A sea of clouds laid as a blanket over the world. From the mountain top on which he stood, the sun's rays reflected, the refractions through the moisture exploded into a miasma of color. Reds and yellows faded to deep hues of blue and purple as the world shifted, before dissolving into soft greens and turning back to reds as the kaleidoscope reset itself.
The beauty of his country never ceased to amaze him. He had many regrets, but not taking the time to stop and appreciate just what was around him at all times was slowly climbing the list.
But there're still a bunch more to go, he reminded himself as the crunch of gravel underfoot sent his senses haywire.
There was no explosion of motion behind him. There was no ambient sense of chakra being gathered.
There was nothing to hint at the presence of another human being for hundreds of miles, save for the steady sound of footsteps on the mélange of small stones that surrounded what was now his home.
And here I was hoping not to have to talk. Damn shame.
"Hell of a view you've got here. Nothing like it where I come from," his visitor opened.
The man ignored the pleasantry. "You'd make for one hell of an assassin if you just managed to quiet those steps down," he rumbled. His voice was hoarse from its recent disuse, but still carried the authority that had commanded thousands once upon a time.
The responding chuckle was both light and boyish, as if the person behind him actually took humor from his words. But then, the man reminded himself, he probably does.
"Heh, maybe. But the whole concept never appealed to me, ya know? Never liked the whole sneakiness thing; never did it all that well either, now that I mention…"
The man couldn't see his guest, as he was still facing the other way, but in his mind's eye he saw quite clearly the image of a blond boy scratching the back of his head in thought. The face squinted, becoming almost confused as the boy tried to piece together whatever puzzle was in front of him.
"Yeah," his guest burst out. "Guess I never was all that great with the whole subtlety thing. Know what it means; don't have much of a use for it."
You never did. "Subtlety is only necessary for those without the power to otherwise accomplish their goals," the man stated. The wind below shifted the clouds just so, and the cycling rainbow blurred into a vortex where none specifically could be made out. He knew they were all still there though.
The boyish laugh had returned. "Wish someone had told my teachers that back in the day. Damn, would that have saved me a few bucket loads of annoyance. I should write that down."
"Don't trouble yourself. I did it myself in my first manifesto after taking power. I'm sure you can get yourself a copy." A sneer of disgust was evident in the man's voice.
The guest picked up on it quickly. "Now why you gotta have that kinda attitude, huh?" he asked. "What's wrong with sharing? It's that kinda mindset that got us all into that mess a few years back."
"I take no issue with sharing, merely with the way you have brought it about," the man growled. "I saw through your plan years ago, Hokage-dono." He finally turned to face his companion.
A twenty two year old Uzumaki Naruto stared back nonplussed. The bright orange battle cloak that flapped gently in the breeze was a new substitute for his old red one, and the man noted idly that he filled it out far better than he had years previous. A simple ensemble of navy pants, a navy shirt, and the standard green Konoha flak vest lay underneath the coat.
Kid actually looks like a shinobi.
"Never was much of one for plans, either. 'Least not like you, Ei-san," Naruto returned easily. A small grin stayed firmly planted on his whiskered face. "I was always more of a 'jump headfirst and see what happens' kinda guy. Still am."
"Everyone underestimated you. Except me," the man who had once been Raikage told Naruto.
The blond shrugged. "'Been making the most of that since I was a kid. Nothing new to me."
"And you've still got all of them eating out of the palm of your hand, I take it."
Naruto rolled his eyes at the man, eliciting a growl of rage at the Hokage's attitude. "Gotta be more specific here, Ei-san. But if by 'them' you mean my friends –"
"Your puppets!" Ei roared.
"My friends, Ei-san. Don't try to tell me what they are to me and what I am to them," Naruto corrected. His good humor had vanished. In its place was the man who had pulled the Shinobi Coalition Forces from the brink of destruction against Madara, and then again once more against Sasuke and Tobi.
"Friends who would sooner kill their own men than cross you, Uzumaki," Ei rumbled. "Do you take me for a fool? The Kages would fly Konoha's flag over their own offices should you 'ask' them to. And not for a moment can you expect me to believe it's out of friendship."
Naruto folded his arms, his blue eyes as cold as ice as he stared down the former Raikage. "And why would they do that?"
"Fear! They know as well as I that you could raze their villages to the ground if you wanted."
"But I don't!" Naruto yelled back. "Disagreements are settled peacefully; compromises are reached without wars breaking out over nothing. And it's working! Your village is prosperous, Ei."
"My village is a slave to your will! Troop numbers, movements, mission intake, all controlled by your puppet!" roared the former Kage.
"I'm sure Samui would object to that," Naruto chided. "And your village is equal to the rest of the Great Five. Troops are regulated yes, but no more so than any other village after the War. Missions are spread evenly throughout the continent, clients urged to take their business to certain villages depending on the mission."
"There is no longer any reason for war to break out over lack of funding or borders. Knowledge is shared on a regular basis, great libraries are being built throughout the continent as stores of all shinobi knowledge," Naruto said, his hands gesticulating passionately as the world shaped according to his will. "The villages are finally moving towards equality."
Ei shook his head ruefully in the face of Naruto's passion. "There will never be equality among the villages so long as you're alive."
The blond raised his eyebrows at him. "Is that why you tried to have me killed?"
The dark man sighed, resisting the urge to run his hands through his thinning hair in frustration. "I saw what no one else saw: a world where you would reign supreme simply because no one could or would challenge you. The villages would be reduced to nothing but Konoha's playthings with the strongest shinobi in history leading it. I couldn't let that happen…"
"Seems to be working out just fine to me," the Hokage snarked, though there was none of his usual humor left. It was all business.
Naruto brushed a stray lock of long blond hair out of his face, and Ei's mind unconsciously flashed to the memory of another blond, with that same hair and serious expression.
Namikaze Minato, his memory supplied quietly. The realization of Uzumaki Naruto's heritage had been the final rationalization in Ei's mind that killing him was necessary.
By his eighteenth birthday, Naruto had been the strongest jinchuriki the world had ever seen. He and the demon fox Kurama were in complete harmony, and that power had brought the madman Tobi and the traitor Uchiha Sasuke to their knees. The shinobi world praised the boy as a hero of heroes, all the while in the back of their minds they contented themselves with the thought that Naruto was finished. His power was done growing. And jinchuriki, no matter how strong, could always be controlled through certain means.
But Ei had seen something else. He had seen the son of a man whose sheer ability as a shinobi had forced Iwagakure to surrender in the Third Great Shinobi War. Namikaze Minato hadn't needed the power of a biju to win a war single handedly. And that same potential had lain dormant in his son, untapped and not fully trained. The need of a super weapon had outstripped the need for another shinobi legend, and so Naruto had harnessed the power of his biju to the fullest extent.
But that didn't mean that the potential wasn't there.
If, at eighteen, the boy was too powerful for any single one of the sitting Kages to kill, there was no telling how strong he might become when he took the time to advance his knowledge in the rest of the shinobi arts.
It didn't bear thinking about. It would be the rise of a tyrant; albeit a tyrant with good intentions, but a tyrant nonetheless.
And absolute power corrupted absolutely.
"You were too strong. Too powerful and still growing to be left unchecked," Ei said. "And I was right. The villages dance according to your beat."
"But it's such a good beat," Naruto harangued, his hands spread in front of him. "The world is growing. The shinobi system is finally leaving its cycle of hatred. Isn't that what we were fighting for?"
"We were fighting against our subjugation at the whims of a madman, not to kill him and have him be replaced by one our own!"
Naruto's eyebrows creased into a frown, and Ei nearly took a step back under the weight of a split second's exposure to the Hokage's power as he lost his temper.
"There is no genjutsu, Ei! Nothing! No illusions, no slavery. Nothing but like minded leaders moving in the same direction of peace," Naruto yelled, though he restrained his chakra at the same time.
"They only move that way because you tell them to –"
"And what does that matter if the direction is the right one? Why is it wrong for one man to be behind the dream if the dream is a good one?" Naruto asked.
"Because you've just replaced Tobi and Madara! It's not freedom if they only do what they do out of fear."
"They do it because they know it's right!"
Ei shook his head. "They do it because you tell them to and nothing more."
"You keep talking like I've had some master plan for years. Some plan to manipulate the shinobi villages into peace by making them fear me," Naruto said heatedly. "I've told you, Ei, I'm not the type of guy who makes plans like that. I jump in headfirst and react to what happens. In this case, the situation just happened to be twenty guys ambushing me on the way to a meeting."
The former Raikage closed his eyes with a grimace at the reminder of his failed plan.
"Gotta say, I'm still impressed at your balls," Naruto complimented harshly. "You send your Kinkaku force after me dressed as Akatsuki remnants. Element of surprise too. Who the hell would think to ambush me on the way to a Kage Summit in Iron Country?"
Ei remembered the cold sting of total failure that had struck him when Naruto had walked through the doors to the summit and had taken his place by Tsunade's side without a word. The boy, for he had still been the next in line for Hokage, had said nothing of the ambush, and looked none the worse for wear. All the blond had done was toss the Raikage a glance at the start of the proceedings, and Ei had known his gig was up.
He had retired from his post as Raikage less than a week later and vanished.
"Made sense too," Naruto was saying. "All my missions back then were cleaning up the mess Tobi and Kabuto made, and there were still a few guys who were tough enough to have been full fledged members. Elegant, and you even had deniability," the Rokudaime complimented.
"Guess I should be flattered, considering you used the same idea to eliminate Darui without anyone thinking twice about it!" Ei roared. His chakra flared into lightning and the visible aura of his Lightning Armor exploded around him in his rage.
Naruto was unmoved as the volatile chakra lanced out at the surrounding rock and pulverized it to dust.
"You try to kill me, promote your right hand man to Raikage, disappear into thin air, and don't expect me to follow up on it?" Naruto asked, incredulity marring his voice. He'd changed from the boy who had been all too ready to forgive his teammate for trying to kill him. War had hardened him. "I'm a pretty forgiving guy, but sending twenty assassins after me is crossing a pretty fuckin' important line. You can't expect me to let that slide, Ei. And Dauri was way too close to you for comfort."
The Hokage's weight shifted to his heels as he talked, and it was all the invitation Ei needed. Lightning crackled and thunder boomed as the former Kage blitzed Naruto in one last ditch effort to destroy his nightmare. He moved faster than the eye could see, and one large fist made to remove the Hokage's head –
- And nothing but pain registered as his hand was mangled by an instantly formed Rasengan.
His momentum was reduced to nothing, and Ei had a split second to catch Naruto's ice cold gaze before the Rokudaime used his jutsu's rotation to send him careening into the side of the mountain. Stone cracked and dust billowed as the former Raikage crashed into the rock face.
Ei used his mangled hand to push himself to his feet swiftly, ignoring the pain. He spun to face the tyrant Uzumaki but had no time to react as the ground beneath his feet turned to sludge and he was slammed back into the rock face by a screaming dragon made entirely of wind. His own screams joined the howling as the most offensively oriented element tore through his body and shredded his skin to ribbons.
He couldn't breathe, he couldn't move, he couldn't think. The only thing that mattered was the pain and the monster that was punishing him for wronging it.
At some point, the jutsu abated, but Ei's screams – not just of pain, but of terror and sadness at his failure – continued until all the air had left his lungs.
His face greeted hard packed dirt as he fell like a puppet with its strings cut, Naruto's jutsu having stripped the ground of its topsoil. Rational thought made a resurgence, and Ei discovered that he couldn't move. Some distant part of his mind told him that he wouldn't want to even if he could.
The mountain top was completely silent to his ears after the jutsu's howling had finished. It was only broken by the sound of crunching footsteps.
"I've grown up, Ei-san. I'm not the same kid who let his teammate punch a hole in his chest. I'm not the same kid who was willing to forgive and forget the sins of the worst of this world if it meant that I wouldn't have to kill them. I've changed. I've changed because people like you refused to, and it led to war."
The man who had once been the strongest Kage in the world said nothing in response, struggling to lift his gaze to the sight of his country one last time.
Nothing but a blinding blue light greeted him. The whirling of the Rasengan met his ears, and his head was slammed back into the dirt with a crash.
In a distant land, Uzumaki Naruto blinked as he tucked his baby girl into bed.
"I've changed, and I'll be damned if I let even one more child end up like me," he whispered.
A soft kiss was left on his baby's forehead, and the Hokage pulled the blankets up to her neck with a smile. He turned, flicked the light switch on the way out, and shut the door behind him.
AN: Quick little one-shot that just sort of came to me today. Put it on paper and voila!
With the way the manga is heading, a utopian society of peace led by Naruto looks to be in the works. If you're familiar with any of my work at all, you'll know how I feel about this. This is a stab at a slightly darker take on what I envision the end of the manga to be.
Next chapter of Patriot's Dawn is in the works. Until then,
I'm so pro...