All right! The first installment of my first multi-chapter fic is up! Not a whole lot of action this time around, but trust me --it's coming. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: I own nothing. Any lawyers approaching me on this count will be shot on sight with tranquilizers.
Tsunade dropped the paper she held to her desk in disgust. Rather than fall quickly, it floated down casually --mockingly, she thought-- and came to rest atop a scattered pile of pages very similar to itself. She heaved a weary sigh and leaned back in her chair, rubbing her temples and half-heartedly willing the bags under her eyes to disappear. She turned slightly to gaze out of her office's window. The twinkling stars in the sky stood out against the pure blackness of the night; it must have been three in the morning. Tsunade was tired, but she couldn't sleep. No, the simmering anger flowing through her veins easily quashed any effort to drowse off. She turned back to her desk with a scowl.
The Elder Council members' various positions on her latest proposal had been delivered at midnight. She had reviewed each of them several times since then, and a new burst of frustration burned through her every time she did. Some had been reasonable. A few had even supported her; these she had set off to the side in a neat stack. Most, however, shared the stance of that last one: bull-headed, callous, and thoroughly maddening refusal. She had time to convince them, she knew; the decision didn't need to be made for several years more, at least. And she would convince them, even if it took her the rest of her life. Of that, there was not a single doubt in her mind.
But good grief, their stubbornness was getting annoying.
Snatching up a pen, she furiously scribbled a reply to the overall report, slapped it with her official seal, and slammed it down on the unruly stack of papers representing their equally defiant authors. She heard the door to her office open quietly as the ANBU standing guard checked on the sudden loud noise. Upon seeing that the Hokage was in no danger --merely irate as usual-- the door closed again just as quietly.
Still glaring at the vile mound of papers, Tsunade settled back into her chair. Her expression softened as she realized what her next task had to be. For a moment, she debated simply letting it slide. Then she sighed and sadly shook her head.
He deserves to know, she thought to herself.
Taking up her pen again, she began to fill out a message summoning one of the best and brightest ninja she had ever known to her office, where she would have to offer him what was perhaps the gravest insult she could possibly deliver.
The first few rays of sunlight crept through her window and washed across the face of Hinata Hyuuga. She woke, but did not move or open her eyes, opting to let the warmth of the light soak into her skin for a few long moments. Eventually a smile crept onto her face, and she sat up and stretched. Not even the sun could match what she felt from within. It had been one month exactly since it had happened, and she had felt positively giddy ever since.
Her pale eyes fell on her diary, resting on her desk, and she leapt out of bed and skipped over to it as she did every morning. It might have seemed very out of place, her diary --a worn, plain-looking brown-leather book atop a beautiful, hand-carved mahogany desk, surrounded by various possessions of similarly fine quality-- but she scooped it up and hugged it tightly all the same. Laying it down carefully, she undid the clasp and flipped to her very favorite entry --the day it had happened.
The day Naruto Uzumaki had kissed her. Fully and deeply. Twice.
As she read over her own joyous handwriting, her heart began to race faster and faster, her smile growing brighter and brighter. When she got to the best part, her body convulsed with a squeal of ecstatic giggling. Her recollection of the event was flawless, of course; she played it back in her mind often enough that she knew it would be burned into her memory forever. She checked her diary for her description of it every morning for physical proof, to reassure her that the memory was not just a dream but real.
And every morning yielded the same, unbelievable answer. Smile still in place, Hinata stared wistfully out her window at the rising sun, its beams reflected dazzlingly in the dew clinging to the sea of leaves in the Leaf Village trees. They hadn't kissed like that since --only in passing, only on the cheek-- but that only made the memory just that much more thrilling and precious. Neither of them had ever said the words, "I love you." They hadn't needed to.
She heaved a contented sigh. They hadn't spent much time together this last month; almost all of his time was devoted to his preparatory lessons for becoming Hokage. Even so, they managed to at least catch sight of each other every day. Each time, her heart would flutter as she saw the fatigue rush from his eyes to be replaced by their usual shining cheer. The drained look on his face would dissolve, a bright, warm smile in its place. That this was not a forced display of reassurance, that seeing her genuinely made him so happy, that was enough for her.
At least, for now. She began to hum a love song to herself as she got dressed and prepared for the day.
Naruto sat up, stretching, his mouth twisting in an enormous yawn. The sun was well on its way up into the sky, but he still felt exhausted. Oh, his body was rested, true enough. It was his mind that felt like it wanted to flop back down, curl up and fall asleep again. Or explode. After all, it was another day; another marathon of politics, paperwork, poetry, public speaking, manners, management, reasoning, and what-not. Hoo-ray.
He sighed to himself in frustration as he stared out his window. He remembered his reaction on the day this all started, months ago. He had literally bounced off a few walls when Granny Tsunade had told him she had selected him to become the Sixth Hokage. Then he had frozen in disbelief and annoyance when she had admonished him, saying he still lacked some necessary skills for the job. Almost instantly he shouted back angrily in his defense, thinking she meant he wasn't strong enough. He lost his grip on the wall and fell flat on his face in confusion when she laughed at this and told him he would have to endure lessons of an all together different sort. Unsure of what she was talking about but determined nonetheless, he had shot back that he was "ready for anything, whatever it takes! Believe it!"
It had never occurred to him how much boring procedure and formality he had agreed to learn. He would not back down, not now that he'd given his word to so many people, but if he had known how much work it would take to become Hokage… He frowned to himself. No, it wouldn't have stopped him, but it definitely would have made him take the whole idea much more seriously.
With another deep sigh, Naruto heaved himself up off his bed and began to get dressed, absently reviewing his schedule for the day. He had to admit, he was coming along in his studies. Political and administrative mumbo-jumbo would never come naturally to him, he knew, but he was beginning to really grasp it all the way he had everything else --through a ludicrous amount of hard work and a bit of ingenuity. He whipped his long white coat off the chair at his desk and paused at the small object he saw laying there.
He reached down and picked up the small, intricately carved wooden rendering of the Hyuuga clan symbol, and thought about the day, one month ago exactly, that he had discovered the one person who had believed in him for longer than anyone else. Within a week he'd gotten the idea for this little project, and he'd worked on it every night since, finishing only last evening. He turned the piece over in his palm, examining his handiwork. It was a crude attempt, unimpressive, rather plain at first glance. But if you took a closer look past all the rough edges, you'd see its colors begin to shine. That, he decided, matched Hinata perfectly. He undid the clasp of the necklace he wore and slid one end through the little metal loop mounted in the carving. It slid down to rest against his most prized possession: the crystal belonging to the First Hokage himself, worth enough to buy a couple of mountains and everything they contained, won with blessings of his worthiness from Tsunade, the Fifth. He noted with pleasure that his little carving did not suffer much in comparison.
Then his eye caught sight of his clock. He bit back a curse --he was going to be late again! He quickly retied the necklace and threw on his coat, then rushed for the door, but before he passed through it he caught sight of a letter in the drop-box he used for mail. He would have ignored it for now and left it for later, except that it was marked with Granny Tsunade's official seal.
Curious, he seized it and tore it open. As he read its contents, his famous cocky grin sprouted on his face; his lessons had been effectively canceled and he was to report to the Hokage's office ASAP. Letting out a whoop of victory, he dashed off through the village. He stopped only once, at the Ichiraku Ramen stand, to buy three orders of misu ramen to go --a light snack before breakfast. Then he was off again, bounding from street to wall to tree limb to rooftop and back again.
Neji sat, cross-legged and perfectly still, in the middle of one of the Hyuuga family gardens. He was there partly to hone his endurance with his Byakugan; his bloodline trait had been activated constantly for the past half hour, and every five minutes he would use it strenuously, in a manner similar to weight-training.
Mostly, however, he was there for another reason. Behind him and off to his right, Hinata emerged from her room, smiling, humming to herself, and practically floating on air. He wasn't sure what exactly had caused this behavior in his cousin, but he knew who it had to involve. He smiled to himself. She had started each day for a while now like this. But the moment someone caught her--
"Good morning, Hinata."
--she stumbled, turned cherry red in embarrassment, and whirled on her observer, a greeting sputtering from her lips.
"O-oh, u-um, g-good-- good m-morning, N-n-neji. H-how-- how are y-you?"
He held back an amused chuckle. Every time. "I am well. I'm also supposed to tell you that you have guests waiting outside."
Her pale eyes widened and she looked even more flustered, if possible. "G-guests? O-out on th-the l-lawn? Wh-who--"
"You shouldn't keep them waiting, Hinata."
"O-oh! Y-yes, o-of c-c-course…" she stammered as she spun around and hurried off, stiff-legged, the crimson hue of her face not fading in the slightest.
He watched her leave, then returned himself to his task. There was a daunting challenge ahead of him, and he knew he would need all the practice he could get.
Hinata had paused by the front door to let her blush finish wearing off, but as she waited her thoughts drifted back to the moment and she felt her cheeks flare up again. Sighing in resignation, she steeled herself and stepped outside.
Her visitors were Kiba and Sakura. They were waiting patiently on the path about half the distance to the main gate. She caught a glimpse of a seemingly serious discussion between the two, but the moment she had opened the doors, Akamaru, curled up at Kiba's feet, had looked up at her and barked joyfully, drawing their attention. As she walked over, fending off Akamaru's lapping tongue, she noted their somber expressions and inwardly cringed, painfully aware that she didn't even know how long she had kept them waiting.
When she reached them, she bowed politely. "Good m-morning, K-kiba, S-sakura," she began carefully. "I-is something wrong?"
Sakura nodded gravely, and it was only then that Hinata noticed the hint of sadness on her pink-haired friend's face. She turned to look at Kiba and was startled to catch a flash of restrained anger in her teammate's eyes.
"We need your help, Hinata," he said without preamble. "It's about Naruto."
Her heart caught in her throat and her blush was obliterated as her face turned as pale as her eyes. Without thinking her hands had shot out and clutched Kiba's jacket, gripping it tightly. "Has something happened to Naruto? Is he okay?!" she asked, her voice fighting panic. She saw Kiba, blinking in surprise, exchange a hesitant glance with Sakura, as if unsure of how they should answer that question.
"Naruto's fine," Sakura quickly chimed in, though her tone wasn't quite convincing. Still, Hinata breathed a sigh of relief, and, upon noticing her white-knuckled fingers digging into Kiba's jacket, released him, pink returning to her cheeks.
"Come on," the other girl continued. "We'll explain on the way."
Tsunade woke with a start at the sound of a loud bang. Instantly alert, she leapt to her feet, muscles tense, ready to face any attacker. Her fighting stance went slack, however, when she identified the cause of the commotion; a tall, blond, obnoxious, nineteen-year-old ninja had kicked her door open. Her eyebrow twitched at him evilly.
"All right, all right, I'll be quieter from now on!" he shouted over his shoulder to someone in the hallway --probably Shizune. Then he spun around again and, spotting Tsunade, strode forward, grinning from ear to ear, and plopped a bag down on her desk --takeout ramen, from the look and smell of it.
"'Morning, Old Lady!" he called out none too softly. Beyond irritated, Tsunade planted one foot on her desk and, using it as leverage, reached up and smacked him none too gently on the head. "GAH!" he cried as his knees bent under the force of the blow, his hands flying up to his blond mop of hair.
"I've told you countless times not to call me old, Naruto," she admonished calmly as she stepped down off her desk. "And you just woke me up from a very productive nap."
Hands still clutching at the sore spot on his head, Naruto nevertheless grinned up at her again; this had become a common greeting for the two of them. For her part, a smile of affection tugged at Tsunade's lips, her eyes beaming with pride at the young man before her. Her knuckles also throbbed a bit --he had a very hard head.
Straightening up, he crossed his arms behind his head. "So, I got your letter. Does this mean what I think it does?" he asked, trying not to sound eager or hopeful but failing miserably at both.
Her smile died, but she struggled not to show it. She cleared her throat. "Naruto Uzumaki, I have consulted each of your tutors," she began in her most official voice, taking her time as she gathered her thoughts, "and they all agree your progress has been astounding." Not that I expected any less. "As you have achieved excellent status in each subject, your private lessons are now over." Excitement grew on his face with every word. Her stomach wrenching, she turned her back to him and stared out her window. "It has been my pleasure to put forth your name as my candidate for the Sixth Hokage of the Leaf Village."
Tsunade winced at his whoops of joy. Once again she silently cursed the blind, pig-headed old fools who dared call themselves Elders that were making her do this. She heaved a deep sigh.
"Unfortunately," she said through gritted teeth. His cheers ceased instantly and he fell suddenly silent, breathlessly attentive. "Unfortunately," she repeated, "the Council of Elders" --she spat the words contemptuously-- "have decided to refuse your nomination. Because of certain circumstances, they feel you cannot be trusted with leadership." The venom in her tone could have killed a bull elephant mid-charge. She waited for his response.
She chanced a look back at him and instantly wished she hadn't. She could have handled an indignant reaction. She could have handled a furious reaction. What she saw instead made her heart ache. His eyes had drifted downward, lost focus, and become portals into a hollow abyss that she recognized as years of pain and hurt being revisited. His face had gone slack with a fatigue that made him look ages older, mixed with a deep-seated sadness and hint of despair. One hand, its shoulder slumped, hung limply at his side. The other clutched tightly at his stomach; he clearly understood which 'circumstances' they were referring to.
Tsunade felt tears begin to well up. It wasn't fair! He had endured so much, he had worked so hard to turn his curse into his strength for so long, and he had done it proudly and doggedly in the face of so many sneers of contempt and hatred. It wasn't fair to slap him down with his birthright now, at what should have been his moment of triumph.
Mentally, she took note to invent a whole new string of invectives and curses for those blasted 'Elders.'
"Naruto," she called softly. He looked up at her, and she shuddered at the emptiness of his expression. "It is not over," she said firmly, her face hardening with resolve. "I will take your case before them again and again, however many times I have to. Eventually, they will come around. Eventually, they will see you as I do." She smiled reassuringly. "We just need to be patient."
As if waking from a deep sleep, he stirred, slowly coming alive again. The spark returned to his blue orbs and a smile crept back onto his face. But the corners of his eyes remained tight, and his expression caught partway to his grin. "…yeah…" he began softly. He began nodding slowly, as if trying to convince himself. "…Yeah, I can wait. I've waited this long, haven't I?" His nodding increased in vigor as his voice grew louder and his grin grew wider. "Yeah! So what if it takes some old farts a while to realize how great I am? I'm Naruto Uzumaki, and I never back down!" He practically crowed this last declaration. Suddenly he looked her square in the eyes again. "Hey, since my lessons are over, I've got the rest of the day off, right?"
His grin was infectious; by now it had spread to Tsunade's face as well. She nodded. "All right! See ya later Granny!" he called as he spun on his heel and strode out of her office, one hand raised in an abortive wave.
Still smiling proudly, Tsunade settled back in her chair, ready to believe that he was taking it surprisingly well. Then something on her desk caught her eye, and her breath caught in her throat as her spirits crashed to the ground.
Naruto had left his ramen behind.
Naruto never forgot his ramen.
He stood on the roof of Tsunade's tower, the village spread out behind him, the mountainside looming up before him. His eyes scanned the faces carved there; the massive stone visages of all five Hokage, the greatest heroes of the Leaf Village to date, stared back at him. These men --and that woman-- had each devoted their lives to the protection and well-being of their people. Each of them loved the village and everyone in it more than anything else, and each had been willing to do whatever it took --even the ultimate sacrifice-- to keep it from harm.
Naruto desperately wished his name could join theirs.
He found himself staring at the Third and smirked with chagrin. He remembered why he had originally wanted to become Hokage; so that "everyone in the village will stop disrespecting me and start looking up to me! Believe it!" In other words, he'd wanted to be popular. He could see now that that was a pretty naïve reason for wanting the job, yet even so, the Third had believed in him. He had never really realized how much the Old Man had done for him --for the whole village-- until it was too late. It was on that day, the Third's funeral, that his motivation had begun to shift. He knew with every fiber of his being that he wanted to become a ninja --no, more than that, a Hokage-- worthy enough to make that great man proud.
Him, and Tsunade …and another. His eyes drifted to the Fourth. His father. Everything Naruto learned about the man made his heart burn with pride that he was his son. More and more, he'd tried to emulate his father in every way he could. His long, white, sleeveless coat fluttered in the breeze, the flames rendered at its hem dancing in the wind, prompting Naruto to chuckle; he'd even started to dress like the long-dead hero. All he wanted to do was to be like that man, who'd given his everything to protect those precious to him.
But how could he protect everyone if they wouldn't even give him a chance? He gritted his teeth, eyes wincing with hurt, as his hand went to his stomach again, searching for the seal there and the monster contained within. The seal was invisible to the naked eye except when he drew on the Fox's power; even then, it was always concealed beneath his shirt, his jacket, his coat. So why did people always seem to see it first? It seemed more and more like everyone he met instinctively dismissed him; even Tsunade had done just that when they first met. Why did he always need to convince them of his worth? Full of pain, his eyes searched the faces of the men and woman he admired most. Couldn't anyone see him for who he was instead of what he was? Couldn't anyone just believe in him from the start?
He resisted the urge to burst out laughing, though he couldn't prevent his mouth from twisting up in a grin; the answer to his question had arrived with timing so precise it was funny. He could have sworn that in that moment those solemn stone faces smiled down at him. "Thanks," he whispered, before turning toward the familiar voice.
Hinata Hyuuga stood at the entrance to the stair well. Concern was etched on her face, but that quickly melted into relief when she saw his expression as he strode over to her. Then her pale eyes shot open wide and she let out an "eep!" of surprise when Naruto, his depression forgotten, lifted her off the ground in a bear hug and swung her in a circle. He couldn't help but laugh at her shocked expression, and after a moment of breathless staring and reddening cheeks she giggled and hugged him back. When they came to rest with her feet back on the roof, their arms held each other tightly, chins resting on shoulders, right cheeks pressed together, and eyes closed as they just enjoyed the other's presence.
"So, Hinata…" he began softly.
"Hmm?" he heard her murmur dreamily from his shoulder.
He smirked. "…what brings you up this way?"
He felt her body jerk in a sudden start. "O-oh! That's right!" He opened his eyes lazily as she pulled back enough to look at him. Staring into his face from an inch away, she blinked once and began to blush again before continuing. "I-I was s-s-supposed to c-come get you."
He gave her a curious frown. "Huh? Get me for what?"
Naruto blinked in surprise at the crowd waiting for them outside the building; every member of the original Leaf Eleven (plus Sai) was present except Shikamaru, and almost instantly he came walking out of the Hokage's Tower behind them and moved to stand with his teammates, Ino and Choji. Naruto shot a questioning look at Hinata, still by his side, but she merely blushed and would not meet his eye. Then Shikamaru cleared his throat, drawing Naruto's attention.
"We heard about your meeting with the Old Lady," he said bluntly, "and what she had to say about becoming Hokage."
That startled him; he hadn't left her office more than twenty minutes ago. Had they all dropped everything and rushed here? No, wait. He glanced over at Sakura. His pink-haired teammate was Tsunade's apprentice; she must have gotten wind of it beforehand and spread the word to everyone. His heart swelled at the thought that his friends were there for him. His eyes scanned the eleven ninja standing there with gratitude. He'd told each of them about the Nine-Tailed Fox at various points throughout the years. Some had been stunned. Some had been indifferent. A few had never looked at him the same way again; some combination of sympathy, awe, pride, and regret usually found its way into their eyes now. But they all accepted him as their friend, as Naruto the person, and that, he decided, made their opinions far more valuable to him than those of any stuffy, old, know-nothing--
"Well, you can just forget about the Elders for now," Kiba said slyly. "Because we're not sure you're ready for it, either."
Naruto was stunned. "Wha--? What?!" he yelled, staring open-mouthed at his friend.
"We don't think you're ready to be Hokage," the wild-looking ninja repeated with a cool shrug, leaning casually against his enormous canine friend Akamaru.
"And you'll certainly never convince the Elders if you can't convince us," Shino continued in a matter-of-fact tone, what little was visible of his face betraying no emotion.
Ino chuckled. "Care to prove us wrong, Naruto?" the blond woman said with a glint in her eye.
It was then Naruto noticed that every person there that ever felt any impulse to smile was doing so now, in varying degrees that seemed to relate to the amount of mischief in their eyes. He eyed them suspiciously.
Neji answered. "Each of us will give you a test concerning one quality we think is important for a Hokage to possess. We will support you in your bid for the position only when you can pass them all."
"Think of it as a chance to impress us with all that training you've been doing, Naruto," Sakura teased.
Naruto gave a bark of laughter as a mischievous smile of his own appeared to match theirs'. "All right. You're on!"
"Great!" TenTen chimed in. "Then let the Trial by Leaves begin!"
Rock Lee, who'd been looking more and more like he was ready to explode, suddenly leapt forward. "And I shall be first!!" he exclaimed. He held his clenched fist, trembling with anticipation, out in front of him. His ridiculously thick eyebrows furrowed with manic intensity over eyes that seemed about to burst into flames. "Mine is the Test of Strength! To pass, you must defeat me in combat!" He threw a fast high kick into the empty air before nimbly bouncing back to his original position. "Are you ready, Naruto?!"
Everyone stared at him, dumbstruck. Neji and Shikamaru rolled their eyes.
Naruto, fired up by Lee's display, eagerly struck an identical pose. "Oh, yeah!! After months of boring lessons, I've been itching for a good beat-down! Get ready to lose, Bushy Brow!!"
Almost everyone else present heaved a collective sigh of resignation and embarrassment.
"Can we at least move to a proper fighting ground first?" Sakura muttered.
If either young man heard her, they gave no indication of it. The identical looks of burning confidence and cocky determination they shot at each other caused them to smirk simultaneously as they both realized the same thing:
This is going to be fun.
So. What did you think? I need reviews, and I need opinions; should the Lee vs. Naruto fight be short and furious, or long and involved? In other words, do you want most of the next chapter devoted to the match, or should I get it out of the way and move on to the next Test? Let me know in reviews or PM's!
Either way, work on the next chapter will begin when this one has collected at least five reviews, and not a moment sooner. I need proper motivation, after all!