Naruto Fan Fiction ❯ Training for the Job ❯ Volume 3 Chapter 15 ( Chapter 25 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]
Volume 3 Notes: Apparently, there was a little confusion. Jiraiya said he'd trained Naruto to be better then him. That was, indeed, a confirmation that Naruto (at least in my fic) has surpassed Jiraiya, not a contradiction of it. Not sure why that wasn't clear, but there you go. To reply to a late comment for the previous chapter, Anko not being in Konoha on the day of the kyuubi is untrue. Everyone believed she was out of town that day, however -- she was just in hiding... in the home of the Fourth, because she was forbidden from marrying him and so they had to keep their affair secret. Not really a spoiler, just pointing out something for a little 'between the line' reading that some may have missed. I may or may not emphasize that later in the story. As far as the kunai in the bushins go -- yes, I know they aren't substantial. That was WHY the kunai was with them. The kunai were thrown to give the odd blood sent and the bushins were created 'around' the kunai. They were not HOLDING the kunai. If the bushin could have held anything, then there was no need for the bloody kunai in the first place -- the bushins themselves would have just been smeared with blood. I meant to mention that it was Naruto's chakra guiding the kunai, so I figured that people would have realized that. I realize now that -- due to a poor editing job where I was trying to combine two sentences into one -- that wasn't clear -- it sounds like his chakra was guiding the bushin holding the kunai, but that wasn't what I meant. I don't think I'll go back and fix that one, though -- Naruto's words, even as they are, do not contradict what I just said. They're just not as good at explaining it to the readers as I'd like, now that I've thought about it some. Instead of fixing that, I'm going to work on finishing this as fast as possible. And I'm sorry about the 'nee-chan' 'nii-chan' thing. I'm always getting those two backwards... *sigh* I'll try to remember in the future. Someone asked me about Hanabi's characterization in this fic. Not much is seen of her in canon, but she does appear to be shocked upon hearing that Neji is better then her sister. Given the attitude of the 'Main Branch' as relayed by Neji, I'm assuming she's a big proponent of the 'Hyuuga sense of superiority and main branch sense of even greater superiority' clan philosophy. There's also the 'Hinata is too gentle' bit, so I'm assuming as a clan they're a bit... aggressive. So, after a few years of aging, she's become 'the ultimate Hyuuga' in character -- without the sense of personal responsibility her father has which makes him a 'harsh but still occasionally decent' man. However, given the events of the tournament, she may just as easily turn into a better, stronger Hinata... but for story reasons, I chose to portray her the way I have, since I think that's a definite possibility for how her character will act. By the way, don't stop pointing out mistakes -- that's fine. But, if the chapter has been out for a few hours or so, please check and make sure another reviewer hasn't already mentioned it. Being told a few times about the same mistake isn't a bad thing; being told about one mistake in thirty out of fourty reviews for a single chapter gets to be a bit overkill. Well, that's it for now. Enjoy.
Chapter 15
"Asuma-san," Sakura said, approaching the man. She had just been heading out for lunch when she spied the man sitting in a cafe, eating odango, when an idea came to her.
"Ah, Sakura-chan," the friendly jounin said, waving at her. "What can I do for you?"
"Glad you asked that," Sakura said. "Asuma-san... I'd like you to teach Naruto-kun chess for me, please."
Asuma blinked. "Naruto? Chess? Why in the world do you think Naruto should learn chess -- isn't that the kind of game that would be a bit, um, out of his league?"
"No," Sakura said sharply. "But as to why... I made a bet."
"With Naruto?" Asuma asked, scratching his head.
"With Anko-sensei. I bet that Naruto-kun could beat Shikamaru in a chess match."
Asuma froze at that. "Okay. Let's break that down a bit. Did you just say you made a bet with Anko-san?"
"Yes," Sakura confirmed, nodding.
"Er, you may not know this, but Anko almost never loses a bet. No, I take that back -- she's never lost a bet. That's problem one, there. Now, was this bet actually that you thought Naruto could beat Shikamaru in chess?"
Smirking slightly, Sakura nodded. "Yes, that's correct."
Asuma looked at his unfinished dango and sighed. "I'd better get to work. If Naruto wants to understand the strategy of chess, then--"
"No!" Sakura protested sharply. "Don't tell him a thing about strategy. It'll just screw him up. Only teach him how the pieces move and things like that, got it?"
Asuma looked at the girl in front of him with something resembling shock. He had always thought this one was sane -- was he, perhaps, mistaken? Or was she finally starting to crack under all the stress she'd been put under since moving to Blossom. After all, it couldn't be easy taking charge of a ninja hospital, nor could it be easy dating the kyuubi boy. She was bound to start crumbling under the pressure at some point.
"That... wouldn't really be a good idea," he explained, as if to a small child. "See, chess is a very complex game, and anyone who masters it -- like Shikamaru has -- will automatically know what you're doing depending on how you move. The only way to beat something like that is to know how to predict what your opponent is doing, so--"
"Or," Sakura interrupted. "To be Naruto. The number one ninja in surprising people, as Kakashi puts it. To be... unpredictable."
"Against someone like Shikamaru, there's no way--"
"Asuma-san?" Sakura sighed. "Please, just do as I say. You really don't know Naruto as well as I do -- he will win. Trust me."
Asuma still looked dubious, but it appeared there was no shaking this girl's resolve. "Very well, Sakura-chan. I'll do it... after I finish my dango."
* * * * *
Well, now at least he'll know how to play, Sakura was thinking to herself as she cooked dinner. But if what Asuma-san said is true, then Anko has the same 'lucky' gambling ability that Naruto has. Hmm, is that a bloodline ability or something? Ah, well. I'll need something to counteract the 'bet' part of it with Anko. That would mean a bet with Naruto, wouldn't it? But what could I bet him with -- I don't want to keep making bets over our dating, after all. That would get tedious, after a while.
A loud thump indicated Ino had returned -- finally -- from her trip acting as the Blossom liason to the Wave government. Sakura considered what she had in the pot, and decided she'd need to either add more broth and noodles, or to just leave the other girl to her own devices. The moment she saw the road-weary Ino slump into the kitchen, she started pulling out more noodles.
"Long trip?" Sakura asked.
"Long and boring," Ino sighed, walking over to the refridgerator to pull out a single-serving sized bottle of her flavored milks (the Naruto psyche inside her loved milk, but she wasn't too happy with it herself. The result was she wound up drinking a lot of strawberry and chocolate flavored milk... which she was rather embarrassed about, since it made her feel rather child-like). Uncapping the top, she started chugging the beverage down. Finishing in under twenty seconds, she tossed the bottle into the trash with a sigh. "I hate my job, here. How was the tournament?"
"Interesting," Sakura snorted. "Um, if you ever had any aspirations about using the 'thousand years of pain' technique of Naruto's, you might want to remember it doesn't work on girls."
Ino's eye twitched as she recalled that move. "Wait... I know that one. Which girl did he use it on?"
"The younger Inuzuka," Sakura chuckled. "Poor guy -- I think he took me seriously when I threatened to castrate him if he'd done it to Hana."
Ino laughed. "He might, he might not... but I doubt he's willing to take the chance."
"I think he's learned not to try it on another girl, anyway," Sakura snorted. "Although I'm afraid Futaba-chan's getting 'ideas' now that Naruto's demonstrated it on her."
"You afraid of a little puppy girl moving in on your territory?" Ino asked.
Sakura twitched. "Was that you or the Naruto inside you who called her 'puppy girl?' Oh, and I didn't mean it like that... I'm afraid she's going to try to use the technique on the boys...."
"Hmm... you know, I'm not sure?" Ino mused. "Why?"
"Naruto was calling both Inuzuka's 'puppy girl' during the tournament."
"Well, he's bad with names," Ino pointed out. "Puppy girl, though... I'd be a bit worried if I were you. Sounds like a term of endearment...."
Sakura snorted. "Naruto-kun's too loyal to be seduced by a genin... and Hana's a bit too old for him, I think."
"Naruto's too loyal for Hana, too," Ino pointed out.
"You have seen her, right? No-one is too loyal for Hana," Sakura snorted. "I don't think there's a woman alive who could compete for the guy she eventually sets her sights on."
Ino laughed again. "Naruto might look -- he's loyal, not dead, and even I think Hana's the best looking woman in Konoha. If I recall correctly, she was voted 'most seductive kunoichi' in her courtesan training class a couple years ago, and she was able to get herself pulled out of that class in only a couple months by making her veterinary degree official... so I bet she could get him to look even if he didn't want to. He wouldn't touch, though -- he's really that loyal."
Sakura sighed. "Some days, I almost wish he wasn't... it makes me feel a bit guilty."
"Guilty? Why--"
Oops -- I shouldn't have said anything, Sakura thought. "Actually, that reminds me. I want to make a bet with Naruto-kun, but I'm not sure what to bet him. He wouldn't care about money, and I'm not going to make all of our dates be because of gambling debts. Have you got any ideas?"
"Maybe," Ino said, shrugging. "I've got a good idea of what kinds of things he wants, although I'll warn you that -- in some cases -- his tastes may have changed in the two and a half years since I captured his psyche. But why do you want to make a bet with him? You want to play another round of poker or something?"
"No," Sakura sighed. "I made a bet with Anko-san that Naruto-kun would win a chess match against Shikamaru, and I've heard--"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Ino interrupted, astonished. "You think Naruto would beat Shikamaru in a chess match?"
"If he's motivated enough, yes."
Ino shook her head. "Sakura-chan... you know I respect Naruto-dono more than most, for obvious reasons. I definitely think that his tactical mind and intelligence are severely underrated, and that everyone underestimates him. I don't intend to ever underestimate him, either, so normally I wouldn't say anything like this, but... Naruto doesn't have a chance. I know Shikamaru all too well, and I won't underestimate him, either -- and there isn't anyone better at chess then Shikamaru."
"A couple of years ago, maybe not," Sakura admitted. "But... I think maturity has helped him there, too. I could be wrong... but I'd like to help him have a chance, so I'd like to make a bet with him over it."
Ino shook her head. "You're alone in thinking he's got a chance, I'm afraid, but if you want to bet him something he'll really go for, I've got an idea...."
* * * * *
It had been a few days since Ino had made her suggestion, and Sakura was still blushing every time she thought about it. She'd considered making the bet with him seven times, but each time she chickened out right before she was going to talk with him about it. It was over a dinner she cooked at his place, one night, when she finally bucked up the courage to propose the bet to him. She had made a rather decent portion of ramen -- not the instant stuff (save for the noodles, themselves), but the 'homemade broth, fresh cut vegetables, and other restaurant-quality ingredients' kind of ramen. It was a bit of a challenge for her, as she'd never done it before (the instant stuff was good enough when she wanted ramen, herself), and as it turned out so well she was feeling especially confident. Confident enough, even, to make her wager.
"Naruto," she hummed after they had both eaten the pot dry. "I was wondering... I'm getting tired of doing all of the paperwork for my hospital. Do you think you might be willing to come and deal with it for me for a week or so? I need a break."
Naruto blinked. "But... I'm terrible with paperwork! You'd be better off asking Ino."
"Ino's being a bit of a nuissance since she got back," Sakura fibbed. Ino wasn't as bad as she usually was, actually, but there was always a little bit of nuissance-teasing coming from her, so it wasn't a complete lie... but it would explain why she wanted him to do something he so obviously wouldn't want to do. "In fact, I was thinking of spending some time over here, just to get away from her. There's no way I'd even want her working with me right now. So, would you? Please?"
Naruto looked down. "I... Sakura-chan, you know I'll do anything for you, but--"
"Then let's make it a bit of a game," Sakura suggested, letting him off the hook before he could commit either way. She was sure she could have talked him into it without the bet, but she didn't really want him to help her out, anyway. She could use the help, that was true, but he wouldn't normally be her first choice. However, it was a good enough way of motivating him for that chess match. "I'll wager you can't do something. If I win, you give me that week of help for the paperwork."
"What'll I get if I win?"
"You won't," Sakura snorted, using the best of her acting ability. She honestly believed he would, but she couldn't seem too eager for him to win or it'd ruin the point of this little exercise. "Because I'm going to bet that you can't beat Shikamaru in a game of chess."
Naruto scratched his head skeptically. "You're right -- I won't win. I don't even know how to play chess. Why would I even take this bet?"
"Because of what's in it for you if you win," Sakura explained. She took a deep breath -- she'd had days to prepare for this, so she was ready to make the commitment. She might even enjoy it... and she wouldn't be acting disloyal to Sasuke, after all, because it was just a silly bet. People did things like this all the time over bets without it meaning anything, didn't they? "If you win, Naruto-kun, I'll give you a massage. Not a 'post-workout' treatment massage like all of us ninja have had at one time or another, but a good massage... the same kind of massage that call girl gave you in the brothel Jiraiya took you to. That kind of massage...."
Naruto's eyes nearly bugged out of his skull at that pronouncement. "Sakura-chan... you... do you even know how to do that kind of massage?"
"No," Sakura admitted. "I'm not worried enough about you winning to really be too concerned about it, though. If you do happen to win, I suppose I could get Hana-san to teach me. She's been through a few months of courtesan training, before, and even if she didn't complete the course, I'm told sensual massage is the first skill kunoichi are taught."
Naruto looked torn. "Sakura-chan, I don't want to make you do something you don't want to do. This is--"
"Naruto-kun," Sakura again interrupted before he could finish. "First of all, you don't have a chance of winning -- you know nothing about chess, and Shikamaru's a master at it. If you somehow managed to luck out and catch Shikamaru on a bad month, however -- since this game will have to be played by mail, after all, since he's not here -- then I'll go ahead and do it. After all, I actually do like you, Naruto-kun. I don't really want to do it, but I don't not want to do it, either. I'm a bit too nervous to actually try something like this without the excuse of having lost a bet to make me do it, after all, and... well, I'm not sure if we're ready for this, but by the time you and Shikamaru have finished your game and I'm all trained up and ready to give that massage, maybe I will be sure. It's my choice, you know, Naruto-kun."
"Um, if you're sure," Naruto hesitantly replied. "But I thought you were making this bet because you knew... Shikamaru's coming here."
"Huh?" Sakura asked, startled.
"Yeah. Konoha's sending in Gai's team to finish up Asuma's communications work, but Gai won't be with them. I don't know the details, but apparently Shikamaru's temporarily been put in charge of their team for the trip out here -- his 'acting-jounin' mission, whatever that means."
Sakura blinked. "Wow... well, that's okay. Even if you win, I'll still have a few weeks of learning under Hana to try and get used to the idea. But you won't win... especially not if you don't take the bet."
Naruto grinned a very fox-like grin. "Oh, with that as the prize, you'd better believe I'll take that bet," he replied. "And I'll win, too! All I need to know, now, is, um, how to play."
"Asuma-san said he'll teach you," Sakura said, grinning deviously. "I was expecting to make this wager with you, after all."
* * * * *
It was a late evening, about ten days later, that Shikamaru and the trio which were regularly Gai's team arrived in Blossom. While they were pretty quickly sequestered in with Asuma to work on the communications line problems, Naruto had managed to extract a promise from the foursome to attend a small reunion party that night. They would all be in town for at least a week, and then they and Asuma would be returning to Konoha, and regular messenger service would finally be established between the two villages.
Sakura and Ino, of course, were joining Naruto at the reunion party. So were all three genin teams, anxious for news from home, and their three jounin instructors. Anko, also, was planning to be at the restaurant -- although she wasn't exactly invited, that never stopped her from having a good time. Kakashi said he might drop by, but knowing his perpetual inability to ever be on time for anything, chances were the party would be over -- or at least winding down -- before he arrived. Between everyone who said they were planning to show up and the excitement of the possible bet for those 'in the know' -- namely, Asuma, Naruto, Sakura, Anko, and Ino -- almost everyone was looking forward to that evening.
The first people to arrive at the restaurant they had agreed to -- a noodle shop, to provide the ramen Naruto was known to crave and a selection of choices for everyone else -- were Naruto and Sakura. They were quickly joined by Ino and Hana's group, who had met on the way to the place. They were just taking their seats when the guests of honor -- Shikamaru and his group -- finally arrived.
"Shikamaru!" Ino cried, waving over to him. "Over here!"
"Meh... shouting like that in a restaurant. Women. How troublesome," Shikamaru sighed. "Let's go. I doubt they'll quiet down until we're close enough to talk."
"It's a party, Shikamaru-kun!" Lee pointed out. "We're allowed to make some noise! Come on, guys!"
With those words, Lee made a beeline straight for Sakura. Shikamaru sighed, but decided that his former teammate might have some good information, and so started making his way over to Ino. Tenten shrugged, not really knowing the people here as well as most, and decided to sit between Lee and Shikamaru -- that way, she could involve herself in the conversation of either of the girls the two boys had decided to chat with. Neji, however, remained where he was.
He was undecided as to where to go. Hanabi, obviously, would be waiting for him to pay the 'proper' respects due her as his 'superior' in the clan, but he didn't particularly want to see her. She was too much into the old school of thought in the Hyuuga clan -- including he tradition of the branch family being little more than slaves of the main family. Fortunately, he had an excuse for not seeing her immediately... but, knowing her, he'd be punished anyway. Still, fate was fate. He may now believe that fate was alterable, but it would take effort to change... and somehow, he doubted he could expend the effort needed to avoid punishment from Hanabi. That decided, he made his way over to Naruto, pulling a few letters out of his pocket.
"Naruto-san," Neji said. "I was asked to deliver these messages to you."
Naruto took the profferred letters, checking to see who they were from. "Who's the 'Teuchi' person?"
Neji hesitated, a little surprised. "I thought you knew -- he's the chef at the Ichiraku restaurant."
Naruto's eyes widened. "Really? Wow -- he never told me his name, before. What's his clan name?"
"That, I do not know," Neji sighed. "However, he asked me to take this letter to you as I was leaving, and his name was on it, so I assumed you would know who he was."
"I know him pretty well," Naruto said, opening the letter and starting to read. "Just not his name. Hey, what's this about him selling the Ichiraku?"
Neji blinked. "I... don't know. It was still in business when he left...."
"Naruto-kun," Naruto read.
"I am sorry to say that I will be selling the Ichiraku before you can return to Konoha. I'm getting old, and want to retire -- or at least to cut down my hours considerably. I will still be taking in the money your friend, Kiba, was instructed to spend on our restaurant, but it'll be going back to you when you return: I'm arranging a surprise for you with it. You won't lose your favorite ramen place, however -- I'll still be cooking there, part-time, and my daughter will continue to work there. In fact, I'll be teaching her to take over for me eventually -- she's still part owner of the restaurant. The new owners also won't object to your eating here, either -- I made a condition of the sale that you be allowed to eat at the Ichiraka whenever you want. (Don't think you'll be getting too many free meals, though -- they'll still be charging you. It's just that they'll be charging you half of their menu price, from now on)
"I've been thinking about this for a long time, and the only thing which has kept me from retiring sooner was the thought that I wanted to be here to still be that 'one comfort' for you when you returned from your training journey. Then, you left for this next extended mission, and I find that I just cannot keep working through the years you are expected to be gone. My daughter will still be here, however, and maybe I'll even stop by and cook a bowl for you, for old times' sake.
"My apologies for this, Naruto-kun, but all things must end in time.
"Teuchi (the 'Old Man' from the Ichiraku)"
* * * * *
"So, Lee-kun," Sakura laughed once his over-enthusiastic greeting had been taken care of. "Tell me... where's Gai-sensei, anyway? I didn't think he'd let your team go anywhere without him!"
Lee's happy expression fell, and tears appeared in his eyes. "Gai-sensei!" he cried.
"Lee-kun! What's wrong?" Sakura asked, suddenly very concerned.
"Oh, boy, not this again," Tenten moaned.
"Gai-sensei... Gai-sensei..." Lee muttered over and over, tears streaming from his eyes.
"What happened?" Sakura repeated, bewildered.
"You won't get anything sensible out of him," Tenten sighed. "So I guess it's up to me to explain it. Basically, he's on medical leave for the next six weeks."
"Medical leave for six weeks? Sheesh -- what happened to him? Tsunade-shishou can handle just about anything in a few minutes, so it must have been very serious...."
"Gai-sensei..." Lee sobbed.
Tenten shook her head. "Get over it, Lee-kun," she said before turning her attention back to Sakura. "Well, it started out with an S-rank mission the whole team was sent on about the same time yours was sent here. There was a big fight against a team of missing nin -- not quite as strong as, say, Akatsuki, but if they'd been left to build their power long enough they might have rivaled them. Things were going well, but Gai-sensei used the primary lotus and then was hit so hard in the knee that his knee was shattered, several tendons torn, and the muscles in his leg were nearly ruined by the shock of the primary lotus combined with the torn muscles that his lotus techniques were doing to him. It... looked awful. Fortunately, we completed the mission, despite that, but it was a hard slog dragging his carcass back to Konoha. It was raining a lot, back then, if you recall, and he was soaked to the bone most of the way."
"Oh, Gai-sensei!"
Sakura scratched her head. "That sounds horrible, but I think Tsunade-shishou could fix that."
"She did," Tenten agreed. "But he was supposed to stay off of that leg for a week, and instead decided to go through one of his insane marathon training sessions within an hour after the surgery... and got a stress fracture in the same leg."
"Oh, Gai-sensei!"
"Stupid of him, but Tsunade-shishou should have been able to heal him anyway."
"Oh, that wasn't much of a problem -- a trainee medi-nin took care of the injury before Tsunade-sama even knew about it.. But we'd been assigned to a mission, in the meantime, and even though he was still in recovery, he snuck out of the hospital to join us on it. Of course, he got into a fight which required he use the lotus techniques again...."
"So, he re-injured himself?"
"Not really -- not beyond the amount of injury they normally cost the user -- but on our way back his leg gave out and he fell down a cliff."
Sakura winced. "Hmm... was Tsunade-shishou willing to help him through that?"
"She didn't even see him," Tenten answered. "A couple of the medi-nin from the team that patched Neji-kun up after the pursuit of Sasuke took care of it. But while still recovering, he decided to do his best to demonstrate the tree-climbing exercise, and fell out of the tree... back onto his injured leg."
"How bad was the damage?" Sakura asked.
"Not too bad -- Shizune healed it for him. But then Tsunade-sama showed up, broke the leg in two places, re-set it, and warned anyone who tried to fix it before it healed naturally that they would, and I quote, 'be strung up by their toes in front of the hospital as an example for people who don't understand that you shouldn't be using medical ninjitsu on the same injury so many times.' And then she assigned us a temporary leader with Shikamaru-kun, who was just back for a while from the embassy to the Sand because Tsunade had apparently finally convinced him to try becoming a jounin, and we've spent all the time since then learning what we needed for this mission."
"Lee-kun... shut up!" Tenten roared, delivering a powerful slap to the back of his head, nearly knocking him over. "Anyway, he'll be fine once Tsunade lets him take off the cast."
Sakura restrained a chuckle she felt welling up inside her, and then helped Lee back into his seat. "I'm, um, sorry about Gai-sensei, Lee-kun. I'm sure he'll be fine, though."
"Thank you, Sakura-chan!" Lee replied enthusiastically, clenching her hands while tears, now of joy instead of sadness, poured down his face. "Would you be willing to go on a date with me to celebrate his recovery?"
Tenten slapped her forehead, leaning back into her chair in disgust. "Oh, good grief."
"Um, he hasn't recovered yet, Lee-kun," Sakura replied nervously, then swallowed that nervousness in a display of sympathetic pride. "And I'm sorry, but I'm not likely to be going on any dates with you. I'm, um, kind of dating Naruto-kun, now."
Lee's face fell. "Well... if you're happy with him...."
Sakura thought about that. Yes, there was some stress involved in having Uzumaki Naruto, keeper of the kyuubi, one-time drop-out and future hokage as a boyfriend. However, she actually enjoyed her time spent with him, and so figured he did a pretty good job of keeping him happy. "Yes," she said, turning to look at him. "I've actually rather enjoyed... our... time... together."
"Well, that's great," Lee said, forcing a smile. "But I'd still like to talk with you in private, if I--"
"Naruto? What's wrong?" Sakura asked, darting from her seat. Lee and Tenten both looked followed her with their eyes as she ran to comfort a crying Naruto.
"The ramen chef... he... he's quitting. And he says...."
Lee quit listening and turned to the party buffet with a sigh. He had really hoped to talk with Sakura while he was hear, but it didn't look like he'd have a chance. And that was... very bad -- there was something he was hiding. He knew he needed to talk with someone about it, but there was only one person who was qualified to help him in Konoha... and she was the person he was most afraid of talking to. Sakura could help him, probably, but... it looked as if that was a pipe dream, as well.
So what am I going to do, now, he thought, If I talk to Tsunade-sama about this, she'll take me off the roster; but... I have to do something about the fact that the wounds Gaara-san gave me three years ago are coming back.
* * * * *
"Okay," Shikamaru said, shaking his head. "Could you repeat what you just said, because I know that I must have heard you wrong."
Ino looked a little ticked off that he seemed so unwilling to bend to his will. He used to do everything she said -- when did he grow a backbone, anyway? "I said," she repeated, "That we need to arrange a chess match between you and Naruto-dono while you're still here. There are a lot of people who have a number of bets riding on this."
Shikamaru's eye twitched. "And just who bet that I would lose a chess match to somebody who's never played the game, before?"
"Sakura-chan," Ino chuckled. "She's... um, gotten rather attached to him, lately, and I think she's overestimating his abilities because of how she feels for him. Still, she's made a bet with Anko-san about it, and, well, I've got something of a side-bet going with her. But she seems determined to prove that he can beat you in a game of chess, so I figure you should agree to play one with him."
"How troublesome," he sighed. "Oh, well. I suppose I should try and play him, for prides sake if nothing else. But we've got a busy week ahead -- we'd better make it tonight. Assuming we can find a chess set in this half-built village...."
"Good," Anko said, suddenly dropping into his table. "I've got a chess set right here. Ino-chan, go get Naruto-chan over here, will you? Shikamaru-chan, why don't you set up the pieces while we wait?"
"Um..." Shikamaru hesitated.
"Yes, ma'am," Ino replied, saluting.
"What am I getting myself into?" Shikamaru sighed. "Women... always getting us men into trouble."
"Damn straight we do, kiddo," Anko laughed. "But we always try and make it up to you in the end...."
* * * * *
"Hana-san," Neji said, addressing the other jounin. "There was actually another member of our party on the journey here, but he was not allowed to enter the restaurant. He would be delighted if you could go out and join him."
"Really?" Hana said, surprised. "Who is it?"
"Kuromaru," Neji answered.
"Mom's dog?" Hana replied, startled. "Oh, my -- something must be going on at home. I need to go and talk with him -- if anyone wonders where I've gone, let them know I'll be right back. Futaba-chan, come with me -- he might be here to talk to you, too."
With that out of the way, Neji turned to the person he had most dreaded seeing on this journey. His uncle, Hiashi, was difficult to deal with, but at least he had the guilt of his brother's death to keep him from abusing his power too much, and being too severe with him during his few minor attempts to rebel. Hinata, he had found, was actually much more sympathetic to him then anyone else in the Hyuuga clan, and he often regretted his attempt to kill her back during the chuunin exam. Hanabi, however... she was a very different sort of relative. She had the stodgy formalness of his uncle, a power that could one day rival (though probably not surpass) his own, and nothing to keep in check the arrogance with which the main line of the Hyuuga clan dominated the branch line. And, perhaps because she viewed him as an insult to her existence, merely for being more powerful then her, she hated his guts.
"Hanabi-sama," he said, bowing in greeting as formally as he could.
"Neji," she replied. With a twitch of her hands, she activated his cursed seal.
"Ah!" Neji cried in pain, glad he didn't have too far to fall while kneeling.
"What were you thinking, not coming to pay me the proper respects first-thing?" she demanded, releasing the seal before she did him permanent damage. Her father actually seemed to respect this insult to the main line of the Hyuuga clan, so she wouldn't dare do anything that might kill or cripple him... although it was surprising what a person could live through.
"Hanabi-chan!" Daichi protested. "What are you doing to him?"
"This is clan business, Daichi-san," she snapped back. "Stay out of it."
"But he's a jounin!" he insisted. "He's--"
"Daichi-san," Neji huffed, barely able to breath. "Stop. No sense in the both of us being injured, tonight, because my cousin insists on demonstrating her superiority to me."
"I would listen to him if I were you, Daichi-san," Hanabi growled. "Because we both know you're completely hopeless as a ninja."
"Not true!" Daichi insisted. "I carry a powerful bloodline ability, and as soon as it manifests itse--"
"Whatever," Hanabi snorted dismissively. "If your family line is truly related to the Aburame family line, then I suppose there's a slim chance you may gain a little power, some day. But no-one is superior to the Hyuuga clan."
"Naruto-kun is," Neji pointed out defiantly.
"Don't! Mention! That! To! Me!" Hanabi shouted. "Your loss was a disgrace to our family--"
"But Hanabi-chan," Daichi pointed out, "You lost to him, too."
"He outranks me!" Hanabi shot back. "And he attacked me when I was unprepared! If we ever fight again, I will destroy him!"
"Considering what he did to you," Daichi coughed, "I seriously doubt that."
Hanabi clenched her fists, trembling. "Daichi, unless you want me to kill you right now, you will shut up."
"Uh... yes, ma'am," Daichi replied quietly.
"Now, Neji... you were about to explain to me just why you neglected your duties and went to others before presenting yourself to me," Hanabi demanded.
"Duty before courtesy," Neji replied. "Your own father says that. I had a duty to present Naruto-kun and Hana-san with certain messages which superceded the courtesy of paying my respects to you."
"Did it never occur to you that I might need to discuss certain matters with you, and that you might have a more important duty to me?" Hanabi asked shrilly.
Neji paused. He had to be very careful how he answered this one. "Is there a piece of family business we must immediately discuss which supercedes the needs of our village?" he asked warily.
"As a matter of fact, there is," Hanabi sighed, gesturing -- finally -- for him to stand up. "In this village, right now, is a Ancestral Traitor."
Ancestral Traitors was the name given to the first 'branch' line of the family -- the one which refused to accept the 'gift' of the enhanced byakuugan granted by the lesser demon. They refused to accept their 'proper' subjugation, and fought back against the seals of enslavement the main line of the family tried to place on them. Most were destroyed, but a scattered few families were able to flee unharmed. The Hyuuga clan spent decades hunting them down, and they thought they had eradicated the threat... but apparently, as a new 'Ancestral Traitor' was found periodically, they didn't quite get them all.
Neji was shocked to hear of the discovery of one in Wave country. "Who is it?" he asked, his thoughts in too much of a jumble to decide what to think about this revelation.
"An orphan by the name of Adaha, who is now a member of the Blossom Ninja Academy," Hanabi snorted in disgust. "I am... required... to help him learn to use his primative byakuugan by Kakashi-oyabun. And he is under too close a watch for me to do anything... so I have decided to bide my time. You must -- in secret, for I suspect I would be prevented from sending this message overtly -- inform my father as soon as possible. I need his counsel as to how to proceed."
"I will do as commanded, Hanabi-sama," Neji replied, not having any choice. He could feel his seal accomodating her order. It could not force him to obey, exactly, but if he did something to contradict that order it would slowly start giving him pain on its own. Another reason he hated the main family -- they had really done a number on the branch family when they created that seal.
"Of course you will," Hanabi sighed, bored. "Now... tell me all of the news from home, starting with family business first. Leave nothing else."
"Well," Neji began. "Hinata-sama still refuses to marry me, or any other of her cousins for that matter, but...."
* * * * *
"Kuromaru-san," Hana began, speaking with the large dog outside the doors of the restaurant. His fur was once as black as his name suggested, but he had been gradually greying over the past several years. As most ninja dogs, he would live for a very long time -- almost as long as a human being -- but he was past his prime. Still, he was one of the most powerful dogs to regularly keep company with their human partners -- any larger would not stay, and would only show up when summoned -- and he was one of those dogs who had learned human speech over his lifetime. "Greetings."
"Hana-chan," the wise animal replied. "Futaba-chan. It is good to see you. It has been too long."
"It has," Hana agreed. "But why are you here? Is everything all right at home?"
"Yes," Kuromaru replied. "However, your mother is retiring from active service to take a seat on the council. Since she will no longer be taking regular missions, she asked if I would join you and Futaba-chan to look after the two of you, since she is no longer able to."
"Aren't you going to want to retire, some day, too, Kuromaru-chan?" Futaba asked, concerned.
A doggy laugh answered her. "And just what would I do if I did, Futaba-chan? Unlike the humans of the Inuzuka clan, there is no council I can retire to serve on. I may, one day, decide to work with the young... but, right now, Gonta and Akamaru are the only young who are old enough to train. Akamaru has many other dogs to look after him... but here, in this small village, who will look after your companion?"
Futaba smiled at the animal which helped raise her almost as much as her own parents had. "You will, of course, Kuromaru-chan. But won't there be a time when you get tired of being on duty so much?"
"Yes. But not until after I'm dead," Kuromaru snorted. "I'll slow down some, before I'm good and done, but I've still got many years in me first. Now, tell me... what has been going on around here?"
"Not much," Hana admitted. "Both of the other teams have been going out on missions, recently, but we've been held back because it seems we're the best team to work with the Academy students -- Hanabi-san in particular, since it seems there's a dojutsu user in the class."
"We had a mock tournament a couple weeks ago," Futaba added. "It was fun, even though we both lost."
"You lost? To whom?" Kuromaru growled.
"Naruto-san," Hana answered.
"The kyuubi brat?" the dog asked.
"Kyuubi?" Futaba echoed, confused.
"Kuromaro! You know we are forbidden from discussing that!" Hana snapped.
The dog gave her an impatient look. "You humans may be, but I am not a human."
"Why is Naruto-sensei a 'kyuubi brat?'" Futaba asked.
The answer he gave was not what Hana had expected. She expected the typical villager's view, that Naruto was what was left of the kyuubi after the Fourth died trying to protect the village. Kuromaru's assessment, however, gave her a new perspective on the boy.
"Naruto is the child sacrificed to become the jailor of the kyuubi," he explained. "He will, from birth to death, have the burden of containing the most powerful of the nine greater demons. This burden will grant him great powers, but also scorn and mistrust from many of the people who should care for him the most. Should he have children, they will form a powerful clan the likes of which have never been seen. The likelihood of anyone ever trusting him enough to bed him, however, is low...."
"Not as low as you'd think," Hana muttered. "He seems quite attached to the hokage's apprentice, and she to him."
"Any loss to him should not be looked at as a failure," Kuromaru lectured. "As long as you live through it."
"Well, I intend to ask him to be a sparring partner," Hana said. "His defeat of me has me concerned for my own skill, but Jiraiya-sama of the sannin suggested him as a training partner. I wasn't so sure, because of the kyuubi, but... if you believe him to be safe--"
"I do."
"Then I think perhaps I'll ask him to, after all." She frowned, turning to her cousin. "Kuromaru may be able to get away with telling people about the kyuubi, but you may not. The law forbids it from being discussed, so you shall not mention it. He has enough problems, as it is, with people shunning him for this."
"Shunning him?" Futaba said, startled. "Why would anyone shun him? I think it's cool! But... I suppose I can't break the law about that, can I? Oh, well... come on, Kuromaru-chan. We'll get you into the restaurant -- I'm sure you would enjoy the food, and maybe you'll like the party, too."
* * * * *
There turned out to be a lot of interest in Naruto's and Shikamaru's chess match, as just about everyone tried to gather around the table to watch. Kuromaru, who Hana had been able to bring in after pointing out that -- in a ninja village -- animals could be the equals of some people, had leapt to the top of a nearby table in order to get a good view. Sakura was by Naruto's side, of course, and Futaba -- much to Hana's surprise -- joined her. So did some of the other genin, including Konohamaru, Udon, and Moegi. Neji, after thinking about it for a while, decided -- to everyone's surprise -- to place a wager on Naruto with Anko, who was managing the betting pool. Hanabi, with a glare, immediately placed a similar bet on Shikamaru. The jounin instructors and Ino were all staying well out of the gambling pit, none of them believing Naruto had a chance but none of them wanting to say it in front of the boy. Asuma had his own opinion, but he wasn't sharing it with anyone, and certainly wasn't going to put his money down on anyone. Yet everyone, those who placed a bet and those who didn't, wanted to watch.
Naruto was still a little depressed at the news from home about the Ichiraku, but the excitement around him from everyone interested in his game -- including the surprising (to him) support of Sakura -- was rapidly lifting his spirits. He took a good look at the chess board, considering his strategy.
"Now, Naruto," Shikamaru started explaining. "The types of pieces on the chess board are the pawn, the rooks, the knights, the bishops, the--"
"I know," Naruto replied impatiently. "Asuma-sensei was teaching me how to play a couple days ago, because we knew this was coming. You're white, go ahead and make the first move."
"Asuma-sensei?" Shikamaru repeated, startled, as he turned to look at his former teacher.
The jounin merely shrugged, smiling around his perpetually lit cigarette, and nodded back to the board. "Play," he said.
"Uh, right," Shikamaru finally said, unsure of things. Asuma had only had a couple days to teach Naruto anything, right? So... he couldn't have taught him that much. Probably just enough so that he'd move the pieces right... so why was he suddenly so nervous? With that in mind, he figured he could open with a classic opening, and see how Naruto moved from there.
Naruto's response immediately dispelled all of Shikamaru's concerns. The Paris Defense? Sheesh... Naruto, you're hopeless! he thought, disgusted he had to play with such a rank amateur. In truth, he actually respected Naruto -- he'd occasionally make tactical suggestions which weren't all that bad, when they worked together on missions -- but no-one who only learned chess two or three days before could possibly stand a chance against a veteran of Shikamaru's experience... unless Naruto somehow wound up with a fool's mate or similar 'lucky' move. Many veterans were tripped up by such a simple move, but Shikamaru would not be caught out for that, this time.
As the game progressed, Naruto's lack of experience showed. He was pushing out all of his powerful pieces as quickly as possible, instead of holding some of them in for the endgame like he should. He didn't seem to care, much, about his pawns -- more than once even overlooking a chance to take Shikamaru's queen with one of those pawns -- except to get them out of the way for a while. He would charge in with a major piece, like his queen, and then dance it around reeking havoc against all of Shikamaru's pieces indescriminately. When Shikamaru would pin that piece down, he seemed to lose hope in it, moving a pawn to get it out of the way for the next power piece to come into play rather then try to rescue the endangered piece. More than once, Shikamaru would find himself easily chasing Naruto's king around the board, from one end to the other. Whenever he looked across to study his opponent, he saw that Naruto hadn't seemed to lose his confidence... but then, Naruto was known for never losing his confidence, even when it was completely hopeless.
It wasn't until Shikamaru had taken Naruto's last knight -- the only thing he still had other then pawns and his king -- that he realized the position he was in. Naruto had, by apparently just 'moving pawns out of the way,' and allowing his king to be chased across the board, positioned his pawns to become... dangerous. Very dangerous. Dangerous enough that Shikamaru had to assume his meditative position in order to try and think his way out of it.
"My god," Asuma whispered, surveying the board. He hadn't seen it coming, either, but when Shikamaru moved into his 'thinking pose,' he started re-assessing his view of how the game was going so far. Naruto, by being blaringly obvious about what his 'power' pieces were doing, had managed to maneuver his pawns and king right where he wanted them. Asuma still felt that Shikamaru would be able to make his way out of it -- after all, he still had a major advantage in terms of power, and he was a tactical genius who likely had seen all of the threats at one point or another and prepared for them -- but the fact that Naruto had made Shikamaru pause, when Naruto was such a rookie at this game, made the jounin respect him all that much more.
He was acting like such an amateur, Shikamaru thought. I never realized that he was actually planning everything -- possibly right from the start! I underestimated him, and so didn't pay any attention to how he was moving his pawns... just like he hoped. I never would have made such a stupid mistake against Asuma-sensei, but because this was Naruto and because I thought he didn't know what he was doing, I only paid attention to what he was obviously doing. I didn't think to look beyond the ordinary... and so now I have to figure out what to do.
Sakura was very nervous. She didn't understand the game of chess at all, but it looked to her like Naruto had been losing from the start. There were so many reasons she wanted him to win, not the least of which was that she wanted people to respect his tactical mind as much as she had grown to admire it... but this game looked to only encourage his doubters. Naruto's 'camp,' including herself, Neji, Konohamaru's group, and Futaba, all seemed rather disheartened. No, I take that back. Not everyone who supports Naruto seems to think Naruto's been defeated. Neji seems to be smiling... but why is Neji smiling?
Neji's smile only grew the longer that Shikamaru remained in his meditative state. Finally, the Hyuuga man made his first comment since placing the bet.
"Naruto has mate in three."
Almost everyone present spun on him, shocked. They all turned to look at the board, again, trying desperately to figure out just what it was Neji saw... before Shikamaru nodded.
"Close," Shikamaru said. "I could push it to mate in four. But it's over." He tipped over his king. "I cannot stop all six of your remaining pawns before you get me checkmated, Naruto, so I must congratulate you."
Murmurs arose among the crowd, who had been expecting the statement to go the other way around, but Naruto grinned. "Heh... I figured you wouldn't think about my pawns," Naruto said. "It's just like a normal fight -- I don't use my best moves to win, but I use them to set up a victory with a simple headbutt, or a thrown shuriken, or a single kick to take down three genjutsu users, or the like. Everyone gets so worried about my more powerful moves that they don't think to account for the little things."
Shikamaru shook his head. "Actually, Naruto, I underestimated you. Against any other chess opponent, I would have looked for those pawns to be doing the very thing you did... but I never thought you could come up with a strategy like this, after only learning the game three days ago. I'm still impressed, though...."
"Heh heh... thanks," Naruto said, scratching the back of his head. "I probably couldn't beat you more than once, but I figured I stood a shot this time...."
The crowd's chatting started overwhelming their mutual compliments, but niether of them minded overmuch. It allowed Shikamaru to pull away from the spotlight, as it was turned towards Naruto... and the blond boy was delighted to find himself being given a powerful hug from his girlfriend as a reward for his victory.
"Wow, Naruto-kun," Sakura said. "I really thought you'd lost at the end there, but you really proved me wrong!" She winked at him. "I guess I'd better have a discussion with Hana, soon, huh?"
Naruto blushed. "Uh... yeah...."
Anko watched the pair with a smile, and then stepped out. She would have to find that Yuugao woman -- the two of them needed to have a chat about teaching Sakura what needed to be taught.
* * * * *
It was several days before Shikamaru and their team left. Sakura had been forced to deflect three attempted dates from Lee, who didn't seem to pay attention to the fact that she'd said she was dating Naruto... or didn't care. Sakura wasn't sure what to make of it -- she'd never seen Lee as the sort of person who wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, but he was hounding her for some 'time alone together,' and it was starting to creep her out a bit.
Naruto's time had been taken up by Shikamaru and Neji, both of whom wanted to talk with him about a number of things. That was fine with Sakura -- she didn't begrudge Naruto a chance to be with some of the only male contemporaries he had who respected him -- but it left her alone a bit longer then she'd have liked. Tenten seemed to have latched on to Ino, and the two were gossiping up a storm. If Sakura understood the latest rumors properly, Hinata was refusing to marry not because her family was insisting she select one of her cousins as a husband, but rather because she had more than one candidate in mind outside of the family. Who those candidates were remained widely speculated upon, as most of the Rookie Nine (as well as Tenten's own team) seemed to be surprisingly old to remain unattached as Konoha ninjas, but the fact that she had settled on people outside of her own clan was astonishing for the Hyuuga. Hanabi was seen to be in distress every time her sister was even mentioned near her, as word continued to flow out about the situation in Konoha, yet Neji seemed distinctly unconcerned.
Sakura had hoped to spend the time that Naruto was spending with his friends from Konoha to get started on that 'massage training' with Hana, but she couldn't find either Inuzuka to talk to. One of the dogs guarding Hana's apartment, who was able to speak broken human, gave a rather confused explanation about the two of them working with one of the new arrivals... but which one was never mentioned. Since Sakura was fairly certain where Lee, Shikamaru, Neji, and Tenten were at most of the times Hana was absent, she had no idea who the dog was referring to. The one advantage she had was that, apparently, Anko had managed to talk the ANBU girl into actually training her like she was supposed to. Her repertoire of genjutsu now included several additional techniques -- which she had varying levels of mastery of -- which she might not have ever learned if Anko hadn't intervened. Sakura made a mental note to ask the woman just how she'd managed to convince the reluctant ANBU to teach her like she was supposed to.
At the moment, however, she was on her way to Naruto's apartment. She wanted to discuss with him his 'prize' from the bet... because it looked like it would take longer for her to get ready then she had earlier suggested. Especially if she couldn't find Hana -- there weren't many others in Blossom who had gone through any amount of courtesan training, and Sakura didn't know who else would be able to teach her any 'proper' sensual massage techniques. She couldn't even approach a professional brothel to ask for their instruction -- the closest one would take a day trip to the Naruto Bridge, and she couldn't arrange for too many full days off with her hectic schedule.
She was about a block away when she saw something which made her heart drop into her stomach. Leaving the door of Naruto's apartment, she saw Inuzuka Hana... a very satisfied smile on her face. Sakura remembered the words she'd spoken to Ino not too long ago -- 'No-one is too loyal for Hana. I don't think there's a woman alive who could compete for the guy she eventually sets her sights on.' The very concept of Naruto possibly having... an affair? No, that implied... well, maybe 'affair' is the right right word. The idea that Naruto might be with the older woman disturbed Sakura greatly.
Hana noticed Sakura, and waved to her. Teeth gritted, Sakura realized she would have to talk to the... the... manstealer!
"Hello, Hana-san," she began, barely able to get the polite honorific out of her mouth.
If Hana noticed, she didn't react. "Sakura-chan! How nice to see you."
"Er... is that so?" Sakura said, unsure of how to respond.
"Um, yes, it is," Hana replied, looking at Sakura curiously. Then she shrugged. "That Naruto-kun of yours... I never realized how much fun he is to be around."
"Yes," Sakura replied dryly, not amused. Was this... bitch (whether Sakura meant the word as a female dog or as... something else, even she wasn't sure) trying to flaunt the fact that she was stealing Sakura's boyfriend right from under her nose, or what?
"He's really very sweet -- not at all like the rumors around Konoha claim he should be," Hana explained happily. "I'm so glad he's agreed to spar with me -- Jiraiya-sama told me he'd be a good partner, but I didn't believe him at first. Naruto-kun is really very skilled -- I'm truly impressed with him."
"Spar?" Sakura asked, startled. Were all of those... double meanings she heard, really explainable away just by a sparring session? Well, yes, possibly... but Sakura wasn't sure she wanted to take that chance.
"Of course, sparring. I'm certainly not going to him for cooking advice!" Hana laughed. "Dear lord -- I never thought I'd have ever seen as much ramen as he has stored in his kitchen."
"It's his favorite dish," Sakura explained absently. "And it's cheap -- he wasn't exactly swimming in money, growing up."
"Well, no," Hana admitted. "But, then again, the Inuzuka clan wasn't exactly the richest family group around, and we got by without having to have ramen every meal."
Sakura swallowed. "Well, it's been... nice... seeing you, Hana-san. I'm late." Then she paused -- oh, yes, she needed Hana's help, didn't she? Well, perhaps it would be moot if Hana really was after Naruto -- why would he want Sakura if he had little Miss Most Seductive. But... well, it would be a useful skill to learn, anyway. "But I'd like your help with something else, at some point. Can I meet you... somewhere private, to discuss it?"
Hana shrugged. "My team is going to be stuck here in Blossom for a while, I suspect, and there's only so much training a person can do a day before they go stark-raving mad. Just give me a call before you come over, and my door's open any time."
"Thanks," Sakura said, then stalked away from her. There would be time to talk with Hana later... right now, she had to determine just what was really going on between the bitch girl and Naruto.
She didn't know what she was expecting when she opened the door to Naruto's apartment, but it wasn't what she saw. Naruto was... cleaning?
"Naruto-kun?" she said awkwardly, unsure if this really was the boy she knew.
He smiled at her without a trace of guilt as he carried the laundry basket filled with... well, it looked like laundry. Maybe not the dirty sheets that Sakura would expect after a passionate encounter, after all. "Hi, Sakura-chan! What's up?"
Sakura immediately decided that, even if Hana was trying to take Naruto away from her (and just why was she thinking that, again?), he hadn't done anything with her... yet. Sakura trusted Naruto -- that much, she now felt fairly comfortable saying. She did not trust Hana, however, so she felt she had to do something. Just what she decided to do right then, though, might be considered... a little drastic.
"I can't stand living with Ino-pig at the moment," Sakura snapped, taking her frustration with Hana out on an imaginary argument with her best female friend. "I'm just sick of dealing with her for a while. Is it okay if I move in? In a... more permanent way, perhaps?"
Naruto blinked. "Um... sure. You know I consider this place yours as much as it is mine -- why else would I have given you a key?"
"Thanks, Naruto-kun," Sakura sighed. "I just hope you don't get sick of me, because I don't know when -- or if -- I'll ever feel like moving back in with Ino." She considered what she had at Naruto's apartment and frowned. "Although I may have to go back there and pick some things up -- I kind of left in so big of a hurry I forgot to pack a few things I might need."
"Do you need me to help you pack?" Naruto asked, concerned.
"No -- I'll be alright," Sakura replied, waving him off. She might have wanted his help normally for such a heavy load, but she didn't want him talking with Ino before she had a chance to brief the other girl on the situation. "Um... I saw Hana leaving as I was coming over. I still haven't been able to talk with her about that massage training because I haven't been able to find her these past few days. Why was she here?"
Naruto flushed, rubbing the back of his head nervously. "Um... don't worry about that bet thing. I won't hold you to it...."
Sakura stiffened. Was she not good enough for him, any more, now that he had Hana? Well, she'd just have to prove to him that she had magic hands, too! "I'll do it, but I'm just not ready, yet. I only need to learn how, first, but I'm sure -- between a little bit of knowledge about the sensual aspects and what I know of the medical theory of massages, that I'll give you the best one you've ever had!"
Naruto blinked. "I'm... um... sure you will, Sakura-chan. Um.... Oh!"
"Um... this is kind of embarrassing," Naruto admitted. "But... well, I've got something which might, uh, help with that massage."
Sakura blinked, not sure what to make of that. "What?"
Naruto ran back into his bedroom, then returned with a battered carton decorated like something out of a brothel. Most of the words on it were illegible, but she could make out 'Special' and 'No. 3' on it in various places. He presented it to her, saying, "Um, remember me telling you about Jiraiya's idea of a 'birthday present,' once?"
Sakura nodded uncertainly -- yes, she did remember. It was really the start of their relationship, after all -- the loyalty he had demonstrated when presented with a woman who would have done anything for him. "Yes...."
"Well, that woman... you know who I mean, right? She... well, she seemed to admire me for being so loyal to you. So, she asked her boss to give me this when I left." He handed it to her, blushing. "It used to contain all kinds of medicines and sports creams, suntan oils, that kind of thing. There were a few, um, items which I never really found a use for. It might be useful with, um, the... massage."
Sakura noticed that, among a number of empty bottles of various creams and oils -- most of which she recognized as being manufactured for those in the courtesan trade, but still being useful as travel medicine nonetheless -- there were some supplies Naruto had obviously found no use for. Among 'flavored personal lubricants' and a few contraceptive medications, there were three massage oils which likely were of no use as a medicine. One was scented of rose water, one was flavored of oranges, and one had extract of cinnamon 'for an added kick.' Obviously, this was, indeed, a gift pack from a brothel... and given its state, it was several years old. However, those bottles were still sealed, and therefore likely could still be used. "Hmm... well, well, well. You're right -- these might be interesting," Sakura said, a slow smirk on her face. Hana, apparently, knew nothing of these... and that could give her a big advantage in the massage front. "I'll take them, now, thank you very much."
Without waiting for his reaction, she took them into her bedroom and hid them where she was fairly certain Naruto would never look. Now, with her controlling the 'supplies,' and her living her all the time, it seemed... unlikely that the bitch girl would be able to usurp Naruto from Sakura. Which reminded her....
"Well, now... I left in too much of a hurry to pack my things," Sakura said, returning from her bedroom. "So I'll go and get the rest of my stuff. But I'll be back in just a few minutes. Maybe, if you started dinner now -- and not ramen, this time, but something a little healthier please -- I'll be back before it's ready." She reached over, grabbed him, and stated her claim over him with the deepest kiss she had ever given. All she could think of, while giving it, was that Naruto was hers, dammit, and no girl who likely slept with her own dogs would take him from her! If Inner Sakura was dangling the name 'Sasuke' in her mind during this whole panicked moment, she didn't notice it. She was too intent on making that this boy didn't follow Sasuke's path and leave her, too. Breaking the kiss, she patted him on the cheek. "Stay here -- I'll be right back."
As Naruto watched her go off in a daze, only one thought came through his mind. Just what has gotten into her?
* * * * *
Ino stared as Sakura stormed into their apartment, darting through the main room and into her own bedroom. Bemused, the blond girl peered around the doorframe to see her friend frantically packing things into a suitcase. Ino raised an eyebrow.
"You leaving?"
Sakura blinked, looking up at her. "Ino? Oh, you're home?"
Ino laughed. "Yes, Sakura-chan, I'm home. So, tell me... what's going on?"
"I'm moving in with Naruto for a while," Sakura said. "Now, either get out of my way or help me out. I've got to get back before...."
"Before what?" Ino asked, curious.
Sakura took a deep breath. "I was headed over to Naruto's place when I saw... when I saw that bitch ninja leaving his apartment."
"Bitch ninja?" Ino replied, blinking.
"You know... Hana!" Sakura sputtered. "Now... I guess I can trust Naruto. He's proven that he's loyal, and I could tell the moment I got inside that apartment that... that nothing happened. But I don't trust Hana -- I don't know for sure if she's got, got... intentions towards Naruto or not, but I don't want to let her have a chance at him if she does. So, I'm going to be right there, just in case she tries something."
Ino smirked. "So... this a permanent move, then?"
Sakura considered that for a moment. "Well... if Sasuke... that is.... I don't know. It's... indefinite, until either Hana is no longer a threat, or... well... there's Sasuke. I'm not going to commit myself to Naruto until I give up being loyal to Sasuke, and I'm still loyal."
"I suppose," Ino sighed. "Though why the hell you're still holding out hope for that traitor is beyond me."
Sakura shook her head. "It's a long story, and... and I can't get into it right now. I've got to hurry! What if Hana shows up while I'm gone, and... and..."
"And what? Eats your dinner?" Ino snorted. "Sheesh, forehead-girl, quit being so paranoid. Even if she is targetting Naruto -- which wouldn't make any sense at all, given that I hear she's into older men -- she won't get him in the ten minutes it'll take you to pack."
"You're right," Sakura admitted, sighing. "I'm being silly... but I can't help it! I... look, Sasuke left me. I'm hoping to get him back, but he left me. I'm not going to let Naruto leave me, too, dammit! I'm going to fight for him until I can't fight for him any more. Got it?"
Ino shook her head. "Sakura-chan... I don't know why you're so torn up about all this. It seems to me as if Naruto has always loved you and Sasuke never has. Naruto remained loyal to you, and stuck by your side, and Sasuke betrayed you and all of his friends, leaving us all in the process. Naruto fights for you, Sasuke for himself alone. Naruto would die to keep a promise to you..." She paused. "And Sasuke would kill him out of pure selfishness. I don't know why you remain so loyal to Sasuke, when Naruto is right there for you... and now, it seems, you actually want him to be there. You're fighting to keep him, at any rate, so I'd hope you want him there!"
"I do," Sakura admitted.
"You could have all the happiness in the world, I feel, if you broke from this fantasy of the perfect guy in Sasuke -- which, god help me, I remember once having myself -- and turned all that devotion over to Naruto. I don't understand it. I really don't."
Sakura sighed. "Sometimes, I don't, either. But... I'm at the point where I love Naruto, you know?" She swallowed. "There, I said it -- I love Naruto. I'm in love with Naruto-kun. I... I don't even know what I feel, or felt, for Sasuke-kun any more... but I also know that, if I gave up on Sasuke-kun now, I'd regret it for the rest of my life. I know, because i know just what it would take to turn Sasuke around, to turn him into the person he should be... and I have to commit myself to him to do that. I cannot be disloyal to Sasuke, or that fails... and so does any hope of ever redeeming him."
"Is it worth it, Sakura-chan?" Ino asked slowly. "To give up love and happiness... to redeem a man who may be irredeemable?"
Sakura stiffened. She stormed out of the room, heading straight for the bathroom. Ino started to follow, but paused when she emerged moments later carrying her set of toiletries. "Is it worth it?" she finally said. "At one point, right before he left, I promised Sasuke-kun that he could be happy if he stayed with me. I promised him that I would make it work. Naruto... keeps his promises, even when they hurt him. I must keep mine, even when they hurt me... or else I'm not worthy of Naruto."
Notes: Well, out of commission three days, and here's a triple-length chapter (and the longest to date) for you. Hope you like it. The name 'Ichiraku' means (according to a Naruto website I was looking at) One Comfort, which explains the reference mentioned in the ramen chef's letter. I'm not revealing what Teuchi's clan name is, yet, but he is NOT an Uzumaki, though -- Naruto is the last Uzumaki alive, in this fic. In fact, it's not any clan you've heard of so far, I think, but it will play at least a minor part in the story. About Shikamaru being an 'acting-Jounin.' It's not exactly clear what his rank is, post-break. He mentions Temari and Neji having been promoted to Jounin, but doesn't include himself... which I find a rather odd omission as I would have thought he'd be the first jounin of the bunch. So, I figured he's been resisting it until now... and has finally been convinced to try for it. So, here he is, on his 'acting-jounin' mission for promotion. There is no Neji-Hinata pairing in this story. Nor in any story in this fic's universe. However, as the Hiashi clan is so interested in keeping the byakuugan 'in the family,' they often force their children to marry thier cousins, so Hiashi-san is suggesting Neji as a candidate. Hinata, however... has her own plans. (Hmm... I really do hope to write that side story, some day, although I doubt it'll be as well developed as this one when it comes right down to it. At least, I'd have to do a lot more work to develop it as well... we'll see) I've decided to re-order my chapters a little bit, because I decided that I didn't really need to put the next two chapters I was planning to put in here after all (and that little scene at the end with Hana took care of what I was planning to do for one chapter, anyway -- getting Sakura to move in with Naruto on a permanent basis). Also, after that... rather dramatic ending I wound up writing (something I wasn't intending to write just yet), I figured I'd better speed things up a bit. So, next chapter... Sasuke makes his first appearance, and Sakura finds her commitments tested. Oh... and the rating will be boosted to 'M' next chapter, since now allows M rated fanfics in their C2s. So, adjust your filters appropriately. Special note: The 'net was down on my end last night, so I couldn't post it. Therefore, I'm posting it this morning... but don't expect another post until last night, so I can get the schedule 'reset' to where it should be. Besides, the next chapter is leaning towards a longer chapter (not a double length, I don't think, but we'll see).