Generic Disclaimer: Naruto not mine. Woe.
Everything else: Although I wasn't originally intending for it to come out this way, I read back over this fic and think I can see my military up-bringing bleeding through. A smidgeon of this is background that I'm using for my character at Imamade Nandomo, but the rest of it is just me wanting to write from the Sandaime's point of view. He doesn't get enough love.
AT ANY COST
The sun had set nearly six hours previous, illuminating the sky through a haze of brilliant scarlet and orange. Residual smoke from the fires still hung low on the horizon and clung like tendrils of mist to the trunks of the forest that surrounded Konohagakure. The last blaze had been put out two days ago, but the stench of homes and lives lost to the fires seemed permanently stained in his nostrils.
He wanted to know how it had come to this. How he had failed to prepare, failed to see the attack coming. Why there wasn't more he could have done to save more lives.
Why he couldn't have died in the Yondaime's place.
Five days since the kyuubi had attacked the Village Hidden in the Leaf, and this was the first chance he had been given to get away from the work of rebuilding his home and the lives of the people who shared it with him. Five days since he had gotten more than twenty minutes of rest at a shot. His attendants and advisors had all but kicked him out of his office, insisting that they were perfectly capable of handling matters long enough for him to get a full night's sleep.
It would help, of course, if he was capable of falling asleep to begin with. But rest eluded him.
He had already visited the Hero's Monument, to run his weary, dry fingers across the sharp edges of freshly carved names. Men and women who had fought for him, lived and died for him. For every name that was added he mourned what little un-etched space was left behind. He dreaded the day they would be forced to erect a new monument, when there was no room left to add a new name.
There was barely enough space left as it was.
My words are cold comfort for the living, he thought. His lack of foresight had left too many orphans and widows behind; that any of them, young Iruka included, could continue to have faith in him after this… hurt. The silent accusations of the dead were easier on his scarred heart.
The civilian cemetery smelled of ashes, freshly tilled earth, sour death. It seemed as though there were more new tombstones than old, more squares of exposed dirt than turf undisturbed. It was late, much later than a standard mourner would be out, but he was not surprised to find the cemetery still occupied. He was not the only one who could not sleep.
He did not bother to disguise his approach, as the whisper-hiss of his robes across the smooth marble pathway was difficult to hide without the aid of chakra. The moonlight was bright enough to read by, leeching color out of the cemetery grounds until everything was bone-white and gray; shadows cast by the ancient oaks cut sharp lines against the tombstones, utter black and absolute white, like the line that separated life and death. The smoke drifting lazily above the solitary figure in his clan's section of the graveyard seemed a thing alive – a half-formed specter of the dead waiting to pass judgment on the living.
He turned off the path to stand by the visitor, shoulder to shoulder but not quite touching. They leaned back against an old marble monolith, the carvings half-melted and worn smooth by age; the stone felt cold through the silk robes he wore. Together, they studied the night sky in silence.
The stars, half-obscured by lingering smoke as they were, sparkled with a peace that he dearly wished was reflected down below.
"It is good to see you are still well, Asuma-kun," he said after a moment.
"Yeah," the boy – closer to a man now, but still too young to truly be called one – replied absently. His arms were crossed over an already threadbare chuunin vest, legs crossed at the ankle; the cigarette smoldering away between the first and second fingers of his right hand looked forgotten. "Same for you, Hokage-sama."
The Hokage considered the cigarette in silence before gently plucking it away from the chuunin and bringing it to his lips. Under normal circumstances he would chide the boy for the habit – under shinobi law he was an adult, but he was only fifteen, and no store should have sold cigarettes to someone under eighteen. But these were not normal circumstances.
The taste was harsh when he inhaled, but not unpleasant; he held the smoke in his lungs for a moment, savoring the near instantaneous effects of the nicotine stealing through his muscles.
"You know," he said, smoke wisping from his lips as he spoke, "if you must insist on smoking, I can recommend smoother brands of tobacco than this."
The boy shrugged. It was startling, sometimes, how much Asuma reminded the Hokage of his long-dead older brother, even though there was little family resemblance between the two. He could remember all too easily when his brother had been this age, still gawky and awkward in the long-limbed cusp between boy and man, lacking the experience of age but still so determined that his path was the right one. And that any violent path his younger brother, unknown future Sandaime Hokage, would take would eventually destroy him.
War is not the way, he had said.
Perhaps his brother had been right all these years and he, the Hokage, was wrong. But it was too late to turn back now.
"They're cheap," the chuunin offered reluctantly after a moment. "I don't complain as long as there's nicotine in it."
"What ever is on sale?" the Sandaime asked.
He observed the cherry of the cigarette, dimly glowing too close to the filter to be worth smoking any more, and carefully ground it out against the monolith. He did not think his ancestors would mind the desecration if it prevented any further fires. "Then remind me come the next holiday, and I will share a good bag of pipe tobacco with you. It would be a shame if you never learned what a good leaf tasted like."
The boy didn't bother responding. He would probably never take that offer up; they had never, unfortunately, been particularly close. Perhaps it was because Asuma reminded him too much of his brother, despite their radical differences in opinion. Perhaps it was because of the rift the Hokage had torn in his grand-nephew's family, by allowing him to enter the shinobi academy despite his father's wishes.
The Hokage secreted the butt of the extinguished cigarette away in a pocket of his robes, turning his eyes to the tombstone before them. A victim of the kyuubi's attack, another civilian casualty that should have been prevented but was not. Another death that lay squarely on his shoulders. Asuma's mother, Iruka's parents, the Yondaime, dozens of ninja, tens of dozens of innocent bystanders… the war was over, but it seemed as though peace was eluding his grasp. The kyuubi's defeat and subsequent sealing into the body of an infant boy was a hollow victory. It did not ease the grief of those left behind.
The way of the ninja is not the right way, little brother, the older Sarutobi had said. Fighting solves no quarrels, injuring or killing another brings no solution. Peace is the only way.
You cannot have peace without being willing to fight for it, he had said in response. You cannot put out a fire that threatens your home by politely asking it to leave.
It had been fighting that ended the war, not peaceful negotiations. It had taken blood and torture and countless lives before a truce could be agreed upon. The Sandaime only wanted peace for his people, but how could he not fight when the other countries had wanted to take that peace away? He could not stand aside and beg for peaceful resolutions while the enemy slaughtered his family and shattered his home. He had a son to protect, and a daughter-in-law, and his daughter-in-law's family; he had his brother's family to protect, even if they no longer spoke to one another; he had the Yondaime's family to protect, and all the clans and all the civilians to protect. It went against the very grain of his nature to stand by and do nothing.
His brother had died before his grandson, Asuma, had been born. Dead because he had chosen to beg for his life on his knees rather than fight for it. He wondered if his brother's son, Asuma's father, blamed him for that death. For continuing to perpetrate war by fighting to protect Konohagakure, rather than by finding another way.
The Hokage certainly blamed that death on himself.
"Were you…" He hesitated, uncertain how to continue. It was wiser to speak of death than to ignore it, but it was hard to deliberately aggravate wounds inflicted only days past. "…able to attend her funeral?"
The boy dropped his gaze from the sky to the newly carved headstone of his mother. It had been almost eight years since he had entered the shinobi academy, eight years since a nervous young boy had tugged on a Hokage's robes and asked if one could become a ninja without parental consent. Eight years since the boy's father had broken a decade-long family silence to demand his son not be allowed to devote his life to a meaningless war.
The way of the ninja is not the right way, uncle, his nephew had said. I will disown my son if you allow this disease to fester in his mind.
He wondered if Asuma's mother had the bravery to defy her husband in order to speak with her son after he had been forced out of the household eight years past. He somehow doubted it.
Asuma dug a mangled pack of cigarettes from his vest pocket, withdrew one and brought it to his lips.
"Dad and I don't talk," he said as he lit a match. "I didn't… find out 'til today."
What does your father think of you now? he wondered, watching as the boy used the action of lighting a cigarette to avoid looking at his companion. Does he hate you for being a killer before you even hit puberty? Does he hate you, or does he still love the boy but hate the actions? Does he mourn the loss of your childhood? Or does he instead despise me for taking your childhood away from you?
All he wanted was peace. All he wanted was to give his people and his family and the children to come a chance to live life without the fear of war. But how could he give that to them if he wasn't willing to fight?
If you do this and fail, your death will be meaningless, he had told the Yondaime.
And the Yondaime had just smiled, despite the blood on his face and the scent of death in the air, and said: But if I do this and succeed, my death will be validated. I will protect my loved ones at any cost.
He did not want the children who made up the ranks of genin and chuunin and even jounin to have to fight. He did not want to train them to be killers from such a young age. Perhaps now that the war was over he could relax the stringent rules that governed the shinobi academy. To wait until the children had become genin before giving them D-rank missions. To give them a chance to live a more normal childhood, to give them more time to decide if they really wanted to be ninja. To become ninja not because their country needed more bodies to throw to the front of the war, but because…
"Asuma-kun," he asked quietly, "why did you choose this path?"
Why did you decide this was the right way for you to go, even if it meant you would lose the support of your family?
Asuma looked up at the sky again, leaning his head back against the cold marble of the monolith. The hitai-ite he wore was eight years old and scarred from too much time seen in combat. Fifteen years old, detached from his own mother's death and a killer half his life.
"Kids are stupid, you know," he said. "They think being a ninja is some glorious thing. That being a ninja makes you some kind of a hero. They don't realize just how terrible it is until they find themselves covered in someone else's blood and guts."
The Hokage observed him and said nothing. It sounded, eerily, like something his brother had used in their many arguments, before they had agreed to disagree and subsequently never spoke again.
The chuunin looked back to the grave of his mother, taking a slow drag off his cigarette before continuing. "I asked dad, once, what he would do if the village was invaded and me or mom – or both of us – were attacked. He wouldn't answer me. I always… took that to mean he wouldn't do anything."
I would rather die than willingly inflict harm on another person, the Sandaime's brother had said the last time they spoke.
Even if that person attacked your family? he had asked. Killed your son? Raped your wife?
I would beg they take my life instead, the older Sarutobi had said. But I would not fight.
"I don't care if they hate me," Asuma said quietly. "as long as they're alive to do it."
The Hokage felt old. Tired. The wars had ended but still bubbled beneath the surface no matter where he looked, no matter how hard he fought for peace. He had become a shinobi to defend, just the same as the Hokages before him, but for all his strength and experience he could not do it alone. If he could take on the pain of fighting and killing in order to prevent his ninja from similarly experiencing that pain, he would. But he could not be everywhere at once.
"I should probably quit," the chuunin said abruptly. "I only started because I couldn't stop my hands from shaking after missions. But I guess I'm too used to it now."
Too used to the killing? the Sandaime wanted to ask, or too used to the smoking?
Or, perhaps, it was too used to being a ninja. He imagined the answer to all three of those was yes.
His grand-nephew was a good ninja – not the best the Hidden Leaf had to offer, but no where near the worst. His grades might have been average at best while in the academy, but he was developing a proficiency in strategy that would make him a formidable opponent later in life. The Hokage had no doubt that, with time, he would make it to jounin. He might not be the strongest, or the fastest; he was not a genius and he lacked the chakra reserves that most of his year-mates displayed. But what he lacked in raw talent he made up for with drive and the skill born of experience and sheer unadulterated stubbornness.
Stubborn like his father and grandfather, the Sandaime thought. And, perhaps, like himself. They were all Sarutobi, after all.
I will protect my loved ones at any cost, the Yondaime had said.
Just like all the other ninja of Konohagakure.
Even if it meant dying. Even if it meant killing. Even if it meant being disowned by your own family. So long as they were alive, no cost was too high to pay. Even if it meant losing your soul in the process.
That was why the Sandaime had become a ninja. That was why Asuma had become a ninja. That was why Iruka's parents and the Yondaime and countless others, living and dead, genius and just average, those who had died during the war and the kyuubi's attack and those who had survived, had become ninja.
To protect their loved ones… at any cost.
He placed a hand on his nephew's shoulder.
"There is nothing wrong with choosing this path," he said. "Do not let your father or anyone else convince you otherwise."
Asuma seemed startled at the contact at first, before a small, almost shy smile turned up the corners of his mouth.
"As long as they're alive to argue," he said, "I don't really mind."
The deaths of those the Hokage had failed weighed heavy on his shoulders, and as a leader he knew that the weight could never be lifted. But he was not the only ninja whose life goal was to protect the people of this village. He was not the only ninja who felt that weight so keenly. They all shared the weight with him, and with every person saved, every person protected, that weight was eased. Just a little.
He squeezed the chuunin's shoulder gently, and turned away. "Rest soon," he said. "There is still much to be done to rebuild the village."
"I will," the ninja replied. "Good night, Hokage-sama."
The Sandaime Hokage turned back to the marble pathway, and let his feet retrace his steps out of the cemetery and back to the Hokage Tower. He passed through the shadows of the ancient oaks, from bright to dark to bright again, until he left the loose embrace of their overhanging boughs to enter the moonlight once more.
There would always be a battle to fight, always a war threatening to steal peace away. But he would fight for that peace, no matter the obstacle. He would not turn from any struggle, no matter the consequences.
There was work to be done. Sleep could come later.