"It's a damn mess," muttered Shikaku. His son gazed at the map somberly. "Pein may be dead but even so, we are still in greater danger than ever."
"Word has already spread," cried Koharu. "Iwa is mobilizing their forces as we speak! With Jiraiya fallen and so his agreement null, we can no longer count on Kusa to guarantee our northern border!"
"We must show strength now more than ever," declared Homura. "Konoha's greatest deterrent for invasion, the Legendary Sannin are no more. The Copy Ninja, son of the White Fang, has fallen. And Hiashi continues to mourn for his daughter. With the death of the heir apparent of the Hyuuga, people say Hiashi is considering seceding the clan from Konoha jurisdiction!"
"But Naruto," interjected Shikamaru.
"Naruto is but one man," snapped Koharu.
"And yet it was one man who stopped Iwa from invading Konoha last time," Shikamaru shot back. "If we really want to show strength, why not take the one who defeated Pein and-"
The strict voice came from Shikamaru's father, to the surprise of all. "As powerful as Naruto is, it is beyond absurd to consider him for Rokudaime," Shikaku muttered. "Naruto is strong but young and easily manipulated. We cannot leave Konoha's future to the political whims of the other Great Countries while Naruto complacently goes along."
Inoichi sighed heavily. "We must also consider the fact that…the Godaime Hokage may not wake." The air filled with tension and silence. "If Lady Tsunade does not pull through, we will have to acknowledge that the last of the Senju are no more. If Senju blood, or even the possibility of Senju blood has ceased, Konoha loses another source of power."
Shikaku nodded. "The balance of power hasn't shifted this drastically since the sacking of Uzugakure. And added on the death of one of the Great Toad Sages on Konoha land no less, we can't rely on the support of Mount Myobokuzan. There is only one answer. As senior Jonin, we must recommend Danzo to the position of Rokudaime Hokage."
Shikamaru stood up suddenly, angered by the words of his scarred father. "A man whose talents were mysteriously vacant when Konoha was being destroyed! However strong he is, he didn't see it necessary to display it at any time to protect the village!"
"We don't have a choice," muttered Inoichi. "I will leave it to the council to arrange meetings with the Fire Daiymo. No doubt the loss of so many powerful shinobi will have left his list of Hokage successors quite short. And where is Naruto?"
It was not at all what he imagined it would be. Naruto stared at the Memorial Stone, blankly. What he would give to see the Stone blank. The weather was warm and sunny although Naruto felt more cold and detached than ever. That comforting feeling and confidence in the goodness Naruto saw, had faded too quickly.
He naively envisioned celebration when he defeated Pein. For a moment, Naruto thought he would have vindicated himself in the eyes of the village – his every critics. But Konoha was grim. Even a war hero could not pull them from a grieving slumber. The people passed from one source of anguish to the next.
The first night was grieving for all those who had perished at the hands of Nagato. Naruto no longer had hate for the man, in fact he understood him. But that did not make the pain any less insufferable. The total count came close to a hundred. Naruto knew that without the protection and selflessness of the Fifth, those numbers would have grown exponentially to many thousands. Konoha citizens, with tears streaming off faces, lifted small candles in the air, trying to convince the fallen that their Wills of Fire lived on in them. Naruto wondered if in reality, they lifted small candles to try and convince themselves. The Will of Fire was strong, Naruto acknowledged that. But at least at the precipice of catastrophe, the flame could not warm a soul so empty and shattered.
The second night was in prayer for their beloved Hokage. The moment Naruto was told of Tsunade's ill condition, he froze, convinced he could not thaw until Tsunade-baa-chan awoke. The Sannin were no more. Nor was the one who bestowed that title upon them. Nor was the master they shared. Nor were the apprentices they had. Anko dead. Minato dead. Shizune dead. Naruto could not lose Tsunade-baa-chan. He'd sooner face all the evils and tyrants of the world than let one of the only people left he held affection for, perish. The villagers called here the Senju Princess, the last of the blood that changed the world forever. Naruto felt the foundations of Konoha begin to weep with the possibility of losing three Senju Hokages.
Naruto felt another pang in his heart when he remembered the necklace she had given him, the day he mastered the Fourth Hokage's technique. Tsunade had entrusted the dreams of her loved ones into the necklace and unto Naruto. And in a rage only fitting for a beast, Naruto destroyed it. He had destroyed what Tsunade-baa-chan had entrusted him with. The shards of the Shodaime Hokage's necklace were to the wind. And all the hope poured into it, gone with it, now far from Konoha's reach. Far from Naruto's reach.
The third night was for the Hyuuga. Naruto couldn't bring himself to leave his room that night. Hiashi's sorrow could be felt and heard from the moment he collapsed with the news. He had charged past the crowds and leapt into the crater, madness already vibrating in his sorrowful cries. Over the body of his firstborn daughter, the proud leader of the Hyuuga clan wept as no babe could. He unsteadily held the silky violet hair of his daughter through his fingers and caressed her face. The face which smiled at death. A tearful father saw the pale pupils of his child dim, the mark that this Hyuuga would never again awaken the Byakugan. On that night, Naruto had exhausted himself of all emotions he could have had for Hinata. He remembered the trembling rage when the Kyuubi took over. All mixtures of emotions, complexities and possibilities took over a battered mind until when Naruto broke free, he had passed all fires of grief with only the likes of acceptance as a memory of Hinata.
Her final words to him gave him chills. It made sense, as Naruto looked back. He still didn't know what to think, how he should feel. He wished he could have spoken to Hinata about it. Naruto wished she had said so earlier, he wished he had caught on earlier. Perhaps then, he could have made some sense of it all.
A few days later, he managed to bring himself to Hinata's final resting place. It was beautiful, covered in lavender and possessions of grievers looking to give. It was filled with tokens of citizens, people remembering the kindness that the late heir apparent brought forth with her. Amongst it all, Naruto spotted something that both warmed and froze his heart.
At the foot of her headstone there was a small piece of bread, barely enough to feed a child. Naruto showed the tiniest of smiles.
"I did it, Hinata," whispered Naruto. "I beat him."
There was only the chirping of absent minded birds as Naruto struggled to find more words to say.
"I'm sorry I couldn't be what you wanted me to be," spoke the blonde, softly. "But don't worry. I'll make sure Neiji gets back on his feet. And I'll make sure your father and sister don't take their grief to their graves. You…I thought you were one of the prettiest girls. I thought you should know that. Well, anyways…thank you Hinata. You have my word. And you know my nindo. Goodbye."
The nights of sorrow forced Naruto to shake his head back to the present. With Sakura beside him, he gazed at the particular spot of a new name engrained upon the Memorial Stone.
It was just the simple name. No mention of his ancestry or legacy. No appraisal for his accolades and titles. He wouldn't have wanted that.
"Do you think Sasuke-kun would care?" asked Sakura quietly.
Naruto didn't speak.
"He wanted to bring Sasuke back, you know," said a near tearful Sakura. "He didn't say it as often or bluntly as you did, but he wanted to reunite Team 7 so badly. He wanted to…redeem himself."
"Now it's up to us," replied Naruto, with white knuckles. "I will bring Sasuke back for you, for me and for Kakashi-sensei."
"Are you ready?"
Naruto nodded, taking hands with Sakura. They approached the Memorial Stone and soft jingles could be heard. Naruto and Sakura bent down and placed two silver bells at the foot of the Stone.
"There you go, Kakashi-sensei," mumbled Naruto. "Now you don't have to be late all the time. You can stay here forever."
"He believed in us," spoke Sakura. "All three of us. So we have to do the same. Kakashi-sensei made Team 7. We need to honor it by restoring it."
Naruto and Sakura began walking back to what was left of the village hidden in the leaves. Earth release shinobi were already working on filling the enormous crater within the walls of Konoha. Fearing imminent attack, the interim government had decided to make moving people back behind the walls a priority.
"Naruto, Sakura!" called a voice in the trees. Shikamaru appeared. "They got a barbeque place up, finally. Hungry?"
The pair nodded earnestly and followed Shikamaru.
"So how is it like, being Jonin?" asked Sakura.
"Pain in the ass," grumbled Shikamaru. "I was pretty much forced by my father to become Jonin. I guess the postponing had reached its limit. Anyway, it means I'm more privy to conversations that show me just how much shit we're in."
"Do you think Hiashi is serious about pulling the Hyuuga out of Konoha?" Sakura demanded. "What happened to Hinata was tragic. But it's not like she was forced by Konoha to do it. She did it for…"
Naruto could feel Shikamaru and Sakura's nervous glances at him whenever Hinata was brought up. She had died for Naruto and they didn't know why. Hell, he knew why and wasn't any less confused than they were.
"It's not about blame," Naruto said slowly. "It's about being reminded of the loss everyday. I don't think Hiashi wants to bear it. He thinks that getting far away from Konoha will help him forget the loss. But you can't run from pain. It'll catch up to you no matter where you go. Tsunade-baa-chan knows that. But if he doesn't, the pain could destroy him…"
Naruto fell into deep thought as he walked.
Jiraiya, Kakashi, Shizune, Fukasaku, Hinata and so many others.
Naruto had witnessed not only his own pain, but of those around him. Had it been worth it? Why couldn't he shake this feeling of uncertainty over his decision? The pain was forever burned into memory. With that in mind, did he make the right choice. Were all these deaths, all this pain, worth it?
Naruto saw the smiling faces of his fellow ninja, waving him over to their table. They beckoned at him with bright faces and lovely grins. They offered him food, company, warmth.
"Was it worth it?" Naruto asked himself. "I hope so."