"Death suits you."
Hinata laughed lightly as she gripped the arm of her dear friend, both sitting on the dock looking out to the ocean. She almost didn't believe he was here and the surroundings were so picturesque she could be forgiven for thinking this was a figment of her imagination, her mind fulfilling the longing for the price she paid for her freedom. It didn't have to be him, it could have been Hanabi-chan or one of her teammates. She missed them all and sometimes wished there was a version of her that could have been true to herself and remained in the village.
Konoha was stifling. The Hyuuga were restrictive. She could barely breathe and serving Orochimaru had hardly been a significant burden compared to the demands of being an heiress and daughter to a broken man too proud to admit it. She needed to be unshackled but it was an exchange; one's whose consequences stayed with her daily. She wasn't unhappy, quite the opposite but she still missed those she'd come to care for and the lonely boy that could will himself to do the impossible would always have a special place in her heart.
She discreetly noticed the ring on his finger so didn't need to ask about his status. She had won, that was clear. But he wasn't shocked to see her alive so she must have divulged their deal which didn't sound like the Orochimaru she knew. Not that she could claim to be an expert on the woman.
"I didn't take you as one for gallows humor, Naruto-kun," Hinata observed after her moment of contemplation. He beamed at her, that blinding smile that could melt all but the most ardently unreasonable, which included most of Konoha to Hinata's mind.
"I have my moments. But you do look good, Hinata; lighter."
"A part of me thought you'd be angry, all of you would if you knew."
"I can't speak for the others, their relationship to the village is so different from mine but I understand needing to leave. I almost did, several times. How could I fault you for doing the same?" She squeezed his arm a little more. She hadn't been looking for absolution but his words still moved her. Theirs was an odd friendship, so short and yet they seemed to get each other. In another life, who knows what that could have become?
"You seem happier, too," Hinata responded and he nodded as he wore a goofy smile.
"Orochi-chan and I were supposed to be on our honeymoon but got called away and I'm going to be a dad soon, how cool is that? And I have a goddaughter, Mirai-chan. Well, Shika, Shino and I all share godfather duties but I'm going to be the favorite. Kurenai-sensei keeps forbidding me from teaching her high level techniques too soon as if I'd have her whipping S-rank genjutsu at nine or something," Naruto rambled.
Hinata quirked her brow as she'd seen how he trained himself and he was not one for restraint, which she pointed out. Naruto laughed and scratched the back of his head but couldn't deny the charge. He shared stories of his travels with Jiraiya, of his time back in the village and most importantly, at least to Hinata, that he'd be assigned to Hanabi as her elite trainer.
"My father is allowing this?" she asked in genuine shock.
"Unless Hanabi has an alternate means of earning money, I'm pretty sure he's doing more than allowing it cuz I don't come cheap," Naruto joked. "Anyway, yes, he's supporting Hanabi's ambitions. Losing you changed him and the guilt is making him proactive."
"Guilt?" Hinata asked. She may have a low opinion of Hiashi but not so much to erase his humanity entirely but she hadn't expected he'd feel guilty. She figured he'd see it as proof he was right.
"Yea. I won't claim to understand him to any significant degree but I think people become so unaware of the limits of the status quo that any deviation feels like a grand rebellion so they try to stop it, especially in their children. But when you lose that child you realize the real earth shaking change isn't them being different from what you expect but them no longer being there. In the two people I've seen this in they were both fathers mourning the loss of daughters and kicking themselves for learning their lessons too late."
"So, he can finally change after he thinks I'm dead? What am I supposed to do with that?" she asked heatedly.
"No idea," Naruto answered honestly. "I've had many people try to advise me on how I should feel about the village, about the Sandaime, about my life. They all meant well but could only understand my perspective so much. If how you feel doesn't blind you to everything else then it really isn't anyone's business."
"He gaslit me for most of my childhood, without the outside training I received I would have believed I was worthless. I'm happy Hanabi-chan won't have to endure that but I can't forgive him for being a bastard when I needed my father." Naruto said nothing as he leaned into her. Not liking the shift in mood, Hinata resolved to change it and the subject. She found it easy as she recalled an important detail he shared.
"Boy or girl?" she asked.
"Dunno yet, I have to wait a few more weeks and it has been torture," he said dramatically.
"Poor thing," Hinata said as he chuckled. "Do you have a preference?"
"Not strongly but if I had to pick I think I'd want a girl," he answered, surprising Hinata. A fact she admitted to.
"I thought all men wanted sons for their legacies and to carry their names forward."
"Seems like a lot of weight to put on a child," Naruto said and Hinata could tell for the briefest moment he was somewhere else, a place she couldn't reach. It felt inappropriate to ask, the question was one only the closest of friends could pose without offense. She wasn't that, not anymore. "I think I'd rather just let my legacy be my work and deeds and let my kid create their own, whatever it may be."
"That sounds nice, Naruto-kun. It really does."
"How'd you wind up in Nami?" Naruto asked, shifting topics again.
"Oh, well long story short is that while my freedom is great I started getting bored so after leaving Oto I took up bounty hunting."
"How was it?"
"Lucrative but with my Byakugan and archery skills it's sorta like cheating for anyone below a mid A-rank threat."
"Fair fights are for losers anyway." Naruto held his first out and Hinata dapped it.
"Anyway, while wandering I heard about the bridge with the most familiar name and decided to visit the people who would name a landmark after you. There were endless stories about the tiny redhead with the heart of a lion, facing off against Gato and his army of thugs. The bridge builder's grandson idolizes you. The bridge builder… not so much," Hinata joked.
"He's probably still a little raw about my almost killing him."
"You'd be amazed at how personally civilians take that."
"It's almost as if they don't endure it often. Buncha chumps," Naruto quipped.
"Whimps," Hinata added. Her companion's laughter warmed her soul.
"You should stop staring at me, it's bad for the baby," Tsunade said to her best friend. She knew the woman was mad, understood why but it was necessary and being glared at wouldn't resolve anything. However, her words had zero effect so the two women continued to stare at each other, both recognizing it'd moved past an expression of annoyance and settled into a juvenile challenge between the leader of the village and an expectant mother. Tsunade blinked first and saw a flash of a smile.
"You sent me to Kiri and I had to waste time with that insufferable trollop for no reason. You know where I was yesterday?"
"On your honeymoon," Tsunade replied.
"On a private beach. Sun, sand, waves; the whole bit. Do you know what Kiri has?"
"A large collective of people you'd never want oral sex from?" the Godaime asked but was ignored by the snake summoner.
"Mist. And worse still, Kiri ninja. You know how I feel about Kiri ninja, Tsunade-chan."
"It was necessary," the Hokage justified.
"It was necessary," Orochimaru mocked, which surprised Tsunade as that was not her brand of humor. Her reaction was noticed by Orochimaru. "Blame the baby," she said. Orochi then explained why the negotiations failed. Tsunade agreed with her fellow Sannin's decision as she'd never allow herself to be that compromised by a rival village.
"She couldn't have expected you'd actually take the job. Maybe she wanted to stay neutral but wanted us to refuse so there would be no hard feelings," Tsunade tried to reason. It made a certain amount of sense and if Kiri were neutral that was better than the alternative.
"Oh, she'd have likely agreed to anything if I'd let her have a run at Naruto. Auburn-haired whore," Orochi spat.
"I mean, for the good of the village maybe-"
"Don't finish that sentence, Tsunade."
"Ok, ok, ok. It was just a joke. We'll consider the Kiri matter settled pending new information. Where is Naruto by the way?"
"He went to see about a bridge," Orochi answered. Tsunade waited for additional information but it never came. Orochi took it upon herself to press on, "I want your authorization to create some contingencies for when Iwa and Kumo betray us."
"What kind of contingencies?" Tsunade asked. She didn't know why she asked the question when she knew the answer. Maybe she was hoping Orochi would buy into her attempt at peace, to accomplish something not even her grandfather could achieve.
"Things cannot remain as they are," Orochi replied. "Ay unleashed the spirit of revolution amongst his ninja. They no longer dream of a world where Konoha is defeated but one where we do not exist. Onoki waits and plans but even the Fence-sitter can see what you refuse to accept; the age of the Gokage is coming to an end."
"And I won't accept it. The three wars previous were bloody enough and what you're suggesting," Tsunade didn't finish her thought but she knew her fellow Sannin took her meaning. A war that required total victory to end would only produce losers. Severely weakened, the smaller villages would pick them off unless they were forced to take sides from the start. Death on a scale no living ninja has ever seen.
"You assume you'll have a choice in the matter. Fate is rarely so kind, Tsunade-chan."
"Fate can go fuck itself, then. A war waged due to a deadman's obsession, I refuse."
"It amazes me that I understand people better than you. There is not one person that enters a shinobi academy that doesn't dream of being greater than they ever thought possible. Most don't achieve it, they settle in the middle and yet still brimming within them is a piece of divinity. I, too, once felt imprisoned by my own limitations and sought to ruthlessly free myself from them. To be an agent of change that could direct the course of history.
No matter how much you want to, no matter how much you hate it, you cannot stop what's coming. Nor, it should be said, can you blunt its aftermath."
"Foolishness and empty ambitions will damn us all. Is that what you're telling me?" Tsunade said in defeated acceptance. It was uncomfortable how small it felt. A conflict not spurred by having too little but for the sake of having more.
"Change is natural, Tsunade-chan. We've stood in the way of it for a hundred years but it was always a losing battle. If you refuse to embrace change then you will be damned. If you accept it then who knows but you don't believe Darui and Onoki will abide by that treaty so what's the harm in being prepared? I can leave yo-"
"No. I'm not Sensei. If you're doing this for Konoha then I'll be aware of every step. Just… whatever we come up with we only target enemy combatants. Almost anything else can be discussed but that is mandatory."
"Kukuku, I can work with that."
"You have thoroughly ruined my mood, Orochi-chan and since that brat knocked you up you can't even drink with me. Blah," the Godaime complained.
"Don't be so mean, Tsunade nee-chan," Orochi said, projecting pure innocence.
Hinta clung tightly to their shared embrace. They shared stories and laughs and a silence too comfortable, and to her mind, too intimate for something they could never be. The signs had been clear, her time with Naruto was coming to an end. It was selfish of her to wish for more time. But Hinata had long come to the conclusion she was selfish. Faking her death, leaving the heiress position for Hanabi, the long letter she wrote to Naruto had all been selfish acts. She wanted freedom, a clear conscience and to not be forgotten.
She still recalled what she wrote, apologizing for not only spying but greedily borrowing his strength without ever giving anything in return. Even as a child, lonely but driven, he was an example for her. He managed the impossible and it made her believe she could achieve the improbable. When she doubted herself, doubted working for Orochimaru it wouldn't be long before Naruto did something to restore her faith.
He deserved more than her guilt-ridden ramblings but as she believed that would be their last communication, it was all she had. And yet, fortune smiled upon her and now her dear friend was in her arms. The kunai he'd gifted her, the significance apparent to her before he promised he'd be there for her if she ever needed him, was another boon born of her greediness. That the wrong thing kept netting her what she wanted made Hinata wonder if that's how Orochimaru got started.
"Hey, you ok?" she heard Naruto ask and she didn't know how to answer it. She loved her freedom but missed Hanabi and her friends dearly. She wished life didn't take more than it gave, she wished things could have been different. A reality where she found a place in the village, kept with her friends and watched Hanabi grow.
"Just lamenting wasted time… We could have been friends much sooner if I'd done things differently," her response earned a chuckle.
"You know, there were days where I got so frustrated with my lack of progress or the loneliness became deafening and I just wanted to quit. But, I don't know, I just always got this feeling someone was watching over me, maybe even pulling for me and now knowing what I know, I'd like to think that person was you. I guess what I'm saying is, Shika and Shino are my best friends but I think you were my first even if no one understands it but us. I'm alright with that."
It was Hinata's turn to laugh as she fought back tears, "I'm alright with that, too."
"I will kill you." Jiraiya appeared confused, though not actually threatened by his fellow Sannin's words. Karin and Tayuya couldn't fault the man as while somewhat condescending, the statement was otherwise innocuous. What Jiraiya couldn't know, having just returned to the manor, was Orochimaru was in a bit of a mood. The two Uzumaki knew the warning signs but when she demanded, in a clipped tone no less, that Naruto go shower and change because he reeked of her they knew they had to tread lightly. Jiraiya knew none of this but both doubted it would have mattered; he didn't seem the type to walk on eggshells.
"Because I'm surprised you can cook? Isn't that an overreaction? An extreme overreaction?" he asked across the island.
"Stab you in your liver. Quarter turn forward, quarter turn back, quarter turn forward and pull. Then, you'll be dead." Orochi said as she continued to thinly slice daikon for pickling.
"Naruto would save me, I'm his beloved Godfather."
"He's in the shower and I'd burn your body."
"Fire suppressant seals would prevent that," Jiraiya pointed out.
"Then I'd drag your corpse out back and do it there," she spat as the grip on her knife tightened.
"And risk Naruto's garden? Don't think so," the Toad Sage said with a knowing smirk. To the surprise of Karin and Tayuya, it didn't seem to annoy Orochi or anger her further as she continued.
"I'll feed you to Manda."
"He doesn't actually eat people."
"He'd make an exception."
"For meat this tough? Doubt it."
"Pocket dimension. I'll put you in a pocket dimension," Orochi responded as she laid her knife against the cutting board and exited the kitchen. The three that remained were quiet until she was out of earshot but once it was safe, Jiraiya laughed. When he saw the confusion on their faces he laughed more before explaining.
"With Tsunade, you let her explode. It'll be violent but it'll be quick. With Orochi, you give her something to churn at so she can work through how she's feeling. Either way, tiptoeing around them won't do you any good because neither is great at self-soothing so they'll just stay mad."
"You're pretty smart for an old fuck," Tayuya complimented.
Orochi arrived at her room just as Naruto was exiting their bathroom, towel wrapped around his waist. He smiled at her as he sat on the bed. She sat beside him and breathed in, delighted that her former subordinate's taint had been removed. She didn't like him smelling of another woman, especially not that one in particular. She was fond of Hinata, all told, but knew the girl was capable of getting ideas in her head.
"For the record, it was a hug," Naruto said. Orochi looked at him in disbelief.
"Did she hug you for the entire time you were there?" He laughed as he scratched the back of his head, a tell he hadn't rid himself of. She narrowed her eyes but softened them just as fast. She knows her husband, knows he isn't fickle nor easily swayed. She inched closer, the chill from having recently exited the shower rapidly being replaced by his natural warmth.
"I'm frustrated," she admitted. "Today has been a study in aggravation."
"That's understandable," he said. "We should still be on the beach, our only worries being what we were going to do for the day."
"Sounds nice," she admitted. "We'll have to go back someday."
"Oh shit!" he exclaimed. "It was supposed to be a surprise but we can totally go back whenever we want since we own it. I had a whole thing planned but… yea, we own a small island near Moon Country."
"Even for you that'd be prohibitively expensive, Naruto-kun."
"It would be if I'd paid for it but the King gave it to me for saving his and his son's life. Between the two, I couldn't tell you which was more of a petulant brat."
"I feel like there's a story here," she said but Naruto shook his head.
"Honestly, not really. Jiraiya was getting obnoxious about needing a break so we went to Moon Country for a little respite. I uncovered a plot to overthrow the king. It wasn't even that involved, it took me like an afternoon. Instead of fleeing the conspirators tried to attack me so I cut them down. All but the leader, Jiraiya half-drunkenly hit the leader with a Rasengan so got mutual credit for my work. Didn't even kill the guy. Can you imagine? Hitting someone with a Rasengan and they freaking live, shameful ass pervert. And the man was so trifling he accepted it!
Anyway, Jiraiya wanted something or other, I didn't pay attention as I was too annoyed but when the King asked me what I wanted I picked the island. He agreed as long as I didn't build a hotel on it."
"I don't think I'd believe that if it were told by anyone else." Naruto shrugged, he couldn't disagree. "I'm sorry, Naruto-kun."
"Huh?" he replied, intelligently.
"I was short with you when you returned," she explained.
"Oh! It's fine, Kurenai-sensei said your senses would be heightened. Who could be polite with a sudden bout of nausea?"
Orochi smiled. The last of her annoyance melting away. When Naruto stood up, presumably to get dressed, she grabbed his towel and pulled him back to bed making him fall to his back. She swiftly mounted him and brought her face down to his. "My problem with smelling Hinata on you had nothing to do with heightened senses, Naruto-kun." She did not expect him to chuckle and certainly hadn't predicted his response.
"I know," he said, his smile equal parts amusement and pride of having gotten one over on her.
"I'm going to get you back," she whispered, only causing his smile to widen.
"You promise?" he asked in faux innocence. No one was surprised when the couple didn't come down for dinner until an hour later.
Four Months Later
"Quickly but discreetly start moving the civilians and genin to the shelters," Darui ordered.
"Hai," answered Mabui as she departed in a shunshin. The Raikage tower was a flood in action, finely trained and well-honed ninja almost slipping into chaos. Plans were hastily being drawn and discarded. His Spec. Ops. Commander busily trying to find the right protection detail for Darui's journey and back in the office. And through the storm of activity, Darui had to project a calm he was not feeling.
In his Raikage robes, he strode through the village. One reason, to give his people confidence that nothing was wrong. Second reason, to give his ninja time. Time to collective themselves, time to prepare for the trial ahead. A third reason, to buttress his resolve. As countless people greeted him, Darui remembered why he'd done this. For so long, he'd felt out of step with his comrades and former leader. Whereas they thought Ay had the right idea but the wrong execution, he firmly believed both were mistaken. But Ay, for all his faults, knew how to inflame the passions of his people.
He played to their pride. He crafted a narrative. He promised them more. They were proud warriors long denied victory, conquerors long denied conquest. A Kage ruled absolutely but he still needed the consent of his people and as much as Darui wanted to cease the path they were on he knew it would have eroded his support. Without Kirabi and Yugito, they needed to be a united front. Steadfast. Resolute.
It meant he had to go against himself. He had to embrace the losses that were coming. He had to trust Onoki, something he was loathed to do. Most of all, he had to spin Konoha as the bane of their existence. The reason they hadn't reached their long promised glory. Darui wondered what Kumo's hostility toward Konoha must look like from the Hidden Leaf's perspective.
The Sandaime Hokage really wanted to build bonds and work together, something Ei hadn't seen the value in until late in life and something Ay would have never considered. Tsunade was less ambitious but more realistic, her aims could be summarized as, "Just leave us the fuck alone, sheesh," but the antipathy was bone deep. One ninja had come face to face with the A-B tag team and allowed them to leave in one piece. One man had stood above Ei, a killer of twenty thousand ninja over a three day period.
Konoha's existence mocked Kumo. Their victories, their prodigies, their lush surroundings. Most every Kumo ninja found the Hidden Leaf offensive. They shared stories of a village too solicitous of their civilians. Too soft, barely functioning like a military installation. They weren't ninja in the right way and yet they were always saved by their prodigies. It was no secret that every Hidden Village thought Konoha was top heavy but on a ninja to ninja basis, Iwa and Kumo produced superior results.
Darui hadn't shared that opinion, or felt it moot but culture wouldn't be changed in a day. "Raikage-sama!" he heard a young voice call out and he waved at the young resident while he sensed his protection team coalesce around him. The crispness of the air and the brilliance of the sun briefly entered his mind. Kumo was hard but it was beautiful and it was his to protect.
He made his final approach to the front gate, dozens of Jounin and Black Ops. ninja hiding, tense but disciplined as the gate guards stood confused. Darui walked past them and welcomed their visitor. "You honor us with your presence, Uzumaki Naruto-san."
"Yo, 9-0 brought back the Mighty 8 and Miss 2; fool ya fool" Kirabi said from the Konoha Jinchuuriki's back. Darui wondered why Kirabi hadn't taken the initiative to stab the boy in the back and save them all some trouble. He looked at the Uzumaki's attire, white pants and shirt with a red obi around his waist. A long sleeved, white haori but no weapons visible and seemingly no armor. It was a bold, foolish choice.
"So, I see," Darui responded. "And what has motivated such a show of goodwill?"
"Godaime-sama called me to her office and said, "Naruto you, being of unparalleled temperament and discernment, go close our negotiations with Kumo and get a treaty signed." And being the loyal and obedient ninja I am, have come to do just that. I think you'll be amazed at what two people in a room can accomplish."
"Well, Kumo welcomes you. If you would follow me to my office." The Uzumaki followed along. Darui knew Kumo's best fuinjutsu artists would check over Kirabi and Yugito to make sure there were no seals on them, he would need them to be combat ready. There was no way he could allow the red-haired shinobi to leave Kumo alive.
One Chapter and maybe an epilogue to go! Stay safe and home during Thanksgiving, y'all.