A/N: Ever since I wrote chapter one, I had a sense of what I wanted for an epilogue. (In one way, I wrote all the proceeding chapters just so I could play around with the epilogue!) It's grown quite a bit from the simple conversation I first imagined.
"Faster, my precious grandson. The daylight is a-wasting."
"Stop trying to play the dotty old ninja master. I know you better than that."
The old man bashed the top of his grandson's head with his long-stemmed pipe. After all, the young grandson had his grandfather perched on his back…and he was running at full pace through the western side of Fire Country.
It was surprisingly comfortable…for the grandfather…and excellent training for a young ninja.
"Why are we going to River Country again? I was perfectly happy in Wave Country, you know."
"I have heard the most interesting rumors," the grandfather said.
"I think I liked you better when you were uptight all the time, grandfather."
"Enough talking, run faster, little ninja."
The dialogue ended. The only noises as the sun set were heavy inhalation of air and the rhythmic pounding of sandaled feet in the now thick grasses of the border between River and Fire Country.
The sun set long before the young ninja, carrying the weight of two people, plus belongings, arrived at the massive, almost undulating walls of River Country's capital city…The Living City.
The ninja guardians took the grandfather and grandson's name, confirmed they were permitted inside the city after sunrise the next day (no visitors remained inside the city overnight), and then called ahead for a hotel room for the night. The old man, after all, was just a bit famous all over the Elemental Nations.
The old man and his grandson found their hotel, located outside the city walls on the eastern edge. They slept easily and made it back to the gates by eight.
In the daylight, when the guards actually permitted people to enter The Living City, rather than just clearing them to access the hotels, the questions were a bit more in depth.
"Both of you are listed as ninja in our rolls, is that correct?"
The old man nodded.
"What is your business with The Living City?" The questioner looked to be young, sixteen at best, several years younger than the old man's grandson.
"I wish for my grandson to continue his ninja training at the River Center…."
"What country do you both currently reside in?"
"Wave Country," the grandson said.
The guard just nodded. He didn't need to mention that only countries that had accepted River Country protection could send ninjas for training at the River Center. These ninja obviously knew.
"Here are your passes," the guard said, handing over small metal disks. "The Living City is a bit different to navigate around. This map should help. The River Center is in the far north; many people also like to visit the Daimyo's Garden…."
The grandfather smiled and interrupted. "Yes, I understand the Daimyo is often found in his garden, rather than in a formal court setting."
"Honored Sir, there is no court. The Daimyo's private residence is directly under the Garden, as most residences are constructed underground."
The grandson seemed surprised at that. It seemed…odd to him. But he had his own agenda. "I had heard about your merchant district…."
"Yes, it is here," the guard said, pointing to a section of the map labeled The Grand Concourse. "This is the only part of the city where commercial buildings are permitted above ground. There are many other commercial areas, though, in underground concourses."
"Why build underground?" the grandson asked.
"I think you will understand after you enter the city." With that, the guard bid both ninja best luck. The grandfather, with his exceptional hearing undiminished, heard a comment as he left. "Call the Daimyo's office. Pass along the names of these guests."
It hadn't been easy to get to the River Center.
First, the view was distracting. Everything inside The Living City…was green. Instead of buildings everywhere parted only by roads, The Living Village seemed like a massive growing vegetable field dotted with buildings, roads, rivers, and people.
"Did you know it was like this, grandfather?"
"No, Konohamaru. I had no idea."
Second, the city wasn't laid out on a grid. Indeed, the roads seemed to run in a very irregular manner. Some followed the rivers that ran through the city. Others were ovals or circles around special park areas or groves of fruit trees.
Third, the Grand Concourse, which was smack dab in the middle of the path Konohamaru had plotted, was very tempting. The smells from the food stands were mouth watering; the stores stocked unusual goods that weren't found at all in Wave Country.
One bookseller had a complete stock of the works of Jiraiya…in their memorial editions.
By ten o'clock, grandson and grandfather arrived at the River Center. It was the largest above-ground structure in The Living City.
A kunoichi looked up and smiled when the grandson walked into a small, but airy reception area. Most of the students here moved with purpose, even the very youngest. For such a serious place, it didn't seem dour. There were too many blooming flowers growing on and up the walls.
"Ah, yes, Sarutobi Konohamaru, the daimyo's office informed us of your intent to register with us. Please come with me. Kind sir," the woman said, looking at the former leader of the Hidden Leaf Village, "I was told that the School Master wished to meet and speak with you."
"Who is the School Master?" Sarutobi Hiruzen asked.
"He runs the River Center and is the commanding general of the River Army."
"Two vital tasks for one man?"
"Yes," a loud voice said, as a tall, powerful man walked into the room. The grandfather recognized that this was likely the School Master. "They are the same task. A general must build an exceptional army before he can be trusted to command one. That is my nindo."
Sarutobi smiled. "I would be glad to speak with you…."
"Call me Namikaze San."
"The Third Namikaze?"
"Let's just say it's a name in honor of my past. Walk with me." The tall, powerful man walked quickly out of the reception area on the lowest floor of the River Center and began to walk up the gradual incline leading to the third, and highest, floor.
"Are you perchance related to the Namikaze who settled in Hidden Leaf so many years ago?"
"It is possible," the School Master said, "but unlikely. I carry the name for my brother in arms, the Daimyo."
"Yes. For an old ninja, the one known as the Unluckiest Ninja Ever, you remain sharp witted."
"I would very much like to speak with him."
"And he would like to speak with you. He will be hearing formal petitions in the Daimyo's Garden, where he sits as a judge of last recourse, for the next hour. Would you care to talk with me until then? I have many questions you might be able to answer."
Sarutobi smiled. "Of course. What do you wish to know?"
"…and what will happen to my grandson?"
The far reaching conversation between the School Master – once known as Number Three – and Sarutobi Hiruzen was winding down. The pair had just walked into visual range of the Daimyo's Garden.
"I have not seen the results of his testing, but I expect you've trained him well in the ninja arts. I'd suspect we will give him one year of classroom time, mainly to pick up the non-military subjects we teach, along with continuing his physical education and toning. Then a five year tour as a genin; that's broken up into six months tours with jounin-led teams or one-on-one mentorships. Everyone experiences police duty in one of the protectorates of River Country; everyone also serves one or two stints on border patrol. The rest of the time is spent examining possible tracks: more time with the police, or service with the diplomatic corps as a rookie…."
"So when would he begin taking on missions?"
The School Master looked confused for a moment. "Ah, I see what you're asking. When would he serve a client?"
The School Master shook his head. "Never."
Sarutobi's brow creased.
"Think of our ninja more like your ANBU…our ninja all serve the daimyo. We have abolished mercenary missions…we do not aid criminals who might contract for an assassination…and any resident may go to a police station and request ninja assistance without paying an extra fee, beyond the taxes paid to support the police. We take care of yakuza and other criminals as soon as learn of them. All of this makes countries like Earth and Lightning more than a bit angry with us."
That made little sense to the former Hokage. "You fund all this just through taxes? It's enough to keep your army fed and paid?"
"Correct. In Earth Country, for example, people pay taxes to fund an army and a police force and an intelligence and counter-espionage center and a team of diplomats and to pay for hospitals and doctors…here, in River and in our protectorates, some of the tax money funds ninja…who do all of these things."
"But how can a small team of ninja defend against a large samurai army?"
"Through appropriate training, of course. When genin graduate into chuunin, they return to River Center for an additional year. We call it War College. Those who go into combat operations as their specialty learn how to deal with large armies of samurai and ninja; how to plan and execute ambushes; how to lay siege and succeed or, even better, how to avoid the siege in the first place using stealth. Other chuunin specialize in diplomacy and politics (all our diplomats are active ninja); or policing and justice (all judges throughout the protectorate are active ninja); medicine or education or one of another dozen fields. Your grandson, when he becomes a chuunin, will also be expected to devote at least a year to teaching at the River Center even if he does not choose to specialize in education."
Sarutobi just nodded. They had stopped at the edge of the Daimyo's Garden. It was the largest open space Sarutobi had ever seen within a village's walls – of any village or city he'd ever visited.
But he noticed something…odd.
"Those trees…they move."
The School Master just laughed. "Yes, they do. If you ask nicely, the Daimyo might tell you about his Dancing Trees."
Sarutobi's eyes were locked on the…yes, dancing trees. A hundred or more of them weaved and bobbed and…danced in the outer portions of the Daimyo's Garden. Now Sarutobi understood why the gate guard had explained how to get here. It was a marvel.
Technology maybe? That was more Konohamaru's area of interest. Or perhaps it was Naruto's skill as a puppeteer? He must remember to ask.
The large gathering around the center pavilion began to break up. This session of court seemed to be over. Sarutobi began to walk onto the garden, but the School Master held him back.
"Just wait. He knows you're here, he'll come and find us. No one sets foot in the Daimyo's Garden without his blessing. Even the petitioners were personally escorted up to the pavilion by the Daimyo…."
"What happens to those who try?"
"Let's just say that those trees can do more than dance."
"Not even you can approach your brother in arms?"
"I can, but not with a guest. It's a security precaution…someone might attempt to coerce me into granting them access to the Daimyo for an assassination attempt. Such things have happened in other countries…."
"You're obviously a powerful ninja…even if I've never heard of you before…"
The School Master laughed. "So far no River-trained ninja has ever appeared by name in one of those ridiculous bingo books. A few have gotten photographed and tagged with nicknames…but we're trained in discretion."
"…so how could you be coerced?"
"'Rule Number Twenty-Seven. Always possess an accurate understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. Overconfidence kills more often than bad luck.' I know that there is at least one person stronger than I am."
Sarutobi puzzled it over…before he remembered a genin team from Grass, the team Naruto was involved with. From the murky reaches of his memory, he put it all together. "Your sensei? Your Daimyo."
"Precisely. Fewer than five living people know that he is a most accomplished ninja. He remains in top form with his puppets and can do things by himself that I might not be able to accomplish with a small army…"
Sarutobi was confused. "How? How did he remain so unknown?"
"It was his will…he has never been giving to bragging or boasting. His skills are his own – and he had always operated in the darkness. Indeed, this was only possible given his unique form of self-taught education. His name, thanks to your 'kindness,' appears in no Academy register, not under his original name or the name he deserves and is now called."
Sarutobi understood the advantage and felt a bit pale at his 'role' in making this possible.
"Our civilian, non-military-trained Daimyo appears an easy target to those who might oppose us. 'What can a civilian do against a trained ninja assassin?' Enemy assassins make it into the Garden from time to time, from those still-mercenary Hidden Villages, but none ever return."
Sarutobi stuffed down all his regrets for what had happened…and what he had done. The Hidden Leaf was gone as an idea and as a military power. His mistakes had helped make that possible.
"How will my grandson become a jounin here?" Sarutobi asked. A new topic was safer than silence.
"Perseverence, as anywhere else," the School Master said. "Jounin are promoted based on the ninja's skill level and the need for additional senior ninja in the chosen field. Combat operations – the backbone of our military defensive network – promotes a lot; the medical corps promotes quite a few; the research corps promotes relatively few. Someone going into research or education will remain a chuunin for a long time, but they have relatively safer lives. It all balances in a twisted way."
"Well, Konohamaru will almost certainly be interested in combat."
"Perhaps. My oldest boy swears he will be a great steam user, like me, but I suspect the silver tongued devil will wind up in the diplomatic corps. Your grandson might change his mind after he spends time in a number of different postings."
"Yes. Now, all of this sounds good…for a peacetime setting. What happens during war?"
"All the specialties are important. But we have plans, in wartime, to do some adjusting. Active duty diplomats, for example, will be recalled and given a month or two to get back into top physical condition. Their billets will be filled by the wounded and the retired – or will go unfilled for a time. Ninjas during difficult periods can stretch and make do with Shadow Clones for assistants. The same retraining period and reassignment applies to teachers and several other specialties. Researchers…for the most part…get left alone, even during wartime. All our active duty ninja must keep in good condition, but good condition is not the same as wartime fighting condition. Hopefully our first war will not come for some time."
"I will hope for that, as well." It was a naïve hope, of course. Ninja were designed for war, for intrigue, for conflict. "Now, how do you ensure a balance of skills? Konohamaru's taijutsu is quite good…and I admit to having taught him more ninjutsu than I probably should have. I broke his heart, after all, he'd been a genin for only seven months when I disbanded the Hidden Leaf ninja force. I indulged him a bit too much, I suppose. He also has access to the monkey summoning contract, but has never taken up bojutsu. That and many of his other skills I have not been able to hone…."
The School Master had nodded through the question. "As my sensei taught me, we attempt to teach those who follow in our footsteps with the same methods. Each ninja is exposed to a wide variety of styles and techniques. Once something sticks, the people involved in teaching that ninja help him or her to refine the style. I was taught by a puppeteer, who mastered a wide range of skills in order to practice his art, and he helped me to develop jutsu he would likely never use. Our jounin become experienced in technique development as a necessity. We have a comprehensive technique library – of things we've developed and those we've stolen from others – but most ninja will end up discarding 'off the shelf' techniques within a few years. They will have to make their own."
"Very sensible," Sarutobi said. "Ninja are far more formidable when the enemy can't predict what they might do…."
"I am glad you approve," said an unfamiliar voice. Sarutobi turned his head and looked toward the voice…and saw a not-very tall man, with wild blonde hair, dressed in heavy green and bronze ceremonial robes.
It was Naruto…the Daimyo.
"Considering you famously said, when asked to serve as Hokage for a fourth time, 'I will fight no more forever,' I did not expect to hear this type of admiration for military training….Old Man."
"Yes, that's right. I made some money and bought some land. Then some fool decided I owned enough land to be a minor lord…and when the last River Lord died, I was elected to hold the title…."
"I'd say you were more than just the River Lord now, Naruto."
Sarutobi finally understood what Naruto had been doing after Wave Country become a protectorate of River. That was the first time he'd heard the name Naruto in a very long time…River County kept its secrets, even the name of its Lord, safe and sound.
"Thank you, Number Three," Naruto said to the School Master. "Would you care to join my conversation with the Old Man?"
"No, I've already had an hour with him. I think I'll go speak with our newest volunteer, the young Sarutobi. I wouldn't have had this sort of time if you'd have shown up tomorrow. I'll be off…to Wave Country actually…to inspect some new volunteers for River Center."
"Thank you, Namikaze San," Sarutobi said. "I appreciate the valuable time you've lent me. When I was Hokage it was difficult to indulge myself for an hour like you've done for me…and I suspect your ninja force dwarves what we had in our prime."
"I can neither confirm nor deny that, Sarutobi. The pleasure was mine."
The School Master walked back to the River Center while the Daimyo…Namikaze Naruto…led the Old Man into the Daimyo's Garden.
"This is beautiful," Sarutobi said. "Beyond description."
"Yes, that is the purpose of The Living City. Strength can seem hard and unbreaking…but the more devious sort can inspire reverential awe and happiness. I went for greenery rather than grand palaces as the Earth Lord or Fire Lord do. As a result, I do not mind sitting for court, most days, because it's always so beautiful to look at."
Sarutobi had long wanted this conversation to happen…but now he did not quite know what to say. He knew he had questions he wanted to ask…and apologies to make…but the words did not belong to him at the present.
"Would you care for tea? Or some food?"
"Whatever you're having."
Naruto called no one – in fact he seemed to have no servants around at all – but when he showed Sarutobi a seat under the Grand Gazebo, easily large enough to shelter a thousand people, there was hot tea and a selection of dumplings sitting on a small, elegant table between the two chairs.
"I hear there's a story about your trees," Sarutobi said.
"They're puppets, of course." The Daimyo smiled while Sarutobi showed just a bit of surprise. He had considered that as a possibility. "Usually I have a Kage Bunshin deal with them, but during especially boring meetings, I'll control them myself to keep from screaming. Like my next meeting in an hour – the Political Intrigue Hour – when the diplomats from our non-protectorates get their weekly meeting to protest this and that."
Sarutobi understood the pain of diplomacy. He was surprised that the Naruto he remembered could be restrained in the face of such annoyance. He did not voice this thought.
"So…it really was you, all those years ago in that ill-fated Chuunin Selection Exam? You saved my life."
Naruto took a sip of tea, then nodded. "I did."
The tea cup went back on the table before Naruto explained, "I still don't know. I hated you then, more than I remembered the good parts. I remembered the pain of being refused, being ignored. You seemed so powerful then, so interested in my life, but then you dropped me when I was in the hospital. You stopped coming around, stopped eating ramen with me…and the last straw was my schooling, once I realized something odd was happening. But you were both the Bastard…and the Old Man. I guess I chose to save the Old Man, the cheerful grandfather who liked to eat ramen with me when I was a young lad."
Straight to the heart of the matter, Sarutobi realized. Naruto was an aggressive diplomat, rather than a cautious one…that much was obvious…even if he did possess a certain potency of expression. "I regretted what I did then…just as I do to this day. Once you were hurt, once it was clear that the Kyuubi wouldn't be able to give you a new leg, my thoughts turned to your safety. I wouldn't be able to ensure your ninja education; I wouldn't be able to ensure you were strong enough to defend yourself from all sorts of potential hazards…."
"Telling someone like me he can't do a thing just ensures he will…without your oversight."
Sarutobi nodded. "I realize that now. I could have nicer about it or found a better set of compromises…but I didn't. I was old and tired and I failed you again and again. You're right, the worst part was the school. The compromise with the civilians, who I could have overruled without much effort, kept you safe at the cost of your education. After all, it was hard to justify keeping an ANBU on you when you were considered so helpless. I took the ANBU away, kept you out of school, and the civilians on the council agreed not to ever inflame passions again concerning you. Such a treasonous admission – that they had done just that in the past – I should have punished…I know that now…another failure. Best I know they did keep their word: you were no longer something they noticed since you stopped most of your pranks and were never seen with their children in the classroom. An uneducated demonic child without a leg no longer seemed so ominous to them."
Naruto took a dumpling. Sarutobi noted that Naruto's manners had certainly improved in the intervening years since their last meeting. "Civilians, hnn. I always thought it foolish to have civilians on the council. In a village of mercenary ninja, what value does a civilian add to the discussion? I certainly don't listen to anyone who hasn't served as a ninja."
Sarutobi reached out for his tea cup, his very warm tea cup, then set it back. It needed to cool. "Why?"
"Civilians, with no personal experience of war, are often more bloodthirsty than hardened military veterans. That is why only those who've done their time in the military may serve in high positions of civil administration and justice. To my mind, no sane ninja lusts after war…but he or she will turn to it in the final extreme. That is the right way."
"And what of the warmongers?"
"As I said…no sane ninja wishes for war as a first option. My advsiers who counsel war above all else…find that they are no longer my advisers. For years I waged a four-man war, then a two-man war, and then a one-man war. I have committed atrocities in the name of peace when I hunted the Akatsuki…that I would not wish any other man to have to experience. I will not lust after war…but when it comes, and I know it will, I will make sure we win."
"It's harder than it sounds," Sarutobi said, by way of defending himself. "People have opinions…."
"You did not manage your counselors this way. I understand you named your former teammates as your counselors…and then let them run amok. And you placed a former rival for the office of Hokage there too, a bitter old man even at the age of nineteen. A mistake. All of my top advisers, especially Number Three, are ninja who I could see myself appointing Daimyo in my stead when I step down. They have the kind of restraint and judgment that I trust. You would never have appointed your rival, who assembled an alternate power structure to your increasing anger and impotent demands – I've read a few histories of the Hidden Leaf for sale on the Grand Concourse – or your atrophied teammates.
"They may have had sound minds…well suited to measuring out justice in a small town or leading a permanent delegation to a small, but important, trading partner. I do not keep them in The Living City; nor do I keep them in the same posting for more than a year or two. I have no problems squashing an internal rebellion, after all I can form up an army of special clones – known in these parts as the Black Hand, when I send them on missions or when they operate here in The Living City to deal with a traitor or an infiltrator – and not even force my ninja to deal with such…people or have those brutal actions on their consciences…but I wish to keep them from appearing in the first place. But…that's just how I handle things like that here."
Sarutobi shrugged. He was too old to lead any longer. He hoped Naruto would be stronger than him when it came time to make difficult choices.
All of Sarutobi's hardest decisions failed. He wouldn't bother to defend them.
In many ways, he deserved the title of Unluckiest Ninja Ever. Or maybe Most Foolish Ninja ever. Sarutobi perked up, and abandoned his self-criticism, when he heard the next question.
"How long have you known I was here, Old Man?" The question had genuine curiosity behind it. This question made Naruto seem less a Daimyo…and more an old acquaintance.
"Weeks, yes seven weeks. You kept yourself well hidden. Until Wave Country became a protectorate of River, I hadn't even thought of Daimyos and such in quite some time. My last letter to the Fire Lord was not…well received."
Naruto nodded. "You refused to appoint yet another successor, if the rumors are correct. Indeed, you disbanded the ninja force and left the village in the hands of civilians."
"After the death of the Rokudaime Hokage…I just couldn't do it again."
Naruto popped a small dumpling into his mouth. This was obviously his lunch…and the only food he might get until night. Naruto lived in even more of a bubble than Sarutobi had.
"Your choice for the Sixth was strange," Naruto said. "Hyuuga Neji. A taijutsu specialist…without a summoning contract…or a famed original technique. A powerful jounin at the time, by all reports, but… Was he the strongest the village had left of the younger generation?"
Sarutobi shook his head. "He certainly wasn't at Kage level when I appointed him…but neither was I was when the Nidaime died. I grew into it; Jiraiya had thirty more years of experience than many Kages do when he took over. Normally this is a young man's game; few ninja, especially the powerful ones, live to the age of thirty. Only the Shodai and Yondaime were truly at an undisputable 'Kage level' at the age of twenty when they took the reins of power."
"Not the Nidaime?"
"My sensei was a good man…and his water techniques were powerful…but he was more a pacifist than I was. His appointment after the sudden death of the Shodai was political…although the Nidaime turned out to be a good leader. A great leader in wartime once he was pushed into it. I was stronger than Sensei by the time I was seventeen – stronger than our Hokage at the time, but not stronger than the other Kages."
"So, the Hyuuga?"
Sarutobi took the tea cup and took a sip. It was a fine, rich tea; better than what he could find in even the finest shops in Wave. "It was a political choice on my part. My son was dead – thankfully as I found out a few months later when I examined his papers and deciphered them – as were Tsunade and some of our strongest jounin. Jiraiya had placed all the ANBU and jounin who were in the village under a special seal to prevent them from waking until he released them. He did not know who were loyal and who traitors. It took months after his death to unravel that blasted thing and get them all restored. A few nearly died from dehydration before we figured out what happened and located all of them. We had to feed them through tubes stuffed down their throats. A nasty business. I'd still like to wring my student's neck…."
The Daimyo gave only a wry smile. His eyes involuntary twisted to look at an unusual monument in the Garden. When Sarutobi stared at it, it looked…like the Uchiha clan fan had been engraved in it. An odd memorial for a land where the Uchiha had never lived. There was a story there…Sarutobi would have to ask, but perhaps not today.
"So…the pool was not terribly deep," Sarutobi continued, dropping his thoughts on that odd monument. "But I wanted someone with passion. Oddly enough, the taciturn Hyuuga was the most passionate, the most likely to bring at least temporary peace and solve our current problems. A year went by, a hard but promising year of rebuilding and mourning, then he began his crusade to destroy the Caged Bird Seal, a Hyuuga Clan abomination. It was rather ridiculous. The Hokage was branded with that mark…so that any one of forty-odd people could kill him with just a handseal. The battle raged for eight months before a Hyuuga elder did just that rather than cave to the Hokage's demands."
Sarutobi couldn't hold the sad timbre in his voice. Talking about those dark days always made him angry and depressed at the same time.
"In my grief and anger, Hokage for the fourth time, I slaughtered every Main branch Hyuuga. I reminded them why I was not just a doddering old man. They were taijutsu masters, but I knew more ninjutsu than even my craziest student managed to learn. None of them got within forty meters of me; they were stupid to have concentrated so much on short-range combat.
"That was when I disbanded the village and wrote the Daimyo: 'I will fight no more forever.' In his rage at losing face, he sent assassins after me and I was forced to violate my pledge."
Naruto had been attentive to the entire story. He finally nodded, with an unreadable expression on his face. "I had wondered why the old Daimyo and a good portion of his family had a fatal accident around that time."
"A convenient lie told by the new Fire Lord who disliked his great uncle, but did not care to have such a dishonor tarnishing him before he was invested. We declared neutrality and I moved with my grandson to Wave Country."
Naruto nodded. A political nod; he had heard enough. "A sad tale; the end of an idea. I did my part to rescue that village twice: once as a sacrifice when I was a few hours old; once as a protector during an invasion that did not concern me. I would not have gone out of my way to help them a third time nor certainly as many times as you have."
Sarutobi drained his tea cup. It was a delicious liquid…but it couldn't take away his temporary melancholy. "You've become hard."
"Jaded? Yes. My story is my own, however. I will say that I know how and why to reward betrayal harshly. For instance, I had a neutrality with Lord Pain, then leader of Akatsuki…."
"How did you – Jiraiya told me they were hunting the bijuu…."
"Lord Pain changed the plans once he rose to the top of the heap. However, once he realized that my plan for bringing peace to the Elemental Nations was working, while his was stuck in a rut, he attempted to betray me. When he proposed neutrality, I told him I knew his vulnerabilities and I gave him a demonstration…he did not believe I could duplicate my original show of force when he sent a sneak attack my way. Five hours after I killed his assassins, I leveled his stronghold and killed him. He was…surprised when he died."
How, Sarutobi wondered. What was this technique? To kill such a powerful ninja, the one who was reputed to have slain Salamander Hanzo, the world's strongest ninja for more than two decades. From Naruto's smile, Sarutobi realized this was not a secret that he would be sharing.
Sarutobi decided to ask an impertinent question. "Your plan for peace…you mean your protectorates?"
"Yes. This is the first phase."
Sarutobi needed to understand phase one before asking about what came next. "You are, in effect, Daimyo of nine countries now…but you claim the title of River Lord only. Shouldn't you be an emperor?"
An absent shake of the head refuted that. "No. I have conquered nothing. I have not replaced the Daimyos who contracted with my ninja army for assistance. All of this was done through diplomacy. I control only River Country…."
Sarutobi knew a bullshit line when he heard it. "But you've made it impossible for the protected countries to declare war. Their Daimyos have had to disband all but their bodyguard details."
"Yes, that is a useful thing."
That confirmed it for Sarutobi. "That is your main purpose, River Lord. Peace through inability to make war?"
Naruto smiled again. And said nothing.
"When will the wars with the other nations begin? You've 'annexed' all the countries, save Fire Country, without their own Hidden Villages. What about the rest?"
Naruto ate another dumpling. "The Earth Lord really hates me. The Wind Daimyo is playing coy, while likely plotting with Hidden Sand. Water Country has refused to meet with my diplomats past the initial meeting. Surprisingly, Lightning Country has been the most polite…but firm in their refusal. Grass Country is perhaps the closest one with a Hidden Village to accepting our protection."
"That would be…quite something…if it happened. How would the dismissed ninja react, I wonder?"
Naruto shrugged, but obviously had an idea or two he wasn't ready to share.
"The Fire Lord, though. Hmm. I expect trouble in some shape from him. When I reminded that young man he had no Hidden Village – his plan to create the Village Hidden in the Smoke, near all those volcanoes, is doomed to fail – he basically threw me out of his palace. I will say this: while I will not start a war, when attacked, any aggressors will see the might of the River Center and then my terms will not be so generous."
Sarutobi considered this. "An emperor in all but name. You've set yourself up…these Hidden Villages will have to go to war with you. You threaten their livelihood, their very existence. It is either genius or tremendous folly, your forcing them into declaring war on you. I never predicted this for you…."
Naruto's smile turned to stone. "You left me to rot. I understand your reasoning and accept your apology, but I do not forgive you. I would rather be a happy chuunin in the Hidden Leaf, eating ramen and jumping about like an over-caffeinated toad, than this…what I am. To get this powerful, more powerful than you, Old Man, required sacrifice."
"I understand." Sarutobi almost stuttered out his words. These last few words from Naruto had been accompanied by increasing levels of Killing Intent. It became a bit hard to breathe, in fact.
"No, you don't. But that is all we need say of that." The leaking Killing Intent died down. Had it been directed at Sarutobi, rather than generalized and dispersed, it might have been enough to stop his heart; that was raw power. "Do you wish to become a resident of The Living City…to watch over your grandson?"
Sarutobi goggled for a moment at the abrupt change in the conversation. One moment Naruto was about to stop his heart; the next, he was offering Sarutobi a home in his capital city. He stalled, trying to figure this out. "I had heard it was difficult to qualify…."
"For one such as you, I would be glad to waive the rules, Old Man. Do you wish it?"
Sarutobi was quiet for a long time. His facile mind went over and over what he knew, what he suspected. "Why do you offer?"
Naruto smiled. "Had you been the slightest bit dishonest with me – or justified your decisions even now – we would have finished this conversation and I would have sent you on your way. You might have been able to see your grandson once or twice a year during breaks in his training. However…after what we've discussed this morning…I would like to remake the acquaintance of the Old Man, as it seems the Bastard has gone on hiatus. It's also a favor to you…for kindnesses in the past. I suspect you would like to keep a closer eye eye on…Konohamaru. What a mouthful! Perhaps he should petition for a name change." There was the mischievous Naruto Sarutobi remembered.
It didn't take long to consider the proposal. This had been some kind of a test…and Sarutobi had passed this round. "Yes, I would like that. I would like to become a resident."
Naruto stood and looked at Sarutobi. "Let me walk you out of the Garden then. I will have someone take you to the housing office. Nearly all residences are underground you know, leaving all this land to grow beautiful plants."
The rest of the conversation, once tense and personal, changed into the Daimyo's well rehearsed sales pitch concerning his capital city. He was proud of what he'd created…and it showed in his every word.
"If anyone were ever foolish enough to lay siege on us, we have enough food and spring water to last…forever. Beauty and strength, a fine expression of both. As it is currently, most of the food we grow remains here while some is sent out in exchange for luxury goods from our trading partners. Fish and shellfish from the ocean; rice of the highest quality; ducks and pheasants and fat cows; teas and delicacies from all over."
Sarutobi arrived back at the road that circled around the Daimyo's Garden. "It was good to see you, Naruto."
"It was a pleasure for me," the Daimyo said. "I will expect to see you tomorrow, at noon. I have a less full afternoon then…and we might speak for a longer time. As it is, I must return for the Political Intrigue Hour."
"Best of luck!"
Naruto, already well back in the garden, close to a dancing tree, turned around and smiled. It was different from how the young Naruto had smiled. It spoke of power, and rage, and pain. It spoke of insanity remedied and of a dream yet to be fulfilled.
It was, at its heart, filled with hope.