The Ronin and the Queen
Chapter 1 - The Ronin Returns
This is a short story that I posted on my LJ back in November so many of you may have already read it. I wanted to put it all here in a cleaner format and fix mistakes. I don't own Naruto.
Konoha: a hidden village in the centre of the Fire Country. That was all he could call it anymore. Home was too inappropriate a word, and something that would indicate he'd be staying. Of course, there was no question that he would not be. No question at all in his mind on that account.
Smoke from chimneys and furnaces billowed up into the cold air and the scent of ramen and fresh baked bread filled his nose at the back entrance in the wall. The check-in point was just a door -- red, wooden and enterable by a rusty latch. As usual, it wasn't a problem getting to the door, but getting three steps beyond it - that was normally the delay.
Hatake Kakashi had entered through that door many times in his long gone past. It was the same door he quietly left through six years before. It was the same door where he made his peace with all his choices and walked away.
Today the door was hanging open and a pair of feet attached to slender legs covered in black armour sat propped on the rough looking doorframe. A woman's legs no doubt. A Leaf kunoichi's legs, which made them that much more appealing to the old jounin. As he stepped up to the human gate, Kakashi put a hand up to the scarf wrapped around his ubiquitous mask and made the most ridiculously fake muffled coughing sound he could muster.
"Shit," a girl's voice muttered as the feet dropped heavily to the ground. A young, red-headed kunoichi with pigtails stood up and cocked an eyebrow to see the mostly covered face looking down at her. "State your business and please have some identification ready."
Her eyes ran up and down the stranger, taking in the long dark coat, the black knit hat he had pulled down over his light hair and left eye as well as the heavy looking boots he wore. A navy blue scarf wrapped around his face almost up to his nose, but when he shifted, she could see he had a mask on underneath.
"The Hokage summoned me," Kakashi mumbled, rummaging in the pack he'd unslung from his back to produce a small black book.
"This is a convention stamp book for an Icha Icha trade show," Moegi grumbled, rolling her eyes.
"Oh, sorry," Kakashi laughed unembarrassed, taking it back and lovingly putting it away. "Here." He produced a small black folder with some papers, which the young kunoichi looked through before her wide eyes darted up to him from the words she'd had to read twice.
"Welcome back, Kakashi-senpai," she said quietly, a timid bow following. "I'm sure Hokage-sama will be so pleased to have you back." She held the papers out and bowed more respectfully when he'd taken them to tuck back away.
"Thanks, Moegi. Go back to your romance novel," he added, patting her on the head and wandering inside, adjusting the large rucksack back over his dark coat.
The young girl blushed and smiled, plopping back down and picking up the paper volume she thought she'd hidden so well, to watch him walk away.
The strong memories of each of the buildings, the large faces on the cliffside and the familiar leaf symbols on the forehead protectors of passers-by were all filled with degrees of happiness and pain for Kakashi. Some physical, some mental. Not much had changed since he'd been gone, except of course when he looked at Moegi, he could see that the children had grown up. It almost made him smile. Almost.
Trudging along, he felt the need to stop at the apartment he owned, which had sat empty over his years of wandering and information gathering for the village. Since Jiraiya's passing, a void had been left in the services, and after the war with the Akatsuki, he decided that his time had come to let the younger generation protect the village. It was the way it had always been, like when his sensei had left him to seal the Kyuubi in his own son, or when Jiraiya had chosen that career of a ronin.
For Kakashi, wandering the countries and learning more about the things he liked and disliked along the way was an interesting way of life. Perhaps that's why Jiraiya did it for so long. Often days and days would pass with no one to speak to and the solitude fickle, sometimes crushing, sometimes freeing. He'd learned he liked sake and flirtatious women, along with the odd cigarette. He'd also learned that he hated gambling – which didn't come as a great surprise.
And he'd also learned that he cared more about his three students than he'd ever thought he did. But as the years passed, and the scenery changed over and over, adding variety and surprise to every day, he began to think about them less and less, just as he thought of Obito and Rin and Minato less and less.
As Kakashi ambled further into the village, he finally came to the shabby building that housed his old desk, some random pieces of furniture and his single bed. It would be nice to sleep there again for a night or two before he'd make his way back out. He always liked that bed. His old home smelled dusty and unlived in but the plant on his windowsill was still alive and his sheets appeared to be clean.
Someone had been looking out for him, and he was pretty sure he knew who it was.
Unfortunately, he only had a little time to clean up and change because as was summoned back by the Hokage. If he didn't show up in her office….well, she knew he was typically a latecomer. What could she really do to him?
The loud clicks of the Hokage's high heels echoed down the shiny hospital hallway as she darted along her usual morning path. One orderly dropped his papers trying to get out of her way, and she gave him a fleeting glance out of the corner of her eye as she passed. What the hell was he so nervous about?
She sort of liked intimidating without even trying but never used that ability without proper reason. She'd always had that skill – especially with men. Sometimes it was a blessing, sometimes a curse. It certainly made life a little lonelier as their come-ons were always quick and to the point. Seemed that the men her age weren't for taking their time or bothering with something as integral as seduction. Probably why no one could get her into bed.
The crowd usually parted when she moved along the hallways. It was good to be the Hokage sometimes – others...not so much. But she was a good one, she believed. She was fastidious and diligent in her duties including paperwork, which many of her predecessors lacked.
"Shizune?" she called as she whipped open her office door. "I need the medical text on weed-based poisons."
A scramble met the Hokage's ears as the door slowly eased shut and she walked around her desk to plop down on the creaky wooden chair. An antique, she grumbled. She needed to get something softer with better lumbar support. It was critical for the days she was glued to the damn paperwork prison. Maybe a footrest too...
"Here it is, Hokage-sama," Shizune said casually as she dropped the large log onto the desk and dust floated up from the cover in a thick, brown cloud.
"I see this gets used a lot," the woman smirked. "Thanks, Shizune."
Shizune breathed a laugh. "I'm getting a coffee. Would you like one?"
The Hokage leaned back in her chair, hating the feel of the wooden spindles bumping against her spine from the ancient backrest. "Did we get any information on that supposed uprising yet?"
"No. But I understand one of the information gatherers you sent for is on his way back with that report. He was supposed to be here earlier today. Must be late."
The Hokage sighed. "Late, huh? Have you seen Naruto today?"
"No. I haven't seen him for two days."
With a long drawn out breath, the village leader lifted her feet to the corner of the desk and crossed them, rubbing her forehead a little and trying hard to get her mind focused on the menial and not so menial tasks ahead.
"I'd love a coffee if you're getting yourself one. Two sugars, please."
Shizune smiled and nodded. "Of course, Sakura."
The sixth Hokage, Haruno Sakura, turned her chair and stared out the window at the monument in the distance. Her own face, solemn, too young, stared back at her. Tenzou had put it there days after her inauguration six years ago. She cried the first time she saw it…and not because she was happy. Even now, she couldn't stand the sight of it. It wasn't supposed to be her up there. It was never supposed to be her.
"Sakura?" Shizune poked her head in carrying two empty mugs. "The uh…information gatherer is here."
"Send him in," Sakura muttered, dropping her feet and readjusting herself on the uncomfortable wooden chair as she added, "And he'd better have a damn good excuse for being so late when…."
"Yo," a familiar voice said from the doorway.
The loud crack of lacquered wood splintering into a thousand pieces caught them both off guard and Sakura looked down with wide green eyes at the chunk of the chair arm she'd ripped off.
"Bad time?" Kakashi asked lazily, shuffling in with his hands stuffed down in his pockets.
"Sen…sei?" she whispered, her green eyes like dinner plates, a heavy thump of wood thudding to the floor where she'd fumbled and dropped the chair arm.
Even now, years later as Hokage, Sakura still called him by that title. She was twenty-one, the most powerful leader in the five countries, and she looked at him with that lost gaze and called him teacher. It made him chuckle to himself.
Standing up, Sakura leaned forward over her desk, hands splayed between stacks of papers and scrolls, shock apparent still on her pretty face.
"Wh…where have you been?"
Sakura's hand was shaking. How long had it been since something made her nervous? Years perhaps. The wind that blew through the pillars on the top of Hokage tower seemed to go right through her short black Capri pants and long sleeved red top. But her full-length hospital coat helped a little. She raised the take-out cup of coffee to her lips as she stared out into the plethora of buildings puffing smoke from their heaters into the blue sky.
"It's cold today," Kakashi mumbled from next to her, squeezing a tight shrug of his shoulders and shivering a little. He wished to be back in his long black coat. "Would you rather talk inside?"
"No," she said quietly, enjoying the taste of the vanilla shot that she'd had the clerk at the coffee shop put in as an afterthought. Kakashi had waited patiently and silently until Sakura received her order from the fumbling young girl behind the counter, and then joined her on the short walk from the hospital to the tower. Sure she had work she should be doing, but it wasn't everyday that she got a shock in the form of Hatake Kakashi. Nothing else seemed that important at the moment.
Kakashi shoved his gloved hands into his pockets, twisting his body just a little to readjust his vest. He flexed his fingers in the black gloves, forgetting how snug they felt and how the metal guards on the top would lay on the back of his hands, cold and annoying in that sort of weather. It felt strange to be in his regular jounin fatigues again. He'd always worn the pants and the shoes, but he'd abandoned the vest for a coat, headband for a hat, and gloves for a heavy sweater that covered his palms with long sleeves.
"Six years," Sakura spoke onto the rim of the hot beverage.
"I hadn't realized it had been that long until I was summoned. You've grown up."
"I had no choice but to grow up. But I suppose I can thank you partially for that," she said so quietly, only a man like Kakashi could hear.
"Perhaps. You could have refused Hokage duty, you know," Kakashi muttered back calmly, sensing she wasn't angry, rather just more unhappy with the way things turned out.
"Like you did? It wasn't supposed to be me. It was supposed to be you, and then when Naruto was ready, it was supposed to be him. What sort of sixteen year old medic makes a good leader?" she scoffed, rubbing a tense hand over her forehead.
"Do you doubt what sort of Hokage you've been? You're strong, respected and highly intelligent. At the time, when we lost Tsunade and Naruto was incapacitated, they wanted someone who was similar to her. You were trained by her, and me for that matter. Hell, you even hit like she did."
Sakura turned to him, her eyes glancing over his vest and then up to his silver hair, which looked as messy as she remembered. "They wanted you, Kakashi. You were all those things plus experience. When you refused, they were desperate to find someone like Tsunade. Naturally, I reminded everyone of her and knew the ins and outs of the office. How could I possibly say no after their first two choices were out of the running?"
Kakashi met her gaze and gave her one of his stock, exaggerated smiles. How could anyone not see Tsunade in Sakura. She even wore her hair like the woman. In intelligence, Sakura was superior and in discipline, Sakura was probably harder. The only thing she lacked was the age and the bust line.
"I'm just doing it in the interim until Naruto is ready," she said with finality though not really believing that was true anymore. "Have you seen him yet?"
"No. I came here first."
Sakura's eyes widened a little and she took a step closer so that her arm was touching his. "Please, do something for me, Kakashi-sensei. Go see him. I don't know what else to do for him anymore. He's just…lost. "
Her sudden desperation surprised him and he felt that old attachment rising to her request. But things seemed different now. Her long pink hair was styled like Tsunade's in the long loose ponytails, and standing in her high-heeled shoes, she could almost see eye to eye with him. Her round child's eyes were wary and intelligent. Six years could change so much, he thought in wonder. She was a beautiful woman and he'd always had trouble saying no to beautiful women.
"Of course, Sakura. Does he still live in the same place?" He felt no urge to pat her on the head like he'd do when she was younger. Instead he put a hand on her bicep and squeezed affectionately. The only thing that seemed off between them to be proper colleagues was that she called him Sensei. He'd have to put a stop to that soon.
"He does, but you won't find him there much. Usually he's at the memorial or in the pub."
Complete understanding gripped Kakashi.
How strange that everything repeated itself.
"When you've spoken with him, will you come back and see me?" she asked, a hint of timidity in her adult voice.
"You're the Hokage, Sakura. I can't say no."
Sakura laughed and smiled a little sadly, grabbing his sleeve and playfully tugging it. "We both know you would, Sensei. You're probably the only man in this village that could comfortably disobey me."
Kakashi breathed out a laugh, knowing it was true. He could feel her fingers acutely on his arm. It had been a long time since someone had touched him affectionately – especially a woman.
"Might be a nice change," she added quietly as an afterthought.
Moving around Konoha was nostalgic in some ways. Kakashi thought about his favourite haunts as well as visiting the odd tree where he'd carved a little something on the days he would wile away the hours with Icha Icha Paradise. But since that time, there had been no new volumes, no new storylines, and no new ridiculous dedications in the front of the book to certain women in Konoha. In so many ways, he missed Jiraiya. In a situation like this, the old Sannin would know just what to say to Naruto. Too bad Kakashi couldn't channel him.
Staring out of one of his many leaf-covered perches from his younger days, Kakashi took in the solitary blond man sitting in front of the memorial. Naruto's arms dangled lifeless over his bent knees and his head stooped, heavy with all his thoughts. Kakashi was intimate with that posture and that location. All the things running through Naruto's head had once been inside Kakashi's. He felt a kinship to the young Uzumaki at that moment.
Deciding that he'd had enough time to understand the full situation, Kakashi dropped down out of the tree and wandered over to the forlorn figure.
"Yo," he said congenially.
Naruto's blue eyes stayed trained on the memorial and he mumbled with no surprise to his tone whatsoever, "Hey, Sensei."
"I didn't surprise you?"
"I sensed you come in the gate this morning," Naruto added, rubbing a strong man-sized hand through his lengthened golden hair. Finally prying his eyes away from the gleaming black marble, he took in his old teacher and team-leader who looked exactly the same way he did when he left. It made him bark out a laugh.
"You've changed," Kakashi said quietly, shocked that he was practically staring into the face of his own former Sensei. How proud Minato would have been to see his son was his exact likeness. It might have satisfied the man's quiet vanity, he chuckled inwardly. Naruto's hair was longer, still unruly, but fitting. His bright blue eyes were still deep and innocent looking, but the down turned corners of his mouth were foreign on that face. He was a man – so different from the sixteen-year-old boy he'd last seen. His forehead was bare and his clothing would never give away that he was ever a ninja.
"You haven't changed, Sensei. Not a bit," Naruto laughed deprecatingly. "Sakura send for you? I thought you were out wandering the North Country. You know, sowing your wild oats."
"The Hokage did send for me. I had information on the northern uprising, but it doesn't seem like anything we have to worry about now. I don't think she knew I was the information gatherer when she summoned me." And he added with a scoff, "My oats are too old to sow anymore."
"That so," Naruto huffed, then turned his face back to the memorial. "Did she tell you to come and find me? I should tell you that you're about number eighteen in a long line of people she's sent. Seems to think there is something the matter. It's getting old."
"And you say there isn't anything wrong?" Kakashi entertained.
Naruto shrugged. "Not the way I see it."
"Good. That makes my job easier. Let's get ramen then. I'm hungry and all Sakura gave me was coffee." Kakashi absently patted his hard stomach.
"All right," Naruto mumbled, begrudgingly pushing himself up from the cold grass to see Kakashi briefly bow to the memorial and then turn to walk back into the village centre.
"Kakashi-san," Ayame purred over the Ichiraku counter, her father cooking behind her. "Why didn't you take me with you when you left? I would have gladly gone."
"Ah, traveling through the northern country isn't for beautiful young women. Besides, what would I have to come back to if you were there?" he responded with a cheeky grin beneath his mask.
"Still so smooth," she laughed as she reached for some noodles and flashed a smile at Naruto.
"Never pegged you as a smooth talker with the ladies, Sensei," Naruto scoffed, reaching for a paper-wrapped set of chopsticks from the glass on the counter.
"I've gained a few skills on my journey," Kakashi said evenly, watching Ayame lean over the counter and hand two bowls of ramen over. His eyes wandered to Naruto clad only in a black t-shirt and black pants, even in the cold weather. He looked thinner than Kakashi had imagined he would, but staring at a memorial for hours could do that; he knew firsthand.
"I guess you haven't learned the skill of knowing when you're wasting your time though. Tell her I'm fine and she's a good Hokage," Naruto mumbled over the bowl, poking at the egg in the centre with the end of the wooden chopstick.
"She is a good Hokage, but she doesn't want to be one. I feel bad that I refused, but I don't regret it. It wasn't supposed to ever be my job, it was supposed to be yours. And I can see you're fine. You look strong and healthy to me, and I'm sure you're still working just as hard for the village as you ever were," Kakashi said evenly, unsnapping his own chopsticks. "I'm impressed that you sensed me entering at the other end when you weren't even expecting me."
"I can pinpoint where anyone in the village is at any given time. I can smell everyone, sense their chakra like different tastes on my tongue. I can feel Ayame's body heat even though she's twenty-feet away now. And if I focus, I can hear Sakura mumbling to herself up on top of Hokage tower as she watches people pass on the street. She wonders if you've found me."
"Exceptional," Kakashi reiterated. "And unsurprising considering what you could do at just sixteen. Six years can fine tune things. I was at my peak at nineteen."
"You should help Sakura, Sensei. She's the one who needs it."
"And what exactly does she need?"
"She needs to stay out of my business and get a life," Naruto half-laughed. "Oh, and she needs to get laid."
"Sorry?" Kakashi blurted out.
"The men around here are intimidated by her. I've seen her nerves coiling tighter and tighter. She can hardly stand to have any of the fun arguments we used to. Either she'll get some sex or she'll explode."
"Well, I can't think of how I could possibly help her with that," Kakashi mumbled, grabbing the top edge of his mask in preparation to eat. "Why don't you help her?"
"I can't look at her like that. Not after she slept with Sai back in the day. Unfulfilling and lacking creativity, she called him. It was an unemotional non-descript dalliance with a socially inept imbecile," he laughed out, then continued to chuckle at his own humour. "Can't see how that would be any good."
"Ah." Kakashi rolled his eyes figuring he'd have preferred not to have that information.
"I suppose she's been so busy with work, she didn't get a chance to be young. Sometimes she's like an old lady. Everything is paperwork and politics. Boring shit. The only thing she does do is get ripped drunk pretty often. But I suppose I'd get drunk too if I slept with Sai," Naruto smirked and laughed again.
Kakashi could see the reasoning in everything Naruto said. He imagined being Hokage would be like paperwork Hell and Sakura wasn't the sort of person to delegate or unload. She'd been just a girl when she took the post and never had the chance to be a wild teen like she should have been. Understandably, she would be missing some of the better pleasures in life that being young and free included.
"Sai was the only one who wasn't frightened of her strength and position because he didn't really get it. And she always felt a little sorry for him, I think. I imagine the fact that he looked like Sasuke didn't hurt either. I took that away from her as well, Kakashi. I can't replace him."
"Ah, so that's how it is. Killing Sasuke was taking something away from her? Protecting Konoha from his ill-conceived revenge was wrong? I see things clearly now."
"Don't twist it. I should have saved him." Naruto bowed a little lower over his food.
"Well, you couldn't actually. If it were remotely possible, then you would have."
Naruto turned his head and stared at Kakashi.
"Am I wrong?" Kakashi asked.
"I didn't know how to save him. I wasn't smart enough to figure it out. Everything went wrong. I can still hear Sakura sobbing over him. She never blamed me, Kakashi. I don't understand how she could never blame me. Ever since he left, we promised each other to get strong and to get him back. It was my biggest failure to her and to him."
"How do you see it as a failure?" Kakashi asked, turning fully on his stool to stare at Naruto who seemed to be fixated on something on the counter he was scratching at. "I would have thought that ignoring your duty to become Hokage and letting your best friend fill in is more of a failure."
"Sasuke's dead, Kakashi. What else in my life matters after that?"
"The way I see it, he was going to end up dead either way. But instead of being Konoha's betrayer, his name is on the memorial that you slump in front of everyday. For Sasuke, that was the only success he would be afforded after his deeds. It seems to me like you gave him something he could have never achieved on his own."
"So you didn't believe in me? You felt he was always dead?"
"Yeah, Naruto. I knew it the moment he left when you were kids. It was his goal to die. He chose the wrong way to follow his own plans by turning his back on us. We all would have helped him achieve what he wanted, but he didn't trust us to be there for him. In the end, he returned with the intent of killing our countrymen. You did what a Hokage would do. You made a decision that was right, but would be the hardest thing you'd ever have to do in your life. Just like your father did when you were born. Just like Tsunade did when she gave her life and trusted us to carry on after her." Kakashi pulled down his mask and finally took a bite of the familiar steaming meal that he'd forgotten he loved so much.
For a long time, Naruto was silent, poking at the food, his eyes glancing over everything and nothing.
Kakashi smiled as he pulled his mask back up. At least the man was thinking. For now, that was a good start.
There is only 2 more chapters. I'm just fixing them. I should have the next one up tomorrow and the rest up the day after.