Naruto Fan Fiction ❯ The Flower in Adversity ❯ A Hero's Welcome ( Chapter 8 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Author's Note: As stated in the prologue and first chapter, this is set way out from the start of the series, and is so far based on about chapter 360 of the manga, no further, since that's where the manga was when I started this project. And with recent developments in the manga, this makes it quite AU, alas. Refer to the Author's Note in the first chapter for more details. Like I said, I started this before all the crap hit the fan, and I'm not backing down now. (Also, Yumiya's comments about Minato is just me being silly. If they seem awkward, let me know and I'll axe them, I'm totally on the fence about them).

I'm not entirely sure if Jiraiya is in-character in this chapter when he's talking to Sakura, so any suggestions anyone might have would be much, much appreciated. I've pored over his character and any appearances he's had that might be a similar situation, but I can't find anything rock-solid, so I'm going with my gut.

This chapter ran long AGAIN. Guess what! there's going to be ANOTHER chapter before the epilogue. I really want to write the epilogue, but I need to wrap this up properly, and the files are running long.

Disclaimer: I do not own any part of "Naruto" or its characters. It all belongs to the incomparable Masashi Kishimoto-sensei. I'm just playing in the sandbox of this amazing world.

Warning: Coarse language. Yumiya's at it again! Expect F-bombs and other profanity or expletives. You dun been warned.

"The flower which blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all." --proverb from "Mulan"

"The Flower in Adversity"
Part Eight: A Hero's Welcome


The resounding bark of a large dog echoed through the trees of the temperate forest of the Fire Country. A large group of ninjas moved swiftly through the canopy, clumped together in groups of three and four at a time. The dog and his master led the way, while the ninja riding a frog the size of a small pony brought up the rear.

"Come on, you lazy slowpokes! Akamaru says to get your asses in gear! We're almost home!" Kiba's voice followed the bark.

"Almost?" Neji retorted. "We've got a good four hours to go yet!"

"Yeah!" Kiba bounded from one branch to another. "And that's the last four of ninety-six! We're in the home stretch, guys! Pick up the pace!"

"Some of us are not in so huge of a hurry, Kiba-kun!" Lee called. "It is wiser to take it easy. We are all getting tired, after all." He traveled along at a lower level than the others, choosing to travel across larger, sturdier branches, since he couldn't use his arms to steady himself; his arms were employed holding a teammate firmly in place on his back. That teammate was particularly dear to him.

"All the same," Gai-sensei said with a gusty sigh as he matched strides with his favorite student. "I'll be glad to get home, hand this box of rocks over to Hokage-sama. This is bloody heavy!" He shrugged wearily to indicate the large wooden crate strapped to his back, that carried an injured passenger.

"Complaining, Gai-sensei?" Neji was one level above them, also carrying a passenger. Combined with the kunoichi being carried by Akamaru, and the Suna kunoichi being conveyed by the large black horse that galloped along the forest floor -- having grown tired of tree-hopping -- there were five incapacitated passengers being carried by fellow ninja or by summons. (Jiraiya chose to ride one of his summoning toads because he claimed his arthritis was getting to him. Naruto questioned that the Ero-sennin even had arthritis, but everyone just humored the old ninja out of habit.)

Sakura, Shizune and Hanabi were only temporarily incapacitated, however. The repeated stops every six hours -- which had added almost a full day to their travel -- to reinforce the healings on Sanami and Sasuke were taking their toll on the healer-kunoichi, but this was the last stretch before they could hand their patients over to Tsunade-sama. As such, they had all poured a little too much chakra into their healing techniques, and subsequently had exhausted themselves. With home being only hours away, the teams had decided to forego waiting for the healers to recover, and instead had chosen to pick them up and carry them. Kiba had hoisted his current team captain, Shizune, onto Akamaru; Neji obliged Hanabi by carrying her on his back; and Lee carried Sakura.

Down by the forest floor, Tenten and Hinata traveled alongside the horse Kurosuna. Tenten watched for potential ANBU traps that might harm Kurosuna, while Hinata kept her Byakugan activated and watched for signs of attack or obstruction by the village. At the highest level in the canopy, Yumiya and Yamato criss-crossed the relative area of the teams, also watching for ANBU traps. Since the attack on Sunagakure had come with a warning to Konohagakure, it was reasonable to assume that traps would be laid to slow a potential sneak attack.

The teams traveled steadily onward, energized by the familiar signs that they were nearing the village. When they had about three hours to go, Naruto called a sudden halt.

"What is it?" Kakashi landed next to his former student.

"Something... I can't explain it, but I feel like we're being watched."

Neji activated his Byakugan -- he had the greatest simultaneous peripheral range of the three Hyuugas, though Hanabi had the ability to see the furthest out in a particular direction.

"ANBU," was his response. "They're just watching us. They seem to know who we are, and they're not interrupting, but they're watching us all the same. That was a smart move, putting Tenten down by the horse. They recognize their own instantly. It would be a bad thing to have the jounin entrusted to us by Kazekage-sama attacked by ANBU."

"I'll remind you which of us came up with that smart move, dumbass," Yumiya said as she dropped down to Naruto's level and glared at Neji. "Don't go heaping the praise on fox-boy here."

Neji set Hanabi, who was still groggy, down on a branch and moved to stand in front of Naruto. "Stand still, Naruto."

Intrigued, everyone froze and watched the jounin as he analyzed the area. Then, with a sharp movement of his hand, he sent a wave of chakra pulsing out, deflecting a thrown kunai.

"How disappointing. I wanted to see if Naruto-kun's reflexes had improved, but you interrupted that." A slim dark-clad figure of an ANBU ninja dropped down onto a branch about ten meters away. The ANBU removed his mask as he faced Naruto.

"Sai!" Naruto exclaimed, recognizing his one-time teammate, a member of ANBU who operated with the name of Sai now, and had retained that name since the complete dissolution of the Root division. Sai had a tendency to be crass, but he could be counted upon in a fight to be a good backup, they had learned.

"I'm here to escort you all back," he said simply. "We have a lot of traps set up close to the gate; I will guide you past them."

"Were there attempts on Konoha by the other villages?" Kakashi inquired.

"Kumogakure tried something briefly, but we caught them. Come on; it's best we don't waste any time."

"Just a minute," Gai-sensei said. "I've been carrying this thing for almost four days. Why don't you carry it now, Naruto? It's your trophy anyway."

"Complaining again, Gai-sensei?" Neji arched an eyebrow at his former sensei. "That's really not like you."

"The fuck do you know, Neji? He's a first-rate whiner!" Yumiya retorted. "You don't live with him. He's the biggest damn baby."

"I'll take it," Naruto said, helping the older jounin out of the harness of the wooden crate. "I've got plenty of stamina left."

"Lee," Sakura murmured into her husband's ear. "I'm okay now, you can put me down."

"You are sure about that?" Lee glanced over his shoulder at her, even as he stooped down to help her off his back.

"Yeah. I need to ask Jiraiya-sama something anyway."

"All right." Lee bumped her shoulder affectionately -- a gesture the two of them had developed in the past year since becoming lovers -- and turned his attention to the leaders. Sakura shook her limbs out to wake her body up, and hopped a few trees back to where Jiraiya sat on his traveling frog.

"Can I ask you something, Jiraiya-sama?" she asked as she landed.

"Sure thing, lass." His eyebrows danced mischievously.

"Don't even think about it!" She laughed. "Shishou warned me about your weaknesses! Don't think I won't use them!"

"Yikes, okay, okay." Jiraiya tried to look put out, but the twinkle in his eye betrayed his enjoyment of the banter. It reminded Sakura of when Tsunade had once commented rather offhand (she, Sakura and Shizune had been unwinding with a potent bottle of sake after a particularly unpleasant healing session) that her old teammate liked someone who could argue with him. Any woman who asserted herself in front of him was unlikely to be groped. (Shizune, who had been a few too many drinks to the good, had gone on a bit of a rant that "that old codger" had no respect for women at all if that was how he behaved.)

"So, you were going to ask me something?" The Gama-sennin inquired after an extended silence.

"I was waiting for something better than 'okay, okay,'" Sakura temporized, internally kicking herself for having gotten distracted. She had a feeling that her excuse wouldn't really fly with Jiraiya either, but she hoped he'd just let it slide.

He eyed her, and she got the distinct impression that he was weighing his options -- call her bluff, or ignore it.

Lucky for her, he chose to ignore it. "Right, well, as long as you don't deliberately tempt me, you're safe. I wouldn't want to have Lee throw open those Gates and try that same move on me that he did on Sasuke. Well, I suppose I'd like to see it, but not from the receiving end of it! Anyway, you were saying?"

"I wanted to ask you a question about Shish -- er, Tsunade-sama. Since you've known her longest. I didn't want to ask Shizune-san about it, because I don't want her thinking I'm doubting Shishou, but..."

By now the teams had started moving again, and Sakura hitched a ride along on Gama, placing herself safely out of groping distance just in case.

"If you're going to ask something treasonous, Sakura, be forewarned that I have no problem telling Tsunade about it, even if you tell me in confidence. I may not be the Hokage, but I do care about the village, and I won't let it be compromised."

What the...? She gaped at him. "Do you honestly think I'd compromise the village?"

"I have to be suspicious if you're acting this way," the old ninja shrugged. "You want to ask me something about Tsunade, insisting I know her best, when you and Shizune have been her near-constant companions for the past ten years. Sorry, kiddo, old habit. Sennin can't be too careful."

"I didn't say that you know her best, only that you've known her longest. Shizune-san has said that Tsunade-sama has changed dramatically over the years; you've known her the longest, so you probably know what she's like on the deepest levels inside. What I want to know is, do you think that she will now promote Naruto to Hokage, now that he's fulfilled this promise to bring Sasuke home?"

Jiraiya looked appraisingly at her. "What are you implying?"

"Well, it just seems like it's too good to be true, that now that Sasuke's been retrieved, she's just going to hand it over to him."

"Oh, it won't be that easy or that fast! Apparently you're not aware of why she's been holding back all these years."

"Well, that's kind of what I wanted to ask you, in a sense."

Jiraiya was silent for a long moment. "Tsunade never wanted the position of Hokage. I can never, ever recall her even wishing for it, nevermind making it a goal. But her little brother, who was like Naruto in a lot of ways, wanted to become the Yondaime Hokage. However, he died as a young genin. Tsunade eventually became bitter after the Ninja wars dragged on and left the village to seek some semblance of peace. She had no intentions of ever returning, until Naruto and I tracked her down. Even then, when I relayed the offer of becoming the Godaime Hokage to her, she refused out of hand. She wanted no part of it, and had never wanted it.

"I suspect that Naruto changed her mind by reminding her of her little brother, but the real deciding factor was when Orochimaru threatened to crush the Leaf village. That's when Tsunade decided to step up to the challenge and take on the mantle of office. I had the distinct impression, right from the beginning, that she was only taking on the role and title of Hokage as a regent, holding the 'throne,' if you will, for her chosen successor to grow, mature and come of age."

"Well, Naruto's probably been mature enough for the position for a while, don't you think?" Sakura inquired. "Considering all the S-ranks Shishou sends him on, you know she trusts his abilities."

"There's been a little shadow hanging over that though, Sakura." Jiraiya's brows lowered slightly, giving him a more intense appearance. "The issue of Sasuke has been like a black cloud over all of you for ten years now. Naruto swore to bring Sasuke home, and he did so in such a way that he put it at top priority. Bringing Sasuke home became more important to him than becoming Hokage, at least for the time being. And he was determined to do it himself.

"The Hokage should not leave his village for any reason except by summons of the daimyou, or another kage. The only exception to this is if he leaves someone behind who can protect the village in his stead, someone of kage-level abilities. He should certainly not take off on random missions in hopes of finding someone. A village's kage should always put his village as his number one priority, at all times.

"In other words, if Tsunade had promoted Naruto any earlier, then Naruto would have been forced to give up his personal mission of finding Sasuke. I'm sure you know as well as I do, if not better, how well that would have gone over with Naruto.

"Tsunade would like nothing more than to retire from office, and when she does so, she's not going to hang around all the time. She's too much of a party animal at heart, and she's going to want to move around. And I'm not inclined to hang around any more than I ever was. Therefore, it's in everyone's best interest for Naruto to come to his own conclusion of the search for Sasuke before Tsunade retires."

"So now that he's done that, now what?"

"Well, now that that distraction is gone, he should be able to focus on the transition. Tsunade will most likely begin immediately to slowly transfer responsibilities to Naruto. Depending on how long it takes him to adapt to each transition, and how long it takes the Elder Council to accept him, he could be promoted in as few as six months, or in a couple years. It's all up to him now. And judging from how quickly he learned Rasengan, I rather expect he'll have no troubles being promoted within the year.

"Of course, as I said, Sakura, you've been around Tsunade for ten years now. I would think you know her well enough to understand that she means to pass the title on to Naruto. I'm not sure what has caused you to suddenly doubt her, but you should know in your heart that she's not going to deny Naruto his dream."

Sakura breathed a sigh of relief; it had been nagging at her thoughts for the past couple of days, after she'd had a particularly vivid dream in which Tsunade resisted handing over the title to Naruto. In retrospect, it seemed so out of character, and yet within the context of the nightmare, it had made perfect sense, and the shadow of doubt had been haunting her ever since. These past ten years, she'd watched Naruto overcome obstacle after obstacle in his quest for his dream, and in a way, she felt that her own hopes and dreams had gotten caught up in his. To see his dream dashed would be, in some sense, to have her own dreams crushed.

"You know, Sakura, you seem awfully concerned about Naruto. Kind of strange, given that you chose to marry someone else. One wonders if your husband might not be jealous to know you worry so much about another man."

"Lee knows how I feel about Naruto, so just leave him out of this!" She turned bright red and cocked a fist back threateningly.

Jiraiya laughed heartily at that and waved her on. "If you're done with me, go back up to your friends. I think Gama's getting tired of us scrambling around on him like this."

Sakura thumped the old ninja as she hopped off the frog. "That's for being an old pervert."

"It's one of the things I'm brilliant at. That and writing good novels!"

Sakura put on a burst of speed and caught up with Lee and Neji. Naruto was just ahead of them, with Kakashi and Sai flanking him. Yamato likewise bounded along with them, focusing his chakra on the wooden crate that held Sasuke immobile, trying to keep it as smooth for Sasuke as possible.

Lee greeted Sakura with a smile, and Neji just nodded his head in acknowledgement of her being there. It was pretty clear that he was focused on getting home as soon as possible. Sakura and Lee could understand his eagerness. His engagement to Yakushiro Sachiko, the daughter of one of Konoha's most successful tailors, was recent, and it was clear that he was very much in love. Being parted from her for over two weeks had to be hard on him emotionally. Occasionally, when he was particularly maudlin-feeling, he'd whine a little bit about how much he missed her; it usually didn't last long, however, because Neji hated looking bad in front of others, particularly in front of Naruto. Since he was a scion of a Branch family, with a sealed Byakugan, it was considered perfectly fine for him to marry a civilian, though Hinata and Hanabi wouldn't be so lucky if either of them was chosen as family successor for the Main household and tried to marry a "lowly" civilian.

Hanabi stirred on her cousin's back and said "Neji-oniisan, I'm okay now. We're not far from home; I'm recovered enough, I think."

"Nice try, Hanabi-sama," he retorted. "I can see that your chakra is still pretty low. Nope. In another hour or so I'll let you down. You should be recovered by then. But not before."

While the two of them bantered, Lee nudged Sakura; "What was your conversation with Jiraiya-sama about? Or do you not want to discuss it?"

"I was just confirming a couple of things about Shishou. I wanted to make sure that she wasn't likely to pull the rug out from under Naruto. She's been promising to hand over the title once he brings Sasuke home, and I was just afraid that she might not honor that."

Lee shook his head. "I do not believe Hokage-sama would ever do that to him. I do not know her as well as you do, I will admit that, but I seem to recall a certain ennui of hers with the position of Hokage."

"That's kind of what Jiraiya-sama said. I just wanted his opinion, since he's known her longest."

"Did the old perv try to grope you?" Neji inquired.

"No, of course not. He knows better than anyone else what'll happen. He's been pounded by Shishou before; he knows what it feels like to be hit like I can hit."

"Heh," Neji grinned. "He didn't see Lee open that Sixth Gate and blitz the hell out of Sasuke, but I imagine he has an idea of what it's like. I'd love to see that again, just to see how you did it, but there's no way I could ever condone you doing that to yourself again, Lee."

"I have no intentions of doing it unless there is no other way," Lee said simply. "It was much harder to do than I expected."

"I don't think you should ever open that many Gates again," Neji replied. "Every time you do, you damage one of them. The damage to your conduits is getting pretty bad. The next time you go to the Keimon, could be the last. You could end up forcing the Eighth Gate open. That's not a pleasant thought, you know. You know what happens when that Gate is blown open."

"Yes, I know."

"None of you has ever seen it," Gai-sensei said from where he was, a level or two above them. "It's not pretty, what happens to a body when someone goes that far. It isn't just life-energy that's used up; the organs all explode, starting with the heart. The only person I've ever seen use the Eighth Gate successfully, is also the only person who ever successfully used the Gates for ninjutsu. And it was still not pretty what happened to him."

"Who was that?" Lee inquired, while Sakura just shrugged it off.

"Namikaze Minato was a genius unlike any I've ever seen," Gai-sensei said as a reply. "His brilliance makes even Shikamaru's intelligence pale in comparison. I suppose it should come as no surprise that he was the hero of Konoha then; only person I've ever seen use the Gates to strengthen his ninjutsu. The Gates, as you know, are primarily for taijutsu only, to give strength and stamina to a body that has already seen too much combat."

"Namikaze Minato?" Lee and Neji said simultaneously, unfamiliar with the name.

"Better know to you kids as Yondaime Hokage-sama," Yumiya said. "Damned fine man, too. In retrospect, I might have been persuaded to hit that. Only man who could have done so with me, you know. He was that fucking awesome."

Gai rolled his eyes; "ANYWAY." He glared briefly at Yumiya. "It is my understanding that that's how he managed to overpower the Kyuubi. Because the Kyuubi is so vast with its chakra, he had to increase his own chakra, and the only way to do so enough to match the Kyuubi was to open all the Gates. Since that sealing technique is fatal anyway, I presume that's why he did that."

"I'm a little more weirded out by the concept of Yumiya-sempai actually wanting to sleep with a man!" Tenten called teasingly from below, near the ground. "Was the Fourth Hokage really that sexy?"

"Oh you can't even imagine, honey!" Yumiya laughed. "He was, what? Twenty-five? Twenty-six? When he became Hokage? Oi, Kakashi-sempai! How old was your sensei when he became Hokage?"

"Hmm, I think he was about twenty-five or so. I forget. You do realize, don't you, Yumiya, that Minato-sensei's son is cast in his image, and is almost the spitting image of him?"

"Bah!" Yumiya scoffed as she did a somersault to avoid a trap that she spied. "The son is a poor substitute for the father. The whiskers are cute and charming, but... Minato-sama was amazing in his personality. You can't say that Whiskers-kun has the same personality, can you?"

Sakura's mouth opened and closed several times without making a sound as she tried to wrap her mind around that. There was only person she could think of that had what could be described as "whiskers," and there was only one person that Yumiya called "Whiskers-kun," but that meant...

"Are you saying that Naruto-kun is the son of our Yondaime Hokage-sama?!" Lee exclaimed, his eyes growing huge.

"You idiots didn't know that?" Yumiya chortled as Gai-sensei responded to Lee's question with a nod.

"Does Naruto-kun know this?"

"Yes," Naruto replied. "I've known for a little while. Came as a bit of a shock to find out, though."

"That explains why Yondaime-sama chose Naruto to seal the Kyuubi into," Neji said.

"Yondaime-sama was also Kakashi-sensei's sensei?!" Sakura floundered. "How come I never knew this?!"

"You never asked who my sensei was," Kakashi said simply. "I'd've told you if you'd asked."

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto laughed. "I can't believe you never asked!"

There was a crashing sound as the black horse, Kurosuna, launched up into the trees, with Tenten and Hinata close at his heels.

"Got tired of running on the ground, eh, horse?" Yumiya ribbed.

"Too many traps," Kurosuna said simply. "When I'm on the ground, I'm susceptible to horse injuries. In the trees, at least, if I stumble and fall, I have time to correct it before I get hurt."

Lee surreptitiously moved a bit, putting Neji and Sakura between himself and the horse. The motion was not lost on Sakura, who grinned but chose to keep her silence. She could tell by looking that Gai-sensei and Neji both noticed as well. Yumiya scoffed softly, but Gai threw a punch at her, preventing her from actually saying anything.

As they got closer to Konoha, the traps got thicker and more complex, requiring the teams to move closer together. More ANBU began to travel with them, just a few meters away on all sides. Almost like an escort...

Sakura began to watch Lee when she noticed that he was flagging a bit. She wondered if he was in pain -- his body was still not recovered from the beating it'd taken against Sasuke's Chidori Nagashi combined with the Sixth Gate attack.

She was tempted to call a brief halt, but they were by now within two hours of Konoha. And with all the traps around now, they were slowing down. (At full speed, they were probably an hour and a half from Konoha.) No, a stop now was kind of pointless. Lee wouldn't want to slow everyone down now anyway. She'd just have to baby him when they got home.

She turned her attention to the trees they vaulted through, keeping her eyes focused for tripwires. Even though there were ANBU with them now, that didn't mean there weren't traps that could cause serious pain if carelessly sprung.

Sakura hadn't expected to find the sight of the giant green doors of the gargantuan gate quite so welcoming a sight. She hadn't realized until now how much she did actually miss the village. Her heart leapt with joy at seeing those doors. And as the teams, now at a walk, practically in parade formation as they approached the village, came closer, it became clear that the entrance was jam-packed with villagers eager to greet them. As the teams came into full view of the village, there came a raucous cheer from the villagers. Tsunade stood at the center of the entrance, her hands on her hips, her silver-accented blonde hair fluttering in the wind.

The cheers got louder as they approached. Lee had an arm draped over Sakura's shoulders and was leaning on her a bit, using her for support. He was physically very tired from the journey. In retrospect, they shouldn't have allowed him to carry her for two or three hours like he did. He still wasn't quite recovered; it looked like he'd need some of Tsunade's regenerative techniques to get him back up to speed (Sakura silently resolved to corner the Hokage someday soon and pry those techniques out of her). She was already going over some basic treatments in her head. Once she got a chance with him at home, she'd give him a good thorough massage, complete with mild chakra massaging as well, and perhaps some heated wraps. And some calming tea with mild analgesics and soporifics in it.

"Well, Tsunade, I've brought your successor home safe and sound, just like you wanted," Jiraiya said as they arrived at the gates.

The Hokage's eyes brimmed with tears of delight. "Kazekage-sama sent a bird along after you lot left. He had nothing but the highest praise imaginable for all of you. You've made me very proud."

"Just you wait, Tsunade," Jiraiya grinned. "Naruto has a present for you."

"That I do, Obaachan!" Naruto sauntered forward, and with Yamato's help, slung the crate down gently to the ground. "It took ten years longer than I expected it to, but I've brought Uchiha Sasuke home to Konoha."

Tsunade's eyes were huge with disbelief, and the crowd fell silent as well as people jostled to look and see.

"He's like this because he's injured," Naruto added. "He gave us a real fight, and we had to beat him senseless. He has some fractures in his spine, but the healers say it's not permanent damage. Shizune-oneechan gave him a medicine to keep him unconscious so he didn't feel too much pain during the journey home. He's reluctant to be here, but I didn't give him a choice in the matter. Told him he was coming home whether he liked it or no."

Tsunade looked over at the other shinobi who gathered. Slowly, she walked forward, stopping in front of each one and sizing them up. She paused for a bit longer in front of Sakura and Lee, and her eyes narrowed at Lee.

"Naruto, my boy, you have done very well," she said softly as she finished looking over the teams. "Everyone appears to be no worse for the wear for having taken on an elevated S-rank in Sunagakure. Lee looks like he needs some special treatment, but other than that, it looks to me like everyone has returned from that without any damage at all." She approached the blond jounin and put her arms around him in an impromptu hug. "Congratulations, Naruto, on a job very well done. You've done Konohagakure proud. And welcome home."

The crowd, which had been holding its collective breath during her rounds, erupted into loud cheers and whistles.

"Tsunade-sama," Shizune said firmly, "we have a patient here that we need to take to the infirmary right away. Her cancer is aggressive and has been causing Sakura and I some grief." She gently shook the lead shank on Kurosuna's halter.

"Indeed," Tsunade wiped her eyes and straightened her shoulders, motioning for some orderlies -- who appeared out of nowhere -- to put Sasuke onto a stretcher and take him to the hospital while she herself took over the horse's lead rope. "Naruto, Shikamaru, Yamato, Shizune -- I expect all of you in my office in one hour. I need some time to get these patients situated, and I imagine you all would like a chance to exchange greetings with your friends and families. I would prefer for your teams to be there as well for a full debriefing, but the captains are fine. I will accept a verbal report for today, but I expect full written reports in the next couple of days." She glanced over at Sakura. "Sakura, I'll expect you in my office in an hour as well; I'll need your verbal report too. I will leave Lee's care in your hands at this time, but I do want to have a look at him before the day is over. He looks like he's been done over pretty good."

Amidst the crisp affirmative replies from the various shinobi, Tsunade turned to Sanami, who listed in the saddle of her horse. She gestured for another stretcher and pair of orderlies. Kurosuna dropped to his knees to make Sanami's dismount a little smoother and Kiba gave the ill kunoichi some support. "All right, Kazekage-dono sent me as much information as he could dig up on your condition, Sanami," Tsunade said gently as she and Kiba transferred Sanami to the stretcher. "Let's see what we can do for you. Relax and have some faith in me, I've dealt with cancers before."

Sanami smiled wanly; "I have complete faith in my Kazekage-sama. If he trusts you, then I can place my faith in his trust." She grimaced in pain at a momentary spasm.

Tsunade gave brief instructions to the orderlies, and then she and Shizune started toward the hospital, following the orderlies.

The crowd took that as a cue, and swarmed out around the teams as friends and family greeted the returning shinobi. Neji was almost attacked by his anxious fiancée, and by his three students, the two genin and the chuunin. Hyuuga Hiashi greeted both of his daughters with massive hugs, something he had never done before with either of them. Ino, Shikamaru and Chouji were all cornered simultaneously -- and in a group -- by their overjoyed families. Kiba was tackled by his older sister Hana. Shino was rather quietly greeted by his father, but it was clear that even Aburame Shibi had been concerned. Naruto was swarmed by Udon and Moegi, clamoring for word about their teammate Konohamaru, and Iruka-sensei joined the fray as well, giving Naruto some well-earned congratulations for succeeding in the mission.

"I don't get it," Sakura said, mystified as she and Lee moved off to one side, accepting congratulations from people she didn't know so well, and some she knew only casually. "Look at the way they're greeting everyone. It's like you'd think they expected all of us to die."

"I wonder that as well," Lee said as he leaned against one of the gate doors.

"This was an S-rank," Gai-sensei pointed out, "which is generally reserved for extremely experienced jounin, or sennin- or kage-level shinobi. We were trying to prevent the complete destruction of one of the five major ninja villages. I imagine that they expected there to be some casualties."

"Sakura!" A familiar voice boomed, and Sakura's heartbeat quickened. She saw Lee's gaze swivel as well in the direction of the shout, and a knowing smile creased his tired face. The throng of people parted as Haruno Noboru muscled his way through, followed closely by his wife Tsubaki.

Tsubaki flung herself at Sakura, bursting into tears as she did. "Thank god you're safe, sweetie! I was so scared!"

Sakura gasped inadvertently as her mother squeezed her. "Mom, geez! You're cutting off my air!"

"What happened?" Lee asked as Sakura managed to wriggle free of her mother's grasp, only to get caught up by her father. "Did someone send news that we were all dead?"

"Well, no," Tsubaki said as she wiped her eyes, and then gave Lee a hug as well, though she was considerably gentler with him. "But the rumors were that only about a third of you were expected to survive and return, and that no one was expected to come out of this unscathed, this being an elevated S-rank and all."

Lee frowned. "It was definitely dangerous, I will not deny that, and there were a number of attempts on Kazekage-sama's life. But I do not believe that we were in any real danger once Sasuke-kun was taken care of. We did have Jiraiya-sama along too, and he should count for an entire squad, I would think. Between him, Gaara-sama and Naruto-kun, the majority of the fighting was out of our hands. Though, I have been thinking, Sakura..."

"About what?"

"I think that when I am fully recovered, I owe Naruto-kun a good solid punch in the face for endangering you."

Sakura had managed to worm her way out of her father's crushing embrace and turned to Lee. "What do you mean?"

"Naruto-kun is proficient in fuuton chakra. Sasuke-kun's Chidori Nagashi is raiton."

She blinked slowly; "I'm afraid I'm not quite following."

Gai-sensei chuckled. "You're forgetting how elemental chakra works, aren't you, Sakura? Raiton trumps doton. Doton trumps suiton. Suiton trumps katon. Katon trumps fuuton. And --"

"Fuuton trumps raiton," Lee interrupted forcefully. "There is no reason why he should not have been able to cut through Chidori Nagashi with a Fuuton Rasengan."

"The problem is, Naruto didn't want to hurt or kill Sasuke, and Fuuton Rasengan is extremely potent, much more so than the regular Rasengan. Using it against Sasuke could have had some pretty dire consequences. And don't even suggest Fuuton Rasenshuriken. If Naruto ever uses that again for anything other than protecting the village, when all else has failed, I will kick his ass." Sakura's fists clenched involuntarily. "I've told you, haven't I, what using Rasengan with wind release does to Naruto's arm? If he uses it too much, he'll end up destroying his chakra channels in his arms."

"Nevertheless," Lee replied insistently, "Rasengan is not the only wind attack he has. And you nearly died. Had Kankurou-san and Gaara-sama not been so quick and so good with the kawarimi jutsu, I would be widowed right now." That garnered a squeak from Mrs. Haruno. "That is, to some degree, why I went to such lengths to stop Sasuke-kun. I admit I was angry, and scared. I could not bear the thought of what he might have done, had someone not pulled you out of his grasp."

Sakura bit down on a bitter retort. He had a point, she had to admit. "I was taken by surprise, Lee. You know that. I'm not a weakling. We've all been taken by surprise before. Hell, look how many times Gaara got ambushed and caught off guard."

"I never said you were a weakling," he shifted. "But Naruto-kun should have been able to cut through his raiton. He should have been able to overpower Sasuke-kun, given his nearly-limitless chakra."

"You're forgetting something, Lee," Gai-sensei said. "Sasuke was holding off more than half a dozen experienced jounin. We couldn't land a single hit on him. We all had trouble fighting Sasuke because of that lightning shield he made. Fuuton alone isn't going to entirely undo a shield like that. It's amazing to me that you were able to take him on single-handedly like that."

"I have you, Neji and Tenten to thank for that," Lee said, tilting his head back and looking skyward. "Tenten taught me how to use wires on shuriken, and Neji taught me how to release chakra. And you taught me how to ignore pain; I never even felt his lightning shield, or whatever that was. I waited until it looked like Sasuke-kun was running out of stamina. His shield was starting to flag a bit by that point."

"Hey, by the way! I want it going on the record that I couldn't stop you from opening those damned Gates!" Neji said crossly from some distance away. "No fair blaming me, I couldn't move at the time! Dammit, I didn't even get a chance to attempt the sake Gai-sensei gave me! It all happened so bloody fast!"

Haruno Tsubaki had her arms around her daughter. "What the hell happened in Sunagakure? What are you all talking about?"

"Lee was the one who took down Sasuke," Sakura said.

"I thought Naruto said he was the one who did it?" Noboru frowned.

"He didn't say that. He might have implied it, but he didn't actually say that. He wouldn't take outright credit for someone else's doing. And besides, Naruto's the reason Sasuke came home, but Lee is the reason we're all still alive -- including the Kazekage."

"I have to admit, though," Gai-sensei said, "that it scared me when Sasuke put that sword to your throat. I honestly thought you were a goner. Kakashi said he's pretty sure it was Kankurou who did the Kawarimi that saved you."

"That is one of his specialties," Lee said. "I imagine Gaara-sama merely provided the distraction." He pushed off the gate and approached Sakura, who had just managed to squirm free of her mother's arms yet again. He put his hands on her shoulders and rested his forehead against hers.

"I do not want to lose you, Sakura."

"I'm not going anywhere, you know," she retorted. "That was a week and a half ago, that instance. You've been fine with it for all this time, but now that we see my parents, you flip out?"

He lowered his voice. "I have not been fine with it. It has been haunting me ever since it happened. I have been dealing as best I can, wanting nothing more than to do as your parents have done. You will have to forgive me for my momentary weakness. I am not entirely certain that I am as angry with Naruto-kun as I am with myself for being powerless to help you at that time."

She felt a rush of love for him. It really was hard to stay mad at him, when he looked so melancholic. Failure was something Lee couldn't stand, and for him to have felt like such a complete failure at protecting her, the single most important person in his life... she could see how this would be hard for him to deal with.

He swayed slightly; "I think we should keep moving. I am really, really tired. I may not last much longer if I have to stand around idly."

Sakura looked over at her parents. "Mom, Dad, we'll stop by later. I have to give a verbal report to Tsunade-sama, and she wants to take a look at Lee before I take him home for the day."

Noboru nodded in acceptance. "You know where to find us. Ayame-chan should be home with some more grains for the bakery any time, and she'll be thrilled to see you."

Sakura waved to them as she and Lee started off down the main street, toward the administrative building. Once he got his momentum back, Lee seemed fine, though she could tell by the droop of his eyelids that he was considerably more tired than he was willing to admit. He had trained his body for so many years that it was most comfortable and accustomed to motion, and therefore he seemed at ease. Gai-sensei insisted that his favorite student could even doze while jogging; Sakura had yet to see that in action, but she did think that Lee had developed an ability to conserve energy and stamina at certain speeds. It was no surprise that he wanted to keep moving rather than stand around, when he was this tired. At least in motion he could give the appearance of being alert. She knew intrinsically that once he sat down, he was going to be down for a while.

They moved slowly but steadily, threading through the crowd of people. She kept her arm firmly around his waist, offering him surreptitious support. Meanwhile, her mind wandered, as it had been doing so much lately. Especially in light of the confession Naruto had made last night, and the bizarre twist of events that had happened because of it...

"If you don't mind my saying so, Sakura-chan," Naruto said with a tilt of his head as he handed Sakura a mug of tea, "you really look like hell."

"Thanks alot, I do mind you saying so," Sakura grumped. She was stiff and sore, drained of chakra but unable to sleep. Lee was sound asleep next to her, Neji dozed nearby, and the other teams were scattered around the campfire. Jiraiya was scouting the perimeter at present, with Yumiya and Yamato in the trees overhead watching the skies. They were about a day's travel from home now, or maybe less, and she was starting to really yearn to get home. These frequent stops to heal Sanami and Sasuke were getting draining.

Shizune groaned and rolled over, apparently also very stiff and sore from expending so much chakra. Naruto crouched down next to Sakura, watching silently as she nibbled on a trail-bar and drank her tea. Occasionally she would glance down at Lee, as if ascertaining that he was still breathing, though he was clearly fine. His chest rose and fell steadily with his breathing.

Naruto bit his lip slightly. He finally, screwing up his courage, put his tea mug down and grabbed Sakura's arm. "I need to talk to you about something, Sakura-chan. I want to do it in private too. Come on."

She only marginally protested, being mostly just startled, as he dragged her along behind him a fair distance until they were out of sight and earshot of the campsite. As he let go of her, he started pacing slightly, his words coming out in a jumbled gush.

"Listen, uh, there's something I've been trying to say to you for a long while, but haven't quite had the right words to express it. Now I think I do. It... it's kind of complicated, so if you'll bear with me..."

"I'll try, Naruto -- I'm really tired, so I can't guarantee you that I'll be able to follow."

"Fair enough. You asked me a few days ago, a day or two before we left Sunagakure, if I was still focused on being Hokage, after seeing what Gaara has had to go through as Kazekage, after seeing what kinds of things a village kage has to endure for the sake of his village. I couldn't answer you honestly in detail at the time, but now I can.

"I still desire to be the Hokage because, like Gaara, I love my home. It took me a while to be able to put that to words, but Konohagakure is something that I love. Not just the location, but the whole village -- the people in it, too -- and I want to protect it.  Like Sandaime-jiichan did, like Yondaime-oyaji did, like Godaime-baachan is doing. Like Gaara is doing for his village. I know I can do it, and I want to do it. I don't know if it's the will of the village that's causing me to want to do it -- you know, like they say the Soul of Wind compels the Kazekage, or whatever -- but I want to. It's not just my dream anymore, Sakura-chan, it's something I almost have to do."

He stopped and turned to her. "Which brings me to what I've been meaning to say to you for a while now. It has to do with you and me."

Here he was silent a moment, rubbing his neck as if in self-consciousness. "Look, please don't think less of me for saying this, because it's how I feel, and I don't want there to be any misunderstandings between us."

When he again paused, Sakura nudged his shoulder with her fist. "Come on, spit it out. I can't hurt you right now, can I? Drained of chakra as I am?"

"My feelings for you haven't changed all these years, Sakura-chan," he said softly, with feeling. "I still love you as much as I ever have. It could be so easy for me to give in to jealousy that Geji-mayu won you first."

It felt like her heart was grinding to a halt in her chest. This was the last thing on earth she wanted to deal with! She had hoped he had been honest when he'd told her months ago that he was perfectly fine with her relationship with -- and subsequent marriage to -- Lee.

"But," he said, and smiled sheepishly, "I'm not that bad. I understand that you chose him, and that I need to respect that. I know that, in my head. My heart says otherwise, but I can accept that. I understand and am glad for your happiness with someone like Geji-mayu. If it can't be me who sleeps beside you, who guards your dreams, then he is the best person I've ever met to do so.

"And now I have another reason to be happy that you're with him. Because now I understand at last what it means to be a village kage. It means my number one priority must always be my village. Which means that if I were your husband, I wouldn't be able to give you the attention I think you deserve, because my first priority must always, always be Konohagakure. But Geji-mayu will always put you and your happiness first. And that's the way it should be. I think that through him, I can love you guiltlessly."

He stepped close, so that his face was mere inches from hers. "Understand this, Sakura-chan. You are my first love, and my greatest. But the calling of Hokage is greater still, and I cannot ever jeopardize Konoha for one person. Also, I do care very much for Geji-mayu too, so I mean him no ill will, and will not do anything to jeopardize his life. And I mean nothing threatening toward either of you when I do this --"

Without warning, he leaned forward, and Sakura belatedly realized what was going on when his lips connected with hers. It was far too late to dodge the kiss now. She stood rooted to the spot, shocked senseless. All her inner senses screamed at her to do something -- hit him, slap him, push him away -- but she couldn't make her body do anything. And this wasn't an overly chaste kiss either -- he was going for the whole nine yards with it. She didn't want to admit it to herself, but her traitorous body was almost enjoying this, illicit though it was. Well, she didn't have to like that she was enjoying it to some degree. In fact, it made her all the more angry that she couldn't do anything except let it happen. If she'd had enough chakra for it, she would've pounded him flat and folded him five ways.

"You are so dead when I get my strength back, Naruto," she hissed when he stepped away. "I swear I'll pound you concave! I'm a married woman, you can't go taking liberties like that with me! I can't imagine that my husband would be too thrilled to learn someone else was kissing his wife. Especially taking advantage of her being drained of chakra in order to do so!"

Naruto laughed and dodged when she threw a punch at him. "I've always wanted to kiss you, Sakura-chan, I've just been too chicken to do it before now. Besides, now that you're married to him, it's less risky, I figure, since you're unlikely to call off the wedding now that it's over with just because of some random kiss."

"You think I'd've called it off if you did this before the wedding? More likely you'd be in the hospital for a month for attempting it! Ooh, you are so dead when I get my strength back!"

Sakura shook her head as the impromptu stroll down memory lane subsided. She didn't want to tell Lee about the whole incident, and yet she felt she owed it to him. They really shouldn't have any secrets between them, she figured, and it wasn't her fault Naruto had done that. Still, she hadn't fought him off, even though she'd wanted to.

Now was as good a time as any to tell Lee about this.

"You know, I'm being kind of hypocritical, I suppose," she said as an opener.

Lee cocked an eyebrow at her, inviting her to elaborate.

"I owe Naruto a punch in the face too."

"What for? It was my failing, not yours."

"Not for that," she made a gesture with her hand, and wondered if she was trying too hard. She could see that he was definitely intrigued, since she was behaving unusually. "For taking liberties with me that he shouldn't, when I had no chakra with which to retaliate."

Lee halted abruptly, digging his heels into the dirt of the street. "What are you talking about, Sakura? This is Naruto-kun we are talking about. There is no one he reveres more highly than you!" He sounded accusing.

For a moment Sakura feared that Lee would accuse her of leading Naruto on. But she had already dropped the bomb, in a manner of speaking. It was only a matter of time before impact. She had to just go with it, really.

"It's complicated Lee, and I hope you won't think less of me for this, because it wasn't my idea, and I didn't give him permission for it. I told him that if I'd had proper chakra, I'd've pounded him concave."

Lee shook his head abruptly. "This is too confusing. What happened?"

She took a deep breath; "Last night, he told me that he still loved me, and then he kissed me. I -- I didn't want it to happen. Believe me, I wanted to fight him off, but... I mean, like you said, this is Naruto we're talking about. He does things spur of the moment. Kakashi-sensei always called him the Number One Unpredictable Knucklehead."

"Is that all that happened? He just kissed you?" Lee looked like he couldn't believe she was this worked up over it.

"Well it wasn't exactly a mere friendly kiss. It was..." she turned bright pink in memory, "you know, pretty... um... you know, open-mouth and all. Tongue involved. That kind of thing. I tried to fight him off, but I was too tired to do anything," she added defensively. Well that wasn't quite true... it wasn't that I was tired, it was that I couldn't make my body do anything.

Lee put his hands on his hips. "Well, while that is hardly what I would consider okay, I fail to see why you are so upset and afraid. Do you think I am likely to leave you over this? Because I have news for you: you are going to have to try much harder than that to get rid of me!"

"I don't want to get rid of you!" Her jaw dropped open. "I told you, he's like a brother to me. It's just, that feeling appears to not be mutual, quite. And I felt like you deserved to know about it, because I didn't want to feel like someone could blackmail me with it."

He snorted good-naturedly. "You? Blackmailed? Somehow, I highly doubt it." (She abstractly noted that he used an especially affectionate pronoun for "you" when he said this, more so than he usually did; he also used a more generic pronoun for "I" than he usually did, using the same term her father tended to use, which was the most generic and non-gender-specific of them all. This had to be the first time he'd ever done this, to her recollection.)

After a long silence in which the two of them observed each other wordlessly, while people all around them continued to come and go along the street, Lee made a flippant gesture. "Well, we can address this issue more in private; otherwise, I think that this is all, as Yumiya-san says, water under the bridge. We should continue on, or we may be late to Hokage-sama's meeting."

They were still the last ones to arrive in Tsunade-sama's office, despite having plenty of time to get there. This was partly because they had gotten waylaid by some friends of theirs who had been ecstatic to see them.

Tsunade gave them a Look as she leaned against her chair, but said nothing before surveying the room. "Everyone's here, huh? All right, we can get started. I'll make this as quick as possible, since I'm sure you all don't want to stand around all afternoon. I'm sure you're all tired. So let's get started."

She gathered together the unrolled scrolls on her desk. "First order of business is that of the two patients brought home. Uchiha Sasuke is in excellent condition, considering the extent of his injuries. He should make a full recovery within two weeks or so. It would probably be quicker if I chose to operate on him, but the operation is risky, and he stands to make full recovery without it anyway. However, there is no indication that he wishes to resume the shinobi lifestyle. He speaks of leaving the village again, to find his own way in the world."

Naruto cursed softly under his breath as Sakura and Lee arrived at his side. "Figures. I thought he caved too easily."

Tsunade looked pointedly at Naruto; "If he leaves again, will you pursue him?"

"No," Naruto said, "not if he leaves for that reason. The reason I chased him for so long was that I felt he left us before for all the wrong reasons. But if he really doesn't feel like he belongs, and wants to live as a civilian elsewhere, I don't think I have the right to make the decision to override that."

There was a collective sigh of relief.

"Good," Tsunade said. "Now, the other patient. Most of you are aware of the gravity of Fuuin no Sanami's condition. Well, I think I shall inform you all here and now of my current diagnoses. The good news is that she is in relatively stable condition and is not likely to die, except from an unforeseen complication. The bad news, however, is that she is incurable at this time. I cannot remove the cancer and prevent it from coming back; the cancer is too aggressive. I can put a stop to its growth for now, and give her quality of life for a while, but with it as aggressive as it is, it will come back, sooner or later."

Kiba bared his teeth in dismay as Sakura and the other medic-nins groaned in frustration. It had been a slim hope, but they had hoped all the same that Tsunade could save the Suna-kunoichi.

"Hold on a moment," Tsunade said with a smile. "This is not a death sentence for her. I can extend her life healthwise almost indefinitely by way of repeated treatments. And perhaps down the line she will become curable. I believe that if she continues to do well, I can send her home in a couple weeks, and have her come back in four to six months for another treatment. She will be able to return to a civilian lifestyle -- and perhaps can begin teaching at the Suna Academy. She is a scroll-sealer, so she can also resume that. She is not completely shut out of service to her beloved Kazekage. So, the news, while not what some of you may have wanted to hear, is not particularly bad. It's just that I cannot do this in one go. This will take years to treat. Something that has taken this long to develop is not quickly disposed of, after all."

Sakura sighed heavily in relief, leaning against her husband as she did so. "I'm glad, Shishou. Sanami-san seems so determined to help her Kazekage however she can, it's a shame she can't help him right now."

"She will, soon enough." Tsunade set aside a pair of scrolls. "Okay, second order of business: your mission to assist Sunagakure was a resounding success, I hear. Kazekage-sama has sent personal recommendations that all tokubetsu jounin receive full promotions, and all chuunin receive promotions to tokubetsu jounin. I will be reviewing his recommendations in the next couple of days and make some decisions. Frankly, I'm amazed that you all did so damned well on this mission. I would promote the four captains if it were possible. This mission came with a caveat that only about a third of you were expected to survive. If you were wondering at the magnitude of your greeting from family and friends, it's because I took it upon myself to caution them of this possibility. I honestly expected there to be some casualties, even though I sent my best healers in the fold, and yet all of you have returned in excellent health. Apart from some minor internal damage on one jounin's part, and some minor broken bones that have been hastily healed and may require some extensive treatment to completely fix, you are all unharmed. That is far, far more than I could have anticipated. You've done me proud. Word of your heroics has reached the Fire Country daimyou's court, and he is so impressed, in fact, that he gave us a sizeable bonus, which I will split amongst you all.

"I'm glad, in retrospect, that I sent you all in the formations that I did; Shikamaru, Naruto, Yamato and Shizune all have impeccable records when it comes to captaining teams and keeping members from harm.

"The captains have all given me their verbal reports, so I will accept that for now. In a few days, however, I expect a written report from each of you. That will be how I justify giving each of you the bonus."

She set aside another stack of scrolls. "Next order of business: the promotion of the Rokudaime Hokage."

After saying that, she folded her hands and rested her chin on it, and remained silent. The room fell completely silent; even Akamaru stopped panting, holding his breath in eager anticipation.

After a few moments, Tsunade smiled and picked up a sheaf of paper. "I won't lie to you guys; I never wanted to be the Godaime Hokage in the first place. I chose to become it when Orochimaru threatened the village, and when it became clear to me that the only other prospect was a lecherous no-good peeping tom with a penchant for running off to do what he calls 'research.'"

"Hey now," Jiraiya said defensively, and Tsunade poked her tongue out at him.

"The past ten, eleven years have been essentially a regency, if you will," she added. "I knew who my successor was going to be from the outset. However, that doesn't make this transition any smoother at this time. So, Naruto, if you were expecting me to hand over the title right away, you've got another think coming. There are still things I want you to do before I'm satisfied enough to resign the post to you. However, before you start thinking I'm backing out, I want you to realize that these are things I've wanted you to do from the outset, but that weren't really available to you while you were still chasing Sasuke."

She took a deep breath. "The position of Hokage is not an easy one, as I'm sure you're aware. And I can't just hand over the title to you now, without some dissent from the Council of Elders. This will take some time, convincing them that you're the best one for the job. In the meantime, I expect you to start helping me with the duties, eventually taking them over. Also, and this is the most important part, I expect you to take on a genin team. Now that you won't be haring off after Sasuke, I can keep you nearby and within the village; I won't have to assign you to as many A-ranks and S-ranks, since I now have more jounin to work with. I have prepared a genin team especially for you, one that I think you will be a very good fit as the sensei of, and I'm willing to graduate them a few months early from the Academy, to get you started. Umino Iruka and the other instructors have assured me that all three students are very capable and ready to become genin, and that they fully expect all three to graduate when the finals come around in spring.

"I do expect you to test them, to not merely accept them out of hand. They will be your responsibility, and I want you to be certain you want these students. If they are not to your liking, you may try again in a few months when the other students graduate. Therefore, in a couple of hours I will send you to meet with them in the Academy. I do believe you will do very well with them and that they will benefit from your tutelage, as two of them are particularly strong with fuuton ninjutsu."

"May I know their names now?" Naruto inquired, and Sakura noted that he was trembling slightly with excitement. He'd wanted to take on a genin team for a couple of years now, ever since becoming a jounin. Unfortunately, the two times he had gotten assigned a team, they had failed his test miserably. Now he had the chance with a team that Tsunade was confident would pass his test.

"Sure. One of them is somewhat underage, but he has gotten extensive training at home from his mother and from family and friends. The other two are from established clans, one of which has a noteworthy kekkei genkai that I'm sure you're familiar with by now.

"They are, in order of age: Kawasaki Shinji, Narita Maiko, and Sarutobi Hikaru."

There was a low whistle from Yumiya, who was only a matter of feet away from Naruto. "Maiko, eh? My older sister Maiya's granddaughter. I hear she's a real brilliant one. You lucked out, Whiskers-kun. She's a real catch. She's got phenomenal healing talent and very strong fuuton sensitivity. She's got our bloodline limit, and she doesn't think it's a burden."

"Not only that," Tsunade said, "but Shinji, Maiko and Hikaru are all familiar with each other and appear to work very well together. Shinji has very strong taijutsu, Maiko has strong ninjutsu and genjutsu; so does Hikaru, whom I'm sure you're familiar with."

"Sarutobi Hikaru is Kurenai-sensei's son, correct?" Naruto said, for clarification. At Tsunade's nod, he elaborated. "All right, but I don't want anyone getting on my case if I fail them. Just because he's the son of Asuma-sensei and Kurenai-sensei, and the grandson of Sandaime-jiichan, doesn't mean he's going to get it easy from me. No one went easy on me; I'm not going to go easy on him. If he can't hack it against my tests, then I don't want him."

Tsunade grinned. "That's the response I was hoping for. But I think you'll be pleasantly surprised, Naruto. Besides, Shinji and Maiko are pretty talented themselves."

"I look forward to testing them, then."

She shuffled some papers together on her desk and set them aside again. "Okay, moving on. Next order of business: Tenten, it is my understanding that you lost your entire weapons scroll in Sunagakure -- that it was damaged irreparably. And due to the speed with which I dispatched you, you didn't have your backup with you."

"That is correct, Hokage-sama."

"Well, Sanami has offered to write you a new, improved scroll, as long as you provide the weapons to seal."


"Yes. And the Kazekage is offering to reimburse you for the total value of weapons lost. You just need to fill out this form, and we will have you compensated immediately," the Hokage handed over the form to the ANBU. "You'll have about a week to gather all the weapons you want to seal into the new scroll; Sanami is too weak to do anything right now, but she will be able to write you the new scroll after a week or so, I figure."

"Hot damn!" Tenten grinned. "I'll be the envy of the entire ANBU squad now. Sanami-dono's scrolls are rumored to be the best in the five countries."

Tsunade nodded distractedly. "The last order of business is specific to the two jounin healers I sent. The rest of you are dismissed. You are excused from any missions -- barring any grave emergencies -- for the next three days, as a reward for your hard work in Sunagakure. Just don't forget to write up your written reports, all of you."

Sakura, who was still not quite used to being a tokubetsu jounin, presumed in her tired mental fog that that dismissal applied to her, and turned to leave with the rest; Lee gripped her forearm. "Hokage-sama wanted you to give a verbal report, Sakura. She was talking about you. I want to get home as much as you do, but we are not done here."

Shizune grinned tiredly at Sakura. "Nice try, though."

"C'mon, Geji-mayu, let's get out of the room and let them talk about their gory stuff in peace," Naruto clapped Lee on the shoulder, sending the older jounin staggering a bit.

"Hey, careful with him!" Sakura snapped peevishly. "Don't give me any more reason to kick your ass, Naruto!"

Tsunade motioned for them to go ahead and get out of the room; Naruto closed the door behind them as he and Lee stepped out into the round hallway. Naruto then leaned against the wall, folded his arms comfortably, and waited. "Can't believe Obaachan has handpicked a genin team for me! That doesn't usually happen."

"No, it does not. But it sounds like there are extenuating circumstances," Lee settled himself into a slow pace, determined to keep himself in motion so as not to completely crash.

"Do you know anything about those other two genin? Shinji and Maiko?"

"No. Though I imagine Yumiya-san can tell you more about Narita Maiko."

"Well, Obaachan said Shinji has good taijutsu, so I thought maybe you or Gai-sensei might be familiar with him."

"I doubt it," Lee said. "Gai-sensei does not train genin level anymore. He usually only works with tokubetsu jounin or higher, in specialized one-on-one."

"Ah. Well, damn." Naruto grinned sheepishly. "My, uh, taijutsu could use some help, I suppose. Maybe when you're back up to full speed, when I have time, you can give me some sparring rounds? I think I'd rather spar with you than Gai-sensei."

"That reminds me," Lee snapped his fingers in recall. Then, as he paused beside Naruto, he balled up a fist, and smashed it into Naruto's cheek.

"Wha' th' fuck!" Naruto yelped in surprise, uttering an explicative he didn't use except when really surprised or really angry; he cradled his sore jaw in both hands. He could practically feel the bruise form (whether or not it was visible yet, he wasn't sure). "What the hell was that for?"

"That," Lee said forcefully, "is for taking liberties with my wife, without permission." Naruto's eyes widened when Lee used the most aggressive pronoun to refer to himself and his relative possession of Sakura. "Now she does not have to 'pound you concave.' I still owe you a punch in the face for failing to stop Sasuke-kun even though you have the strongest fuuton chakra manipulation of any one on that mission. But that punch will have to wait. I was good for one good punch, and that was it." Through the course of the monologue, Lee reverted to his usual pronouns by the end.

"She told you, eh?" Naruto grinned sheepishly again, wincing at the pain in his jaw. "Eh heh. Er, sorry about that, I just... I wanted her to know how I felt, but I didn't want her to think that I'm trying to get between you both."

"You picked a lousy way to do it," Lee grumped, resuming his slow circles in the hall. "She was very confused, and I could tell she did not want to tell me. I think she was afraid I would blame her."

"Trust me, Geji-mayu, it won't happen again. It was just a one-time thing. And I do wish you'd stop pacing. You make me nervous watching you."

"If I stop, I may not get started again, and I would rather 'stop' at home."

"You need chakra?"

"No, I need sleep."

"Correction: you need to be examined, and then you need sleep," Tsunade said as she opened the door, startling them both. Naruto blinked owlishly, not realizing that much time had passed.

"What on earth happened?" Shizune's eyes widened as she looked at Naruto. "That's quite a spectacular bruise you've got growing there!"

Naruto pointed at Lee; "He socked me out of nowhere!"

Sakura raised a fist; "Would you rather I did it, Naruto? I still owe you!"

"No, I took care of yours," Lee said. "You are liable to hurt him."

Tsunade put a hand on his shoulder; "Come on, let's get the examination over with. You look like you're about ready to pass out here, and I'd rather you didn't do it in front of my office. Naruto, I'll take you to meet your new genin team afterwards, all right?"

"Right. I'll be here."

The Hokage ushered Lee and Sakura back into her office while Shizune took a stack of papers to the quartermaster on her way to her home apartment.

"Now, just hold still," she said as she placed him near the window, optimizing the light from the window. "Actually, first, take off that vest." He did as told without question, handing his jounin vest to Sakura. Then Tsunade placed both hands on his shoulders and moved them methodically down his torso, criss-crossing across his abdomen and injecting chakra as she did.

"There's the problem," she said as her hand paused just below his heart. "There's a tiny chakra leak in the solar plexus. One of these channels is damaged, and so is the blood vessel it's connected to. You've got some minor internal bleeding. It's pretty deep in there, behind several organs, I wouldn't have known it was damaged if I hadn't injected some chakra into your bloodstream near that gods-be-damned Fifth Gate of yours. Brace yourself, this might hurt a bit." She pressed her hand flat against his abdomen, just below the ribcage, and activated her shousen no jutsu, forcing it into him in a sharp stream. Lee flinched but didn't make a sound.

After several minutes, the Hokage pulled her hand away. "Well, that should do it. Sakura can keep an eye on it, but I imagine it'll be fine. It should heal itself now. The chakra leak appears to be fixed. You ruptured a chakra channel at the same time as you ruptured that artery. You're just lucky that wasn't an essential artery, or you'd be in really bad shape by now."

Lee stifled a yawn as Sakura helped him back into his vest. His eyes drooped tiredly.

Tsunade smiled at them. "Take him home, Sakura. He's about to go down. I figure a good twelve hours of sleep and he'll be well on the way to recovering. But Lee, don't open those Gates like that again."

"I will try not to, Hokage-sama," Lee murmured as he and Sakura headed toward the door.

"Naruto! Front and center!" Tsunade then barked sharply, her demeanor changing as she addressed her successor. Naruto presented himself with alacrity, garnering a chuckle from Sakura as they exited the office.

Afterwards, Sakura would recall that as being the longest walk home from the administrative building that she had ever done. Lee had tottered on the very brink of complete collapse. She'd resorted to keeping him talking, to keep him awake while they walked home.

Once they got in the door of their home, she guided him into the bedroom and helped him to lay down on the bed; amazingly, he remained conscious long enough for her to help him change out of his uniform into some simple cotton loungewear.

Before he slipped off into unconsciousness, she gave him a quickly prepared analgesic and had him lay on his stomach so she could massage his back and shoulders. He fell asleep as she worked her chakra into his tired muscles. She just smiled to herself and continued the massage in silence, basking in the environment of their home, which she hadn't realized she'd missed so much until she'd gotten back.

Afterwards, she took a long, hot shower, then went to scavenge something to eat from the kitchen. Thankfully, someone (most likely her mother) had been over regularly, and had thrown away the spoiled and outdated foods, and had kept the pantry stocked in their absence. She decided on some raw vegetables to eat and a glass of water, not being in the mood to fix anything.

After taking the edge off her hunger, her fatigue finally caught up with her. I'm not going to be able to get over to see Mom and Dad today. I'm too damned tired; I feel like I could sleep for a week. I hope they can forgive us for it.

She took herself into the bedroom, noting to herself that she somewhat wished Lee had been awake enough to bathe or shower before laying down; he was coated in several days' trail-dust and old sweat. But he'd been on the verge of collapse coming home; a bath or shower would've probably done him in, and she couldn't really lift him in such tight quarters.

She changed into a nightgown and crawled into the bedding, pulling the covers up around Lee as she did so.

The last thought that came to her mind before she drifted off was of the dull ache deep in her abdomen, the harbinger of a monthly cycle. Well, I guess that means I'm not pregnant.

Then slumber wrapped its arms around her consciousness and she tumbled into its warm, dark embrace.

Coming soon: "Part Nine: Hokage's Legacy (working chapter title only)" wherein Naruto tests out his potential genin team. Should be a short chapter, but I can't guarantee it, with how long things have been running lately.

END NOTES: Terminology, for those who are a bit rusty:
"Geji-mayu" is what Naruto calls Rock Lee. It translates as "fuzzy eyebrows" or as the English dub anime calls it, "Bushy Brow" and is Naruto's nickname for Lee. He doesn't mean anything rude by it, and Lee doesn't seem to mind.
"Ero-sennin" is what Naruto calls Jiraiya. It means "perverted hermit" or as the English dub anime calls it, "Pervy Sage" and is Naruto's nickname for Jiraiya. Jiraiya doesn't particularly like the nickname, but he seems to get used to it.
Hitai-ate are the "forehead protectors" (headbands) worn by all shinobi with symbols of their home village. Because they can be worn anywhere, or not worn at all, I have chosen to use the untranslated word rather than the term "forehead protector" or "headband"
A kunoichi is a female ninja. It is often used in the series as a synonym for ninja or shinobi, when talking about a female. Thus it's used here sporadically much as it is in the series.
A tokubetsu jounin (basically "specialized" jounin) is a lower-class jounin. It is the transitionary position between chuunin and jounin. They specialize in something specific. An example from the canon would be Morino Ibiki, the interrogation specialist.

Hidden Villages:
Konohagakure: "The Hidden Village of Leaves" is the principle village of the Fire Country (Hi no Kuni), and is headed by the Godaime Hokage, Tsunade.
Sunagakure: "The Hidden Village of Sand" is the principle village of the Wind Country (Kaze no Kuni), and is headed by the Godaime Kazekage, Gaara.
Kirigakure: "The Hidden Village of Mist" is the principle village of the Water Country (Mizu no Kuni), and is headed by the Mizukage.
Iwagakure: "The Hidden Village of Rocks" is the principle village of the Earth Country (Tsuchi no Kuni), and is headed by the Tsuchikage.
Kumogakure: "The Hidden Village of Clouds" is the principle village of the Lightning Country (Rai no Kuni), and is headed by the Raikage.

Chakra types:
Fuuton: wind-based chakra; weaker than katon, stronger than raiton
Raiton: lightning-based chakra; weaker than fuuton, stronger than doton
Doton: earth-based chakra; weaker than raiton, stronger than suiton
Suiton: water-based chakra; weaker than doton, stronger than katon
Katon: fire-based chakra; weaker than suiton, stronger than fuuton

Canon technique names:
Chidori means "One Thousand Birds" but is largely left untranslated in the dub, beyond the initial translation (used by Kakashi and Sasuke)
Chidori Nagashi means "One Thousand Birds Current" and is currently a manga-only attack  (used by Sasuke)
Rasengan literally means "Spiraling Sphere" but seems to be left largely untranslated in the English dub (used by Jiraiya and Naruto)
Rasenshuriken literally means "Spiralling Sphere" and is currently a manga-only attack (used by Naruto)
Shousen no Jutsu literally means "Mystical Palm Technique" and is the ninjutsu technique of choice for most medic-nin. (Used by all medical ninja)