"Here it comes! I can see the head now…push, Kazama-san!"

Unable to bring himself to watch, Kazama Arashi turned away from the bed where his wife had been lying for the past five hours. He wished he could say it was because he couldn't stand the sight of her in such obvious pain, but that would have been a lie; as Fourth Hokage of the Hidden Leaf, he had far too much experience with pain, both his own and that of the people for whom he cared.

Behind him, he could hear his wife's grunts and strangled gasps, along with the encouragements of the medics attending her. It wouldn't be long, now—and indeed, after one final, drawn-out groan that sounded like nothing else that had ever passed his wife's lips, he heard the piercing wail of a newborn child. A sick sense of anticipation overcame him, and he took a moment to curse himself for ruining what should have been one of the most joyful moments of his life.

"Arashi?" The sound of his wife's voice, tired yet joyful, instantly cut through his inner turmoil. "Come, don't you want to see our son?"

At those words, an indescribable feeling of relief swept over Arashi, who for a moment forgot the role of Hokage and allowed himself to be only what any other man in his position should be: a proud father, overjoyed that both wife and child had come safely through the birthing process. The feeling was not to last for long, though, as guilt flooded through him shortly afterwards. His child was safe, but now another would have to pay the price.

With expert skill honed over years of political maneuvering, however, he managed to keep any of those emotions from showing on his face as he turned and knelt down beside his wife, who was cradling a tiny, cloth-wrapped form in her arms. "Isn't he perfect?" she murmured, and, gently stroking the infant's solitary tuft of blond hair, Arashi could not help but agree with her.

"I need to go," he said reluctantly, after a few minutes had passed. "I wish I didn't have to, but…"

His wife smiled. "I understand," she said, adjusting her hold on their son. "With the Nine-Tails getting closer, I'm surprised the commanders managed to leave you alone this long. Besides, right now I don't think I'm ready to do much except sleep."

Gently, Arashi kissed her, then his son. His plans had obviously worked; she knew nothing of what he intended to do, or even exhausted from giving birth, she undoubtedly would have tried to stop him. Taking one final look at the family he would never see again after that day, he stood up and walked away.

- - -

Exhausted, the new mother could do nothing except lie back on her bed and marvel at the baby sleeping in her arms. The nurse who had attended her during delivery had already left, likely to join the medic-nins at their field hospital, and so she was alone in the tiny room. Her husband had been unable to be with her for the birth—any and all ninja were needed for the delaying action against the fox demon, especially those who, like him, were part of the elite ANBU hunter teams—and she felt his absence acutely.

Please, come back safely, she thought, rubbing small circles on her daughter's tiny back. Though not a ninja herself, she had been married to one for years, and she was far from naive. The odds were against her husband returning at all, let alone unharmed, but she had to hope.

"Excuse me…?"

With all of her attention focused on her thoughts and her child, she had failed to notice when the door to her room opened and a man walked in. Now, startled, she looked up and saw one of the last people she had ever expected.

"Hokage-sama!" she blurted out. "Is…what are you doing here?" Immediately, she flushed scarlet as she realized he might take offense at her question. He was said to be a kind man, but she was sure the stress of the past several days must have taken its toll on him.

For several long moments, he failed to say anything, and worry began to grow within her. Gods…what if something's happened to Kisame? she wondered fearfully. Hokage-sama himself wouldn't come just to give me the news, so that can't be it…right?

"I have a request of you, Haruno-san," the Hokage finally said. "It will seem somewhat strange, though."

"Anything!" she exclaimed, relieved beyond words that he had not come for the reason she feared. She thought she saw him flinch at that, but he recovered so quickly that she decided she must have been mistaken. What he said next made her wonder if she had somehow damaged her hearing during the delivery.

"I need to take your daughter with me, Haruno-san. Just for a few hours, and I promise you no harm will come to her, but this is more important than you can imagine."

The utter sincerity in his voice captivated her, yet she reflexively tightened her arms around her child. "What—why do you need her?" Her voice was trembling, she realized. "My husband is out there fighting, maybe dying, and now you want to take my daughter? She's barely a few hours old. How could she possibly help you?"

The Hokage's mouth tightened almost imperceptibly—from sorrow, she thought, not anger as she had feared at first. "I ask on behalf of your husband, and that of every other man and woman out there with him," he said, bowing his head slightly. "We can't win against the Nine-Tails, not with the way things have been going. I've found a way to stop it, but…"

"But what?" she asked, wondering why he was telling her this. She was only a schoolteacher, not a village elder or military strategist, and certainly not part of the Hokage's inner circle of advisors. Yet, he had gained a reputation for intelligence and thoughtful behavior after growing out of the recklessness of youth and into his role as the village leader, so she was sure he must have some reason for this—even if she had no idea what it could be.

"But my idea requires the presence of a newborn girl," the Hokage finished, and she could hear the quiet desperation in his voice. "I would give anything not to have to ask this of you, but my own wife just gave birth to a son. I swear upon my name that your daughter will be unharmed, and…without her, I see no way for the village to survive."

Silence fell over the room at this pronouncement. Then, almost inaudibly, she spoke. "Take her," she whispered, holding her child out for the Hokage. "Before I change my mind, take her."

Her words echoed in the stillness. Moving with precise, unhurried motions, the Hokage took her as yet unnamed daughter from her and, cradling her in his arms like a rare and precious treasure, walked out of the room. Now completely alone, Haruno Akina began to cry, soundless tears trickling down her cheeks. She may not have been a ninja, but that did not mean she was unfamiliar with the concept of sacrifices.

- - -

Author's Notes: Yes, it's another one of several dozen thousand (literally, I'm pretty sure) Naruto AU stories. The primary character and point of divergence should be obvious, but hopefully that doesn't mean it can't still be an interesting story. If it turns out that people don't think so...well, I'll probably be a bit disappointed, but I doubt I'll shed any tears over it. Needless to say, any and all reviews--positive, negative or indifferent--are most welcome. As for length, this is only an introduction, and actual chapters should be more on the order of 3000-5000 words; I'm far from a quick writer, so updates will be at best once a week or so, and quite probably less frequent than that most of the time.