Disclaimer: I don't own anything... except for the plot of this chapter (...and entire story), as well as the character interpretation and development therein. Also, parts of Sakura's dialogue is taken directly from the first volume of Naruto. A two sentence quote is taken from Kushiel by Jacqueline Carey.
Beta: Michelle T.
Interlude 1: From the other cliff of the Abyss (a.k.a how canon!Naruto grew into TF!Naruto)
"... for even in the depths of hell, we shall have the eyes of angels on us..."
A long, long time ago in a far, far away land, there lived a little boy in a ninja village. His birth foretold the onset of the end, and heralded by tragedy.
A vessel meant to contain evil, fated for sorrow, but born out of love. His birth and life was the untold half of the legend. In his heart was jailed the beast of nine tails, and he was called...
"Naruto! Move your ass! I want to sit on the other side of you!"
That was what she always said... yelled... to his face when they were kids. Every morning, every class, without fail, like clockwork, like a courtyard game for children. She wanted to sit next to Sasuke, and he, knowing exactly what she wanted, always went for that seat... just so she would have a reason to look him in the face and called him an ass, just so he could hear her talking to him. She had little reason to do so outside of it. Not in those first few years anyway. So, without fail, every morning, every class of his academy days, he came early and sat next to Sasuke Uchiha and waited for her to come in through the door with sunlight on her back and harsh words on her lips.
He loved her before he even knew what love was.
Sakura Haruno was her name. They met for the first time at five years old. She didn't remember, but he did. He saw her sitting alone in the woods, by the river, crying, and just then it occurred to his five years old mind that he wasn't the only child out there who yearned for something other than himself, who yearned to be accepted, acknowledged. A kindred soul, whether she knew it or not.
Could five years old boys fall in love? Was it love? Or was it simple infatuation meant to burn out once the fancy passed? The fallacy of youth and minds too young to comprehend the depth and madness of the heart. Maybe. Maybe not. He didn't know. No one ever taught him about love or how to love or be loved. He had no parents to learn from, so he made by in stumbles and in falls, learning through pain and mistakes. A blind creature trying to claw its way through shadow to the light.
"All I want is... for you to acknowledge me." She told him... Sasuke... him disguised as Sasuke. They sat on the bench right in the premises of the Ninja Academy. Sasuke tied up and ball-gagged in a corner while he wore Sasuke's face to sit next to the girl he loved. Then she said to his face that he didn't know her at all. It would be years until she knew how wrong she was, because he did know her... so much more than she could ever understand. But then she was a kid, and kids did stupid things all the time.
It stung to hear that, because that was exactly what he wanted to tell her... what he wanted from her, the same thing she wanted from Sasuke.
Please, please acknowledge me.
She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen... but also the most terrible thing. He hated her for what she did to him, but his heart didn't change. It never would.
Twelve years old, he found out the great secret that founded his life. He was a vessel meant to contain evil. The jailor of a demon. Heartbroken for the first time, but also made his first real friend. He saw Iruka to his grave, and amongst the countless unmarked graves of war, he made sure his first teacher, mentor, brother, and friend would always be remembered for as long as he lived.
Twelve years old, and he took the first step into the world of Shinobi. Shadows and daggers and lies and half-truths. A world shaded in gray. But he was a child, and children can only comprehend things in absolute black or white.
Whereas he saw a bright future with glory and acceptance and princesses to save, reality was all about killing and lies and deceit and a village founded upon a foundation made up of secrets.
Twelve years old, he saw his Hokage die. No. Not Hokage. His grandfather figure. His idol and the goal of his aspiration. He started to understand that even powerful men can fail, can die. Before that, he thought the Hokage invincible. As he stood in a sea of black and listened to the funeral rite and the raindrops falling down on his face, he began down the path to understanding how frail, how powerless men were against the tides of history.
Twelve years old, he lost a best friend and brother, made a promise he would give his life to keep.
Twelve years old, he left the place that saw his birth and fostered him in its bosoms for twelve years to go on a journey. He wanted to be stronger. He would be stronger. He had someone to protect now, and he would not end up like the Hokage that now lay lifeless under the earth.
He found out he never really understood the definition of power. What was power? The ability to mow down enemies like electric grass mowers on a field of wild weeds? The ability to protect the people he loved? The ability to change the world? To better it? The first one he was sure he was going down the right path. The other two eluded him still. The day he lost Neji during the ensuing Fourth Shinobi world war, his understanding of how fallible men were sunk in deeper, but time would prove that it was still too shallow.
Fifteen years old, he went home. He thought he was ready. It turned out that he was not. War found him. No... war caught up with him. His life had started with war, had always been conducted in war. He just never knew it till then.
The rest was history. Akatsuki. Itachi Uchiha. Chasing after Sasuke and realizing how much he had changed and how much he hadn't. Pain and Yahiko and Konan. It shook him how much he had in common with Pain. It was also the first time he couldn't tell whether his enemy was truly an enemy. If things in his life didn't happen the way they did, could he have turned out like Nagato? Maybe. He stood on the precipice, the line between light and dark and felt so very keenly the pull of the abyss on him. One slip was all it took. He understood it better than anyone.
His world blurred in shades of grey. His village lay in tatters. Desperate people could be... beastly. He understood that they tried to be better, but sometime better didn't cut it.
Sakura. Sakura. Sakura. His pillar of strength and peace amidst a time of chaos. She had changed too, in a way he had not expected... but had somehow always known. In the place of a little girl now stood a maturing young woman and together they shared this journey. His love for her aged like wine, gaining depth and richness and growing still and pure as it peaked.
Words couldn't describe what he felt for her, so he stayed silent and let his action speak for itself.
The Fourth Shinobi World War erupted. Tobi who was Obito, who was so much like him it felt like looking into a warped mirror every time he faced the man. This is what he would be like if the abyss took him. Then the mastermind behind everything, Madara. If the madness of love ever took human form, it would be him. Madara Uchiha.
The battle was a disaster because of one detractor from history. In another world, it would have been a different war. In this one, the Daimyos, fed up with fickle and uncontrollable shinobi, separated as a third faction. The war they introduced was one of machines and tools of mass murder. Things that could turn simple civilians into ninja killers. The new war formation broke whatever economical and political balance that had held until then. They found themselves fighting for their lives and their foods all at once.
War. Death. He once thought it was glory and fame in those days of sunshine, homework and careless childhood. Reality was pain and suffering and horror and amidst it all he could do was endure as best he could.
He could barely remember the day they christened him the new Hokage... Rokudaime Hokage. Tsunade's corpse was still warm when this happened. Once the dream and goal of his life, now it felt shallow and tasteless. He walked to a battered Hokage mountain and stood there looking at his village, his people, thousands of souls who depended on him to guide them, feed them, lead them, protect them.
Being Hokage was neither glory nor acknowledgement. Being Hokage meant duty and sacrifice.
He understood then how naive he had been in his youth. He stood there and cried because he knew perfectly how powerless he was. For the first time ever he understood how Sandaime must have felt. A brittle twig in the face of a storm.
As the sun went down, Sakura found him. She came up from behind and held him in her hands, and then she put her lips to his ears and whispered.
"I love you."
In a world of darkness and despair, a drop of beauty. Love, pure, unadulterated. Its sweetness intensified by a vast backdrop of pain and sorrow. It burned as much as it soothed. But it was all he had, so he took it with both hands.
"Marry me." He told her. "Don't leave me. Stay with me. Forever." The next day they went to the temple together and to an audience of a handful of friends that were still alive, they became husband and wife. They were barely sixteen at the time.
Life went on as it normally did. Battles and strategy and politics. He clung to her as she clung to him. They were each other's safe harbor amidst the storm, intertwined like vines born from one seed. They lost more friends, more allies, but as long as he had her with him, he felt he could take it and keep on going.
In the dark tunnel of time, he hoped for the light at the end.
One day, Hikaru happened. Like all newborns he was red and wrinkly and a baby-shaped organic radio permanently tuned to the screaming channel, but it was love at first sight for both Naruto and Sakura. Hikari's pitch black hair and deep brown eyes set him apart from his father's blond and blue and his mother's pink and green. It was obvious that he was not their blood child.
Children in time of war. A bad idea. He had always wanted a family, but even he understood that now was not the time to bring an innocent soul into this world... not like this... not while he sent twelve years old children to the frontline everyday. He did not make this decision as the Hokage. He made it as a father and a husband. It was a completely selfish decision. He couldn't bear the thought of creating life, seeing it grow up and then sending it into the battlefield. He knew without a doubt that he would love the child completely and unconditionally.
To have this love be taken away from him through war and death... it would break him.
Sakura understood, so she never pushed. They made love. They had sex. Sometimes they fucked like animals when the battle high had yet to subside and they both needed something to cling to to feel alive. But children were never in the equation.
Hikaru took that choice away from them. He came out of his mother Yuhi Kurenai right on time with an attack on their settlement. His mother went from the delivery room to the front line in five minutes flat. No one ordered her to, but the thought of lying in bed while the life of her son was at risk proved unbearable to Kurenai.
That day, it turned out that she really did give her life in exchange for her son. They buried her in the night, and in the morning, they signed the paper to name the boy Hikaru Uzumaki.
What followed next could be describe as momentary peace. The victory proved decisive for them and pushed the enemies back. Long wars generally happened in concentrated spatters over a matter of years. This one was no different. For a few years, an uneasy peace reigned as all sides regrouped and bolstered their force.
In the absence of war, he turned towards his new, unexpected family. These few years were the happiest time of his life. He built a cottage on the side of rebuilt Konoha. Two bedrooms, a nursery, bath house, kitchen and dining room, an attached garden for Sakura's flowers and medicinal herbs, all surrounded by a maze of protective wards. He planted an oak and bullied Yamato into giving it a push in preparation for Hikaru's future treehouse. He made a swing and painted the nursery room in blue and yellow and mythical creatures. He bought parenting for ninja books and then completely chickened out of reading them. He carved wooden toys with his kunai in the off time between sporadic missions. Sakura forced him into learning how to change nappies and what kind of powder milk to get.
He was at once a sixteen years old father and Hokage. He found the first one a lot harder than the second.
In a way, he was relieved that the choice was taken from him, because as much as he feared the pain of loss, he yearned for a family. His life as an orphan shaped him and he could not be anything else but himself.
Sakura went along with his parenting frenzy, smiling and indulgent, and for a while they played at being a normal family. Father and mother and child.
He could not remember ever being happier.
He watched Hikaru over his first birthday, then his second, then his third. He bought a training tricycle and when the boy fell and skinned his knees he thought his heart was going to explode inside his ribcage.
Fourth birthday. Fifth. Hikaru was a loving child, sunny and always smiling. Watching him grow up and discover the world with wonder and innocence felt... miraculous.
He held onto Sakura as they took the boy to the beach one day. He could feel the wheel of life turning. Birth, growth, maturity... He was once a boy, then he was a man, a husband, and a father. The primordial cycle as old as humanity itself.
He had thought he knew how deep love can cut before. He found out then that he knew nothing about it yet.
He looked over at Sakura and in her eyes and her smile he found her empathy. Laughing for the first time in years, he pulled her close and kissed her on the lips, tongue and all, to the background noise of his son yelling.
He laughed even louder, pulling the boy close and rubbing his head. All he could think about was his own lonely childhood as an orphan and the empty 90x90 apartment room that didn't deserve to be called home years ago. He made a promise that he would give his son everything he never had.
It did not last. Of course it wouldn't. Nothing good ever did.
The battle of Cam Rach marked the second phase of the war. He knew this was coming. He might not be a cerebral powerhouse like Shikamaru but he was no fool, and he was no longer the inexperienced child who would rush to battle five years ago. He was a leader now... and a father. That made all the difference in the world.
But it turned out that he had made yet another mistake. His people were prepared. He was not. The years of happiness had dulled him, softened him. While earlier he did not have the knowledge and wisdom that came with age, he was used to battle. At sixteen years old he was a razor, brittle and unrefined yes... but he could cut through anything. His naivety kept him pure and ready for battle, and then he had no one but himself, so nothing kept him and he kept nothing back.
Five years, a hundred and ninety six days and three hours. He put his son to bed and walked to a waiting battlefield. Happiness had dulled him. Memories of home and a child kept him from making the bold decisions, from taking risks.
He screwed up in the tail end of Cam Rach, saw Gamabunta took the shot for him as the world burned down in Amaterasu black fire.
Then he died.
Life returned in an explosion light and pain. He came back in the middle of the life transferring kinjutsu. His wife's soul slipped into him, her life force poured into him, filling a vessel long since cold and empty. He was not yet awake, but he was aware. How could he not when her mind touched him and he saw the rewind of their life... from behind her eyes.
He saw himself as a boy, five years old and suffering in loneliness. She watched him walk along the river in the rain, clutching her mother's hand as they came home from grocery shopping.
"See that boy, Sakura?" Mama asked her.
"Stay away from him." Mama said. She looked at mama with wide, uncomprehending eyes. But why? She could not turn away from the boy. She watched him sit down by the river bank, clothes soaked wet but he didn't care, and throw rocks into the water. He looked...
… like how she felt. Lonely. Isolated. Hungry for something yet unnamed.
"Stay away from him you hear?" Mama squeezed her hand, frowning. The umbrella wobbled in her other hand. She heard the note of fear and anger in her mama's voice, but she could not understand why. She threw one last look at the boy over her shoulder as they walked past him. He turned, and their gaze connected for a split of a second, then she broke away.
"Yes, mama." She said quietly. She was a good girl, and good girls always did as their mamas said.
She put him out of her thoughts, until he refused to be ignored. He was good at it, and as he grew older and they grew closer through shared danger and battle, she found she could ignore him about as well as she could ignore the sun.
One day, she came back home from the hospital and told her mother.
"Mama, I'm in love."
The next day she moved out. It took a lot for parents to admit to losing their child she knew. In time, she could only hope that the pain would lessen and they could heal this rift, but for now, he was all she had so she would take him with both hands. She went to the battered Hokage mountain, found him standing there, bathed in the glow of the descending sun.
Where a boy once was, now stood a young man.
She walked to him and told him what she had always known since five years old but never dared acknowledge. She loved him.
Her parents never came to the wedding. Sakura never looked back.
Life went by like a dream. Battle and death, birth and happiness. Together they formed the jigsaw pictures of life. She never told him but amidst the loss, the pain, and the sorrow, she was happy, always happy. She had everything she needed right beside her.
So it was not at all a surprise that she set about finding a way to protect the one thing she held dearer than everything else. Seeing Chiyo give her life for Gaara was the start of it all, and in secret Sakura studied the kinjutsu left by the poison master.
But it wasn't enough. This was the last jutsu to be performed by her. And what then? What after once she was already gone? Who would have his back in battle? Who would heal him and bandage his wounds after? Who would hold him in the night when the pain became unbearable?
Chiyo's kinjutsu was not enough. Sakura would fix that.
They said Chiyo's kinjutsu was already the zenith of healing jutsu. To tamper with it, to attempt to bring it to a new level was folly... an impossible folly. They said that after Chiyo's death it was lost forever. But they also said that the love of a woman was a terrible force.
In five years she studied Chiyo's notes and writings in secret, and from its blueprint she created her masterpiece.
That day on the battlefield, she watched him fall from Gamabunta, body lax and unresponsive. Resolution filled her heart. She held him in the aftermath of battle, and gave him life. In a way, it would be as if he ever lost her.
Memories trickled into his mind. Knowledge of first aid, healing, Iryo Ninjutsu, how to keep himself safe, how to heal his own wounds. This was all to keep him safe, to protect him.
On the line between life and death, he met her for the last time. Chiyo's technique did not allow for this to happen. Sakura's version, on the other hand, allowed for one... and only one message to be left from the giver to the taker.
In a twilight world, life in his front, death at his back, she held him and said.
"Don't follow me."
Then she vanished, the last of her life force absorbed into him. He woke up clutching her cold, dead body. crying and screaming. He lay there until Shikamaru found him and pulled him away from her.
"Stand up. The Hokage is needed."
He broke Shikamaru's nose for that but the next time someone saw him he was the Hokage.
Loss changed him, sharpened him once more. It also unprepared him for his waiting son. He could not bear the thought of looking at Hikaru and trying to explain to him why his mother would never come home and why the world was the way it was. He had done a lot of bad things in the name of the greater good and protecting his people. Hikaru was the only good thing he had ever brought into this world. He could not bear the thought of breaking his innocence.
So he stayed away, and slowly they drifted apart. He busied himself with work, assigned a squad of ANBU to see to Hikaru's care and regularly slept in his office.
For two years he did not go home. It wasn't that he couldn't look at Hikaru's face... but rather he feared the sharp happiness that spiked whenever he saw him... He had broken his promise to his son. He didn't deserve to feel happy.
Perhaps he should have known this lax in security would give him problems later on. Boy, did it...
The how and the why mattered little. Details were painful to go over. The essence of what happened next was that his ANBU squad couldn't stand up to an ambush by Madara Uchiha. Any other ordinary ninja or agent of the Daimyos would have taken the boy hostage right there and then... but not Madara, no.
Madara was a level above the others. He may be mad, he may be twisted, but he had tasted love, and knew the fact that love can cut far deeper than anything else.
"Let the warriors clamor after gods of blood and thunder. Love is hard, harder than steel and thrice as cruel. It is as inexorable as the tides, and life and death alike follow in its wake."
A priest once told him that. That day as he received his unconscious son back from a clone of Madara did he come to taste the truth of it.
"One life in exchange for fifty thousands others, I'd say that's a bargain." That was as far the clone got, right before he planted a Rasenshuriken into its face. But that changed nothing. His people were still sick with an unknown disease. The cure was still implanted within his young son, and it could not be taken out except for when the host was dead.
Kill one, to save thousands.
On the day he became Hokage, they had asked him this question. They had asked whether he was enough of a leader to take on this burden of choice. He had said yes. He thought that one would be himself then. If it were him, he would not hesitate to give his life for his people.
… but not his son...
Hikaru slept in the spare bedroom attached to his office as he and his councilors stripped out everything they had in look of a loophole, a way to save both the villagers and Hikaru, harming none but perhaps Madara in the process.
In an ideal world there would have been a way, hard earned, but there would be one. This world was not ideal. It was a cruel world, cruel and absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful.
No way out. No miracle. No Kyuubi chakra or Senju DNA to save the day. Nothing, but the pure and simple question whether he could... or could not. The essence of leadership.
Being Hokage meant duty and sacrifice.
When he finally accepted this, only and he and Shikamaru, his trusted friend and confidante... and the only of the original eleven left alive, were left in the room. He sat down in his chair because his legs felt as if they would disintegrate underneath him.
Shikamaru looked him in the eye. "I could... do it for you." He offered. Whatever he saw on Naruto's face drained the blood off his face. He looked away, chagrined.
"My apologies, Hokage. I spoke out of turn." Then he bowed deeply, the bow of a subordinate, not a friend, and walked out of the room.
The next day he took Hikaru to go fishing in a nearby lake. The weather was nice, Hikaru had always wanted to go fishing once and he hadn't spent time with his son in the last two years. So they went. Hikaru was ecstatic. He finally got his father back. Naruto spent the day teaching him how to string his own fishing pole, and which baits to choose. He put the boy in a boat and paddled them out to the middle of the lake. The sun shone down from a brilliant blue skies. The water so clear they could see the bottom of the lake.
In the afternoon, they had grilled fish on the bank. He taught his son how to start a fire and set a grill spoke. They slept under the shade of a tree, the son lying on top the father's chest, and came evening he took him to spring festival in a nearby village. Compared to his time, this festival was a paltry, pitiful thing, but for Hikaru it might as well have been his birthday party and the new year celebration all rolled into one.
Hikaru ate so much cotton candy and drank so much iced slurpee that he got sick on the way home. They stopped by the road so that he could empty his stomach out on a bush, with Naruto stroking his back and doing everything in his power to make him feel better.
Nine PM, time to sleep. He stood before the closed door of the home he built for a family that was no longer there. His son clutched his arm and wobbled sleepily on his feet. The key was cold and heavy in his hand, so instead of inserting it into the lock, he pocketed it and turned to Hikaru.
"Do you want to sleep in the treehouse today?" He asked.
"What? Like a... a sleepover?" Hikaru said sleepily, then his face brightened up. "Can we?"
That wasn't a sleepover, but he didn't correct Hikaru. Growing up as protected and loved as he was, his son had few friends and even fewer who could visit the house. He didn't know lots of things kids his age should. But so far it had kept him alive... so far...
"Sure, we can." He said instead, and hoisted him up his shoulders before making his way up the treehouse. His son's laughter rang in his head.
He lay on the treehouse futon. Kid size, tight fit. He held him and watched the child drift, eyelids growing heavier and heavier.
Hikaru yawned, curled up into his stomach, held him with his tiny seven years old arms. "Good night, papa," then he fell asleep.
Moonlight came in through the open window. Silent night. In the dark, he heard Hikaru's breathing... like the trembling heart of a captive bird.
He could run away. Take his child and go to the end of the world, a place where no one could find them, and live out their life in peace. He may not be powerful enough to stop a war, but he was powerful enough to ensure that no one, neither friends nor foes, would ever be able to find them. Let the world burn. Just go.
But he didn't. He held his son tight, tighter, so tight he felt as if Hikaru's tiny form burned into his own body. He distilled eleven years of experience in the trade of killing into as soft and gentle a death as possible.
"Lord, this one's heart is pure." He prayed. "Lord, set him on the distant shore of the infinite spirit. Lord, guide him to where the traveller never tires, the lover never leaves, the hungry never starve. Guide this one, lord, and he will be a companion to you as he was to me."
His chakra enfolded Hikaru. His reservoir was a mountain compared to a seven years old child's developing puddle. He watched Hikaru's life force being overwhelmed, sputtered, grew still.
Slow and painless death crawled by in hours. As the sun went up and the first light of day touched the floor of the treehouse, he heard his son's breath grow faint, stop.
Two days later, they synthesized the cure. Another week, the villagers were rid off the plague. Madara's ultimatum and the origin of the cure and sickness both were kept secret. They hailed him as a hero and the greatest Hokage in the village history.
He was absent when all this happened. He was numb, a puppet pulled by the string of habits and duty. When the doctors were done, he brought Hikaru home and put him to sleep in the earth right next to his mother. In the garden, he stood and said nothing, simply looked at the two graves amidst a sea of Sakura's flowers. He had no tears left. He tethered upon the precipice where Obito and Nagato fell and became Tobi and Pain.
He finally understood what Madara was trying to say with this... scheme. Madara killed his own brother to protect his clan and was condemned for it. Naruto killed his own son to protect his villagers and was hailed as a hero.
'You see, for all the things you said and the promises you made, deep down, you are just as much of a monster as I.'
A monstrous visage looked back at him from the depth of the abyss.
The missive came at night. The Hokage was needed. He nodded wordlessly, then waited for the ANBU to leave.
He burned the house down, then left.
He fell. The abyss took him.
Afterwards, things changed. He became... beastly. He brought war to his enemies. Now he had reverted back to his sixteen years old self, when he had nothing, when nothing kept him, and he kept nothing back.
Before long, he burned down the world to flush out Madara. They faced off, mad beasts snapping at each other's heels. He killed Madara and let the black fire consume him.
As death came to him, finally he could cry. But even then, the only thing he could think of was his son, his wife, the love of his life. All he wanted to do was just to see them one more time and told them how sorry he was, and please, please forgive him.
… then woke up one hundred years in the past, alive and well, and all alone again.
Naruto woke mere seconds before the first ray of light peaked the horizon of Kokkyo. The children lying on his chest were still fast asleep. He pulled his hands gently from under Hanzo and wiped away at his wet face.
Why did he dream of the past now of all time? Why he did come here? What would he do? Where would he go?
The answers eluded him, and he lay still and quiet, for a moment feeling weak and lost. He had wanted death but death had refused him, and now here he was, without Sakura and without his son.
Why was he doing this? He had already killed Madara. Vengeance only worked once, but without its drive he didn't know how to go on. Vengeance was all he had now because no matter what he did, nothing would ever bring his wife and son back.
This world could burn for all he cared. A world that required children to die for it was one unworthy of saving. Suicide right now would be so much easier. They would finally... finally be reunited.
Right then, before he pursue this thought further, the children on his chest stirred awake. They yawned and wiped the drool of their cheeks with their chubby little hands, raising sleepy eyes to look at him.
Sunlight came in through the window then, and in the eyes of children, he saw the sun raise.
Something breathless transpired. Something came over him, filled him. Something pure, sacred.
"Urgghh... your breath stinks!" Mo squawked and threw a pillow into Hanzo's face. "Go wash your teeth or something."
"Wuh...?" The boy mumbled, wobbled in his place, before shooting Mo a sleepy-eyed glare. "Dude, it's too early in the morning for this. And it's not like yours don't stink, rat face!" A mischievous look came over Hanzo's face. "And... I heard you fart last night... you know, right after you ate all the boiled beans."
Mo gasped. "You... you take that back! I did not!"
"Did too! And..." Hanzo drawled, making faces. "... I also heard that you used to wet your bed."
That was the breaking point. With a battle cry and steaming red face, Mo launched herself at Hanzo and they came tumbling off of Naruto and onto the bedroom floor, squealing and shrieking like fighting kittens.
Naruto sat up on the bed, looking at them go. He was... stupefied? Something tugged at his face, the beginning of a smile. And in his chest a spark.
"I see the kids are awake." Aki grumbled from the hallway, face still sleepy and a pillow grasped tight in her froggy hands. "Hey, can you two take it outside? I'm still trying to sleep here. It's sunday morning for Great Toad's sake."
"I can't go back to sleep, I'm too hungry." Her brother Zaki hopped right in, looking at Naruto. "Are we going to have breakfast any time soon? What are we going to have today anyway? More pancakes?"
His query prompted the children to stop right in the middle of Mo sticking her fingers up Hanzo's nostrils and Hanzo pushing his fist into her mouth. Then Hanzo's stomach rumbled. A loud and growling sound that made the boy blush and lit up an evil little smile on Mo's face. Aki stared at the boy open mouthed while Zaki simply smirked.
"See. Hanzo agreed with me." He said. "We should all go get breakfast now."
The smile on his face went full-blown, and all thoughts of his dream vanished like smoke after the rain. The spark in his chest grew, the beginning of laughter, not yet enough to actually make him laugh, but it stayed there and did not go away.
"Well, today is Sunday." He joined the conversation at last. "Don't you want something special?"
"Special how?" Hanzo asked as he pulled his fist out of Mo's mouth with a wet pop, then proceeded to wipe it on the girl's nightdress,
"I don't know. Maybe eat out? There are many cafes in the inner districts, and I saw this ice cream parlour the other day. I heard they made the best sundae of the city."
"What is ice cream?" "You mean that pretty shop with all the pastel colors and the pretty veranda?" Mo and Hanzo spoke at the same time, the girl so distracted with the mentioning of the colorful parlour to even notice Hanzo wiping the drools on her dress.
Hikaru loved ice cream. Surprisingly, this thought did not feel as painful as it once was.
"Ice cream... is like a little piece of heaven. You think pancake is good? Wait till you try ice cream. It's the sweetest thing. It melts in your mouth and it comes in hundreds of flavour."
"Okay, you got me. When are we going?" Zaki said, throwing his night cap on the floor.
"How about after you two kids brush your teeth and wash your faces?" He said, looking at Mo and Hanzo. That was all the prompt they needed. Mo bolted out of the room, shrieking. "Last one to the bathroom is a rotten egg!"
"What?! You cheater!" Mo got right on her heel.
"Okay, we should go prepare too." The frog twins beat it out of the room.
Naruto too rose from the bed. Somehow, he felt strangely light and in his mind was not thoughts of the past but plans for the future. The kids needed more clothes for winter. He needed to finish repairing Tonari Ryokan, and damn but it needed a new name too. Tonari Ryokan didn't sound like how a home should be.
He stretched, made the bed, then walked out of the room. The sun shone down his path. A new day began.
End Interlude 1
So... characterization is my kink. If you want to go for maximum effect while reading this interlude, I recommend listening to the track 'Reflections' from Mass Effect 2 OST.
The name of this interlude is an allusion to its entire structure. From the other cliff of the abyss (I will not say more but can you guess what exactly it alludes to? Shouldn't be difficult). The overarching theme is: the human sin, corruption and the fall, salvation and the start of the quest for redemption.
This interlude and backstory to TF!Naruto was actually intended to be revealed and introduced in the last arc of TF: The birth and death of Konohagakure. It was meant to be both a plot and emotional twist and is the focal point that defines Naruto and Madara's dynamic (why Naruto is so hellbent on getting revenge). But stuffs happened and I had to change the order and transform it into an interlude and character development for Naruto.
The reasons I made this change are two folds: 1/ Subtlety in writing and 2/ Character interpretation and development.
1/ Subtlety in writing:
Just as an example, I'm going to tell you something. A week ago I got a review from a reader calling me out on a mistake in my use of words in chapter 3 in regards to Hashirama's father's death. Thing is... that was not a mistake, rather a hint I left for a plot twist further on in the story. This is his/her review:
saintjimmy84: One observation; about midway through this chapter, you have the following sentence about Yoshizawa.
"He didn't know it and in the many years to come, he still wouldn't known what it was he held in his hands that day: not an unborn foetus, not a parasitic twin, not even an abomination of nature, but the remains of the original body of Naruto Uzumaki."
And then you kill Yoshizawa at the end of the chapter. It's an incongruency in the writing, since the implication of this sentence is that Yoshi is still around for many years, during which he failed to figure out the mystery.
And here is my reply to him:
Sythe: You got me. Well... it's not a mistake in writing. Simply an allusion to the true fate of Yoshizawa. He's not dead yet, and he will be there to witness the reunion of Hashirama and Naruto... but it couldn't be said that he's alive either.
I'm amazed. You're the first one who figured out this tiny hint I left to the readers. And 30 000 + people have read this passage before you.
The exact number of people who have read that passage is 37944. Yep, nearly 40000 people and over two years and he/she's the first one to finally figure out this hint I left. The hint is for a plot twist regarding the fate of Hashirama's father and how he will effect the plot line of TF in arc 3: The birth and death of Konohagakure. Well... I guess it's now no longer a plot twist, but it's fine. It's not like I'm running out of plot twists to lob at my readers (the entire premise of TF is a twist in itself.)
Now this entire thing doesn't actually have anything to do with why I chose to write this interlude now, but it's an example of the kind of subtle writing in Tis Femina. The hint above is neither the only nor the first one I left (a shrewd reader should be able to see a few plot twists in the making from these hints alone).
I use the same kind of subtlety in character development for TF.
2/ Character interpretation and building:
In the same week that I got the above review, I got 2 other PMs from two different readers. One remarked that TF!Naruto didn't feel like Naruto at all, more like somebody else who just happened to have the same name (this is not the first time a reader call me out on this). The other PM... praised me for my subtle and nuanced writing on Naruto as an adult character.
For every one PM or review number 2 I got, ten PM 1 will be sent to me. I rarely ever reply to these concerns, preferring the readers draw their own conclusion, but then my PM convo with saintjimmy gave me a thought. Perhaps I have been too subtle in my writing. Maybe sometimes a battle axe does a better job than the scalpel.
And so was born this interlude.
I understand perfectly PM1's point, but I have to respectfully disagree. My reasons are very simple: Are you the same person you were eleven years ago? Canon Naruto is a fifteen years old boy. TF Naruto is twenty six years old man (in his mind, lol! His appearance is a woman). Compared to TF Naruto, Canon Naruto doesn't yet comprehend the stark reality of war and the fallacy of men. Eleven years of experience and sorrow separates them. Canon Naruto is just a boy. TF Naruto is a husband and father.
They are not the same person. To write them as the same person is... well let's say that's failure in character development then. My challenge when writing Naruto is to preserve the core of his character, and then develop him from there, through happiness and grief, maturing past his breaking point.
And here we have the paradox of fanfics: character interpretation and building.
When people read fanfics, they expect that the characters are written as they are in canon (In Character). That's the entire selling point of fanfic. People want to read about characters they love and care for, if not they would have gone for ordinary novels instead. The more OOC a character is, the less likely the readers will become attached to him, her.
But on the other hand, people read fanfic for something different from canon. That's why there are things like for want of a nail fics, peggy sue fics, shipping fics, etc... (you know the drill). If they didn't they would have stuck to canon instead.
So there you have the paradox of fanfic. The premise of all fanfics is different happenings but with the same characters or as close to the same characters as possible. By design, fanfics introduce plotline changes that affect the characters. The characters develop and act on a different path from canon... but they still have to stay the same. Fanfic writer's challenge is to change characters in a believable way.
To do this, good character interpretation and understanding is required. To change something but keep its core the same, you really need a truly deep understanding of a character and what makes them tick. The level varies between fandoms and characters. In fandoms like Harry Potter, the different versions of fanon Harry Potter is just amazing (running the full spectrum from meek to in your face arrogant, all kinds of origins and backgrounds, etc...). Harry Potter fans generally tolerate greater degrees of character changes. This is because Harry himself is a cypher character (meant to act as the stand-in for the readers and is generic... think Bella Swan of Twilight. The fact that Bella is a pure cypher character is the reason why she proves popular with the target audience) and during the story, he developed a great deal. Thus, it's easier for Harry Potter fans to accept a greatly changed fanon Harry for the simple reason that canon Harry is not rigidly defined and is susceptible to changes.
Then we have fandoms like Naruto where the lead character is... extremely iconic and popular for it. This is both good and bad for writers. Good because it's easier to pin down his core character. Bad because people expect him to be exactly as he is in canon and it's hard to introduce any kind of changes without someone screaming 'that's not Naruto' to your face.
And here's the next problem. I probably will get the quack for this, but majority of fans don't actually have a very good understanding of Naruto as a character. You can see this plenty well with Naruto's portrayal in majority of fics. Generally a skin deep copy of the original, exhibits all the required tics but doesn't have the soul of the character. On the other hand, there are fics out there with truly brilliant character understanding and believable changes that get the rocks simply because fans are too attached to the iconic character behavior that they cannot see him change (Every anime Naruto fans know his ramen and dattebayo tics. But how many of them truly look deep into him as a character? Why does he go on? Why does he do the thing he does? What does he make such decision? What is it that he wants most? And if you say he wants to be Hokage most I am going to kick you in the ass. Look deeper, damn you!)
This makes it extremely hard to convince readers if a writer truly wants to explore Naruto to his depth and introduce great changes (which happened in TF. Great plot changes? Check. Great character changes? Check.)
To me, Naruto is... a fascinating character. In terms of possible development, he is extremely mercurial. Sure the main branch Naruto is very defined, but when you examine his dark possibilities: Yami Naruto in the Adventure at Sea arc, Menma in Road to Ninja, you start to realize the sunny version of Naruto we have now (the main branch Naruto) is not the only option. From his history, he is a tragic character, but he doesn't feel tragic because he has not let the sorrow of his past define his behavior (though it is a part of his core. It always will be).
The line between main branch Naruto and Menma then is a simple truly unbearable tragedy. A breaking point, so to say. So far main branch Naruto can remain the character that he is because he still has not encountered something that he could not fight. Not a villain more powerful than he could defeat, but rather an event that puts his own values at odd and he must either change or break.
That is the premise of TF Naruto's changes. Canon Naruto does not know or understand the gravity of leadership role yet. He says he wants to be Hokage, but that's simply a manifestation of his childhood loneliness and his need to be acknowledged by other people. TF Naruto's background forced this change upon him with his duty as a leader during wartime.
Compared to the reality of war, the things that canon Naruto says is just naive, idealistic and admirable yes, but naive all the same. Canon Naruto can still say that because he does not yet have to make the difficult choice of leaders (kill one, save thousands).
TF Naruto does, and that is how and why he becomes the character he is today.
This interlude then is the context of his character. Before this interlude, I inserted many small references in all the chapters regarding his past (his age, eleven years older than canon Naruto, the death of Sakura and his acquisition of her medical knowledge, the death of his son and the decade old war that shaped him)... but... lately I feel that perhaps I've been too subtle. So I put away my scalpel and reach for my battle axe instead.