Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.
The morning came cold and early. It had rained throughout the night, and I stood in the middle of a muddy road, pulling my cloak tight over my vest. The aftershock of the last day sat deep in my bones, but I had no time to explore the deluge of new feelings. I knew the pride. I knew the fear. The rest would sort itself out eventually.
"You wanted to see me, sir?"
I nodded to Haru. "I've got a mission that I can't trust anyone else with but you."
His face turned grave. The word Rokudaime lay heavy on his tongue, but he abided by the rules. "What is it, sir? I will see it done."
I gave him the scroll Shikamaru and I had worked on during the night. Haru reverently brushed his finger across the black twine that showed its S-rank.
"Get this either to Jiraiya or Tsunade," I said. "No one else. You're authorized to use whatever force you deem necessary to get it to them. Jiraiya might not be in Konoha. Tsunade definitely will be, though. Get it to one of them, then come back. Don't read it. Don't let anyone else read it. If someone tries to take it from you, knock them out. Hard and fast."
He secured the scroll. "I will, sir. I won't allow the mission to be compromised."
I clapped his shoulder. "By the time you're back, the castle will be ours. And . . . Haru?"
"While in Konoha, keep the Rokudaime thing to yourself. Consider this a secondary S-rank mission. I'll make sure you're compensated for both, so you can buy your kids something nice once the campaign is over."
I watched his retreating back as he hurried across the rutted path. It was a gamble to send Haru of all people to Konoha, but I counted on his zeal to make him shut up. Besides, this way I avoided him calling out an empire in my name next, or following me into battle and misguidedly taking a blow for me. He was one of the last people from my original squad still alive. For all the fervor he'd lately developed, I still remembered when he had told me about his daughter going to the Academy. It was bias, of course, but I wanted to keep him alive by whatever means I had.
Two hours later, I stood at the same spot from which I had observed Kumi Castle the first time around. Hidden by shrubs and trees, I looked out at the ruined village cozying up to the wall. Iwa's forces were depleted, Rōshi had been seen leaving for Waterfall, and I had Fū and her rebels bolstering our numbers. On paper, things looked stellar.
But the paper didn't reveal everything. Iwa-nin were mulish, stubborn bastards, hard of mind and as stony as the wasteland they came from. Even with reduced numbers they would give us one hell of a fight.
And I would only believe that Rōshi was gone when I had planted Konoha's flag on the castle's highest tower. That red-headed muscle monster had tricked me two times now. I wouldn't put it past him to try for a triple. He was a crafty old man, like Jiji had been, and you underestimated those geezers at your peril.
Which was beside the point that I still had Fū around.
Her troops were vital. She was also crazy enough to stab me in the back when I needed her the most. I was banking on her hate for Iwa. I could only hope that it outlasted her hate for me.
Shikamaru would keep an eye on her during the battle, ordered to do whatever was necessary should she turn sides. I also wouldn't split up my forces this time. I wanted everyone around me, where I could see them and, more importantly, reach them quickly.
When the time came, I lifted my hand to the sky, and a rustling swept through the lines behind me as shinobi and kunoichi got into position. A last, deep breath, to calm the blood thrumming in my body, then I let my arm fall back down and leapt out of hiding.
It was a frontal attack the likes of which shinobi usually saw very little of. No hidden agenda of loping around this time. No Genjutsu, no traps and ambushes like those I'd employed during recent raids. They were expecting them. Let them worry. Today we ran at the walls of Kumi Castle as a single thrust of Konoha's blade. One sweep at this country's artery, and Iwa would be bleeding out. It would be the most curative blood-letting this country could get.
And despite every calculation, every foresight of what could happen, I thought I had lost it when Iwa's blade answered in a swell of shinobi, who came vaulting over the castle walls, abandoning their position to meet us head-on. They had nothing to gain by leaving their defensive structures.
A shout came from my right, before a similar one was echoed on the left. We were on full collision course. Had they snuck troops around to take us by the flanks?
"Brace yourself! Hold fast!" I roared, calling up two clones. I vaulted onto their linked hands and let them catapult me into the sky. A flight of birds dispersed in panic as I turned amidst them, gaining height while searching for Rōshi. No matter where he had been sighted before, this had to be him.
I found him rushing at us from the woods west of the castle. He was taking big leaps, and the mud from all the rain played right into his hands. Wherever his feet touched the floor, a dragon's head rose from the sodden earth, grass-speckled and terrible, its chakra-enforced jaws open wide to send a barrage of house-sized bullets into our formation. I counted four, with two more on the rise. The control to keep all of them up struck me as insane. Was this the kind of ability granted to you by training your element for five decades?
Shikamaru's frantic orders down below organized our forces, though. Earthen walls rose to meet the mud bullets; fire and lightning shot out to send them veering off-course.
More shouts rose. I turned to my right flank while gravity pulled me back to earth. The tallest man I had ever seen came sprinting at us from the east. Even from up high I had the feeling he doubled me in height, and that without the large straw hat covering his face. He was trailing a giant cloud of steam behind him, his body armor glowing red, and the closer he got, the louder the noise surrounding him grew—a hissing, sputtering kind of sound, snakelike but mechanical, that rattled in my very bones.
I was halfway back to the ground when I truly sensed him, and knew who had come to face us alongside Rōshi. I had heard of Han, Iwa's second Jinchūriki. I had never thought to see him here, though.
My heart sank. Four Jinchūriki in one place. If ever there was a recipe for disaster, it was this. Would the Tenmen Treaty survive this day?
I looked down at the rapidly approaching ground. Shikamaru pointed east, where Fū was rushing out to meet Han. To fight or to unite with him? I couldn't say. I had no time for that kind of worry anymore. All the pieces were in place. Whether I had put them on the board the right way, only time would tell.
I landed with my feet secured in the hands of my clones. "I'll take Rōshi," I said to Shikamaru, then raised my voice so that everyone could hear, "Back to the wasteland with them! For Konoha!"
Standing on top of my clones, I threw off my cloak. The red and white tassels tied to my vest were whipping in the wind as the cries of my shinobi rose to answer my own.
Shikamaru was right. They had no second thoughts. Against all odds, they were with me. From the sound of it until the end of time.
And for a moment, for a tiny sliver of time, the horror of this war—the death, the sacrifice, the tears and screams—vanished from my mind, wiped away like dirt from Konoha's streets after a heavy summer rain. For this fleeting second, basking in their acceptance and the unequivocal respect they showed me, I felt glorious, as if my face too had already been immortalized in stone, and I would join my father now on his watch over the village.
Then my clones hurled me into the sky a second time, while below me and an army of myself went to assist my troops. If I wanted to survive the aftermath of this battle, and the impact of my clones, then I had to end all this as fast as possible. Right now it didn't feel like too much of a task. Right now, I was invincible.
Among the clouds, another clone spun me around, then sent me hurtling right into Rōshi's path.
They said luck favors the bold. If that was true, then I would make an entrance to knock that gal off her feet.
I shot toward Rōshi like an arrow, gathering wind around me, squeezing as much of it as I could into as small an area as possible and coating my very skin with it. The shearing force ignited the air in front of my eyes. Blood rushed in my ears. A whistling surrounded me, growing louder and shriller each moment. I gritted my teeth, then gave up, and my mouth opened in a scream that echoed in my head like a mad, distorted screech.
I hit the ground in front of Rōshi with enough force to send mud and grass flying up around us in a wide circle, leaving nothing but hard rock underfoot. Then the rock cratered. My feet sank deeper as the earth split underneath.
I raised my eyes. Rōshi was right in front of me, fist cocked back, fury stenciled in his face.
I let go of the wind.
The world took a deep breath and held it. There was a spark in front of me, as if I had struck two flints together—a tiny glimmer of contained force. Then, with a single, overwhelming boom, the wind blasted out of me, launching Rōshi away and leveling everything around him for two miles back. The dragon maws Rōshi had called to harangue my troops disintegrated and scattered, like ashes thrown into the sea. The tree line to the west collapsed with a rumble.
When it was over, I had left a cone-shaped swath of destruction in front of me. No mud, no vegetation, no rocks but the bare earth. That sound of unleashing the wind, I was sure, had been heard all the way to Konoha.
Rōshi was struggling to his feet. Volcanic stone encrusted half his body. The other half was crumbling off, revealing reddish and torn skin.
I was in front of him a split second later, lashing out with my leg. Still dazed, Rōshi did his best to fend off the violent air that struck at him with every new blow. One palm thrust sheared away the left side of his beard. Another cracked the armor around his knee, shredding away the skin underneath. He buckled and I set up for another hit, one that would knock him back on his ass for sure.
The people fighting behind me, the sheer weight of their sacrifice, drove me forward. They had given me the tassels, had put their hopes and dreams on my shoulders, saw me as Rokudaime, perhaps even more. Whatever my feelings about the matter, however illegally owned that title was, today I would rise to it, surpass it, and make sure that they were justified. They had earned nothing less, and there would be no stopping until I had won.
A memory crashed my early celebration. The clone had been speared on an earthen pike together with Miko, whom he had tried to protect—Miko, who just yesterday had thrown her red sleeve onto the stage, chanting Rokudaime at me.
I blinked, lost my rhythm. Then I was flying backwards, the cloud-streaked sky shooting by. I bounced, rolled, and found my stop.
Rōshi was there. Memories came. The dance continued.
It started to rain again.
I wiped my lips and spat out a wad of blood. My left eye was swollen shut, and I ached to my bones. The red tassel had been torn loose and lay buried somewhere in the mud. Rōshi, for all that, wasn't any better off. We had danced, every step a new act of violence, and we looked the part. As did the world around us. The rain had turned it into a disgusting, blood-soaked mess. Kumi Castle loomed behind us, impersonal and gray.
All that stuff that had ballooned in my chest earlier was gone, drowned in this soggy swamp like an unwanted newborn. History made flesh? Shouldering their sacrifice? I had no idea what had made me forget the horror of this war, but now I was living it again, every memory adding to the weight. So many faces, drawn in death. So many people who only hours ago had called me Rokudaime in absolute elation, and now lay dead in this godforsaken mud hell.
And for what?
I couldn't beat Rōshi. Not like this. Likewise, he couldn't beat me. Not like that. Without our Bijū we were truly equals, locked into a stalemate that would go on forever. A hysterical laugh threatened to burst out of me. How long was I supposed to stay in Grass, away from my family, losing man after man? Would Rōshi be my enemy for eternity now? He the castle, and I the battering ram?
I itched to give him a taste of the Kyūbi. If I brought my Bijū to bear, the earth around us would be left a bed of flaming rock, his body a pile of ash on top of it. Was he thinking the same? To go at it a last time and decide this futile fight for good?
I was gearing up for it. He was, too. The miasmic chakra became more present, tendrils of it licking at the air around us.
My thoughts turned more feral. Let him come. Let him try. I was tired of this. Of all the death. Of all the memories. Better end it here, and end it quick, and then be done with it. The Tenmen Treaty be damned. Anything would be better than this blackish dirt in my mind. Anything at all. A last uproar of color, an explosion of red where only ever darkening gray was lurking, and then all would be over. That was all . . . I was . . . All I wanted was to . . .
Shikamaru landed with a splash in the mud next to me. He had a bright red cut going from his ear to his chin.
His voice came to me through a dull haze. I didn't understand a word of it.
"What?" I asked, never taking my eyes off Rōshi. We would soon go at it. Both of us were ready. Both of us were . . .
"Iwa . . . routing. We . . . over three quarters of them. They're running . . . the hills. Fū . . . Han the whole time. I heard her laugh a few . . . been enjoying this." He was holding his side in pain.
"Iwa is . . . running away?"
He made an agreeing noise.
"Fū hasn't betrayed us?"
"The clans? Are the clans attacking us somewhere?"
He looked at me. "We won. On all levels, Naruto, we won."
How could I believe him? I had been dancing with Rōshi all this time, and there he still stood: not hale, not healthy, but well enough to go another round at least. No blow had really ended our fight. Even if the roars of happiness rising behind me were unmistakable, it couldn't be over, could it? I refused to believe that.
I stared at Rōshi.
Had I won, even though it didn't feel like victory? I heard cheers when I should have heard cries of agony and death. The world made no sense to me. How could they be happy? I had all this horror, this blackish waste, in my mind.
The next time I blinked, all I saw was Roshi's torn back, the blood-red, tattered remains of his armor hanging from his shoulders as he leapt away. I tried to follow, but my legs wouldn't let me, as if seeing his retreat had sucked the strength right out of them.
The battle had ended. Just like that. I kept glancing around, searching for another enemy. I clenched and unclenched my fists. I had all this pent-up frustration, all this anger that I wanted to unload on someone. My mind was racing ahead of me. I had been so close to tapping into the Kyūbi, so damn close. I glared at Shikamaru, willing him to understand, but he looked exhausted and content like the rest.
There had to be more to this. After all this time, winning couldn't possibly feel like this . . . this unsatisfying, empty anger gnawing at me as the cheers became louder and louder. The weight of death was supposed to be gone after victory. It was supposed to be replaced with different, happier feelings.
There had to be more. Was this really all it was? Just the same with different sounds, because death couldn't be unmade, regardless of how hard you strived, and the world would never let you forget that?
No matter where my eyes fell, everywhere I saw it: the victory, the raised fists, the exhausted grins; and below? what lay below all that? the crimson mud, the corpses, rained on by blood and water.
At my feet, the red tassel stuck in the mud, frayed at the sides. I sank to my knees, picking it up. Was that really all it meant, this dirty piece of red? The damn blood toll each Hokage paid for peace? I had always thought it was passion and the Will of Fire. Now I knew better. Everything had a cost—I had a thousand memories that told me so.
Squeezing the tassel in my hand, I looked at Shikamaru. Why wouldn't he understand? I was shaking on the ground, my hands, caked in dirt and blood, twitching as I was about to tear up. I stopped myself. I gripped my hand, trying to stop them from moving. This shouldn't happen in front of my men.
And yet even as I kept myself from breaking apart, I couldn't help but think that even Shikamaru didn't understand. Not fully, like I did now. Like Jiji, my father, and Danzō had.
I laughed. I was such a mess.
Behind me, the cheers became louder. They thought my laugh was a sign of happiness, that I was overtaken from our victory. First they chanted my name. Then they disobeyed their previous orders. Ro-ku-daime! it began to sound across the field, bouncing off the mighty walls of Kumi Castle. And again: Ro-ku-daime! And a third time, louder, as even the last ones to notice began to follow suit: Ro-ku-daime! Ro-ku-daime! Ro-ku-daime!
I rose to my feet. Fū stood in the masses, her arms crossed, her teal hair specked red. Her eyes were so knowing that I couldn't help but give her a nod. She understood. She knew what I had been thinking. She had been leading all that remained of her country for over a decade. How wouldn't she know?
Fū replied with a mocking smile devoid of any sympathy. She took a shallow bow and waved, as if to invite me to continue following her on her path. Another thought wormed itself into my head. How insane had Jiji been after all those decades? What kind of mental strength had he possessed to never even show it? How often had he lain awake at night, seeing the dead? And how often had he risen out of bed the next day, enduring and greeting the world with a smile? At this moment, nothing seemed more miraculous, nothing more otherworldly. Was that the true reason for his title? For why they had called him The God of Shinobi?
But what did that make me, the pretend-Rokudaime?
The front shifted after Iwa's loss. Grass now belonged to Konoha in its entirety, and what little was left of the clans had submitted after The Battle of Kumi Castle. The kid I'd saved during Iwa' black flag operation in the mountains led the envoy to negotiate the terms of their surrender. I should've been surprised, really. For one that Lady Kikou's healing had been potent enough to get him through, even though she'd had barely a few seconds to work on him before a knife took her apart. And then also that the clan heads would cower and send their youngest instead of their most experienced.
The kid proved shy and intimidated. He told me that he'd been unconscious while his fellow clansmen mounted their ambush, and that they sent him because they thought we had a rapport. I would've liked to tell him more about knives, as I had done the last time we met, but my duty as commander was to dictate Konoha's terms. Another distasteful act, carried out for the village.
"You'll open up Grass' food storages to Fire Country," I said, going down the list in my mind. No doubt the Fire Daimyo would add a nice bonus to Konoha's war chest in return, which would already be filled by a sizable amount of money extorted from the clans and civilians of Grass. The same would happen with any iron ore won in the mountains. "You will also open up your country and your clan archives to our cartographers, historians and analytic department, while informing and placating your civilians."
A thankless job, for sure. His expression showed how little he liked the terms, but his confidence had been another casualty of the war. Konoha, so the message, would be a benevolent tyrant if her demands were met. As the messenger, however, I felt not benevolent but as though I was putting my boot on the back of a kid who had already been lying face-down in the muck.
After he accepted the terms, I led the boy back to the camp's entrance, where the rest of the clan heads had been waiting under strict supervision.
I thought about what to say before sending him over. The terms were harsh but clear. Apologizing for them would be nothing but a hollow gesture, an act to soothe my hurt conscience.
I looked the kid over. He was in over his head, a mouse who had been sent to deal with a lion. It would have been like sending my Genin-self to negotiate with the Tsuchikage.
I said, "Your people fought and lost, and nothing you could have said or done would have changed the terms today. But just by being the one at the table with me, you've proven that you got more courage in you than any of these geezers over there. Keep that courage. Become strong. Rise to the top of the clans, like Kikou did. Maybe if you do, Grass will make it through this storm. If it's you, there's hope. Good luck."
I watched him go.
On paper, Danzō's last mission to me had become a full success. I never even had to ask for more troops from the Brass.
The paper could burst into flames for all I cared.
The second part of the plan was enacted soon after. I ordered Shikamaru to stay with half our forces and fortify our position. In the meanwhile, I took the other half and went with Fū to Waterfall. Iwa's troops were in utter disarray. The news of Rōshi's and Han's defeat had destabilized all their efforts. Who could blame them? If the pillars crumbled, the tiles came down in turn. Team Seven had repaired more than one such roof in its time, back when repairing roofs had counted among the most dangerous missions given to fresh Genin.
When Fū and I entered the battlefield, our reputation running ahead of us at full tilt, whatever kind of resistance Iwa had put up made for the hills. After my fight with Rōshi and all the hardship before that, this quick sweep of Waterfall felt similar to dictating my terms to the kid. Iwa was reeling, and I was knocking around a child, nothing more.
The events of those weeks were sudden and dreamlike, much like that moment of change in Waterfall when Shikamaru and I first emerged from our days of slaughter and walked into the warm colors of a welcoming home, an orchard, a breeze of fresh conversation that had gone beyond the muted grunts of approval after yet another kill. It was like dipping into the ocean, leaving the outside world behind and yourself open to explore this new feeling of seeing a different plane altogether.
As if our victory in Grass had been the catalyst, major forces on the continent started to move. What had seemed like intractable differences between the Big Five were suddenly called into question. News from the Water-Lightning front read: the Raikage, having made no headway for three years, was finally considering to talk. Likely he didn't want to lose any more face. Lightning had always been a prideful nation, proud - most of all - of their military might. To have been stopped first by Sasuke's sacrifice, and then by Shino's strategic-minded approach must smart them quite a bit. And Kiri's forces? They'd been war-weary for half a decade now. Doubtlessly they'd come to the table as well.
And just as I had processed that one of the heaviest, most fought-over fronts was about to grind to a halt, a ceasefire not being only a pacifist's fancy anymore, another piece of news reached me from Suna. The missive read: their manpower had dwindled so far in recent years that further prolonging the war effort was out of question. Gaara, former psychopath and now reformed host of the Ichibi, was the leading voice for peace among his people.
All over the continent, the cries for an end to this bloodshed suddenly appeared. Or maybe they had always been there, drowned out by the relentless roar of war that had deafened us to all else. I couldn't bring myself to raise my hopes, though. How great would it be if war had cried itself hoarse like a huckster at the marketplace? But I had the feeling that however quick everyone was clamoring for peace right now, it would take only a single insult for the whole world to go up in flames once more. I had lived too many years in war that I could believe in much else.
It took another week until I heard from Rōshi. The envoy was a group of four Iwa-nin who appeared mighty uncomfortable at the gates, standing, as they were, ringed by my shinobi. And though the message they brought was one of peace also, I found myself glowering at them, a curse on my lips as my discipline slipped much the same way my men's did. Izuna, Miko, Subaru, Ainu, Shien, Hakumo, Shizo, Hotaru, Sawada, Tenji . . . the names and faces were clear in my mind, and for many of them I had the memory of their death as well. So many lives wasted. Young lives, too. Lives that hadn't known anything but war. Their faces haunted me as I stood face to face with Rōshi soon after, in a glade in Waterfall where just the two of us would talk. We met up in the middle, our respective guard details waiting at the line of trees, staring at the opposing force without emotion, yet taunting them just the same by flashing steel in the winter sun.
The frozen grass crunched under my boots as I came to stop before Rōshi and glared up at him. Izuna, Miko, Subaru, Ainu . . . No, I thought as the faces resurfaced once more, this wasn't the way. I had to get rid of those memories, if only for a moment. Rōshi came to broker a ceasefire. Wasn't that all I had ever wanted? With all nations having felt so intimately the death toll of war by now, a peace - however short it might turn out - was finally in reach. What cruel bastard would spit on the hopes of an entire continent? And yet, try as I might, I couldn't get rid of the faces. Rōshi's mouth moved as he laid out their terms, mainly retreating to Iwa without being hunted down like dogs - which was a way of pursuing that Fū had taken on quite vehemently. And the more he talked, the longer I looked at him, the heavier the feeling in my whole body grew: a hardening of my heart as the names kept repeating, and the thoughts kept swirling in a vortex of memories. Every syllable he spoke reminded me of what had been lost under my command. I hated him. And perhaps I hated myself more, because even though he gave the order, it had been under my watch that lives ended, and fates were sealed.
I had always thought that despite all our differences, there was a strange kind of bond between Jinchūriki. Fū had hinted at this being false, and meeting Rōshi now, able to talk with him for the first time, made hint into reality.
I let slip a grunt as he was done explaining his terms. Nothing he'd said had been outlandish.
And still, how hard it was just to say yes after all that had happened.
My jaw clenched, and Rōshi noticed. An unflinching look of hatred flared on his face, replacing for a brief moment the placid expression of equanimity. "Do not think, boy, that I hate this any less than you. If it weren't for your village, this world would be a better place by far. You think you lost much? I have a lifetime of memories to draw on when it comes to whom Konoha killed that I hold dear. Now get a grip. Think of those people behind you. I am doing the same for mine. As much as I want to rip your throat out, they are more important now."
Harsh and honest words. And yet they did nothing for me. What good was advice from the man whose face I wanted to cave in?
"As if you could even touch my throat," I snarled, feeling the red seep up into my consciousness. He was making me forget myself. His voice was calling up all the pent-up frustration and emotion I had bottled after the battle.
Then he laughed. A cruel, loud belly-laugh. "Aye, I guess you're right with that. I know when I'm beat, and while I'm sure I can still touch you, the last fight was yours. There, is that what you wanted to hear?" He gave me a curious look. "You're such a damn hothead, always looking for a fight, Uzumaki. It's what makes you a fool. But a dangerous one, I give you that. You remind me a fair bit of myself when I was young. But this isn't the time for battling it out, so cool off, lad, and listen to what I'm saying. We've got a chance here to do right by our men, however much we hate it in person."
"I'm nothing like you."
"Sure," he said, shrugging.
My mind was reaching for ways to lash out. I had accepted his rationale, and slowly but surely also the fact that many more faces would be added to the list if I kept on like this. And yet I was searching for how I could place a barb, feeling for the first time a desire to hurt someone well up inside me, a desire to make him feel the same as I did. How dare he laugh and declare us equals when Iwa had killed so many, had taken so damn much. How . . .
The diary, it came to me. Kurotsuchi's writing. The woman he had held dear like a daughter. My thoughts became cold, calculating. Rōshi needed this talk to succeed since Iwa's forces were almost entirely wiped out in this region. I could tell him everything. That I had the diary and would keep it. That I knew Kakashi was the one to kill her. That I had been Kakashi's student. Let him gnaw on that. Let him feel the need to hold himself back from attacking me for the sake of his men - the same argument he had brought forth. As the thread of vindictiveness unwound itself in my mind, my hand twitched to the breast pocket of my vest. It would be so easy. Rōshi had no way to respond. If he attacked I would beat him into the ground, and all his men with him.
And yet, at the crucial moment, my hand stopped. What the hell was I doing? Weren't we hating each other enough already? Wasn't this exactly the kind of thing Fū and Rōshi would do themselves to gain an advantage? I stared at my hand, ignoring Rōshi's alert expression, stared at it and wondered how it would feel to run my fingers through Hinata's hair, to have Chie's stubby hand close around them. Around what? The hands of a killer? That was a given. But around the hands of someone who willingly, almost gleefully, inflicted pain when there was another way? The thought that this was what command had made me startled me, made my heart beat at a savage pace, and heat rise to my face. Had Rōshi been right? Were we that similar? Would I that easily let myself become the type of man whom I had always despised?
No. I wouldn't become him. I would . . . I didn't know what I would. All I could think of was to stay as far away from being like him as possible. However hard it was, however difficult, if all my hatred told me to hurt him as much as I could, I'd do the opposite. That was the clearest path away from where I'd been going.
I took a deep breath, pushed against the faces, the names, the memories of useless death, and kept in mind my daughter and wife, my friends, those who were still among the living. Then I opened my pocket, fished out the diary, and lobbed it over to Rōshi.
"Here, take it. I think this belongs to you."
"You . . . how did you-"
"Our first fight," I said. "I accept your terms of surrender, Rōshi. Gather your men and go back to Iwa. You have a week."
He was still staring at the diary, muttering Kurotsuchi's name under his breath, his thumb brushing across the scratched leather cover with enough care to almost make him seem gentle in nature.
"I . . ." he began, but I cut him off immediately.
"I don't want to hear it. Get out of Waterfall before I start to regret my decision."
He looked lost a second longer, then pocketed the book and nodded. "I'll go then. And I'll pray that we won't meet again, lad." With those words he leapt back to his men.
Shikamaru soon joined me in the middle of the glade. "That book," he said. "Was that . . ."
Shikamaru grunted. "You think it wise to give it back to him?"
I looked at him. There was no accusation in his face, only curiosity. I shrugged. "From all the ideas I had this afternoon, this might've been the wisest, to be honest. Come, let's go back. I've had enough of this place."
And while we walked, I couldn't shake the feeling that today, more than during our assassinations in Waterfall even, I had brushed up against evil. That for a second I had been snared, had my mind warped by loss, war, and command to such a degree that I saw myself become what I had sworn to fight. And I was glad, more than I could put into words, that I had chosen another path. That the memory of Hinata and Chie had been there to break me out of it. Without them . . . I couldn't comprehend what I might've done without them.
The news of the ceasefire electrified the troops. There were those who clamored for more blood, now that the tides had turned in our favor. There would always be people like that, though. The Danzōs of the world, whether Genin, Chūnin or Jōnin, would always have their eyes on further conquest. The majority, however, was glad that for the first time in over a decade they collectively shared a moment where not a single major power was actively at war. A great moment, a novel one most of all, and I was sure historians would record it as such, perhaps even with Shikamaru's and my efforts in Grass described as the driving force.
I felt little in the way of heroism, though. When I gave a speech to my men, assuring them that finally all our sacrifices were justified, I couldn't help but mentally compare myself to a street magician who captured the attention of every onlooker with a wave of her left, while hiding the real truth with a slight of hand on the other side. "They died honorably, and we have done our part to make sure their deaths weren't in vain," I told them. But honor was an expensive thing, I found. And while I talked of lofty values, I tallied in my mind what their deaths had ultimately brought Konoha. A plot of land; corn, rice and lentils; a few maps and maybe a technique or two: simple and material things that the village had bought at a ridiculous cost. And that in a war the origin of which had long been resolved.
Before long, Fū and I found ourselves in front of the waterfall in the middle of Taki where everything had started, and where we had first met all those years ago. Winter came far earlier in northern Waterfall than in Fire Country, and light frost coated the dead trees around us. The water at the edge of the waterfall was beginning to freeze. It was early snow, dusting the ruins of her village that lay scattered at her feet, and in two months it would reach Konoha, too, lending the village that special flair of evergreen trees turned white.
I pulled my cloak tight around me as Fū was surveying the damage, her eyes briefly lit with a nostalgic fire. I suppose it was like coming home for her.
Fū spun around on her heel. "You did it, Chief," she said with that sickening, saccharine smile. "I'm still alive. You're still alive. Iwa's gone, and you got us here. The world's at peace. I didn't think you had it in you. I really didn't. Oh, how you've proven me wrong on that account."
She sauntered closer. "That guarded look . . . You hurt me with your mistrust, Chief. I've done what you said, haven't I? So have my men. Dutifully and with a proper salute. Do you want me to call you Rokudaime, too? Will that make you open up again?"
"Are you getting at something with that rant, Fū?"
"Of course I am! I'd much rather see your pretty smile again. I like it much more than the tears you almost showed me after the battle. You know which smile I mean. I remember it so, so clearly . . . It was sweet and innocent. It showed . . . You know, I think it showed there was still some good in the world. That's necessary, don't you think? To keep your hope for a better future, for a life without suffering."
I kept my face blank, even though nothing but pity welled up inside me at the sight of her. She was trying her hardest to lash out, to get out all the hatred at herself and the world that was piling up inside her. I had felt the same during my meeting with Rōshi. And if I had suffered this much for being unable to save my people, how hard must it have been for Fū, who had been tricked into betraying hers?
"Why is it gone though?" she asked. "It was so cheerful. Don't you have reasons to cheer right now? Victory after victory—two countries at once! You must be a hero to your people. Why else would they call you Rokudaime?"
She was so close I felt her warm breath on my face. Her eyes were hard and spiteful.
I lifted my chin and looked right back. If Jiraiya could see us now, it would break his heart: two children he had once watched competing for the biggest smile and who could spit watermelon seeds the farthest. We had turned into fine and proper adults.
"You have become a good shinobi, Chief."
"You, too, Fū. Far too good, maybe. You know, I really hope things will work out for you, now that you're back here and Iwa is gone."
She gave a look of faux-delight. "Oh how you honor me!" Then the hilarity slid away. Her face returned to being a mask of granite. "It's so easy to be concerned now that everything is peachy, isn't it? But where was this concern when you decided to give those maps to Iwa, Chief? I didn't see much of it, then."
I sighed. She was still looking for a way to place her barb. In a strange way I was hoping for her to come to the same realization I'd had during my talk with Rōshi. A juvenile hope, perhaps, but one I couldn't get rid of that easily. Seeing what the war had made of her, what it had almost made of me . . . I didn't have it in me anymore to summon the cold, Danzō-like persona that had served me these past months. Honestly, however necessary it had been, I never wanted to assume it again.
"Not my proudest moment," I said. "And I'm sorry that it came to it. All I can do right now is hope that the war will stay away long enough for nothing of the sort to ever happen again. You know, about that smile . . . I don't know if I'll ever be able to smile like that again. We both know what this place has made of us. But I don't think it's too late to get a grip on things. Maybe with some time things will get better. We'll get better."
For a second her mouth curved up as if she wanted to laugh in my face. Then there was a spark, a sudden disfiguration of her expression. She had finally realized that I was being honest, or at least as honest as I could manage. That this wasn't a facade to keep control of her, or mock her. "Oh no," she said. "No, no, no. That's not how it works, Chief. That's not how it works at all. You don't get to go back to being your old self. Not after all the work I've put into you. You don't have the luxury of becoming a whiny kid again. No one has. Not you, not I! You hear me? No one!" She was talking herself into rage, her words slurring and her cheeks growing hot-red. "Nononono. How? Who gave you that silly, ridiculous idea that it was this easy to change back, huh? Who? WHO?"
Her eyes had grown wide as she was trying and failing to get a grip on herself. My sentiment had given the chains around her insanity a mighty tug. "No, Naruto, listen, this is how it's going to be. You'll stay as you are. You'll have all your fun little memories of this war, all the thoughts and broken voices, and the cries for help, all the good, juicy stuff that never leaves, not even at night. And you'll damn well carry it all, for the rest of your life. Got it? That's how it is. That's how everything is! Otherwise, things would be . . . they'd be . . ."
She trailed off. Another laugh escaped her, but this time it seemed more helpless than sharp, more a release of frustration and bottled emotions than the edge of a broken kunai. Before she totally lost it, she went past me and away, leaving me standing there in the ruins of Taki. But I had heard what she had whispered alright, and it struck me harder than any punch she could've thrown.
It would be unfair . . .
That was the last time I saw Fū. After our talk she vanished from the face of the world, and even though I later asked Jiraiya to keep an ear to the ground, nothing ever came of it. Her helpless laugh, though, and the realization what circumstance had made of her, would follow me to the day I die.
End of Chapter