immediately jumped up ten feet, hands flickering through a trio of seals, exhaling explosively. The massive fireball that erupted from his lips killed all but the original, who had flash stepped out of the way.

Raising the hilt of his shikai up by his ear, Naruto charged Sasuke as soon as he landed. Sasuke crouched where he landed, waiting for Naruto. Their eyes met and the world tilted, throwing off balance, stumbling to one side. By the time Naruto had recovered, Sasuke had closed the distance between them, going low and blasting Naruto back with a pistoning kick to the abdomen. Racing to catch up to the skidding Naruto, he took a shallow cut on on thigh from a off-balance, blind cut from Naruto's katana. Naruto fetched up against the fence and steadied himself, tossing his katana to his left hand, forming a Rasengan in his right hand. Sasuke saw the attack form and darted to the side. But it was not enough, Naruto thrust his palm out and the sphere turned into a miniature hurricane stretching from Naruto's palm and connecting with Sasuke's chest. Sasuke was carried backwards across the roof into one of the support beams of a water tank and fell to his butt. He quickly rocked forward, clutching his chest, the Cursed Seal rapidly retreating into dormancy.

Everyone, Naruto included raced forward to see how badly Sasuke was hurt. Naruto got there first, by virtue of using flash steps and kneeled down, one hand on Sasuke's back. Expecting Sasuke to be hurt, he was caught off-guard when Sasuke coldcocked Naruto with a punch to the throat. Naruto was knocked flat on his back, gagging, Sasuke quickly jumping up and placing a foot on his throat.

"Once again, you lose dobe." Sasuke stepped back and grabbed Naruto's hand, pulling him to his feet.

"You coldcocked me."

"Yeah I did. What are you saying?"

"You cheated."

"Are you kidding? Yeah I cheated. It is kind of the point of being a ninja dobe."

"I had you beat before you cheated though."

"Yeah, that little tornado-thing hurt like a bitch." For the first time Naruto saw that the front of Sasuke's shirt had been torn away, and the steel beam he had fetched up against was dented. Sasuke stepped to one side and leaned against one of the undamaged supports, wrapping an arm around his chest. "I think you broke a rib."

"Serves you right."

Sure that the fight was finally over, Sakura and Ino rushed over and slipped Sasuke's arms over their shoulders and helped him down the stairs.

Tenten had only been paying half a mind to Naruto and Sasuke's fight, distracted by her chat with Ino. The blond was only a year older, so it was easy to strike up a conversation with her. Or rather, it was easy for Ino to strike up a conversation with herself.

"You are really lucky, you know."

Tenten was leaning against the fence wither her arms folded under her breasts turned her head to address Ino. "How so?"

"Naruto. I was a year ahead of you guys, but even the kids in my class knew of him. He seems to have done a lot of growing up since you guys graduated."

"I don't know. A lot of his goofiness in the Academy was an act, I think. I think that it is less of him growing up, and more of him acting like his real self."

"Still, even I have to admit that he has turned into quite the catch. He isn't as good looking as Sasuke-kun, but he is rather handsome."

"You think so?" Tenten asked with an arched eyebrow.

Ino turned to look at her when she heard her tone and laughed. "Oh, trust me I am so not the type to go after someone else's man. 'Sides, I like Sasuke-kun."

"If you say so."

Ino laughed again. "I don't think he would look even if I tried. He really does seem to only have eyes for you. Well, you and Hinata anyways. Tell me, how did that even happen? You and Hinata and him. There has to be a story behind that."

"It is a little complicated."

Ino gestured to the two boys who were duking it out and showing no signs of letting up. "Judging by the way that they are going at one another, we have time."

Tenten sighed and rolled her eyes, dropping her arms. "You aren't going to leave this alone aren't you?"

"What, and miss something as juicy as this? Hell no. If you won't tell me, I will just get Hinata to."

"Alright then. Honestly, it really isn't that exciting. Hinata's father went to Naruto last December, I think it was, and proposed that he marry Hinata to join his Clan. As you are well aware by now, Naruto is the Kyuubi Jinchuuriki. The Hyuugas are filthy rich, and have quite a few seal masters among them. Naruto has been studying seals for a couple of years now, and marrying into the Hyuugas would give him access to a lot of books and scrolls on the subject. Anyways, he gave me a list of reasons, and I could see that he wanted it. He would have refused had I not said yes, so the whole thing is kind of my fault. In any case, it wasn't until later that he fell in love with Hinata too."

"And you guys have no problems sharing him?"

"Well, I really wouldn't call it 'sharing.' He usually creates a shadow clone whenever the three of us aren't together, so both Hinata and I kind of have our own Naruto."

"I bet that his shadow clones would come in real handy in bed."

Tenten blushed suddenly and diverted her gaze to the roof she was standing on. "I wouldn't know."

"Yeah, you guys are probably a little young for that sort of stuff," Ino replied airily.

"Like you would know any more about it then I would. You don't even have a boyfriend!" Tenten retorted with vigor.

"And how do you know that?"

"Well, for one, you are the biggest gossip in Konoha. There is no way that you would be able to keep that kind of thing to yourself. And two, you yourself said that you are set on Sasuke."

"Well, okay you got me there," Ino admitted. "But I do know how to kiss a boy. Do you?"

"Trust me, Naruto-kun and I have plenty experience."

"Have you frenched him?"

Tenten's blush returned, but not with the strength of before. "Not that it is any of your business, but yes. Plenty of times too."

"Really? How good is he?" Ino leaned over the shorter girl and lowered her voice, putting a hand up to shield her lips from view.

Tenten replied, her blush increasing slightly. She had no idea why she was playing along with Ino and answering her questions, but she did anyways. Maybe it was that she really did not have any girlfriends to gossip with, so she indulged herself with Ino. Regardless, she answered Ino's questions and even asked one or two of her own. Ino had not been lying when she said that she knew how to kiss a boy when Tenten asked for advice, despite her experience. Although, if she was honest, it probably was not much compared to other girls. Naruto was the first boy she had ever dated, and likely to be the last, since he had proposed to her in July.

In any case, it actually had felt kind of good to talk with Ino. It had been a long time since she had been able to have an equally candid conversation with another girl. Her mother had never really approved of Naruto, and there was a subtle reservation between herself and Hinata on their girls days out. Sakura was totally out of the question, and she and Ayame were hardly more than acquaintances. And that just about exhausted her list of potential female confidants. Anko was never a possibility in the first place, the age gap and the likelihood of Anko becoming her mother-in-law too much to overcome.

"You know, if you ever need someone to talk to, feel free to come over to my place, anytime."

"You sure?" Tenten asked, somewhat hesitantly. "I mean it is not like we are really friends."

"I'm sure. Sometimes you just need someone to talk to, and I can tell that you don't have someone like that. And I like you."

"If you insist."

"I do," Ino responded with a authoritative nod and crossed arms, her demeanor saying that no was not an option.

Meanwhile, Hinata and Sakura were discussing matters of a similar topic. "What is it like being married?"

"What?" Hinata didn't quite squawk, but she was caught off guard when Sakura asked her out of the blue.

"What is it like being married? I have always kind of wondered what it would be like to live with a boy."

"Well, I am not sure what to tell you. Naruto and I still have separate rooms, so we aren't like most married couples." Hinata paused for a few seconds, looking down at her beringed finger. "At first, Naruto married me for his own reasons, and not because he loved me."

"But he loves you now."

A smile curved her lips as she replied. "Yes he does, and I do him." Hinata paused again before continuing. "It is more than just knowing he loves me. It is waking up and him being the first person I see in the morning and the last person before I go to sleep. It is cleaning up after him, and serving his meals. It is the thousand little things that I do for him, and he does for me. Why do you ask?"

"I told you, I was just curious."

"You cannot lie to a Hyuuga. There is something more bothering you."

"How did you first know you loved Naruto?"

"Ah. I see."

"What do you mean?"

"I cannot give you a precise answer as to when I started loving him. I had always admired Naruto-kun, ever since I started attending the Academy at least. I can't tell you when it turned to love, because it was a gradual process. I can tell you when I realized that I loved him, that is easy. It was the year before we graduated. Naruto had been sitting on the swing in front of the Academy after school one day. There had been some older boys that were bullying one of the younger children. The little girl was sitting on the ground in the dirt crying, but the other boys wouldn't leave her alone. Naruto got up and told the bullies to leave her alone, even he had to know that they wouldn't. He continued to insist that they leave the girl alone, and eventually, they did. Of course, that meant that they turned their attention to him. He didn't fight back, even though he could have. He let them beat him up so that they would leave that little girl alone. That is when I knew that I loved him."

Sakura knew the day that Hinata was talking about. Naruto had come in the next morning with a broken and bandaged nose, two black eyes and some spectacular bruises. He had spoken with a lisp for two days. He wouldn't tell anyone what had happened, not even the teachers. Of course, Naruto being Naruto, he soon had the entire classroom laughing at him as he pantomimed himself single-handedly fighting off an invasion of a thousand enemy ninja the previous night.

"I used to think that I did not deserve to be with him, but he quickly disabused me of that notion. But I think that the question you wish to ask is how you know if you are in love. And I cannot answer that for you, only you can do that for yourself. But I can tell you that love is selfless. As long as Naruto is happy, so am I, and vice versa. But I think that the more than anything else, love is trust. I know that he will never hurt me, and I will never hurt him. As long as Naruto is with me, there is nothing anyone can do to hurt me. "

Sakura was quiet for a long time after that, and Hinata let her alone. Sakura remained quiet, not saying much even when she pulled one of Sasuke's arms over her shoulders to help him down the stairs after the fight.

The nurse on duty made a lot of noise about Naruto challenging Sasuke to a fight when he was injured, only to be reduced to muttering and glares when Sasuke said that he had started the fight. She left soon after that, wrapping Sasuke's ribs and splinting his finger and applying some healing chakra.

Naruto and the rest left soon after that. "So what are you guys gonna go do now?" Ino asked outside the front doors of the hospital.

Naruto looked at Hinata and Tenten before answering. "Probably go train. It has been a while since we have had a team session."

"Would you mind if I tagged along? With Sasuke-kun hospitalized, Kakashi-sensei and Kiba-kun have disappeared. Well, Kiba is probably at his house with his sister, but I don't really have anyone to train with for the time being.

"I don't see why not. You wanna come too Ino-chan?"

"What the hell. I don't really have anything to do. I will just get stuck on the register if I go home anyways. Why don't we go looking for Gai-sensei and Lee and we can make it a team thing?"

"Sounds good to me," Naruto said and was backed up by Tenten and Hinata.

Ino led the way, as she would know how to find her teacher and last teammate best. Predictably, Gai and Lee were in the process of pounding the snot out of one another and were more than happy to oblige them. Of course, it took several minutes to calm them down when they realized that Naruto was a chunin now.

Well aware of Naruto's speed, easily outclassing anyone on his team but himself, Gai took the first turn against Team Nine, just to judge what kind of skill the three combines possessed. It was almost immediately apparent that Naruto did not have a monopoly on speed in Team Nine. Compared to Naruto, Tenten and Hinata were positively sluggish, but still as fast if not faster than most people's Body Flickers. It took less than a minute into the team spar for Team Nine to slow themselves so that they did not completely overwhelm Team Gai.

Speed was not the only thing that Team Nine had cross-trained in either. Naruto and Hinata displayed some proficiency in Tenten's levitation trick as well.

Individually, each one was probably a match for any of his students, even Lee. One on one, it would have been no contest. Three on one, with Gai handicapping himself to about one-third strength, the overall approximate strength of a chunin, they fought him to a standstill. They showed remarkable teamwork on top of everything else, showing the effect of thousands of hours practicing together.

They showed an impressive jutsu arsenal, both in size and variation. Tenten and Hinata had at least four techniques, three in what he assumed to be their primary element, and one in the element strong against their primary element's weak one. Naruto showed a slightly larger repertoire, two non-elemental techniques on top of what seemed to Team Nine's standard four elemental ones. None of them had shown any genjutsu at all, but even with the lack, he would say that between their skill in ninjutsu, hand-to-hand taijutsu and kenjutsu, any one of them could easily qualify for chunin, never mind that one of them had gotten promoted. Hell, he could probably name a dozen chunin off the top of his head that would lose to any one of Team Nine.

The three members of Team Nine had not pulled any punches either. He had wanted to judge their skill in each of the various schools of shinobi combat, so he ordered them to limit themselves to hand-to-hand at first, then weapons mastery, and ninjutsu at last.

It took him less than a minute to realize that three-on-one was not going to get them to go all out as he wanted, so he nodded at his genin cell who were watching from the sidelines to join in. Hand-to-hand, he and his team was able to stalemate their opponents, more or less. Naruto, only using two clones so as not to give himself undue advantage was able to match Gai and Lee blow for blow. Tenten quickly had Ino routed, and Hinata's fight with Neji was not as one-sided as it was the last time they fought. But once he signaled for everyone to arm themselves, it was clear within seconds that fighting with blades was where Team Nine truly shined, Naruto and Hinata's swords and Tenten's tessen giving them an insurmountable advantage versus Ino and Neji's kunai and shuriken. He and Lee fared somewhat better against Naruto with their nunchaku, but it was close.

Ten minutes after the first blow had been thrown, Gai called a halt. In hindsight, he should have realized that Team Nine was a heavy combat squad, the mission to Grass and their performance in the Chunin Preliminaries and Finals providing more than enough evidence for such a conclusion. In a straight-up fight, such as he had offered, Team Nine would probably dominate most teams. Certainly any team he could think of that had graduated in the last two years. They were war shinobi through and through, no doubts about it. Despite being one of the foremost experts in taijutsu, with Ino and Neji, his team was a reconnaissance and scout squad, Lee and he providing the muscle to get them to safety if they required a rapid extraction. "You three fought very well today, and showed an impressive degree of skill. I can't offer much help with your bladework and I did not see any glaring defects with your ninjutsu but I can help you with your taijutsu. Tell me Naruto-kun, what style do you use? I don't recognize it."

"You wouldn't. It is something that I have kind of cobbled together."

"Well, it is certainly unique." And something that was probably limited to Naruto. It was three-dimensional in a way that few martial arts were, lots of aerial kicks and punches, oftentimes using a shadow clone to launch him into the air, or use for a Body Replacement. It was inelegant, with lots of heavy-handed punches and axe kicks, very straightforward despite the acrobatics. It had a lot of openings and unnecessary flourishes that Gai tried to help eliminate in the short time he had.

Making a shadow clone himself, he had the clone take Lee and Naruto to one side of the field, Lee and the clone mock-sparring, trying to point out element of his Strong Fist style that Naruto could use to improve his own style.

He set Hinata up against Neji, doing much of the same with her as his clone was doing with Naruto. He surprised Hinata with his knowledge of Jyuuken forms, something that would without a doubt alarm Hiashi. Although maybe it was not such a surprise, given that he had a Hyuuga on his genin cell. Nevertheless, he was able to point out some flaws in her form, giving her what seemed to her to be incorrect corrections. Again, after a moment's consideration, she knew what was going on. It was not formally acknowledged, but there were two schools of the Jyuuken: one practiced by the Main House, one practiced by the Branch House. The two were virtually identical, save that there were more higher-level techniques in the Main Houses school of Jyuuken, such as the Eight Trigrams Heavenly Spin and Eight Trigrams Sixty-four Palms. However, the Branch House had developed a few minor changes to the Jyuuken to offset this. In many ways, the Branch House style was just as effective, more so if one were to take into account that the Branch House made do with less.

In any case, Gai was able to offer some good advice and accurate corrections to her form. Neji was still able to beat her, but it was not the effortless domination of previous fights. It had been noted by several people, herself included, that the greatest factor that was holding her Jyuuken back was her lack of self-confidence. Combined with real instruction for the first time in years, she had gone from 'abject failure' to 'reasonably competent' in the space of about two months. Of course, Neji was still the best fighter in a generation, but between Neji's lack of true animosity towards her and her newfound skill, she was at least able to offer the illusion of being able to keep up with Neji.

Tenten was much in the same situation when it came to hand-to-hand combat with her shikai as Naruto was with his taijutsu, in that she had to improvise much of her technique when she fought. Her weapon was pretty unique, but it was similar enough to Gai's nunchaku to adapt his nunchaku-fu to her twin tessen and chain with only a little creative thinking. In fact, he offered to give her several scrolls on nunchaku fighting in order to help her improve her close-combat skills. He also asked to look at her guns, and a quick dissertation on her use had him pointing out flaws, several of which Tenten had already created workarounds to correct. Of course, the biggest and most obvious drawback was that they were single-shot, had to be reloaded after every discharge.

"Have you thought of trying to turn any of your guns into repeating firearms?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, the biggest drawback to your guns is that they are single-shot. Have you thought about somehow carrying cartridges so that you don't have to reload after every shot? That way you do not have to reload after every shot."

Pulling a cartridge out from a pouch, she examined it with a speculative expression. "No, not really. Kind of surprised that I haven't, now that I think about it. I would have to redesign the cartridges though. I don't think they would be sturdy enough for a spring- or gas-loading mechanism. Maybe some kind of rotating cylinder, here above the trigger."

"What about a gravity-fed magazine? You would have a tube, or something that would drop a cartridge in the chamber when it was empty."

"I still think that would require a cartridge redesign, because I would have to somehow eject whatever is left of the cartridges. My rifles are kind of self-cleaning, incinerating everything but the bullet, but I tend to get stuff left over in my pistols."

"Well, it is just an idea."

"Yeah, I know. It is a really good idea, just needs some tweaking. Thanks Gai-sensei. I don't know if I would have ever thought of trying anything like that on my own."

"No problem. Just glad I could help." That was followed by a wide smile and a thumbs-up. The rest of the afternoon was spent on target practice. Gai was impressed at the skill with which Tenten wielded her firearms, months of practice showing. She had a marksman's eye, her accuracy not diminishing as much as one might expect at longer ranges. And once their ammunition was expended, Tenten was perfectly capable of flipping them around to use the steel-capped butts as clubs. He even blinked in surprise when she hurled one at him, coming close to striking him. Given how highly she seemed to prize her guns, he had not expected her to do that.

He had teamed Sakura and Ino up against Tenten, and he immediately recognized his rival's influence on the girl. His ad-hoc style of taijutsu was unmistakable and her ninjutsu usage was classic Kakashi. Kakashi, despite being being a ninjutsu-specialist had often remarked on and lamented his less-than-impressive chakra reserves. His Sharingan required an astonishing amount of chakra, even when covered used some chakra, although a tiny fraction of what it used when exposed. And it looked like Sakura had much of the same problems, her stellar control offset by having less chakra.

Frankly, he was amazed at the quality of shinobi that had come out of last year's class. Team Nine aside, there was the genius Nara boy on Asuma's team, and the Uchiha prodigy on Kakashi's. Hell, in any other class, Sakura probably would have been the Rookie of the Year. It was only in comparison with monsters like her former classmates that she fell short. Her taijutsu was nothing to write home about, but she more than made up for it with her brains and technique. Next to speed demons like Naruto and himself, she was easily overmatched, but she was faster than the average genin, her propensity to use clones only made it worse. She used her ninjutsu sparingly, but to good effect, devising fiendishly complicated traps and plans. He was quite embarrassed to admit that he really needed to up the ante if his team was to prove to be any match against any of the rookie teams.

The afternoon passed, and all too quickly it was time for training to end. The six genin, one chunin and one jounin all went their separate ways.

Teams Nine and Ten had been the first to find out about the Sandaime's condition and retirement, but it was not kept quiet for long as news of the jounin being called for Assembly swept through the town the next day. There were only a handful off reasons for the Jounin Assembly to be called to order, and the first and foremost reason was the confirmation of a new Hokage. To most it was proof positive that the Hokage was going to retire and was naming his successor, although who was going to be the Fifth was up for discussion. Most agreed it was likely to be either Tsunade, Jiraiya or Kakashi, the first two qualifying by virtue of their status as Sannin, and the third the son of the White Fang, the Copy-nin. It was not confirmed until the day after, the second day after Naruto and Shikamaru's promotions that it was announced that Sarutobi was indeed going into retirement again.

Thousands packed the square before the Tower for Tsunade's inauguration. The ranks of shinobi were assembled in front, according to rank and status, Academy students and genin at the very front, with chunin and jounin behind them, jounin-sensei standing by their students and chunin captains with their teams. The civilians were massed according to their time of arrival behind the ninja.

Finally, Tsunade appeared on the balcony above the crowd, flanked by a wheelchair-bound Sarutobi and his former advisers. Tsunade was already wearing her robes of office, face shadowed by the veiled hat at first, until she raised her face to look over the assembled multitude and began to speak. "The village has changed quite a bit while I was gone, but starting today the village is my responsibility as the Fifth Hokage. I swear to protect Konoha with my life, and in return I ask you to trust my leadership, that I will not spend lives carelessly, nor that I will hoard and hide away the fruits of your labors. I promise to strengthen Konoha, to make sure that we remain the greatest Hidden Village in the world."