And here's the next chapter! Hello everyone! I know it's been a while since you've seen an update from me – sorry about that. Combination of writers' block and overload (still battling with both, but I've been able to trudge through. It's been slow going, but progress is being made.
I do want to address a few things that were left in some reviews. One – this story is not abandoned, and unless I specifically say otherwise, it isn't going to be. So, please rest assured that even if it takes a while, updates will come. Red, a suggestion for you – set up an account so that you can alert this story, and PM me if concerns arise. That way I can respond to them…;-)
Also, folks, please bear in mind that I'm telling the story that I want to tell. Some people have asked me why I didn't focus more on Tsubaki's grieving and do something like make her descend into alcoholism so that Naruto could rescue her or something like that. Tsubaki does have a coping mechanism – she's essentially thrown herself into her training and her work, finishing several years' worth of training in several months. Tsunade was surprised when she requested some personal leave, after all. As far as why I didn't have her sinking into alcoholism, I have written her to be a woman of greater strength of character than that. And I didn't want Naruto to rescue her emotionally; I wanted HER to rescue HIM emotionally. I know the story I want to tell, and I am not going to deviate from my plot in any way, shape or form.
Now, if you have any ideas that might ADD to the plot I've already established, then please, be my guest and share them with me. If I like them, or if they fit what I want to do, I'll use them and give you dure credit for the idea!
That said, let's get into…
Chapter 7: Some Can See, Some Can't
Tsubaki's eyes slowly opened as she awoke from her slumber. Naruto's peaceful, content, sleeping face was the first thing that came into her vision. A smile filled with all the love in the world involuntarily crossed her lips. Her eyes became misty as she stared at him through half-lidded eyes, as though he was the only thing that existed to her at that moment.
'Do you have any idea at all how much I love you?' she asked in her thoughts as she watched him sleep, 'Do you know what it is that you do to me? Do you know how overwhelmed I am with love and joy whenever I'm around you? It hasn't even been two days, and already I can't imagine life without you. Even now, I'm just so happy watching you sleep peacefully.'
She brought a gentle hand up to his face, brushing aside a few stray locks of hair and gently caressing his cheek with her fingertips, just lightly enough so as to not disturb his sleep, 'You're the most precious and wonderful soul I've ever encountered. You have such a bright and amazing future…and you don't even realize the full extent of it. But I can see it. I can see that you…Naruto Uzumaki…you'll change the entire world in ways we can't even fathom. Your legend will go so far beyond the title of Hokage. You'll accomplish so many great things, and you'll also bear such agonizing trials and struggles…and I'll be right there at your side with you through all of them. I'll celebrate every achievement with you, and I'll struggle through every trial right beside you, giving you what strength and support I can every step of the way. I'm so honored and humbled that you'd want me as your partner through life.'
Tsubaki continued tracing her fingertips across his face and through his hair, 'Naruto, you're perfect in every way to me. That wonderful, handsome face, those exquisite whisker marks, the magnificent blue of your eyes, those golden locks of hair. Even your flaws are perfect – the way you stubbornly stand your ground, even when you probably shouldn't, your overflowing passion and intensity, that even sometimes robs you of good common sense, the fact that you're honest to a fault. But it's those very flaws in conjunction with your strengths that enable you to give so many people so much hope. So many things about you remind me of…the Fourth Hokage. You have his courage, you have his magnificent ability to inspire everyone around you just by being there…you even look quite a bit like him…'
She narrowed her eyes as she pondered that thought, 'I wonder? Could it be?'
She found herself studying his features for a brief moment, comparing them to her own mental image of Minato Namikaze. The resemblance was startling, to say the least. Could Naruto and the Fourth…be related somehow?
'Anyway, it doesn't matter to me,' she thought contently as her smile returned, putting the matter aside for the moment, 'You're amazing just the way you are. I wonder what time it is, anyway…'
As she looked around, she saw the light of the waning moon, telling her that dawn was about to approach. After half an hour of just caressing his face and hair with her fingertips as he slept, she decided to get up and get her day started. As she got out of bed, she was reminded of last night's intimacy by the fact that she was wearing nothing but her garter belt and black silk stockings. She smiled with a blush at the memory before heading to her bathroom and freshening herself up to start her day.
After she was done freshening up and applying light make-up, she dressed herself in a cream-colored V-neck blouse and crimson knee-length skirt, not unlike what she would normally wear when on duty at the hospital. The main differences were that her blouse had no buttons, and her skirt didn't cling to her hips and legs, but flowed freely instead.
She noticed that the dawn's light was beginning to peek in through the window. Looking over at Naruto, she decided to let him sleep for now. She quietly left the room, leaving the door slightly ajar, and went into the kitchen to begin preparing breakfast. After preparing the same meal she'd made for herself and Naruto yesterday, she ate her share and placed the rest in her oven on a warm setting. Knowing that Tsunade would want to get an early start on her day, especially with the pictures that Chouza said would be delivered that morning, she thought to go ahead and get hers and Naruto's copies as soon as possible.
She quickly wrote a note for Naruto, letting him know where she was and what she was doing. Once she was finished, she folded the note, wrote his name on it, and quietly went back into the bedroom. Leaving the note on her pillow so that he would see it once he woke up, she looked at his sleeping face once more and smiled lovingly again. She leaned across the bed and gently kissed his cheek before leaning up to his ear and whispering, "I love you."
Naruto's face adopted a ghost of a smile as he continued to sleep peacefully. Tsubaki pulled away from the bed and left the room, this time closing the door behind her. Upon leaving her room, she put her white lace-up sandals on and left her home, heading in the direction of the Hokage Tower. As she walked along, she couldn't help but feel that she was being watched. Not seeing anyone, she kept an eye peeled, listening for any sounds her potential tail might make to reveal her presence. Just outside Hokage Tower, the person tailing her made their presence known.
"Miss Tsubaki?" she heard a young female voice call out with cold anger from her left. She turned to see none other than Hinata Hyuuga, glaring at her coldly.
"Lady Hinata," Tsubaki greeted cordially yet warily, "Good morning, is there anything I can do for you?"
"Why?" the young Hyuuga asked in response, her anger still cold but more noticeable.
Tsubaki narrowed her eyes at the girl, able to guess what Hinata was asking. Not letting her off the hook, she asked, "Why what, exactly?"
"Why are you with Naruto?" Hinata spat out, this time through gritted teeth.
"Excuse me?" Tsubaki asked warningly, sending an indignant glare of her own in Hinata's direction.
Hinata dropped all pretense of calm control and began to raise her voice, "What's your game? What do you want from him? Why were you with him last night and the night before?"
"I don't believe that's any of your business, young lady," Tsubaki answered firmly before proceeding on her way. Hinata's voice stopped her once more.
"I won't just give him up to you, and I'll fight you for him if I must…" she began to cry out.
Tsubaki immediately cut her off, her own voice rising in volume, "Now you listen here, and you listen good! Naruto is not your possession, nor is he a trophy to be fought over! He is a man who is free to choose who he wants to be with, and I will not engage in stupid, petty, childish games like this with you, or anyone else!"
"I love him!" Hinata exclaimed furiously, "I've loved him far longer than you ever have! And I love him more than you ever will!"
"Do you really?" Tsubaki asked in a challenging tone, "Then tell me this: where were you when he needed someone to care for him and comfort him? If you know I was with him two nights ago, you must have seen us."
"I…" Hinata began to shrink in on herself, "…I was…watching from the shadows…" she straightened up and said with a little more steel, "…I was silently encouraging him to remain strong!"
"And just what good did your so-called 'silent encouragement' do for him? What, did you think he'd somehow…be able to sense your 'encouragement' by detecting your chakra or something? You have the nerve to ask me why I was with him? Then you answer me, Hinata Hyuuga – right now: why weren't you?"
"I…" Hinata began to break down, "…I…I couldn't…"
"You couldn't what, Hinata?" Tsubaki asked, lowering the volume of her inquiry to a calm, but straightforward tone, "You couldn't reach out to him? You couldn't simply let him know that you cared? How long were you there for, watching him before I arrived?"
Hinata's eyes gazed downward, unable to look Tsubaki in the eye any longer. She answered meekly, "About half an hour."
"Half an hour?!" Tsubaki asked incredulously, "And in all that time, you couldn't offer him a word of comfort? You couldn't give him a shoulder to cry on, or just someone to talk to? How could you claim to love him if you would just stand there and watch him suffer?"
"I wouldn't have known what to do!" Hinata yelled out, her voice breaking as she broke out into tears of anguish and frustration, "Naruto is my strength! He's the reason I can push forward despite everything! His strength was failing him! I didn't know what to do!" she trailed off, her cries turning into sobs. Tsubaki simply stood there, feeling pity for the poor girl before her.
"Hinata," she called softly in an attempt to get the weeping girl's attention, "Hinata, look at me."
Hinata continued to weep at her own powerlessness, unresponsive to Tsubaki's call. Tsubaki, however, would not allow the girl to leave her presence without facing this issue.
"Hinata Hyuuga, you look at me!" Tsubaki ordered sternly, invoking the stern mother she'd had to be at times with Kasumi when she was still alive. At such a tone, Hinata opened her eyes, brought her gaze upwards and gave Tsubaki her undivided attention.
Seeing that she had it, Tsubaki began, "You need to walk away from this having learned something, young lady. Love is not selfish, and you have in essence been using Naruto for your own selfish ends. Using him as your strength is not only unfair to him, but cruel as well…" Hinata gasped at Tsubaki's words. Tsubaki continued, "…When you love someone, you don't think of what they can do for you – you think of what you can do for them. Naruto has just lost one of the most important and influential men in his life. Jiraiya was like a father to him, and the fact that he's an orphan makes that loss infinitely more devastating and painful to him! And you could only think of your need – for him to be strong? What about Naruto's needs? The simple fact of the matter is that Naruto doesn't need to be encouraged, or remain strong; he needs to grieve! He needs people around him who will comfort him – even more so now, considering that he probably won't have much time to grieve over this, what with everything going on!"
Hinata sniffled, absorbing the hard truth behind Tsubaki's words. Tsubaki pressed on, "Hinata, if you loved Naruto, you would have somehow known what to say or do when you saw him two nights ago. Even if you didn't, that wouldn't have mattered – you would have approached him and said or done…something, anything! If you truly loved him, the only thing that would have mattered to you was the fact that Naruto was in need! I can see that you admire him greatly, and I can see that you…in a sense…worship him. But that's not love. Love isn't about you – it's about the object of your love. Hinata, that's something you have to grasp if you want to have any chance of finding love, whether with Naruto or with anyone else. I hope you take this to heart; I really do."
Tsubaki proceeded once more to make her way inside Hokage Tower, but she was stopped one last time by a sad, yet determined Hinata's voice once again.
"Do you love him?" Hinata asked, the need to know quite clear.
Tsubaki turned to her and answered unashamedly and with deep conviction, "Yes I do, Hinata. I love Naruto Uzumaki with all that I am, and I'd shout it out without shame or hesitation to the entire village from the top of Hokage Mountain."
Hinata seemed to ponder her answer. In her heart, she knew that she could never give such a strong and bold answer to that question. Looking at the woman she had just confronted, she replied, "Please forgive me. I won't give you any more trouble over this issue. I wish you and Naruto…all the happiness the world can give you."
Tsubaki smiled at the girl in response, "Thank you, Hinata. I hope that you're able to find the same kind of love that Naruto and I have come to share, as well."
Hinata nodded with a sad smile of her own and went on her way. Tsubaki proceeded once more into Hokage Tower, this time making it to Tsunade's office without further incident.
Tsunade couldn't help the satisfied smirk that accompanied her joyful smile as she listened to Tsubaki's account of her date with Naruto last night. The moment she saw Tsubaki walk into her office with an ecstatic smile on her face, she began to grill the younger woman, wanting to know every single little detail of the date. Tsubaki did not disappoint, though she gave just enough subtle information about their activities after they'd returned to her home to make the busty Hokage blush, while not actually revealing anything. Tsunade felt let down at being "teased" in such a way, though she was very happy for Naruto and Tsubaki.
As expected, the pictures taken by Chouza had arrived in the middle of their conversation. The package consisted of three glossy eleven by fourteen prints: one for Tsunade, one each for Naruto and Tsubaki, all of them already framed. Tsunade let Tsubaki have the negatives. Tsubaki was quite happy with the way they turned out. Tsunade, not having seen them, gasped with wide eyes at the picture. Naruto and Tsubaki looked like a magnificent couple, and even the picture told her that the two were very much in love. She noted that this was the first photograph of Naruto that she'd seen where he looked directly at the camera with his eyes open…and he looked genuinely happy!
When eight o'clock rolled around, Shikamaru Nara and Sakura Haruno entered her office with some standard reports. Both of them chanced upon the pictures that Tsunade and Tsubaki were fawning over. Shikamaru raised an eyebrow and gave a knowing smirk, nodding at Tsubaki, who smiled in response to him. Sakura, however, had already felt angry upon seeing Tsubaki in Tsunade's office, and the picture seemed to make her even angrier.
Both Tsubaki and Tsunade noticed this. Tsunade decided to deal with the issue right then and there, asking pointedly, "Sakura, is there a problem?"
Sakura turned to regard the Hokage, "Yes, Milady. Based on Tsubaki Kenpi's current relationship with Naruto Uzumaki, I have reason to believe that her motives for reporting my actions to you were less than professional or objective, and I'm asking for an inquiry into her actions that led up to me being dismissed as your apprentice."
Tsubaki allowed her head to fall into her hand and shook her head, sighing exasperatedly.
"Not another one," she groaned in a deadpan.
Tsunade regarded Tsubaki curiously, "Another one?"
Tsubaki turned her gaze to the blonde, "This is the third time, by the third person, in less than twenty-four hours, who has objected in some form or fashion to my current relationship with Naruto."
Tsunade grimaced in a mixture of sympathy and annoyance before turning to Sakura.
"Sakura Haruno…" she began firmly, "…explain, please…and it had better be good."
"Yes, milady. Given the timing of what happened when you terminated my apprenticeship, and of Tsubaki Kenpi suddenly occupying my apprenticeship and getting involved with Naruto, I find it very difficult to believe that this is mere coincidence. It's my belief that Tsubaki wanted me out of the way so that she could occupy my position, and worm her way into my teammate's life," she stated with conviction.
Tsunade didn't look impressed as she responded, "Is that it? Do you have any evidence to back such charges? Do you have anything beyond mere speculation on which to base such claims?"
"Well…no, milady, but…" Sakura began, stumbling over the answer before being interrupted by Tsunade in a tone denoting cold anger.
"Then what made you come to such a stupid and preposterous conclusion? Tsubaki didn't ask me to make her my apprentice, Sakura. I offered her the job of my own volition after I ended my apprenticeship with you. Your apprenticeship was terminated not because she wanted to move in on what you believed to be yours, but because you were guilty of gross medical malpractice! Do you even know how your name came up in the matter? I'll tell you – Tsubaki performed a full diagnostic scan on Naruto's body, per standard procedure. When she performed her scan, she found swelling and bruising in Naruto's brain!"
Shikamaru's eyes went wide as he heard this. He turned to gape at Sakura while Tsunade continued to lay into the girl, "She scanned further for pathogens and was able to rule out meningitis and encephalitis, and then asked Naruto how he hurt his head, and if he was in any pain. Naruto himself said that the pain started here in my office, when you were driving your fist into his skull because he objected to going to the hospital to get his arm looked at after he first used the Wind Style: Rasenshuriken. He said that what he felt was normal after being hit by you!"
Sakura's expression became more fearful and remorseful as Tsunade recounted the entire event. Tsunade continued, "Tsubaki asked him who created his chart, and he said that he believed you did. And that was true, was it not?"
Sakura nodded as a stray tear began to roll down her face.
"Well, then…" Tsunade pressed on, "…after he told her that, Tsubaki asked if any other staff at the hospital had attended to you, to which he answered, 'No'. Because of the unrecorded injuries, and because of the frequency with which Naruto admitted having suffered the symptoms he had, she then made the request to keep you out of Naruto's room until she could get to the bottom of what had happened. That's when she came to me and asked me to verify her findings, because she honestly had a hard time believing what her diagnosis told her. We came to Naruto's room, found you there, and…well, you know the rest!"
Sakura's fear and remorse turned into anger. Tsunade had noticed that she was becoming angrier and angrier lately, with greater frequency, and it seemed to take all of her self-control to keep from snapping and losing herself to rage. Deciding it was time to deal with Sakura before an incident occurred, Tsunade stood up and looked Sakura dead in the eyes.
"Sakura, what's really the issue here?" she asked firmly, "Ever since you were told to never strike Naruto again, you've been getting angrier and angrier. I want to know why!"
"Why?" Sakura repeated Tsunade's question to her in a cold low tone, "I'll tell you why. Naruto was the one constant I could count on in my life, and now he's been taken from me. I could beat on Naruto, and it would actually help me to feel better and calm down. I could depend on Naruto's promise to bring Sasuke back to the village – back to me. Now, my anger just builds and builds, and because I can't go anywhere near him outside of missions, I don't know what to do with any of it!"
Sakura started shedding tears of anger as she yelled the last question, "Tell me! What am I supposed to do with my anger and frustration now that I have nowhere to vent it, and nobody to vent it on?"
"You grow the hell up, and let your anger go!" came the voice of Shikamaru, firmly and much more loudly than expected, "Who the hell do you think you are, huh? What gives you the right to use Naruto as your frustration vent and gopher? You want Uchiha back? Go out there and get him yourself! You had the nerve to make that ridiculous 'once-in-a-lifetime request' to him all those years ago, when you've never once done anything for him! Just how selfish and overly self-important can you be? Is your anger even justified? What are you angry about, and why? If you're going to get angry at someone, get angry at yourself! You have only yourself to blame for where you are! It was your fault that you lost your apprenticeship from what I've heard here, and it's also your fault that Naruto wisely moved on from you. Maybe you'd be the one in Tsubaki's place if you'd treated him better! Did you ever stop to think about that?"
Sakura breathed heavily, taking a few breaths before answering, again in a low tone, "I think about that all the time, every single day…and that's exactly why I'm so angry. I'll also admit to being jealous, as well. Tsubaki Kenpi has my apprenticeship, and she has the love of the man who once loved me…"
This time it was Tsubaki who interrupted, "Sakura, I'm going to tell you the exact same thing I told Hinata Hyuuga earlier this morning: I will not engage or take part in these stupid, petty, childish games that you kids seem to love playing these days! As far as my reporting you goes, I reported the information I had gleaned from Naruto's chart, and that I received from Naruto himself, because of evidence that a medical professional - not you personally, but a medical professional – violated established medical ethics, broke the law, and endangered a patient's life and health by doing so. And on top of that, once Lady Tsunade and I returned to Naruto's room, we find you in there, in direct violation of orders given to you by a superior while on duty! If anyone else had been responsible for that chart, I'd have done the exact same thing, not because I had anything to gain, but because reporting suspected malpractice is required by law and it was the right, moral and ethical thing to do. As far as my 'stealing Naruto's love', if that's how you see it…" Tsubaki waited for Sakura to look her in the eye before continuing, "…I only sought to comfort him through a time of intense grief – grief that you were made aware of before I was. I only sought to be there for him, and to help him, and things just went from there. Besides that, you don't love him or care for him, so what does it matter to you if he now loves me?"
"It felt good to be loved by someone! It made me feel…worth something…as a person," Sakura's voice lowered in volume as she finished.
"So all this time, you've only been using him for your own selfish ends, without a care of how it might hurt him or affect him in the end? Is that what you mean to tell me?" Tsubaki asked with a growl before continuing, "How can you even look at yourself in the mirror and not be disgusted with the person you see there? Shikamaru's right – you don't care about anyone but yourself. You never cared about Naruto, and the truth is you don't even love the Uchiha like you claim to! You only love what each of them represents to you, and frankly that's reprehensible! Maybe if you started genuinely caring about people other than yourself, without ulterior motives, you'd find yourself to be a lot less angry."
Sakura hung her head, shedding silent tears, her anger gone, replaced by shame. Tsubaki's words had apparently struck a very sensitive nerve, as she could say nothing in response.
"Well, now that that's over…" Tsunade responded, "…Shikamaru, Sakura, what do you have to report to me?"
Shikamaru gave his report concerning the encoded message that Jiraiya had sent back to the village. Apparently, the Cryptoanalysis Squad had made no progress in deciphering Jiraiya's hidden message, but they suggested that someone close to Jiraiya might know something that could be the key to the cipher. Tsunade informed him that she didn't know what it could be upon further examination of the picture, so Shikamaru would be tracking down either Kakashi or Naruto today.
Once he was finished with his report, Tsubaki responded, "Naruto's at my place, Shikamaru. You can find him there."
Tsunade interjected, "Actually Shikamaru, wait for a bit before going over there. Try Kakashi first. As you know, Naruto's going through what may well be the hardest time of his life, right now, as he's just lost one of the people who's most important to him."
Tsubaki added, "It's true – we were talking last night, and Jiraiya was the closest thing to a father that Naruto's ever…known…" Tsubaki trailed off, recalling her thoughts from earlier this morning, "…Father?"
Tsubaki turned her gaze to the portrait of Minato Namikaze that was hanging in the Hokage's office. She started studying his face, and narrowed her eyes.
"Wait just one minute…" she began, standing up and moving closer to the portrait. As she got closer, Sakura seemed confused as to what she was doing, while Shikamaru just watched, waiting to see what conclusion she might draw. Tsunade simply waited with bated breath, not wanting to give anything away. When Tsubaki was right in front of the portrait, she brought up a finger and began tracing three invisible whisker marks on each cheek.
Once she had the image in her mind's eye, she gasped and exclaimed in breathless shock, "My Kami, how could we have been so blind as to miss that?"
Tsunade was about to speak up, but Shikamaru beat her to it, "Hmm…I was wondering how long it would take for someone else to connect the dots."
"Figure what out?" Sakura asked in confusion.
"The Fourth Hokage," Tsubaki replied, whirling around to face Tsunade, pointing to the portrait behind her and speaking in an almost accusatory tone, "This is Naruto's father!"
Sakura snorted and laughed, "What? Are you kidding me?"
It didn't take long for Sakura to notice that she was the only one who found the claim amusing. She quieted down, and looked around before exclaiming, "Oh, come on! Don't tell me any of you really believe that?"
Tsunade turned to Shikamaru, "How did you figure it out, Shikamaru?"
Sakura gasped while Shikamaru answered, "Well, taking into consideration the fact that Naruto just happened to be born as the Nine-tails attacked Konoha, he just happened to be the baby that Naruto sealed the fox into, any and all family history about Naruto had been stricken from his records and classified, and the fact that Naruto and the Fourth Hokage look so much alike that a retarded sheep could see the resemblance? It wasn't really that hard to figure out."
Sakura was now plainly and openly embarrassed by her declaration. Tsubaki, already having realized that they should have seen it earlier, felt no further embarrassment, but seemed rather angry. Tsunade was impassive, though it was easy to see that her guard was up, and she was trying to anticipate any number of responses, particularly from the woman who loved Naruto.
Tsubaki was the first to respond, and she wasn't happy, "Tsunade, why has this been kept secret? Why hasn't Naruto been told? Why hasn't the village as a whole been told, for that matter?"
Tsunade paused for a few moments, closed her eyes, and looked at the other two occupants of the room.
Taking on a cold, firm tone, she instructed them, "Shikamaru, Sakura, you're dismissed. Leave the room and tell no one of what you've learned here in regards to Naruto's heritage, is that understood?"
"Err, yes, milady," Sakura responded nervously.
"Well, I've kept it to myself all this time, because I figured that those above my pay grade had a good reason for not saying anything; what's a little longer? Man, what a drag," Shikamaru replied in his usual bored deadpan. With that, both Sakura and Shikamaru left the office.
Once they were gone, Tsunade looked at Tsubaki and began with a flinted gaze, "Tsubaki, the only reason I'm even talking about this to you is because not only are you my closest friend, but you're also very important to Naruto as well. If it wasn't for my trust in you as a person, I wouldn't be telling you any of this. Now, I'm asking that you let me fully explain without interruption before asking questions and saying anything else. Can you do that?"
Tsubaki nodded, prompting Tsunade to begin her explanation, "We had our reasons for not revealing Naruto's heritage to the village. Both of his parents died that night. His father, as you know, was Minato Namikaze, the Yellow Flash of the Leaf. His mother was Kushina Uzumaki, the Red Hot-Blooded Habanero…" Tsubaki gasped at this, as Kushina Uzumaki had been another one of her heroes growing up.
"Now, the reason he was given his mother's maiden name was to protect him from the numerous enemies that both of his parents had made during the Third Great Shinobi War, as well as Minato's enemies within the village itself. As you know, the Hokage isn't always well-liked by everyone, and usually, the more popular a Hokage is with the people of the village, the more unpopular they tend to be with those in power – that's just how politics works. Minato was no exception to this. The reason why Naruto's status as a jinchuriki was disclosed was because his father's dying wish was for Naruto to be seen as a hero for protecting this village every day of his life simply by existing. In addition to that, the world at large knew of the Nine-Tails' attack and word that the Leaf had a jinchuriki of its own would serve as a deterrent to future invasion, especially since the Fox's attack greatly weakened the village militarily."
Tsunade sighed somberly before continuing, "Sadly, while attempts at invasion were in fact prevented by this knowledge being spread, the people didn't see Naruto as a hero. They saw him as a monster. The Third did all he could to keep Naruto safe by passing a law that did not allow open speech about Naruto's burden to those who didn't already know, particularly Naruto's own generation. Well, you've had a chance to catch glimpses of Naruto's life growing up, and you also hated him at one point, yourself, so you pretty well know the rest of the story."
Tsubaki sighed sadly herself and nodded, feeling ashamed of herself in a way that she hadn't in years. Recovering after a few moments, Tsubaki picked her head back up and looked Tsunade dead in the eye once more, "Okay, that explains why his heritage was never disclosed to the village while he was a child, but what about now?"
"We can't reveal his heritage to him or anyone else until we know that he's strong enough to protect himself…" Tsunade began, only to be interrupted this time.
"I'm sorry, Tsunade, but I don't buy that. I read the mission report about Naruto's defeat of Kakuzu of Akatsuki so that I could get a better picture of what Naruto had done to receive his injuries. If memory serves, Naruto defeated Kakuzu, an enemy that had not only overpowered Kakashi Hatake and two chunin with him, but who had actually fought the First Hokage and walked away to talk about it…and he did it by himself. So please, tell me, Tsunade, just how strong does Naruto need to be in order to be deemed sufficiently strong enough to protect himself?"
Tsunade closed her eyes and sighed, this time in resignation. Tsubaki caught on, narrowed her eyes and pressed further, "There's another reason, isn't there? One that's a little more personal?"
Tsunade, after a few seconds, nodded slowly.
"What's the real reason, Tsunade?" Tsubaki asked patiently.
"The truth is…" Tsunade began, before pausing as though struggling to get her answer out, "…the truth is that Naruto may well hate me for keeping this from him, and for not being there for him when I knew who his parents were. It's not something I've thought too much about lately, as he's only recently come into his own power, but…" she turned to her friend, with a sad, almost pleading look on her face, "…I don't know if I could handle losing him, Tsubaki. I love him – I can't help but think of him as my son, at times, and the idea of him never wanting to speak to me again…"
Tsunade's voice began to break as she trailed off. She hung her head, unable to finish the thought that had been on the tip of her tongue. Tsubaki, for her part, understood quite well what Tsunade's fear was. She walked around the desk to Tsunade's chair and wrapped her arms around the busty Hokage.
After a few moments, once Tsunade's composure had returned, Tsubaki let her go and expressed, "Tsunade, I'll talk to Naruto to prepare him for what you have to say. He'll listen to me. I'll even be here with you when you tell him for moral support – for both of you. But you need to have more faith in Naruto than that. You owe it to him to tell him about this. You owe it to him to tell the village about this. Even when it gets out that the Yellow Flash left an heir, Naruto's more than capable of protecting himself from any attempts against his life or his well-being."
Tsubaki continued after a few moments' pause, "Is there anything that his parents owned that was maybe left to Naruto in trust? He is the rightful owner of any property and holdings they had now as their only surviving heir. Mementos, property…jutsu?"
"His parents' jutsu are archived and locked away, so I can give him those, but no property or personal possessions of theirs survived the Nine-Tails' attack. Their home was destroyed, along with everything inside it. I'm pretty sure that I can track down any financial assets they might have had, but that'll take a while. If anything, I'm sure that the money's grown since it's been doing little more than sitting around in various banks for sixteen years. But the worst part of all of this is that I don't have mementos or anything to give to Naruto that might connect him with his parents as people."
"Maybe, you can talk to people who knew them and see if they have any pictures of them or something?" Tsubaki suggested.
Tsunade's eyes went wide as she looked up at her friend, "Of course! Why didn't I think of that? I'm sure I still have some of my own, somewhere, actually!"
Tsunade suddenly pulled out some paper and began to list anyone who might have had some connection to either Minato Namikaze or Kushina Uzumaki.
"Err, Tsunade?" Tsubaki gently asked, grabbing the woman's attention.
"What do you want to do right now…as far as telling Naruto, I mean?"
"Well…" Tsunade pondered, "…as frightened as I am by the idea of how he might react when I do tell him, you're right. He does deserve to know. I'll tell him when Jiraiya's estate is executed to him."
"That sounds good. I'll do what I can to prepare him for it, but…" Tsubaki smiled knowingly, "…I think he might just surprise you by his reaction."
"What do you mean?" Tsunade asked curiously.
"Just wait and see," Tsubaki responded cryptically before turning to leave. She stopped at the door and turned back to Tsunade, "How would you like to have dinner with Naruto and me tonight? You two could share some Jiraiya stories…"
Tsunade chuckled, "You know, I think I'll take you up on that, Tsubaki. Your place? Seven or so?"
Tsubaki nodded and left Tsunade's office, leaving the woman to handle her paperwork.
Naruto awoke the following morning, having slept very fitfully. His conscious mind immediately flooded itself with thoughts and memories of his and Tsubaki's activities last night. He couldn't help the satisfied yet tired smile that crept across his face, accompanied by a blush when he remembered that she'd left her black silk stockings on. He opened his eyes to take in the visage of the woman that had enchanted him so over the last day and a half…only to find that she wasn't there.
His smile morphed into a confused frown. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked around the room. There were no sounds inside the apartment, meaning that she might have stepped out for a bit. He then noticed a folded piece of paper on Tsubaki's pillow with his name on it. Curious, Naruto took the piece of paper and opened it, reading the contents of the note on it.
Good morning, my Sunshine,
I stepped out to go to Tsunade's office so that I could get those pictures that Chouza took last night. I'll be back before noon so that we can get some lunch and spend the day together. I've made you some breakfast and put it in the oven to keep it warm for you. Please make yourself at home, okay?
Your Princess loves you,
P.S. You were wonderful last night! ;)
XOXOX (hugs and kisses)
Naruto smiled and chuckled at the note that Tsubaki left him. Despite the fact that he was currently grieving the loss of the man he'd come to love as a father, he couldn't ever remember a time where he'd been happier than he'd been in the last thirty-six or so hours. Tsubaki really was all he could have ever asked for in a woman…and then some! He found himself thanking whatever divinity had chosen to smile upon him when he or she had given him the woman that was now his angel.
He pulled himself out of bed and pulled his boxers on, heading to the kitchen to get his breakfast from the oven. Once he pulled it out, he turned the oven off and brought it to the table, taking in the mouth-watering aroma of Tsubaki's cooking before breaking his chopsticks and giving thanks. He dug in with gusto, the wonderful meal tasting just as delectable as it did yesterday when Tsubaki prepared the same thing for the two of them.
After breakfast, he showered and performed his morning hygiene rituals. Once he finished and dried off, he suddenly found himself feeling rather depressed. Now that he was by himself, his thoughts had drifted back to Jiraiya…and he found himself saddened, missing his master/father-figure. As he looked into the mirror, he realized that the only set of clothes he had with him was what he wore last night. While it certainly looked great for a date at night, it certainly wouldn't do for a shinobi to wear such clothing during the day, especially with how he typically travelled across the rooftops. The last thing he needed was his pants splitting mid-leap, and walking through the streets on a hot, muggy day in dressy clothing was not an activity that particularly appealed to him.
He decided that after he got dressed, he would head back to his apartment and change into his regular black and orange tracksuit. As he was putting his pants and shirt on, he heard the doorbell ring.
'Who could that be?' he wondered as he moved to answer the door. When he opened the front door, he saw none other than Shikamaru Nara.
"Hey, Shikamaru. What's up? What do you want?" Naruto asked in greeting, somewhat tiredly.
Shikamaru raised a quizzical eyebrow at Naruto and asked, "Well, for starters…how's about letting me come in?"
"Actually, I'm about to head back to my place to hang these clothes up and change."
"Okay, so I'll come with you," Shikamaru insisted.
"Oh…okay, then," Naruto responded numbly as he exited Tsubaki's apartment and locked it before leading Shikamaru back to his own home. Not a word passed between the two of them on the trek to Naruto's apartment. The only time they stopped was when Naruto got sidetracked by a display stand for Make-Out Tactics. He simply stared at the books, and his mind was flooded with memories of Jiraiya once again. Suppressing the memories that threatened to overwhelm him, and the tears that came with them, he continued on his way to his apartment, Shikamaru following once more, this time with a raised eyebrow and a concerned frown.
Once they arrived, Naruto replaced his clothes. Shikamaru sat on the floor while Naruto sat on his bed. Shikamaru showed him the photograph of the numbers that had been burned into Fukusaku's back.
"Do these numbers mean anything to you?" Shikamaru inquired hopefully.
Naruto just seemed to space out as he stared blankly at the photograph, unresponsive to Shikamaru's inquiry.
"Hey…Naruto," Shikamaru spoke up, trying to draw his attention, "You still with me or what?"
Naruto continued to sit there, unmoving and unresponsive.
"Naruto!" Shikamaru yelled out his name as he leaned forward, causing Naruto to flinch and gasp as he came back to the present moment.
"Oh…right. Sorry…" Naruto responded with an embarrassed chuckle before asking, "So…wha'd you say?"
"Awright…" Shikamaru began resignedly, "…you're coming with me; let's go," and with that, Shikamaru rose to his feet.
"To where?" Naruto asked dumbly.
"Just come on."
"Wh-what?" Naruto stuttered in confusion.
Naruto, following Shikamaru's lead, found himself outside of Hidden Leaf hospital. He and Shikamaru were now standing out in front of the hospital, in the walled entryway to the grounds.
"Why'd you bring me here?" Naruto asked, just as confused as he was when they left his apartment.
"Just wait," Shikamaru instructed him, his annoyance leading to mild impatience when just a second later, they heard the main door open, "Ahh…there she is."
"Huh?" Naruto replied dumbly as he turned his gaze to one Kurenai Yuhi…whose stomach was quite a bit larger than he remembered it being.
"Huh? Kurenai-sensei?" Naruto blurted out in surprise.
"That's right," Shikamaru answered nonchalantly.
Naruto's first impulse was to ask how she'd gotten so fat, but remembering his conversation with Tsubaki about being more thoughtful, decided to voice it differently, "Ermmm…I'm gonna guess that you're not here due to indigestion or something, so, err…" he trailed off embarrassingly.
"She's pregnant, not overweight," Shikamaru retorted tiredly before continuing, "Oh boy…well, at least you're not as obnoxious as you used to be. I was half-expecting you to blurt out something like how she was hospitalized for eating too much barbeque or something."
Naruto could only blush and grin sheepishly while scratching the back of his head and chuckling.
"So, then…you mean, she's…" Naruto began as he turned back to the mother-to-be.
"Shikamaru," Kurenai began in good-natured annoyance, "You know…you don't have to come every time."
"Sorry. No can do," he responded with a knowing, almost-teasing smile, "Asuma made me promise him."
Kurenai simply smiled warmly and understandingly at Shikamaru. Naruto guessed that they'd had this conversation before, and probably would again, and it would probably end the same way every time. Naruto felt a strange sense of peace as he watched the pregnant beauty walking away from them.
"Shikamaru, what did Asuma-sensei ask you to do?"
"Their child will be my student," he answered, his jaw locked in place, showing his resolve to discharge that responsibility to the best of his ability.
"Huh?" Naruto gasped in surprise.
"I'm being serious. He entrusted me with that…" Shikamaru trailed off, turning his gaze forward and looking off into the distance, as if remembering the moment when Asuma gave him that charge.
"I heard about Master Jiraiya," he began anew after a few moments of silence, hoping that what he had to say would help Naruto get through this rough patch, "Having lost my teacher just like you, I understand exactly what you're going through right now."
Shikamaru closed his eyes and hung his head for a brief second before opening his eyes and turning his gaze towards Naruto, "But whining and sulking won't make things better."
Naruto glowered slightly at Shikamaru's seemingly harsh words.
Shikamaru continued in an even, calm tone, "Face it. Both of us are way past that point in our lives."
Naruto's glowering frown became a frown of confusion, "What do you mean?"
Shikamaru turned his gaze forward once more, "Asuma-sensei imparted a lot of knowledge to me. Some lessons were important, some not so much; it didn't matter. The same for you, right?" Naruto turned his gaze forward as he pondered the truth of Shikamaru's words, as Shikamaru pressed on, "And an infinite number of priceless things…"
Shikamaru let that sink in for a moment before continuing, "…so I think it's time for us to step up."
"How so?" Naruto asked, turning back to Shikamaru, intrigued at the idea.
"To stop being students, and become teachers," Shikamaru responded, with greater resolve and conviction than Naruto had ever heard from his friend.
Shikamaru turned back to Naruto with a smirk, "It's gonna be a drag, but we can't keep complaining…" Naruto now gave Shikamaru his undivided attention, hanging on every word, "Eventually, you'll be the one paying for the ramen…and someone will be calling you…'Naruto-sensei'."
Shikamaru took a few steps forward and turned around to stand face to face with Naruto, "After all, we can't stay brats, forever. Not if we want to become cool shinobi…like the type of shinobi that Asuma and Jiraiya both were," he winked at Naruto as he mentioned Asuma and Jiraiya.
Both of them were silent for several seconds, Shikamaru again letting his words sink in, Naruto unconsciously smiling as he thought about just how truly cool Jiraiya was.
"You're right…" Naruto responded, a serene smile on his face, "…Shikamaru…thank you."
Giving him a manly smile, Shikamaru added, "So pull yourself together…" he pulled out the photograph once more and finished, "…because you've got some work to do."
His determination restored, he looked Shikamaru dead in the eye with the fire in his own as he gave a manly smile in response, "Alright!"
And that's a wrap for this chapter! Again, apologies for the length of time between updates. Also, "To Really Know Someone" is being worked on as well. Fight scenes do not come easily to me, so I have to really think about what I'm doing and what I want to happen in order to write them effectively. Battles take me a while, so please be patient with me. Please REVIEW, my friends!