Mostly my attempt to kill my writer's block. Not to be taken particularly seriously.
"So how's our boy?"
Tsunade leaned back in her plush chair casually, at ease now that Kakashi's mission report had concluded. S-ranked information was always hell on the nerves, especially when it concerned the machinations of their not-so-friendly neighbors. And while her favorite blond was also hell on her nerves, she doubted he had done anything to jeopardize the integrity of their border by creating an international incident.
He hadn't managed it for over five months, she told herself, pushing the thought to the back of her mind with practiced ease.
"About the same as when you last saw him, Hokage-sama," Kakashi said, single eye squinting with humor. "Although he's reading a bit more these days."
A bit more meant that the boy was bothering to read anything at all. "Do tell."
The silver-haired jonin cocked his head to the side. "Mostly history and politics. I think Jiraiya-sama helped pique his interest."
Thank god he's not reading those damn Icha-Icha novels then. "He reads history now? I'm beginning to think he's nothing like when I last saw him."
Kakashi's eye tilted upward in a smile. "Mostly history on the Great Clan Days. Primarily the Uchiha clan but he branches out."
Tsunade's heart sank at the mention of the famed, nearly extinct clan. "And…does he still talk to himself?"
"Regularly," the jonin confirmed without missing a beat. He seemed utterly unconcerned with the troubling habit the blond had developed nearly three years previous. Although, given the man's propensity to blatantly read pornography in public, he likely wasn't all that perturbed by something as outwardly benign as the occasional conversation with oneself.
"He asked me to let you know he wants his promotion."
The blonde Hokage rolled her eyes, pulling herself from her mood. "So he's told me every time I've seen him for the past two years," she grumbled. Kakashi merely shrugged noncommittally, prompting honey colored eyes to narrow slightly. "You agree with him?"
The silver-haired jonin straightened almost imperceptibly – He's serious, Tsunade realized.
"I do, Tsunade-sama. He's exhibited all the qualities deemed necessary, his mission record is impeccable, and the men under his current charge both respect him and are loyal."
"He's still only sixteen…I hesitate to promote someone so young outside of wartime," Tsunade said, swiveling in her chair to face the window behind her, eyes locking on the faces of her predecessors.
"With all due respect, given the escalating tensions, wouldn't it make more sense to promote him early, rather than throw him into the fire if war breaks out?" Kakashi paused for a moment, seemingly weighing his words before, "And, in fairness, Hyuga Neji was promoted at the same age just last year."
With less experience and skill, Tsunade finished for herself, withholding a small smile at her lieutenant's line of questioning. Hiashi, of course, had been a driving force behind that promotion, something Kakashi either knew or strongly suspected. Naruto's been good for him, she realized – he'd come a long way from the aloof man he'd been when she had healed him three years before.
"He has your endorsement, then?" she asked needlessly.
"Wholeheartedly," Kakashi declared.
The Godaime sighed, rubbing her temples in what she knew to be a futile effort to forestall a headache. Talking of Naruto was supposed to calm her nerves, damnit. "I'm aware of my own hypocrisy in this, Kakashi. He was more than capable when he returned with Jiraiya six months ago. He should be promoted…"
"But a jonin's missions may cause him to be away from the village for extended periods of time with little backup, leaving him vulnerable to Akatsuki," her jonin finished. Tsunade merely nodded. She had only been comfortable letting Naruto leave the village for two years because she knew Jiraiya, despite being Jiraiya, had the clout and skill to ward off any attacks with his presence alone, never mind his skill. And she was only comfortable with him at the border because of the precautions they had put in place after the Konoha Crush three years ago; with the help of Jiraiya's fuuinjutsu, she or he could be at any of their borders in an instant – a safeguard the two of them hadn't let on to even the most highly skilled jonin.
In the field, leading missions as the ranking shinobi, Naruto wouldn't have that luxury or protection; and she couldn't in good conscience dedicate someone like Kakashi – another formidable jonin – to watch over him. It was both unfair to Naruto and an unacceptable waste of village manpower in what was becoming an increasingly tense international climate.
And yet, Kakashi's arguments were sound – she had made them to herself six months ago, before throwing her favorite blond a half-assed carrot and a dead-end assignment to keep him busy while things outside their borders developed.
"I'll call Jiraiya back," she decided out loud. "He'll be here by the time Naruto's assignment ends and we'll decide on a course of action. Until then, you're officially on leave, Kakashi. You trained him for a year and a half and I want your input."
"Of course, Hokage-sama."
Kakashi took his leave in a silent flurry of leaves, leaving Tsunade to gaze upon her predecessors in silence.
Fire Country's northwestern border was as close to barren as Fire Country got. While both Lightning and Wind Country had harsher climates than Earth Country, the distance from Konoha's outpost to Earth's border was comparatively tiny. Only twenty miles of neutral Grass country land stood between Konoha and their most hated rival.
"Maaa, I'm so bored," Naruto groused, uncaring of how close he was to hostile territory. He normally wouldn't let such sentiments outside of his thoughts – complaining about boredom was no way to keep annoyed chunin motivated for border duty – but there was no one around to hear him.
"You're bored? Please, tell me more." Well, no one he cared about hearing him, at least.
Naruto just rolled his eyes. "You mean you don't get enough entertainment from tormenting the ever-living shit outta me, teme?"
Sasuke's glare likely would've burned hotter than Amaterasu were it tangible. Naruto continued blithely, "I just wish Baa-chan would hurry up and promote me outta here. I got things to do, man!"
"Running around Konoha trying to get Sakura to talk to you?" the Uchiha sniped.
The words hurt like a punch to the gut. Never mind that that's exactly what he had done for the few weeks he had been in Konoha after returning with Jiraiya from a year abroad. "She's had some more time," he protested weakly.
"Give it up, dobe," Sasuke said, not unkindly, but with the exasperation of one who had had the same argument far too many times. "If a year abroad didn't change her mind another six months won't have done anything."
"You came around eventually."
The Uchiha snorted. "Not like I had much of a choice. She doesn't have the misfortune of being with you every day."
"Exactly!" Naruto crowed. "Maybe once I'm jonin I'll get Baa-chan to put her on my team –"
"You really want her around for the types of missions we're planning to take? Or have you forgotten the plan?"
The blond visibly deflated. "As if you'd let me forget," he muttered.
"Good. Even you, with your over-inflated idea of how strong she is, know she can't handle what we can."
"Yeah I know. I just wish things were different, ya know?"
Sasuke barked a laugh. "Do I ever, dobe," he said, all bitterness.
The duo lapsed into familiar silence. Naruto, lounging on a thin tree branch, took the time to close his eyes and let his chakra reach out into the wilds of nature. Much as he wasn't a fan of meditating, both Jiraiya and old man Fukasaku had stressed the need for it daily if he ever wanted to get a handle on Senjutsu. Jiraiya's one and only demonstration of the art had left the blond very much wanting to get a handle on Senjutsu, so he meditated.
Fukasaku had bandied about terms that Naruto couldn't be bothered to understand when he had instructed the blond. Jiraiya, per usual, had managed to distill the essence of what needed to be done rather simply.
"Basically, you sit still, shut up, feel your chakra flow, and listen to everything going on around you. Absolutely everything, gaki. You'll get it eventually. Oh, and if you start to feel like you're turning into a toad, stop."
Naturally, that wasn't quite the extent of learning how to tap into the massive well that was nature, but it was as good a starting place as any. He had made some strides in the months since returning from his training with Jiraiya, but it had been put somewhat on the backburner in favor of more tangible things like running a border outpost and making sure Saskue didn't try to get him killed.
His breathing evened out as he sunk into the flow of his own chakra, perfectly balanced on the thin branch, and he opened himself to the world around him. His heartbeat sounded like a distant, calming drum in his ears. An ocean of cool, blue chakra welled up inside of him greeted his senses, and he felt his lips twitch into a smile at the comforting feel of his own life's essence. Deeper into his coils he plunged, swimming through seas of blue before brushing against the seemingly never ending well of pure hatred that felt like an open sore to his mind. Hello to you too, fur ball.
Drawing his mind out of his own coils, he greeted the world. Behind him was Sasuke's chakra, so close that it was nearly draped over him. Further away, a group of what he assumed were birds chattered away in a nearby tree. To his senses, the forest floor was blanked by a sea of miniscule chakra signatures – insects – each of them too small for his not yet fully attuned mind to distinguish.
Distantly, he felt the ground shift as four human-like signatures made a beeline for a position less than twenty meters to his right, a large swell of chakra taking shape behind them. Wait…that's not right, he realized.
Onyx eyes snapped open. "We've got company," Naruto declared.
"Finally noticed that, did you?" Sasuke snarked, but the clear undercurrent of excitement in his tone spoke volumes.
Paying his friend no mind, Naruto blurred to his right, dropping to the ground in a seamless shunshin that perfectly intersected the running shinobis' trajectory. The blond channeled chakra to his eyes, and the world around him sharpened into inhuman clarity. Don't think I'll ever get used to that.
The thought was discarded as soon as it appeared, eyes flickering about and taking stock of the four leaf headbands on the team that was sprinting right at him. Behind them, the massive maw of a dragon made from pure earth loomed, chunks of mud and tree roots alternatively flying off and forming up as it closed on the running team.
Doton: Doryudan, the blond deduced in a moment. Ox – rabbit – monkey – Raikiri!
White lightning leapt to his outstretched palm with the sound of a thousand chirping birds, and Naruto exploded forward. Arm extended, the blonde impacted the kinetic force of the earth jutsu with a crash and a manic grin as the lightning cutter sliced cleanly through the dragon like a hot knife through butter.
Earth parted like water as Naruto blasted his way through the offending jutsu, coming out of his body flicker at its tail end to come face to face with a pretty, teenaged girl garbed in Iwa fatigues. Pupil-less pink eyes met Sharingan red for less than an instant before being averted, and Kurotsuchi grinned.
"Thought you'd be outta here by now, Uzumaki. What's the matter? Hokage-no-baa-chan still doesn't wanna promote you?" she asked snidely, tossing close-cropped hair off her forehead with a cocky flick of her head.
"This bitch," the blond heard Sasuke grumble.
"Maa, nice to see you too, Kuro-chan," Naruto returned flatly, regretting the day he had ever referred to Tsunade as "baa-chan" in front of his counterpart. "Why you attacking my men, hmm?"
"What're a few jutsu between cordial neighbors?" Kurotsuchi asked, casually buffing her nails against her flak vest. "Figured they might wanna get home a bit quicker so I gave 'em some, ah, incentive."
Naruto just narrowed his eyes, searching her face with his heightened perception. They flickered over her pink pupils, sparkling with a malicious mirth, tracing down to her slightly too-sharp chin, finding nothing amiss. Not tell. She's not lying? he thought.
"Don't be so sure," Sasuke cautioned over his shoulder.
You think it's a trap?
Good point. Next move?
He could hear the anticipatory grin in Sasuke's voice. "Spring the trap."
"Well that wasn't very nice of you," Naruto said, blinking once and cutting the chakra flow to his eyes, dispelling the famed dojutsu.
No sooner had the red from his eyes faded then his senses went haywire. The world suddenly turned upside down as a high pitched whine echoed in his ears and reverberated through his skull, nearly forcing the blond to his knees.
"Told you, idiot," Sasuke chided, even as a tendril of his purple-ish chakra shot through Naruto's system like an arrow, ending the genjutsu as suddenly as it began. He came to his senses with a flush of chakra to his eyes and a shake of his head, just in time to realize he was falling into a crater.
Naruto threw his hands forward, twin bursts of wind chakra exploding from his palms propelling him backward in mid-air. He impacted the back wall of the crater and immediately stuck to it with chakra. Glancing down, the Sharingan bled back into his eyes and he felt his eyebrows rise when he couldn't see the bottom of the pit that had been created underneath him. Someone used a lot of chakra.
"Don't lose focus," Sasuke said as a shadow suddenly blocked out the sun. Looking up, Naruto grimaced as he beheld a series of boulders rapidly falling toward him.
"It's always a trap," the blond grumbled, launching himself off the wall with an explosion of chakra. He flipped himself in mid-air, cushioning his feet with pinpoint chakra control as he landed upside down on the first falling boulder before it entered the crater. He didn't waste a moment before vaulting himself back to solid ground.
"She's pretty good," Sasuke commented idly, and the blond was forced to strafe to his left to avoid a massive glob of beige something that hurtled out of nowhere. The amorphous glob flew through his peripheral vision before sticking to a nearby tree trunk and melting its way through it. "You probably don't want to get hit with that, dobe."
"Your tactical input isn't appreciated, teme!" Naruto clasped his hands in a tiger seal, channeled his chakra, and felt the air in his lungs get superheated. He reared back and let loose a titanic dragon of his own made entirely of flame at his foe, a combination of smoke and haze following in its wake.
Visibility low, Naruto pumped chakra to his eyes and fell back into his training with Kakashi. Tomoe spinning, the blond zeroed in on Kurotsuchi's chakra signature as the world faded to blues, grays, and black. Mind working in overdrive, Naruto blasted forward in a shunshin, intercepting the Iwa kunoichi's path out of the kill zone less than a full second later.
A cross shaped seal brought a Kage Bunshin to life that hung back while Naruto slid in to sweep Kurotsuchi's legs from her blind spot. Not wasting a moment, the clone leapt forward when the Iwa girl reflexively hopped over the sweep, tackling her bodily and taking her to the ground with a muted thump.
The two rolled, grappling almost blindly until the clone managed to leverage itself upwards, pinning the smaller kunoichi under him and bringing a hastily drawn kunai to her throat. Naruto halted a few meters away, wary, keeping watchful eyes on his cornered foe.
Kurotsuchi merely grinned up at the clone restraining her. "Gonna kill me, are ya?" she asked, at ease.
"What the fuck is this about?" The clone refused to budge. "Attacking my men is an act of war. Think the Tsuchikage's gonna be happy about you taking pot-shots for shits and giggles?"
"Oh, I'm sure gramps will understand." She licked her lips before reaching both hands around and threading them through the now very tense clone's hair. "Maybe I'm just tryna' get to know you better, hmm?"
"I take back my earlier statement; she's very good," Sasuke said, all amusement.
Enough outta you! "Oi! Enough of that! Answer the damn question!" Naruto burst out.
She turned her head, paying no heed to the knife at her throat, locking eyes with the blond who wasn't pinning her, grin still firmly in place; her eyes danced with muted laughter, completely at ease in the embrace. "Why so serious, Uzumaki? Or are ya feeling a bit left out over there?"
Naruto didn't have time to form a suitably indignant response before his senses prickled at the feeling of incoming chakra signatures. Four Iwa shinobi surrounded the trio in the time it took him to realize he'd been played, weapons drawn. "Stand down in the name of the Tsuchikage!" a burly, flat-nosed man commanded. "Release her immediately!"
"You're always just in time to spoil all the fun, Akatsuchi," Kurotsuchi crowed. "Had him right where I wanted him."
Akatsuchi didn't bother responding, choosing to keep his glare trained on Naruto. The blond tried to hold the Iwa-nin's stare, but the man quickly dropped his eyes to Naruto's chest. He sighed quietly and dispelled the clone in a puff of smoke.
Kurotsuchi bounced to her feet and sauntered over to her flat-nosed compatriot, casually leaning against the much larger man. "Seems we've got ya at a disadvantage here, blondie. Your move."
Naruto just smiled placidly as four more ninja suddenly burst into the clearing, each wearing friendly, Konoha fatigues. "Taichou! We got word of hostiles!" a dark haired chunin burst out.
The blond just held up his hand to desist. "No worries over here, Gendo. Seems we've reached an impasse," he directed at the Iwa contingent.
"That wasn't smooth," Sasuke stated plainly.
Shut it, bastard.
Kurotsuchi smirked. "Guess so." She sighed theatrically. "Let's get outta here, boys. All the fun's ruined."
The four Iwa men leapt to the trees without hesitation, moving north toward the border. The lone kunoichi lingered for a moment. "Good luck with that promotion, Uzumaki," she said, all sarcasm, tossing him a wink before she too jumped into the surrounding trees.
Naruto let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, running a hand through his hair. "Close one," he breathed.
"Sure you didn't want it to be a bit closer?"
"I said shut it, Sasuke," Naruto bit out.
"They gone, boss?" the dark-haired chunin asked.
"Yeah, they're outta range now. Good work, boys," the blond commended. All four shinobi snapped quick salutes and disappeared in identical plumes of smoke.
Naruto let himself fall back to the ground unceremoniously. Head resting on the forest floor, he dug his palms into eyes that were onyx once more and let out a long, tortured groan.
"Got played pretty bad."
"Yeah, I got that."
"Even by your standards of stupidity."
"Your input, as always, is much appreciated. Do you have anything actually useful to add, teme? Like why the fuck she'd create and international incident for no fucking reason?"
Sasuke didn't miss a beat. "You think Tsunade is going to declare war over a tiny skirmish? Use your head for once. To Iwa, you're an unknown in charge of Konoha's border with them."
"A test," Naruto said, groaning again. And now they had the beginnings of a scouting report on him. In a world where information was key, any potential intel on foreign shinobi was highly coveted. It didn't matter that he'd basically come out on top. Iwa had their info, and he would end up looking shortsighted. "God damn it."
"On the bright side, it's not like Tsunade has anything to hold over your head for looking like an idiot."
"Do you enjoy torturing the shit outta me, asshole?" Naruto asked, resigned. "Oh wait, I know you do." Distantly, the sound of reinforcements crashing through the trees from the outpost reached his ears. Just in time to be late to the action.
"To my eternal shame, you killed me, dobe. Amusing myself at your expense is the least you owe me."
The original idea for this came from DLP user meev, some time ago. As of now, this is a fun little venture for me to come back to now and again. Hope y'all enjoy.