The Mouse of Konoha
A/N: Okay, going by the success of the faux-Chunin exam arc a few chapters back, I've decided on going for a few loosely-linked chapters to tell a story – therefore, every chapter in the drop-down list with the moniker 'TMOK' (The Mouse of Konoha), will be the next chapter in this story; they'll crop up periodically in this collection of one-shots, so let me know if you enjoy my take on Naruto as he learns one of the most important lessons in life early and, as a result, his entire life focus changes. So, sit back, grab a drink and get comfortable; welcome one and all to the Naruto show!
Throughout his life as a ninja Naruto Uzumaki would be the first to admit he was blessed with a plethora of great ninjas that served as teachers, confidants, friends and, in some cases, the family the orphan jinchuuriki had never known. From these ninja he learnt many varied and different lessons in all topics from love to fighting and everything in between; however, if one was to ask Naruto what his most important lesson was, the answer would probably have surprised everyone who knew the blonde maelstrom. The lesson Naruto judged as being the most important thing he'd ever heard came, not from legendary ninja such as Kakashi Hatake, or words of wisdom from the late, great Jiraiya the Toad Sage; instead, the would-be Rokudaime Hokage would pin-point the day, even the minute, of learning his most important life-lesson as the time when an old ramen vendor leant over his Bart and swiped his empty bowl from the under his four and a half-year old customers' nose,
"Hey", the child tried to snatch the bowl back but, as he overbalanced, was forced to focus his attention on suddenly not tipping over the stool he was sat on, "what gives jiji, there was still broth in there".
"There were a few drops, nothing more", Teuchi smiled, immune to Naruto's annoyed pout by dint of long exposure and ruffling the mop of blonde hair as the boy tried to glare up at him, "anyway, you'd better be off now Naruto-chan – the Hokage might get worried if you're not on time".
"Ah, jiji knows where I am", his diminutive client shrugged before tapping his chopsticks on the table, "I got enough time for 'nother bowl". To his amazement and dismay, however, his second-favourite jiji in all Konoha after the Hokage himself merely shook his head,
"Sorry Naru-chan, no more"; no ramen; it was the end of the world as far as the four and a half year old could see,
"Wha'? Why not?" The ramen vendor shrugged,
"Nothing's free Naru-chan – much as I'd like to, I can't afford to fill that little pit of yours up every time you come in here", the child giggled as the man leant over and prodded his belly, making him cover his stomach as Teuchi explained further, "what do you think would happen if I fed you to the brim every time I saw you for free?"
It was a question that immediately had delight fire up in Narutos' eyes – free ramen, whenever he wanted; it would be an earthly paradise he'd never want to leave – hell he'd sleep on the floor of Ichiraku Ramen to make sure it never ended! However, his childish dreams, perfectly valid as he was still a child after all, were brought back to earth with a bump as Teuchi explained things as simply as he could,
"Well, what would happen would be that I'd be able to for a little while, but what do you think would happen after that? If I was feeding you for free, I wouldn't make any money and then what would happen?" Naruto thought hard for a minute, so hard he had to screw his eyes up in concentration; for a minute Teuchi thought he'd have to explain things all the way but even as he drew in the breath to speak his customers' eyes suddenly snapped open and the blood drained from his face,
"No money, tha'd mean, you wouldn't...the stand would...", it was the apocalypse, paradise had become a hell on earth, trapping Naruto in an illusion so strong it would have made an Uchiha weep with envy, "...no, I'll pay, I'll settle my tab, here's Gama-chan, jus' don't go outta work!"
"Calm down Naru-chan", as the boy suddenly dove into his pockets, searching frantically for his little frog wallet in order to stop the risk of his beloved ramen font drying up forever, Teuchi spoke up enough to break through his blind panic, "I've got enough money to keep this shack open until Ayame-chan can take over. But, just remember that nothing's ever free – if you want something from someone, you have to offer them something in return or they'll just say no; it's the way I've lived my life and I'm first to admit I'm not a rich man, but I'm comfortably off and I'm happy with my stand, my daughter and my favourite customer as well", hands slowly retreating back out of his pockets, Naruto listened attentively as Teuchi pointed to his menu on the side of the bar, smiling broadly as his jiji complimented him at the same time he soaked in the wise words like a sponge, "for me it's simple; people give me money and I give them ramen, but I can imagine for a future Hokage it'll be a lot more difficult, all that politics and working things out to run the village, but as long as you remember that life's a game of give and take, I don't think our future Hokage will go far wrong". Hearing those stirring words and his already-prodigious self-belief fortified by the mere fact that someone believed in his dream, Naruto leapt up onto his seat with one hand thrust defiantly into the air, challenging the world that seemed to have set itself against him to try and pull him down,
"You bet jiji, I'm gonna be Hokage an' look after ever'one; you, Ayame-neechan, jiji-san an' ever'one else inna village". Teuchi chuckled slightly at the youngster's antics before making a shooing motion with his hand,
"I know you will Naruto, but before you do that you'd best be off or Hokage-sama might get worried about you". For a minute the child looked confused before his eyes fell on the battered old clock hanging on the back wall of the ramen stand and he jumped off his stool like a scalded cat,
"Oh no, I'm gonna be late – bye jiji!" With that last shouted benediction Naruto was off, racing out of the stand and into the street as Teuchi watched him go, wiping down the bar before him and chuckling at the antics of the youngster he considered a young son, or at least a nephew, never even considering the thought of just how much his words had changed the future of Uzumaki Naruto, Konoha and even the five elemental nations as a whole.
Despite his speed, which even now was quite remarkable for someone his age though Naruto of course didn't realise it, unaware as he was of the tenant in his belly that had inadvertently sped up the development of his body to ensure he could handle its venomous chakra without poisoning himself, the blonde boy was distracted as he ran towards the Hokage's tower. For some reason he couldn't get Teuchi-jiji's words out of his mind, considering them over and over in his head as he sprinted along the pavement, moving too quickly for the glares and sneers of nearby villages to nip at his heels like usual. Nothing's free; those two words most of all stuck out to him; but does that mean jiji won't make me Hokage unless I do something for him? But what could I do to make him give me the cool hat and fancy robes?
It was a question that was still in the forefront of his four and a few months old mind as he bounded up the steps of the Hokage tower, chin in one hand as he casually avoided ninja travelling the corridors, moving towards his goal of jiji's desk as unerring as a thrown kunai. It was a route he'd travelled so often he didn't need to think to get there, though he remembered his manners enough to give a smile to the Hokage's secretary as he moved past her desk (she didn't smile back though he didn't notice, but that might have been due to the fact that he didn't so much walk past her eye line as under it – in fact the only warning she had that he was even there was when the door to the Hokage's office swung shut with a bang). Not hearing her muffled shriek of alarm, the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi no Kitsure looked up at the old man who ran the village hidden in the Leaf and raised a hand,
"Hey jiji"; now Teuchi-jiji said if I do something for jiji, jiji should do something for me; though a relatively simple though process by necessity as it was meant for a four-year old to understand, it was still an effective one as the Hokage looked up and was promptly struck dumb at Naruto's next question, "can I do anything f'you?"
Where on earth...?; that had been a thunderbolt from a clear sky and no mistake – Sarutobi had been expecting the boy to be bouncing around his office declaring he was going to be in the Hokage's seat soon enough and asking for ramen, so the relatively respectful (if a tad loud – he wasn't that deaf yet) request for help was something entirely unexpected.
"Ne, Naruto", the boy looked up smiling as the Hokage played for time by refilling his pipe, trying to think how to phrase his next question, "I'm grateful for the offer, but what do you mean?"
"I was talkin' to Teuchi-jiji"; ah, the ramen vendor; Sarutobi had met the man a few times while treating his little charge and considered him a passing acquaintance, more so as he was the only man in the village other than himself whom Naruto had gifted with the nickname of jiji, high praise indeed from the jinchuuriki, "an' he said 'bout nothing being free, so if I do som'thing for you, can you help me become Hokage?"
Not quite what I was expecting; though caught slightly by surprise by this revelation Sarutobi took it in his stride, lighting his pipe as he leant back in his seat; though quite an interesting introduction into the world of village politics it must be said; masking his thoughts, the Sandaime smiled at his young charge and steepled his fingers in front of his chin,
"Well Teuchi-jiji is a very wise man to tell you that little lesson so soon"; very true, I don't think I learnt it until I left the Academy – hell some of the council still haven't figured it out; shaking such morbid thoughts out of his head, the Sandaime reminded himself that there was no council meeting until the end of the week and, as the standard pile of paperwork on his desk caught his eye, an idea to keep Naruto out of mischief for an hour or so popped up in his head, "and since you asked, I do have a job you could help me with. These", he waved a hand towards one of the numerous in-trays on his desk, "are the standards missions to be assigned for the day..."
"Wow", Naruto interrupted without meaning to as he took in the towering stack, "tha's a lotta paper".
"...Indeed", the Sandaime agreed before getting back on track, "but before I can stamp them, I have to assign them a rank; the ranks go from D-rank, which are little more than chores to teach fresh genin skills like teamwork and stealth, through C, B, A and eventually up to S-rank, which are exceptionally dangerous missions that usually need jounin or ANBU to complete. What I want you to do is, come over here", Naruto obediently pulled up his standard chair so he was on the opposite side of the desk as his jiji, watching on attentively as the Hokage lifted the top quarter off the stack of paper and placed it in front of him before handing him a pencil, "right, just read through these missions and mark with the pencil what rank you think the mission is. Write the rank up here", he tapped the top left of the sheaf of paper he placed in front of the boy, Naruto pointing at the spot with the tip of his pencil and nodding as he memorised the spot, "and put the missions in separate piles, one pile for each rank but if you see something you think is S-rank, tell me immediately; I have to go through them with a fine tooth-comb before I stamp them and there's usually a time limit on missions that important. Think you can handle that?" Naruto gave a smile and a jaunty salute before leaning over the first mission, scrutinising the paper with his pencil at the ready,
"No problem jiji, I'll get this done in no time".
That was a slight exaggeration of course, and the morning was broken by Naruto's questions about certain details of the mission, or if walking dogs or catching a cat really counted as a ninja mission, or when he didn't understand what a particular word meant (though Sarutobi providing a dictionary and explaining how to use it quickly stopped those queries and improved Naruto's vocabulary into the bargain), but apart from that it went quite well. Freed from the standard time-draining mission assignments the Sandaime was able to make a sizable dent in the other paperwork infesting his desk, though he did remember that he'd have to quickly read through the small piles of paper Naruto had made to make sure the boy was right as he wasn't quite trusting enough in Naruto's abilities to put the lives of his ninja in the hands of someone a fraction of his age. Though actually; a little devil of mischief popped into existence on the Hokage's shoulder and started to whisper seditions into his mind, making the venerable God of Shinobi smile; wouldn't that be just the thing to make the council sit up – 'oh yes, and the missions department is now being looked after by Uzumaki Naruto, yes the jinchuuriki, and he's doing a very good job for a five-year-old'. With any luck it might get Danzo out of my hair via an unfortunate heart attack; in truth though the Sandaime knew he just wasn't that lucky and the grizzled old war hawk was going to be a thorn in his side for the rest of his days in office. Still, as it rolled around to lunch time the Sandaime couldn't help but be impressed by Naruto's new-found determination to be a help in his village as the piles he'd been making were growing in height and he'd gone through at least half of the days' missions, his slow pace due to him having to consult the dictionary continually to learn the new words needed to understand the requests for Konoha's ninja. With that in mind, he stood up and reached for his official hat, his blonde charge looking up as he donned it,
"That's enough for now Naruto-kun, I think you've more than earned some lunch and yes", raising a hand to forestall protest the old Kage held in a smile, "we'll get ramen".
"Yay, ramen", that was all the motivation Naruto needed to shoot up from his seat and chuck his pencil on the desk, his last mission assigned as a C-rank as he skipped around the Hokage's feet, "have to see Teuchi-jiji again, maybe he'll give me more ramen if I can help at his stand".
"I can't see why not, but I'll treat you to a few bowls myself Naruto-kun, you certainly worked hard for them".
The Hokage was expecting an outburst of cheering at this announcement as ramen was by far and away the most effective motivating factor Naruto had; to his consternation however, the boy appeared to calm down at the pronouncement, seeming to think hard for a minute before he looked up at his jiji again, bright blue eyes clouded with thought as he asked his question,
"Thanks for the offer jiji, bu' I was gonna ask Teuchi-jiji if he needed help for ramen".
"Well, that's a good thing to do Naruto", the Sandaime answered carefully, a little put out that his idea had been shut down by his unofficial grandson, "but in that case what can I do to say thanks for the help, and no, I can't make you Hokage"; yet.
"Think about it over lunch", the Hokage suggested, leading the jinchuuriki out of his office and politely informing the secretary that he wouldn't be available until the afternoon in the same motion, "but until then, I'm looking forwards to some fresh air and a nice bite to eat".
Despite the fact that he knew he was taking a serious gamble for his business, and possibly his life, when he accepted Naruto into his stand without gouging him for his money, in Ichiraku Teuchi's eyes it had been a gamble well worth taking. Not only had Naruto himself wormed himself right into the heart of the Ichiraku family to the point where Ayame, at the tender age of nine and three quarters, would instantly blush like a lit firework if her father tried to innocuously suggest how cute a couple she and little Naru-chan would make, but the Hokage had become a regular customer at his stand and, as if by magic, the number of customers his stand catered for had increased considerably and consisted mostly of ninja, not ashamed or disgusted by the presence of the 'demon child' frequenting the stand as, in their eyes, the Hokage being there was the highest seal of approval any establishment could hope for. Right now he was at the tail end of the lunchtime rush and clearing up the stand, idly hoping that Ayame would have her school homework done in time to help with the evening rush, when he noticed the pointed hat that had entered his store and immediately bowed down low,
"Hokage-sama, an honour to see you..." He broke off as the older man wafted a hand dismissively, a smile on his wrinkled visage,
"Ah, no need for that Teuchi-san; have enough of that with the council, sometimes I think Naruto-chan is the only thing that keeps me truly sane". As if by magic, the boy appeared from behind his would-be grandfather, beaming broadly as he rubbed his hands together,
"Hey Teuchi-jiji, can I get a bowl of beef ramen?"
"Of course, and yourself Hokage-sam...Hokage-san", the ramen chef corrected himself, grateful to see the village leader nod in gratitude as he sat himself at the bar, Naruto bounding into the seat next to him as he made his order,
"One of shrimp please, though I think Naruto has a proposition for you"; really?; that surprised the chef and he turned from his steaming pots and pans in time to see Naruto, after a slight nudge from the Hokage, remember what he was going to ask in time to meet the chef's curious gaze,
"Yeah, thanks jiji I forgot; Teuchi-jiji, can I get some more ramen if I help in the stand at all?"
Much like the Hokage before him, the question threw the ramen vendor for a loop before he could collect himself, wondering what Naruto was up to this time; however, seeing the face of his surrogate son bent into a pleading expression Teuchi felt his heart sublime to pulp and he couldn't help but nod, thinking of the pile of dirty dishes waiting for him at the back of the store when he had a quiet moment or, if that didn't occur, awaiting Ayame's skilled hands when she got back from school,
"I, ah, I can't see why not", he said carefully, grateful as Naruto's face seemed to cheer up like a sunrise as he went on, ladling his latest potion of noodles into twin bowls, "lots of washing up though, it'll be boring Naru-chan, sure you want to do it?"
"For ramen", the boy broke his chopsticks in half as he devoured the bowl in front of him with his eyes, "anything!"
Blowing softly over his meal, the Hokage watched as Teuchi refilled his favourite customer's dish and wondered what was going on with Naruto today – he'd obviously taken Teuchi's words deeply to heart and his attitude was...refreshing to say the least. Certainly less annoying than bouncing around like a rubber ball shouting he'll be Hokage some day, though I can't blame him for being the way he is – he is ignored and stepped upon by most of the villagers and even some of the shinobi, all for a sacrifice he never asked to make; the melancholy thought almost made the Sandaime sigh, though he caught himself in time to avoid triggering Naruto's suspicions. Trying to work out a happier topic, the Sandaime brightened himself and looked over to the young jinchuuriki, now halfway through his second serving,
"Naruto-kun", he looked up at his name, hastily swallowing his latest mouthful to look at least half-presentable as he listened to the forthcoming question, "we must discuss the matter of your payment", when the boy looked confused the old man elaborated, "for the work you did this morning". Recognition dawned in those blue eyes before, to the Sandaime's surprise, Naruto seemed to slump a little, thinking hard,
"Hai jiji, I forgot for a minute, but I don' know wha' to ask for, or I know, but dunno how to"; sounds like he's got something on his mind; "I wanna be a ninja jiji, I know you can't teach me, you're the Kage an' too busy – I been there now, I know dat", both shared a chuckle at that before Naruto got serious again, "but I wanna learn, an' I know I can't just ask ninja t'teach me, gotta do somethin' for them first but I dunno what I can do for them".
It was a question that did, Sarutobi was forced to admit, stump even the Professor himself for a moment; Naruto did want to become a ninja that was true, but at the same time he was at a disadvantage to most of his age group, who were either clan children at best or wouldn't be hated and shunned like he would be at worst, so it was unlikely he could get external training without, as the boy so succinctly put it, doing something for his teacher in kind. The main issue of course was that Naruto was just a boy, a very young one, so what he could do effectively was very limited and most ninja could handle their own washing and other errands, in fact most of them did to maintain a semblance of normality in their otherwise brutal lives. So it was a neat little conundrum Naruto was in now, and it was one Sarutobi could only answer slowly as he turned it over in his mind to try and see a solution,
"Well, most ninja need training and basic supplies such as food, or food substitutes such as food pills and blood pills"; though you're far too young to learn how to make either of them Naruto; that was one avenue shut off but not a major loss as the Hokage went off, "they need clothing, explosive notes and no, I can't show you how to make them yet as they are very dangerous to get wrong, but apart from that most of them need weapons, usually shuriken and kunai, though some use senbon and maybe a blade such as a ninjato or katana". By the end of that little list, Naruto's eyes were as wide as his dinner dish and he whistled lowly,
"Tha'sa long list, but where did they get their weapons from?"
There it was, with the words of a child was the magic sequence completed and thought process run to conclusion; Sarutobi knew it was an ongoing D-rank mission he was potentially compromising with his idea but, at the same time, if a team of genin were under threat from one pre-Academy student then why the hell were they genin in the first place? Realising Naruto was waiting for an answer, the Hokage composed himself and gave his carefully-measured answers,
"Well, most nin buy them from the blacksmiths and outfitters in the village, though they can be expensive and get lost easily during team training sessions and aren't always picked up by their owners", seeing this had piqued the youngster's interest Sarutobi moved on to the next phase of his plan, "in fact, that could be the answer to your problem Naruto-chan".
"How?" It was almost, but not quite a desperate plea as Naruto stared hard at his jiji with the cutest pair of puppy eyes he could muster, "What do you mean jiji, how does it help?"
"Well, some nin don't tidy up after themselves, but if you did, and picked up the used kunai and shuriken and whatnot, then you could trade them to the nin for some training", by this point Naruto's eyes were shining so brightly it was a miracle there weren't ANBU investigating an unexplained chakra outburst in the ramen store, "the broken bits you find, most blacksmiths would pay for that, which should put some pocket money in your bank".
"All right", the jinchuuriki was in ecstasy by this point, slurping down the rest of his ramen and vaulting off his stool, "I'll get going right..."
"...After you finish the washing up", Teuchi cut in smoothly, one dishcloth-holding hand pointing towards the back of his store, "you said you'd help me Naru-chan – don't bite off more than you can chew when you want to help people or it'll come back and bite you, don't forget that". Suitably chastised, Naruto ducked his head before mumbling his apology,
"Sorry Teuchi-jiji, I forgot; jiji, I'll have to start tomorrow".
"Good, you'll have to have a few things before I let you loose on the innocent training ground of Konoha", Sarutobi mentioned, surprising the blonde child who'd expected him to be disappointed that he couldn't take up his great idea right away, "come back to the office once you've finished with Teuchi-san and we'll finish the paperwork; after that, I'll pay my dues and make sure you're fully kitted out for your job tomorrow". Naruto saluted again with a smile before turning to the stand owner,
"Hai jiji, I'll see you later; okay Teuchi-jiji", he thrust a dramatic finger forwards, "to the washing up!"
Later that night, once the paperwork was finished and the Hokage had quickly pointed out to Naruto where in his mission classification he'd gone wrong, though overall he was quite pleased as the boy seemed to understand the different mission levels and had done a reasonable job for his first try, both Hokage and jinchuuriki were walking around the town to one of the weapon outfitters Sarutobi knew and trusted implicitly. As usual, Naruto was skipping around the older man and talking about nothing of importance while the Hokage was trying to keep up with his effervescent charge and keep him on the straight and narrow as they moved towards the store. As he saw the sign swaying gently in the wind before him, the Hokage deftly reached down and caught the child by the back of his T-shirt, halting his prancing with a minimum of fuss as he spoke,
"Naruto, we're almost here now; this is Hasuwada's, an excellent shinobi outfitter who will do two things for your plan. Can you guess what they are?"
"Uhhh", Naruto thought for a moment, "he'll buy the broken weapons I find", as Sarutobi nodded he went on, "and...he'll know nin I can trade with".
"Almost; he may very well know nin who'll want the weapons you can find but I was thinking more that he'll be the one to supply what you need to comb the training grounds – you'll need something to carry your haul with after all". That was a point Naruto couldn't argue with so, without complaint and confident that with his jiji around nothing was going to go wrong for him, the two of them entered the store together, a little bell tinkling overhead to alert the proprietor to his new customers.
Muruda Hasuwada was a man who, like many in the Hidden Leaf, had had his future plans drastically altered by the advent of the Kyuubi; during the desperate rearguard action to hold off the monster Muruda, then a chunin shooting for jounin, had been caught with a edge of one of the monsters' attacks and knocked immediately out of action, his coma plagued by terrible nightmares that hadn't completely vanished years after the event. That single act had shattered his nerves completely and forced him to retire from active service in his village, though he was still on the reserve list at genin rank and determined to do his part for Konoha. To that end he had trained as a blacksmith and set himself up as a merchant for his shinobi friends, many of them still in action to this day, and settled down to raise a family so the next generation of Hasuwadas could take their place as defenders of Konoha.
Unfortunately the Kyuubi, damn its infernal soul to the blackest pits of hell for all eternity, seemed discontent with just ruining his career and had thrown even his back-up plan into jeopardy – for all that his dear Kishi-koi told him it made him no less of a man, Muruda would forever be damning his bad karma that he couldn't have children of his own to inherit his legacy. However, after mulling over his choice for a few days and helped out by his wife's firm demeanour (and his mother-in-law's even firmer hand to the ear-hole), he decided that if he couldn't have children of his own, he could still ensure that another child would be looked after properly. There were many orphans following the Kyuubi's assault but, after his attention, one of them was an orphan no longer; in fact he was promising to help her with a little school homework when his shop bell rang. Idly wondering who it was that would be calling at this time, he stepped behind the counter of his shop only to catch a glimpse of the customer and bow low,
"Hokage-sama, how may I be of service?" The old Hokage chuckled, motioning for him to stand,
"Muruda-kun, stand up; the Sarutobi's have been coming here since almost the founding of the Leaf itself – I think you're allowed a little leeway in the grace and favours department". Muruda chuckled at that, remembering the Sandaime before he had inherited his robes the first time around, albeit barely as he'd helped his father as much as a boy of eight could do so, trying to tidy up and not get underfoot in the process, but still, he had a daughter now and it was his job as a proud parent to keep her on the straight and narrow,
"Maybe so Hokage-sama, but I must instruct the younger generation in proper manners", seeing Sarutobi quirk an eyebrow, the man leant back through the door he'd entered the shop from and shouted back, "Tenten-chan, come and see who's here".
"Tenten-chan?" The sudden questioning shout that arose from behind the Hokage's robes grabbed Muruda's attention enough that when the hated beast emerged from behind the robes like something poisonous and slimy oozing from some crevice in the earth, he was too far gone in his shock to realise that his well-laid plan had well and truly gone up in smoke as his five-year-old little girl, the new light of his life, had toddled around the corner of the customer's bar she was too short to see over it and promptly laid eyes on the voice she recognised,
Muruda could only watch aghast as little Tenten made a stumbling run towards the monster; no, not a monster, it's container; as he fought to get a grip on his irrational hatred, he could only watch as the boy she'd referred to as Whiskers strode out to meet had and wrapped his arms as far around her middle as he was able to – despite being only a year older than him, Tenten had always been taller throughout all the time they'd ever been in the orphanage together.
"Hey Ten-chan", Naruto greeted, beaming as the girl wrapped her arms around his shoulders before stepping back, a matching grin on her face, "knew you'd been 'dopted, didn't know you were here though".
"I wanted to tell you but there wasn't time", she replied apologetically, not looking at him directly as she remembered the inexplicable run the matrons of the orphanage had flown into when she'd asked to speak to Naruto and let him know she was finally leaving with her new family, "how are you now Whiskers? The others leaving you alone?"
"Mostly", his reply was nonchalant because he didn't want to worry her and anyway, the few bruises he did get faded quickly, "bu' wha' 'bout you? You look...", he stepped back and examined her up and down, taking in the new look a world away from the identical uniforms the orphanage made its patrons wear; for her part Tenten merely smiled shyly, waiting for him to overcome his surprise at her nice pink shirt and dark trousers, and the way her mum (she couldn't get enough of that word – mum, she actually had a mum now!) had styled her hair into the cute twin buns on her head, it was a fantastic look that had made her teacher compliment her and the other girls in her class all...
"...you look like a panda".
All those beautiful dreams came crashing down like a broken stained glass window, the shards ground further into dust by her father's sudden and unstoppable snort of laughter; heck even the wrinkly old man behind Naruto looked like he was sniggering, though Tenten didn't notice this as her face darkened and she stamped her foot in a temper,
"I don't look like a panda; I'm a pretty princess".
"You do so look like a panda", Naruto told her in no uncertain terms, smirking slightly as he folded his arms truculently, "tha' means you're the panda princess now Ten-chan", she opened her mouth to argue the point before the idea took root in her mind; panda princess – that's not actually so bad; and she smiled back at her childhood friend, anger drained away to nothingness and allowing her to see the bigger picture for the first time, like the robes the old man was wearing, and the Hokage's hat that sat low on his brow; wait, Hokage's hat – oh Kami...;
"Ho, Hokage-san", previously red face suddenly white, Tenten didn't even realise she'd used the wrong suffix as she bowed low to the most powerful man in the village, "gomen I, I didn't see you..."
"No need to worry Panda-hime", the name made her peek upwards and, seeing the old warrior's benevolent smile, she allowed herself to relax as the Hokage gently pushed Naruto forwards, "why don't you go and play with Whiskers here; I need to talk to your father". At that declaration Tenten gave a small squeal of delight and grabbed Naruto by the hand, dragging him around the counter as her father, still not quite recovered from his laughing fit as a result of Naruto's blunt assessment of his daughters wardrobe, watched on amused,
"It's great here 'Ruto", the girl spoke quickly, Naruto just left to nod as she half-led, half-dragged him into the living areas at the back of the shop, "daddy was a great ninja an' he's teaching me how to use weapons; I got my own starter set for kunai an' shurikens, an' I'll be using ninja wire soon too!"
"Cool", Sarutobi heard Naruto's voice float from behind the counter and fade away as he was lost to the old man's' view, "I'm gonna get kunai an' shurikens too, but I need jiji to help me to..." Sarutobi just about heard Tenten begin to admonish the younger boy for calling the Hokage old before he moved over to the store owner and said neutrally,
"You know the difference between the kunai and the scroll?"
It was a loaded question if ever there was one and, fortunately for his future, Muruda nodded, a little shamefaced as he couldn't meet the older man's eyes,
"Hai Hokage-sama, I know; he just caught me by surprise and...well, the old nightmares don't rest easily". At this explanation the Hokage nodded, looking a little mollified before resting his elbows on the bench and getting down to business,
"I know, but your daughter seems to have taken a shine to him; I remember Naru-chan telling me about a girl that wanted to be a ninja just like him in the orphanage; well she ended up in the right household for that", Muruda just about stopped himself looking too smug at the praise before turning serious, understanding that they were getting to the meat of the issue, "but apart from that, Naruto also wants to be a shinobi and has a...unique idea of how to become one. To do that though, he'll need a few things from you". Professionalism taking over, the ninja outfitter looked his village leader in the face and nodded,
"What does he need Hokage-sama; I live to serve the Great Tree".
"Uhhh", seeing the last thing jiji had picked out for him, Naruto suddenly found himself less than completely confident that the old man was completely coherent mentally, "isn't it a bit...bright?"
"That's the whole idea Naruto-san", the shop owner seemed to take over and make his pitch, a professional eye on the display piece before him as he held up a single arm of the jumpsuit before him, "Hokage-sama told me your plans to go combing the training grounds for weapons to trade and sell but he was worried that you might accidentally get caught in a training exercise. This jumpsuit, while not suitable for ninja to wear, will stick out and make sure any ninja around will see you a mile off and know not to attack you while you're working".
"Okay that makes sense", Naruto answered after a moment of thinking, though he didn't look entirely convinced as he turned curious eyes towards Muruda, "but if ninja can't wear them, why do you have them?" At this, the older man had the good grace to look embarrassed,
"They were meant to be white, for ANBU visiting cold places like Snow country, but the supplier got the colour wrong and I haven't been able to shift them yet". At this Naruto laughed, not unkindly, before pulling the jumpsuit off the hanger and shucking it over his shoulders; there was a bit of a struggle to try and fit into the one-piece of clothing and, by the time he'd managed it, Muruda was looking embarrassed at his misjudgement, the Hokage was amused and Tenten was all but rolling around on the floor in laughter,
"You, you look", she hugged herself, gasping for air at the sight of Naruto's face framed by the collar and back of the jumpsuit that was at least two sizes too big for him, making him look like a small Akimichi, "you look like a mouse trying to hide in a hole, yeah that's it", she stood up tall, making her declaration, "if I'm a panda, that must make you a mouse, a cute little mouse tryin' to hide from the big bad panda".
"Mouse?" Naruto repeated the word as he tried to extricate himself from the jumpsuit which, having swallowed him up, seemed reluctant to spitting him back out again, so much so that Muruda himself had to step him and help wrestle him free, "Yeah, a mouse, I can live with that – I already got th' whiskas". He pointed to his cheeks, making Tenten chuckle again as her father rang up the till for his customer, not caring about the lateness of the hour,
"Well, one suit, one large rucksack with tear-proof interior, one set of shinobi gloves and two tear-resistant storage sacks", Muruda recanted, inwardly pleased of his own suggestion that carrying two bags would allow the boy to split anything he found into trade and sell piles on the spot rather than root through it later, "that would come to..." he was cut off by the Hokage,
"Bill it to my tab Muruda-san, I owe Naruto-chan for the help he gave me earlier", he explained to both children, Naruto in particular ecstatic with such a revelation and hugging his leg as the Hokage spoke to him, "come by the office tomorrow morning Naruto-kun, I'll have a map ready that will show you the training grounds you can enter and on what days they're not in use".
"Thanks jiji, I won't go in any grounds where anyone's trainin'", Naruto promised, aware that the Sandaime didn't want him accidentally injured by flying kunai while searching too close to where ninja were training, "so, thanks for everything Muruda-san". The storekeeper smiled and returned the young boy's bow,
"My pleasure Naruto-kun; I look forwards to doing business with you"; that much is true – a bright idea of his to trade damaged good for fresh supplies he can barter for ninja training; the idea that Naruto, despite being young, had quite a head for business on his shoulders wasn't lost on the ninja outfitter, though it was lost when he heard his latest customer try to say goodnight to his daughter only to find himself viciously accosted; apparently Tenten-chan still wasn't completely enamoured with the impromptu nickname Naruto had bestowed on her,
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry", Naruto giggled, slapping away her tickling hands as the bun-haired girl stepped back triumphant, "good night Ten-chan". She giggled in triumph and folded her arms victoriously,
"Hey", of course, the nickname got Naruto fired up at once, "how come I'm mouse but you're not panda?"
"Cause I'm bigger than you"; beaten by the face of such logic, Naruto could only curse as she grinned again,
"Won't be fo'ever", he promised her threateningly, though she just sniggered again as he bowed a final time to her father and left the store with the Hokage. Muruda watched them go and began closing up for the night, only for his daughters' voice to bring him to a halt,
"Daddy?" He looked down to see her twisting one of her fingers in her hair, a sure sign she was apprehensive about something,
"Will, uh, will Naruto-kun be back here?" The relief that flitted across his daughter's face once and for all confirmed logically to Muruda that Naruto wasn't a demon – how could a monster make an angel like his little girl care for it; now if only I could agree with that sentiment emotionally...;
"Of course panda-chan", she pouted at the nickname but, unfortunately, it had stuck in the man's mind, "he'll be about to trade his wares; if you're in I'll let you play with him". As Tenten squealed in happiness and embraced him in a hug, Muruda hugged his daughter back and let his thoughts turn towards piece again; ...then maybe I can let this old nightmares fall silent again.
The next morning, with his new suit on, a map in his hand and the permission of the gate guards, Uzumaki Naruto squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and made the first of many, many steps towards his goal of becoming Hokage of Konoha; look out world, here comes the Mouse!
A/N: Hope you enjoy it, and let's face it; it is an important lesson to learn early. Oh and as for the grammar in the speech, remember the two kids are four/five years old so haven't quite got the gist of speaking properly yet. Hope you enjoy it and, if you want the next chapter, let me know. Until then, ja ne!