Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.


Chapter 2

Fortified and well-guarded, Konoha's walls became visible in the evening hours. During my journey with Lee I hadn't thought once about stopping, even if my breath came wheezy like wind in a drainpipe and my legs burnt worse each leap. The walls looming just ahead, I had to keep myself from jumping over them and breaking war time regulations. There'd be no exception to the rules, not even for little old me—soon-to-be the most badass father in the world.

Lee and I came to a brutal stop before the main gate, blasting away the pebbles underfoot in a wide circle. Within seconds, Chūnin and Jōnin had us surrounded, their knives, swords and wires gleaming in the fading sunlight.

Some situations needed a measured approach—Kakashi's words—so I raised my hands peacefully enough that even the slowest Chūnin could track my motions.

"Uzumaki Naruto, leader of Team Sixteen and Team Nineteen, Wind-Fire Front. My commanding officer is—"

"Yeah, yeah, we don't need all that, do we? Let them in, boys. He's good to go. Lee as well."

Kiba broke through the ranks of guards and came sauntering toward us with that Inuzuka swagger of complete and utter confidence. His hair had grown long enough that it was hard to tell if he was man or wolf. When a Jōnin protested our preferential treatment, Kiba's passing glance shut him up quicker than a punch to the face.

What the hell was Kiba doing on guard duty? Last I heard he had been right at the forefront of every major offensive. Had he socked a superior officer or went in too deep after the enemy? If so, no need to bring it up, though. Things like those happened routinely to Inuzuka around the world.

We bumped fists like in the old times, a touch here, a smack there, a silly noise to cap it off. The procedure left the guards speechless. Lee wasn't quite sure what he was looking at, but I could see that he desperately wanted to try it himself.

"Listen," I said to Kiba, "I'd love to stay right now, but I've got to get to Hinata. We can catch up later."

His eyes grew big. "Is it time?"

"It is," I said.

He clapped my shoulder. "Off you go then. Make space, you damn bastards. Here's a father coming through! Are you deaf? Space, I said!"

I leapt over their heads, onto Konoha's main thoroughfare. The last thing I heard was Kiba asking Lee whether he had any illegal contraband hidden in his suit. I stepped up the pace, trying to outrun that image.

The streets had grown sadder. Here and there was an attempt at restoring some of the old vitality—a dash of colored tarpaulin, a row of planted trees, balconies full of flowers—yet barely any people showed their faces. The clotheslines were empty. Most civilians had migrated to areas lacking shinobi villages. Which was fair, given that we shinobi had hit a rough patch when it came to how we were treating each other.

I came running into the foyer of the hospital, looking around wildly before fixing my eyes on the nurse manning the reception. I still looked battered and bruised, more animal than man. When I walked over to the nurse, she shrunk back into her chair.

This close to the scene of action, the lump in my throat was closing up my windpipe. I croaked, "My wife," unable to get out anything else.

"Your wife?" the nurse said, fear easing off her face. She adjusted her glasses.

"Labor," I managed. "Me, father. Soon." I was making myself out to be a first class mouth breather in front of that lady.

Thankfully, understanding dawned on her. "Uzumaki-san, correct?" she said with a smile. "Is that the name of your wife as well?"

I nodded proudly. It had been a battle and a half to get this past the other Hyūga, but we'd done it—not the least due to Hiashi's help.

The nurse accessed the records, trailing her finger down a row of names. A minute later she closed the book. "I'm sorry, but she's not here."

"What? Is the birth over already?"

"I can't say. No one with the name Uzumaki checked into the hospital since your last visit six years ago." She looked at me over the rim of her glasses. "Shinobi on active duty have a mandatory one-year check-up, Uzumaki-san . . . I will let this slide for now, but do come by as soon as you can."

"Try Hyūga," I urged.

"Oh dear, your wife is a Hyūga? No wonder she isn't here. They're a secretive bunch, with all kinds of birthing rituals. You'll have better luck finding her at the Hyūga compound. I'm sure she's there."

Birthing rituals. Right. Hinata might've told me about those. Maybe. I ran out of the reception hall, cutting across the hospital lawn to save time. An elderly couple jumped from their park bench. Forty years younger they might've killed me on accident, being startled shinobi and all that. Weak murderous intent flared up behind me for a moment, then I was out of sight.

The Hyūga compound wasn't far from the hospital, and I made good time there. A branch Hyūga guarded the gate. His attentive appearance would never tell you that he was bored, but I knew better. No matter where you came from, guard duty broke you eventually. If there ever was a human universal, it was this.

I skidded to a halt before him. It sure wasn't my most dignified entrance.

"Uzumaki-san," he said, surprised. "Hiashi-sama is not in at the moment. We didn't know you were coming. Shouldn't you be—"

"Is it over? The birth?"

My stomach sank into my sandals at the befuddled look on his face. Then his eyes brightened. "The labor is not taking place here, Uzumaki-san. You will be able to find Hinata-sama back at your home. She wished to be in a comfortable and known environment for the birth."

A quick thank you, and off I was again, leaping onto the next best roof and smiling like a loon as I kept jumping from house to house. Hinata wanted to be in a comfortable environment. She wanted to be in our home! Soon I'd be with her, and then with the little one too. I had to think of a name. We had to think of a name. A good one, with power and grace and all that made a name amazing. Damn, could this day get any better?


I dug in my heels, breaking a tile underfoot. "Yes?"

Two ANBU had stopped me: one stocky, one lanky—both armed, armored and ready, even though they stood relaxed in front of me.

"The Hokage wishes to see you."

The warmth in my belly was gone. "You can't be serious."

They stared back at me with these dark empty manholes ANBU had for eyes in their masks. No humor to be found. I glanced at the direction of my home. "Come on, guys. My wife's in labor. I'm going to be a dad. A dad! Can you imagine?"

They remained as stoic as lamp posts. Another tack, then. "Can't you say you found me in, let's see, half an hour? At least give me the time to see my wife for a moment while she's having our baby." I didn't have to play up my desperation by much. If they took the bait, I'm sorry to say, I'd do them a bad turn. The moment I set foot across that doorsill, I'd barricade the place with a thousand clones if need be until the birth was over and done with.

Lanky and Stocky weren't interested though. They stayed aloof and repeated their order.

A growl was building in the back of my throat. "How long will this take?"

"That is for the Hokage to decide."

I came very close to hitting them. Even in my current state I was more than strong enough to take on two ANBU. But these two came with direct orders during wartime. If I knocked them around, I'd land in water hot enough to boil ramen with. I didn't like that hanging over my family. My daughter should grow up having every opportunity, without any of the baggage I had to carry as a brat. There were many reasons to reach for the Hat, but ever since Hinata had told me she was pregnant, this one had become chief among them. If I wore the robes, no one—no matter how old or how stuck in past regrets and losses—would dare treat my kid badly. I'd make damn sure of that. I'd always give her something to look up to. Something to be proud of, like my dad had.

I couldn't slug my future shinobi, though, or my chances would go down considerably. Grumbling for them to hurry up, I dashed past the two ANBU, tearing across the roofs toward Danzō's office. If I missed the birth of my child because of this, one day I'd have them scrubbing my damn toilet.

"Follow me, please, Uzumaki-san. He will see you now."

I was on my feet the moment Danzō's secretary rounded the corner. The past minutes had been like waiting for ramen to finish without any of the excitement.

The secretary led me through a dark hallway, then pushed open a door and ushered me inside. My eyes had to get used to the brightness first. The room reeked of antiseptic. Danzō sat on a white chair, wearing a white hospital robe, studying a map and reports on a white table. His visible arm was thin now, barely half of what I remembered. Near a stack of unopened scrolls lay the red-and-white hat, as if to remind visitors of his status. A tray on wheels stood next to his chair, holding tonics of different colors. One vial was uncorked, a tiny puddle of blue liquid spilled around it.

The sickness pervading the room stopped me short. I had heard rumors that Danzō wasn't appearing in meetings anymore, but I hadn't put much stock in them. Maybe I should have.

My eyes drifted to the large hospital bed in the corner of the room. Every inch was covered with swirls and squiggles. Machines collared the bed on all sides like bodyguards, filling the room with a host of dull, rhythmic sounds. Somewhere in the rafters a few ANBU were sure to be slinking around as well.

"Are you done gawking, Uzumaki? Sit down."

Without looking up from the map, Danzō weakly motioned at one of the chairs.

As I took my seat, his eye met mine for a brief moment, and most of my worry fell away. Obsidian, steely, neither broken nor bent: in that eye was the resolve to start another war this very night if need be. Not necessarily a good thing, but at least Konoha hadn't lost its leader yet. I had learned long ago to look for the silver lining wherever I could.

"Permission to speak, sir," I said. Once Jiji had died and Danzō became the Godaime, Sakura had drilled me mercilessly in matters of appropriate behavior. I'd hated it at first, but it had been before I came to know Jiraiya and Tsunade. With my direct link to the higher powers gone, I adapted. By now it was like any other persona a shinobi might find the need to develop.

"Granted," he said.

"My wife is in labor. I know this must be important, but could we reschedule this meeting for tomorrow? I want to see the birth of my daughter." I smiled, ready to uncork the honey jar. "She'll make a good kunoichi one day, better than any you ever had on the force, I promise."

When Danzō replied with a grunt, I thought it sounded amused. He stayed silent, though, and kept focusing on his report. Maybe it had been unfunny to him after all? Half a minute later I was quite certain his grunt had been one of anger.

"So . . . " I began again. "About the birth . . ."

He put the scroll aside. "I wish your family good fortune, Uzumaki, but matters of the village always stand above those of personal nature." Danzō's voice was raspy and on the haggard side, but the undercurrent of authority was hard to miss.

I glanced at the clock.

When Danzō went back to his report, a disrespectful grunt slipped out of my mouth. Even Sakura's teachings had their limit. "At least have the decency to be quick about it, man."

He made a mark on a different sheet of paper, filed it away a long minute later, then leaned back in his chair, quite unimpressed. "As you wish, Uzumaki. What can you tell me about Grass Country?"

"Small country. Lots of forests, rivers, and ravines. The Third War didn't treat it too kindly. Last I heard Orochimaru made the place his home after quitting on Rice Country, which is why for once we and Iwa haven't made it our stomping ground. That's about it." And wasn't that just the damndest thing, attributing peace to the snake?

"Adequate," Danzō said, "for the most part. You forgot that Grass has rich soil and has historically been a major exporter of food."


Danzō snorted in dismay. "An army needs food, Uzumaki. A lot of it. Say nothing of the geostrategic importance of Grass. If we take possession of these resources, our efforts against Iwa will be much improved. It would give us the edge needed to bring this war to an end. Having had Jiraiya and Kakashi as teachers, I would have thought you to jump from joy at such an opportunity."

"Orochimaru is still haunting that place," I said. "Any attempt at making Grass ours, and he'll be there to kick us out. With him hiding in the bushes it's a waste of manpower." A horrible idea dawned on me. Would Danzō actually order me to take out Orochimaru? I wasn't afraid of the snake, but it would be a sure death sentence to quite a few people on my team. "Sir," I added curtly, "I don't think sending my team to assassinate Orochimaru is a good idea. Let me go alone, and I can—"

"You're speaking nonsense, Uzumaki. Orochimaru has already been taken care of."

Without giving me a chance to process this information, Danzō went on, "The details are classified and not your concern. What is your concern, however, is this." He slapped his hand feebly on the part of the map that showed Grass. "The clans that supported Orochimaru's rule are scattered all across the country. It also won't take long for Iwa to realize that Orochimaru's grip on Grass has slackened. We need to move fast and establish ourselves in that space. Otherwise the opportunity will be lost."

"Are you saying . . ."

"Uzumaki Naruto, you are now commanding officer of every shinobi within the borders of Grass Country. Your task is to establish a foothold and make sure that no power other than Konoha has access to this vital resource. Your squad will, of course, stay with you. More men are already at a suitable site for a stronghold, setting up camp to facilitate the transition. You will receive more detailed instructions tomorrow."

I looked at him full of wonder and horror, as though he was the first human being I had ever seen in my life. "My leave?"

"You have three days to get your affairs in order."

"But . . . three weeks. They said three weeks . . ."

"The situation has changed." He gave me a flinty look. "Hiruzen spoke highly of you. Prove him right and do Konoha proud, Uzumaki."

I stood rooted to the spot, and it took his grunted, "dismissed," before I found my way to the door.

I left the Hokage tower in a trance. Night had fallen already and a chilly breeze was tousling my hair. The half-moon above Konoha looked ready to fall and decapitate some poor sod.

I blinked. What the hell had just happened in there? How could a man go from commanding seven people to more than thirty times that in the span of fifteen minutes? The faraway bark of a dog broke me out of my stupor. I jumped off the street and hurtled across the rooftops. No one would stop me this time on my way to Hinata. And if Danzō himself got in my way, I'd barrel right through his arthritic carcass, the fallout be damned.

I had upgraded my apartment upon becoming a Jōnin. Higher ranks gave higher pay, even for easier missions. I had a solid track report with my neighbors, too. My landlord was a cantankerous windbag, but she liked money. There had been no trouble when I bought the second apartment next to the first and broke down the walls dividing them.

Money, respect, a nice place to come home to that wasn't empty: it was a life I had dreamed of as a kid, and through grit and tears I'd made it possible. When I landed on the street before my apartment complex, my head was spinning. Hinata was having our baby in there. I was actually about to become a father. The thought just seemed so unbelievable.

I raced up the stairs, taking two steps at a time, and hurried along the outside hallway to our apartment. The door opened, and Sakura peered outside.

"There you are," she said. "I sensed you down in the street. Your chakra is all over the place."

"Must be the excitement." I tried to glimpse past her into the dimly lit apartment. "Where is she? Is it over? Am I—"

"Follow me," Sakura said, leading the way.

I did, obedient like a dog and with the same bundle of unease and excitement in my stomach as an Academy student starting their first year. At the door to my bedroom Sakura gave me a look I couldn't quite interpret. It was gone a moment later. She held her finger to her lips and whispered, "They're asleep now, both of them. No mean feat for your daughter. She's got your lungs for sure."

Sakura gave me a tired smile. "I did all the regular procedures already. No need to worry—she's as healthy as can be. As is Hinata. You can go in, of course, but please let them rest. They did a lot of work today."

I hadn't made it in time, then. I had missed the first milestone in my daughter's life. I was still standing before the door, useless as a ramen cook in a sushi restaurant, when Sakura pushed me forward. "Go on in," she said, and I followed her command out of habit.

The room was quiet and dark and smelled of sweat. The blinds were raised, and the moonlight pasted a checkered motif on the parquet. My orange blanket was rising, lowering, then rising again. Nothing in that room could've reassured me more than Hinata's breathing. I stood listening to it, then padded over to the crib at the foot of the bed. All my shinobi instincts were working overtime to make sure I stayed quiet and undiscovered. I wasn't sure I could handle the little one waking up without Hinata there to help and introduce me.

Then my eyes found my daughter. She lay prone in the middle of the crib, and she was the tiniest thing I'd ever seen. Everything about her was small-sized, from the head to her curled stubs of fingers and the fuzz of bright hair that shone like silver in the moonlight. To everyone asking, I'd always answered that my girl would have no trouble later in life if only she got her qualities from her awesome mother. I'd be lying, though, if I denied my fist pump at the shade of her hair.

I reached into the crib, brushing my big, oafy finger across her tiny hand. This little thing was supposed to go out into the world on her own one day? I had a fist-sized sailor's knot in my chest at the thought. No way that would happen.

I'd never let her, or her mother, come to harm. And when all was said and done, both would be proud of me. They wouldn't ever regret belonging to this family. I had always been very particular about promises, but if ever there was one I intended to keep, it was this one.

I awoke to the chirping of birds, my head warm from the sun and the bed sheet under me full of slobber. The night before, I had settled down in a chair right next to the bed. I must have keeled right over some time afterwards, bedding myself in the most uncomfortable position known to man once the tiredness had kicked back in.

Still, I had earned the rest, and I was never above using weird positions to sleep. I kept my eyes shut, ignoring the soft breeze from the window. I inched my head away from the wet spot I had left on the sheet and gave a satisfied grunt. Sleep could take me once more.

"Take a good look at him. That's your papa."

Those words blew my eyes wide open. I sat ramrod straight in the chair. Hinata lay in the bed, her back propped against an army of cushions. Part of her dark-blue night gown was pushed aside. While Hinata was holding her close, Tiny took to her breast like I did to ramen. Her fingers lay flat on the breast as if to take hold, and her mouth went at a steady rate. Her eyes were a graceful violet shading into white at the edges. For all I could tell, she looked content.

"You're staring," Hinata said with a soft laugh.

"I can't help it."

I said nothing and looked at Hinata. So much had worn her down before: the field injury that took her right eye; Hiashi's subsequent order to stay in Konoha, and Hinata's demand that she be allowed my name should she comply; her decision to become a medic-nin equal to Sakura and Tsunade; the continued battle against the more stubborn part of the Hyūga . . . But all these things seemed not to burden her anymore. Right now, Hinata's smile wasn't one of determination to convince herself she could make it through hardship, or to cover up her unease, but a genuine one. It was a smile that went straight to her eyes and then filled the whole room.

I sat staring, my arms hanging uselessly down my sides. Then I pushed back the chair. It was time for introductions.

Hinata scooted over, and I climbed into the bed, lowering myself next to her. She had showered. The flowery smell of shampoo still clung to her hair. I took another look at Tiny, who was still feasting like a champion, then turned my head and kissed Hinata. I had waited four months to do that. If I had my way it would take equally long to end it.

"I missed you," she breathed around my lips.

I smiled into the kiss. "Same here, believe me."

Slowly, I tore myself away and regarded the hungry blond-fuzzed wonder in her arms. "She needs a name. I keep calling her Tiny in my head."

"I have a few suggestions, but have you thought of—"

There was a loud knock at the door to the apartment. A yawn came from the hallway, footfall, then the door jarred open. Sakura was speaking quietly to whomever was disturbing us. So she had slept over? It was good to know that she had my back. I'd make her a godmother, too. Still, I was surprised that Hinata had chosen Sakura to help her during the birth. As far as I knew, they really didn't speak that much on a day to day basis, not nearly as much as Sakura and I anyway. Hinata had gotten it on much better with Shizune, who had overseen her studies during the pregnancy. In fact, I had always thought Hinata disliked Sakura for some reason, but that just showed how wrong I got it when it came to reading the mind of a woman. Or you could chalk the decision up to pregnancy flightiness, if such a thing existed. Who knew?

Presently, when Sakura's voice got heated in the hallway, and bits and pieces like, "you really shouldn't," were flying around, I swung my legs out of the bed.

"I'll be back in a moment," I told Hinata. Whoever was interrupting this moment better had a damn good reason.

I walked into the hallway and narrowed my eyes at the masked shinobi on the doorsill. ANBU again. I had an inkling who was calling for me.

"Uzumaki-san," the ANBU said when I had pushed past Sakura, right up to him. He was taller than me by a good head, but I had never been embarrassed by having to glare up at authority. His breath quickened under the mask. Good. A newbie.

"What is it? Make it quick, man."

"The Hokage wishes for you to speak with Shikaku-san to go over the details for your upcoming mission."

"I haven't got the time now. Be a dear and tell him that I'll be over in an hour or so."

The guy's hand twitched—a miniscule motion, but it told me enough. He was gathering his courage. "To be frank, sir, this is a direct order from the Hokage. It isn't wise to delay."

I took another step—you couldn't have fit a kunai between us—and smiled up at him. "Listen. I'm in a good mood today and I know ANBU training is stressful, so I'll repeat what I said. Go to Shikaku-san and inform him that I'll come and talk everything over in an hour. Understood?"

He was hesitating, his breath becoming more rapid. His eyes were roaming around, looking for potential threats. His hands shook a little. Then he nodded abruptly and shunshined away.

"You didn't have to intimidate him," Sakura said, leaning against the doorframe. "I'm sure you could've talked him into your point of view."

"He's a rule guy. He would've followed me into my bedroom if I hadn't used it."

It being a nifty trick Kakashi had shown Sakura and me shortly before he died a few years ago: a way to, let's say, disperse difficult situations. You flexed certain muscles quick enough to give the trained eye the impression of being attacked, without ever being really able to confirm it. Hard to see if you didn't know what to look for, but it drove you wild sure enough. And small wonder it did. After all, your instincts—honed over years of grueling work—suddenly told you that you were about to be ripped into like a log at a training ground. Bless Kakashi. He had always known best how to scare the living shit out of people.

"Do me a favor and make sure no one troublesome comes close to this place for the next hour, alright?"

Sakura raised an eyebrow. "Troublesome? You really do notice that Shikamaru's your second in command, you know? But sure. I'll . . . keep them away."

I nodded gratefully and went past her but then stopped in the hallway. "Your girl, by the way, Izuna—she's doing a good job. A bit nervous, but she's a good medic. Your teaching comes through."

Then I left for my bedroom. There was still a lot to be done. Naming Tiny for one. Holding her as well. The thought gave me a jolt, and I scratched my head as I moved back into the bedroom. I had to be really careful not to break her on accident.

Hours later, Shikaku had given me all the necessary information. I was leaving the barracks exhausted and firmly expecting to be left alone so I could spend time with my family. It had been quite a battle—Shikamaru's old man was surprisingly hard-headed—but at least my squad got to keep their three weeks off.

Hiashi had caught me outside the office, too. We had a quick talk about our mutual happiness, then the frowny face came back on, dripping gravitas. He asked me about my mission and how I was going to train my one day old daughter. When I told him the answer to both questions was classified he actually relented. He seemed the same Hiashi on the tin—old dogs and new tricks and all that—but in truth he'd grown more mild these days. Becoming a grandfather might do that to you. Before he went back to the compound, he gave me a nice box as a gift to honor my command, where I could store my important and official correspondence. I thanked him dutifully.

I nodded to the barrack guards as I passed them, glad to be out of that ugly place. It was where command—aside from Danzō—kept its headquarters. Shinobi could live there for next to nothing, which beat out rent prices big time. They called this hideous mix of wood and concrete The Plates because it looked like a stack of used dishes and was just as clean. Living there was as likely to give you a roof over your head as making you think of taking a knife to yourself.

Two of my squad were staying there during their off time. Both were saving up to get the hell away from it. Sometimes I tinkered with the mission reports to make their roles stand out, so that the dispensary gave them a little bonus. Shikamaru didn't like it—of course he had noticed the first time I did it—but I was usually quite good at dodging around when he wanted to talk it over. He was just afraid the Brass would notice and punish us. I thought they rather had more pressing matters to worry about.

Hands in my pockets, hitai-ate around my arm, I walked away from the barracks, down the streets of Konoha. I relaxed into the sunny noon as daylight was sluicing off that dreary atmosphere. Three days weren't much, true enough, but I'd be a damn idiot if I spent them whining. Hiashi had been right, though. I should talk things over with Hinata sooner rather than later.

I showed only the briefest of reactions when suddenly two people were escorting me as if they'd never been anywhere else. They were whistling, watching the few stalls still left with amusement.

"He twitched," Tsunade said.

"Told you he would," Jiraiya returned. "He's good, but not that good." A sound-sealing bubble was building up around us. Jiraiya had shown me once, but it was fairly complicated. I had never bothered with it, going for flashier things instead.

I kept my eyes on the road home.

"We're here to get some gossip, kiddo." Jiraiya's booming voice made me vibrate right next to him, even though there was no point of contact between us but the ground. "So?" he asked. "What's her name? Who are her godparents? Come now, kiddo, don't be shy. Talk to us."

"Chie. Uzumaki Chie."

Tsunade snapped her fingers, but I sensed no money being exchanged. Both had lost their bet. Good.

"A good name," Jiraiya said. "And her godparents? Who is doing the honors?"

"Sakura and Shikamaru."

"Your second in command?" Tsunade asked. "Is that a good decision? You'll be together in the field . . ."

I glanced at her. "None of my shinobi will die. Shikamaru was Hinata's choice, by the way." And I stood fully behind her on that. On the campaign that took Hinata's eye, she would've lost much more if not for him. I had no doubt that if anyone came even close to harming Chie, Shikamaru would devise a million ways to put that guy into a world of misery.

"Are they together? Shikamaru and Sakura?" Tsunade asked.

"Not that I know of," I said. We walked another half minute in silence, then I stopped in the middle of the street. "You're more than welcome to visit us and get to know Chie. But I know you're here to talk shop, so spill it, I want to get back with my family. What's going on? What do you want with me?"

I had the unpleasant experience of being dragged into a shunshin. Coming out of it, I found myself standing in a room next to a flat table and cushions. The paper walls around us had been drawn shut. Three bottles of sake stood on the table, each with its own complementary cup. A lantern with the number six stenciled on it hung suspended above us, spreading a warm red light. You wouldn't have been able to tell the time of day outside. This could have been just as much the inside of a slug or toad as an inn.

"Sit down," Jiraiya said, giving my shoulder a hearty slap. "There's cause to celebrate, and just one way to do it right." He took to his side of the table, already in the process of stuffing his pipe.

"I really don't think I should right now," I said, still standing. "I have to get back—"

"Jiraiya's right," Tsunade said. "Sit down. You're getting an invitation from two of the Sannin. That ought to count for something, don't you think? Besides, it's not often that shinobi get to have their wish in so many different ways." She poured the first round of cups and toasted to me. She refilled them immediately after throwing back her head.

I sank into the pillow. What had I missed? This celebration, nice as it was, struck me as odd, and very secretive at that. I wasn't planning on drinking much, but I took my cup regardless. Maybe it loosened up my brain enough to make me see—sometimes you had to join them, in order to understand the world from their perspective. Which was beside the fact that they had me deadly curious.

"To Chie," I said, raising my cup. This one's for you, Tiny.

"To Chie," they repeated.

We slammed back our cups. Tsunade refilled, shooting Jiraiya a hooded look that set me on guard. I smiled at them. "Let's go around. Who's next in line?"

Tsunade shrugged. "I'll do it." She lifted her cup. "To your promotion!"

It was costing me precious time with Hinata and Chie, but I could toast to that readily enough. Another row of cups was duly chugged, and soon again refilled. Jiraiya came next, and he was gazing at me like a hungry animal. I was sure by now they had another bet going, but what about I couldn't say for the life of me.

"To your future!" Jiraiya said, his eyes never straying from mine.

They tipped back their cups. I raised an eyebrow. "That's not very specific, is it? Don't get me wrong, I'm honored that you've invited me to this little gathering. But if there's something you want to tell me, there are easier ways."

"He doesn't know," Tsunade said with a self-satisfied tone.

Jiraiya exhaled noisily. "Goddamn, kiddo, can't you use your brain for once?" Disgruntled, he handed Tsunade a satchel. She had won the bet, then. Interesting. Jiraiya leaned forward. "You've been to Danzō's office, haven't you? Noticed anything strange there?"

I hadn't had much chance to think that night over, since most of my thoughts had been centered around my family—and wasn't that a nice thing to say? I got all warm and fuzzy just thinking it. But, to the matter at hand, there had been something off about Danzō, yes. "Now that you mention it . . . He was injured, and sick." A bed full of seals, talking to me in a white robe, his hand thin as a stick, blue-veined and looking like decay itself. "Quite severely at that," I continued. "He is one of our strongest shinobi—the Godaime to boot. Who could have . . ." Then it hit me. I was a fool for not having thought of it earlier. Danzō had told me outright, after all. "Orochimaru?" I asked, incredulous. Their faces told me I was right. "Is he dead for good then?"

"As far as we know," Tsunade said. "Neither my slugs nor any of Jiraiya's toads have heard or seen a sign of Orochimaru since then. And believe us, we looked everywhere. So it does look like Danzō snuffed him out." That gave me a whole lot more respect for Danzō all of a sudden. No wonder Grass was suddenly up for grabs. He had made it so.

Jiraiya reclined into the pillow. Smoke curled atop his pipe, filling the room with the aroma of wood and spices. "I'm curious. What do you think your promotion is about?"

I shrugged. "Compensation for a dangerous mission. We didn't get everything, but all things considered we did reasonably well, what with Rōshi being there. Isn't that the way it usually goes?"

Tsunade topped up her cup, drank, and repeated the process. Her cheeks had a deep flush going, but her eyes were still sharp. "He's not getting it, Jiraiya. Let's tell him and get drunk. I'm tired of this game."

Jiraiya chuckled. "If you want to, sure. It doesn't seem like we're getting anywhere like this."

"It would help if you two were less cagey about things." The guessing game was starting to tick me off something fierce. I had enough on my plate already without all this secrecy. "Get to it, or I'm gone. I've only got three days."

The corner of Jiraiya's mouth twitched. I worried he'd play more games, but then he thought better of it and nodded. "Alright, alright, keep your hat on. Or rather, try a new one out for size. It's nothing to be angry about, just the office of Hokage up for consideration. No biggie."

He had me. Worse, he knew it. I leaned across the table, barely noticing how Tsunade rescued a bottle from my sudden movement. "Say that again."

He tried looking solemn, but he couldn't contain the smile, despite his morbid message. "Tsunade did everything she could, but it's only a matter of time until Danzō dies. Whatever poison Orochimaru used before meeting the Shinigami is beyond the realm of our knowledge. Danzō knows it, too, and he's looking for a suitable replacement. Think about it. You're an accomplished shinobi, but commanding a whole front? That's a steep climb, wouldn't you say? He's testing you out. He wants to know if you have it. As far as vetting processes go, that's fairly standard."

"Not just you, though," Tsunade said, looking at me over the edge of her cup. "There's going to be a change in leadership at the front between Water and Lightning as well. Depending on how you two fare, he'll make his decision. In any case, Danzō wants someone young to energize the troops. A figure they can look up to—not unlike the Yondaime. Usually he's more conservative with such matters. But as far as I can see, he's banking on the fact that, even if you become Hokage, you'll heed the counsel you'll get from old-timers like Shikaku and us."

I would. Probably. Maybe. "Are you drinking like that because you're celebrating, or because you're pissed you couldn't heal him?"

Tsunade's scrunched-up face told me the answer. In his dying moments Orochimaru had gotten one over her, after all.

"Likely both," Jiraiya answered in Tsunade's stead, ignoring her glare. "We don't particularly like Danzō, but our animosity doesn't stretch far enough to celebrate his death. Mind you, I won't shed a tear either. I don't think many people will."

" Who's the second person being tested? Who's my competition?"

"Aburame Shino," Tsunade said. "He was a classmate of yours, right?"

"Shino, huh? Haven't heard that name in a while . . ."

I was still close enough to kiss Jiraiya, so I settled back down. My thoughts were whirling about like threads tied to a spinning top. Could this be it? After all these years, had I really made it far enough to be considered? I reached for the sake nestled in Tsunade's arms and took a deep draft right from the bottle. I wiped my mouth and stared up at the lantern, on which the number six was proudly displayed.

Uzumaki Naruto, Rokudaime. It had a nice ring to it.

Chapter End