Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.
"They have no right to take away your time with us." Hinata's whisper was barely audible, even though I stood right in front of her. Gaze glued to the floor, face shaded by bangs—this wasn't the expression I'd wanted to see after months away from home.
The bright afternoon sun came streaming in through the window of our living room, tinting my ratty sofa a more appreciable color. A breeze rustled the new curtains Hinata had bought while I had been on duty. Chie was asleep in her crib. We had just come back from a stroll in the park nearby. It might not have been the best moment to tell her that I'd be gone in two days' time, but I didn't want to push it away until the last evening.
I was searching for words, though nothing I came up with fit. I knew where she was coming from, and my time with her and Chie was precious. Yet so was the dream I had held for so long finally being in reach. If I could make it a reality quicker, so that Chie could be proud of her pops, then I'd do everything in my power to that end.
Hinata still wasn't looking at me. When I noticed her faint trembling, I raised my arms to gather her up in them. I needed her warmth to reassure me I wasn't just being an idiot.
The moment I came closer, she move over toward the door. "I . . . I just need a moment to think. I'll be back in an hour."
Her retreat was hasty and clumsy. She was still quite a bit larger than usual. When she almost slipped getting into her sandals, my arm did its pitiful dance upward again; a few seconds later the gravel crunched on the road below our apartment.
I stood next to the empty sofa. The room looked much bleaker without her.
Shaking my head, I trudged over to Chie's crib, which was shaded from the sun. I turned one of the chairs around and sat down, staring at her tiny belly rising and falling.
"I have no idea if I'm doing the right thing here," I whispered to her. "Your mama probably believes I'm an idiot right now. I hope she gets back soon. I want to spend what little time I've got left here with you two . . . I won't . . . I can't—" I ended on a sigh. Back in my Academy and Genin days doing and saying the right thing had been much easier. I might not always have been a tasteful speaker, but at least I was an honest one, who knew what was good and what bad within an instant, and wasn't afraid to say so.
I brushed my fingers over the golden fuzz on Chie's head. "I'll make you proud, girl, that's a promise. The only one I can give right now. You'll have the strongest pops there is, just like I had. And together we'll be the greatest at whatever we do, cause that's the Uzumaki way, eh?" I smiled at her, then leaned back in the chair. The birdsongs kept coming in through the window, and the mild afternoon heat soon lulled me into sleep.
My dream was indistinct. The waking not so much. Pots clanged in the kitchen, glassware tinkled, a sizzling went along with the quick, skillful tack-tack-tack of a knife on a chopping board. I stretched, reassured myself that Chie was still there, then followed the smell of food.
Hinata stood in front of the stove in her favorite orange apron, cooking up a storm the likes I hadn't seen in a while. Little pans, large pans, a board here, a board there, at least two pots and a bowl with already prepared vegetables: it was a different battlefield to what I was used to. She navigated it tirelessly, though, her hair done in a lazy bun that went halfway down her neck and was held together artfully by a few needles.
It seemed like a monstrous effort for someone who had given birth only a day before. She had such a look of fierce determination about her as she tasted the soup in one of the pots, I had to stop uncomfortably at the doorsill and tug at my pants to cover my growing erection. The scene before me had my mind going to a thousand places. If it weren't for her razor-sharp focus and our argument before, I might have considered trying for a sibling for Chie right then and there. I had no idea if that was even possible this soon after giving birth, but I was more than willing to experiment.
I stood watching her for a few minutes until, in a brief lull of action, she turned and arched her eyebrow, nodding at my crotch. Of course she had noticed. I was glad her eye was sparking with mischief, though, and not anger or sadness.
Were things good between us now? I had no clue.
"It will be another hour until dinner," she said, arms crossed. The wooden spoon in her left was dribbling miso on the tiled floor. "Are you going to watch me the whole time?"
"I won't be able to focus on the cooking."
"That's fair. I won't either."
It brought a smile to her lips. And wasn't that just the best feeling ever, getting your girl's face to shine like that?
"Go on and do something else until dinner is ready," she said. "I won't have all the groceries go to waste because I wasn't paying attention. Play with Chie, take her out and get some fresh air. Just take care that she's not directly exposed to the sun."
"I like it when you're being commanding."
Aha! There it was again, that brief flicker of naughtiness. Then it was gone, and she pointed with the spoon at the kitchen door. I grinned and obediently took my leave. Things seemed to be alright between us.
I went over to the crib, where Chie lay awake, her lavender eyes tracking me. I suddenly felt exposed. "Hullo. How are you?" She didn't answer, but when I reached into the crib she let out a blubber of laughter and took a hold of my finger. "Okay, girl, this'll be new for both of us. I know you've been with your mom so far, but now it's daddy's turn." Whispering to myself I added, "And hopefully he won't mess this up."
I gathered my courage and then took her with both hands, holding her up to my face. We looked at each other as if we were deciding whether we actually belonged together. I could have sunken right into her eyes. They were so much like her mother's. Then Chie flailed her little arms around, first patting me on the cheek, afterwards giving me a solid conk on the nose.
"That's right," I said quietly so Hinata wouldn't overhear. "Just like that, girl. You're already punching like an Uzumaki. Wait until you're a bit older—you'll kick ass from here to Lightning." As if to prove me right, she flailed more, connecting another solid hit. I chuckled as I prepared for the next battle, getting her rolled up tight in a nice blanket before taking her outside. It was already evening and the sun was almost gone by now, so that at least was one worry less.
After Hinata had come bursting out of the kitchen, showing me how to hold Chie, I took her to the place with the greatest view in all of Konoha. The evening sun was just done vanishing behind the staggered line of roofs and trees when I landed on my father's stony hair.
"It doesn't look like much now, but give it a moment. You'll see what I mean," I said to Chie, lightly pushing at her nose with my finger. I sat down on one of the bangs, scooted to its edge, and let my legs dangle from each side, holding Chie in an iron grip.
It took another ten minutes for the last vestige of sunlight to fade. Then, one by one, in a cascade of flickering colors, the evening lights of the city came alive: lamps in houses, shining with a warm glow; streetlights, one by the other, with their pale light smearing yellow circles on the street; red and orange lampions at the entry to restaurants and brothels swaying in the wind; signs over bars in violet and green buzzing their way to life. I had loved this sight as a boy. I loved it as a man. The streets were much emptier now, but a time would come when they were teeming again.
Chie took to the view with gurgling noises, and I told her about a few of the places lit up down below us, and how I had pranked the living daylights out of them. "I'll have to tone it down, though. Your pops has got to be a respectable man now, so you won't get into trouble because of me. And because they probably won't give me the Hat otherwise. But mark my words, girl, once I'm sitting in that chair, I'll give them a prank like the world has never seen. They won't be able to stop me then."
"For that you will have to become the Hokage first, Naruto."
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't startled. But even though I had been so focused on Chie that I missed Shino's approach, experience had taught me to take things in stride. I rose to my feet, Chie wiggling in her blanket, and leapt to the base of my father's hair.
Shino was waiting, hands stuffed in his pockets, the collar of his coat raised to his ears. He wore his sunglasses, though his hair was short-cropped now. It looked like an effort to regrow it, which meant it had either been sheared or burnt off. He had grown bulkier, too, filling out the coat, and a set of fine scars criss-crossed over his brow and the upper part of his cheek.
"It's good seeing you, man," I said. "It's been a while."
"You as well, Naruto. Is this your daughter?"
"Yeah." I held her forward proudly. "Uzumaki Chie."
"You have chosen wisely." There was a hint of a smile beneath Shino's collar. I cuddled Chie back to my chest. Shino held out his arm. A bug was wandering along the knuckles of his fist. "May I?"
"Is it safe?"
Shino nodded. "We offer these services to all of Konoha. It is nothing to worry about." That was enough for me. He might have become my rival overnight, but I still trusted him. The bug lifted off and landed right on Chie's nose. Her eyes grew big like balloons, and at first I thought everything was alright. Then her face scrunched up. She squeezed her eyes shut, her little chest filled with air, and she let out a bellow of a cry that would be heard in all of Konoha.
Oh boy. Sakura was right—Chie definitely had my lungs.
In the meantime Shino's bug had lifted off again, making off to god knows where. I was cradling Chie, saying nonsense words, doing all I could think of to make her stop wailing.
In between the cooing, I glared at Shino. "You made her cry."
"Babies do that, Naruto. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. The benefits far outweigh the costs in this analysis." He held up his hand where the bug was sitting placidly. "I will bring this to the Aburame stocks. Should Chie get lost or be abducted within the next ten years, any Aburame will be able to track and find her."
I knew that he was right. On a more visceral level though, he had made my girl cry, and for that I wanted to punch him and break his sunglasses in half.
"Thanks," I said, clipped, as Chie's wailing was starting to cease. Better get her home soon. I straightened my shoulders, thinking that I should speed up the no doubt business-related part of this visit. "You been to Danzō's yet?"
"He does not seem to be healthy, but I assume you know as much. My estimate is about four months to half a year, then he will die, leaving open the position of Rokudaime."
Blunt and to the point. I was warming up to this again. "I won't give up the Hat, Shino. You know I won't. It's been my dream for as long as I can remember."
He raised a brow as if to question why I had even gone to the trouble of stating something this obvious. His face remained calm, though, and impersonal as an undisturbed lake.
"Since my father's death I have become the head of the Aburame clan," he said. "It is long overdue that one of my people tries to attain a higher position of leadership within the village. The elders will rule whether I am the right man for this office or not, but I am going to make an honest attempt and, how would you say it, give it my damn best shot. If you are my rival in this, any feelings of friendship must fall to the wayside."
I had heard the story of Aburame Shibi's death coursing around the fires. He and his scouts had been observing a large troop movement of Lightning's finest when the Raikage appeared in their midst. The stories vary from there, but most agree that Shibi was the only reason half the squad got away alive. Details were blurry beyond that one thing: his sacrifice had bought Konoha enough time to position themselves for a counter attack. Aburame Shibi's was another name for a stone that held too many of them already.
"I was sorry to hear about your dad, Shino. He was very brave."
"He was," Shino said. "But I have been working through it. Logic shows a clear path forward."
I smiled sadly. "I guess it does, doesn't it?" I could see his path clearly as well: the horror, the grief, then having to step into his father's footsteps without delay. Now he didn't just have a clan to command, but also one to convince of himself as their leader. Of course he'd take an opportunity when it arose before him. If he became the Rokudaime, he would show his people that he was no less man than Shibi, while proving to himself that his father's trust and love hadn't been misplaced. I wasn't unfamiliar with thoughts of that kind, though Shino had arrived at them in a much more orderly way, I was sure.
Asuma, Kakashi, Sasuke, now Shino . . . if asked to—and no one ever would—after a few bottles of sake all of them could've sung songs about family legacies as likely to crush you as to raise you up. Though, arguably, you'd have needed more than a few bottles to convince some of them to sing.
I shifted Chie in my arms. It was getting darker, and Hinata would have food on the table soon. The little one was getting unruly, too. I wanted to have her back in her crib.
"I'll have to cut this short here, Shino. I've got a feeling that Chie is getting hungry."
"Give Hinata my regards. It has been a while since we last saw each other."
"Will do. And . . . Shino, no matter the outcome, fair's fair, right?"
"There will be no hard feelings."
"Good," I said. "Best of luck then. Can't have the cloud dwellers laughing at us, eh?"
He took a shallow bow. As I watched him go to the edge of the monument, then leap into the night, I wasn't so sure if there wouldn't be hard feelings after all. But that was a problem for another time. Right now all I had to do was get Chie home. Things seemed to have worked out with Hinata. I wasn't sure the same could be said if we came late for dinner.
I was about to set off, when Chie conked me again. Laughing, I said, "No worries, girl. You'll see your mommy soon enough," before leaping into the darkness, not quite able to keep the thoughts of my upcoming command off my mind. They weren't unlike flour mites. Once you had them in your pantry, they wouldn't leave you the hell alone.
The night was unbearably hot. I had kicked away my blanket half an hour ago, first to the edge of the bed, then off it in contempt. The ineffectiveness of the move annoyed me, since sweat kept springing up all over my body regardless. Outside, cicadas were giving the concert of their lives. If I didn't know better I'd think this was an orchestrated conspiracy to keep me awake.
I turned my head to Hinata. She was sleeping on my outstretched arm, facing me. I studied her, from the strands of dark hair curling around her ears to the curve of her nose, then the lightly parted lips and the scarred flesh around her right eye. Now that she had told me in no unclear terms that she was in no condition for sex, I wanted it more—if that was even possible for a shinobi coming back to his wife after going months without.
My stomach gurgled and I turned away again, staring at it across my chest. Dinner had been too delicious. I'd always been a strong eater . . . this, though . . . this had been Chōji-style gluttony. But first and foremost love went through your stomach, so if the wife cooked up a storm you damn well ate it all. And I did. And now I suffered. But no one ever said love was easy.
The worst part about being awake at night was that my thoughts had enough room to exist in that space between action and sleep. Chie, Danzō, my squad, Hinata, Chie again, Shikamaru, Hinata, Shino, old man Sarutobi, Jiraiya and Tsunade, Rōshi, Chie: round and round it went, a wheel of thoughts—some pleasant, some less so—that wasn't likely to stop spinning anytime soon. Lately it had become much harder to sleep like a rock and simply declare myself the best of the world come morning.
A tiny snore escaped Hinata and drew my eyes back to her. Would I have felt better had she torn into me for being away so soon? Her kind approach was making me feel bad on the double. Worse, she was too kind to calculate such an effect, which made me feel even guiltier. Then again, was I the one at fault? It was Danzō's order after all . . . Though I couldn't say that I disliked the order itself now, could I? For the first time in my life, my dream was actually coming into reach.
In the end, even though I felt guilty, I was glad Hinata had worked through the issue with so little complaint. Over dinner she'd told me a lot about her training with Shizune, and how she had access to both the standard records and the Hyūga archives, which, with more experience, would make her one of the most efficient medic-nin alive when it came to treating chakra-related diseases. I'd had no idea about half of what Hinata was saying, but her eyes had been glowing and I could've listened to her speak for hours. Her passion turned me on.
That was the thing. My apartment with her and Chie in it, happy laughter, cooking, the new curtains, the door placard that showed both our names . . . I wanted to have as much of that as I could before going back to the front—clean memories I could come back to when the goings got tough out there . . .
All this thinking was getting me nowhere, though, so I slowly extricated my arm from under her head, then padded over to the crib, reassuring myself Chie was still asleep. I got my clothes from the wardrobe and put them on in the kitchen where I was sure not to wake anyone up. The wind chimes danced around outside the window. Some wind might cool me down, and a night stroll through Konoha hadn't ever hurt anybody.
I didn't even get to the door before Hinata had noticed I was gone. She stood in the hallway, tying her white night robe. Her hair fell down her shoulders in long, chaotic strands, like ink spattered on the fabric.
"Hey," I said. "Sorry for waking you. I just wanted to go for a walk. The heat is insane."
"You've been bothered by it the whole night," she said, going past me into the kitchen.
"You noticed, huh?"
I heard the faucet squeal, followed by running water. When I came into the kitchen, Hinata handed me a glass. "Of course I did," she said softly, sitting down and turning on the light by the kitchen table.
I didn't know what to make of this situation. Here I stood, a glass of water in my hand. There she sat, barely blinking while looking at me in silence. No reproach or anger in her eye, but I could tell she was troubled.
I chose to keep my memories peaceful and intact. This way was better for all of us to deal with the situation.
I guzzled down the water, put the glass on the tabletop, and said, "I'll better be on my way now, get me some of that sweet wind outside. Maybe it'll make the sweat go away. Thanks for the water."
I wheeled around, about to make a hurried escape, when her voice turned my legs into clumps of lead.
"I'm sorry," she said. I heard the chair scrape over the tiles as she got to her feet, and the sound of her slippers as she walked up to me. I turned. "I'm sorry," she said again when she stood right in front of me, angling her head up. Her look was as far away from calm as it could possibly be. "I tried. I . . . please, believe me, Naruto, I really did. I tried to make it perfect and to cook and to laugh, and to . . . to say nothing about it. I didn't want to make things difficult just for my sake. And I know it's selfish to do it now . . . I can't stand it because I know you want us all to be happy, but we have to talk, I have to talk, because I think I'm going to explode if you just leave like this." Her shoulders were shaking. The last part had come out in a swell of words that left me speechless.
I wanted to say something, anything, but before I could, she continued, her voice gaining strength: "Of course we might not find a solution for anything. I know you can't just go to Danzō and tell that . . . that miserable old man where to stick it. And of course I don't want to keep you from your dream either. You know that! I would never want to be the reason for you to stop smiling. But at least we have to talk." There was a fierceness in her eyes. "You can't just . . . you can't just go away without saying anything, thinking that nothing will change. That's running away, Naruto. You're not a coward. I know you're not."
Hinata stood with her hand on my chest. The way my heart was pounding against my ribcage, I was surprised she didn't already hold it in her palm. She was right, though. I had done my very best to push all of this as far away as possible. She wasn't crying. But she wasn't far off either. Another step toward the door was all it would take. What a chump I was, eh? making a classy girl like her tear up. The lump in my throat made it hard to say anything, but at least I knew I wouldn't go over to that door if it killed me right now.
I had to take away some of the gloom. We would talk now, and I would do my damn hardest to take away whatever worry she had. A change of mood was in order before that, though. If ever there was a time and a place for an Uzumaki special, it was this moment.
I picked her up, ignoring her surprised yelp, and carried her through the hallway.
"What are you—"
"Shh," I said, carrying her past our bedroom. "Chie's sleeping. And we, Hinata, are going to have a talk." I pushed open the door to the living room. "Only not in the kitchen, but somewhere more comfortable."
Hinata fell silent until I deposited her on the sofa. I went and closed the door, turned on some of the lights, and then plopped down right next to her. I put my arm around her shoulder, pulling her closer. So, that hadn't been so bad, right? I still had no idea what to say exactly, but she wasn't trembling anymore—a step in the right direction if nothing else. Emboldened, I took a shot in the dark.
"I know it'll be difficult being the only one here for Chie," I said, actually feeling some bitterness well up at the thought. "And you've still got your apprenticeship with Shizune and the Hyūga business to take care off on the side and stuff, and I'm . . . I guess what I'm saying is that I'm really sorry I put all this pressure on you and have you bear it alone. It's not fair, and—"
She stiffened in my arm and I stopped talking. I didn't know how, but what little I said had ruined it again already.
"It's not about having to bear a burden," she said. "Chie isn't a burden, with or without you here. It's not about that at all."
"Then what is it about?"
I was glad for having sat down, because her answer made me stop breathing for second. Me? Had I done something? Does she mean I could've done more against Danzō? A flush crept up my face. I knew that feeling of being accused of something and having done nothing wrong. It threw me back to my childhood, and I didn't like that one bit. While she stood and walked over to the window, first looking outside, then at me, I leaned back into the sofa, crossing my arms. There was a lack of warmth where her body had been.
I was quiet, waiting for her to talk. And talk she did, after looking at me a long time, with a gaze that wasn't unfriendly but that I nevertheless couldn't account for. What did she mean by 'you'?
"Shikamaru and Subaru have been writing me while you were away," she said, lowering herself on the mobile heater in front of the window. "Independently of one another. Though I think Subaru's was more of a courtesy letter because he's a Hyūga serving under my husband."
"Good of them to write." I would talk with both of them once we met up again, sure as sunrise. I wasn't a great writer, so my letters to Konoha were nonexistent. That they had written her was souring me quite a bit.
Hinata sighed. "You're angry."
"I'm not," I shot back.
She puffed out her cheeks and gave me a disbelieving look. "Uzumaki Naruto, sometimes you're as stubborn as a mule. Of course you're angry—even though it's nothing to be angry about." Then, as if embarrassed by her outburst, she added quietly, "When I said you, I meant that I don't worry about Chie, but about you. You want to protect everyone, I know, especially because of Kakashi, but please . . . please protect yourself too. I couldn't stomach it if you were . . ." She paused, closed her eyes for a moment, and continued, "I want Chie to have a father growing up, even if he can't be here all the time."
Ah. So I had ticked all the wrong boxes in my mind and arrived at entirely the wrong conclusion. I ignored the sting I felt at the mention of Kakashi and got up. I reached for her hand and pulled her away from the turned-off heater, back to me. As if that thing could ever be more efficient at warming her. "There's no reason to worry about me like that," I said. "I've been trained by the best Konoha has to offer. I'm surrounded by capable shinobi all the time. And I'm a Jinchūriki. Really, Hinata, ever since the Tenmen Treaty the attack to take me out has to be invented first."
I brushed my thumb across her cheek, but she pulled back again. "I know what I read," she said. "And I know what I heard in Konoha. It's not just the rumors and legends that are springing up. I've lost count of the amount of people thanking me on the streets because you saved their sons and daughters, parents, or even grandparents. My heart stops every time they talk to me, Naruto. Every time. They're smiling when they shake my hand, but all I can think of is that you had to be in another life-threatening position to save their family. And then there are the letters. Subaru's are full of praise—he writes them because he knows the Hyūga elders will read them as well—but Shikamaru is worried about you. I am worried about you."
"I'll need to have a talk with him, then."
Half a year of marriage, and that was the first time she hit me in any way. It was only a feeble and frustrated slap to the chest, but coming from Hinata it might as well have been a row of knuckles in my face. "You're not listening!" she said. "He's only doing what a good friend does. He's trying to help you."
He was, yes, and the last time I accepted his help, changing up what I thought was the right approach, I'd had a bitch of a time getting out of the hole against Rōshi because I'd had to care for a knocked-out team member. It was sheer dumb luck that Haru hadn't died that day. Had I been slower by a fraction of a second, he would've been a goner for sure.
"What am I supposed to do, start letting people die?" I said. "You shouldn't put too much into Shikamaru's letters, Hinata. He's a worrywart out on the field, who tends to exaggerate. Always has been. There's really nothing to be concerned about."
"That's a lie, and you know it. Do you think I haven't seen your injuries? The scars? I'm a medic-nin, Naruto. You were littered with them. You didn't even wake up while I treated the worst ones, the ones that would have woken everyone else." Her tone grew heated towards the end. "Please don't lie to me and tell me the front will be safe." She pointed at the scarred flesh around her missing eye. "I've been there. I know it won't be."
She had treated my injuries? I had felt noticeably lighter after waking up, true enough, but I had attributed that to natural healing. I stared at her. If I had been asleep, then she must have done it barely a few hours after the delivery. And since Sakura hadn't thrown me any angry looks, Hinata must've done it in secret. Why, though, I couldn't say.
I said, "You should've rested . . ."
"That's not the point!"
She slapped my chest again. If it weren't such a bad moment, it'd be kind of cute. As things stood, all I had were layers of frustration, one stacked upon the other like empty ramen cups.
"What do you want me to do? You said it yourself, I can't just go to Danzō and tell him to take a bender." And even if that were possible, how could I, now that the Hat was finally in reach? "For better or worse I'm going to Grass and make it ours. I can't change course now."
She clawed both hands into my shirt, dragging us closer together. She looked up at me with such strong emotions it struck me dumb. "Promise that you won't die."
All my life I had made it my personal code that a promise given is a promise kept. I wouldn't be half of who I was had I gone back on the things I said I'd do. But how could I promise that? And at the same time, how could I not promise that after I saw her worry? Especially now that I had described myself as nearly immortal, while painting Shikamaru as an old lady with too many complaints to count them all. How the hell would I look to her if I backtracked now?
I had boxed myself in masterfully. And when the words passed my lips at last, it was the first promise in my life that I was unsure about. I didn't know if Hinata sensed this as I spoke, but it wouldn't surprise me.
She had always known me better than I knew myself.
The following day was tense. We spent our time together with Chie without ever talking of our conversation the night before. But neither of us had forgotten, and the realization that we'd soon be separated put a damper on the mood, no matter how bright the sun shone, or how beautifully the birds were trilling.
When we were with Chie, all our attention was focused on her. Once we were alone, though, our talks felt forced. We had silently resolved not to bring it up again, and we kept to that line, even though it made our conversation veer into directions of no interest to anyone. I had as little sympathy for the rising prices of milk and butter as Hinata, true enough, but I could've gone entire lifetimes without ever discussing them in detail.
On the family photo we took that day, we wore big smiles and looked at each other lovingly and carefree, as if nothing had nor ever would trouble our family. We were shinobi, though. It was our job to make our faces different than our hearts, and it cheapened the photo a great deal. I'd take it with me still, because I had no other of them, but I'd take a new one the moment this cloud had dispersed.
Cruel as it sounded, towards the end of that day I found myself looking forward to the campaign. I'd miss Hinata and Chie, horribly so, but military life was easier. You knew what you had to do. Take this position, torch these supplies, find that information, don't die, never let anyone else die. As a shinobi I had found success with these few rules, despite their being as simple as breaking chopsticks apart.
Eventually there came the time to leave. In the crisp early morning Hinata and I stood on the bridge before the western gate, which was as heavily guarded as any other gate these days. The Bochi River ran quietly under our feet, coming from the spring within the Hokage monument, then cutting straight to the cemetery before looping around Konoha and past the training grounds. Most of the cemetery was hidden by trees, but when the boughs tossed in the wind I saw the outer edges of the flame-like stone that we called the Heart of Fire. No matter where you were in that place, looking toward the center you would see it, pulsing red from the sunlight as if it were beating and keeping the dead alive. I always wondered if Kakashi and Jiji were watching me from there. Or if my parents did.
Since Danzō would see me off as well, we left Chie with Hiashi for the time being. There was no need for my little girl to see something as ugly as Danzō before also having witnessed the wonders of the world. That would only turn her into a cynic.
Hinata was quiet. We weren't holding hands. There was a distance between us as we waited for Danzō, looking out along the river, watching it curl around the Forks, a triplet of prong-like rocks that were remnants from a training session gone awry decades ago.
A shift in the air announced Danzō's arrival. Hinata and I turned away from the river and found him a couple feet away from us, standing straight, two ANBU close behind him. Gone was the hospital garb, replaced by pristine red-and-white. He leaned only marginally on his cane, all in all a figure of dignity and pride. Windows along the riverside were opening at the spectacle, heads leaning out as the curious onlookers took in their Hokage.
He did a good job hiding his condition. The shaking wouldn't be visible to anyone but those right in front of him, the stick-like, varicose arm only known to those who had seen it outside of the long sleeves of his robes. If Konoha at war was a rickety boat, then that cane for sure was the rudder. And Danzō clung to it like a man possessed, trying to hold himself up while also steering us forward. But give a man enough incentive, and he'll summon a demon to appear strong to others.
"Have you set everything in order, Uzumaki?"
"As much as I could in three days."
Danzō ignored the jab. "The troops I sent before you should have prepared a suitable base of operation by now. With them you should be able to solidify our position in Grass. More troops will join up with you shortly, your team among them. You will have to make do with those men, however. They are all Konoha can spare these days." He paused, his eyes flickering along the river. "I am sure Hiruzen will be smiling on you during this mission. To see you with real responsibility was a long-held dream of his. Make Konoha proud, Uzumaki. Make him proud."
I snorted. Maybe I shouldn't have, given that Danzō would decide who gets to wear the Hat after him, but I couldn't help it. That Danzō himself wasn't the best at giving motivational speeches gave me some comfort. "With all due respect, sir, there's no need to invoke the Sandaime every time you speak to me. He's not a motivational tool. I'll do my job and won't bungle it, and that's that."
He shrugged, unashamed. The wistful sheen in his eyes hardened back to its former cold gray. "If you say so, Uzumaki. In that case there is nothing left to talk about. Make sure this becomes a successful campaign." He hit the ground with the butt of his cane, no doubt heard by every onlooker. An ANBU covertly touched his shoulder, then all three shunshined away. A show front to back. That was alright, though. He kept the boat from capsizing. I'd be an ungrateful bastard not to be thankful for that much at least.
The bridge was empty again but for me and Hinata. We stood across each other silently, and for all I wanted to say, all that needed to be said, my lips stayed sealed.
Eventually Hinata stepped up to me and took one of my hands into hers without meeting my eyes.
"Hinata . . ."
She shook her head before looking up at me. Her hands were trembling around my ungainly paw. She was holding it together, barely.
"Hinata—" I began again, but her grip on my hand became so tight that I stopped myself from saying anything else.
"You promised," she said.
That was all. Those words hanging between us, she let go of my hand and left me alone on the bridge, leaving with hurried steps. I heard no sobs or anything, but my sight had always been good, and I had seen the shimmering in her eye when she'd turned. Before long she was out of sight, vanishing into the rows of houses.
I had made my girl cry after all, and she hadn't even been able to stomach crying in front of me.
I ran my hand through my hair and stared up at the sun, which bore down on me with Konoha's usual summer heat. How's that for an Uzumaki, huh? I might become the Rokudaime soon enough, but I sure as hell couldn't recall another time where I had felt as useless.
When I left through the gate to assume my command, the Chūnin on guard duty sent me off with warm smiles and good-natured wishes for success. That day I envied those bastards more than I had ever anyone else in my life.