Written mostly pre-Pain arc. And thus this disregards it and everything that occurs after it entirely. Yay, fanon!
Consider this a revamping of the idea behind That's the Thing About Love (which you can find on my profile, if you're interested), only with much more melodrama. And please enjoy.
"Ever had a relationship end in such a way that you never saw it coming, but it was as if an avalanche had hit you, or a firestorm had swept over you, leaving your charred body waiting for the next breeze to blow it into a little drift of ashes?"
Uzumaki Naruto had, just a few scant minutes ago, royally screwed up his life.
"I-is that… is that really what y-you think of me?"
He admitted that the stutter should've warned him. She hadn't stuttered in what seemed like years.
"T-take this back. I obviously don't n-need it anymore. Give it to somebody more … worthy."
Now he was alone in his apartment, fingering the simple, silver engagement ring that Hinata had just returned to him. Sakura had once told him that the worst fights between her and Sasuke were the ones that she couldn't remember the start of, and Naruto wondered if that must've been the standard. The beginning was like a flickering light bulb – only bits and pieces came to him. The loud, explosive penultimate scene – when any negative thoughts he'd ever had about Hinata had surfaced with a malicious and lasting vengeance – was like a high definition television screen that continued to replay over and over again in his head. It was of course followed by the final act.
The worst part about it was the last word. Worthy. The way she said it as if it was half-true. He'd really thought he'd broken her of that. He'd really thought –
He'd really thought a lot of things. And look where it had gotten him.
"There is not a doubt in my mind that we can stop this war before it really begins," said Naruto, addressing a large crowd of shinobi, all of them chuunin level or higher. "While it is true that Iwagakure and Kumogakure have for the moment allied, the Tsuchi daimyo and the Rai daimyo have had very good relations for several years. They won't risk war against our daimyo. For once, politics is on my side."
The Rokudaime grinned self-deprecatingly when he heard the quiet chuckles coming from some of the closer faces.
"But it's imperative that we plan very carefully. I want this operation to be quick and effective. I want them to leave us alone for a good long time without arousing the negative attentions of either the Tsuchi or Rai daimyo. I want –"
"The Rookie Nine," said Konohamaru, standing near him and rolling his eyes. "We get it!"
Now there was full out laughter as Shikamaru, Ino, Chouji, Sasuke, Sakura, Kiba, Shino, and Hinata stepped forward, lining up in random order in front of their Hokage and childhood friend. He walked over to them, pacing with exaggerated swagger up and down the row.
"Get over there, you bastard," said Naruto affectionately, punching Sasuke's in the shoulder. The rehabilitated ex-runaway smirked in return. He'd finished first again, as every Uchiha should.
"Sakura-chan, why are you still standing in this line?"
"Kiba, you'd stink up the village if I left you here…"
"We definitely need your diplomacy skills Chouji. Nobody can diffuse a fight quite like you. And if we do get into a fight, I know you've still got my back."
"Ino… if you promise not to talk, you can come."
"Uh. Shino. Yeah."
"And how are we going to work in time for cloud watching if I don't take Shika with me?"
Hinata was the only one left in the line. She looked so cold and regal standing by herself. Naruto's gaze slid around the rest of the crowd, and saw their grins widen. They were probably expecting a loud, emotional declaration from him, followed by a scene out of the end of an action movie – hero kissing the girl. He had delivered several variations of that same routine since he and Hinata had started dating. Had that really been three years ago?
He suddenly realized what he'd just done. All eyes were on her, waiting to see her reaction with excitement, thinking that there was going to be some happy prelude to the storm. They were all expecting her to join into the triumphant procession of her former classmates, ready to the save the day together as they had done so many times previous. He was about to humiliate Hinata totally in front of all of her peers. He closed his eyes and quietly exhaled. Faking a bright smile, he turned to the line of people he'd picked and began talking. Just close your eyes and pretend everything's okay, right?
"Now I want to talk about exactly what –"
"Naruto," said Ino, cutting into her fellow blonde's newest conversation piece, "I think you've forgotten something - someone. We're the Rookie Nine – not the Rookie Eight!"
When he didn't laugh, or grin, or even smile a bit at her cajoling, she took a small step back and looked at him coolly.
Ino looked over at Hinata and blinked, stopping what would've been a very sharp reprimand about teasing Hinata. The girl in question was wearing a heartbreakingly unconcerned smile.
"It's the decision of the Hokage that I stay here. In the end, his choice is one that we are all bound to follow." Casually, her left hand came up to brush through her hair. She was standing in such a way that only the Rookie Nine could see the lack of a ring on her hand. Ino's breath caught and she was speechless. Kiba was, thankfully or perhaps not so much, ready and very willing to take up the job of questioning Naruto.
"I think that's bullshit," said Kiba, much more coldly than he would have said a few moments ago. Naruto stiffened up and refused to make eye contact. Getting in a fight before the real battle in front of all these other ninja would be terrible for morale. He hoped it wouldn't come to blows.
"I am inclined to agree," Shino said, rotating his body to face Naruto so that the full force of his subtle glare was on him. "We are not called upon to be blind sheep. In any case, I don't think the Rokudaime should have any trouble in illuminating his reasoning to us."
"Kiba, Shino… that's very sweet of you, and I love you all the more for it." A bit of a true smile leaked through and her face brightened. Naruto felt a twinge of jealously and longing. Perhaps twinge was the wrong word – it felt more like a Sakura-style punch in the gut.
"But it's unnecessary. The Hokage and I discussed the state of things last night, and I thought it would be better if I stayed behind."
Only years of training kept the flinch from Naruto's face. Even though she was saving face for him - what an awful double meaning!
Hinata left building top at a leisurely walk, landing softly on the street when she jumped off. A few moments later everyone had lost sight of her. Instinctively, they knew something was wrong with this picture. Tense silence reigned as nearly every shinobi present turned to stare at Naruto. He'd always wanted attention… but not for something like this…
"Let's just – do this, okay?" Naruto muttered to the seven jounin to whom he was so close. "I want to get it over and done with."
"…like you did with Hinata?" Kiba said. His eyes narrowed in challenge.
"Shut up, dog boy, we've got work to do," Sakura intervened before Naruto could respond. Ino shifted closer to Kiba and Shino just as Sasuke and Sakura did the same for Naruto. Chouji looked uncomfortable and torn; he kept a steady pace behind everybody else.
Shikamaru sighed. They were already picking sides. Hinata was always their saving grace in that department, and now she was gone.
Naruto had hoped that this 'skirmish' would only take several hours. He had expected that it would take a little over a day. He had dreaded that it would take a few days' time.
But this was ridiculous.
His troops had been in Tsuchi no Kuni near the border of Iwagakure for nearly a week. The diplomatic talks were going nowhere, and the Iwagakure ninja outnumbered his troops five to one – this was worrying despite the fact that all of their chakra signatures were low and weak. It was visually intimidating, which affected subconscious morale, and if it did come to a battle, then it would be a slaughter on their end. He had the best of his best here, and they would take these weak opponents with the barest of efforts. Naruto hated unnecessary killing.
Finally, he'd assigned Shino and Kiba scouting duties. It had a double purpose though – it would get both of them away from him for a little while. His relationships with Kiba and Shino had been very, very strained.
Kiba would only talk to him when absolutely necessary, and even when he did it was with cold respect rather than the warm camaraderie he and Kiba had once shared. When Sakura had confronted him about it, and had told him to mind his own relationships, he'd shot back that it didn't matter that they had broken up – it did matter that he had slighted Hinata and her abilities in front of all of those people. Such an insult to one of his 'pack' was an insult to Kiba himself, and Shino apparently saw it the same way, because even though he only spoke to anyone when necessary, there was a sudden lack of comfort around him that told Naruto what Shino did not say himself.
Ino also took sides with them, but for different reasons. She was on their side because she thought that he had dumped Hinata. He didn't bother to explain that it was the other way around, because having so many people so mad at him lessened his irrational guilt.
"Of course it's irrational, dobe. She's the one who called it off, right? You have nothing to feel guilty about."
Ah, Sasuke. Always the epitome of assurance. Naruto wasn't as arrogant as his teammate. He knew that he wasn't blameless. Maybe Hinata had struck the killing blow, so to speak, but he was the one who had driven her to such ends. Given the things he had said about her, he would be surprised if they were ever friends again, let alone lovers.
That word – lovers. Now that ache in his chest was starting again. The ache that told him that no, nobody was ever going to make him feel like Hinata did and make him love like Hinata did, and yes, he was going to be miserable trying to find another person to fill that void. Who was he kidding? Hinata was irreplaceable. He couldn't pull a Jiraiya – indulge in saké, whores, and gambling until he forgot about his love life. His feelings for Hinata were so all-consuming that the thought of a lifestyle like that made him want to vomit. Maybe in a decade or so he'd feel differently.
Hinata had hoped that Naruto's diplomatic scuffle would take a long time. She had expected it only to take a few days. And she had dreaded it only lasting a day or so.
So right now, she was in heaven. Or so she was attempting to convince herself.
Time away from your ex-fiancée was healthy, right? She was contributing to her mental and emotional health by wishing for Naruto to stay away longer. There wasn't any shame in that!
No shame, but there was borderline clinical depression. Really, this was reminiscent of her pre-genin days, when the whole day was spent watching Naruto try and get closer to his beloved Sakura-chan and by the end of the day more damage had been done than could be by her father in a month. It was ridiculous. She was the one who had decided to end it, so why was she the one suffering? She was the one who had been called weak, talentless, stupid, plain…had he called her plain? She couldn't remember… she was the one who had realized that her idol, the man she had thought she would spend the rest of her life with, actually thought she was dumb and useless. She should be filled with righteous anger right now, damn it!
"Eh?" Hinata turned from the door of the bakery – she needed her cinnamon buns (translation: comfort food) – to see her sensei accompanying a wobbly, five-year-old Sarutobi Asuki down the road. When the young boy caught sight of her, he began to squeal and call her by the much-beloved nickname: Hin.
"Auntie Hin! Are you going to get the sticky rolls at the bake?" Little Asuki grinned up at her. His eyes were red from his mother, but it was clear that in every other way he was his father's child. Tan skin, dark hair with a hint of navy, a strong chin. It must have been hard seeing the man she loved every day and knowing that she could never be with him. Hinata's blood ran cold at the thought, but she still greeted her godson with a warm smile.
"Hello, Asuki-chan. Yes, I am going to get cinnamon buns at the bakery. Hello, sensei," Hinata said as Kurenai leaned in to hug her and peck her on the cheek, an affectionate gesture that she'd started many years ago.
"Hinata, we need to talk, I never see you!" Kurenai's voice was light and cheery but the glance she sent her former student was not. When Hinata tried to look away, Kurenai took her left hand and held it, brushing her fingers against the space where an engagement ring had once been. "We need to talk," she repeated more quietly. "I know you need to talk."
"Auntie, will you buy me a pastry at the bake too?"
"Yes, you can have a pastry at the 'bake'," said Hinata, forcing a smile. Kurenai frowned.
"He'll be on a sugar high. You should know better."
"We can dump him on your mother for an hour, and by the time we get back he'll be drifting off."
Hinata braced herself. Despite her plan, an hour alone with sensei was something for which she was not at all prepared.
Naruto paced inside the tent he had set up one week ago. Exactly seven days to this hour in fact, he had erected this tent. He'd thought it was a simple formality. He didn't think he'd still be sleeping in it several days later. He had sent Kiba and Shino out two days ago, on the fifth day of exile in Tsuchi no Kuni. They were due today.
Sakura raced inside the tent. Her cheeks were flushed from running and her grin was a mile wide. "They've sent it! They've sent an agreement to look over!"
The terms were mostly fair, but not without some audacious bargaining that made Naruto roll his eyes. An open pass to any and all Iwagakure shinobi who wanted to come to Konoha? Yeah, right. Over his cold, dead body.
But now the negotiations process could truly begin. And then they could finally go home.
He thought, for one lovely, forgetful second, of returning to Hinata, and how she always made his favorite things to eat after a mission without her, and of her private welcome back party that would last into the small hours of the morning. But then he remembered that the only thing he had waiting for him at home was an ever-growing pile of paperwork and problems with domestic policy. Well, he still had the happiness of his friends and the village to strive for. Right?
He took Sasuke, Sakura, Shikamaru, Ino, and Chouji with him to meet with the representative from Iwagakure. Shino and Kiba hadn't yet returned. The man that greeted them was tall and slightly stooped, with sallow-colored skin and eyes that skittered every which way. Not a very reassuring person to send on a diplomatic agenda. Naruto frowned. Something was off.
"Hokage-sama, a pleasure to meet you," the man said. His voice was a cross between the tone of a much-tortured person and oil-slick sycophancy. Naruto's frown deepened.
"My name is Okuda Einosuke, and I will represent Tsuchi no Kuni and Iwagakure no Sato in our talks today."
"I wish we could have met under less hostile circumstances, Okuda-san," said Naruto. He couldn't outright manage to tell the man it was a pleasure to meet him, because frankly he was creepy as hell. "Uzumaki Naruto, Rokudaime Hokage."
"So do you find the terms of our contract satisfactory?" asked Einosuke, looking at him with a strange smile. Naruto suddenly noted that he was by himself. None of the other soldiers got within a close enough range to look at properly.
"For the most part, yes," said Naruto, hiding his alarm behind a mask of formal negotiating. "I did, however, have some issues with the clause in which the Tsuchikage demands total access for any of their shinobi. Such a demand is quite unreasonable, especially because you offer no similar agreement with Konoha nin wanting to visit Iwagakure."
"There's a very logical reason for that, Hokage-sama. There won't be any Konoha nin to go to Iwagakure if we have anything to do about it."
Naruto's eyes narrowed into mere slits. "I must have misheard you, Okuda-san," he said, very coldly. A manic grin stretched across Einosuke's face. "Oh, you didn't," he replied with a malicious joy.
"Enjoy your trip to the afterlife, son of the Yellow Flash!"
He barely had any time to react. Einosuke reached into the pocket of his formal jacket with the speed born only of ninja training and Naruto only just saw the tip of the detonator before he hit the button. He thought of Okuda Einosuke with grudging respect for a single nanosecond – hiding all the explosives strapped to his body with the whole works of ultra, almost inappropriately formal clothing had been a clever move. Then how to protect himself and five of his best ninja from the explosion that's epicenter was located just several feet – or in Naruto's case, one foot – away became his first priority.
The amount of explosive material on Einosuke must've been astronomical, because the blast had a total diameter of one hundred feet. Flaming shades running the scale from blinding yellow to deepest blood-red spiraled angrily in a vortex of fire that was most likely the result of enhancing the explosives with chakra. It threw the entirety of the makeshift Konoha camp into a livid red light, though no fire actually touched the tents. They were far enough away to avoid that fate, as were all ninja besides Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke, Chouji, Shikamaru, and Ino. It blazed for at least ten minutes before it showed even a single sign of losing strength. A few ambitious ninja attempted to use suiton jutsu to put out the fire, but there were not nearly enough proficient suiton users nor chakra to supply them long enough.
When the explosive had died down, the Konoha ninja who had not been a part of the diplomatic party raced forward into the billowing smoke and onto the ashy ground, searching for some sign of their leader and most of his best comrades.
"Boss! Are you in there?!"
Kakashi and Konohamaru were at the forefront among those who were searching the aftermath for signs of life. It was a frantic several minutes before they found them.
All six were alive. Surrounding all of them was a dark, orange-red chakra that bubbled and frothed, sizzling with unknown power. It was a tainting chakra that made people who got too close to it feel slightly nauseous. As the chakra slowly receded, all of them but Naruto turned away and wretched, emptying the contents of their last meal on to the ground. Ino, who had been the farthest away from the center of the explosion, had started to crawl away shakily, only to collapse on the ground, clutching her stomach. Shikamaru, Chouji, Sakura, and Sasuke started to do much the same thing, with similar results. It was sickening just to watch, and likely humiliating as well for those suffering it.
The most horrifying image was Naruto's own. He had been the closest to the explosion, and had suffered the most damage. His right arm, which had come up to block his face, was covered from the tips of his fingers to his shoulder and neck in severe blistering burns – and from the middle of his bicep downward his arm was attached to his body only by a small stretch of muscle, ligament and skin. The right side of his face was burned so severely that his eye was left entirely exposed to the world. His protective Kyuubi-chakra shell had apparently not been fast enough to save him the damage to his arm, or his face, though aside from brief symptoms of sickness, his chosen five were unharmed.
"Hey, s…sensei…" Naruto rasped out, having difficulty speaking. Kakashi suppressed a cringe as he watched Naruto's eye move without a lid. It was as though the entire side of his face was missing.
Ino had come to senses the most quickly. Sakura was still on the ground, breathing deeply in an attempt to settle her vertigo. The blonde woman stumbled toward Naruto as fast as her suddenly exhausted body could carry her.
"You look like shit."
"Th…ought you w…weren't talking to me…"
"Shut up, baka." Ino gave him a quick but thorough check up. "Ugh… it'll take hours and a combination of that chakra in order to put your arm back on. And that's not even taking into account the damage to the arm itself, or your face or anything –" Ino mumbled to herself for a few moments before snapping to attention. Her voice took on its customary authoritative tone.
"Sakura! Get up, we need to start immediately! Kakashi, Konohamaru, get her over here!"
Unfortunately, the pink-haired ninja had been standing closest to Naruto out of all the others. She had had to bear first the onslaught of the toxic Kyuubi chakra and then the force of the explosion at very close range. She was not in best shape, especially not to be doing the complicated operation Naruto needed to save his arm. Nevertheless, Kakashi and Konohamaru each put an arm around her and half-guided, half-dragged her over to where Ino and Naruto were. Sakura slowly crumpled to the ground where they let her go, barely staying upright on her knees.
"Where are Kiba and Shino?" asked Shikamaru, forcing the words out. His throat felt dusty and scratchy. "Have they reported in yet?"
"No," said Konohamaru, very quietly. They knew what he was thinking. He would have to tell his cousin Asuki that he'd lost two uncles.
Chouji slowly uncurled and sat up, the thought of losing two comrades spurring him on – if that truly was the case, they really had no time to lose in getting back to Konoha. But, making out two blurry shapes through the remaining wisps of smoke and the fading afternoon sunlight, he smiled weakly. "Don't speak too soon."
"Even if they do check in, where the hell were they all this time?" asked Sasuke. His face was flat and cold, ready to question and capture if necessary. "How can we verify their whereabouts?"
"Always a little ray of sunshine, aren't you?" Ino muttered. She was sitting back on her heels, running through all the jutsu she would need to successfully put Naruto back together. All of them required more chakra than she had, and probably more control than she had, too. Not to mention that only Sakura could make the best account for the affect of the Kyuubi chakra on the healing process…
"So much to think about –! Sakura, get over it and pull yourself together! We have work to do!"
As Sakura slowly gathered herself with the help of Sasuke, Kiba and Shino had finally reached the group, both looking rather worse for wear. Both of them froze; Kiba gaped at Naruto.
"Fuck it, Naruto!"
"W…hat? Is th…ere s…something on my f…face?"
Kiba nearly choked. "Dude… totally not the right time or place…"
"Where were you?" Sasuke had used his katana as leverage to pull himself up. He was leaning on it heavily, but still managed his menacing glare. "You should have been here."
"Yeah, so we could get our fucking faces blown off?" said Kiba coolly. "Real useful. While you were being a dumbass, Shino and I were being held captive."
Sasuke sniffed quietly and turned away.
"I don't understand…" Sakura finally spoke up. She still looked quite green. "I thought… the peace agreement… where did all of the enemy numbers go…?"
"That's just it – they're not here. The 'ninja' we saw were really tsuchi bushin, which were animated using small talisman filled with chakra," said Kiba. He held up an ofuda with the character for animation on it. "That crazy bastard was the only human from Iwagakure here. He was controlling all the o-fuda, and as soon as he died, the bushin could no longer hold us."
"Shit," said Sasuke, running his hand through his hair. "Shit. So where are the real soldiers?"
Shino's glasses had been broken beyond repair in his encounter. He locked eyes with Sasuke.
"They're on their way to Konoha as we speak."
So I've had this on my computer for a while (a while here meaning upwards of a year, since if you read above you'll know that I wrote this pre-Pain arc), and finally got around to finishing it. So yeah. Part 2 up soon, if the fates allow!