Time To Get Serious

Chapter I - Truth From The Hokage's Lips

Tsunade sat at her desk in near-complete silence, the sound of her pen scratching and her soft breathing being the only sounds to break it. It had been a day since the teams she dispatched to procure and seal the Sanbi (or Three-Tailed Beast) returned to the village and she had learned a lot from the mission reports. A lot of the information she learned gave her great reason to feel proud of her ninjas – notably Hinata had shown true determination in the face of a daunting challenge, and Shizune had shown why she was much more than just an assistant.

Of course, there were exceptions that gave her cause to be concerned. Three people from the mission had been pointed out by more than one to have performed erratically, putting the mission in jeopardy. She mulled over the information once more in her mind. Now I understand why Sarutobi-sensei was so insistent on leaving this office as often as possible, she thought ruefully.

A knocking at the door gave her reason to look up. Lowering her pen, she spoke clearly. "Enter."

The door opened, revealing an attractive young woman with a long sheet of platinum-blonde hair and teal eyes, eyes which contained what Tsunade recognised to be trepidation.

Following close behind her was a young man with a frighteningly positive disposition. His smile seemed permanently fixed to his face, and his bright blue eyes were lit up with potential mischief. "Hey, Tsunade-baachan!" he grinned, causing Tsunade to feel that familiar violent tic; sometimes she really wanted to throttle him.

Finally, following after the young man came another young woman. Her pink hair was cut short, her bangs framing her softly angled face; her emerald eyes were wary, a result of hours of long, strenuous training with the Fifth Hokage. "You requested our presence, Tsunade-shishō?" said the last to enter as she shut the door quietly behind herself.

"Yes, I did," agreed Tsunade, looking over the three shinobi before her. Steepling her hands, Tsunade rested her chin on them. Peering at the platinum-haired girl in particular, she gave her an even stare. "Would any of you care to tell me what happened during your most recent mission?"

"What do you mean?" asked the young man.

Tsunade lifted her head from her hands. Reaching into her desk, she retrieved a folder labelled 'Mission Reports for Sanbi Sealing – For Hokage's Eyes Only'. Opening the folder, she took a long look at the words contained within. "Perhaps it would be better for me to read some of what your comrades said. Let's start with you, Naruto."

"Huh, me?" Naruto seemed lost.

"'Ran away from his post on numerous occasions. Had to be found, diverting necessary resources and manpower during critical points in time. Ignored the commands of his team leader.' Naruto, actions like these are what I expected from you three years ago. I thought you'd grown up a little, but if these words are to be believed, you may have regressed rather than progressed," sighed Tsunade.

"You don't understand!" began Naruto heatedly. "Kabuto was using–"

"I know exactly what Kabuto was doing," snapped Tsunade, cutting Naruto off before he could build up a head of steam. "The point is that you disobeyed direct orders, Naruto. You usurped control of the mission to suit your own objectives." Naruto gritted his teeth as he listened to Tsunade dispassionately report his failings. "Not only that, Naruto. The only reason I allowed you to participate in this mission was because you promised me faithfully that you were the best choice to support Kakashi and Team Eight. Instead, you left your post unmanned on numerous occasions. What would have happened if the Akatsuki had shown up while you were missing? Your teammates would have known nothing about it. As far as they were concerned, you were on lookout, diligently performing your duty." Naruto had the good grace to look embarrassed, lowering his head.

"Do you still hold your dream of becoming Hokage?" asked Tsunade suddenly, leading to Naruto raising his head and looking at her as though she had grown a second head.

"Of course I do!" he cried resolutely.

"Well then, you're going to have to get serious. If I were to go to the Council right now and say that I wanted you to be my successor, do you know what would happen? They'd laugh me out of there so fast, I wouldn't know what hit me."

"Because of the Kyūbi," said a suddenly resigned Naruto.

"No, because if they were to ever see this report, they would see just how much of a risk it would be leaving this village in your hands. They would see a disobedient, wilful, ill-mannered brat who can't take care of himself, much less an entire village!" When Naruto looked ready to protest once more, Tsunade was quick off the mark. "Enough! The point I am trying to make is that you will never be accepted as Hokage if all you can do is fight. Being strong is important, but so is being reliable, as is being able to think rationally and logically. You have to be able to listen to others, even if you disagree with them, and respect their decisions–not go bounding off just because you dislike what you hear." Feeling as though she had run through the majority of her mental check-list where Naruto was concerned, she rounded onto another of her shinobi.

"Next, Sakura," continued Tsunade, looking to her pink-haired apprentice.

"Shishō?"

Tsunade once more took to her folder; riffling through a few sheafs, she came to the sheet she was looking for. Clearing her throat, she began again. "'Exemplary during the attempted sealing of the Three-Tails. Chakra control was exceptional, and provided support to flagging members of the team.'" Sakura looked pleased with herself, while Naruto was smiling lightly at her–not that she noticed. Tsunade's face grew grim. "I wasn't finished, Sakura," she said in a no-nonsense tone, one so rarely heard that it gave all three of them chills. "There is one thing that I will come to once I speak to Ino, so I will skip it for now." This gave Ino cause to pause for a moment, her mind already whirling. "'Berated Naruto on more than one occasion.'" She raised an eyebrow at this, one which Sakura immediately noticed. "Here's the kicker, though. 'Jumped more than one-hundred feet from an ink construct to deliver crushing elbow to Naruto's sternum. Resulting crater was more than twenty feet deep. Naruto was heavily injured after incident. Had to be healed by medical ninja for fifteen minutes.'" Placing the folder atop her desk, Tsunade narrowed her eyes at her apprentice. "What do you have to say for yourself, my apprentice?"

"I...I wasn't trying to berate him, shishō," muttered Sakura, trying to think of how to explain herself, completely neglecting the much more serious charge in Tsunade's eyes. Luckily for Sakura, Naruto came to her rescue. "It wasn't anything bad, baachan," exclaimed the blonde, his grin as wide as ever.

"Naruto..."

"Sakura-chan doesn't mean anything by it, honest," he said. "I don't always get what people are trying to say to me, so Sakura-chan tells me it as it is. That's all there is to it."

"Be that as it may, how do you explain the needless physicality?"

"I was...worried about him..." said Sakura, almost pitifully, her voice dying towards the end of her sentence.

"Worried about him?!" snorted Tsunade, looking at Sakura as though she had said the most ridiculous thing ever. "Sakura, being worried about somebody does not equate to putting them into a critical state. If it wasn't for the fact that Naruto holds the Kyūbi, I have no doubt that your 'worry' would have cost him his life." Tsunade fixed Sakura with her fiercest stare. "I did not teach you how to utilise your chakra for strength so you could harm your comrades, much less your teammate."

"Shishō..."

"In future, Sakura, I don't care if Naruto were to strip naked and do jumping jacks in front of you–not that you would, right, Naruto?" said Tsunade in an aside that had Naruto frantically shaking his head, his hands held in front of him defensively, "I will no longer tolerate you harming him. If you want to have your relationship with each other be about you beating him up for the sake of it, you can do it during your downtime. While on a mission, I expect you to be the pinnacle of professionalism. You are my apprentice, Sakura," said Tsunade emphatically. "As such, your actions–the good and the bad–reflect upon me, both as a kunoichi, a member of the Sannin, and as Hokage. Never forget that fact."

"...No, I won't, Tsunade-shishō," said a contrite Sakura. Looking to Naruto, Sakura was struck by just how stalwart a friend he was. Even though he could have agreed with Tsunade, berated her himself for her excessively violent tendencies where he was concerned, he chose, instead, to defend her once more. Naruto, I'm sorry, she thought regretfully.

"Finally, we come to you, Ino," said Tsunade, and Ino had a sinking feeling that Tsunade had saved the best–or in this case, the worst–for last. "'Seemed flustered as soon as the Four Corner Sealing Barrier was created. Lost control of her chakra on numerous occasions, the final time being what allowed the seal to break, and the Sanbi to escape. Ah, here is the point I wanted to make during Sakura's report–assaulted Sai by delivering punch to face, along with Sakura.'"

"Oh, come on!" cried Ino. "That was just some playful banter!"

"Ino's right, shishō. Besides, he shouldn't have made fun of my forehead," grumbled Sakura.

"Sakura, be silent," warned Tsunade, rendering her apprentice dumb. "Yet again, your violent tendencies come to the front. Once more, let me remind you of why I taught you. You came to me, begging me to take you on as a student. Do you recall your reason–the reason why I trained you?"

Sakura nodded her head slightly. "I wanted to protect them," she said quietly.

"What was that, Sakura? I couldn't hear your mumbling," grumbled Tsunade.

"I said I want to protect them! Both Naruto and Sasuke-kun!" shouted Sakura, before she blushed in embarrassment.

"Sakura-chan..." breathed Naruto, his eyes filled with adoration for the young woman by his side. Sakura blushed once more, this time from the intense scrutiny Naruto placed her under.

Satisfied by Sakura's response for the present, Tsunade rounded on Ino once more. "From what I can ascertain from these reports, and from the testimonies of the jonin sensei, you are, at the very least, indirectly responsible for the failure of this mission."

"No!" cried Ino despondently.

"You lost control over your chakra at least twice, Ino. I don't actually know if it was more than twice, or whether your comrades are choosing to omit details in order to spare you any further embarrassment." Tsunade fixed Ino with a deep, piercing gaze, and her voice was cold. "You are a medical ninja, Ino, and the cornerstone of all medical ninjutsu is a high degree of chakra control. You are one of only a handful of people I have chosen to train over the years, and I know for a fact that you were taking supplemental lessons with both Shizune and Sakura, and yet Hinata, who has never been trained in the medical arts, outperformed you. Now, because of your lack of control, the Sanbi is still roaming wild. For all we know, the Akatsuki may now be in possession of it!" Little did Tsunade know, at that very moment, the Akatsuki were well into their first day of sealing the Three-Tails. "Frankly, I'm disappointed in you."

"Tsunade-sama! I tried my best..."

"You allowed your fear to get the best of you. How can I trust you in the operating theatre if you are going to allow your fear to overrule you?"

Ino was crushed. She had been forced to face down with a Tailed Beast, a creature of destruction from myth. How could Tsunade judge her for feeling afraid?

Tsunade was not yet finished. "You lost focus because of interruptions by outside forces, namely the Crystal Style user, yet you should have been trusting of your comrades. The whole reason they were appointed was so they could act as your guardians, yet you flinched as soon as an enemy drew near. After due consideration, I have decided it would be best for you to take a month's leave of absence to get your mind cleared, and to train yourself."

Ino could feel her whole body shaking. Tears were peeking at the corners of her eyes, threatening to fall at the slightest opportunity, yet she refused to lower herself further in her Hokage's eyes. With a shaky nod and a terse "Yes, Hokage-sama," Ino was on her way out of the office.

"Ino!" shouted Sakura as Ino left the office.

"Baachan!" started Naruto, but once more, Tsunade was onto him like a hawk.

"Quiet, both of you. Be glad I haven't decided that the two of you should be treated similarly. That isn't to say that I won't change my mind. Now, both of you, I want you to take a few days off from missions. If I were you, I would use this time to reevaluate your positions as teammates. Lord knows, given the sorry state of this last mission, you need to. Dismissed."

Her voice brooked no argument. With swift nods, Sakura and Naruto shuffled out of her office. As the door closed, Tsunade leaned her head against her desk and breathed deeply. She didn't enjoy shouting at any of them, especially Naruto, but she was Hokage. As Hokage, she could not continue to make special allowances simply because of her relationship with him. As she had said to Sakura, she had to remain professional, and if that meant having to say harsh things in order for him to realise what was necessary for him to grow, then so be it.

A knock at her door alerted her to another's presence. "Enter," she said tersely.

A head poked through the slightest sliver of a gap. "May I come in, Tsunade-sama?"

"Shizune, yes, enter." With a soft nod, the black-haired woman stepped in, their pig Tonton held securely beneath her bosom. "How did they take it?" she asked softly.

Tsunade sighed deeply. "Honestly? Naruto will bounce back from it, just like always. Hopefully, he will gain perspective. I want him to become Hokage, Shizune, but I cannot just hand it him as he is now. He wouldn't last a week before this village would be ruined. I imagine that Sakura will be deep in thought. Hopefully, she'll have a good, hard look at herself and realise that she is only going to push Naruto away if she continues acting the way she is. There's only so much punishment a person can take before they snap, romantic feelings or no." Here she took a calming breath. "As for Ino, I really don't know. I would like to think that she will use this time to strengthen herself, both physically and mentally. Instead, I get the feeling that she may end up giving up, both on herself and her career as a shinobi."

Shizune looked shocked. "We should help her, then!"

"No," said Tsunade firmly. "It's no longer up to us. It will be up to her friends to help her see her true worth. I want your word, Shizune, that you won't interfere." At Shizune's expression of outrage, Tsunade continued. "I know that you and she have connected during your time training her, and I know that you think of her as your protégé, just like I do with Sakura, but you cannot let your personal feelings get in the way. If I can say what needs to be said to both Naruto and Sakura, I expect you to be able to listen to my orders."

"...Yes, Tsunade-sama," said Shizune shakily.

Standing, Tsunade looked out of the window. Below, the entire village was sprawled as far as she could see. I hope I'm doing the right thing, she thought as a flock of birds flew before her eyes, giving her hope.

xOxOx

A/N: This is my first chapter to a challenge fiction I would like to set anybody who is interested. The rules for the challenge are as follows:

1. Must be set after the Three-Tails anime filler arc. This allows for multiple storylines to be created since it is poised at a crucial time during Naruto canon.

2. Tsunade must act as a true Hokage and not pander to Naruto. I realise that they share a special relationship in canon, but Tsunade is the Hokage. As such, Naruto is her subordinate, and she should not be bending over backwards to meet his every whim. If she says no, it should mean no.

3. Naruto must become romantically involved with either Ino or Sakura. This is up to personal preference. If you wish to have a harem with the two girls, that is fine. I, personally, will have Naruto with one girl, but this does not mean that you cannot have him with both.

If you wish to take part, please PM me. I hope this has interested you, and I hope to see lots of interesting stories.

Addendum: Also, those waiting for Chapter VIII of The Sharpest Edge, fret not. I'm struggling with the battle at the moment, but as soon as the chapter is complete to my satisfaction, I will post it. I have not given up on it, nor will I.

Addendum II: Check out the poll on my profile to cast your vote for who you think should be with Naruto in this story.