Sarutobi Hiruzen tapped his pipe on an ornate ashtray that had been one of many lavish gifts the Daimyo of the Land of Swamps had given to Konoha after Anko Mitarashi had saved his life years ago. The God of Shinobi had enough experience and self-control not to chuckle at the amusing memory of Anko's reaction to the Daimyo including a marriage proposal with the gifts. Now, however, was not the time for remembering an amusing end to a past mission.
"The defeat of such a powerful missing-nin is to be celebrated," the Third Hokage stated. "I dare say that the entire mission to the Land of Waves was an incredible success."
Team Seven and Hyūga Kō smiled at the praise. They did not speak, however. The assembled ninja were too well versed in proper protocol to say anything without being directed to by the Hokage.
"Yes, very successful," Hiruzen said proudly. "An entire nation has been rescued from the claws of tyranny and exploitation. That is to be celebrated. Sasuke's revival of the Sharingan will bring hope to our village."
Sasuke sat straighter at the Hokage's praise. The Third inclined his head at the young Uchiha.
"Thank you, Hokage-sama," Sasuke said politely. The Sandaime smiled and turned to Kakashi.
"I must say, the retrieval of Zabuza's Executioner's Blade will ensure that Konoha has a very valuable card in any future negotiations with Kirigakure," Sarutobi said appreciatively. "This mission went above and beyond the parameters of a C-rank mission. I, in my authority as Hokage, will award Team Seven and Hyūga Kō the completion of an A-rank mission. I expect a mission report from each of you by the end of the week. None of you will be eligible for any missions or intensive training until that time. I must allow some of my most promising ninja time to recuperate. Dismissed."
The younger ninja bowed politely after they had risen from their seats. Hatake Kakashi led the four ninja to the base of the Hokage's Tower.
"Team Seven, you have your orders from the Sandaime Hokage. Get some rest. I am proud of all of you," Kakashi complimented his team. The compliment was somewhat diminished by Kakashi's blaise tone and the fact that the Copy-nin's nose was buried in his precious orange book.
"Thank you, Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura said excitedly as she bowed politely. Kakashi waved off Sakura's bow with his free hand.
"You're welcome kiddos," Kakashi said lazily as he flipped a page and began to giggle.
Shino turned to his teammates. "We should take today to recover. I suggest we establish a meeting time to collaborate on our mission reports," the Aburame said in a precisely controlled tone of voice.
"That sounds good, besides, you need to go home and get a new pair of sunglasses anyway," Sasuke said and allowed a portion of the triumph he was feeling to enter his voice.
"That is correct Sasuke-san. In addition, my clan will require a report on my mission as well. Good day," Shino said with a slight incline of his head. Sasuke and Sakura returned the nod. Shino walked toward the Aburame district in silence.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Sasuke-kun. My parents are probably worried sick about me. I…maybe, we can…hang out tomorrow?" Sakura asked.
"Sure, we'll find each other I'm sure," Sasuke said neutrally. Sakura started to turn towards her home before quickly turning around. She threw her arms around Sasuke.
"Congratulations, Sasuke-kun, on your Sharingan," Sakura said quickly before bolting down the street. Sasuke smiled for a moment before heading towards his clan's district. The smile and sense of triumph he had experienced faded away. In its place, a profound sense of emptiness filled Uchiha Sasuke's being. He would not return to the welcome of clan guards or worried parents. He would return to the welcome of ghosts crying out for vengeance.
"Kō-san, I need your honest opinion," Kakashi said while casually flipping through his precious book.
"On what subject matter? If it is on Icha Icha, I still believe that volume six is the pinnacle of the series," the Hyūga responded quickly.
Kakashi chuckled. "Excellent choice, excellent choice," he said before shutting his book. "What is your assessment of my team?"
"They are young, but full of promise. Sakura-san and Shino-san have a sound strategic understanding despite their inexperience. Sasuke-san is incredibly talented and with his newly awakened Sharingan, he will be able to advance even quicker. They have great potential, but more than that, they trust each other," Kō explained.
"Well, then… I think I'll enter them in the Chūnin Exams," Kakashi said in a tone usually reserved for ordering soup.
"What? They don't have the experience necessary for Chūnin! I will not deny their talent, but I do not believe they are ready for a promotion," the Hyūga protested.
"I know," Kakashi agreed. "The fact remains that entering the exams will show them what is expected of Chūnin and prepare them for the time when they are ready."
Kō sighed. "I do not agree with your reasoning, but I cannot deny your point. Worse, you'll be causing problems for two clans…"
Kakashi's visible eye suddenly became alight with amusement. "Oh?"
"The Hyūga and Inuzuka clans will not hear the end of 'that stuck-up Sasuke' or 'the Haruno fangirl' being entered into the Chūnin exams when Team Four will likely not be entered. Naruto will complain for weeks, as will Kiba," Kō groaned as he put his palm against his forehead.
"I'll float the idea of Team Four entering the exams with Wani when he returns," Kakashi laughed.
"Wani? Was that Yuji's ANBU handle?" Kō asked with genuine curiosity
"It was. Don't worry; no by-laws were broken. Wani permanently opted out of ANBU," Sharingan Kakashi stated.
"You can opt out of ANBU?" The fresh Hyūga Jonin asked in shock.
"If you've got kids and plan on taking a Genin team, it is an option. I never took it, but many ANBU looking to ease back into the light-side of things take it," Kakashi explained.
"I understand," Kō said evenly.
Kakashi put away his book and took a deep breath. "Kō-san, please extend Hiashi-sama my thanks for taking Naruto in. If he ever wants to reveal anything to Naruto, I offer my…first-hand knowledge."
Kō bowed. "I will extend your gratitude to Hiashi-sama. I am sure he would appreciate the offer."
The two Jonin went their separate ways. Kō was grateful that he did not have concussion-like symptoms, but he was still worried about the state of his eyes. Zabuza's blow had been perilously close to the delicate veins that fed his Byakugan with chakra-infused blood. Thus, Kō was very apprehensive about their condition. His effectiveness as a ninja and his status as a Hyūga depended on the health of his eyes.
'Normally, I hate going to a Hyūga Apothecary. So troublesome,' Kō thought in annoyance.
"Excuse me, Hyūga-san!" A young woman's voice called out. Kō immediately stopped. He never flaunted his status as a Main Branch Hyūga in order to meet women. It did not mean he did not allow his clan's reputation to open the door for him.
"May I help you miss?" Kō asked. He noticed immediately that the Inuzuka approaching him was Tsume's eldest child.
"You are Uzumaki Naruto's guardian are you not?" Inuzuka Hana asked politely. Kō nodded but noticed how Hana's three ninken had instinctively moved into a strong defensive formation around the Inuzuka woman.
"I am responsible for keeping Naruto in line," Kō responded. He never really viewed what he did as 'raising' Naruto. Kō had always believed he was 'aiming' Naruto along the path that would lead him to greatness. The boy had the most potential the Hyūga Jonin had ever seen.
'As well he should. The only thing that exceeds the excellence of his lineage is his will to succeed,' Kō thought proudly.
"Naruto-kun is on my little brother's team. I was wondering if Team Four had returned safely to Konoha," Hana said swiftly. Kō's momentary frown answered the question more completely than any amount of words ever could.
"Team Four has not returned, yet," Kō broke the news verbally.
"Something is wrong…" Hana frowned. "I know they still have four days before the Hokage sends Hunter-nin recovery teams to search for them, but I can't shake this feeling."
Kō nodded. He had also felt a sense of unease. It had been incredibly powerful in Wave. The Hyūga Jonin had no doubt the feeling had been an ill omen. Indeed, it had been a true ill omen. Kakashi had also felt it. Kō had barely registered the momentary flash of worry on Kakashi's face. Kō only saw it due to years of training in reading the expressions of other shinobi. Still, it had been incredibly difficult to read the legendary Copy-nin's emotions.
"I felt it as well. I have confidence in Team Four. They will return safely," Kō tried to reassure Hana.
"I believe so as well. Kiba is too stubborn to die on his first mission out of the village," Hana said with a hopeful smile.
"As are Naruto and Hinata-sama," Kō agreed. Hana chuckled as she gave Kō a disbelieving look. "Don't let Hinata-sama or Hiashi-sama know that I revealed this, but Hinata-sama can be incredibly stubborn. In fact, she got a triple dose. Her parents were very stubborn people. I was only a young boy at the time, but I remember how Hiashi-sama and Hiromi-sama fought tooth and nail to have their wedding in winter. The third dose came from Naruto."
Hana crossed her arms. "Naruto?"
"Oh yes," Kō laughed. "Naruto has an undeniable effect on people. You'd be surprised. As Neji-san is fond of saying, Naruto is the reason the Hyūga Elders have not managed to ban fun from the Clan yet."
The Inuzuka woman laughed. "My parents…well, they used to have a pool going on when that would actually happen. But enough stalling, I swear, you remind me of Kiba sometimes."
"Apologies," Kō returned the laugh. "Lead on."
Hidakagawa was a quiet village firmly within the Land of Fire's borders. Naruto was grateful that they had a somewhat safe place for Hinata and Kiba to recover from the absolutely brutal battles of the past few days. Yuji-sensei had led Team Four to a small house near the center of the village. He had spoken with the home's owner quietly. Naruto was stunned that the older woman had let the shinobi into the house without question.
"I'll need to see all of you individually," the owner, Mashiro, said evenly. Naruto instinctively put himself between his teammates and the elderly woman. Yuji-sensei had left the room and hadn't returned yet.
"I can't allow that. I don't know your loyalties or abilities. I'm not going to risk my teammates' safety," Naruto said firmly.
"You've trained him well, Wani," Mashiro congratulated the exhausted Jonin as Yuji came through the front door. The elderly woman delicately brushed a strand of hair out of her face as she turned her attention to Naruto. "Will my hitai-ate assuage your doubts?"
"Not fully, but it will help," Naruto admitted curtly. Mashiro laughed at Naruto's firm declaration. The woman walked to a wall and channeled a bit of chakra into one of the planks. It slid out of the way and Mashiro retrieved her Konoha hitai-ate.
"I am a Chūnin of Konoha. This is a permanent B-rank mission for me," Mashiro admitted. Naruto compared the hitai-ate to his own and recognized it as genuine.
"Permanent B-rank?" Hinata questioned softly as she sat up. Naruto was immediately at her side.
"Yes, there are numerous Safe Houses scattered around the Land of Fire…and beyond…for the protection of Konoha shinobi. The Will of Fire calls us to these places," Mashiro explained.
"You're a medic-nin aren't you?" Kiba asked and nodded at Naruto's concerned look.
"I am. It is fortunate, that medical ninjutsu doesn't require a right leg," Mashiro chuckled mirthlessly. It was only then that Naruto noticed Mashiro's odd gait.
'She must have lost her leg on a mission, but she couldn't give up being a ninja. Mashiro-san is a true shinobi of Konoha. But, she has been here a very long time and we are very close to Kumo's sphere of influence,' Naruto thought with an odd mix of admiration and suspicion.
"Thank you, Mashiro-san. I am the least injured of my cell. I will provide any assistance you require," Naruto's tone was cheerful and he hid the distrustful edge skillfully.
"What is your name, boy?" Mashiro asked. Naruto's stance toward the woman, both physical and emotional, was easing, but he couldn't trust her enough yet.
Mashiro chuckled. "Very well indeed. I will have to keep an eye on this Uzumaki Naruto, Wani."
The medic walked past Naruto and took a look at each of the members of Team Four. Naruto watched the woman intently. Mashiro performed a diagnostic jutsu. The elderly medic made a series of hums or grunts as she saw something. Naruto had a difficult time following what was going on.
"You all had quite the encounter," Mashiro said somewhat distractedly. Naruto found he could only nod.
She set to work on Kiba first and Naruto was grateful. Kiba had clearly taken the biggest beating during the mission. Mashiro quickly and efficiently healed Kiba. "The boy will need rest."
Naruto walked over and flashed a smile at Kiba. The Inuzuka didn't quite return it. Kiba was watching Mashiro heal Akamaru with unbridled suspicion.
"I don't like anyone other than my sister healing Akamaru," Kiba whispered through gritted teeth. His grimace became a relieved grin when the young ninken sat up and scratched his ears. Akamaru barked and yipped.
"Looks like everyone will be okay," Naruto quipped in a guarded tone. He found himself tensing as the medic ninja gave Hinata a look over.
"The Hyūga girl will be fine. She just has some very severe chakra exhaustion," Mashiro reported.
"Thank you, Mashiro-san," Hinata said politely.
"I am simply an old woman who cannot let go of her duty," Mashiro said with a smile. "If you excuse me, I must speak with Wani alone. Hyūga, you may take the guest room. There are some spare bedrolls in the closet for the boys."
Yuji looked exhausted. "Don't forget to grab a bedroll for me."
"Don't worry, we won't, Yuji-sensei," Kiba assured his teacher. The two older ninja retreated to the kitchen.
"I think I'll go lie down and rest. I've never been this tired," Hinata rose from her seat. She flashed her teammates a reassuring smile as she took a few steps. Naruto was on his feet in a second and across the room in a flash.
"Slow down, Naruto. You'll have people confusing you with the Fourth," Kiba teased. Akamaru barked a few times. "You said it Akamaru," Kiba finished with a laugh.
"I'm fine, Naruto-kun," Hinata promised Naruto. She took Naruto's hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze before slipping into the guest room. Naruto stared silently at the door for a moment before turning to the closet. He retrieved the bedrolls and handed one to Kiba.
"You've got it bad," Kiba chuckled.
"What are you talking about?" Naruto asked as he flopped down in the nearest chair.
Kiba shook his head. "Dude, remember what happened the last time you tried to deny how you really felt."
Naruto tensed and blushed furiously at the memory. "I remember, but how is this 'bad'?"
"It's not 'bad'. Man, for such a hopeless romantic, you can be dense. I'm just saying; you practically worship the ground she walks on."
"Why wouldn't I? Hinata-chan…well…she's beautiful and kind and wonderful," Naruto rattled a few reasons and occasionally casting a glance back to the guest room.
"You're right about that. If there's a prettier girl our age, I haven't met her," Kiba admitted with a smirk. "But what I'm trying to say is… My first memory of you is connected with her. When we did our 'introductions', everything you said was pretty much centered on the Hyūga or training. Heck, there are times when I think that I barely know you. You're my best human friend Naruto, and I don't even know what you really want with your life. I know that I want to become the world's greatest hunter-nin. I also want to be like Wantanabe-sensei and take a Genin squad one day. What do you want from your life?"
"When the hell did you get so introspective?" Naruto snapped. 'Why is it always Kiba who makes me think so much?'
"Buddy, we nearly died about a half dozen times over the past few days! Yeah, we handled the bandits easy. But what about the Castle, huh? What about Den?" Kiba prodded Naruto with both his tone and a series of finger jabs. Naruto's face darkened as he thought of the former Head Ninja of Kumogakure.
"We got lucky," Naruto admitted.
"Damn right," Kiba growled. "I hate to admit it as much as you do. We're too solid to have to rely on luck."
"Yeah," Naruto agreed. "I guess my dream is to be a great ninja."
"I hate to break it to you, buddy, but you're going to need a new dream."
"What? Kiba, what is that supposed to mean?" Naruto shot out of the chair and responded to Kiba's finger jabbing with an accusing finger of his own.
"You're already a great ninja. No half-rate shinobi could have taken down the ex-right-hand man of the Raikage," Kiba pointed out proudly.
"I did kick his ass," Naruto admitted with a smile that was starting to resemble his normal smile. "And I'm still trying to figure out whether or not I need to try to dispel a genjutsu."
Akamaru made a questioning noise and cocked his head to the side.
"I don't remember Kiba being this smart, Akamaru. You? You've always been the brains of the operation."
"Oi!" Kiba shouted in indignation and leapt at Naruto. Naruto dodged the sloppy swipe.
"Cut it out you two!" Yuji barked an order from the kitchen. "Naruto, we need to talk in private."
"What about, Yuji-sensei?" Naruto asked. He swallowed back a laugh as Kiba fumed on his bedroll.
Hiashi drew the silence out. It was a simplistic ploy to demonstrate that he was the leader of the Hyūga. One did not simply 'demand' an audience. Hiashi remained completely impassive as Chiasa waited for him to speak.
"You asked to speak with me," Hiashi finally acknowledged Chiasa. She was one of the last people Hiashi had expected to request an audience. Her husband, Terou, was a respected member of the clan. Terou was also an ardent supporter of Yoshinori and Takeshi's opposition to Hiashi.
"Yes, Hiashi-sama. I thank you for seeing me so quickly and in private. I do not want my husband or his allies to find out about this meeting," Chiasa said neutrally.
"I promise I will not betray your confidence," Hiashi assured his clan member.
"Thank you, Hiashi-sama. I wished to speak with you because I am concerned about the direction of the Clan and the actions my husband and his allies are willing to undertake," Chiashi recited the sentence she had practiced over and over again.
"Your loyalty to the Hyūga is admirable and I thank you for your aid," Hiashi said politely, if distantly.
Chiasa sat straighter and looked the clan head in the eyes. "Do not mistake me, Hiashi-sama. I am not doing this for you. I am doing this for the clan. I still oppose your efforts to completely remove the Seal. The Main Branch does not require the seal because…"
"Because the Main Branch remains in the village to guide the clan and assist in the governance of the village while the Cadet Branch carries out missions beyond the walls of Konoha for the greater glory of the village. I am aware of the nature of my own clan, Chiasa," Hiashi allowed a bit of a growl to enter his words.
"Then you must at least acknowledge the necessity of the Seal on some level. I did not come here to debate the Seal with you, Hiashi-sama. I came here to warn you that my husband, Takeshi, and Yoshinori are becoming increasingly desperate. You have maneuvered them into a corner. I have no proof, but I have reason to suspect they are seeking aid from outside of Konoha," Chiasa revealed.
Hiashi was livid, but managed to keep his face neutral and his emotions in check. Emotional control had been incredibly difficult over the past few days. He was becoming increasingly worried about Hinata. Team Four had been gone far too long on a simple C-rank. Hiashi was convinced something had happened. This new revelation was not helping Hiashi's nerves.
"What will your price be? I know it will be high. I am asking you to place the clan above your marriage," Hiashi had admirably managed to place his concerns for his daughter aside for a moment.
"I ask that you consider the concerns of the opposition. The Seal has fallen from its original noble purpose, but it is still necessary," Chiasa said carefully.
"There must be more than that," Hiashi narrowed his eyes.
"If I uncover evidence of my husband colluding with forces outside the village…I want a dissolution of my marriage," Chiasa said firmly.
"Your marriage always appeared…acceptable," Hiashi probed.
"In a clan with all-seeing eyes, one must hide their regret and doubts deep within their heart," Chiasa nearly wept. Hiashi took a calculated deep breath.
"I will agree to your conditions," the clan head agreed.
"Thank you, Hiashi-sama," Chiasa bowed deeply despite being seated. Hiashi dismissed Chiasa and sat silently for a moment after she left. He was drawn out of his thoughts about Hinata's and Naruto's safety by a second knock on the door.
"Enter," Hiashi ordered. Hoheto entered as commanded and bowed.
"Hiashi-sama, a message from the Hokage has arrived," Hoheto reported. Hiashi felt a pang of fear and erupted from his seating mat.
"Hand it here!" Hiashi shouted. Hoheto was one of the few Cadets Hiashi allowed to see the rawer aspects of his personality. Hiashi valued Hoheto's discretion.
Hiashi poured over the note. It was incredibly short and was simply an order from the Hokage. 'Your presence is required immediately.'
The Hyūga clan head dismissed Hoheto and strode purposefully out of the office. He could not afford to show just how deeply the past few days had affected him. Hizashi was waiting for his brother in the main entrance.
"I have asked Minoru to sit in on the meeting with Neji's teammates," Hizashi said without preamble.
"A wise choice," Hiashi said quickly.
"Have faith in your daughter, my brother," Hizashi reached out to his twin. Hiashi nodded once and left the compound.
'I would rather have her home.'
Naruto sat down at the kitchen table and found it difficult to look Yuji in the eyes. "Why do want to talk about the Kyūbi?"
"Naruto, I believe you called upon the Kyūbi's chakra when you fought Shimizu Den," Yuji stated plainly.
"W-what?! Why would I do that?" Naruto blurted out.
Yuji was silent for a moment. "Naruto, the Kyūbi is a creature of malice. It's a force of nature that embodies rage. After what Den did to us, your friends, I cannot blame you for being angry."
"But…how do you know I used the Kyūbi's chakra?" Naruto questioned. His eyes were clearly pleading as he finally looked Yuji in the eyes.
"Hokage-sama revealed some of the workings of your seal when I became your Jonin sensei. You can call upon the Kyūbi's chakra occasionally," Yuji explained as best he could.
"Occasionally? Uncle Yuji, I need more information than that! I need to know if I'm a danger to anyone!" Naruto choked a bit on his words.
"I wish I could tell you more, Naruto. I really do," Yuji got up from his seat across from Naruto and knelt in front of the boy. "I just don't know enough about fuinjutsu. I can't say what happens when you call upon the Kyūbi's chakra. I know this, though. You are still Uzumaki Naruto and I trust you with my life. Go ask Kiba-kun or Hinata-chan, they'll tell you the same thing."
"I…I know, it's just…" Naruto struggled for the words.
"Naruto, when we get home, I'll ask the Hokage to contact Konoha's greatest seal master. He'll be able to tell how your seal is holding up. Jiraiya-sama will be able to tell us what needs to be done," Yuji patted Naruto on the head.
"Jiraiya?! Of the Sannin?" Naruto's previous worry melted away. "That's so cool!"
"Now, there's the Naruto I'm used to seeing! Don't forget who you are, kid. Don't forget to have faith in yourself. You do that and you'll go far," the Jonin assured his student.
"Thank you, Uncle Yuji," Naruto said with a broad smile.
"You're welcome. I sent a hawk to Konoha earlier. They'll be expecting us. I'm going to get some sleep. We'll set out as soon as we all wake up," Yuji's voice switched from his friendly fatherly tone to his commanding officer tone.
"Yes sir," Naruto recognized the tone and responded accordingly. Yuji left the room and went to the bedroll. He was asleep nearly instantly. Naruto shrugged his shoulders. He had never needed as much sleep as his friends and family. Naruto also recovered much more quickly than anyone he knew.
'Guess there are some benefits to the Kyūbi after all,' Naruto thought. The conversation with Yuji had been really quick, but Naruto realized that his sensei merely wanted to reassure him. It was a small gesture, but Naruto was incredibly grateful for it.
"I can't wait to go home," Naruto whispered to himself. He couldn't believe his first C-rank would be so intense. 'Though, if I'm honest with myself, the 'castle' and Den weren't part of the mission.'
"I wonder if we'll get rewarded for completing extra missions," Naruto thought out-loud. Now, that was a happy thought. He wondered how much ramen he could buy off the reward for a B-rank mission.
Neji led his teammates through the halls of the Hyūga compound. Team Guy was about to enter the Main Branch Wing when Minoru rose from a bench.
"Your punctuality does you credit, Neji-san," Minoru said with pride. Neji smiled back at the only Cadet officially on the Hyūga Council. Minoru had begun to grow his hair out like the rest of the council, but it only reached his shoulders.
"Thank you, Minoru-sama," Neji responded with a slight bow. Neji considered Minoru the only member of the council other than his uncle worthy of the honorific sama. Thus, when Neji addressed Minoru there was no sarcasm hidden in the honorific.
"Hiashi-sama has been summoned to a meeting with the Hokage. I will be the observing Council member in Hiashi-sama's stead," Minoru explained.
"And my father?" Neji questioned. He felt at ease with Minoru. They were both 'Cadets' and shared the burden of the Hyūga Juinjutsu.
"Hizashi-san is waiting for us in his office. How was your training today?" Minoru said conversationally.
"It was most exhilarating," Rock Lee practically shouted.
"I just wish Guy-sensei would give us a C-rank or something. D-ranks aren't just boring; they can't pay the bills," Tenten complained. Neji remained silent as Minoru led them to a small sitting room. Hizashi was waiting and smiled at Neji and his teammates.
"Thank you for coming," Hizashi said with a slight bow of the head.
"You're welcome sir," Tenten said a bit nervously. She and Neji hadn't exactly told Hizashi they were officially dating. They were sure that Neji's father knew, but hadn't brought the subject up. Hizashi remained impassive. This was an official inquiry after all.
"We are always eager to assist our friend," Rock Lee said politely.
"Very well, please, have a seat," Minoru motioned to the Genin. Team Guy took a seat. "Neji has brought a very serious accusation before the Hyūga Council. The use, or attempted use, of the Caged Bird Seal outside of the Hyūga Compound is a serious breach of clan protocol. In order to formally address the concerns; we need both of your statements on the event."
"Of course, Minoru-sama," Tenten agreed.
"Lee-san, could you give your statement on the…confrontation," Hizashi spoke crisply, but no one could deny the bitter coldness in the way he said confrontation.
"I would be happy to," Lee said with enthusiasm. The taijutsu specialist recounted every detail he could remember. Minoru and Hizashi recorded Lee's statement. Tenten had been sitting quietly during Lee's deposition. She hadn't seen as much of the confrontation as Lee. However, she needed to add something to make sure Yuudai got punished. Tenten rummaged through her memories and was struck by how obvious the reason Yuudai acted.
"Tenten-san," Minoru spoke and wrenched the young woman from her recollections.
"Please give us your account of the incident." Minoru gestured with his hand. Tenten took a single breath.
"Honestly, Lee saw more than I did." Tenten frowned as she made her admission. "But…I think I know what set Yuudai off."
Hizashi and Minoru gave Tenten an inquisitive look. The two Hyūga gave no indication that they noticed Tenten's lack of honorific. Tenten took their silence as permission to continue.
"Yuudi approached Neji to ask whether Hinata-sama had returned to the village. Neji mentioned that Hinata-sama and Naruto-san hadn't returned from their mission yet. Yuudai wasn't thrilled about Hinata being around 'one such as Uzumaki'. Neji said that he trusted Naruto-san and that Hinata-sama and Naruto-san shared a strong bond. That seemed to set Yuudai off. Is there something going on between Yuudai, Hinata-sama and Naruto-san?"
"Yuudai views Hinata-sama as a pathway to greater influence within the Clan. He attempts to hide his quest for greater power behind a veneer of pinning for Hinata. Yuudai views Naruto as an obstacle to the power he covets." Hizashi struggled to maintain his impartiality.
"That is likely one of the underlying cause of the incident. Yuudai had also returned from a long-term border patrol," Minoru observed.
"Yuudai isn't going to get away with this is he?" Tenten blurted out.
"Hiashi-sama is responsible for the final decision on such matters. I will recommend an appropriate censure. It will be up to the clan head to decide on the official punishment," Minoru explained.
The other two members of Team Guy accepted Minoru's explanation. They were hoping Yuudai's punishment would be immediate. However, the knowledge that Hiashi would be deciding the punishment put them at ease. Minoru rose from his seat. Hizashi and Team Guy rose from their seats as well.
"I thank you for assisting the Hyūga Clan in this Inquiry." Minoru bowed slightly in thanks. The others returned the bow. The Hyūga Councilor was the first to leave the office.
Lee bowed to his teammates and Hizashi. "I am glad that I could be of assistance. If you would excuse me, I must meet with Guy-sensei for our afternoon training."
"See-ya, Lee!" Tenten waved happily at her slightly eccentric friend.
"I will see you tomorrow, Lee," Neji said formally. "Do you need someone to show you out?"
"The Hyūga compound is sensibly designed! I am confident that I will find my way out successfully and if I fail, I shall run ten laps around your ancestral home to memorize its layout!" Lee pumped his fist. Neji rolled his eyes as he knew Lee was attempting to rib him. Tenten covered her mouth and tried to control her laughter. She loved her boys. She really did.
Hizashi cleared his throat. "Tenten-san and Neji, I ask that you stay for a moment." Neji and Tenten both tensed at Hizashi's tone of voice.
"O-of course, father," Neji said nervously and Tenten gulped.
"May I ask when you were planning of informing me of how far your relationship had progressed?" Hizashi crossed his arms.
"That is an excellent question, Hizashi-san…Neji, why don't you answer your father?" Tenten asked.
Neji shot his girlfriend a glare that practically shouted 'traitor'.
Hiashi was waved into the Hokage's private office by Raido and Genma. The Hyūga patriarch nodded in thanks. Hiruzen was sitting at the desk with a stern look on his face. The God of Shinobi's stance and mood immediately put Hiashi on edge.
"Please, have a seat Hiashi-san. Tsume-san has not arrived yet," Hiruzen said calmly.
"Thank you, Hokage-sama," Hiashi said formally. The Hyūga took his seat with perfect posture. The Third Hokage, however, was widely renowned as The Professor. The Hokage could read body language better than anyone without the Byakugan and he knew how close to panicking Hiashi was.
"I have received a hawk from one of our safehouses within the Land of Fire's borders," The Hokage announced. Hiashi immediately tensed in anticipation. "It was from Wanatabe Yuji."
Hiashi's paternal instincts nearly overwhelmed him. He was a hare's breath away from leaping out of his seat and demanding answers. Fortunately, Raido opened the door and ushered a grim and worried looking Tsume and Kuromaru into the office.
"I thank you both for your timely arrival," The Hokage said diplomatically. Tsume crossed her arms as she sat down. Hiashi also made his impatience clear. Hiashi's was a subtle message, but one the Hokage clearly read. "As I told Hiashi-san moments before your arrival, Tsume-san, we received a Hawk from Jonin Wantanabe Yuji."
"Our children?" Tsume struggled to keep her voice even.
"Are alive and recovering. Their assigned mission was a success. However, there were a series of…complications. Wantanabe-san only mentioned they encountered a 'summon' in the former Land of Necks and were later engaged by the A-rank Missing-nin, Shimizu Den," the Hokage reported.
"Kumo made a second attempt on my daughter!" Hiashi said in an icy tone. His rage was cold and infinitely more threatening than if he had been raving. Hiashi was in complete control of his actions. Tsume, by contrast, was fiery in her emotions. She was snarling and actively seeking an outlet for her righteous anger.
"The Raikage declared Den a Missing-nin after the first attempt to kidnap Hinata-chan," Hiruzen reminded both parents.
"So A said," Tsume growled.
"I must concur with Tsume-san," Hiashi steepled his fingers. "Den was above all else, a nationalist. I find it hard to believe he was not funneling information to Kumo."
Hiruzen took a drag on his pipe. "We are well aware of Den's activities. However, he is no longer a threat to Konoha. Naruto defeated him in single combat while the rest of the team was incapacitated."
"How was my child 'incapacitated'?" Tsume asked dangerously.
The Hokage nodded in understanding. He was a parent himself, after all. "According to Wantanabe-san's missive, Kiba suffered a concussion in the confrontation with a rogue summoned creature. In spite of his handicap; he acquitted himself quite well in the battle against Den and the missing-nin hired by our enemy. Wantanabe-san assured me that Kiba is up and moving under his own power."
"What about Akamaru?" Tsume asked sharply. She was insulted that the young nin-ken had been forgotten by the Hokage.
"Wantanabe-san reports that Akamaru is also moving under his own power. Team Four triumphed in a series of incredibly taxing battles. I know this is small comfort, but your children and clan ward will have a B-rank and an A-rank mission added to their official records," Hiruzen offered as a platitude.
"Hokage-sama, is there any word on when my daughter, Naruto, Kiba and Akamaru will be returning?" Hiashi asked with only the slightest hint of a demand.
"I am not sure." The Professor lifted a hand to forestall any outbursts. "I have, however, deployed Tenzō to meet with Team Four and ensure they reach Konoha without further incident."
"Thank you, Hokage-sama," Tsume said. She wouldn't be completely at ease until her son and Akamaru were back in Konoha. However, it was a nice gesture by her superior.
"We thank you for the update, Hokage-sama," Hiashi seconded his comrade's sentiment.
"You are welcome. I am sure you have many clan concerns to see to. Thank you for your time," the Hokage said as way of dismissal. Hiashi and Tsume rose from their seats and bowed to their leader. They quickly exited the room, because neither parent wanted to let their worry be seen by the Hokage.
Hana hummed to herself as she finished her diagnostic jutsu. "Well, the good news is, I don't see any obvious signs of damage to your eyes."
"That's a blessing," Kō barely breathed the words in relief.
"That being said, I'm a vet," Hana admitted. She turned to a piece of parchment and jotted down some notes. "My report will just give the Hyūga apothecaries a direction to go."
"I thank you for your help, Hana-san," Kō said politely.
"You're welcome," Hana said as she scratched the closest of her three ninken. "If you hear anything about Team Four…"
"I will let you know," Kō promised. "I just hope Naruto doesn't give me a reason to strangle him after I hug him."
"I'm hoping the same thing about Kiba." Hana's words held a hint of mischief. "I'll be in charge of hiding the bodies."
Kō laughed. "I'll keep that in mind. Well, Hana-san, I must be going. I've put off those stodgy old men long enough. It was a pleasure."
"Likewise, Kō-san," Hana bowed. The Three Haimura brothers barked in unison. "They seem to like you."
"Well, that's a relief," Kō laughed. "Perhaps we will run into each other later…for other reasons than strangling our little brothers?"
"I would like that," Hana said with a smile. "Mainly because I don't think my clan would approve of fratricide."
"It would be an awkward subject around the dinner table," Kō admitted.
The gates of Konoha never looked so beautiful. Team Four had been through agonizing battles. The relief and excitement of seeing their home was nearly overwhelming. Hinata, Kiba, and Naruto were caught between the last throes of childhood and the beginnings of adulthood. However when they saw their home, the children within Team Four won out. They ran. They ran, despite their fatigue and wounds.
Wantanabe Yuji knew they needed this. He remembered the first time he returned to Konoha after a stint on the frontlines of the Third Great Shinobi World War. Tenzō, the ANBU who had met them several miles outside of Konoha, nodded a single time before disappearing in a swirl of leaves.
"I never thought I'd be so glad to see those grey walls!" Kiba exclaimed.
Hinata laughed. "I always thought they looked a bit boring, but they are beautiful!"
"I can't wait to get some ramen from Ichiraku," Naruto said simply. His teammates turned and gave Naruto a questioning look. "What? I've had a craving for ramen ever since we left Hidakagawa!"
The truth, however, was that Naruto was hoping for some time alone to think. Kiba's semi-rant in Mashiro's safehouse had really sent Naruto for a tailspin. 'What are my goals in life? I don't know much beyond…making Chūnin I guess?'
"We can sate Naruto's addiction later," Yuji interrupted. "First, we must report to the Hokage."
Team Four beamed at their sensei's declaration. The shinobi worked their way through the gates and streets of Konoha towards the Hokage's Tower. Kiba swore the entire time he would get Naruto 'help' and 'stage an intervention' over his best friend's ramen 'addiction'.
"Come on, Hinata-chan! You have to help me!" Naruto pleaded. He desperately needed Hinata's help to defend his favorite food. Naruto knew Hinata enjoyed ramen too.
"I will help you, Naruto-kun…by joining Kiba in the intervention," Hinata said solemnly.
Naruto let an exasperated cry escape. In truth, he was thrilled. It was almost as if nothing had changed. Akamaru barked and yipped at Naruto as well.
"Not you too, Akamaru! I thought at least you would be on my side." Naruto overacted a pained expression. At least, he thought it was a pained expression.
"Are you alright, Naruto-kun? You look like you are choking!" Hinata asked in concern.
"I am choking…on tears, Hinata-chan," Naruto deadpanned.
"Is that even possible?" Kiba asked in disbelief. "What you said makes…negative sense!"
"Geez Kiba, quit ruining the moment," Naruto scoffed and waved off Kiba. His faux-seriousness shattered and Naruto erupted into laughter as he opened the door to the Hokage's Tower. Wantanabe Yuji led his team into the Hokage's office. Team Four fell in behind their commander as decorum and professionalism dictated. However, they couldn't erase the smiles dominating their faces.
"Team Four, reporting successful completion of the C-rank escort mission to the Land of Honey," Yuji announced.
The Hokage set his paperwork down. "Today is a day for joyous returns, it seems. Please, Jonin Wantanabe, give your report."
Wantanabe launched into the report of Team Four's escort mission. The Hokage occasionally entered the conversation to ask specific questions to each of the team members. Kiba, Naruto, and Hinata all answered the questions professionally and proudly. Yuji recognized the ploy almost instantaneously. The Hokage was reinforcing Team Four's sense of accomplishment.
"Excellent work on your primary mission," the Third Hokage said warmly. "What incident followed the competition of the escort mission?"
"We encountered a rogue summon," Yuji explained. "Kiba and I were incapacitated for much of the encounter. Hinata was the primary reason we survived. She can explain the incident in greater detail."
Hinata flushed slightly at the attention. "W-Well, we worked as a team to survive."
"I am pleased to hear that, Hinata-chan," the Hokage said informally. "Please, deliver your report."
Hinata took a single breath to steady herself. She began explaining the encounter with the Chameleon summon and Kubisaki Goza. Hinata failed to mention her possible possession. The Hokage was pleased that Team Four secured a powerful summoning contract and removed a threat to sage passage between Konoha and the Land of Honey. Kiba and Naruto were not excluded from the debriefing. Hiruzen made sure to receive the boys' perspective on the mission as well.
"Hokage-sama, there is more," Wantanabe Yuji added after Hinata finished her report.
"Of course," Hiruzen acknowledged the Jonin. "However, it can wait until after we have some tea."
The Hokage called for an aide to bring in a pot of tea. Team Four graciously accepted the offered refreshment.
"Please continue with your report," the Third ordered.
"We were ambushed by Shimizu Den and a team of either unaffiliated or missing-nin," Wantanabe said firmly. Yuji began a more detailed explanation of the encounter than his earlier correspondence had allowed.
The Hokage sighed when Yuji and Naruto expressed their belief that Naruto tapped into the Kyūbi's chakra. Naruto was adamant that he did not have any contact with the Kyūbi. Wantanabe supported his student's declaration.
"Team Four, you have made Konoha very proud," Hiruzen said grandly. "I, in my authority as Hokage, herby reward you not only with the assigned C-rank, but a B-rank and an A-rank mission."
"Thank you, Hokage-sama," the assembled shinobi responded.
"You are welcome," the Hokage said. "Kiba-kun and Hinata-chan, you are dismissed and may return to your families."
"Hokage-sama, with all due respect, the Hyūga Clan has accepted Naruto-kun as a member of the family," Hinata said politely.
"Already?" Kiba teased before the Hokage could respond. Hinata and Naruto blushed a bit. The Hokage was not mad at Kiba's interruption. In fact, he was amused.
"I appreciate your loyalty to Naruto-kun, Hinata-chan. The discussion I will be having with Naruto and Wantanabe-san is about the Kyūbi. I am deeply grateful that both of you are loyal to your teammate and have accepted his…condition. That being said, the specific workings of Naruto's Seal are still state secrets," Hiruzen explained.
"Very well, Hokage-sama," Hinata replied and bowed. She turned her attention to Naruto. "I will see you later, Naruto-kun."
"Hokage-sama, when will we turn in our mission reports?" Kiba asked.
Hiruzen relit his pipe. "All three mission reports are due in one week's time."
"Of course, Hokage-sama," Kiba acknowledged the Third's point. "We can work out a time to get together and get these reports done soon."
"Good idea," Naruto verbally backed up Kiba.
Team Four exchanged one last goodbye. The moment Kiba shut the door, the Hokage turned to Naruto.
"Do you remember anything from when you called upon the Kyūbi's chakra?"
Naruto shook his head. "Only that I was scared. I was so scared I would lose Kiba, Yuji-sensei, Akamaru, and H-Hinata-chan."
"Naruto, is there anything else?" Yuji questioned.
"Well, I don't remember exactly, but there was a voice. I think it said cattle or chattel or something like that. I can't really remember. Everything after I realized Den had taken Hinata-chan is a red blur," Naruto revealed.
"Troubling," Hiruzen said with masterful understatement. "I will contact my student, Jiraiya. He has the greatest understanding of the Eight Trigrams Seal of anyone in the world."
"Heh, even my Seal connects me to the Hyūga," Naruto chuckled. He slipped a wide grin on his face to hide his own discomfort. The discomfort was two-fold. First, Naruto had been forced to think about his status as the Jinchūriki. Second, he was beginning to realize just how tied to the Hyūga Clan he was. Naruto didn't even know anything about his last name, his parents, or his personal heritage.
"It is an honor to be connected the Hyūga," the Hokage reminded Naruto.
"Is it an honor to be Uzumaki?" Naruto asked.
"The Uzumaki are an honorable clan steeped in history," Hiruzen assured Naruto.
Naruto looked away. "Then how come I never hear about my clan?"
"The Uzumaki were never mentioned in the Academy?" Hiruzen narrowed his eyes.
"Whenever Mizuki-sensei taught history, he just mentioned the Shodai married Uzumaki Mito and that the Uzumaki Clan and Uzushiogakure was one of the early nations to recognize Konoha as a Shinobi village. We never went into depth about the nature of the clan."
"Naruto-kun, did the Academy not mention the importance of the red symbol on all Konoha's flak jackets?" Yuji asked.
"No," Naruto answered quickly. He wasn't sure he liked where this was headed.
"I will contact Iruka tomorrow. He will gather all the information about the Uzumaki Clan the Academy was supposed to teach. I will even collect some information for you from the Shinobi Library," Hiruzen said firmly. "We will correct this oversight."
"Thank you, Jiji," Naruto said gratefully. He was actually eager to study for once. This was the first time Naruto had ever had the opportunity to discover his own heritage. Kiba had really lit a fire in Naruto's belly. That conversation had spawned a disturbing mix of shame, excitement, and pride in Naruto's mind.
"You are welcome. I will keep you informed of my efforts to contact Jiraiya," the Hokage said with finality. "You have done exceptionally well, Naruto-kun."
"Thank you, Old Man Hokage," Naruto responded casually with a smile and even a bit of a bow.
Hiruzen smiled. "Naruto-kun and Yuji-san, you are dismissed. I am sure there are many people who wish to know of your safe return."
The Jonin and the Genin rose and bowed to the Hokage. Naruto and Yuji exited the office. They were both surprised to see Hinata waiting on a bench cradling her Summoning Contract. She looked up with a smile as Naruto approached.
"Naruto-kun, Hinata-chan," Yuji said quickly. "You both performed magnificently on the missions. I am very proud of both of you."
"Thank you, Wantanabe-sensei," Hinata said with a bow.
"Thanks, Uncle Yuji," Naruto said with a broad smile.
"You're welcome. My family is waiting for me at home and you two probably have something to talk about," Yuji said with a smile and departed.
The Jonin left the two teens staring at each other. Naruto and Hinata had so much to say to each other, but finding the words was very difficult. They had no clue where to begin. To Naruto's great shock, Hinata spoke first.
"I am sorry that I worried you, Naruto-kun."
"I was worried about you, but you don't have to apologize. You saved all our lives from the Summoned Castle," Naruto tried to reassure his best friend and…no; it was probably too soon to make that jump.
"W-Will you be coming back to the Compound? I'm sure Hanabi-chan, Father, and Neji-nii-san if he is home, will be thrilled to see you at dinner," Hinata asked hopefully.
"Not tonight. I'm sorry, Hinata-chan. The talk with Kiba earlier and the one with Yuji-sensei and Old Man Hokage really put a lot on my mind," Naruto admitted.
"They…they didn't criticize you for…the Kyūbi did they?" The concern in Hinata's question was unmistakable.
"Nah, they just got me thinking. Mainly about who I am and what I want from my life," Naruto confessed. "I realized I don't really have a clue about any of it. It is almost like your clan has been trying to make me into some kind of servant."
"T-That's not true!" Hinata said indignantly. "We all respect you so much! I would have never allowed it. Father would have never allowed it!"
"I know. I'm just feeling like I'm wandering around aimlessly. Did you know the Uzumaki were…are a major clan with lots of history? That they evidently played a role in Konoha's early history?" Naruto asked. Hinata shook her head. Naruto took her hand.
"Old Man Hokage said at the Academy we were supposed to learn about my clan. I never knew about my own heritage. I've also never known what my own dreams were…kinda." Naruto wore a wistful smile.
"What are you going to do, Naruto-kun?" Hinata asked.
"Find my own path," Naruto said resolutely. "I'm going to head to the Academy and talk with Iruka-sensei. Hokage-sama mentioned he would have some information about my clan."
"Oh…w-what about that date you promised?" Hinata broached the subject carefully.
Naruto chuckled and rubbed the back of his head. "I've still got to plan that. I knew you wouldn't let me off the hook on that."
"Of course not," Hinata replied with a small smile. She wasn't used to seeing Naruto so introspective. The change was a bit jarring. Hinata just hoped he wouldn't decide during his meetings with Iruka-sensei and possibly the Hokage to make a complete break with the Hyūga.
"Besides, I wouldn't dream of it. I may have no clue about a lot of things, but I know there is one thing I'm rock-solid on," Naruto revealed.
Hinata noticed Naruto's blush and returned it. She loved these moments. These moments were theirs. She doubted that any of their peers had such a connection. Hinata would proudly admit, if pressed, that she was incredibly selfish when it came to Naruto. He was her rock and she did not want to share him.
"What are you sure of, Naruto-kun?"
"Us," Naruto said with a smile. He quickly kissed her on the forehead. "I'll see you soon. I want to visit with Iruka-sensei as soon as possible. The sooner I get this sorted, the sooner I'll be ready to face your clan again."
Hinata's blush intensified and she reveled in the display of affection. "I understand, Naruto-kun. I can't say I'm thrilled, but you deserve to find yourself."
"Hinata-chan, thank you," Naruto said sincerely. "I'll see you soon."
"I know," Hinata sighed. She suddenly looked up and Naruto noticed a mischievous glint in Hinata's eyes. Before he could respond, Hinata gave him a quick peck on the lips. "For saving me."
Naruto grinned and began to lean in for a fuller kiss. His brilliant plan was interrupted by someone clearing their throat.
"I am sure there are more…appropriate places for that than outside of my office," the Third Hokage interrupted. Naruto and Hinata froze and blushed a furious crimson. The two Genin apologized profusely and said their goodbyes. Hiruzen shook his head as he watched Naruto and Hinata go their separate ways after a few sideways glances. "I appreciate young love, but not when I'm trying to go get lunch."
Naruto had walked hand-in-hand with Hinata until they reached the exit of the Hokage's Tower. Hinata used her Byakugan to make sure no one else was 'sneaking' up on them. Once Hinata assured Naruto no one was coming, the young man gave Hinata a quick kiss on the cheek before dashing off. In truth, it was a way to placate Hinata. Naruto had no idea where his quest for information on his heritage would lead. All he knew was that it could possibly be a long search.
'I don't want Hinata-chan mad at me,' Naruto thought nervously. He sighed as he debated heading back to the apartment to change clothes before meeting with Iruka-sensei. In the end, his desire for self-discovery outweighed the urgency of getting out of his mission attire. Naruto took off running towards the Academy.
He couldn't help but smile as the memories of the Academy came roaring back. Naruto could see himself racing Kiba to the classroom. The young man could hear Iruka-sensei or Mizuki-sensei yelling for them not to run in the hallways. Naruto continued to smile as other memories came rushing back. It was so hard to believe it had only been about three months since he graduated. A part of Naruto missed those simpler days. Another part was thrilled at how much he was growing as a shinobi and a person.
Naruto paused in front of the door to Iruka's classroom and peered through one of the windows. The Genin breathed a sigh of relief that the classroom was empty. 'I can't believe I remember the lunch schedule after all this.'
Naruto knocked on the door and Iruka gave him permission to enter. "Hey, Iruka-sensei! It's been a while hasn't it?"
"It sure has," Iruka said with a smile. "How was your C-rank mission?"
Naruto chuckled mirthlessly. "The C-rank was a breeze. It was the unscheduled B and A ranks that were the problem."
Iruka paled and Naruto knew he wasn't going to get out of explaining everything to Iruka. Truthfully, Naruto was grateful to have someone not connected with his team, the Hyūga, or the Hokage to talk to. He was definitely going to talk with Kō-nii-san later, but it would be nice to have someone neutral to talk to for once. Naruto laid everything bare about the missions. It was a strange sensation, Naruto realized. The amount of stress he had been carrying was nearly overwhelming. As he provided his take on the missions, a question kept fighting to make itself known. Naruto decided not to fight the question anymore and simply ask it.
"Iruka-sensei, what makes a leader?"
Wantanabe Yuji could not express in words how excited he was to be headed to his home. The Jonin had missed his wife and his children painfully during his missions. He wanted to hold his family in his arms and slip out of the dark mindset he had dwelled in for the past few days. The ex-ANBU was about to round the final corner towards his home when he sensed someone watching him.
"You don't have to sneak up on me Kakashi-sempai," Yuji said with a grin.
Kakashi jumped down from his hiding spot. "Old habits die hard, Wani."
"I hope your mission went smoother than Team 4's," Yuji said as a semi-greeting. He didn't want to sound impatient, but he wanted to see his family.
"Did you run into an A-ranked Missing Nin with a B-ranked accomplice?" Kakashi asked with a laugh.
Wani shook his head. "Shimizu Den and three missing or unaffiliated ninja that wouldn't even earn a rank. That was after we encountered a summoned-creature disguised as a castle."
"It seems both our Genin teams had a true taste of what this life entails," Kakashi said idly. Wantanabe had known Hatake long enough to realize Kakashi was leading to a point.
"I believe they passed that test," Yuji said proudly.
"Which leads me to my point," Kakashi replied and Yuji could tell the Copy-Nin was smiling behind his ever-present mask.
'Called it,' Yuji thought to himself. "And what would that be, sempai?"
"I think Team Four is ready for another test."
Yuji stared at his former commander. He knew what test he was talking about. "The Chūnin Exams. With respect, Kakashi-sempai, I haven't made a decision. I won't be making that decision for a few days. Right now, the only thing I want to think about is spending time with my family. I want to hug my children and tell my wife I love her."
Kakashi nodded and there was an undeniable since of melancholy surrounding the Copy-nin. "I wanted to catch you before you got home. I think you should consider nominating Team Four. Tell Suzu I said hello."
"I'm sure she'll be thrilled to hear from you. We'll have to catch up some time," Yuji said genuinely. Kakashi nodded and started to depart. Wantanabe Yuji could only shake his head as Kakashi giggled at the Icha Icha book he seemingly produced from thin air.
The final walk to his home was blissfully silent. Yuji could feel the anticipation building inside of him as he saw his home. His son, Takao, was walking out the front door carrying a bag of trash. The young boy looked look and a large grin appeared on his face.
"Daddy!" Takao shouted as he dropped the garbage and ran over towards his father. The bag tore apart as it rolled down the stairs, but Yuji didn't notice and didn't care. All that mattered was he was hugging his son.
Iruka took a moment to think of a good way to answer Naruto's question. "There is no one answer to that Naruto."
"What do you mean?"
"You asked what makes a leader. Well, Naruto, there are many types of leaders. For example, Hokage-sama is a leader because of his experience, power, and charisma. Another leader, for example, might use fear instead of charisma. What is to say ruling because people like you is better than ruling through fear? The key, I think, is that there is something a leader projects that makes people choose to follow them," Iruka pointed out
"Why aren't there ever any easy answers?" Naruto lamented.
Iruka smiled in an attempt to put Naruto at ease. "I believe everyone has wondered that exact same question at least once in their lives. Naruto, is there anything else you want to talk about?"
"Well, I was talking with Hokage-sama earlier. He said that the Academy was supposed to teach us about the Uzumaki Clan. Mizuki-sensei never went in-depth beyond mentioning the Shodai Hokage married a Uzumaki. I really want to learn about my clan," Naruto explained.
Iruka nodded. "I don't have that information available right now, but I can get it to you very soon."
"Thanks, Iruka-sensei," the young man said with a smile.
"I'm always happy to help my students. If there's anything else you need in the future, let me know."
Naruto took a deep breath. "Actually, I need to thank you."
"You've already thanked me," Iruka chuckled.
"Not for that. For treating me like Naruto and not the Kyūbi," Naruto said earnestly.
Iruka fought off a frown. "You're welcome Naruto. I won't lie to you. You've been too upfront and honest for me not to return the courtesy. I wasn't thrilled to think that you would be in my class at first. My parents were killed when the Kyūbi attacked. However, the trust the Hyūga placed in you and your natural charisma and good will erased any doubts I had. I'm going to go back to your original question, Naruto. Don't change anything, Naruto. Nurture it, work hard, don't take any short-cuts and you'll discover what makes a leader."
Hinata had not gone straight home. Instead, she had gone to the library to look up what exactly a clan ward was. Naruto-kun had mentioned that he had no idea about his own heritage. She could not imagine what it would be like to know nothing of one's one clan! Hinata had been steeped in the traditions and legends of the Hyūga since birth! The lore of her clan was as much a part of Hinata as her Byakugan.
According to the traditions of Konoha, a clan ward was an individual or a smaller clan that was taken under the wing of a larger, more established clan for protection. The larger clan had a responsibility to assist and guide the decimated or newly-founded clan until the other clan was capable of existing on its own. Of course, there were expectations for the wards. The wards were expected to be political allies of the larger clan.
Hinata frowned as she read. There had been almost no guidance for Naruto-kun. The Uzumaki clan wouldn't be able to stand on its own for years. Hinata likely knew as much about Naruto's clan as he did. She was not amused. The Hyūga heiress rose to her feet and placed the books back on the cart. Determined, she left the library and headed straight home.
The return to the Hyūga compound was a quick one. Hinata hadn't quite run, but she strode purposefully. She entered her clan's home and saw her father speaking with Kō. Hinata was anxious to speak with her father, but would not interrupt.
So, she simply stood to the side in a posture that clearly radiated she had words. The ancient and obvious summoning scroll strapped to her back was also helping her nonverbal statement.
Hinata had expected some formal greeting from her father. The last thing she expected was to be engulfed in a hug.
The reaction was not the typical Hyūga reaction. However, Hinata was never so happy to have the traditions of her clan tossed aside. If this was what it was like, Hinata excitedly wondered how Neji-nii-san would react when the Juinjutsu was banished.
"You're safe, my daughter," Hiashi murmured several times. As much as Hinata welcomed the outpouring of parental care and love, she knew it would make the coming conversation difficult. She wanted to yell and ask why the Hyūga had failed in their duty to Naruto-kun while he had done everything asked of him.
But she couldn't yell at her father, not now. Instead, she simply cried into his shoulder. Hinata had been so scared.
Naruto walked through the training grounds of Konoha with his hands in his pockets. He wasn't really paying enough attention to his surroundings. 'I'm sure Yuji would give me that raised-eyebrow look that he uses when I'm not focused enough.' Naruto laughed at the thought. The young genin's other thoughts were making him a bit nervous. Naruto had no idea how he was going to approach Kō-nii-san. A part of Naruto was really upset and hurt that Kō had never mentioned Naruto's clan or birth-family. Another part couldn't find any blame to lie at Kō's feet. The part that couldn't find any blame in Kō was winning out. Kō-nii-san was Kō-nii-san.
'Think of something else,' Naruto commanded himself. 'I'm going to find out on my own. I know Hinata-chan, Kiba, Iruka-sensei, Kō-nii-san, and Old Man Hokage will help me.'
His thoughts wandered back to his earlier conversation with Iruka-sensei. The aftermath of the run-in with the 'Castle' and with Den were replaying over and over in his head. Yuji-sensei's words about having faith in one's teammates were mingling with Iruka's comments on charisma. A theory was beginning to form in Naruto's mind.
A leader had to believe and be believed.
That thought was a revelation. Naruto really needed to talk with Old Man Hokage or Hiashi-sama, eventually, about that.
'I wonder if I could be that kind of person,' Naruto wondered. He shrugged off the thoughts and decided he couldn't put off going home any longer.
Naruto decided to cut through Training Ground Six to get home faster. He was about to hop over a downed log when he heard two people talking.
"Honorable Grandson, this chakra control exercise will put you ahead of your class! Trust in me, your elite tutor, to give you all the shortcuts needed to become Hokage!"
"I'll graduate early and I'll force everyone to accept me as Hokage! Konoha will have to recognize me as leader!" A young child answered the tutor enthusiastically.
Naruto felt his jaw drop. The title of Hokage was sacred. You couldn't force people to accept you as Hokage! The First and Fourth Hokages certainly hadn't forced anyone to follow them! Naruto clasped tightly to his idealized vision of his two heroes. He also remembered Iruka's words about there being no shortcuts to leadership. Images of Hiashi-sama struggling with the stresses of leadership also flared forward.
Leadership was sacrifice and choice.
"Who's there?" The tutor asked. Naruto hadn't realized he had spoken out loud.
'No point in hiding,' Naruto mentally sighed. He jumped over the log and emerged from the brush. "Uzumaki Naruto."
"Ah, the Hyūga Ward," the Tutor said dismissively and adjusted his small sunglasses. Naruto bristled at the casual dismissal. "I would have thought that someone who had so many…gifts provided from him since birth would appreciate shortcuts."
Naruto glared at the man and was about to fire off a biting retort. However, the man's ploy was as obvious as day. He was trying to piss off Naruto. 'And I know why. He's one of those people. This guy hates what's sealed inside of me.'
"The Hyūga have provided me with many opportunities. They also taught me manners. For example, it is incredibly rude and will likely turn people away from any potential leadership you may attempt to instill if you refuse to give your name." Naruto took a jab at the tutor.
"My name is Ebisu, elite tutor to the worthy of Konoha," Ebisu introduced himself.
Naruto smirked. "I take it that since you've never tutored a Hyūga that they aren't among the worthy. I guess I'll need to inform Hiashi-sama of your opinion."
Ebisu paled and realized just how quickly he had been outmaneuvered. The last thing he wanted was a rumor that he had insulted the Hyūga clan! "Apologies if my words could be taken as insult."
Naruto didn't reply, and it took all his self-control not to add a further edge to his smirk. Ebisu's student, whom Naruto recognized a little bit, was snickering at Ebisu's folly.
"I know you didn't mean to insult the Hyūga clan," Naruto said evenly. 'Even if the insult aimed at me was totally meant.'
"If you will excuse us, Uzumaki-san…the Honorable Grandson must complete his training. It is a private matter, so I must ask that you excuse us." Ebisu said haughtily and adjusted his glasses again.
Naruto eyed Ebisu neutrally. It was a challenge, but he managed to give very little away. "I doubt the kid's parents named him 'Grandson' and I haven't heard of the 'Honorable' clan. What is his real name?"
The boy's face lit up as if someone had just handed him a real hitai-ate. "I'm Sarutobi Konohamaru!"
"Nice to meet you, Konohamaru." Naruto waved at the boy, but kept his focus on Ebisu.
"If you'll…" Ebisu began to repeat that Naruto should leave. However, Konohamaru cut him off.
"Neh, Naruto-san! Did you just come back from a mission?"
"Three technically," Naruto admitted.
"Cool! I bet you know all sorts of cool jutsu!" Konohamaru exclaimed and looked to Naruto expectantly.
Naruto suddenly had a devious idea. He hadn't had an idea like this since he gave up pranking after starting the Academy. There was something about Ebisu that was rubbing Naruto the wrong way. The young man was as determined to discredit and outwit Ebisu as he was with Yoshinori and the other Hyūga Councilors who were always trying to bring Hinata-chan down.
"That's not the most important thing about being a shinobi," Naruto countered.
Ebisu huffed and adjusted his glasses. It finally clicked for Naruto that it was a nervous habit of the tutor. "Jutsus, and their responsible use, are a defining characteristic of a proper shinobi! It demonstrates the status, skill, and potential of a shinobi! Leaders are always defined by their signature jutsu! The Shodai Hokage had his Mokuton. The Honored Yondaime had his Hiraishin!"
"That made them great shinobi. It didn't make them great leaders," Naruto hotly retorted. "Hashirama-dono was a great leader because he presented a vision of peace and stability that even his enemies believed in! The Yondaime, my hero, was a great leader because he could inspire others to greatness and was always willing to defend Konoha!"
Konohamaru was watching the debate wide-eyed. He never expected someone to challenge Ebisu on anything. It was amazing, but his mind was made up. Konohamaru was going to be Hokage.
"Y-You guys are really smart…but I'm still going to be Hokage so that everyone will be forced to acknowledge me as Konohamaru like you did instead of 'Honorable Grandson'," Konohamaru declared.
Naruto's shoulders slumped. "Then I'm sorry." Konohamaru let out a confused 'what' and Ebisu raised an eyebrow. "I'm going to have to become your rival. Write this one down, Ebisu."
"What?" Ebisu squawked.
"My name is Uzumaki Naruto and I will be the next Hokage!"
Author's Note: I can't really make any excuses for why it took me so long to get this chapter out. I had a lot of difficulty working out the kinks in the chapter and getting where I needed to be. I'm pretty satisfied with this incarnation (out of six tries) of the chapter. I hope that it lives up to expectations. Please review.