Title: Beautiful Day
By: Dr. Destructo
Rating: Teen/PG-13 (language mostly)
Summary: Naruto focuses on his last day as Hokage and the people who mean so much to him.
Disclaimer: Naruto: don't own it, ain't makin' a profit from it, don't sue.
Today is going to be a beautiful day.
The Sixth Hokage knows this like he knows to breathe. He's been awake since well before sunrise, writing in his official journals. All the while taking the occasional glance at the cliffside and the five carved faces overlooking the village. His village.
He grins at the faces of his predecessors. After almost ten years of fighting the clans and councils and his friends, his face will finally be added to that impressive monument. He hopes they use one of his sillier photos for reference rather than continuing with the theme of "austere protectors."
Thankfully, his writing and thinking ends with the night and the gently lightening horizon fills him with anticipation. He's not angry or sad--well, he IS, but he's not going to let that ruin things.
Today is going to be a beautiful day. Uzumaki Naruto knows it.
Normally, he's jogging around the outer wall at this hour before getting in some quick jutsu practice. He briefly ponders keeping with his routine, but the sky is a shade of pink that makes him wistful and a little heartbroken. He decides, instead, to wander the streets. After all, he's the Hokage and it's not like he'll need the exercise.
The stars are barely fading from view when he reaches the market area. The vendors are already preparing for the day's adventures and they're all more than happy to compete for the dubious honor of selling the village leader his breakfast. Part of Naruto wonders if he should be bitter at this turnaround in attitude from his childhood. Part of him wonders if he IS bitter and just doesn't realize it. But he knows a genuine smile when he sees one and everyone here has long since put his demon from their minds.
He decides on a simple breakfast of rice and pickled radishes, but lavishes his praises on the taste and preparation. It's a good meal and in the early morning light, it's the perfect compliment to the warmth he feels coming from his village hidden in the leaves.
He tips generously and makes his way to the tower and his office. Even after leading Konohagakure though a war, a plague and gods only know how many territory and clan disputes, he sometimes doubts that he's really Hokage. That he's really just in a dream or a really good genjutsu. But knows it's all real when he thinks about what's missing and how none of his dreams, his REAL dreams, could exclude her.
The tower is practically deserted this early, since most of the clerical staff gets up at sane hours and none of the ANBU who DO get up this early would dare spend their limited free time at work. The Sixth Hokage chuckles to himself, admiring the artistry worked around the building's functionality. He's spent more time in this tower than he has at his home.
Or what they tell him is his home.
Naruto has probably spent a total of two hours in the palatial quarters reserved for the fire shadow. The moment he had stepped inside he knew he could never sleep there comfortably. Instead, he keeps the old dingy apartment from his childhood and lets the orphanage use the Hokage's home. Someone should put it to good use, he remembers saying as he settles into the chair behind his desk.
The sun's rays are just peeking through the window behind him when he finally confronts his nemesis. The stack of papers requiring his perusal looms abnormally high this morning. But then again, he's starting a little earlier today as well. After all, it's a beautiful day and he intends to make the most of it.
The last form--something about approving new scroll pocket designs for chuunin vests--is placed in the Hokage's outbox when he finally hears the stirring of the administrative staff. He looks at his schedule for today and smiles. He's spent weeks planning this and his load for the day is relatively light. Only a couple clan heads to listen to and a review of chuunin exam preparations for next month.
Naruto feels a little sad and a little guilty. But he pushes it from his mind. After all, today's not about maybes or what might have beens. It's about what IS and he's going to enjoy what IS as long as he can.
The sharp twinge in his chest only reaffirms his decision.
Then Moegi enters the office and tells him the clan head for Hyuuga is here to see him. The Hokage relaxes into a smile and waves them in.
Hyuuga Hinata steps into the office, head high and lips stretched into a stern line. Naruto grins as he motions toward an empty chair. Hinata sits, making prim gestures to keep her kimono and long, dark blue hair smooth. Muted plum irises focus on the blonde Hokage for a moment as she dismisses her similarly eyed attendants. It is only after the office doors are shut that she begins to snicker.
"You're getting really good at that, Hinata-chan," Naruto says, his grin stretching the whisker-like marks on his cheeks. "Lessons from Neji?"
"Yuki-chan, actually," Hinata says, returning his amusement with a small smile.
"Figures," Naruto says, shaking his head in false remorse. "I knew you and Lee would ruin the kid if you let him spend so much time with Neji."
"Does he talk about unchangeable fate?"
"Not quite, Hokage-sama," Hinata says, smirking. "It's more like, 'the springtime of his youthful destiny.' It's quite endearing once you're accustomed to it."
"I'll, uh, take your word for it, Hinata-chan," Naruto says, coughing into his hand. "Now, what did you want to see me for?"
Hinata is quiet at first but slowly begins to describe her problems with some of the elders within the Hyuuga Clan. Neither Hinata nor the Hokage had endeared themselves to the older clan members when they began to work on abolishing the Caged Bird Seal of the Branch House. Unfortunately, the only compromise that could be reached was placing the seals on ALL Hyuugas. With the Byakugan secrets safe and the leverage of the Main House over the Branch House null, Naruto is surprised that the old men have decided to gripe about the "purity" of the Gentle Fist Style.
"Lee-kun is quite upset," Hinata says. "He's come up with several ideas for improving the clan taijutsu."
Naruto sighs and wonders how long his friends will have to endure such close-mindedness. But then again, maybe he knows that answer already. So he grins and gives Hinata the best advice he can.
"Hinata-chan," he says, smiling. "They're never going to think you're right unless you prove it to them. If Lee thinks he can improve the Gentle Fist, let him work with Yuki-kun or Mae-Li-chan and THEY can prove it in the next Chuunin Exams. If that don't shut 'em up, well... just invest in some earplugs."
Hinata is struck by the Hokage's candor, even though she shouldn't be. The heavens are well aware Naruto has utilized much more colorful language in her presence--particularly regarding the Hyuuga elders. The Hokage hopes these words will stick with Hinata. She is strong enough, but sometimes she forgets. But that's okay, because Lee and Neji are always there. The Hokage knows he's not the primary pillar from which she draws strength and that makes him smile.
Hinata thanks him for his wisdom, even though the Hokage's pretty sure he doesn't have any. They chat about the youngest generation of Hyuugas and a little clan gossip. It's light and informal and when she finally leaves the Hokage is in good spirits.
Naruto hopes those spirits can carry him through his next meeting and lunch. After all, it's a beautiful day and he has so many more good-byes to make.
He should have known Moegi would find SOMETHING for him validate and sign while he waits. The Third had seemed to have Iruka-sensei and Granny Tsunade had Shizune-neechan. Moegi is a natural at keeping the Sixth Hokage busy and on task. Naruto smirks as his ninja senses pick up the frantic distress of her searching for MORE work for him. His extra early start is paying dividends he hadn't even thought of.
Finally, though, it's time for his last official song and dance before lunch. Not a minute early or late, the office doors open and Uchiha Sasuke walks in, ignoring a flustered Moegi.
"It's okay, Moegi," Naruto says, rolling his eyes theatrically. "You know how he is sometimes."
Moegi bows and closes the doors while Sasuke passes him a small glare. The Uchiha Clan head really should have figured it out by now: Naruto only provokes him when he's behaving like a bastard. And while that's nowhere near as frequent as in the past, there is something about pushing Sasuke's buttons that makes Naruto feel like a 12-year-old again.
"To what do I owe the pleasure?" the Hokage asks, leaning back in his chair.
"I think you know why I'm here," Sasuke says, evenly.
"I've told you before. I don't determine which clans are represented on the council."
"But you can make suggestions."
Naruto sighs and closes his eyes. The day is going so well, too. As Hokage, he has dealt more with clan politics than he'd ever dared imagine. And while he's slowly accustomed himself to the familiar complaints of the Hyuuga, the Nara, the Akimichi, the Sarutobi and dear-god-no the Inuzuka Clan, nothing, but nothing, compares to dealing with the re-emerging Uchiha Clan.
"I already bend more rules for you than I should," Naruto says. "You know that just as well as I do. Technically, the Uchiha shouldn't even be eligible for official clan status for another two or three generations."
"What? The Uchiha were one of the clans that helped found Konoha."
"Yeah, and when they all died or went MISSING," the Hokage says, emphasizing the word heavily. "They were no more. Technically, you're an immigrant. You HAVE no status. Dammit, I know I explained all this to Sakura-chan."
"Then why did you break the rules?"
The Hokage looks at the man who could've been his best friend. A man he has walked through damnation to bring back to the light. Sasuke is the only man to whom Naruto--who only thinks this when in his cups--doesn't measure up. Naruto sighs and ponders how to put into words what the former Avenger hasn't seemed to understand in almost two decades of quasi-friendship.
"I have no idea," Naruto says instead, grinning like a fox and knows the answer will only further agitate the man in front of him. As the dark haired man glowers, the Hokage chuckles for a moment before the stabbing pain in his chest cuts his mirth short. He masks it well, but the ninja before him still notices the abrupt change.
"What is it?" the patriarch of the Uchiha asks. His voice is flat and all business.
"Indigestion," Naruto lies quickly. "I didn't have ramen this morning and the gods are punishing me for the infidelity."
Sasuke merely nods. He suspects it isn't the truth, but he can't think of a reason why his old teammate would lie about anything, really. Naruto has been an open book for so long, few think he could be otherwise. Dismissing the thought, Sasuke proceeds with his itinerary. Naruto knows Sasuke's family is still small, but it's growing and he needs to make sure the clan will prosper and endure. Naruto can see the stress and strain on his comrade's dignity at having to constantly scrape and wheedle and plainly ASK for what he feels should be given.
And Naruto worries. He worries about his sometimes friend and whether or not Sasuke will be able to change with the future. He worries about the little boys and girl who call him "Naruto-jisan" and if their father bears the sins of HIS father. And he worries about Sakura-chan, because that's what he does, dammit.
With his agenda exhausted, Sasuke nods in a small show of respect and stands. Naruto is already thinking about lunch when the Uchiha patriarch interrupts him.
"Naruto," he begins awkwardly. This makes Naruto smile, because Sasuke being awkward means he's being open and is always funny. "Sakura mentioned you haven't been over in a while."
"Well, I DO have a village to watch over," the Hokage says lightly, nudging the large white hat of his station.
"That's never been much of a concern before, has it?"
"Most husbands are more protective when it comes to their wives spending time with dashing men of power."
"She misses you, you know," Sasuke says, not meeting the Hokage's eyes. There are words not said, and for that Naruto is thankful. He's spent the better part of his life trying not to give voice to those words.
"I'll drop by later tonight," Naruto says, letting his smile slip a little. Sasuke grunts an acknowledgement and leaves the office. With the office empty again, the Hokage turns toward the window. The sun dances high in an endless blue sky and the din of a village at lunch fills the air with laughter and smells and peace.
The Sixth Hokage rubs his still aching chest absently and tries to remember all of the beauty he has seen so far today. And he purposefully doesn't think about all that he has yet to see.
The Hokage hasn't enjoyed eating lunch with his advisor in weeks, but that's only because Nara Shikamaru knows about the pains in his chest and the blood that he's been coughing up and all the scars that aren't fading. Shikamaru knows and, after an initial confrontation, hasn't tried to dissuade the Hokage from his current plans.
Every demon gets its due, and the Nine-Tailed Fox will be no exception.
The Hokage expects Shikamaru to follow him to Ichiraku's, but is pleasantly surprised when he finds himself cajoled into a familiar barbecue restaurant. Despite his long meeting with the Uchiha, he finds several expectant faces waiting for him at the usual table. A quick glance at his advisor confirms that his condition is still secret, and with that Naruto grins. It will be much better this way.
Naruto greets the Konoha Five, as they have been dubbed. Hyuuga Neji, Akimichi Chouji, Inuzuka Kiba and Rock Lee grin back as Shikamaru takes his seat to complete the group. It's still a few months until their annual get-together so the Hokage is unsure about the occasion. Shikamaru no doubt has masterminded some reason for the premature gathering.
The Hokage takes in his friends for a moment before sitting at his usual spot at the head of the table.
"What's with the dopey expression, Uzumaki?" Kiba laughs, pulling the Hokage from his reverie.
"Ah, just remembering old times is all," he replies, waving away the attention. "The Five Leaves."
"Plus one!" Rock Lee says, his smiling brow wrinkling the Caged Bird Seal on his forehead. The Hokage smiles at the old joke. The inclusion warms him in the way that few things can.
"We're meeting a little early this year, aren't we?" the Hokage probes. Normally they meet later in the fall, the anniversary of that failed mission so long ago. He still remembers hearing about the moniker for the group and how in his absence he'd been left out. Only to be immediately included. The Five Leaves of Konohagakure... Plus One.
"Your wrangler here," Chouji nods to Shikamaru, "told us you're probably going to be out of the village for the Chuunin Exams. So he thought we might as well meet while we're all still here."
The large warrior doesn't notice his choice of words, or the way his best friend's face tightens. Shikamaru is an uncontested genius and has probably been the Hokage's closest friend since his demonic prisoner became common knowledge. But Shikamaru, for all his intelligence, still hasn't figured out how the Hokage managed to convince him to be his Chief Advisor.
He is almost certain Temari and Gaara were in on it, though.
"You know," the Hokage says, "I hadn't even thought of that. Thanks, Shikamaru. You're not as troublesome as you look."
"I don't suppose it's too late for me to defect, is it?" Shikamaru asks, not bothering to look away from his menu.
"Do you think Temari'd let you get very far?" Neji asks, looking over his own menu. His hair has small streaks of gray, but it is still long as ever--a small vanity he allows. His uniform is a little stylized from the traditional Hyuuga garb and now everyone can see his Caged status. But his face has laugh lines and that's more than anyone can ever recall seeing on a Hyuuga.
Kiba works on his own wrinkles as he guffaws and makes his contribution with whipping noises and accompanying gestures. The Inuzuka leader grins savagely behind a standard jounin uniform. Always pushing the joke past accepted limits, Kiba throws out some more 'ball-and-chain' comments until the joke is tired and the table is more than happy to move onto another topic.
Surrounded by his friends, Naruto beams at what he considers his greatest accomplishment as Hokage. Not the battles he's fought, nor the wars he's avoided. No, the Hokage grins because even with everything that has been thrown at him, he has only had to engrave five names onto the cenotaph by his old training grounds. He has struggled and clawed and suffered, but his friends and precious people are still living and breathing and SMILING.
And with that, Naruto cheerfully ignores Shikamaru's furtive glances and forgets to worry about this evening. Naruto places his order. Today, he'll try something different.
"I'm telling you, they were twins!" Kiba shouts as he extols his conquests as Konohagakure's Most Eligible Bachelor. Some argue that the Sixth Hokage is, but most know that he is already spoken for. Even if she hasn't actually spoken for him yet. Their waitress, quite used to the ruckus of her customers, calmly swats Kiba atop the head when his descriptions become a touch crass. The Hokage joins in the laughter at Kiba's scolding.
Naruto laughs until the laughter turns into coughing, and he feels like his diaphragm is being squeezed in a vice. Quickly the table notices that it isn't that sort of coughing-on-your-laughter cough, but something harsher with small echoes of wetness. The Hokage tries to wave their attention away and pretends to drink from his water glass as he forces his lungs to obey him through willpower alone.
When his respiratory system is once more under his command, Naruto contemplates telling them the truth. Shikamaru looks like he might anyway. But if Naruto knows anything, it's how to direct attention where he wants it and soon they are laughing again.
Even if Chouji and Neji are now giving him small glances as they eat.
The Hokage leans back in his padded office chair and sighs. All the preparations are complete and with Gamakichi on his way, Jiraiya will be in the village to make sure his wishes are followed. Naruto hates to pull the old lech out of his retirement and away from Tsunade's bedside, but Naruto knows enough about politics now to make sure it's not left to chance.
The Hokage turns to look at the sinking sun as it paints the sky lavishly with purples and pinks. He takes strength from the setting sun and smiles. The Hokage hasn't gotten to visit everyone today and he won't even be able to bid his farewells to his former teachers. But he's busied himself with writing to them, a small effort, to be sure, but one he hopes they'll accept.
Moegi clears her throat bringing him back to the present with a grin.
"Um, since there's nothing else lined up for the day, Hokage-sama..." she says, trailing off. Naruto lets his grin soften to a small smile.
"You can leave early," he says before a mischievous glint comes into his eye. "But only if you put itching powder into all of the ANBU lockers."
"What?!" the auburn chuunin squeaks. "Hyuuga-san will kill me!"
"Then I guess you should make sure you don't get caught, ne?" he says, folding his hands in front of his face. It's a habit he picked up from that bastard Sasuke, but he'll be damned if it doesn't work like a charm.
"Yes, sir," Moegi says, deflating. The Hokage's not so foolish that he doesn't realize that Moegi's probably not suited to his pranks as well as, say Konohamaru or Hanabi. But Moegi needs to be shaken out of her routines and habits of thought from time to time. That and he knows that the girl relishes having stories to tell Mitarashi Anko when their cell gets together to train.
It also conveniently gets her out of the office and away from where he has his own final prank setup.
Once the Hokage's certain that his assistant is gone and that the building is mostly deserted, he tidies up the office. Not that it ever gets too messy, thanks to Moegi, but he wants to leave it orderly for his successor. And since there's bound to be confusion, he drafts a quick note and anchors it atop the several scrolls he's spent the afternoon working on with the pendant Tsunade gave him so many years ago.
He hates leaving it, since it feels like he's leaving his dream. Even if he surpassed that dream a decade ago. But he knows it would be selfish to take it with him.
With everything squared away, Naruto nods in satisfaction and places the hat of station on the chair. It's dusk and the people of Konohagakure have grown accustomed to their Hokage wandering the village "incogneato" as he liked to call it. With a pang in his chest that isn't from the demon chakra destroying his body, Naruto turns out the lights and closes the door. As dusk properly settles around the village, he places a seal on the door that only his successor will be able to break.
When his work is done, he allows his head to settle onto the door for a moment.
"That's it, I guess," he says to the empty hall, lost for a moment. But it is only a moment. There are still a couple things he needs to do. He'll say his last goodbyes first. Then he'll leave the village with something to remember him by.
The night is beautiful and perfect for mischief.
The Uchiha compound bears no resemblance to its past incarnation. Largely due to the fact that after something like the fourth failed attempt to rescue Sasuke, Naruto summoned every damn toad he could to flatten it out of spite. The Hokage still remembers Sasuke's expression when he finally DID return and the tearful (but oh-so restrained and macho) thanks afterwards. Now it's largely the main house and several stores and smaller homes. The Uchiha returned to Konohagakure and with the walls destroyed they will remain.
Or so Naruto thinks. So he hopes.
The district is well-lit and several of the restaurant owners call out to him. The Hokage merely waves and throws back their jests. It takes no time for his strides to bring him up to the entrance of the main house.
It's a huge house, rivaling the Hyuuga Main Branch House and the Hokage Residence in size. Naruto smirks that it's barely enough to contain the ambition within. He rings the doorbell and once more glances at the Uchiha Clan emblem.
A white fan complimented with a cherry blossom pink arch.
Naruto muses that at least the clan will have a permanent reminder when the door in front of him swings open with the force of hurricane.
"Naruto-jisan!" shouts the small pink-haired boy in front of him before rushing at the Hokage and latching onto him. "Where the hell've you been?!"
"What did I just hear?!" echoes a familiar voice as Sakura emerges from a side room. She has her petal hued hair swept up into messy bun and apparently is still wearing her med-nin scrubs. Tagging along with her are Hanako and Inazuma, both who seem to have also inherited their father's cool features, but their mother's hair.
Daisuke quickly moves to hide behind the village leader, while Naruto clears his throat.
"Sorry, Sakura-chan," the Hokage says, grinning. "I just got a little carried away."
Sakura does a quick double-take from her scamp of a son to realize who is actually standing on her doorstop. "Oh! Sorry, Hokage-sama! I didn't realize you were here. Sasuke said you might be dropping by, but I didn't think you'd actually be here tonight."
Naruto laughs as he scoops Daisuke up onto his shoulders. He loves his unofficial nephews and niece equally, but Daisuke has always been more open with his feelings than the other two. Not that they aren't willing participants to some of his jokes, but they try to replicate the smooth indifference of their father.
"So what's for dinner?" Naruto asks as he tousles the hair of the other two kids, much younger than Daisuke.
"Not ramen, if that's what you're hinting at," Sakura mutters as she leaves the room. The kids surround Naruto and once they're sure their parent is out of earshot, start bombarding the Hokage with questions.
"Where've you been?"
"Did you really beat up Father?"
"Have you been on any missions?"
"How do I get into ANBU?"
"Are you REALLY the Hokage?"
"Where's your hat?"
Chuckling, Naruto does what is expected of him. He lies outrageously. One moment he is back from a secret mission to find Gaara the perfect stuffed animal, another he hints that he's had to move a mountain for the Tsuchikage. Naruto has also, apparently, been to Lightning Country collecting giant fireflies for the Aburame Clan as well as convincing the village council that all kids need be given at least three pieces of candy before bedtime.
"Unfortunately, your mom told them not to, because it's bad for your teeth," Naruto finishes matter-of-factly.
"MOM!" the three chorus as Sakura steps out of the hall, dressed more informally in an overlarge sweatshirt and her ninja shorts.
"What?" she asks, putting her hands on her hips.
"Naruto-jisan says you made sure we can't have candy before bed!" Hanako wails, suddenly so much like her mother Naruto can't help but grin.
Sakura looks from child to child before resting her glare on her ex-teammate. Finally she asks, "What did you tell them?"
"Only the truth, Sakura-chan," he says, unable to keep his grin from spreading.
"You're a horrible liar and an even worse Hokage," she says, grinning back. "Don't grow up to be like your Uncle Naruto, kids. Nothing good will come of it."
"Really?" Inazuma asks, turning his deep-deep green eyes toward the Hokage.
"Oh absolutely!" Naruto agrees. "I can't remember the last time your mom let me have any candy before bed!"
Three stunned faces quickly glance from their uncle to their mom and back. The awe is writ large on their faces and there is the slight huddling together children do when confronted with impossibly frightening thought that their mother IS all-powerful and all-knowing.
"Well," Sakura smirks, shaking her head. "Even if you can't have candy, there IS dinner. It's not much, though. It was Sasuke's turn to cook, but he had to go to some stupid clan thing. Again."
"Yeah," Naruto says setting Daisuke down to allow him to stampede into the dining area with his siblings. "He mentioned all the crap he's been getting about the clan's status and the council and stuff."
"I'm sorry about that," she says softly, looking away.
"Nah, s'why they gave me the silly hat. Someone has to deal with it."
Sakura watches her children race around the dining table, setting the plates and silverware with the thunderous clatter that kids think means they're being extra helpful. The meal is leftover roast and vegetables from the night before. As kids dash off to wash their hands, Sakura looks back at her blonde friend.
"You haven't been by," she says.
Naruto just nods, his grin slipping into a small smile. "You know how it is."
"I know," she says. "I'm sorry."
"There's nothing to be sorry about," he says, smiling as he watches the kids rush back to the table before halting and seating themselves with newly found patience and grace. Naruto saunters over and pulls up a chair himself, grinning at the next generation of Uchihas before starting up another ridiculous tale.
The dinner is wonderful and Naruto feels he probably should have stopped at seconds. The kids hang on his every word and he even breaks out his shadow clones for his last story. The clones are all super-deformed and tiny and even manage to get an undignified snort out of Sakura as the chibi-clones are transformed into various characters from their shared history. Naruto wraps up his story about how he rescued a princess from a large tanuki monster when he sees the drooping eyelids of his audience.
"What happened to the 'nuki monster?" Hanako asks as Sakura tucks her into bed. Naruto chuckles because he knows he's told this particular rendition of his fight with Shukaku before.
"Well, the tanuki monster and me became good friends," Naruto says. "And after he got a good night's sleep, the tanuki monster made LOTS of new friends. So get some sleep, 'kay, Hanako-chan?"
The reply is some sort of mumbled grunt that only sounds cute coming from someone under five. Naruto is sure six is the cut-off point. When all of the kids are in bed, Sakura offers Naruto some tea.
"Not tonight, Sakura-chan," he says, his smile wistful but his eyes are tired.
"Oh," is all she says, the disappointment evident. She shrugs and smiles, "I guess a Hokage's work is never done. Maybe tomorrow?"
Naruto almost lies to her. To Sakura-chan. He thinks about what's waiting in his office and in those scrolls and in his journals, and all he wants to do is tell her everything. But it's far too late for that. It's far too late for a lot of things.
"But not for this," he says out loud, to himself.
And Naruto steps into her personal space quickly, and sweeps her into a kiss. It is fast and clumsy and rough, but he just focuses on her. On the soft texture of her lips and the faint scents of roasted carrots and antiseptics and the stray hairs that have fallen across their noses. And for a moment, he feels her return that kiss.
But that moment is short-lived as she immediately pushes him away afterwards. Naruto tries to focus just on the tingling of his sense, but notices the flushed look in Sakura's face and the panic in her eyes.
"I know, Sakura-chan," he says, cutting her off. His eyes are still a little unfocused, but he continues anyway, smiling. "I just... wanted a taste of your happiness, is all."
He doesn't look at her. Naruto can't, really. Not after he's thrown her for such a loop, and pulled the rug out from under her normally sure feet. So it's not really that much of a surprise that he doesn't notice Sakura embrace him until her head rests against his chest. Naruto returns the hug and rests his head atop hers. He just wants to stay like this, forever.
But he knows he can't and gently pulls away from her. His heart hammers away at his ribs when he sees her smiling, despite the drying trail of tears. He smiles back, and carves the image into his heart.
The night is moonless, but the stars are shining brightly, lending the cloudless sky a glittering, quilted quality. The Hokage treads softly in the late hours, wearing only his orange pants and black shirt. A black jacket with orange trim hangs from the crook of his elbow as he treads toward the large closed entrance to Konohagakure.
Naruto notes the irony of his location as he spies the weathered bench by the road.
"You can come out now," Naruto says, absently rubbing at the tension in his chest. "I'm not Hokage fer nuthin' ya know."
"Sure coulda fooled me," Temari mutters as she jumps down from the abundant shadows of the trees. Naruto smiles at how little the kunoichi has changed over the years. It seems that only the emblem on her forehead protector has changed since he first saw her roughing up Konohamaru.
"I take it my advisor's spilled his guts?" he asks, grinning. That man was so whipped.
"Not at first," Temari says, scowling. "He only looks that upset when you're about to do something stupid. And he's been looking that way for a while now."
"Well, I never said I was the sharpest kunai," Naruto says.
"No shit," the kunoichi spits. "What the hell do you think you're doing, anyway? Running away?"
"No," Naruto says, dropping his pleasant features. "Not running. Just... fading away."
"Fading away? Is that what you call it?"
"No," he says. How come it feels like he's had this conversation before? Oh yeah, because Shika put him through the same wringer. "I call it dying."
"Have you even tried-?"
"YES!" he shouts, inwardly wincing at the volume. "Temari, I've asked and I've researched and I've studied. I've managed to scrape by with a couple more years than I thought, but this is the price I have to pay for keeping a demon from destroying the village. That's all there is to it."
The woman flinches at his words, and Naruto has to fight not to apologize.
"I'm sorry, Hokage-sama," she says, bowing.
"Pfft! Knock that shit off," Naruto says, waving dismissively.
"Who else knows?" Temari asks, rising.
"Just you and Lazy Ass," he says.
"You mean, you haven't told-"
"No," Naruto cuts her off. "I haven't told anyone. Well, Jiraiya, but he should probably only just find out in time to be here for the Seventh Hokage."
Temari blinks at the flat, conversational tone of his voice. The voice of a man who's already put his affairs in order. She says, "Gaara's going to be pissed that you didn't say goodbye."
"I left him and the others some letters. They should be sent out in the morning. But you can tell him... tell him that I'll be waiting for him at Aosuna-Dokei. Us jinchuuriki gotta stick together."
"It's a small oasis in the middle of Wind Country," Naruto says. "We camped there back when we were hunting Akatsuki."
After a lengthy silence, Temari scuffs the road with one her sandals and crosses her arms. Naruto waits as she fidgets.
"I guess," she starts, "I should let you get going."
"Thank you, Temari-chan," he says bowing a bit. And then he's gone before she can make a retort. It's cheating a little, skipping out on someone who knows they've seen him for the last time. But she has Shikamaru and Shika has her so they'll be okay.
Right now, though, he's running. Getting past the ANBU guard patrols are nothing, but he doesn't want his chakra to bring any untoward suspicion, so he's just running. If it wouldn't be horribly undignified for the Hokage's remains to be found in the wilderness, Naruto thinks he might just try to run to the oasis. But as much as he relishes the feel of the wind across his face and scent of the forest, the quick stabbing pains in his chest tell him that it's almost time to hitch a ride.
When he's sure the village is far enough in the distance, Naruto bites his thumb and calls forth another old friend.
"OI! WHAT'S THE MEANIN' OF GETTIN' ME UP AT THIS HOUR?" the Toad Boss demands, squatting before the blonde ninja.
"Sorry, Gamabunta," Naruto says, scratching the back of his head. "I just need a lift."
"One last favor, boss," Naruto says, gently putting a hand on the giant toad's webbed foot. "That's all."
"THAT TIME ALREADY, EH?" Gamabunta sighs, lowering his head. "HOP ON THEN. HOW MUCH TIME WE GOT?"
"A few more hours. 'Til sunrise, I think," Naruto says, climbing onto the toad's head with difficulty. As if reminded of their timetable, the pains in along his ribs increase, only to be joined by new pains in his abdomen. Grimacing, he mutters, "But I don't think we should waste any time."
The Toad Boss adjusts his legs and leaps into the night sky without preamble. He lands as softly as he can, digging into the landscape and makes his way toward Wind Country. He pauses after several more hops, to confirm his passenger is still aboard and to take a quick drag from his pipe. Absently, Gamabunta reminisces about another young man he carried to his death.
And it was going to be such a beautiful night, too.
Naruto starts sweating as he burrows between the coat and shoulder blades of the giant Toad Boss. Each motion causes wave after wave of discomfort and pain, particularly on the landings. But that can't be helped, and as wonderful as having an eagle or condor summons might sound right now, Naruto wouldn't trade his toad contract and web-footed friends for the world.
Well, maybe Gamatatsu for some cushions. That last landing hurt like a son of a bitch.
Naruto tries to focus, instead, on the future. Not his, though. His future is coming soon enough. No, Naruto thinks back to Konohagakure and what the village will find in the morning.
Well, the first things they'll find are five giant sets of spectacles with funny eyebrows, noses and mustaches setting atop each of the Memorial's faces. Never having needed money for much other than ramen and supplies, Naruto smiles at his parting prank to the Hidden Leaf. He figures that should also divert some of ANBU's suspicions away from Moegi, too.
Again, he hopes that when they carve his face onto the cliffside that they choose to show his lighter side. All of the photos he left in his office are pretty goofy. All except one. Because he knows they'll honor his request by using the least embarrassing photo he's provided, and that suits him just fine.
Unlike the twisting that's going on in his guts right now as he struggles not to give in to a coughing fit.
Naruto knows there isn't enough room beside Tsunade's giant head, so he'll be carved beneath the First. And the Seventh will be carved right next to him. There's a hint of bitter glee at that thought. After all, at least this way he gets to be next to Sakura every day. Not that that was his only reason for making her the Seventh Hokage. The monument thing was just a nice bonus. So's making Sasuke a house-husband by default.
"FUCK!" he groans as Gamabunta skids to a halt to reposition for a more difficult jump.
No, Sakura's perhaps the most accomplished kunoichi and medic ninja to come out of any of the five elemental countries. Apprenticed to the only member of the Legendary Three not a super pervert or a homicidal lunatic. Matriarch of the Uchiha Clan. Hell, even her grades at the Academy were excellent. Naruto knows that Sakura is more than worthy of the title, and definitely young enough to carry it to the next generation. Naruto smiles through his pain when he remembers the journals and scrolls left for his successor. He has spent a good deal of time writing to her when he realized the kunoichi and others may not share his lofty opinion.
Besides, there is a small part of him that revels in the image of Sasuke, walking around town with groceries and three pink-haired kids following him around like ducklings.
"Thank god," he says through the pain, laughing despite it all, "they have their mother's hair."
He tries to think about how Moegi and Konohamaru and Gaara and a dozen others are going to take his letters. He tries to fight against the pain washing over him with the steady rhythm of the tides. God, how long is that fucking toad going to keep hopping?!
Gritting his teeth, Naruto feels blackness tinge his consciousness. He fights it though, with everything he has. He's not ready, dammit! Not yet. Even after a whole, beautiful day of letting go, he's still not ready. And neither is the fox, from what he can feel in his belly. Thankfully the horrid jumping is over and Naruto feels the Toad Boss's elastic tongue wrap around him. Gently he is lowered to the ground and his feet softly crush the dark sand beneath his toes.
Sparse, warped trees surround the small pool, violet with the star-studded sky giving way to daybreak. Naruto looks all around the oasis, watching the dark, midnight sands around the water slowly blend in with the common, brown sand. He remembers that when the sun is at its zenith, the entire area looks like shiny dark blue glass--hence the unofficial name.
"YOU WANT SOME COMPANY?" Gamabunta asks, his loud throaty voice unusually soft. Naruto is touched and just nods. He's not sure he can speak anyway.
Naruto can see clouds in the sky taking shapes as brilliance slowly spills back into the world. The part of his mind that is always connected to that dark labyrinth of the seal and tailed fox goes numb, and Naruto knows that the Fourth's seal has done its job. The Nine-Tails and Naruto are now one.
"It won't be long now," he whispers, shimmying up to lean against the giant toad. Suddenly he is cold--far too cold for someone sitting in the desert.
And it hurts. It hurts so much that he wants to cry. That he is crying, just a little.
But he's not alone, which he thought he would be. And then he sees the first glimpse of true dawn. The creeping light from the horizon casts the clouds into wonderfully fluffy orange and pink and violet puffs of color. Naruto looks at the orange and pink clouds, touching, mingling. He thinks about the feel of soft, pink lips and silky, pink hair. He doesn't even notice his lungs aren't moving.
He thinks of Sakura-chan and that today is going to be a beautiful day.
Um, wow. Don't know where that came from. Or rather, I know exactly where it came from, but I'm surprised I managed to get it out in time for the contest. Many thanks to Random1377 for proofing and being a pretty good sounding board. Much like Dr. Watson, you not really OF genius, but do lend inspiration TO genius.