Author's Note: I had a lot of ideas for an epilogue planned for this story even as I was writing it, and so here it is, finally finished and posted a year after the original was finished. I was originally going to post it as a separate story entitled "Trace", but decided to just put it here; it's meant to beg the question of how Naruto and Ino deal with their kids' issues as they grow up and go through similar situations to their parents. Please let me know what you think!
"Children are great imitators. So give them something great to imitate."
Namikaze Ino puts down the book she's been reading and stands up. "Hana," she calls, "come on, let's go."
A five-year-old girl wearing a yellow sundress runs down the stairs, her shoulder-length platinum blonde hair flying about in her haste. Namikaze Hana is her mother's daughter in every sense, from hair and eye color to personality (including a stubborn streak and a dislike of not getting her way), and Ino and Naruto have had their fair share of issues dealing with her desire to attend the Academy before her time. Their youngest child holds a strong adoration for her older brothers, and the highlight of her days seems to be when Ino takes her to pick up the two boys from school. Hana's only a couple months away from entering the Academy, but her impatience is endless.
Then again, Ino can remember a time when she, too, wanted to experience things ahead of time, and the memory of switching bodies with Naruto has never quite faded from her mind, especially since the results of it are shoved in her face on a daily basis. It would be better if Hana wanted to enjoy her childhood while it lasts, but far be it for Ino to try to dissuade her daughter from doing as she wants.
She fixes Hana with a stern look. "You left the boys' room as you found it, right?" The girl's head bobs up and down, and after another moment of scrutiny, Ino nods in acceptance. "Alright then. Let's go see how your brother did."
Mother and daughter clasp hands and walk out the door, the former locking it behind them. The house is the same one Naruto inherited from his father (Naruto not wanting to move his family away from their home), only with an additional story, added (courtesy of Yamato) after Ino gave birth to the couple's second child. What was originally a guest room became the baby's room, and after Hana was born, the two boys bunked together upstairs to make room for the youngest sibling.
If there's one thing Ino is grateful for, it's that her children all get along. A sibling rivalry is something neither she nor Naruto have experience dealing with, considering their own status as only children, and the fact that their household is relatively peaceful is a blessing.
Though, she realizes as they approach the Academy to find the students outside, and Michio runs up to them with his new hitae-ate tied around his forehead, the shinobi lifestyle has a way of turning everything around.
Ino can only pray for the best as she congratulates her son on his accomplishment.
"Hokage-sama, might I speak with you?"
Naruto lifts his head up from the paperwork spread out before him. "Of course. You know that you don't have to ask."
"It would be disrespectful not to," intones the other person. He raises a hand and removes the ANBU mask from his face, revealing the sunglasses-wearing visage of Aburame Shino.
"Oh, a face-to-face," the blonde comments, equal parts bemused and surprised. "This must be serious. So, are we talking as friends or shinobi? You realize that you would carry more sway as an ANBU than a Jōnin, right?"
"In normal circumstances," Shino agrees. "But I believe that it would be more prudent to speak to you as a Jōnin. Why? Because I would like to request to become a Jōnin-sensei."
Naruto straightens a little in the Hokage's chair, taken aback by the request. He shares a brief look with Shikamaru – standing beside the desk with a stack of papers in hand – before returning his attention to the bug-user. "Well…can't say I expected that. Skill and professionalism aside, you don't exactly strike me as the type to foster the growth of Genin, Shino. What's changed?"
"…It is difficult to maintain a healthy family relationship while in ANBU."
"Your son," Naruto realizes, somewhat used to reading between the lines of the Aburame's speech. "He'll graduate from the Academy in a year. You want to be around more to help him train?"
"That is one reason."
"You want to learn how to interact more normally with people his age, so you have a better idea of how to raise him during his time as a shinobi," Shikamaru theorizes.
Shino adjusts his glasses. "I would like to ensure that I set a good example for my family to follow. ANBU is not an environment conducive to that."
The doors to the office burst open at that moment, allowing Namikaze Jirō to run into the room and jump into his father's lap. Shikamaru rolls his eyes at the interruption while Shino oversees the scene placidly. "Dad, Dad! Michio-nii graduated! And Mom said that we're gonna go out tonight to celebrate!"
Naruto laughs. "That's good to hear. I'll have to be sure to get out of here on time, then. Was your brother excited?"
Jirō's fair skin, the only feature inherited from his mother, adopts a flush of color in embarrassment. "Er…well, I…"
"You ran here after you heard he graduated, didn't you?"
"Mom was talkin' to him about it when I got out," mumbles the boy.
"As impetuous as your old man," Naruto reassures him.
"Most people wouldn't consider that a good thing," Shikamaru remarks dryly.
"Ignore him," the blonde says. "He's just grumpy that he has to help finalize team assignments." He lifts his son up and places him on the ground. "I've got to get back to work if you want me home in time to celebrate. Go tell your mother that I'll be there when I'm done here…and tell Michio I'm proud of him!" he shouts as Jirō runs out the doors, closing them behind him.
"…Something like that," Shino intones, breaking the silence and returning the three males to the conversation at hand.
Shikamaru lifts an eyebrow. "You want to emulate Naruto?"
The Aburame's lips twitch minutely before his stoic façade is back in place. "Perhaps not in every aspect –"
"— but he is undoubtedly a good father," he concludes over the blonde's protest. "My clan has not been known for being…expressive. Over the length of our friendship, my understanding of more typical social interactions has increased. However, I would like a more…interactive…approach to further my knowledge."
There is a bout of silence as Naruto allows Shino's words to wash over him. Shino doesn't believe that he's a bad father, but he seems to want to have a relationship with his kids more similar to the one Naruto has with his own than the Aburames have traditionally held. Naruto finds himself wanting to honor his friend's desire. "Shikamaru," he states at length, "do you have a list of who graduated?"
The Nara steps out of the office and returns moments later with several sheets of paper clutched in his hand. "Just arrived from the Academy," he says, offering the papers over.
Naruto grabs it and scans the list, a grin forming as he works his way down it. "Alright, Shino, Team 12 is all yours. Mantis will be sorely missed…he was a terrific ANBU Captain."
Shino nods. "Thank you."
"And Shino," the blonde continues seriously, placing the list on his desk, "I'm entrusting you to take care of this team."
The bug-user checks the names of the Genin he's been assigned, and his body shifts marginally in a display of surprise. "Understood, Hokage-sama. I will do my best with the opportunity you have granted me." He places the paper back on the desk, bows, and then departs.
Shikamaru grabs the paper and gives it a once-over, his dark eyes narrowing on the members of Team 12. "Naruto, was that really the best idea? Shino's a great shinobi, but he's not the most…socially adept person to become a teacher."
"Have a little faith, Shikamaru," assures the blonde, returning to his paperwork. "Shino'll keep the kids safe and give them a good education. He's all about teamwork. Now give me that list…we need to figure out who's going to teach the other teams."
The Nara sighs before settling himself in for a discussion about which Jōnin will make the best team leader where. Good luck, kids.
Namikaze Michio slams the door shut behind him, grumbling nonsense as he stalks through the house. The noise draws the attention of the rest of his family, as two platinum blondes poke their heads out of Hana's room, Jirō's feet appear on the stairs, and Naruto glances up from where he's reading a report on the couch. "Something you'd like to talk about?" the latter asks, bemused.
"You…" Michio accuses, and the boy's ire only causes Naruto's amusement to grow. "You just had to put me with that…that…annoying…bossy…GAH!" He throws his hands up in the air and heads up the stairs to go to his room; Jirō scrambles quickly out of the older boy's way.
Ino comes out of Hana's room, her daughter trailing curiously behind her. She raises an eyebrow at Naruto. "Care to explain?"
Her husband shrugs, trying to hide his smile. "No idea."
The expression on Naruto's face doesn't even come close to convincing Ino that he's as clueless as he's pretending, and she rolls baby blue eyes in mock exasperation. "Michio, could you come down here, please?" she calls.
"That wasn't a request," Ino replies dryly.
Silence greets her announcement, and she gives Naruto a pointed look. "What?" he asks, the picture of innocence. "He gets his stubbornness from you."
She chooses to ignore the statement, instead redirecting her efforts at her eldest child. "Now, Michio," she orders, "or I'll force you to come down here." The boy's stomping and mutterings become quickly apparent, all too aware of his mother's methodology for getting her kids to do what she wants. Ino gestures to the couch when he appears, and Michio, arms crossed, sits down at the end opposite his father. "Now, what happened?"
"He," begins Michio, stabbing a finger at Naruto, "put me on a team with –"
"Whoa, hold it right there, buddy," the older blonde interjects, grabbing his son's finger between thumb and forefinger and lowering it. "I made absolutely no decision with respect to team assignments. That's the Academy's job. The only thing I did was assign your team a teacher." He pauses to fix his son with a curious look. "Do you have a problem with him?"
"No, Shino-sensei's fine. He took us out for dinner to help build our teamwork." Ino shoots a surprised glance at Naruto at the mention of Shino being Michio's teacher. She mouths the bug-user's name in query, but Naruto merely waves it off and mouths back 'later'. "It's my teammate that's the issue," grouches Michio.
"Just the one?" Ino asks.
"Well, I don't have a problem with Koji," he says matter-of-factly. Ino is unsurprised by this revelation, given that Hyūga Koji is, for all intents and purposes, Michio's best friend. Koji and his older twin Koichi are the only members of the next generation of the Konoha 11 older than Michio, and in fact, are the only ones in his grade level aside from…
Oh, Ino realizes, covering her mouth with a hand to hide her own amusement. "It's Shika," Michio seethes, confirming Ino's theory.
Nara Shika is Shikamaru's daughter, and several months Michio's junior. Despite the close relationship between the two families, Michio and Shika have had trouble in the recent year seeing eye-to-eye. Ino supposes it's probably due to some trait carried by all Nara women (regardless of being born into the clan or married into it) that causes them to be bossy and controlling – a lot like her, Naruto likes to teasingly remind her – as very little of Shika's personality is reminiscent of her father. Unfortunately, Michio developed a rather strong aversion to being told what to do (something Ino hopes desperately is a phase) at the same time Shika stepped into her bossiness, resulting in friction between the two children.
"You should look at this as an opportunity to mend your relationship," Naruto suggests. "You two used to be very close." Michio snorts something that sounds like 'fat chance', and Naruto continues, a bit sterner, "Listen, regardless of your personal feelings on the matter, Shika is your teammate now, and that means that you have to look out for each other. Protecting your comrades is an important part of being a shinobi. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Michio mutters, sounding properly scolded.
"Good." The blonde's voice becomes upbeat again. "Besides, you never know what'll happen. You might end up falling in love with her."
"Yech. Da-ad!" he whines. "That'll never happen."
"You'd be surprised," Ino interjects. "Did I ever tell you how your father and I met?"
"Mo-om! I don't wanna hear this –"
"You'll stay right there if you know what's good for you." Michio leans back into the couch with a groan, and Ino smirks a little at his discomfort. She pats Hana – who's been standing behind her the whole time – on the back and gestures for her to go to her father. "You, too, Jirō," she motions, taking a seat in the armchair set perpendicular to Michio's end of the couch while Naruto grabs Hana and places her in his lap. The middle child descends the rest of the stairs and takes a seat quietly between his father and brother. "Well, when we were around Jirō's age, I tried to use Shintenshin no Jutsu on your father. Back then, he was a big troublemaker, and I only knew him as this annoying boy in class…"
Several hours later, after the children have gone to sleep, Naruto and Ino lay in bed together with the darkness as their only companion. "Shino, huh?" Ino prompts.
"He asked for a Genin team. I trust him to do a good job." Ino sighs a little, and Naruto knows that she's more apprehensive about Michio being an active shinobi than about who his teacher is. "Hey," he says quietly, "they'll be safe with Shino. All of them. And even though Michio might not get along with Shika too well, he'll still look after her."
"…Yeah, I know." She turns to face him, their noses inches apart, and a slow smile spreads across her features. "Bet you they get married."
"No way, that's a losing bet for me."
"Fine," she huffs, disappointed.
"…Bet she makes the first move."
"And you can't give Michio any advice."
The beeping of the heart monitor is the loudest sound in the private hospital room. Naruto stands at the foot of the bed his family is clustered around, gazing forlornly at the figure resting there.
Tsunade is sitting upright, her face drawn and haggard compared to the brightness that is Hana sitting in her lap. Little of the appearance Naruto is so used to is present in her form, the once flawless-looking skin now wrinkled and dark with age, the hair grey and wiry. Only her brown eyes remain the same, sharp with intelligence and awareness.
The Sannin laughs a little at something Hana tells her, but the noise is broken by a series of coughs that she muffles with a fist. When she recovers, she beckons to Ino with a finger, and the younger woman leans over so Tsunade can whisper something in her ear. Naruto is too far away to hear what's being said, but the monologue is fairly long, and when it ends in another fit of coughing, Ino pulls away with tears in her eyes. She blinks and wipes them away. "Say goodbye, kids," she says, and her husband senses a slight hitch in her voice, "Tsunade-sama wants to talk to your father in private."
"Bye, Tsunade-baa-chan!" obliges Hana, throwing her arms around the older woman's neck. Tsunade holds the child to her tightly for a long moment, mouth moving in quiet words of wisdom before letting go. "Love you, too!" Michio – who has become more responsible in the months post-graduation to Genin – makes to pick Hana up underneath her arms, but Tsunade stops him, whispers something in his ear, pulls back to see him nod slowly, and then kisses him on the forehead, in the same place she did to Naruto so many years ago. He mumbles a quiet 'love you, too, Tsunade-baa-chan' as he grabs his sister from the bed, allowing Tsunade to turn her attention to her other side, where Jirō stands next to his mother. The Sannin goes through all the same motions with the middle child, eliciting another 'love you, too, Tsunade-baa-chan' from the boy before the family departs, Ino glancing back one last time as she shuffles the kids out the door.
Naruto takes a seat in the chair to Tsunade's left. "You've done a damn good job raising your family, brat," Tsunade tells him. Then she smirks. "Considering your personality, I'm not sure whether I'm more impressed or surprised."
He tries to smile in response to the jibe, but the expression is weak and strained. Death of loved ones is, rather fortunately, a concept which Naruto has little experience with. His parents died before he knew them, the Sandaime passed away defending the village, and Gaara came back to life. The one person Naruto became truly attached to who died was Jiraiya, and he is well aware that the old pervert passed away in a climactic battle, just as he wanted. It doesn't necessarily make the thought of his old teacher hurt any less, but with the current situation playing out before him, Naruto wonders if perhaps Jiraiya's death in a faraway land wasn't better in some ways.
Because watching Tsunade waste away before his eyes is slowly killing him.
Naruto's discomfort is practically a tangible presence in the room, for Tsunade says, "Naruto…death is a part of life. Honestly, I'm a little surprised I've made it this long considering how many times I've used the Sōzō Saisei." When this doesn't have the desired effect of placating her successor, she continues, "Naruto, I've had a good life. I've had the opportunity to watch you grow up, fall in love, have a family, achieve your dream…and all because you brought me back here all those years ago.
"So thank you, for giving my life renewed purpose. You continue to take care of your family, you hear me?"
This time, Naruto manages to grace Tsunade with a small upturn of his lips; the expression is still sad, but there's the reassurance in it that indicates he has no intention of not following through with the demand. "Always."
They talk for a little longer – about how Naruto was in the past, about how the family is doing, about what will happen in the future – until Tsunade is hit by another bout of coughing, this one much fiercer than the last. Naruto holds Tsunade's hand as the heart monitor's beeping echoes ominously in the room. After a long moment, the Sannin turns to offer the blonde a wan smile. "Heh, I think it's time, kid."
Naruto sniffs to restrain the tears coming to his eyes. "Tell Ero-Sennin I say 'hi'."
Tsunade chuckles weakly. "It'll be good to see that old pervert again." She pauses briefly, then continues, "I'm proud of the man you've become. Goodbye, Naruto…I love you."
He kisses her on the forehead, returning the gesture from so long ago. "I love you, too, Granny."
Tsunade's content smile makes the high whine of the heart monitor seem insignificant in the sudden lifelessness of the hospital room.
That night, long after the funeral, Naruto and Ino lie in bed, her head resting on his shoulder. "How are you doing?"
Naruto attempts to shrug. "Sad," he admits. "I thought it sucked that I never got to say goodbye to Jiraiya…but watching Tsunade just…die…" He sighs, a long, solemn sound, and turns bloodshot eyes to his wife. "I think that was the hardest thing I've ever done."
Ino places her hand on his arm and rubs it comfortingly. "I know," she whispers, thinking back to how it felt to watch Asuma's life fade away, "but things'll eventually get better."
He nods mechanically, and silence falls between them as they remember the life of the Godaime Hokage. The quiet is broken by the soft padding of feet, and a small voice calls, "Mommy? Daddy?"
Both parents look up to find Hana standing in the doorway, eyes downcast and a stuffed fox clutched tightly in the crook of her elbow. "What is it, sweetie?" Naruto asks.
"Can I sleep with you tonight? I don't want to be alone…"
"Can you…spend the night tonight? I don't really want to be alone."
The memory of asking Ino the same question after Jiraiya's death strikes Naruto hard, and it's only in that moment does he realize that, while his experience with death is limited, his children have never had anyone close to them pass away. Hana, in particular, is far too young to have to go through such a tragedy, especially by herself. "Of course," he replies, patting the bed between him and Ino. "C'mere."
Hana approaches the foot of the bed and clambers atop it, crawling across it to eventually settle between her parents. She snuggles beneath the blanket and turns baby blue eyes to her father; they're watery and ready to spill over with tears. "I miss Tsunade-baa-chan."
For what feels like the umpteenth time that day, Naruto tries to smile encouragingly, but it falls horribly short. "I know. I do, too." He pulls her into a tight embrace, letting her cry into his shirt. After several moments, he carefully passes his daughter off to Ino, telling both of them, "I'm going to go check on the boys."
He stands up and walks to the doorway, almost colliding with Jirō as he exits. "I, uh…" tries the boy, "I…"
"I know," Naruto says, understanding in his voice. He bends down and picks up his son. "Come on."
"I can walk!" Jirō squawks, indignant.
"I know," repeats his father. "Just indulge me." Jirō falls silent at the request and lets the older blonde carry him into his parents' bedroom and deposit him on the bed. He settles in next to Hana and hugs her close. "One left," Naruto comments. "I'm going to…" he trails off as Ino points to the doorway, turning to find Michio standing there.
The boy's blue eyes shift back and forth, clearly embarrassed to be seen standing at his parents' doorway as if he was much younger. "I heard Jirō get up and wanted to check on him," he states.
Naruto and Ino exchange glances, unconvinced. The former decides to play along, knowing that his eldest doesn't want to be treated like a child. "I think your brother's spending the night in here. Do you want to come in?"
Michio shrugs, trying to act nonchalant. "Yeah, I guess so."
The Genin settles himself in the bed so he's facing his brother's back, and Naruto finally climbs in and sandwiches his children in-between himself and Ino. "You know," he says, "it's okay to cry when you're sad."
"No," Michio mumbles into the pillow, voice cracking slightly, "I've gotta be strong."
"Sometimes being strong means knowing when to admit that you're weak," Naruto tells him gently.
Michio is silent for a long moment. Then he rolls over and throws his arms around his father, quiet sobs wracking his body. "Let it out," Naruto whispers, silent tears trailing down his own cheeks. "The more you love, the more it hurts. Just never forget that our precious people never truly leave us."
As his family slowly drifts off to sleep, Naruto wonders if Tsunade is satisfied with how he took care of them in the face of such a tragedy. You'll be missed around here, Granny…I hope you continue to watch over us…
'Damn straight', Tsunade's voice echoes in his mind.
Naruto stares blankly at Ino. "I have to do what?"
His wife sighs. "Jirō's a Genin now, which means he'll see and do things that civilian children won't. And Michio's been a Chūnin for a couple of months. Honestly, we're overdue on talking to him."
"Well why didn't we talk with him before this, then?"
Ino fixes him with a look. "Did you want to do this twice?" At Naruto's headshake, the Namikaze matriarch continues, "That's what I thought. Now go on."
"But why do I have to do this?"
"Because that's what we agreed on; you get the boys, I get Hana."
"I've never even had this conversation before," Naruto tries desperately, grasping at straws. "How do I even know what to say?"
"Naruto, you have two options: either talk to them, or I'll talk to them as you." The blonde blanches at the implication and walks resignedly out of their bedroom. There are some things that he feels a boy should hear from his father, and no matter how he feels about it, delivering the message himself is preferable to having Ino use him as a puppet to do so.
He ascends the stairs to the second floor and knocks on the boys' bedroom door, pushing it open when Jirō says he can enter. His sons are both sitting on Michio's bed, piles of kunai, shuriken, wire, and other ninja tools laid out before them; Michio is showing his brother how to best prepare for his life ahead as a Genin. "Hey, Dad," they chorus upon his entrance.
"Boys…" he greets, and then pauses, unsure how to press forward. His lack of experience in being a father has never been more evident over the years than right now, in a moment where he must speak to his sons about a topic he himself was never told about. "Do you, uh, have a minute?"
His sons exchange glances with each other and then shrug. "Sure," they respond, and then Michio continues, "Are you okay, Dad? You're acting weird."
Naruto sits on Jirō's bed and massages his forehead with one hand. "Fine," he replies. Under his breath, he mutters, "I'll be better once this is over, but yeah, just peachy…"
He knows this is a necessity, though. The memory of his and Ino's first time looms in the back of his mind, and he wonders if the night would have gone any differently had someone – Jiraiya, Kakashi, Inoichi – sat him down and explained things. Not that he regrets the night, but experience has certainly helped their love life, and foreknowledge might've been nice.
Of course, his kids probably don't want to hear about their parents' intimacy, so Naruto tries to push the thought out of his mind to better focus on the matter at hand. "Look," he says, "since you're both shinobi of Konoha, you two are mature enough now to make your own decisions. And that includes…" he gulps slightly, curses Ino in his head, and then plows forward, "relationships."
Michio seems to grasp the subject matter before his brother – and whether that's because he has a couple of years over Jirō or because the younger boy is as much Naruto's son as Hana is Ino's daughter is debatable – for he groans in embarrassment. "Da-ad," he whines, rising to his feet, "I don't want to listen to this…"
"Sit," Naruto commands, embracing the Hokage-side of himself, and Michio does so half-heartedly. Deciding a little honesty might go a long way, he says, "I don't want to talk to you two about this either – I don't even want to think about you two doing…that," he gestures vaguely, "but it's your mother's orders. But, if you don't make this difficult…I'll start to teach you the Rasengan."
Michio's blue eyes widen in excitement. "Seriously?" At his father's nod, the oldest child crosses his legs and relaxes, deciding that whatever verbal torture Naruto will put them through is worth learning the signature technique of the Namikaze lineage.
Jirō still looks partially lost. "Neh, Michio-nii, what's Dad talking about?"
Naruto grimaces, knowing that he'll have to spell it outright for the middle child. "Sex, Jirō," he replies before Michio can. He pulls an uncomfortable face at the same time as his eldest, and Jirō's gaze swivels between father and brother, mildly amused at the similarity in expression.
Deciding to just get it over with as soon as possible, the Hokage continues, "Now, there'll come a time in your life when…"
Some time later – what feels like days, but can't have been more than half an hour – the three males plod down into the living room, where Ino is splayed out on the couch, reading a book. She lowers it slightly to observe the procession, taking in the haunted looks on all their faces. "How'd it go?" she asks Naruto as he passes, the two boys already heading out the door.
Her husband shakes his head. "Horrible…I think I traumatized Jirō. I think I traumatized myself. I'm never doing that again."
Ino pats his arm reassuringly. "Fortunately, you won't have to. I'm proud of you," she adds.
"Yeah, well, if you'll excuse me, I have to go pass down a violently destructive jutsu to two kids who, in all likelihood, would like nothing more than to inflict bodily harm upon me."
"That's nice," Ino says, already returned to her book. "Just make sure to be home in time for dinner. We're eating with Shikamaru and Chōji tonight."
Naruto groans and heads out the door, following his two sons to the training grounds. The next advice I pass on to them will be to not get married, he swears to himself.
Naruto sits at his desk in the Hokage's office, looking over the latest set of applications for Jōnin to become Genin instructors. Graduation is taking place within the next couple of days, and all the blonde can focus on is the fact that his daughter will be taking the test in about a year's time. Michio is already a Tokubetsu Jōnin and Jirō is a recently-promoted Chūnin…time seems to fly by so fast.
Did it pass this quickly for us? he wonders, thinking back to the time of the Konoha 11.
His friends have all grown up from the days of playing pranks in the Academy and making childish boasts about their strength to one another. Hinata, Chōji, and Shino are leading the Hyūga, Akimichi, and Aburame clans, and the latter even takes on specialized missions when required (having retired from teaching after his first team advanced through the ranks). Kiba is the leader of Konoha's Tracking Division, Sakura heads up the Konoha Hospital, and Shikamaru remains the Head of Intelligence and Tactics, as well as doubling as Naruto's personal advisor (and preparing to take over as Nara Clan Head). Sai is a captain in ANBU, Neji and Lee are both accomplished Jōnin, and Ino and Tenten have each trained two Genin teams of their own. They've all achieved so much in what feels like such a short time that Naruto often loses track of how old they all are.
And if the rumors are true, many of the next generation are poised to usurp the Konoha 11's records in the coming years. Michio is already a prime example of that, not that Naruto's advancements hold any linearity to compare to.
But then again, Naruto supposes that's how things are supposed to go; it is the premise of the Will of Fire that the next generation will carry on the dreams, hopes, and aspirations of the previous one.
The doors to his office burst open, and Naruto looks up to find one of the Chūnin assigned to guard Konoha's great gates before him, hands on his knees and taking heaping gasps of air. "Ho-Hokage-sama!" he manages. "Tsukino-san's team…just returned!"
Naruto grins; Jirō has been gone for almost a week now with his team, and as much as he knows his children need to find their own path, it's always nice to have them come home. "Thank you for letting me know."
The Chūnin shakes his head. "Hokage-sama, they were ambushed." All the blood drains from Naruto's face as the Konoha-nin continues, "They were spotted by Hyūga Harumi; Tsukino-san was seen trying to carry his team into the village. They're in critical care right now."
Naruto isn't even in the office by the time the Chūnin finishes his report; there's a flash of yellow-orange chakra and a gust of wind that sends papers flying into the air as he dashes for the hospital, praying for his son's safety.
Almost nothing good ever comes from visiting a hospital, Naruto decides. Births, obviously, and…well, that's all he can come up with, because the sheer quantity of the bad memories vastly outnumbers the three times Ino has gone through the labor of having their children. The failed mission to retrieve Sasuke, Ino's ectopic pregnancy, the myriad of shinobi who have passed away since taking up the mantle of Hokage, Tsunade's death…
And now, Jirō is in a room with bandages wrapped around his chest, gauze taped to his face, and his right leg in a cast. Sakura has only just given permission for the boy's parents to enter the room, Jirō having been in surgery for multiple fractured ribs. Ino enters from the hallway – where she has been speaking with Sakura – to find her husband sitting in a chair across from their son's bed, his hands clasped together so tightly his knuckles are white. She walks over to him and sits on the chair's arm, looping her own around his shoulders. "I talked to Shikamaru," she informs him quietly. "He's going to look after the desk for a while."
"Do you want me to go get Hana? I'm sure her sensei would understand –"
"She deserves to know," Ino tells him gently. "She would want to know."
"I…I know. Just…not now. She shouldn't see him like this."
'She shouldn't see me like this' is how Ino interprets her husband's statement. It's a good thing Michio's on a mission right now, she thinks. Placing her own hand on top of Naruto's clasped ones, she whispers, "Sakura said he'll recover." Mostly. "He's alive, Naruto…we should be grateful for that."
Her fellow blonde nods slowly. So far, one of Jirō's teammates has already passed on while the other is still in surgery (and looking at extensive physical therapy), and Tsukino Tama is recovering in another room, probably being questioned about what happened.
There's a low groan from the bed, and Naruto immediately rises to his feet, nearly dislodging his wife in the process. In the next moment, he's beside his son as Jirō opens groggy blue eyes for the first time since being brought into the village. "Dad…?"
"Hey, buddy," Naruto whispers, running a hand through his son's hair. "How're you feeling?"
"Hurts…" Jirō mumbles.
A sad expression crosses the Hokage's features. "Yeah, it'll feel like that for awhile. You should rest."
"I'm here, sweetie," Ino says, coming to stand by her husband's side.
His parents exchange glances, and then Ino replies, "We'll bring them by to visit when you're feeling better."
Jirō nods meekly, and within moments, his eyes close due to a mixture of medication and exhaustion.
Hana learns of her brother's condition later that night, when Naruto and Ino are calm and stable enough to explain to her the situation. Michio returns from his mission two days later and immediately rushes to the hospital to check on his sibling. Naruto – already returned to his duties as the Hokage – doesn't think he's ever been more proud of his boys; they've always been close, but Michio has never seemed as protective of his brother as he does in this defining moment.
After a week passes, Jirō is cleared to start moving around the hospital. Naruto and Ino walk beside him as he hobbles along the corridors, and by the time the trio returns to the room, the Namikaze child is a bit breathless. Sakura is waiting for them upon their return, and after helping Jirō into his bed, she begins to take notes on his condition.
She leaves several minutes later, followed by Ino (who promises to return in a little bit), and Naruto drags his chair over to his son's bed. "Dad?" Jirō prompts.
"I…I don't wanna be an active ninja anymore. I've never been as good at it as Michio-nii is, and after this last mission, well…" he trails off, keeping his eyes averted to the bed sheets so he won't have to look at his father. "I thought I could maybe…take over at the flower shop, or…become a teacher at the Academy…" He hesitates before asking, "Are you…disappointed?"
A large hand lands on Jirō's blonde spikes and ruffles them affectionately. "I could never be disappointed in you," Naruto reassures with a grin. "I'll talk to Iruka-sensei about a position at the Academy, and your mom can ask Inoichi-jii-san about the flower shop, okay?"
Jirō offers his father a smile in return. "Yeah…thanks, Dad."
When the younger blonde yawns, Naruto gets up and tells his son to get some sleep. He exits the room silently to find his wife standing outside the door, waiting patiently for him. "I spoke to Sakura," she starts, walking beside him as he strides down the corridor. "She said his leg will never fully recover…he'll always have a slight limp. He won't be able to continue being a ninja, it's too much of a handicap."
"We already talked about it," Naruto assures her. "He decided to quit all on his own."
Ino looks mildly surprised. "Oh…well, are you okay with that?"
Naruto grants her his usual grin. "He's alive, Ino. That's all that matters."
"Do you have everything you need?"
"Are you sure? Sleeping bag, kunai, rations –?"
Hana releases an exasperated sigh. "Dad! I've already double-checked everything. Will you relax?"
Naruto tries to stop himself from restlessly shifting his weight like he used to as a Genin, but all he manages to achieve is an awkward shuffling of his feet. "I know, I know…sorry." Every day, Hana seems to look and act more like her mother, and while neither Namikaze parent has ever tried to temper their children's less desirable personality traits, Naruto knows that stubbornness and overconfidence aren't the best qualities to possess on a mission.
Especially since it's Hana's first C-rank, and it'll keep her outside the village walls – outside his protection, is all Naruto thinks – for several days. The memory of his own C-rank-turned-A-rank mission is still quite vivid, even decades later.
He rubs his forehead with one hand to prevent himself from launching into an explanation of how she'll understand one day when she has her own children (the idea of his baby girl having sex both terrifies him and makes him feel far older than he is). His worries are eased slightly just knowing that the mission she's assigned isn't expected to see combat, but… "I guess I've been a bit overprotective ever since your brother…"
Hana seems to understand, for she steps forward and hugs her father tightly around the waist. "Jirō-nii's fine, Dad, and I'll be fine, too." She releases him and grabs her stuff, throwing her pack over her shoulder. "I've gotta go, otherwise sensei'll be mad that I'm late. See ya in a couple days, Dad. Love ya!"
"Bye, sweetie, love you, too," he returns as the door closes behind her. Staring at the wood, he convinces himself that Hana will be safe, that the reason he assigned Tenten to be her teacher was because the weapons' specialist is a kunoichi and a mother and a friend, and completely capable of keeping her team – and his daughter – out of harm's way.
Fair, slender arms drape themselves around his neck, and Naruto suddenly becomes aware that his wife is behind him. "How long will she be gone?" she asks quietly.
"Couple days, at least."
"Mm… You know," she whispers, lips next to his ear and voice seductive in a way that makes a shiver run down Naruto's spine, "it's been a long time since we had the house to ourselves." Throat dry, Naruto can only nod; with Hana now an active ninja gone on her first C-rank mission, Michio deployed on his own assignment, and Jirō running Yamanaka Flowers (and living in the loft above the store), this is the first time the Namikaze adults have been empty-nesters. "We should celebrate."
Naruto tries to argue that he should really get to the office, that Shikamaru is already annoyed with him because Michio and Shika have finally admitted that they're dating and that he won't cover for the blonde for long, but the urge to be comforted overcomes him, and he thinks that putting up with the Nara's ire is totally worth a little morning sex.
He turns around in Ino's embrace and shoots her an almost boyish grin. "Race you to the bedroom!"
"Hey, Dad, Mom, Chōji-san, Shikamaru-san."
Naruto looks up from his desk as the former members of Team 10 turn around to find 19-year-old Michio entering the Hokage's office. "Michio," he greets, "can this wait? I'm in a meeting right now." He raises his eyebrows in a manner to indicate that his son should have better manners than walking in just because the Hokage is his father.
Not that he never did the same thing when Tsunade was in charge, but the situation is completely different now, if only because it's being done to him.
Ino seems to recall the same thing, for she puts an end to his posturing immediately by saying, "Like you never barged into meetings with Tsunade all the time. The mission details can wait a minute."
Chōji leans over and whispers, "What about not promoting his bad habits in your kids?"
"I gave up on that a long time ago," she replies. "Some things are just genetic."
Naruto sighs and mutters something along the lines of the Hokage not being as all-powerful or respected as he should be. "So what's up?"
"Uh, well," Michio begins, running a hand through his blonde spikes, "I'm actually here to ask Shikamaru-san something." He turns towards the Nara and continues, "I was…hoping to…get your permission to marry Shika?" The words come out in a rush, the eldest Namikaze child clearly nervous of Shikamaru's response despite knowing the older man since he was a child and being able to take him in a fight.
Shikamaru only manages to stare blankly at the young blonde in return. "What?"
The others in the room have no such issue expressing themselves. At the same time Chōji offers his enthusiastic congratulations (clapping his stunned best friend on the back) and Ino squeals in delight and hugs her son, Naruto releases a wailing, "You can't!"
All attention turns to the blonde Hokage, Ino shooting her husband a threatening look; Michio looks suddenly crestfallen. "And why not?" the Namikaze matriarch growls.
Naruto shrinks back upon himself. "W-well, if Shika gets married, then Shikamaru's gonna retire," he stresses. "And I need him."
"Ignore your father," Ino advises her son after a moment, "he's bad at prioritizing things. Now come with me," she continues gaily, hooking an arm through the crook of his elbow, "we have a wedding to plan." Her voice grows increasingly fainter as she leaves the room and walks down the hallway. "I'm thinking we have it at…"
"Wait!" Naruto calls. "We haven't finished our meeting!"
"YOU CAN FILL ME IN AT HOME!" Ino yells back.
Naruto slumps back into his seat, defeated. Chōji looks between him and Shikamaru, a knowing smile gracing his lips. "Women, huh?" He reaches out and grabs the mission scroll from off the desk. "I'll just take this…you guys've probably got things to talk about."
"…So…" Naruto starts once the Akimichi leaves, "I guess we're gonna be family now…or something." His blue eyes widen piteously and his lower lip begins quivering in a facsimile of a pout. "You're not gonna just abandon a family member in need, are you?"
Shikamaru drags a hand over his face to hide his friend from sight, closing his eyes and massaging the bridge of his nose. She's not even married yet and I already hate my in-laws. How troublesome.
"Welcome to Yamanaka Flo— oh, Ino-san, hello."
Ino smiles. "Izumi-chan. You don't have to be so formal, you know."
The younger girl flushes prettily. "I know. What can I help you with, Ino-san?"
"Just came to visit," assures the blonde. Izumi hums noncommittally and returns to tending a vase of flowers. Ino smiles fondly at the other girl's back; her dedication to the flower shop and all-around geniality are traits which the Namikaze matriarch admires in her daughter-in-law. Jirō is lucky to have found such a woman to settle down with.
As if summoned by her thoughts, the middle Namikaze child thumps down the stairs that lead to the loft, arms laden with a bundle of blankets. Despite his limp, Jirō moves fairly well, enough so that Izumi clearly doesn't worry about him stumbling with their newborn son in his hold. Blue eyes blink at her in surprise; the gesture reminds Ino of a time long ago, when a young Naruto would look at her in that same, confused way.
Damn, she's getting old.
"Mom," Jirō says, finishing his descent down the stairs. He passes his son over to Izumi and walks over to Ino, hugging her and giving her a kiss on the cheek; unlike Michio, who has inherited his father's height, Jirō doesn't have to bend over to accomplish this feat. "What're you doing here?"
"I came to visit Aoki! It's been so long…"
Jirō blinks again. "We only got out of the hospital last week…"
"Really? Feels longer." That sounds like something her mother would say…oh god, is she turning into her mother? That's a terrifying thought. She shakes it from her head and turns a mock-glare on Izumi. "And why are you working? You should be taking it easy, having Jirō wait on you hand and foot!"
Izumi bows her head, allowing brown bangs to obscure equally chocolate eyes. "I wanted to –"
"Mo-om!" Jirō complains, interrupting his wife; Ino notes bemusedly that he's never really outgrown the impetuousness and situational obliviousness he inherited from his father. "I offered, but she wouldn't listen to me!"
"Well, here," Ino says, holding out her arms. Izumi deposits her son in his grandmother's hold, and Ino curls her limbs around him protectively. "Go relax, I've got this. Hello, Aoki," she coos, "how're you?" She rocks him gently back and forth, remembering how it felt to hold her own children in the same manner. "He's as quiet as you were," she tells Jirō softly. Then she sighs in mock-despondency. "I had such high hopes that you wouldn't take after your father…"
"What's wrong with Dad?"
"Nothing, nothing…but let's face it, if you were more like me, you wouldn't have needed my help to get her," she says, gesturing with her head towards Izumi's back.
"…Thanks for the help?" Jirō offers unsurely.
Ino nods in satisfaction. "You're welcome." She's interfered in her child's love life…yep, she's her mother. When did that happen?
The bell above the shop's door chimes, and the Namikaze pair turns to find Naruto standing in the doorway. "I came by to see my grandson," he announces at his family's blank stares.
Ino blanches a little. Somehow, the revelation that she's becoming her mother combined with the word 'grandson' is rather unsettling; she suddenly feels aged beyond her years. "Here he is," she gestures, holding up the bundle of blankets. "Now we're leaving. Here," she continues, handing the child over to Jirō as Izumi walks over, a confused expression on her face.
"But I didn't get to see him!" Naruto protests.
"You'll see him tomorrow," Ino responds, pushing him out the door, "he's not going anywhere. Hana's birthday dinner at the house," she reminds her son and daughter-in-law. "And don't you have work to do?" she asks her husband.
"Not the Hokage," Ino interjects. Now she's bossing her husband, a man of higher status, around…it's the final nail in the coffin that she's turned into Yamanaka Keiko. Heaven help me, she thinks, shoving him down the street.
As the flower shop's door swings shut, she hears Izumi comment, "I hope we're as happy as your parents when we're their age." Ino feels extremely humbled by the compliment, but a stab of pain accompanies it. 'When we're their age'? she repeats to herself.
…Damn I'm old.
Ino leans against the doorframe of her old house, overseeing her father and daughter embroiled in mental training. Given the Yamanaka clan's specialization in mental manipulations, meditation is an important aspect of all the members' training, a point Ino keeps telling her daughter, especially after the fiasco that resulted in befriending Naruto so long ago.
The room they're all in is one meant to dampen all outside sources of noise and influence, the walls inscribed with symbols meant to promote serenity; seals preventing any mental mishaps when using any Yamanaka jutsu – researched and applied by Ino, Inoichi, and Naruto – are placed in the center of each wall, including the floor and ceiling. Hana, now a 14-year-old Chūnin, has begun delving into the more complex secret techniques of the Yamanaka clan in preparation for her eventual takeover as Clan Head.
Ino can't think of anything more suitable than having her only daughter inherit the position that was originally meant for her. Nor does she consider any instructor better for Hana than the one who tutored her so many years ago. Inoichi can teach Hana the things about running the clan that Ino never learned because of her relationship with Naruto.
Naruto frequently says that it's the duty of the next generation to surpass the previous one, and Ino agrees wholeheartedly.
The platinum blonde moves from her position – closing the door silently in her wake – and settles into a lotus position beside the other two occupants; Inoichi opens one eye and closes it immediately, shuffling his seat to create a triangle. Linking telepathically with her father, Ino asks, [How's she doing?]
[Well,] Inoichi replies, and she can tell he's impressed. [She's quite determined, not to mention a quick study. You've trained her well…you should be very proud.]
[So should you. She's your granddaughter, after all.]
[True,] Inoichi concedes, smiling.
[What's she working on?] Ino asks after a moment.
[Why don't you ask her?]
Ino huffs at her father – ignoring his amused mental chuckle – and searches for the mental connection that leads to her daughter. [Hana?] she prods. [How's it going?]
[Huh?] comes the surprised response, before, [Mom?]
[Her sensing could use work,] Ino informs her father dryly.
Inoichi opens up the mental connection so that all three of them can hear each other. [We haven't started that yet,] he responds, [but her progress with telepathy is astounding. We only started today…she has amazing cognitive abilities.]
It's Ino's turn to be surprised. [Really? Hana, that's amazing.] Pride swells in her chest, and in a confident voice, she says, [You definitely get your intelligence from me and not your father.]
Inoichi snorts openly and stands up, breaking off his connection to the two women. Ino senses her connection with her daughter falter for a moment in what she presumes to be embarrassment. [You really think I'm doing good?]
[Absolutely,] Ino assures her.
"We'll call it a day, Hana," Inoichi announces, prompting both women to open their eyes and rise to their feet. "Come by tomorrow and we'll work on perfecting your focus some more."
"'kay. Later, Inoichi-jii-san!"
"Hold up, Hana." The younger girl halts, turning around to face her mother, who beckons her forward. When she's standing before her mother, Ino continues, "I brought something for you." She holds out her hands, in which glimmer a pair of silver stud earrings. "Kenji wanted to give you these himself," she says, referencing Asuma and Kurenai's son, "now that you're a Chūnin, but he's on a mission at the moment, so he gave them to me for safekeeping. They're yours now."
Hana takes the earrings from her mother and stares at them for a moment before replacing the old jewelry she's wearing with the new pair. Delicately placing them in her mother's hand, she whispers, "Thanks, Mom," and hugs her around the middle. After a moment, she lets go and skips out of the house.
Ino's gaze flits from her daughter's back to the silver earrings in her hand, the same pair Asuma had given her so long ago after becoming a Chūnin alongside Chōji. "They grow up so fast, don't they?" she asks her father.
The Yamanaka Clan Head nods. "Faster than you ever think possible. You've raised an amazing daughter, Ino. I couldn't be more proud of either of you."
She smiles at him before trailing Hana back to the Namikaze residence. "Yeah, I know."
"Michio, stay behind please," Naruto requests. "The rest of you are dismissed." The Hokage waits for the other Konoha-nin in the room to leave before leveling his son with an even look. Noticing the younger Namikaze's distress, he heaves a sigh and tries to become less imposing. "Michio," he says gently, "what happened?"
"Ambush," replies the other blonde quietly. "Sora-nin…they…I wasn't expecting to run into trouble… Neji-san saw them right before they got the drop on us, but we were outnumbered, and he…he told us he'd hold them off while we got away! So I took my team and ran, leaving him to…to…"
Naruto decides that now is a better time to act as Michio's father rather than his superior. He walks over to his son and holds him in an embrace he hasn't had to use since Michio was a child. After a long moment, he says, "Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. Sometimes it's our fault, sometimes it isn't –" and Naruto still remembers coming home and finding Ino passed out in a pool of her own blood, "— but all we can do is learn from our mistakes."
He can feel his son nod into his shoulder. Barring the circumstances, Naruto is almost comforted by the fact that Michio – despite his age – is still willing to lean on him for certain things; he was starting to get afraid that his children would start to distance themselves from him as the years dragged on. "Do you think Koji will forgive me?" Michio asks, so quietly Naruto isn't sure he's meant to hear the question.
The older blonde thinks back on his life, trying to come up with a situation to compare his son's to. He comes up horribly blank, and decides that adlibbing has never failed him before. "Neji did what he thought was right," he explains. "He was a true believer in the Will of Fire. Koji's the same way…he'll understand. And he'll probably need his best friend to help him heal."
Michio pulls back; Naruto sees that his son's eyes have a slightly hollow look to them, but there are no tears. "Do you think Tenten-san would let Shika and I name the baby after Neji-san?"
Naruto smiles. "I think she'd like that very much. C'mon, let's go ask."
Tenten takes the news shockingly well when the Namikaze duo reaches the Hyūga compound. The Hokage attributes it to growing up and marrying Neji, who has always been the picture of pragmatism (early beliefs in fate aside). Having a career as a ninja means being aware that you can die at any moment, and on some level, Naruto thinks that Neji and Tenten have both fully prepared for any eventuality. When Michio asks about honoring Neji's memory by naming his unborn child after the fallen Hyūga, Tenten smiles thinly and manages, "It'd be a good way to remember him, wouldn't it?"
Michio returns her shaky smile, then inquires as to Koji's whereabouts. Tenten points him in the right direction and turns back to Naruto when the younger blonde walks out-of-sight; tears are brimming in her eyes, though they've yet to fall. "Are you going to be okay?" he asks.
Tenten shrugs. "Maybe…eventually. Neji always thought that…" she shakes her head. "Well, I think he did what he thought he had to. Rescuing Michio…he always felt he owed you a debt. Maybe he found peace in that. I'll miss him, but I'm just glad for all the time we did have. It'll take a while…"
Naruto hugs her, two friends mourning the loss of someone special. When Tenten sniffles, the blonde whispers, "I'll leave you alone for now. There'll be a ceremony as soon as it can be managed."
He releases Tenten and watches her walk back to her house before departing for the Memorial Stone. His hand reaches out, fingers caressing the spot where Neji's name will eventually be carved. "Thank you, my friend," he murmurs, "for saving my son's life. I hope you find peace and watch over us; you'll be sorely missed."
Only now, confronted by the silence of solitude and the smooth surface of the Memorial Stone, does Naruto cry for Hyūga Neji.
Ino stands patiently beside the altar as Naruto walks their daughter down the aisle. The duty of officiating the ceremony lies with Shikamaru – who is trying his hardest not to look either bored or irritated at being burdened with the responsibility – so the Namikaze patriarch can view Hana's wedding as her father and not the Hokage. She remembers standing in her daughter's place 27 years ago – and has it really been that long? Now she really is old – with a nervous feeling in her belly and only Naruto's bright face serving as a modicum of reassurance.
She observes the male standing in memory-Naruto's place – her soon-to-be son-in-law – with approving baby blue eyes. By sheer happenstance, Hana fell in love with a member of the Yamanaka clan, some far-removed cousin with strawberry blonde hair and cerulean eyes. He's a reserved, if stubborn, boy, a good balance to Hana's headstrong, motivated persona; the fact that marrying him returns succession of the Yamanaka clan to Ino's lineage without any real political hassle is a coincidence that has both Namikaze founders and Inoichi breathing a sigh of relief.
Naruto pretends to dislike him, but Ino knows that he's pleased with the match…as pleased as he can get when handing the protection of his only daughter to someone else.
The blonde is a bit tight-lipped and pensive as he takes his place beside Ino, listening to Shikamaru start the narration of their daughter's wedding. Ino nudges him in an effort to correct his behavior – weddings are supposed to be happy occasions, after all – and he tilts his head slightly, offering her a wan smile that doesn't reassure her.
Only years of training in being able to school her features prevents Ino from frowning outwardly. Naruto has always had a weakness related to protecting those he cares for; letting go of his precious people is something that has always bothered him. Failing to rescue Sasuke and then having to take him out, finding out about Jiraiya's death, watching Tsunade slowly pass away…Naruto considers these his personal failures, no matter that there was nothing he could do
Neji's more recent departure, despite living a full life past a shinobi's typical prime, is just the latest reminder that things are not as within the blonde's control as he would like. In a way, it is perhaps even more poignant because the Hyūga died protecting Michio.
Ino entwines her fingers with her husband's, trying to be a comfort to him. [This is supposed to be a happy occasion,] she chides telepathically.
[I'm happy,] he assures her. Ino gives him the equivalent of a mental glare, an impressive feat considering their communication utilizes no method for facial features to be seen. Apparently her silence is telling enough, for the blonde man concedes, [Okay, maybe happy isn't the right word. But I'm not upset, I'm just…nervous. They're so young…can Taiyō really keep her safe?]
Ino doesn't broadcast the fact that she also thinks the bride and groom are very young to be getting married – when Hana gets an idea into her head, it takes a lot to make her let go – knowing that Naruto's anxiety will only be fed by the admission. Instead, she thinks, [They'll be fine. And if not, they can always look to us for guidance.]
Naruto hums in pensive thought. [I guess you're right –]
[I'm always right.]
From the corner of her eye, she sees his lips twitch. [Of course, how could I forget?]
His crystal blue eyes remain slightly saddened as they watch Hana and Taiyō walk through the proper customs, and Ino knows that there's more to the wedding than he's letting on. Naruto is strong when other people can't be because he considers that his duty, and he doesn't like displaying his weaknesses. Both are aware that she can easily probe his mind to find out what's bothering him, but ever since the Shintenshin mishap that brought them together, Ino tries not to use her clan techniques upon him without permission (barring the one occurrence in the Chūnin Exams, of course). [But?]
Naruto sighs heavily into her mind. [I just don't want to let her go.]
Ino blinks, surprised. Naruto isn't an overbearing father, nor does he play favorites – even if his relationship with the boys is slightly stronger than the one he has with Hana – but she doesn't remember him being this disconcerted when either Michio or Jirō got married.
Then again, she thinks, as their hands unclasp so they can applaud the new couple, Neji was in attendance at the boys' weddings.
And it is then that Ino remembers that Naruto, who started life with so little, takes loss harder than anyone else she knows.
Gaara's death is the proverbial (and literal) nail in the coffin.
Ino doesn't really know how to explain it (because their generation is just reaching 50, and Gaara doesn't exactly leave for missions that put his life at risk), but Sakura theorizes that his premature demise has its roots in Chiyo's unstudied One's Own Life Reincarnation technique. Even as someone who studied the field of medicine, Ino understands only half of what her pink-haired friend says, ratios of chakra transference and lifespan calculations.
Naruto, understandably, takes the news rather hard. That night, after a day of mourning for the departed Kazekage, he rolls over in bed and tells Ino, "I'm going to retire."
Half-asleep, it takes the platinum blonde a moment to register what he's saying. When she does, she sits up and fixes him with an incredulous look. "What?"
The Namikaze patriarch nods to himself, expression pensive. "Yeah…I think it's time. I want to spend time with the people I care about, before…" He sighs, shakes his head, and continues, "Being Hokage interferes with all that."
Ino closes baby blue eyes and massages the bridge of her nose; it's a coping mechanism she's adopted – from Shikamaru, she's sure – to help think through situations before reacting to them. "Naruto," she begins, "it's not your fault that Gaara died." She leaves out the fact that, if it weren't for Chiyo's sacrifice, Gaara wouldn't have lived past 15, and her husband would have most likely had to fight his reincarnated corpse during the Fourth Shinobi World War; the years have taught her to blunt her sometimes tactless comments. "You couldn't do anything for him, or Neji, or Tsunade, Jiraiya, Asuma…it's not your fault," she emphasizes.
"It's not about that," he returns. "It's just…I've lived out my dream. Maybe now it's time to let someone else live out theirs."
She gives it a moment of thought, then guesses, "Konohamaru?"
The blonde nods. "He'll be a good leader. Besides, now I'll get to live out my new dream."
Ino raises an eyebrow but doesn't ask for elaboration. If Naruto means to tell her, he will; subtlety and secrecy are traits her husband is sorely lacking in.
Over the next week, Naruto spends his time in meetings with the Clan Heads, the Council, ANBU Captains, and the other higher-ups within the Hidden Leaf; Konohamaru is privy to all the gatherings so he can understand the position he's filling. Ino sees very little of her husband, but she also understands that the matter of succession is an important one, and that once Konohamaru is instated as the Nanadaime, Naruto will have plenty of free time on his hands, so she doesn't comment.
Konohamaru's coronation ceremony, despite being as full of pomp and circumstance as Naruto's, feels more subdued to Ino, but she attributes it to the occasion personally feeling more like the end of her husband's era than the ushering in of the Sarutobi's.
Her family gathers at their house once the ceremony ends, a rare occurrence considering how hectic Michio's, Shika's, and Hana's schedules are. Jirō sits on the couch with Naruto, the older blonde's lap occupied by Aoki. From her spot in the kitchen, Ino can overhear her husband asking the five-year-old about his education and laughing at the response.
There's a tug on her pants, and Ino looks down into two pairs of eyes, one brown, one baby blue; Neji and Kaiyo are both two years old, Michio's son and Jirō's daughter, respectively. "Ino-baa-san?" asks the latter, and the Namikaze matriarch withholds a grimace at the title – she loves her grandchildren dearly, but her hair looks more silvery than blonde nowadays, and she has always been a bit vain about her appearance and age. "How come Hana-ba-san's so fat?"
There's no helping the snort that escapes her lips; confronted by innocent faces who have yet to experience the…wonders…of pregnancy, the question is both valid and hilarious. She kneels down to put them at approximately eye level and feels her knees pop and crack.
Naruto probably had the right idea with retiring, after all.
"Well," she says, "Hana-ba-san is pregnant, which means that in a little bit, you'll have a new cousin to play with. How's that sound?"
Neji blinks solemn brown eyes at her, his hand clasped tightly with Kaiyo's. "'kay," he says, and Ino wonders how much Michio – or, more likely, Shika – has been teaching him; he's very serious for a two-year-old, reminding the kunoichi of his deceased namesake.
She curls a finger towards them in a beckoning gesture, and both children lean forward, expecting to hear some big secret. "Also," she whispers, "you shouldn't say that she's fat…Yamanakas don't get fat. Don't call anyone else fat, either," she adds, thinking of the Akimichi clan and how the word is taboo around Chōji. "It's bad manners." When the two kids nod, Ino gives them each a small piece of mochi to keep them occupied and then shoos them from the kitchen.
It's hard to believe that Hana is already pregnant, but her marriage is still relatively new, and Ino can still remember being that age and discovering the thrill of sex. At least she's married, she thinks. Michio is the only one of her children to wed late in his life, though she thinks that that was more a function of his active shinobi lifestyle than any lack of interest; she can fondly recall him at the age of 12, complaining about the girl that she bet Naruto he would marry.
With how small the gap is between the generations, Ino thinks that maybe, if she's lucky, she'll live long enough to see great-grandchildren.
Naruto asks the approaching Kaiyo and Neji where they got their treats from, and when they point to Ino, his gaze finds hers. His blue eyes – as crystal-clear as the day they became friends – hold hers, and he shoots her a genuine smile, one that has been remarkably rare since Neji's death.
Surrounded by the people that matter most to him, Naruto appears 30 years younger, and Ino can only hope that he always has a reason to smile so brightly.
Secondary Author's Note: In case anybody is curious, 'Michio' means 'man on the correct path', 'Jirō' means 'second son', 'Hana' means 'flower', 'Aoki' means 'blue tree', 'Kaiyo' means 'forgiveness', 'Izumi' means 'fountain/spring', and 'Taiyō' means 'thick sunlight' (rough translations). I also pulled that line where Ino says Hana gets her intelligence from her from my own mom, who says the same thing to me. Sounded like something Ino would say.