Chapter 27: Return Triumphant
It was well past dark by the time that the Sasuke Retrieval Team returned to Konoha, their progress slowed by their injuries and Naruto collecting the bodies of their defeated foemen. It turned out that Tayuya had not actually been killed, but pretty was damn close by getting her flute shoved into her brain. Nobody was sure how she had survived that, but she was alive. Her pulse was weak and her breathing irregular, but she was in no immediate danger. Her head was bandaged, her flute stabilized and left in place for the moment. She remained unconscious the entire way back to Konoha, Kidomaru ordered to carry her after she had been bandaged and disarmed.
Tenten's ammo scrolls had been emptied so that Naruto could seal the bodies of Kimimaro, Sakon/Ukon and Jirobo in them. Barely an hour into the return trip Kakashi, who had returned from a mission early, accompanied by a team of medics intercepted them and ordered Shikamaru to brief him on what had happened. He didn't mind carrying Sasuke and was well within his rights to demand a debriefing as the only jounin present, so Shikamaru filled him in on what had happened.
Nevertheless, between recovering from the aftermath of their battles, collecting bodies and prisoners, and linking up with Kakashi, they took several hours longer to get home than to get the Valley. Kakashi was able to get them past the gates with a minimum of fuss and they headed straight for the hospital. While Naruto and Sasuke were the worst off among the Konoha shinobi, everyone was suffering from degrees of chakra exhaustion and strained muscles at the very least. Tayuya (still comatose) and Kidomaru were quickly whisked away and removed to the secure ward while the two chunin and three genin were ushered into examination rooms. Team Nine proved to be a bit of a problem, as they were adamant that they not be separated. Eventually Naruto was coaxed into letting go of Hinata and Tenten's shoulders and the girls released his arms, on the premise that they would be reunited once they had had been inspected.
The five members of the Sasuke Retrieval Team had not suffered any life-threatening wounds, Neji suffering from three cracked ribs, and a sprained wrist, Shikamaru had a broken finger, fractured forearm and several mild sprains. Hinata only had a single cut on her cheek and Tenten nothing worse than a case of chakra exhaustion. Naruto had suffered the worst injuries, the stab wound in his gut, the bullet wound in his shoulder and first, second and third degree burns from overexposure to the Kyuubi's chakra. Normally speaking, the damage would have been healed long since, but his regeneration had been noted to become depressed to near-human levels after using a certain amount of Kyuubi chakra. He had remained conscious for hours on the way back, but he was far from healthy.
The kunai wound was repaired within a few minutes, the blood pooling in his abdomen drawn out and incinerated, as was the bullet wound. The shot was not a through-and-through, so it took the medics, unfamiliar with gunshot wounds, almost twenty minutes to find the bullet, extract it and the pieces of cloth from his multiple layers of clothing that the bullet had carried into his shoulder. Had they been left where they were, the small patches would have suppurated and gotten infected. His immune system would have been able to deal with the infection, but not the cloth itself. In any case, the gunshot wound was cleaned and mended.
Unfortunately, as advanced as medical techniques had become, burns were still tricky injuries to deal with, chakra burns even more so. On top of all that, the fact that he suffered burns on almost one hundred percent of his body meant that there was very little they could do. The only blessing in all this was that very little of his body had suffered significant burn damage. Most of it was mild, about as bad as a severe sunburn. Regardless, any second or third degree burn that covered about ten to fifteen percent of the total body surface area or more was life threatening in a normal human. The worst of the burns had been concentrated on his hands and forearms, and around the wounds in his shoulder and gut. He was wrapped in bandages, almost from head to foot.
If Naruto had been anyone else, there would have been major concerns about infection, heart damage, blood flow to the extremities (or peripheral vascular resistance) and decreased blood volume, (aka hypovolemia.) Naruto being Naruto seemed to be suffering from none of these, to the simultaneous surprise (quickly shaken off, as if they should have expected it,) and relief. Had anyone but Naruto suffered his injuries, that person would have been dead in two or three hours.
The next problem was analgesia. Naruto had a problematic and well-documented near-immunity to painkillers. His metabolism was such that he often metabolized any painkillers in less than ten minutes, unless several opioid and opiates were combined and administered in quantities that would put any three men into cardiac arrest in seconds. But despite the incredible pain he had to have been experiencing, he refused the medication until he knew how his women were doing.
Sasuke had not fared well, yet was in nowhere near the condition Naruto was in. Aside from the numerous cuts on his face, he had a concussion, a broken arm, some cracked ribs, a contusion on one of his kidneys and three compressed vertebra. His injuries would take time to heal, especially the spinal damage, but nothing was life threatening.
The next morning came in a blond and busty package sniggering and whispering to a long haired, elderly gent who was trying to stifle his own amusement. Hinata was the first to be roused by the pair's subdued laughter, attempting to deathglare them into leaving. Of course they didn't, their laughter becoming louder until Tenten was woken up, and finally a mummified Naruto by all the movement on the bed.
The reason for the two loyal Sannin's amusement was the fact that Naruto, Hinata and Tenten had, despite protests from the nurses all cozied up in a single bed. Now, the situation might have been less hilarious had all three been wearing their normal attire, or even sleepwear. But as anyone who has suffered a condition that necessitated a visit to a hospital knows, any patient is relieved of their clothes and given a paper gown to wear, which almost always gaps in the back. And while there were some differences between military and civilian hospitals, the dress code was not one of them. Hinata and Tenten, lying on opposite sides of Naruto, each tucked under one of Naruto's arms discovered that their Naruto's hands had wandered during the night and drifted well south of the belt line, acquiring pleasant handfuls of white generic issue cotton panty-clad buttocks.
Both girls flushed, but whether it was from being groped, or being caught being groped was up for discussion. Choking on their laughter, the two Sannin left a few seconds later. Several minutes passed and the Hokage returned, this time with Shikamaru and Neji in tow as well.
"Well, don't you look comfortable?" Shikamaru asked when everyone had entered.
Naruto grinned. "Jealousy is an ugly emotion," he shot back. Tenten and Hinata had raised the back of the bed and helped Naruto into a sitting position where he could hug them both, and they could hug him back.
"Right. 'One pretty woman means fun at the dance. Two pretty women mean trouble in the house. Three pretty women means run for the hills.'"
Jiraiya roared. "You know, your father said something remarkably similar a long time ago. It would seem that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Shikamaru looked away when Hinata and Tenten directed hard stares his way.
"In any case, if we can get to the matter for which we are all here?" Tsunade asked somewhat acerbically. She waited long enough for someone to speak and when no one did, she continued. "First of all Shikamaru-san, congratulations on your first successfully completed mission. The payment for a B-ranked mission as well as bonuses for the bodies you recovered and the two Sound ninja you captured will be deposited into all your accounts. Now, I know you haven't had the chance to even start on your after-action reports, but I would like to hear what happened while it is fresh."
Shikamaru nodded and began speaking. Tsunade listened closely, not interrupting even when Shikamaru related how Naruto killed Jirobo. His part of the report took almost half an hour, handing the narration off to Tenten and Hinata to describe the fight with Kimimaro, and finally to Naruto to tell about his fight with Sasuke, looping back to Shikamaru and Neji to fill in any gaps.
The entire verbal mission report took a few minutes over an hour, Tsunade waiting until they had completed their report before interrogating them. Her questions were brief, concerning details about the Sound Five, Kimimaro, Sakon and Ukon in particular. The prisoners had been handed over to Ibiki in T&I for processing as soon as Team Shikamaru had returned to Konoha, but had held off the interrogations until Team Shikamaru had a chance to submit their reports. Ibiki was a methodical man, and he never went into an interrogation without all the information available. Tsunade said that she wanted their reports by the end of the day and excusing herself and Jiraiya, left.
For probably the first time in over a decade, Tsunade well and truly did not know what to do. She was in her office, Jiraiya, Utatane Koharu and Mitokado Homura arrayed on the furniture along the wall. The problem was Sasuke. "I am not sure how far we can punish him. He has already been placed on a six month suspension and house arrest. Given whom he is, and the fact that he has already tried to defect once, I am wary about doing anything to alienate him further."
"The boy is a genin who tried to run off to Orochimaru and you are worried about punishing him too much?" Scorn was plenty evident in Jiraiya's tone and body language.
"As distasteful as it is, yes. Like it or not, he is the last Uchiha in Konoha. And his defection would be a severe blow to our strength. And before you say anything, I know we have been able to do well enough in the last five years," Tsunade said, preempting Jiraiya, "but the Uchiha were a major asset. Sasuke is our last chance to regain the Uchiha as a viable military resource. So yes, I am wary of doing anything to make him angrier than he is. At this point, he would be willing to join anyone who said they could help him kill Itachi. I have read over his instructors psych evals while he was at the Academy, as well as Kakashi's reports. I examined him after he was defeated by his brother before I was brought back, and he I am sure that he wouldn't have attempted something like this before he was beaten. The damage to his psyche is significant, perhaps more so than anyone realized."
"You realize what you are doing Tsunade? Courting a genin like this?"
"I know Jiraiya, and it leaves as bad a taste in my mouth as it does yours. If you have a better way of keeping Sasuke here short of twenty four hour surveillance or imprisonment, I am all ears."
"Let Naruto talk to him."
"Is that altogether wise?" Koharu asked.
"Trust me, I know my apprentice. He is as angered by Sasuke's attempting to defect as anyone else is. Naruto is the only one of his generation Sasuke respects, and I think that he is the only person who could possibly get through to him right now. He certainly has a better chance to get through to him than Kakashi or Iruka does. Having one of the T&I guys just show up will put him on his guard, make him clam up completely. Maybe send him to one of Ibiki's guys later, but he needs someone he knows right now."
"Well, I don't suppose that he could make things much worse," Homura mused.
"If Naruto was of a mind, I have no doubt that he could send Sasuke running to Water, even with their history with bloodlines. But I agree with Jiraiya. At this point, anyone who can get through to Sasuke is welcome to try."
Wrapped up in white bandages, almost from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, Naruto was wheeled out of his room and into the secure ward of the hospital. Passing a dozen heavy steel security doors set into the walls, the nurse pushing him stopped in front of room 1108. Swiping her card through the reader beside the door, she waited for the green light to flick on and the loud metal clank of the lock disengaging. Backing through the door, the nurse pulled Naruto through as the door swung open. Rolling his wheelchair to the head of the bed, she stepped back into the corner and folded her hands and waited. Her instructions had been to bring Naruto to this room and wait.
Sasuke was lying in the bed on his back, hemmed in by burnished steel safety rails. He was not handcuffed to the bed, or restrained in any way, the seals built into the walls, floor and ceiling assuring that Sasuke would be staying right where he was. The area suppression seals had been set to their highest settings, restricting any free flowing chakra to the bare minimum required for vital bodily functions.
To anyone inside the array, including Naruto, it would feel like the life had been leached out of them, the blonds limbs gaining a hundred pounds, eyes heavy with sand, even his hair seeming to drag down. Neither boy said anything and the silence stretched. Naruto wasn't exactly sure how long he waited, probably somewhere between thirty and forty minutes, for Sasuke to speak. When he did, it was with his usual brevity.
"I said go away," Sasuke repeated tonelessly.
"And I said no," Naruto responded with almost the same exact tone. Sasuke fell silent for another ten minutes.
"Why are you here dumbass?"
"The same reason why you would come in my place, bastard. I am your friend."
"Yeah. Or at least I thought so before you went running off to Orochimaru. That was a seriously stupid move on your part by the way."
"Curl your lip and sneer all you like, but you still went off without a moment's planning. Seriously, getting caught by Sakura leaving the village? I thought you were supposed to be the Rookie of the Year?"
"Is there a reason why you are here, or did you come just to bother me."
"I came here hoping that I could try to talk some sense into you. You know that the Hokage was seriously considering throwing you in prison and tossing away the key?"
Sasuke blinked. "Ridiculous. I am the Last Uchiha."
"Believe it or not, your name does not have the pull it once did. She seems to be of the opinion that you are too dangerous to risk losing. She would rather stick you in the deepest, darkest hole she can find rather than risk having you defect." Sasuke did not have anything to say to that, so Naruto continued. "I came because I convinced her to let me talk to you, to try to convince you not to try such a stupid stunt again. What do I have to do to make you realize you can get as strong as you must right here?"
"That man was an ANBU captain by the time he was as old as I am now!"
"And he was a genius. You have admitted that you aren't, so trying to hold yourself to his standards is ludicrous. Of course it is going to take you longer to get to be as strong as he is, but are you on a clock? Do you have to kill him in the next year? Two?" No answer. "So what is the rush? Gain strength, push yourself to be your best, but don't push yourself beyond your limits. Train hard, but don't expect to get strong overnight. Kakashi is a jounin for a reason, so trust him. He has no reason to sabotage your training and every reason to aid it. There are people here that want to see you grow strong, if you would just open your eyes. Konoha loves you man, why would you go and throw that away? You have everything that you could possibly want here. Love, respect, admiration, everything that I have ever wanted from the village, they give to you without even thinking about it. Yes, your brother is a psychopath that murdered your entire family in a single night and mindfucked you twice, but you have so much more good to balance it out!"
Naruto wasn't quite shouting, but he was speaking with emphasis, leaning forward and bracing himself on the steel rails. Sasuke found himself looking at Naruto, almost despite himself when he heard the pain in Naruto's voice. Sasuke looked on with an expression just shy of total shock at the sight of Naruto nearly crying.
"All I have ever wanted in my life is to have the villagers look at me with the respect and admiration that they look at you with. A whole village of admirers, and you would leave all that behind to join the most hated criminal in the history of Konoha. Tell me, did you know that Orochimaru wanted to kill you and take your body for his own?"
"Yes," Sasuke replied softly.
"You knew? And you went anyway? Is there anything that you would have not given Orochimaru if he had offered you more power?"
Sasuke shifted his gaze to the wall away from Naruto, unable to answer. "What about restoring your clan? How are you supposed to restore your clan if you die to get your revenge on Itachi? And what about those you left behind? Sakura was a wreck. I can guarantee that she was worrying herself into having a fit when you left. That girl worships the ground you walk on you know. I courted her for years, but you were the only person she ever thought about. And she is not the only one. Ino has been as devoted to you as Sakura has. You are not alone Sasuke. You never were. You still have family, if you would just look."
Motioning to the nurse, she started to wheel him out of the room. As he rolled through the door, Naruto tossed one last comment over his shoulder. "I consider you my best friend, after Hinata and Tenten, but if you ever try to defect again, I will kill you."
Sasuke shuddered at the flatness in Naruto's voice and closed his eyes. Maybe Naruto had a point. If Naruto could get strong enough to defeat him under the tutelage of a tokubetsu jounin, then he should be able to eclipse Naruto with a full jounin as his teacher easily.
The nurse had turned to begin rolling Naruto back to his hospital room when he held out a hand to stop her and turned the other way. There was a figure emerging from one of the rooms, a redheaded child surrounded several taller people. Motioning for the nurse to push him over there, Naruto cleared his throat. "What is going on here?"
"Ah, Uzumaki-san, I did not see you there, sir," one of the Konoha ninja said. Strictly speaking, the sir and salute the other chunin gave him was unnecessary, but Naruto nodded and returned it anyways. "Prisoner exchange, sir. He has been ransomed out."
"I see." Gaara was in the middle of the group, hands enclosed in a pair of hollow steel balls, both weighting hands and preventing hand signs. His two siblings were also present, as well as their jounin-sensei.
"Naruto-kun," Gaara said quietly, staring with his usual disturbing intensity, although Naruto noted the absence of killing intent his gaze was usually laced with.
"If you don't mind, I would like to speak to him privately for a moment please."
"Of course, sir," the Konoha ninja said immediately. Gaara's team was much less willing to let the two alone, but backed off at a nod from the redhead.
"Going home?" Gaara nodded. "How have you been doing?"
Gaara cocked his head and thought about it before he answered. "Good. I sleep now."
"Ero-sennin have a look at your seal?" Gaara nodded silently. "Good. I am glad that he was able to help you."
"So am I."
Naruto laughed. "I imagine so. But seriously, I am glad that he was able to help you. My life hasn't been all roses, but what your father did to you was wrong. You never deserved what was done to you, and I hope that you can move past it and learn to live your life."
"I believe I can." Gaara paused for a few seconds, visibly arranging his thoughts. "I have learned a lot about you in the past month. The nurse that brought me my food and took care of me was more than willing to tell me about you, and I wish to be more like you. In fact, I have decided that I want to become the Kazekage of my village."
Naruto grinned widely and put his hands behind his head, squinting his eyes. "That is a great goal. Maybe the next time we see each other, we will each be the leader of our villages?"
"We will see," Gaara replied with a small smile and stuck out his hand. Naruto took it without hesitating and shook it. Naruto turned his wheelchair to watch Gaara, his team and their escorts enter the elevator. Naruto gave a short wave, to which Gaara replied with a shallow bow.
Once the elevator doors closed, Naruto let the nurse return him to his room. To his surprise, Sakura was there, sitting in a chair, talking with Tenten and Hinata. Neji had also arrived, leaning in the back left corner of the room, in a pastel green hospital gown like everyone else.
"Morning Sakura-chan. Morning Neji-kun."
"Good morning Naruto," they both replied simultaneously.
"Whatcha doing here?"
"I came to see how you were doing." Sakura bit her lip as she examined his bandages form from where she sat.
"I am doing okay. I am really better than I look. The doctors are just being overly cautious."
"I see." Sakura hesitated several seconds before she asked her next question. "Um… if you don't mind, could I speak to you privately?"
Glancing to where Hinata and Tenten were sitting, he quirked an eyebrow at them. Without saying anything, Tenten nodded, and the three left the room, closing the door on the way out.
"Thank you," Sakura exhaled.
"No problem. Now what did you want."
"I just wanted to thank you for bringing Sasuke back."
"Stop right there, Sakura-chan. I already said you didn't need to thank me. You are a friend, and I would do the same for anyone else. Well, maybe not anyone per se, but you get the idea."
"I know, and I wanted to thank you anyways. You didn't have to try so hard to bring him back, yet you did. I never wanted this to happen to you, to any of you. I just wanted Sasuke-kun to come home."
"And he is. He is a little messed up in the head right now and he is going to need you to help him get better. I wouldn't be who I am today were it not for Tenten and Hinata. I am a better person because of them, and you are going to have to do the same for Sasuke. He is going to need someone to be by his side as he gets through this, and that someone is you."
"You think so?"
"You are a good person Sakura-chan. Sasuke does not know what he has in you. Just be there for him. He won't talk to me, but he might to you, eventually."
"I am not so sure about that. You are the closest thing he has to a friend. Why would he choose to confide in me of all people?"
"It is a guy thing. There are things that I would never be able to tell Iruka-sensei or Shikamaru or Choji that I can tell Tenten-chan or Hinata-chan. Be patient and don't push him, and he will open up to you eventually."
Sakura nodded, chewing her lower lip. "Have you seen him yet? The nurses won't let me in to see him."
"Yeah, the Hokage wanted me to try to talk some sense into him, which was where I just came from."
"How is he doing?"
"Well, like I said, he has had his noggin messed with, and he is trying to deal with that right now. Most of his injuries are not too bad though. Most of the damage was mental."
"Do you know when they will let him have visitors?"
"No. Probably not until the Hokage decides to let him out of the secure ward, at least. Maybe you could ask her to let you see him. Might do him some good to see a friendly face or two."
"I will do that then. Thank you for listening to me."
"I told you already Sakura-chan, I don't mind. I am always happy to help a friend out."
"I know you are. You are a really good guy, Naruto-kun." Bending over to plant a light kiss on his cheek, Sakura walked out of the room.
Ibiki watched the monitor dispassionately as several nurses were bent over the form of a young woman, frantically trying to save her life. He didn't bother to look up when the door to the darkened room opened and closed behind him.
"I am afraid not Hokage-sama. Whatever Orochimaru did, it was brilliant. I will give the man one thing, he knew how to keep secrets."
"You are sure it isn't the seal."
"I am positive. The Cursed Seal has been warded away. I had Jiraiya perform the sealing himself."
"And you have inspected the prisoner for additional seals."
"Thoroughly. Whatever is preventing them from speaking, it is top rate. My money is on some sort of neural programming."
"Can you break it?"
"I don't know. Whenever I mention something related to Orochimaru, Sound, their mission to retrieve Sasuke, or the Uchiha himself, even in passing, this is what you get." On the other side of the monitor, Tayuya was lying prostrate on a gurney, straining against the restraints. Even with straps across her forehead, shoulders, chest, hips, and calves, she was barely held in place. The only parts of her actually touching the gurney were her head and heels, her hips thrust upwards in a quivering arch. Her one remaining eye was opened as wide as it could go, white showing all around her iris and her mouth was opened in a silent scream. A slit had been made in her throat and a straw inserted so she could breathe, a plastic oxygen mask attached to that.
Neither onlooker blinked when one of the nurses wound back and gave Tayuya a shot of epinephrine straight to the heart. Ibiki and Tsunade remained silent and watched as Tayuya was eventually brought back from the brink of death and sedated. "Well… that was certainly exciting."
"Ha," Ibiki replied dryly.
"How do you plan on going on from here?"
"At the moment, I am not sure. Orochimaru's programming is incredible. Before I can get anything of use out of her or the other one, I have to break the programming, or bypass it."
"I assume that you have already tried genjutsu and hypnosis."
"I have. With about equally effective results."
"And sedation has failed?"
"Yes. I have used every single cocktail there is out there, and made one or two new ones, but no matter what her state of mind, as soon as I try to get something out of her, this happens."
"What about the Yamanakas?"
"As a last resort only. Given who we are dealing with, I can only guess what sort of traps Orochimaru has designed for prevent anyone from mindwalking the subject. It is possible that there is nothing in there preventing a mindwalk, but I wouldn't bet on it. Worst case, someone goes in there and her brains scramble. If she does get mindwalked, it has to be a full circle."
"What about the other one?"
"Exactly the same. I brush anything remotely interesting and he just shuts down."
"I see. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Not at the moment. I still have to figure out exactly what we are dealing with."
"Hm. Well please notify me as soon as you have something."
"I will ma'am."
The first concrete thought that Naruto mustered was that if that was a summons from Tsunade at the door, Orochimaru had better be breaking the gates down, or someone was going to get a piece of his mind. He was sitting on the side of the bed, in the process of gingerly pulling on a pair of sleeper pants because of his shoulder when he heard the door slam open. Sleep instantly forgotten in light of an intruder, Naruto leapt to his feet, baring the gladius-form of Kitsune. Tenten had likewise armed herself with her two largest pistols, almost ridiculously oversized in her delicate hands, thumbs on the hammers. Jerking his head to the open doorway, he waited for Tenten to signal her readiness before rolling through the door, staying low as Tenten covered him from farther back in the room. He did not hear the crack of her pistols, and saw why a split-second later.
A somewhat surprised Ino stood at the head of a gaggle of their former classmates and friends. Everyone froze for a moment to take in the sight of a half-dressed Naruto and nearly-naked Tenten (who was clad only in her bra and panties) armed and ready to attack. Tenten stepped to the side and out of sight after a second, leaving Naruto standing in the hallway with one leg in a pair of thin pajama bottoms and boxers. Naruto didn't say anything, just held a finger up and trudged back to the bedroom, slamming the door closed behind him.
The pair emerged a few minutes later, properly attired. Ino and company, which included Shikamaru, Choji, Shino and Sakura, had made themselves comfortable on what little furniture there was, Ino perched on the edge of the bar.
"So may I ask what was so important that it required you to break down my door Ino-san?" Tenten asked tartly.
Ino just giggled, responding with a query of her own. "Did we interrupt something important?"
"Ino-san, it is ten a.m. on a day off after a mission so yes, we were sleeping in. Now, what do you want?"
Ino said nothing, smiling widely and picked a gift-wrapped box off the top of a small pile on the bar. It was big, but not huge, maybe about half the size of a breadbox. When Naruto reached out to take the gift, Ino snatched it back with a scowl. "Hey, was I offering this to you? This is Tenten's present."
Naruto scowled back as Tenten took the proffered present. Carefully peeling the paper away, she blinked in surprise at what was inside.
"Silverware? Is this supposed to be a housewarming party?"
"Ino-chan said that you had moved into your own place last week, so she dragged us all out shopping." That was Choji.
"Aren't the homeowners supposed to organize the party?" Naruto asked.
"This is Ino, are you really surprised?"
"Point taken Shikamaru."
"And what is that supposed to mean?" Ino asked.
"Well, you can be aggressively assertive at times."
"And how is that a bad thing Shino?"
"It can be when it gets out of control. Why do you think Shikamaru brought me along?"
Ino folded her arms under her breasts and pouted. "You're mean Forehead."
"Doesn't change the truth."
"Instead of bickering among ourselves, why don't we continue with opening the presents? I am sure that Tenten-san and Naruto-san have other things they would like to do today."
The pout vanished from Ino's face in the blink of an eye, replaced with a smirk. "Things best done in privacy, I'd be willing to bet."
Tenten flushed, but Naruto was unfazed. "Perhaps, perhaps not. That would be for us to know and you never to find out."
"I wouldn't bet on that," Ino replied with an impressive leer.
"Ino-pig," Sakura said in a warning tone, and handed Tenten the next present. "I thought you lived with Hinata-chan, Naruto. What are you doing here so early in the morning?"
"Well, I wouldn't exactly call it early, but I'm a shadow clone. The real me is with Hinata-chan."
"Ah. Makes sense I suppose."
"As good as the real thing as long as things don't get too rough."
Naruto sighed. "You are going to be making innuendo the entire time you are here, aren't you Ino?"
"Are you kidding, one of us women has to do the dirty work, and if Forehead won't do it, then it falls to me to make fun of you two."
Tenten gave Ino a dry look to which Ino replied with a grin. Tenten had finished unwrapping the second present, which turned out to be a small counter-top grill from Choji. Sakura had gotten them a set of thick ceramic plates and bowls, flowers and ivy embossed around the edges as well as some wine charms. A thick cookbook entitled '1001 Meals Under 10 Minutes' was from Shikamaru. The largest present was from Shino and turned out to be a brand new microwave oven that had been liberally decorated with cutesy little ladybug stickers. "That would be my sister," Shino said quietly. It was difficult to tell from behind his shades and high collar, but Naruto could detect a faint trace of embarrassment in his tone.
"You have a sister?" Ino asked in surprise.
"She is seven years old. She is at an age where ladybugs and the like fascinate her."
Tenten smiled. "It is just fine the way it is Shino-kun."
It was early evening before Ino and company departed, leaving Naruto lying on the couch with an arm over his eyes. Tenten was in the kitchenette cleaning up from the remains of dinner, take out from a nearby restaurant that Choji had gotten. Once all the boxes had been thrown away and the counters wiped down, Tenten went into the living area and flopped down on top of Naruto.
"Oof," Naruto grunted. "Feeling better?" he continued after a few moments of silence.
"Yeah, I guess. It was nice."
"Heh, I know what you mean. Ino can be abrasive and bossy sometimes, but she does know how to make people feel better."
"She does at that. Been a while since any of us have had a real free day."
"God yes," Naruto agreed. "If it isn't one thing it's another. First it was the Chunin Exams, then it was the invasion, then I had to go look for Tsunade, then Jiraiya made the seal for her to heal the Hokage in, then Sasuke ran off and we had to go get him. Last month or two have been crazy as hell. Doesn't leave much time for ourselves."
"Maybe we could request some vacation time. Get out of Konoha for a while."
Naruto laughed. "I wish. No way Tsunade would agree to that."
"Probably," Tenten reluctantly agreed.
The pair lay in silence for several minutes until Naruto abruptly sat up, almost throwing Tenten off the couch. "Okay, we're going out."
"I dunno, just out." Naruto tossed Tenten her sandals and she put them on. Locking the door behind them, Tenten followed Naruto down when he hopped over the railing to the ground from the second floor where her apartment was. Twining his fingers with Tenten's, the pair walked shoulder to shoulder. Naruto didn't say anything as they meandered.
"So where are we going?" Tenten finally asked.
"Nowhere in particular. Just out for a stroll. How often have we been able to do this? Just take a walk, nowhere to go, no one to see."
"Not often," Tenten admitted.
"But isn't it nice? Just to take some time for ourselves."
'Yeah, it is," Tenten said with a smile. Leaning into Naruto, she rested her head on the side of his shoulder and hugging his arm with the hand that Naruto wasn't holding. They passed an ice cream stand and Naruto bought two cones, despite the chill in the air. Naruto led them over to a nearby bench placed for couples such as then to sit and enjoy their ice cream.
"Mm, this is good," Tenten said after a few licks. "What is this place called?"
"Um, Coldrock," he replied, leaning forward to look at the sign. The next few minutes were spent in silence as they ate their ice cream. When the last bit of waffle cone was eaten, the pair got up and continued walking. "I'm sorry that we don't have time for this much anymore. I promised I would take you on a date, God when was it? Must have been July, just after the Prelims in the Chunin Exam, and we never did. Last time we went was before the mission to Grass, at least. I like being a ninja most of the time, but the job doesn't leave much time for anything outside of work."
"It is okay. Like you said, things have been pretty hectic the last couple of months. I know that as soon as things slow down to where we can get a breath in, you will take me out."
"I mean, I don't ever remember it being like this when we were still in the Academy. It is just crazy."
"It has to slow down eventually. Can't be fighting off invasions or going after idiot former classmates forever." She and Naruto had been walking along, one of Naruto's arms pulled over Tenten's shoulders, so it was easy enough for Naruto to pull her off balance quickly enough that she barely had the chance to blink and wonder what Naruto was doing when she felt rough brick and Naruto's lips closing over hers a breath later. Tenten smiled inwardly as the pair shared a long kiss. She felt her blush rise as Naruto kept kissing her.
"You've gotten better," Tenten said lowly a few minutes later.
"Well, I have had a lot of practice. And you know what they say about practice and perfection."
"Do you disagree?"
"Not one bit."
"Good to see that we are in agreement then."
"Hm, but there is always room for improvement."
"True, how about you show me what I have been doing wrong then?"
"I think that I can do that. How 'bout we go back to my place. This could take some time."
Naruto grinned. "Lead on Tenten-sensei."
Kabuto knocked on the door to Orochimaru's innermost sanctum and entered a beat after his master gave him permission. "Ah, Kabuto-kun, has my dear Sasuke-kun arrived yet?" Orochimaru was sitting behind a desk piled with papers, leaning back with his fingers steepled before him.
"Forgive me Orochimaru-sama, but I fear not.
"I see. Please tell me that they are all dead, or at least had the sense to not return here after failing."
"According to my informant, Jirobo, Sakon, Ukon and Kimimaro were all killed. Kidomaru and Tayuya were both captured alive." Orochimaru said nothing for several seconds, instead walking over to a long, narrow table set with various liquid refreshments. Orochimaru gripped the edge of the table tightly, trembling with barely repressed rage.
"Alive, you say? Whoever tries to interrogate them will certainly be in for a surprise." Orochimaru abruptly whirled on Kabuto. "Who led the rescue team?"
"A nobody from the Nara clan, but do not believe he was responsible for their success. If you will read me report here, you will see that Hyuuga Naruto was included on the mission. The Kyuubi's host is the only one with enough power present to subdue Sasuke-sama, I believe."
"Well, that boy certainly has begun to make a name for himself, Shinigami no Naruto."
"What should we do about Sasuke-sama, Orochimaru-sama?"
"For now? Nothing. Order your informants to keep a close eye on Sasuke-kun. I may have missed my chance to possess him for now, but there will be other opportunities."
"The same. I want him under twenty-four hour surveillance, and his women too. I want to keep a close eye on this boy. He has almost as much potential as the Uchiha, it would seem. Born into an unknown name and raised by an unremarkable person, he has risen far in a short amount of time. But he will be taught his lesson, sooner or later."
"What lesson would that be, Orochimaru-sama?"
"Why, I would think it be obvious: what it means to be called Shinigami."
End Part One
To be continued in
Shinigami no Naruto: Jinchuuriki Tales