Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.
Icy rain came at the world in large sheets. Two days ago I had received the missive to return to Konoha. A fine, black-threaded document with the signatures of very important people. When the messenger gave it to me, I felt curiously empty. I had expected it much earlier, to be honest. In any case, it was time to pay my dues, and I took the quickest route from northern Waterfall to Konoha, stopping only once to have a five minute chat with a border patrol.
I had long ago taken off the tassels, but the Chūnin on patrol were casting glances at my shoulders as if they expected them to appear from thin air at any second. I had no idea who they were, but while they briefed me about the happenings on the border, I detected a strange glint in their eyes, and a quality in their voices that put me in the mind of my own men back in Grass. Uncomfortably, I adjusted my cloak, wished them a nice patrol, and hurried on. I had come to expect that kind of hero worship from my own soldiers, given that they had forced me to become used to it. But people I had never seen before?
Which begged the question of what awaited me in Konoha. Would they strip me of command and rank? Would they put me into jail? Halfway through the journey I resigned myself to having no answers, and emptied out my mind. Maybe I could come to enjoy the freezing rain and sleet, and the cold wind plastering my wet hair to my forehead. Hard work, but it had to beat all the worrying.
Half a day before reaching Konoha, I found myself a new travel companion in Shikamaru, who was leaping next to me, looking miserable. He hadn't yet found any joy in the rain, even though it was warmer now. Come to think of it, neither had I, although I had been trying for a solid few hours.
"Brass called you too, huh?" I asked.
"Two days ago. I hate this rain."
"It'll only get colder from now on." After a while I added, "Maybe they'll invite us to ramen and pat our backs. How likely you think that is?"
He craned his neck to look back at me. "Not at all."
I sighed. "I'd still like for it to happen."
"They're not going to make it that easy for us. But I suppose it's a nice idea to entertain ourselves with. It beats the alternatives I'm going through in my mind."
"I thought so, too. Then again, we did accomplish a lot, didn't we? Iwa's gone, everyone else is willing to talk . . . How bad can it really be?"
"You made yourself the Rokudaime," he said.
"I guess that's true . . ."
Before long Konoha was close enough that I counted minutes instead of hours. I had gotten an idea while leaping branches, and the nearer the village came, the more that idea grew to be an actual proposal. I jumped off the branch and landed on the wet grass with a slick sound. Rain drumming on my face, I stared up at Shikamaru. He didn't look pleased by stopping. Over the pattering I couldn't hear him say troublesome, but I was sure his lips had moved.
Grumbling, he joined me on the ground. "What's up? I want to get home and out of this rain."
"So why are we stopping then?"
"I'm not going straight to the Brass. It's ridiculous. I haven't seen my family for months now. I'll not make war the first thing I do once I'm back in the village. Screw that. I'm heading home first."
"They won't like that."
"What are they going to do? Write me up for insubordination?"
Shikamaru actually found some humor in that. "Fair enough."
It was remarkable how making myself the Rokudaime had been so big a break from all the rules that Shikamaru had stopped sweating the small stuff, and at times even found it amusing now.
Then he said, "It'll still be troublesome, though. It always is with you. Damn, I wish Asuma was still here. He always knew what to do in a situation like this."
"Kakashi, too," I said.
Our Jōnin instructors had always seemed so wise and knowledgeable. Had they felt like we did now, and just not shown it? I liked to think so. That meant we could make it if we kept a cool head, or at least tried to.
"We have to find a way past the guards and over the wall," Shikamaru said. "They'll likely have orders to bring you in to the council immediately."
"Smuggling me through the gate is a no go. Kiba had guard duty last time I was here. If he still does, he'll smell me a mile away. We can't fool his nose."
"I guess not. Is there a way the toads can help?"
I shook my head and fixed my eyes on the tree behind Shikamaru. A summon's trust wasn't broken easily. The toad tattoo had faded into an indistinct gray a few days after Gamageko had fulfilled his delivery mission. There had been no warning, no talk, no nothing. No matter how much chakra I used, I couldn't even summon a tadpole right now. That I knew all this was proof I hadn't be stricken fully from the contract, that some connection still existed, but I had been put on notice. Until I traveled to Mount Myōboku—without the help of any toad—and pleaded my case in person, I wouldn't be able to make any of this better.
Shikamaru, of course, noticed that something was up. He didn't bring it up. He was just that damn good of a friend.
His brow was furrowed in thought, though. The rain made him look pissed.
Then he said, "It actually doesn't matter. The moment you set foot into Konoha, Jiraiya and Tsunade will be able to sense and pinpoint you anyway. They'll know if you stop at your home first—I don't think they'll begrudge you that. The only issue is getting you past the gate. And if Kiba is there, we'll let him in on it. The day an Inuzuka becomes a jobsworth is the day Konoha falls."
I hummed. "Good point."
Decision made, we traveled on. Finally I'd be able to see Hinata and Chie again. I had left Konoha in a hurry, and without resolving anything. I returned with more problems than before. And yet, at the thought of having Hinata back in my arms and hearing Chie's gurgling, I couldn't help but smile, weak though it was.
Kiba was still heading the guard detail at the gate. If they didn't put me into jail, I'd have to hear that story over a few cups. It was sure to be some tale. You didn't put an Inuzuka on guard duty for nothing. It was the worst kind of punishment you could visit on a clan that always lusted for action and violence. He really must have fucked up in some hilarious and terrible way.
I traveled as a kunai in Shikamaru's pocket. Akamaru, that overgrown ball of fur, barked the moment we came into sight of the gate. Kiba, to his credit, said nothing at first. Under the eyes of a dozen other shinobi, he exchanged words with Shikamaru, who used our old Academy speaking pattern, certain phrases that would trigger Kiba's memory. We had used that kind of speech all the time to plan out pranks while in earshot of our teachers. Having been heard and still getting away with it was one of the greatest excitements of that time.
Kiba paused. Then he said, almost defeated, "Sure, go in," and added quieter, so that only we heard, "You bastards owe me big time."
Shikamaru gripped his forearm. "Thanks. It's good to see you."
"Same." Louder, Kiba said, "They want to see you up at the tower. I'll make a report that you came through, so you best swing by soon. They're anxious to hear from you."
"I'll make my way there."
Once we were out of sight and earshot, Shikamaru sidestepped into an alley. I returned to my prior form, massaging my neck. "Thanks," I said. "Are you going straight to the tower?"
"I think I will. The sooner I get this over with, the better."
"You'll see your father there, huh? Think that'll make it easier for you?"
"Doubtful. He'll either recuse himself entirely or say nothing."
That sounded about right. Naras had earned themselves a reputation as dependable advisors. They didn't get there by putting their personal business before that of the village.
"What will you tell them?"
"The truth," Shikamaru said with a shrug and a half-smile. "I have absolutely no idea what happened when they made you their Hokage, but it happened. I'll call it the will of the people. Technically the Will of Fire."
"I'm sure that will sway them," a third voice said next to us. "They're an impressionable bunch. A good story ought to get them fired up. I know it keeps my blood pumping."
Jiraiya stood leaning against a lamppost, arms crossed.
"Jiraiya-sama," Shikamaru said, glancing at me.
"Ah, don't be so stiff, you two. You're heroes around here."
"Are we, though?" I asked.
"That depends on whom you ask," Jiraiya said. "Certainly not for the Aburame. But that's to be expected, isn't it? The fact is that with your victory in Grass and Waterfall you became conqueror and liberator rolled into one. Not too bad for half a year of work."
His relaxed way of speaking set me on edge. It was too languid by far.
Jiraiya pushed himself away from the lamppost and gave us a big grin, patting Shikamaru's shoulder. "You should be proud. I'm sure your father will be, too. You were going to make your report, right? Better not let them wait. Don't worry, you can leave out Naruto being here for now. I won't tell if you don't."
Shikamaru tensed, and actually held his ground in the face of Jiraiya's order, looking first to me for how to act. I nodded and reached him my hand, and soon we were gripping each others' forearms. "Whatever these old farts decide to do with me, I would've wanted no one but you at my side these years, Shikamaru. You were everything a commander and a friend could wish for."
He gave me an uncertain grin. "Troublesome. Keep the speeches for the Brass. But . . . for what it's worth: I would've hated to serve under anyone else."
Then he bowed out with a quick goodbye to Jiraiya and made for the Hokage Tower to give his report.
Once he was gone, Jiraiya's expression turned mute, and we stared each other down.
I broke first. I had never played games with him. I wouldn't start now. "He's got nothing to do with this. I was the one to accept the call when they chanted Rokudaime. He couldn't have stopped me even had he wanted to."
"It must've been a great party," Jiraiya said. "I wish I had been there."
"Shouldn't you be angry?"
Jiraiya waved my concern away. "There's no better way to my mind." He snorted. "Honestly, you are exactly what Danzō was looking for. Young, strong, victorious, and so loved by the people serving you that they actually made you their Rokudaime without ever consulting the village. The stories that came our way these past weeks were nothing short of miraculous. And given that everyone is suddenly speaking of peace, your name and your accomplishments have naturally become entangled with that cry. If he were still alive, Danzō would throw the damn hat at you—or strangle you for causing peace, but that's another matter altogether. And, between us, throwing the hat . . . that's what they'll do once you set foot into that tower, however reluctant some might feel about it. I thought it only fair to give you a warning."
I was floored. With a few words he had upended all the thoughts in my head about toughing out my punishment. I had counted on a lot of things, but not on them making my false ascension official. "What about Shino?"
Jiraiya shrugged. "Strong and dependable. A good strategic mind, for sure. Technically a shoe-in for the position. Reports indicate his combat skills have also increased by leaps and bounds. Apparently he managed to hold B to a standstill until his forces could retreat to a safer location. That's no small feat, and probably played a big part in A being willing to talk it out now."
"He lacks charisma. His troops fight and win, but they're not shouting his name. I'm sure that if I were to ask any of your shinobi, they'd willingly run into a knife for you. They would hardly do that for him. We had our reservations before, of course—Aburame aren't exactly known for their ferocious outbursts of charisma—but we thought it best to give him an opportunity, or at least the semblance of one. His clan is a vital part of Konoha. It always pays off to play nice with them. But, truthfully, he never had much of a chance at the Hat—not with you in the ring anyway."
They had known Shino was desperate for a way to prove himself, and had found something to placate him, then. The blunt way Jiraiya phrased such sensitive information, initiating me into village secrets, really brought home that I apparently already was the Hokage to the Brass.
And it reeked so much of favoritism that I wanted to smack Jiraiya and everyone else from that band of geezers in the head. For all our talk of being rivals before my command started, Shino and I were still friends. I had no doubt that his drive to become Hokage was as ferocious as that of my youth after it had been woken. They were making a fool out of him, even though his contribution to the current state of peace was no less than mine. The stink of politics was all around this issue, and them giving him false promises only days after his father had died for the village made my blood boil. Rice, lentils, maps . . . people lost their damn lives for this useless stuff, and then they didn't even have the guts to be honest to those who endured loss after loss for their sake?
Jiraiya was standing relaxed, but there was a certain way to it that made me wary, as if he tried too hard to be calm when his eyes told me otherwise. Had he seen how much the issue with Shino bothered me?
No. That wasn't it. And frankly, I wouldn't dance around it any longer. I was pissed enough that my voice grew harsher when I asked, "What's your problem, then?"
In response he drove his knuckles at my face. Had he been an enemy I would have retaliated. As things stood, I deflected the punch to the side. There had been a lot of power in that strike, enough to break a nose and send me tumbling into the wall had it hit.
"That one was supposed to be from Bunta," he said, pulling back and looking at his fist in wonder for a short moment. Then he shrugged. "Gamakichi will deliver his own when the time comes. Damn, kiddo, I didn't give you the contract so you could fuck them over. I almost had a heart attack when Pa was about to cross out your name. Count yourself lucky that there's still a lot of love going around for you on Mount Myōboku. When Gamageko told them you looked horrible and done with life they took pity on you. You'll still have a bitch of a penitent walk ahead of you, though. That was one hell of a stunt you pulled. Honestly, you should've tanked that punch."
I grunted. I hated remembering the haze through which Shikamaru and I had been wading at the time. Fū's crazy eyes, my bloodstained hands, corpses looking up at me: I had these pictures in my head all the time now, like bad paintings in the attic.
I used laughter to drape them with whenever I could, but it only took a word for the fabric to slip. A single thought, a memory revealed, and I'd be right back in the gray, watching again, distant and uncaring, how Shikamaru created a tree of shadow and death. How Iwa-nin dangled from its branches like rotten fruit, twitching and struggling in the air before every muscle went slack. And again there'd be that switch in Shikamaru's face—that moment when terror broke through his mute expression after he realized what kind of technique he had come up with in that dark time.
What kind of friend let something like that happen? Damn. Now I could also see Shino's face, and how it'd look if ever he learned what Jiraiya had told me earlier.
"What happened with Gamageko is my fault," I said, "and I'll let Bunta and Gamakichi slap me around if they really want to. But you can be damn sure I won't take a punch from a guy who just told me that he knowingly betrayed a friend of mine by making false promises. That's what cheap hucksters do, Jiraiya. Not the most respected group of people in our village."
"Jiraiya now instead of pervert, huh. Look, I know the Aburame thing wasn't a good move." Jiraiya sighed. "I told them that, but they were adamant about it. It's an ugly thing, but sometimes one that has to be done. Once you take the hat you can't avoid making decisions like that." He ran a hand through his hair as he saw the protest on my lips. "I'm not about to get into an argument here, kiddo. I agree that it was in bad taste, but you'll probably see the need for hard decisions like that yourself soon enough."
Seeing that my glare wasn't lessening, he shrugged. "Be at the tower around noon tomorrow. They'll want your report. It might be a good time to get used to your new responsibilities, even if the official ceremony is still a few days off."
A few words, a wave of his hand, then Jiraiya vanished in a swirl of leaves, leaving me alone in the empty alley.
I stood in the hallway in front of our apartment, my hand hovering over the doorknob. How much had changed since I had gone away? Had the letter reached Hinata? Was I now a monster? Was she still the same, or had she become bitter? And would we continue where we had left off, awkward and tense, only Chie there to hold us together?
I was working up the resolve to enter, when a rustling of paper bags came from the stairs, startling me. I swiveled around, but before I could get a single word in Hinata was already in front of me, pulling me down to her face. Behind her lay two bags on the floor, an apple rolling down the hallway. I closed my eyes and leaned into the kiss.
I had forgotten how much I missed her warmth, forgot it every time I was away on duty to then discover it again.
When we broke the kiss, I saw that she was crying. I thumbed away her tears, then circled my arms around her, pressing her to my chest. It felt as if we stood like this for hours before one of us began to talk. I couldn't say who started, or what the first words were. All I knew was that there had been her voice. Then we were inside, groceries forgotten on the floor, the door falling shut behind us, and neither she nor I could stop speaking.
"You're back," she said.
"It's been so-"
We looked at each other, stopped talking, smiled. We gestured for each other to continue.
Again we stopped. I couldn't hold it in anymore. A laugh rumbled in my belly, breaking out in a loud chortle. Gods, I had missed her. And after only a second I felt so stupidly in love with her, even though none of us could get out a single sentence. My whole body was vibrating, and I felt red in the face and shy as though this was our first date all over again.
When she opened her mouth to make another attempt, I leaned down, quick as quick could be, capturing her lips. She leaned in, standing on her toes. Then, with surprising strength, she pushed me back through the living room, step by step, and onto the sofa before sitting down astride of me.
"Where's Chie?" I asked as she slid the vest off me.
"She's with my father."
Her hands clawed into the sides of my shirt, and I lifted my arms obediently as she pulled it over my head. "How long?"
Her voice had grown heavy, and those two words had an immediate effect on me. All my thoughts went out the window as she started grinding against me, part of her face veiled by hair, the smell of perfume intoxicating, smooth skin on rough skin as her top hit the floor and my hands went on their own adventure. She kissed me again, then bit my lip hard enough to draw blood, before pulling back with a look balancing on a knife's edge between innocent and devilish. She wanted it like that, eh? I'd oblige. I grunted, stood carrying her in my arms, walked to the bedroom, threw her onto the bed. My hands reached for her pants, tearing them while getting them off of her. That look was driving me wild. There'd be none of the sweet lovemaking. Not now at least. The first time after all these months would be a searing flame burning both of us, with bites and nails and grunts and cries. We'd been forced apart for far too long, and what happened next would be primal.
. . . It took two hours to drive us both into exhaustion, with some recovery time thrown in for good measure. In the late afternoon we lay covered in sweat on our bed, her head on my shoulder, as we stared at the unmoving ceiling fan above.
"We've got to clean the apartment," she said.
"After that? Yeah."
"You ripped my pants."
"Not sorry for that one."
"What if I told you they were my favorites?"
I snorted. "Then I'd say they made you look incredibly sexy. And I'd probably buy you a new pair just like them."
"Well, they were my favorites."
A chuckle was thrumming in my chest. It was so easy to talk to her, and so very different. These past months, every word spoken had been with a goal in mind. With a purpose of war. To lead, to kill, to win. I pressed her closer to me, kissing the top of her hair as the memories of Grass and Waterfall threatened to resurface. They had been held at bay for two hours now, the longest time I'd gone without them. But I couldn't get rid of them, not entirely. Fū was right in that regard.
"You're frowning," Hinata said looking up at me, her hand on my chest.
"I guess I am," I said. "Jiraiya talked to me before I got here. They want to make me their Rokudaime for real."
She knew me too well by now to break out into cheering. Had that been the mood I was in, she would've noticed much earlier. "You did a good job in Grass," she said instead. I could see that her shinobi mind was trying to piece various information together. "Do you think the ceasefire will hold?"
"Right now? Probably. For how long is hard to say, though. Then again, we've run out of men and will, Hinata. At every damn border. And isn't that something for the history books, eh? The Big Five bashed their heads bloody for so long that there's almost no one left standing in the rubble on all sides."
"It must've been difficult," she said.
"It was," I murmured. "It . . . I . . ." Speech left me as the memories came back full force. The faces, the orders I had given, the names and the reek of death surrounding them, the speeches, the smiles lost, the damn children that had turned into machines of war at my command; Fū's laugh that was a cry for help louder than any human could scream; Lady Kikou, lying in a puddle of blood, a kid in her arms; the hatred of one nation, and the pain of another after I put a map of caves into the arms of an unconscious man; Kurotsuchi and her diary; Rōshi, that red-bearded beast who had haunted my dreams, and whose face full of hatred had later urged me to think of my men instead of my own revenge; Shikamaru, who was my closest friend and had become a monster so that I would not have to walk this desolate path alone . . . one by the other, quicker than I could get a grip on them, the images welled up, pictures of red and white tassels, of Subaru's torn body, of innocence lost and little gained in turn, of lentils, peas and rice, of memories pushed down, and memories bottled until it felt I had been close to bursting apart . . .
Before I knew what was happening, I was sobbing into Hinata's shoulder, curling up against her as I let tears flow for the first time in what felt like forever. She was comforting me as you would a child, but every word brought another swell of memories, another deluge of things I had tried to keep a lid on since starting the campaign.
"Whatever you do," Hinata whispered, stroking my hair, "whatever you decide . . . I'll be here for you, Naruto. Chie as well. We'll both be here. You're not alone. You'll never be alone again. We love you. More than you can imagine."
I didn't know how long she held me, or how long she spoke to me, but eventually, completely spent, I fell asleep in her arms. When I woke it was already dark outside. The bed next to me was empty, and from the living room came Hinata's soft voice. I sat up, still naked, wiping at my eyes. If only for one afternoon, I had let myself go. Utterly. And there was no other person in the world who had such power over me but her.
After slipping into some clothes, I walked into the living room. I had butterflies in my stomach at the thought of seeing my daughter again. Chie was lying on the carpet, her blond fuzz as prominent as ever. Truthfully, she wore that hair color better than me.
Hinata came over with a glass of water. "Here," she said. "Father brought her over half an hour ago. She seems to have exhausted him quite a bit."
I guzzled down the water, never taking my eyes off Chie, who in turn was staring at Hinata with the cutest expression.
"If she's half of you and half of me, I can believe that."
As if to interject herself into the conversation, Chie wiggled on the carpet, before suddenly saying, "Mama!"
The glass almost slipped out of my hand. "She can talk!"
"She can," Hinata said with a laugh. "She started saying that three weeks ago."
"No, Hinata, you don't understand . . . She can talk! Not just, like, baby babbling, but actually saying something with meaning." I crouched in front of Chie, smiling. "Say it again, Tiny, will you? That's amazing!"
It really was a miracle. As far as I was concerned, my daughter was already a prodigy. But Chie didn't repeat the word that night. Rather, she edged away as best she could, her face scrunching up, her eyes zooming around, almost as if looking for help from Hinata.
It hit me, then, as Chie began to wail. Did she even know who I was? I had spent her first three days with her, and then nothing. Was I even her father at this point, or was I some undetermined man standing in her mama's living room?
Hinata hugged me from the side before moving to pick up Chie. "Give it time, Naruto. She'll remember soon enough."
I nodded wordlessly.
Time . . . If only it were that easy.
That same day, after I had kissed Hinata goodnight and waited for Chie to be asleep so I could do the same to her without rejection, I made my way to the Hokage Monument to sit on my father's head. A lot had happened today, and it was here that I had learned how to truly think through my problems. Back then, nothing had given me more determination than imagining myself being my father, and wondering how I would face the challenges ahead of me.
Tonight it wasn't working.
If only for a moment, I had seen the world through my father's eyes. There was nobility to it, sure enough. Few things could beat that surge of pride when they had chanted my name, or the respect when they saluted, bumping their fists against their vests. It was the stuff my dreams had been made of for so long, I couldn't remember a thought I'd had more often in my childhood.
Yet I had also felt my mind tear apart under the strain. To minimize loss, I had put the village before my sanity. It worked, to some extent. Then, however, I learned that this alone wasn't enough. Now I had to put the village before my values, too. For victory I lied and put a country to the torch. I became a hard and brutal man, because that was what a commander had to be. He needn't have his sword unsheathed all the time, but he better have a sword at all. It just so happened that I forged my blade by betraying allies, both man and summon alike. If a younger me were looking at what I had become, he'd sucker punch me and then decorate my home in every color of the rainbow. But a younger me didn't know, hadn't experienced, couldn't tell what being a leader meant—what the red and white of the Hat stood for. His views of glory were just as flawed. He was too naive, whereas I had grown painfully cynic.
I sat for hours on the head, my thoughts circling as night passed me by. Old dreams were struggling against new insights, and always in the back of my head was that voice telling me that my daughter had forgotten me, that she had learned to talk and I hadn't been there for it. The voice that told me I had never been happier than in those moments I shared with Hinata. The voice that screamed "Look at Fū! Look at what happened to her." Fū, that crazy, broken woman—a shell of who she'd been—driven to the edge by loss and circumstance, made hard and bitter, yet oh so brittle, by taking command. Fū, whose last words to me kept ringing in my head, loud and clear like a bell.
It would be unfair . . .
Eventually the horizon was growing pink in the east. The sun would be up soon. The head of the Yondaime had always given me courage, even before I found out who he was. He had been a great man, maybe the greatest to ever live. His sacrifice glowed so bright that it was seen throughout history—the embodiment of The Will of Fire. But the brighter the light, the longer the shadow. His priorities had been made clear at the day of my birth.
As the sun came around, I stretched my arms and legs, then leapt down onto the trees and from there toward the houses. I paused on a water tank peeking out just above the rooftops, and turned to look back at the monument. My father gazed at the village with hard eyes. They were protective, passionate, cruel. Around him, his fellow Hokage did the same. In their love and duty for Konoha they had transcended themselves. They had given up who they were to become the village, with all the good and bad that entailed. Ultimately, that was the price to pay for being immortalized in stone.
"Uzumaki Naruto," Koharu said from behind the long table at which the council sat. She let my name linger in the air, as if it had more potency that way. Next to her, Homura was still going strong, too.
I stood before this honored body, my face schooled, my posture rigid. I wouldn't be able to relax until I was sure nothing bad came of the red and white tassels that would impact my men. I also avoided looking at the gallery of portraits hanging at the wall above the council's heads. From the first to the fifth, they all made me feel guilty just by standing close to them.
A lighter clicked. Smoke filled the room. They hadn't opened any window, and it wasn't Shikaku's first cigarette either. He smoked the same brand as Shikamaru.
Shikaku cleared his throat. "You did good," he said, and you could've paved a road with the amount of tar coating his voice. "The means were fairly unconventional, but from what we understand you managed to salvage a horrible situation, giving us not one but two victories instead."
"Indeed," said Homura. "In doing so, you went above and beyond what Danzō envisioned when he sent you to Grass. We do not take the issue of your self-bestowed title lightly, but such results are hard to argue with. Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding you, as Shikaku's son informed us, gave you little choice."
"Your expression tells me that you don't like it all that much," I said to him.
Homura's nose wrinkled. "It was outside regular procedure. An insolent thing to do. But . . . I suppose there is no going back now. The men and women under your command have accepted you. And your name has garnered enough recognition that it would not seem a foolish move on Konoha's part were you to become our Rokudaime."
"Psht," Jiraiya said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "He's what Danzō would've wanted. Stop being contrarian for the sake of it."
Homura and Koharu shot him a glowering look that he ignored with practiced ease.
The ANBU Commander, sitting at the far right of the table, voice distorted, mask blank, said, "My men have confirmed that he fought Rōshi several times. There should be no doubt about his suitability strength-wise."
Tsunade, sitting next to Jiraiya, nodded. "I don't think there was any doubt about that."
With her, the council was complete: the two remaining elders, the two remaining Sannin, the leader of ANBU, and Shikaku as the overall commander of the normal shinobi forces. On a small desk at the edge of the room lay, neatly folded, a set of red and white robes, the Hat placed pristinely on top of it.
Koharu, albeit reluctantly, said, "I am sure you have already surmised, or been made aware of, that your command was as much a placement of faith in your abilities as a shinobi, as it was a test to see whether you had the courage, smarts and fortitude to become a leader of men." Koharu's voice carried for her age. She was a long-winded old lady, but the kind you listened to out of instinct. "Both objectives—strength and character—you have reached and surpassed, as have the great leaders that are smiling upon you in this very room."
I restrained myself from rolling my eyes at her wide gesture toward the portraits. The Hokage behind her looked stern and foreboding, daring anyone to challenge them over their village. The painter had captured their essence well. They were great, sure enough, but they weren't smiling.
She went on, "A Jinchūriki, as you know best, is an inconceivable force to fight, even without their Bijū unleashed. To do so three times while saving the lives of dozens of comrades and upholding the Tenmen Treaty is no mean feat. Neither is it a trivial matter to reach a mission objective without asking for reinforcements. Craftiness, the ability to find ways within your means . . . those are cherished values. They are what make a shinobi into a leader. The list, Uzumaki Naruto, of your achievements in the past months is long. I will not bore you further with details that you are already well aware of yourself. Suffice it to say that you have amply proven your strength of body and mind to this council."
"As has Shino," I said. "Who has fought Killer B to a standstill, advanced the Water-Lightning front, brought A to the table, and from the reports never requested reinforcements either."
The elders' expressions hardened. Disbelief that I had brought it up after all was stenciled onto Jiraiya's face.
"I'll make this quick," Shikaku cut in. "Shino has done a great job, but as I'm sure the fact that you're standing here and not him has hinted at already, we're intent on making you the Rokudaime—this time officially."
I looked at them, letting the honored council stew in silence for a moment.
Jiraiya couldn't hold it in much longer. "What are you waiting for, kiddo? You made it! You're in!"
I was, or at least I would be if I took the Hat.
I bowed. "I'm grateful that you've considered me for the position," I said. "But I am not ready to be the Rokudaime." As I spoke, my words held the weight of all my memories, of all the things I'd sobbed into Hinata's arms just yesterday, of what it meant to lead, would mean still for me and my family, of what not only command but being a shinobi had made me miss. "I won't take the Hat, I'm sorry."
Jiraiya jumped to his feet so quick, the chair crashed down behind him. "Come now, kiddo, don't do this. It's been your dream for so long. The people love you. They're finally recognizing you! Isn't that what you always wanted?"
I gave him a sad smile. "It was, yeah." Back when I hadn't yet understood that I could live without their recognition as long as I could be with the people closest to me. There were so many things to do with Chie, so many milestones yet to witness, and I wouldn't miss a single one of them. Never again. That was a promise.
"But you . . . your father . . ."
"We are different. He was a great man, I'm sure. But I can't be the same as him. And I want my daughter to know me when she grows up. To have actual memories and not just faded pictures."
Koharu then said, "We cannot force you into the role, Uzumaki. But you will still be sent on missions. That must be clear to you. You're one of our strongest shinobi. With the way things are right now on the continent, we can finally press our advantage and consolidate our power."
Faces, names, rice, lentils and peas . . .
"Yes, consolidating power . . ." I murmured. "Right, but not with me. I've done enough consolidating to last me a lifetime." I walked up to the table, to her and Homura, and all the other council members, and untied my headband from my biceps.
"Naruto . . ." Tsunade whispered.
"You can't be serious . . ." Jiraiya said, his eyes wide.
"I'm done," I told them. The headband weighed heavy in my hand as I put it down. So many memories, a lifetime of devotion . . . but I had made my decision on my father's head. I knew my priorities now, should have known them the moment Chie was born. But I'm a stubborn fool, and I learn only slowly.
"I can promise you this," I said, "if ever someone comes for Konoha, I'll unleash hell on them and beat them back to where they came from. The village is, and always will be, my home. But I'm done with missions. And I'm done with command. Find someone else to 'consolidate' your position in those power games you like to play so much."
"You cannot simply . . . This isn't how . . ." Even mighty Koharu had fallen to stuttering at the sight of my untied headband in front of her.
Shikaku looked at me with narrowed eyes. "What makes you think we won't find ways to bring you into service?"
I didn't know if he meant the threat seriously, or if he was testing my resolve, but I had expected a question like that. "Physically?" I asked. "Come and try if you want, Nara. But you won't have an easy time of it, I promise you that much. What then? Politically? With hostages? If you're threatening my family, don't forget that they're also Hyūga by blood, the former heiress and her child to boot. And even that aside, you don't want to live in a world where you threaten my family."
Shikaku considered this for a moment, then nodded to himself, fishing for another cigarette. "I thought as much."
"You're Konoha's strongest asset," Homura said. "You can't just go."
"Listen, kiddo. Think it through. Take a week, and really think it through." Jiraiya was getting desperate. "It would honor the memory of your parents. It would honor the memory of the Sandaime. And what about your soldiers? They chose you. They made you their Rokudaime. If you don't take the Hat, all you do is spit on their devotion!"
He was right in that, and the way he said it left a bad feeling in my stomach. They had waded through blood and war with me, never losing faith. But wouldn't they be able to understand? Hadn't I done enough by now? I looked at the portrait of my father, then shook my head, steeling my resolve. I would find a way to explain it to them. They would be disappointed, no doubt, but I knew their names, their families, where they lived. Now that the ceasefire was in effect, many of them would come home for leave. I would talk to them, explain myself, even if I had to go door to door. And I'd write letters to those who were still out and about. I'd do all I could to make them see. Even if they might not appreciate it, I owed them that much. But I didn't owe them my wife. And I didn't owe them my daughter either.
Tsunade, who had been silent all the while throughout the meeting, rose from her chair. Her voice was quiet, gentle like a mother's almost, and so unlike her usual determined self that it took all of us aback for a moment. "If this is really what you want, Naruto, I can't fault you for it. I did the same when the pain became more than I could bear. I am sure we all did at some point. Strength is bought at a cost, and the stronger you are, the faster you run from that price when it all comes to head. But," Tsunade went on, "it was you who taught me that running away doesn't solve anything. Aren't you about to go down the same road as I did?"
Her question was honest. No accusation, no desire to pressure me. As if out of all the people at this table, she was the only one who had looked beyond the title and was getting to the heart of things, the human part.
At her words, Jiraiya and Shikaku bowed their heads, a flash of old pain flaring in their eyes. Homura and Koharu, who had been about to interrupt when she started speaking, had sat back down halfway through, their faces cast in pensiveness.
I gave her a warm smile. Perhaps of everyone assembled here, she would have made the best Hokage had the timing been right after Jiji's death. Perhaps then the war would've never escalated to this point.
"I'm not fleeing, Tsunade-baa," I said softly, calling her by a name I hadn't used in quite a while. "I still have hopes and dreams. A daughter I'm going to play with every day. A wife I'm going to hold for as long and as often as I'm able to. If you want to call this running, go ahead, but I'm running toward my family. And right now there's no better road ahead of me I could imagine."
"I see," she said. Her thoughtful expression remained a second longer, then a grin pulled at her lips and she winked at me. As if a switch had been flipped, her voice grew loud again, boisterous, not to be trifled with. "Well, that's that then. He wants to spend time with his family, so that's what he's going to do. I'm not going to begrudge him that. And I dare you geezers to do otherwise."
Her eyebrows were raised imperiously as she cast a look around the table.
"Tsunade . . ." Jiraiya said.
"You of all people have no leg to stand on here, Jiraiya," she fired immediately. "You took years off after the last war to shamble between villages and find inspiration for your books. And don't even start with your spy network. You're a lazy man at heart. I know you created it to be self-sufficient."
If Jiraiya had a rebuttal it never found its way into that discussion. He looked undecided, before shrugging and leaning back in his chair.
"We need a Hokage," Homura said.
"And we have a stellar contender for the position," Tsunade shot back. "That Aburame boy has gotten victory after victory, enough to make a man like A hesitate. Whether his speeches are fierce or not, his actions are what counts. And from what I've heard, he carries a fire for Konoha inside him that torched B hard enough to pull his hand from the stove when it mattered most. Give him a shot. Guide him. That's what you're here for, isn't it?"
Homura cleared his throat. "Even so, there will be a split in the forces. Half of what remains of Konoha's strength has aligned with Uzumaki, whether we like it or not."
"I will take care of that as best I can," I said. "I know it's not ideal, and many will be disappointed, but I'm going to talk to them. All of them. I'll explain my choice, and I'll put in as many words for Shino as I can. This is my decision, and I'll shoulder as much of it as possible."
"There you go," Tsunade said. "That should be every concern for now, right? Or is there anyone else with input? Shikaku?"
"I'm good. I've worked often enough with Shino. While he's not the most charismatic choice, he'll get the job done with no issue, I've no doubt."
I couldn't help the sigh of relief that escaped me as no one else said anything. "Thanks, Tsunade-baa."
She rounded the table until she came to stand in front of me. By now I was a head taller than her, and she had to put both hands on my shoulders and push me down a little before kissing my brow. She smiled up at me. "Go now, you brat. You made a lot of trouble for us today and we'll have a hell of a time clearing everything up. You being here will only make this more chaotic."
I tried to apologize, but she shushed me. "Go. Spend time with your family, Naruto. You've earned it well enough by now."
I gave her hand a squeeze, took another look at the row of portraits hanging above the assembled council, and turned to leave.
She was right. I had someone waiting for me.
It was one of the last warm days before Fall would cool off and the trees lost their colorful leaves. The trees that lent their shade to me and my family had begun turning yellow and red already. The switch would be very quick. Another month, then the world would turn as white at the southern coast of Fire Country as it had happened in northern Waterfall a month ago. For now, though, the sun was blinking through the foliage, puncturing the shadow with light at every breeze.
"Is it really alright for you to be here?" Hinata asked, handing me a cup of tea. I had taken her and Chie to a place right at the coast, a hill with a gentle grass-grown slope that was overlooking the beach. If you strained enough, you could make out Tea Country just across the water.
"It's more than alright," I said, taking a sip. Hinata had prepared lots of food that now lay scattered across our blanket while I leaned against the bottom of a tree, her head on my shoulder. On the other end of the blanket, Chie was crawling on all fours, tumbling around. She was giggling a lot, and luckily had gotten used to me quickly in the past three weeks. Now and then I still couldn't help but wonder though: when all was said and done, would she be proud of me?
Returning from those thoughts, I said, "I explained the situation to as many as I could before we left. With Tsunade and Jiraiya both talking up Shino and guiding him, he should have no trouble settling in."
"He always was the most hardworking member of Team Eight," Hinata mused.
"He'll do a good job," I said. Then I grinned. "But now enough of other men, or you'll make me jealous." I pulled her into a kiss, only withdrawing when I heard a gurgle from Chie.
"Dada!" she suddenly called.
My eyes widened and I looked on how Chie, slowly, laboriously, climbed to her feet, shaking from the exertion. She stood unsure for a moment, then put one foot forward. A moment long I feared she'd topple. Then she righted herself, still balancing precariously, and took another step, and another yet again. She was halfway across the blanket when she fell, but I was already there, scooping her up, laughing.
Chie was grinning up at me, victory and thirst for more in her pale eyes. She wanted to master this strange form of movement we called walking.
No, I thought as I held her proudly in my arms, this wasn't so bad a way to live. I had made my choice. It was different than my father's. It was different than my old dream. But it burnt no less bright.
If anything, I think it was warmer.