Too many empty seats
"What are ya doing, Naruto?" Gamakichi peaked over Naruto's shoulder. "Another letter?"
"…you're really whipped, aren't ya?"
"Sure, yet you always write letters. If it isn't 'Hinata-chan', it's your Nee-chan, Baa-chan, Sensei, or whatever. You're a slave to women," Gamakichi tried to tease the Uzumaki.
Naruto sighed, and turned around. Gamakichi could barely get through the door properly, and in this case hadn't tried. They hadn't forgotten how they had struggled to get Gamatatsu out, last time. The gluttonous young toad had been able to get in, but after pillaging Naruto's kitchen he hadn't been able to get out. In the end they had been forced to ask Gamabunta to lift the roof and pull his wayward, and overweight, son out of Naruto's accommodations.
Thinking about how Kichi and Tatsu used to sit on his shoulders only a few months ago left Naruto confused… toads were weird. Very weird. Then again, if these two were to become as massive as their father, Gamabunta was over fifty-five feet tall, they still had a lot of growing to do. Not that Gamatatsu seemed to have any interests in doing battle, though. Food was the only thing that motivated the thick toad. By contrast, Gamakichi took an interest in Naruto's life. Being Naruto's first summon, he had proclaimed that he was Naruto's first choice, thus, by his logic, his closest friend. And friends were supposed to know each other.
Although Naruto had the sneaking suspicion that Gamakichi was just trying to gain some status in his clan, as Naruto as their summoner was regarded to be a very special guest on their sacred mountain.
Living at Myōbokuzan surely required Naruto to adapt to a lot of strange things. Then again, toad-society wasn't exactly well-adapted to humans either. The last human to have lived among them for a longer period of time had been Jiraiya. The small cottage wherein Naruto resided was originally built for Jiraiya, in a time when the perverted sage had just been a young and innocent boy. At least, as innocent as the pervy sage ever was. In spite of its age, this was one of the few buildings that had the right sizes for a human. And the toads were remarkably skill at crafting items, so the building would definitely last for another generation or two.
Provided that Gamatatsu didn't try to break in and plunder Naruto's kitchen again…
"You really miss 'm, don't ya?" Gamakichi saw Naruto's longing expression.
"It's her birthday soon, Kichi. And I'm stuck here."
"You want me to deliver it again?"
"…so that you can mess up the entire Hyuga gardens again?" Naruto grimaced. "Seriously, you can't just blindly jump over a wall and expect to leave an entire flower garden undamaged. Not after just growing four foot, and gained half a ton of weight."
"I'm still adjusting!" Kichi defended himself. "My growth spurt hit me only two months ago! How could I have known that-"
"Training," a huge voice bellowed. "So that was why you were dodging my questions."
"A-ah, h-hey pops," the smaller toad turned pale when he realized his father stood behind him. "I w-was just-"
"Just proving that you deserve to have your training regime doubled," Gamabunta grunted. "Come along Kichi. And no talk-back."
"Yes pops," Kichi sighed dejectedly.
"And Naruto, the old geezer asked for ya."
"Again?" Naruto sighed with matching dejection. "This is going to be just as frustrating as last time, isn't it?"
"Hmmmm," the massive toad peeked through his barely opened eyelids, seemingly confused by the situation. "Who are you again?"
"Are you sure you are the Ogama Sennin (Great Toad Sage)?" Naruto smacked a palm to his own forehead. The stifled laughter from the tiny old couple, Fukasaku and Shima, didn't help much in Naruto's futile attempts to keep his temper in check. "Since I got to Myōbokuzan you've called for me four times now, and each time we get this… this… aaargh!"
"Four times already?" Gamamaru, the oldest and most respected toad of his clan, scratched his old and wrinkly chin. "Four times… Four… Hmm…"
"Oi, Deka-jiichan Sennin (Giant Grandpa Sage), don't fall asleep again! Please?! Wake up! WAKE UP!"
"Eh?" Gamamaru opened his eyes, startled. The scatterbrained old toad had the infuriating quality of falling asleep in the middle of a conversation, as he had just demonstrated. "Oh, I am not telling you about the future with Tsunade-chan, little one."
"I'm Naruto, not Jiraiya!" Naruto shouted indignantly. "And I don't wanna know Baa-chan's future! Seriously, doesn't Ero-sennin have any freaking shame at all?!"
"You asked us to call for Naruto-chan," Fukasaku scraped his throat, drawing the attention from the old (senile?) sage. "He's ta new summoner, and currently our student, remember?"
"Naruto… Naruto…" Gamamaru pondered. "Uzumaki Naruto?"
"Yes! He remembers!" Naruto jumped up, overjoyed that they were finally getting somewhere. "Now whatcha wanna tell me, old geezer?"
"I… don't remember," Gamamaru frowned. "But I haven't slept too well. I'm sure I'll remember tomorrow."
"That what you said last week. And the week before. And that time before that, last month," the young boy rolled his eyes.
"You said something to us about a duty Naruto-chan had, inherited from his clan," Shima suggested, hoping to jump-start Gamamaru fuzzy memories.
"Clan? Oh yes, the Uzumaki clan," Gamamaru nodded.
"And?" Naruto felt the vein on his forehead pulsing, and was somewhat surprised that he it hadn't exploded yet. This old toad was too infuriating to converse with. "My clan, my duty, what was it?"
"Hmm… a duty was handed down to your clan… preserving a key," Gamamaru actually said what he had to say, much to the surprise of Naruto, Fukasaku, and Shima. "Three-tipped, the key shows the way when the time comes to a close."
"Time comes to a close?" Naruto blinked. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Every cycle has a beginning and an end. Even when it was disrupted, nature always finds its way, and the balance returns."
Naruto looked at Fukasaku and Shima, expecting them to translate. But the two tiny toads had no clue either. "Any chance you might say it in a way that I might understand it?" Naruto turned back to Gamamaru.
"Your clan did not stray from its duty, and was rewarded," for some odd reason old Gamamaru suddenly smiled proudly. "In the centuries to follow, they remained untarnished, persisting in their loyalty. The old one is grateful, and that is why it asked Hagoromo to make the key."
"Hagoromo?" Fukasaku muttered. "You mean the Rikudō Sennin?"
"He was not spared from it, unlike the Uzumaki. But you are," Gamamaru actually opened his eyes, looking down at Naruto. Gamamaru's size, easily comparable to Gamabunta's, would normally cause regular humans to have some shred of respect, but Naruto only felt impatience and frustration.
Finally the old toad was talking, and now he only gave riddles.
"Spared from what?"
"The Uzumaki clan has always had remarkable chakra. The cleanness in it is passed down through the generations, all the way to you… hmm… I forgot your name…"
"I'm Naruto," Naruto sighed.
"Yes, Naruto. It was passed down to you. It is why you and your kin are best suited to hold the antithesis of that cleanness."
The history books which Gamazu, the old 'scholar' among the toads, had gathered over the centuries was impressive, and Naruto had read quite a bit on his clan. How they performed unusual feats with regard to the manipulation and solidification of chakra, for instance. "You mean the Kongō Fūsa (Adamantine Sealing Chains)?"
"Chains? No, no, the chakra in itself," Gamamaru shook his head, seemingly bemused by Naruto's conclusion. "The others fell to greed, but not the Uzumaki."
"…right," Naruto sighed. "So… this duty, this key that shows a path, it's the Gekihoko, isn't it?" he suddenly realized. That was it! That was something passed down through the clan. And it was created by the Sage of the Six Paths himself?
Fukasaku and Shima looked confused by what Naruto just said. The two had never heard about the trident before, it having been a closely guarded secret of the Uzumaki clan for a time longer than even their lifespans.
"Naming a key does not equal understanding it," Gamamaru yawned.
"It said I needed to 'learn the elements and connect to the earth'," Naruto looked at the old fortune-telling toad, wondering if Gamamaru could shed some light on it.
"If you know your duty, I need not tell it," the old toad mumbled sleepily. "These young ones will help you," he gestured at Fukasaku and Shima, who shouldn't have been, by any standard, considered 'young'. But Gamamaru was the exception.
"He's too young ta learn senjutsu, old geezer!" Fukasaku protested.
"His issues with ta Kyūbi need to be solved first," Shima agreed. "There hasn't been a true master of senjutsu amongst ta humans in ta first place, never mind someone with burdens Naruto-chan faces!"
"Guys… I think he's sleeping again," Naruto pinched the bridge of his nose.
The two smaller toads both fell from their seats, exasperated. Fortunately for Naruto they immediately started to bicker amongst themselves, rather than ask him about the Gekihoko. Naruto wondered whether he was supposed to talk with them about the seal on his right hand, although it had somehow known that Gamamaru was aware of its existence. Still, Naruto had given his word to keep it a secret, and still ended up blurting out its name in the presence of the elderly couple.
Now he needed to figure out how to avoid their questions in such a way that he didn't end up with a head full of lumps.
Naruto wasn't fooled by the pretense of it 'purifying' his chakra, Fukasaku just enjoyed slapping people with that staff!
It seems like every time I send you a letter, I have to tell you 'I'm sorry'. Even though you tell me with every reply I do not need to. I wish I could have been back in Konoha for your birthday. I tried to convince the old perv to let me go for a day, I really did, but he said that I can't. Seems like the village really got scared because of what I did. Well, what the Kyūbi did. Although that furry bastard saved my life, so I can't complain. Else, I probably would've been one of Danzō's heartless minions by now…
In spite of their weirdness, the toads are less troublesome to deal with than a room full filler councilmen and clan heads, with one or two exceptions. Why does Gamamaru have such a sloppy memory? Why is Gamariki cross-dressing? When will Gamatatsu finally stop try to steal my food?! (He already got zapped by my seals twice, and still he doesn't give up.) Because, I finally managed to solve the food problem! Your books on gardening were a gift from the heavens. Instead of being forced to eat what the toads eat (bugs, worms, and other gross stuff), I am now able to grow the ingredients and make my own ramen! Not Ichiraku-level ramen, but it definitely beats a roasted caterpillar. Trust me, nothing is normal here, those caterpillars are probably bigger than Akamaru was before I had to leave (Kiba was complaining that Karin made Akamaru fat, so I'm not sure how big Akamaru has become while I've been gone).
Training is still a secret, but I can tell you that I'm getting stronger. Not strong enough to kick that fuzzball's ass, or make Erokage eat his words, but I'm going in the right direction. But honestly, I had hoped that I would have been further now. Erokage warned me that it would take years, but I thought that I could do it faster with the Kage Bunshin. Perhaps Gamakichi is right, and I'm indeed overconfident.
How are things going over there? I hope your dad isn't being too difficult. Neji wrote that Hiashi still blames me for what happen to Hitomi-sama. And my foolish clone declaring the caged bird seal Uzumaki property wasn't really helping either. Hopefully he's not too harsh on you for siding with me. How did your exhibition match with Hanabi go? You said you were planning to win with a narrow margin, so that the elders wouldn't be able to come to a decision. Hopefully it worked. The more time you can buy, the more chance Erokage and Baa-chan would have to get that seal out of Hyūga hands! I'll keep working on a way to prevent them from forcing that despicable seal on you or Hanabi.
Nee-chan said that Tayuya is finally allowed to help Anko part-time at the Torture and Interrogation division. I bet they both love it. Crazy sadists, they could have been sisters. I bet Chie is enjoying it when she helps them. I pity the fools who are taken prisoner. Though, Anko and Tayuya just as easily turn against each other, if their letters are an indication. Nee-chan seems to be getting more obsessed with Kiba with every letter I get. How bad is it, really? I bet Kiba still hasn't truly figured it out. Much unlike Raidō, who wrote me a rather frustrated letter last month… it seems that it isn't easy to maintain a relationship with that crazy snake lady. The pictures you sent from Ako's marriage with Iruka-sensei (I keep calling him sensei, for some reason I can't get it out of my head) were great. I hate it that I couldn't be there. They both looked so happy. Happier than Shikamaru's letter. I never knew that he'd write the word 'troublesome' just as often as he says it. Then again, after what Lee sent me, I shouldn't be too surprised. Youth! Not to mention the way Tayuya abuses human language.
Though… you should've seen the letter Baa-chan sent me. I bet she was drunk when she wrote it, complaining about how she regrets having taken Danzō's place at the council. Although I think it is rather funny that she now an 'elder'. She's probably going to hit me for that, once I return. Oh well, she's old, so she has probably forgotten about it by then. That's what old people do best, right?
And yet, among all our crazy friends, I miss you most. I wish I could leave Toad-hell, and be there to wish you 'happy birthday' in person. But it didn't stop me from giving you a birthday present. Even Erokage shouldn't be able to spot the seal on the back of the scroll. It's why I asked for a few of your hairs last time (I know, it sounded freaky, but I'm not completely insane yet, although I'm getting close thanks to Gamazu and all his theories). It's a seal which should only respond to your chakra.
Oh, and the locket changes from the Hyūga symbol to the Uzumaki symbol when you put chakra in it. It also doubles as a chakra storage seal. I figured it could be useful to have some extra chakra at hand during combat. I guess I kinda ruined the surprise now. Dang. It's not as awesome at the photo book you've given me at my birthday (I still look at it every day), but I hope you like it!
Happy fourteenth birthday, Hinata-chan!
Ps. After the fiasco with Gamakichi I sent the letter with Kosuke this time. He's a greedy little bastard though, but do not pay him, even if he asks you to. I've paid him in advance. But ever since I mistook his mother for a lizard he's been kinda mean. I mean, why in the name of ramen would a toad wear false teeth?! Toads are weird!
Hinata fidgeted a bit nervously with the necklace that Naruto had given her: a slender chain of pure silver with a pendant that somehow could change from the Hyūga clan symbol to the spiral of the Uzumaki clan. What made it even more valuable to her, though, was that it was handmade by Naruto himself. It had been the first thing Karin had said when she entered the restaurant, stating that her necklace was brimming with Naruto's chakra.
Of course, after that she wanted to know everything what Naruto had written, what had caused them both to laugh. It was the day after her birthday that Hinata had gathered all her classmates at their favorite restaurant: Yakiniku Q.
She, Karin, Kiba, Neji, Tenten, Lee, Shikamaru, Ino, Tayuya, and even Sakura.
"We had to drag her along," Ino clarified.
"Who, Sakura or Tayuya?" Kiba snickered.
"Both were troublesome," Shikamaru sighed. "But aren't they always?" Shikamaru blamed himself, at least partially, for Tayuya's reluctance. She didn't like coming here, having learned that this had been the favorite hangout of team ten when Chōji was still alive. Even when they assured her that she wasn't, Shikamaru knew that Tayuya still felt like she was intruding.
Her past allegiance to Orochimaru was something other people often brought up, often used against her, but neither Shikamaru nor Ino blamed her for anything. Both knew that Tayuya hadn't served Orochimaru out of free will. But even if she hadn't been the one who killed Chōji, Tayuya still remained sensitive regarding the topic of his death, in spite of her blunt behavior.
Everyone had their own defense mechanisms.
"I'm not cut out for fancy dinners," Tayuya harrumphed. "All that elegant bullshit is something I'd rather avoid. And it rather avoids me too."
"Just like good manners," Ino snickered. "And Sakura had planned to study, as usual," she pointed at the oddly emotionless girl. Ever since her parents died, Shino died, and Sasuke defected, something within the girl had snapped. She had never really recovered. She remained distant and cold. Sakura did try to act friendly, but Hinata could see that her heart wasn't really in it. The others had gotten used to it, although Ino was still worried about her.
The banter continued, only interrupted when food entered the table. And even then they kept talking.
"How are things at your clan?" Shikamaru asked carefully, picking the moment when Kiba started a rather loud (when was an Inuzuka not loud?) argument with Ino (who replied with equal volume).
"I won," Hinata sighed, knowing full well that Shikamaru was aware of the duel she and her sister had gone through. Some way to celebrate a birthday… "I won, but in a way where the elders were both impressed by Hanabi's skill and couldn't say that I performed badly."
"So it went according to plan," he narrowed his eyes. "Troublesome traditions. But at least it buys time until March. At least, I take it those stupid duels are organized on her birthdays as well."
"Ugh. At least the recent fiasco caused enough damage to their reputation that the elders of your clan can't do anything stupid."
"They do complain that Hokage-sama is restricting their influence," Hinata agreed.
"As well as several other clans. I reckon that those Root files contained a lot of dirt on them, if the council could be neutered like this. Then again, I can't believe that they were stupid enough to do business with the likes of Danzō. Idiots, the lot of them," Shikamaru grunted. And unfortunately the majority of their stupidity seemed focus on power, especially with regard to their resident jinchūriki. Shikamaru had noticed how even his father had continued to try to declare Naruto unfit to be a shinobi, arguing that the boy was mentally unstable and therefore a liability to the village.
It was one of the rare occasions when Shikamaru had thought that it wasn't too troublesome to start an argument. Even his mother had been taken aback, actually. Shikaku saw Danzō as a necessary evil, thinking that what the man had done had been inevitable, as it was what Konoha needed. Needless to say: Shikamaru disagreed. The barbaric methods weren't something 'necessary' at all. What Danzō had done was not 'for the sake of Konoha', but for his own sake. For the arrogant idea that he was the only one who knew what was right and wrong.
Regardless of how strict and overbearing she could be, even Yoshino had been unable to really mend the rift between father and son. There was a fundamental difference in logic, one that Shikaku dismissed as inexperience and naivety, to which Shikamaru retorted with still unanswered questions as to what dealings the Nara clan had with Danzō and his Root Anbu.
Acceptance of the dark nature of Konoha, or naïve idealism: Shikamaru still didn't know which of the two was best. But he had Naruto in whom he believed. Once Naruto returned, once their generation was strong enough, they would change Konoha. Because Shikamaru refused to believe that shinobi were merely tools for their village. It were human beings who lived and died for their friends, family, and village. Like Chōji, they were people, not tools.
"It would be better if traditions were changed," Hinata agreed. "Some traditions only cause pain." She looked at her cousin, who was talking to Tenten. "Some traditions should be abolished, whether people want to or not."
"Indeed. It still disgusts me how the village acted like the deaths of Chōji and Shino were just normal occasions," Shikamaru grimaced. "Even the clans are more concerned with making Otogakure bleed for their transgressions than paying attention to the actual problems in our world. The death of two young genin seems to be a triviality to them. And it is even worse, when you hear people talk about it; they always go on about how the Aburame clan lost their genius heir… But Chōji…" he paused, feeling too bitter to continue.
"Is… is Ino still blaming herself?" Hinata asked sadly. She didn't need to ask him. She could see how badly the loss of his best friend had wounded him, even if he usually tried to put up a strong act.
"For what happened to Chōji? She says she doesn't, but she doesn't fool anyone. She still blames herself for pushing him into that clandestine mission," the Nara sighed. "She thinks that he only agreed because she's so damn bossy… but that isn't true. Chōji was too gentle for this accursed system. He wanted to 'rescue' Sasuke. While Sasuke ran away on his own accord."
"At least her lessons with Tsunade-sama seem to cheer her up," Hinata smiled. While she had left that class in order to focus on her combat style, on Suzaku's teachings, Hinata was able to heal most of the simple wounds. But Karin, Sakura, and Ino were the last three students who had 'survived' Tsunade's curriculum. They were dabbling in poisons, surgery, and all kinds of complex aspects of Iryo Ninjutsu. Not that Hinata didn't found it interesting, but her own training regime took too much of her time to keep following Tsunade's class.
Tenten had sadly been forced to quit. While she had talent with Fūinjutsu, and greatly admired Tsunade, whom she had idolized ever since she was a little girl, Tenten did not have a particular great talent at healing. Ino, Sakura, and Karin on the other hand, all three excelled at chakra control. Sakura was arguably the best of the three, although Karin held the odd advantage that her chakra in itself already had healing qualities- which made her even more efficient at healing than her teacher, in some respects. Ino, however, had survived due to sheer motivation. Chōji's death had left deep marks.
"You miss him."
"He was my best friend."
"Chōji, Shino, Naruto-kun… three seats that are empty," Hinata said with a sad tone. "And while Naruto-kun will return… I don't think I will ever get used to this aspect of our life. I don't understand why parents would want their children to be trained this way. What happened when Sasuke defected could have happened during the Chūnin Exams as well."
"For many teams it did happen back then," Shikamaru reminded her. "Believe me. Godaime-sama has appointed me to be the envoy between Konoha and Suna, ever since our last Chūnin Exams. Just like Ino is the envoy to Kirigakure. But in our roles we get a pretty good look at how nasty the exams actually are."
"Another thing that has to be changed," Hinata nodded. "And people wonder why our group trains so much…"
Listening, unnoticed yet very attentive, Sakura realized that there were more people who intended to change the village. Unfortunately for her 'friends', they wouldn't succeed. Root had taken a devastating blow when Naruto had barged into their base, but not all operatives had been lost. True, somehow Jiraiya had been able to capture many of the remnants, proving that Naruto had somehow dragged more information out of Danzō's office than just that single desk. But Root prevailed. And as she was the only one left whose emotions had been broken, Sakura had become the one to lead the remnants. Intelligent as always, she put the skilled operatives to good use, while living a separate life at the surface. Not even Tsunade realized what her student was truly doing.
'The village will indeed change. But not as you think it will. The will of Danzō-sama will live on. You people may be the leaves bathing in the sun, but we are the roots that grown in the dark, supporting the mighty tree of Konoha. And you leaves do not bring change.'
A/N: Thank you, everyone, who have read and reviewed this story. I hope I have managed to entertain you with my first attempt at a long story. It was a struggle to continue writing at times, and I know I had to learn a lot at the start, but I hope it has been worth my efforts.
But unfortunately, here I am, wondering what to do.
The Boruto spinoff is basically killing my motivation; it saddens me that they milk the franchise money with such bland new characters, lazy plot, and mediocre art that I doubt 'Boruto' would've existed if it had been a stand-alone story. Next to that is the sequence of events in my life that make me doubt if I have the energy it takes to continue a story such as this. A story that has, in hindsight, grown too big. I had forgotten just how big THG had become until I had to reread everything when writing the previous chapter and the epilogue.
So… "Should I continue with the post-timeskip part?"
I asked myself this question many times during the past months. Part of me wants to do it, even having created storylines for a fic named 'Resurgence'. But as I described before, I doubt my own ability to complete such an effort. Or rather, I doubt my motivation. Because it would be a big project. A very big project. I accumulated too many ideas, enough to say that the post-timeskip story would match the length of THG. I hope you can forgive me, but I don't think I can manage that. No, I think it is better if I end things here rather than being forced to abandon the sequel midway.
Is this a decision I lightly made? No. Is it a choice I like? Certainly not. I'm torn, even while writing this. I could just take the easy way out and give empty promises of needing a break and never return, I've seen that done before and it's not my style. I admit that this, at some level, feels like failure, but but it is what it is. I wish I could write about Akatsuki, Orochimaru and Sasuke, Root and Sakura,the Shinju, the origins of Uzushiogakure and the history of the first Shinju, the role of the Gekihoko and the entity calling himself Ryōta, Naruto's involvement with Konoha and the Hyūga clan, Hinata, Naruto's left eye, and many other things that I have in mind..
That said, I don't intend to abandon writing fanfiction. This epilogue marks the end of this story, but not of me as a writer. The idea I'm currently working on, however, will not be Naruto-related. I'd like to move to something new and create a fic that isn't a time-consuming monster like this. Time will tell if that'll work out, but after these past few months I think a change of pace would be a chance to renew my energy.
But I will not end this final note before I, once again, thank Illuminated. For a long time he has worked at improving the grammar and the story at large. Also, I'd like to that all the wonderful people who provided me with inspiration, like Bleis29, Serious Sam, Ensou, Dark-Indigo (who create the cover image), The black prince of darkness, Scarease, and many, many more. The wonderful part of this site is that it offers a way to interact with your readers, something that it has definitely improved my writing.
It was all you people who gave me the energy to get this far.