Steal My Thunder God
Chapter IX - The Raising Storm
"You called for a meeting of clans." The accusation lingered in the small room that Naruto had just entered, a secluded meeting place the Third had prepared for their conversations. The old Hokage's voice was as authoritative as ever, brooking no disagreement, and it was just another reminder of how powerful this man could be. "What were you thinking?"
Naruto sighed heavily. "Good morning to you too, Sarutobi-sama," he said with reserved politeness. "I don't suppose you'd buy that I was keeping up my disguise?"
The Third crossed his arms.
"Thought so." Naruto rolled his eyes, leaning back in his chair. "You have to understand that I didn't want to keep you in the dark about this. Trouble is that I can't run each and every little tidbit by you and Jiraiya before making decisions. It's not really how I work. It's not how my dad worked either, come to think of it..."
"That might be the truth," the Third said slowly. "Decisive action is important in many circumstances, but you are playing a very dangerous game that you cannot afford to ruin. Forgetting the rules while in a high-stakes chess match is unwise." His eyes narrowed threateningly as he seemed to loom over Naruto. "Do you wish me to establish your limits, boy? Are you trying to find the line you cannot cross? You must be aware that if you ever do - there will be no chance for reparations."
Those words, too, lingered in the air between them.
"What was your purpose in staying within Uchiha territory?" Sarutobi asked at last, frowning. "You asked for no advice on the matter, and you ignored the very real criticisms that can be laid upon you for such rash actions."
"Eh, I told you I was going to do something about them, right? Uchiha Madara? Obito? Do you think I'm holding back something more than what I've told you?" His eyes twinkled mischievously as he pressed on. "What if I was trying to fix some mistake that would have caused us death and destruction had I told you about it? Is that wrong?"
Sarutobi kept silent, watching Naruto's expression carefully. "Were you?"
"Not directly, no," Naruto admitted, smirking. "You shouldn't act like I'm some loose cannon, though. I'm sharing my information freely, unlike you. Indeed, I'd say you have withheld enough to have the clans ever more curious. I am just running damage control."
"The Hokage has to keep secrets," Sarutobi said matter-of-factly. "There is time for sharing, but there are also issues that should never leave the Hokage's protection. You should know that - your fool's gamble is one of the latter secrets. There might be a day when we should tell the village all about this attack and its participants, but that day is not today. Not while the village roils and whispers still."
Naruto's lips twitched, but he didn't speak, waiting until Sarutobi finished.
"You went ahead without approval, promising the clans answers that you should not be giving. Shikaku implied that you have a firm opinion on the matters at hand, but he does not know the truth of your ignorance. And you faced him on Uchiha territory, doubtlessly watched by many hidden eyes. Am I not to believe that you would reveal everything at the first opportunity that presents itself? Are you preparing a speech already?"
"You're exaggerating," Naruto muttered. "I wouldn't say everything, obviously. I'm no good at speeches, either - not ones I prepare, anyway. Improvisation is more my style," he pointed out brashly. "Answering some questions will calm things down some, and then I will tell them about Obito. That issue cannot be forgotten."
"I see no reason for you to go that far." Sarutobi sighed. "Why do you think this... embarrassing fact is of such immediate importance?"
"Yeah, because not embarrassing a clan or two is more important than catching someone who would destroy the village and kill a Hokage." Naruto ruffled his hair, unused to having it so long. "Fine, then. I won't mention the true names of our opponents if that's what you want. But I know who my father fought that night, and I can guess at the abilities Obito revealed. I will talk about that, so that the hunt can get started. The hunt for the masked man."
"We have an opportunity to find him, weakened and disheartened by the fight with my father." Naruto pressed on. "I am healed, and maybe he is too... Yet there's some reason for his longer absence, surely. It took him all of my childhood to finally garner enough support and followers for further plans. If we move now, we can catch him with his hands tied."
"With what resources? Who would you send? In this state, starting to chase at shadows - you would weaken Konoha ever more." Sarutobi tapped his foot on the ground, once, betraying ever more annoyance. "This half-truth would earn you nothing. And don't think about using Jiraiya - he's to stay with you for the time being, not go back to traversing the country."
"I wouldn't dream of depriving Ero-Sannin form the privilege of being my companion," Naruto grinned, and took out a crumpled piece of parchment from his robes. "I'm going to go after Obito and Madara myself."
"What?" Sarutobi froze in spot. "If you think that I'll allow you-"
"Here," Naruto leaned forward and all but pushed the piece of paper into the man's grasp. "We need to answer a certain challenge anyway. Read it. Sending anyone else would not do, since I, that is to say, Minato has personal business outside Konoha."
The Third frowned as he unfurled the paper.
Naruto licked his lips as the Third read the short note.
"What madness in this?" Hiruzen turned back to Naruto with his eyebrows raised. "All missives should have gone through me or Jiraiya first."
"ANBU are doing their duty, that is all." Naruto shrugged. "Don't change the subject, Ojii-san."
"Minato," Sarutobi read out loud, as if hoping the words would miraculously change when he voiced them. "Word is you got injured in a fight and got weak. If you are still strong enough to give me a challenge, come and meet me at the Land of Rice Fields. Don't take too long, or we're claiming the land for ourselves. A."
"See." Naruto smiled. "He just wants a small challenge. I heard rumors how A liked to fight my father, and this proves it to me - surely you already knew? If I stray to the side, grabbing Obito along the way, no one would notice. Especially if we make a show out of how responding to A is important." He clicked his tongue. "I will take Jiraiya, so he could stay with me. Perhaps..."
Sarutobi raised up his eyes once more, to face Naruto head on. His eyebrows were raised.
"We should convince Orochimaru to come as well," Naruto admitted with a small frown. "Not that it would be a problem - I think he knows the lands like a local. Doesn't he have a personal stake in their well being too?" I don't want to keep him too far out of sight, remained unsaid. After all, it was in the Land of Rice Fields that Orochimaru established the Village of Sound. "If we accidentally bump into Tsunade along the way, that would be a march of legends, don't you think?"
"What?" Sarutobi repeated his earlier question as he slammed the crumpled missive on the table. "You want to go to war? Over the Land or Rice Fields? Even if we could spare to send both Jiraiya and Orochimaru, I don't believe their land truly needs our interference. "
"War? Don't be silly," Naruto pointed out, tapping his chin. "I'm sure it won't come to that." He shrugged. "Well, A's not going to let me off without a light spar, but it has been a while since the last one. It will be a while? This time travel thing is so confusing sometimes."
"You fought A?" Sarutobi blinked twice and then his expression steeled back to the annoyed mask once more. "I should not be surprised by your claims anymore - after all, you were the jinchuuriki of Konoha. The fact that you believe you could win against A isn't relevant here. I think we should let them waste resources trying to keep the Land of Rice fields, and move in only after we determine that the land itself is their goal. We still have more than enough time to decide on this issue."
"Of course the land is not the point here," Naruto took a few nervous steps and scrunched his forehead in annoyance. "Yet another test - is it not, old man? The lands and their governing is the business of a Daimyo, not of the Kage. At the same time, I know the Land of Rice is more valuable than it appears outwardly, and if Raikage gains influence there, the Land of Lightning's Daimyo would soon follow."
Naruto paused. Before Orochimaru's takeover, Otogakure was called the Land of Rice. Orochimaru was a resourceful, genius shinobi - meaning his choice for a base of operation was measured. Thus, the land of Rice must have had more worth than Naruto initially assigned to it. What was known, and what could be inferred? Perhaps...
"Land of Rice isn't something we can ignore, hoping it improves on its own. Isn't it constantly ravaged by the infighting of the local shinobi? Yet, if someone were to gain the allegiance of their shinobi, to play into the good graces of their Daimyo - controlling the whole country would be a huge boost in power," Naruto said, thoughtful. "Isn't that one of Orochimaru's assignments?" he hazarded a guess. "To look for an opportune moment for Konoha to step in? To keep other interested parties at bay, by presence alone?"
Sarutobi grunted something in what could have been either agreement or dismissal, but Naruto chose to believe it was the former.
"Before the attack - or even after - Konoha had enough strength to bring order to the Land of Rice, but we did not want to look threatening to the other villages by forcing change - not when the Fourth had just achieved a measure of peace. Wasn't this why my father did not authorise Orochimaru to take a more aggressive role?" he asked, looking at the Third for confirmation.
"You believe something has changed to warrant an aggressive move?"
"I'm sure of it, now," Naruto said with unshakable conviction in his voice. "You must have authorised Orochimaru - in the version of my past - to take action as he saw fit. To sacrifice some of our relations for an increase in Konoha's power. It was exactly what Konoha needed at the time - to appear stronger than we truly were. With my father gone..."
Naruto touched at the hem of his cloak. "A wouldn't have called for a direct confrontation this soon. If nothing else, he seeks worthy challenges, and a weakened Konoha can be harassed in simpler ways. Thus - sending Orochimaru just after the Kyuubi's attack proved a brilliant move in my past, taking the Land of Rice uncontested. By the time other villages realised our aims it was already over, and Konoha was supposedly standing nearly as strong as before the Bijuu attack."
Even if it ended up with the creation of Otogakure, and not in a direct benefit for Konoha, it must have proved both a deterrent and an insult to the other Kage. Naruto sighed. Could that have been yet another cause of the Hyuuga mess, years later? His head already hurt trying to get all the loose threads tie correctly. And he had to keep looking underneath the underneath. "Was this what you wanted to test me on, again?"
"I admit to having some thoughts to that regard," said Sarutobi as he took a step back. "It is completely irrelevant, now that Raikage himself is on the move. We cannot repeat your past this simply. Sending either Orochimaru alone, or together with Jiraiya and yourself would be a pointless risk of our resources for little to no benefit."
"We're talking around the issue." Naruto interjected. "Forget about the supposed reasons for my participation. Forget the Land of Rice. We should be talking about Madara and Obito. These are the two names we must worry about. While Madara isn't directly dangerous - not yet, at least - you need to only give him and Obito free reign, and you'll see the trouble he can cause. Even if we have to weaken Konoha to find them, it'll be worth it."
"Weakening Konoha by taking both of the Sannin and depriving the village of a man who people believe to be Minato? What are your talks about keeping the best of Konoha's interests in mind, then, if not empty air?" Sarutobi said, pushing back. "You would close your mind to the dangers inside our walls, to the pressing matters of the Uchiha - and go on to chase shadows? You admitted not knowing where to look. Don't you think this looks ever more suspicious, from my position?"
"Wait. Wait." Naruto raised his hands. "What pressing matters of the Uchiha?"
"I'm surprised you do not know," Sarutobi. "The Kyuubi was controlled by the sharingan-"
"I know that," Naruto said, interjecting. "It was Obito. I told you that."
"Listen, boy," the Third said and his eyebrows furrowed. "We found a weak chakra trace, leading from the Uchiha district. Even if it was Obito, he had to have had help inside the compound."
"Or it could be anything else. The Kyuubi's chakra had washed over the village - how can you know that the trace even is there? Who came up with this nonsense?"
"I find it telling that you want to ignore the evidence before hearing a full story." Sarutobi looked disappointed as he took a few steps towards the nearest desk, upon which a couple of scrolls were placed. "Read the Hyuuga report, then start complaining." He grabbed the relevant scroll and offered it.
Naruto sighed, and summoned a clone at the same time as he took the report from the Third. Then, with a quick match of Rock-Paper-Scissors, one of the two plopped down on the ground and started reading.
The other turned back to Sarutobi.
"Even if what you say is true," he began. "Obito might have left it deliberately."
"Tell me which is more likely," Sarutobi was watching the Naruto with a scroll while he spoke. "That some enemy went through the protected clan compound without being noticed, or that our opposition has a safehouse and someone he can trust between our ranks?"
"Obito has his space-time trick to cheat detection," the standing Naruto tapped his chin. "He also has the help of Uchiha Madara - who was there when Konoha was built... Even discounting that, Obito lived here as a child." He shook his head. "No, I do not think that missing his entrance or leaving means anything at all. He didn't need any inside help."
"At the same time, the Uchiha clan remain diligent in their watch," Sarutobi pointed out. "Either way - a weakness exists - be it structural or personal, there is a problem at the Uchiha district."
"Hmm." Naruto interjected from the floor. "This is fairly interesting." Then, he stood up dispelling the standing clone, returning the scroll to Sarutobi.
"Read it all this fast?"
"No," Naruto shrugged. "It's dry and mindnumbing. The one who wrote it was a professional, but it's been a long while since I saw a report this dispassionate; I could barely wade through the important bits. There might be a point to checking a few things out, but I don't see any reason to cry treason. Not yet."
Unless the report was biased. Naruto's thoughts turned to Sai - cold and professional, similar to the tone of this dead scroll. There was no reason to assume that the report was rigged by a Root operative, since it was supposedly written by one of the Hyuuga clan.
Which also was an entirely plausible suspect for a rigged report.
"Does that mean you agree with being more careful with the Uchiha?" Hiruzen asked after Naruto had been silent for a few seconds.
"Well - no." Naruto gave a sheepish grin. "I figure I would ask Fugaku on his opinion, and we could check a select few locations by his recommendation. I think there are a few places that are really hard to find without the Sha..." Naruto didn't finish the sentence, frozen in a sudden thought, as he switched the direction. "I am not sure, but I think I heard something about needing ever more advanced Sharingan to find all of the secrets of the Uchiha District. Do we even have any Uchiha in Konoha who match Obito's version?"
"Are you even listening to yourself?" Sarutobi said, calmer than the words suggested.
"I don't think Kakashi counts," Naruto muttered under his breath, and added, louder. "You don't like the part where I want to ask Fugaku's opinion?"
"No. I do not," Sarutobi said. "I think it insane. Infuriating, even - the way you keep stepping onto my trust to act however strikes your fancy - that must stop. You keep making deals behind my back - like what you did with the Uchiha and with the meeting of the clans. This cannot stand."
Naruto didn't get to say anything, since Sarutobi raised a hand before he could speak. "Wait, I'm not finished yet."
Naruto grumbled under his breath.
"We are fixing this mess, now. You will cancel the meeting you called," Hiruzen continued. "We will think of a good reason to delay it for a couple of days. For example, we can make use of the letter from the Raikage - I recall Shikaku implying something about the scroll - so he must have either been there when it arrived, or at least seen it's deliverance to you. We can call it an important missive to consider it carefully before needing the full attention of everyone - which it is.
"Next, we will be conducting a thorough examination of the evidence, including you reading the report in full. Then, we hold a smaller conference, including Danzou, Jiraiya-"
"No." Naruto crossed his arms, mirroring the pose the Third held for the majority of their conversation. "We won't. I'm not stepping back on my word."
"Explain," Sarutobi said, and Naruto could taste the man's killing intent rising.
"You're too invested," Naruto said slowly. "Too close to the issue."
"I'm not Minato," he said, once again stopping Sarutobi. "I have my share of attachments here, but you can't deny my unique outlook."
"That's exactly why you have to listen to reason. Minato would have listened to my counsel."
"My father would have done as he thought best, and you would have let him have his way, since you were the Hokage no longer," Naruto said, and even as a part of him hated coming to verbal blows with the Ojii-san, he had already decided how he would proceed, and nothing short of a catastrophe would change his determination. "When Jiraiya made his move and you gave consent - I was to give you Minato. I will give you Minato. Not a drop less."
"You're stepping on the line." Sarutobi glowered. "What if I order to capture you, right here, right now? What if I helped the ANBU to carry out the order?"
"It would cause a war." Naruto sighed. "Even if I agreed to go quietly - Minato cannot simply disappear, not anymore. The clans would ask questions, and not answering them might not be enough. Jiraiya must have talked to you about this - the rumors have grown out of control. How do you think we got the letter from the Raikage?"
Naruto gestured vaguely at the table, before continuing. "We have to get out of this mess, and we have to do it with our current plan. The cards are dealt, and we only have to use them right."
"Yet you insist on betting all on an insane gamble!"
"I'm very good at cards," Naruto pointed out. "Yet we're getting nowhere with this conversation."
"That is only because you insist on taking the worst possible approach."
There was a long pause as silence reigned in the room,
"For now," Naruto finally broke the silence. "Let's agree to disagree. Give me a chance to prove I'm right."
Sarutobi did not look one bit convinced.
"Let's look at this from another angle," Naruto said as he scratched the back of his neck. There was a light bandage there, but otherwise... "I am very nearly at my best." Except he had no access to Kurama now. Which meant that in truth, the gap between his current abilities and his best was a huge chasm of chakra reserves. "We could play the slow game - and try to outplay all others - or you could use the best resource you have."
"Modest, are we?" Sarutobi raised an eyebrow.
In response, Naruto flashed into full Sage Mode, showing off his toad-like eyes for a couple of seconds before returning to normal. "I may no longer have a near infinite source of chakra in the form of Kurama, but I doubt there are many who could be my equal."
This time, it took two whole seconds for the Third to regain his composure. "No one is unbeatable."
"Which is why I do not want to face neither you nor Jiraiya." Naruto pointed out, and tapped his father's kunai which was at his side. "Remember, I can always retreat." It wasn't strictly true, since Naruto had already fallen into his habit of always having a spare clone or two running at all the times. Even then, dispelling those in time wouldn't take too much of an edge off his father's technique.
"What are you saying?"
"Make use of me." Naruto said. "Don't keep me here, only playing an act, not when I could simply get out and solve our problems, like my father could. Stop keeping me away from my duty to Konoha."
"Fine." Hiruzen to a step to the table, and crumpled the note from the Raikage, and tossed it back to Naruto. "Go on, ruin the meeting of the Clans. If you think you're ready to face the scrutiny of them all, if you believe your disguise will hold.
"And if a miracle happens and they believe you are Minato - I will see how you convince them to stay at Konoha while you take care of things for them."
"Go." The Third turned away from Naruto. "Remember what I told you. Further debate is pointless - you won't listen. We will talk when you fail."
The door closed behind him with a droplet of chakra - but the fact that Hiruzen actually bothered to do so, spoke volumes about his displeasure.
Naruto sighed, and then took a couple of steps away - just enough to go around the corner and out of direct line of sight of the ANBU guard. Then, he leaned backwards, placing his back at the sturdy wooden walls of the building, and in a quick move slammed his head backwards at the wall.
It stung, but only a little. There were a few details he didn't have a chance to mention, and the Third would surely get even more annoyed about the little secrets, later on.
Beside the politics - there was yet another important issue he hoped to get advice on - namely, the little Naruto. "Better to ask forgiveness than permission," Naruto muttered under his breath, as he summoned a single clone with but a thought.
The later dismissed himself instantly, disappearing without even a puff of smoke - as if he had never been. It was the quickest way of sending original's thoughts to the few clones he had running around since early morning. Soon, a report of all clear came back from the clone watching over the toddler, and Naruto leaned back to slump against the wall once more.
At least the day was going just as he planned - except for Sarutobi's attitude.
"Should I head back, and try again?" Naruto tasted the idea on his tongue, debating with himself. "This mess is giving me a headache," he muttered under his breath.
"Tough morning?" Came a voice from the corridor, belonging to yet another Sarutobi he knew. Junichi. Clad in the ANBU grab, Rat was peering curiously at Naruto from the other side of the mask. "I meant - permission to speak my mind - Hokage-sama?"
Naruto slammed his head into the wall once more, at the same time showing a quick sign of permission with his free hand.
"Perhaps I should leave the Third alone, for now?" Junichi asked with a note of sarcasm at his voice. Naruto could hear the word father echoing somewhere under the weak pretense of the ANBU neutrality. "I'm guessing things are not going too well, but - well - you're taking the open approach this time, and I can't help but feel like we're going to pull through."
"Thank you for the vote of confidence," Naruto shrugged it off. "What brings you here, though? I hope it's not another urgent missive."
"Not this time," the Rat looked around, and reached for his mask. "In fact, I was planning to make this a personal visit - meeting you underway threw me off for a bit."
Naruto raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
Content that there was no one watching, Junichi quickly took off the mask, sealing it in a scroll - with the same move applying a small henge to his uniform - making the transition from ANBU to a simple Jounin smooth and simple.
"Asuma has returned from his mission," Junichi said as he gave Naruto a half-hearted smile. "I wanted to tell father - but these news can surely wait a while more."
"Anything unusual about it?" Naruto asked, trying to remember just how the Sarutobi family functioned this long ago - there had been some kind of disagreement, wasn't there? "He's not going to come here himself?"
"He did all the formalities required, and they do not call for a personal visit to the Hokage." Junichi shrugged, slightly put off by the question. "Asuma's earlier than he should have been, but it makes sense. Most of our shinobi with outside assignments have already heard about Konoha's situation and are rushing to get back as soon as possible if they haven't already. My brother's hardly an exception there."
Naruto considered it.
"Want to talk about it?" Junichi asked unexpectedly. "When Asuma irritates father too much, he likes to rant out to me. Of course, you can skip all the secrets."
"Wait, which is it - the third complains to you about your brother?" Naruto asked. "..or Asuma complains to you about your father?
"Both, actually," Junichi sighed. "The privilege of being a first-born Sarutobi. So?" He gestured for the further corridor. "I'll wait till my father cools off."
"I heard the doors close, and only that. The old man only does that with Asuma these days," the man grinned at some memory. "That's why I decided to do - well - this. You could say I want to know what else irritates my father."
"I'm not sure how much I can say - I'm sure you understand that." Naruto thought about it for a moment. "There's things to do, as well."
"Maybe we could chat over a quick snack?" Junichi suggested casually. "Ramen, perhaps?"
"Yeah." Naruto licked his lips. "We can do that."
With these words they finally left the maze of the current administratorial building, and Naruto showed a couple of signs for the nearest guard ANBU to send Jiraiya his way and motioned for Junichi. "I have much to do today, and little time. Do try and keep up."
They dashed through a quarter of Konoha via the Shunshin no Jutsu, arriving at Ichiraku's in but a short minute.
"Hokage-sama," were the first words that met Naruto as he puffed close to the stand, and he realised he had been played. The Ichiraku's was a busy place, after all, and that might have been what Junichi was after.
Since his night appearance and subsequent departure to the Uchiha district, he was yet to appear in the streets, walking in the guise of Minato. Doubtlessly, Junichi knew that - and like he had pointed out on their previous meeting, he was hoping to see Minato in the streets soon.
"Good day," Naruto said in a loud greeting - with a half smile at his lips, he was suddenly not completely sure of himself, as the onlookers rushed to return the greeting - most of the civilians bowing their heads with great reverence.
Inside, Naruto grumbled - the jounin had played him, forcing him into a more public place sooner than Naruto planned - still, he could take this loss gracefully. He turned to Junichi who was but half a second behind. "You said I should walk the streets more, didn't you?" he added a quick, hushed question. He did not expect an answer, and Junichi only scratched at his own shoulder, giving off but an innocent smile.
"This is not an official visit," Naruto assured everyone present, louder. "My good friend here," he motioned at the Sarutobi accompanying him. "Has simply promised to buy me a bowl of ramen."
Teuchi - one of the first to realise that a bowl of ramen referred to this very ramen stand, blinked in surprise. "Hokage-sama, you of all people shouldn't have to pay-" he started frantically gesturing with his arms, as if that would make the dangerous idea of charging the Hokage go away.
"Oh no, none of that," Naruto said as he raised his hand, stopping the over eager young-Teuchi before he gave the accompanying Sarutobi a way out. "Junichi is going to pay the full price." He leaned slightly forward. "Give me the biggest bowl of the most expensive ramen you have."
"Hey," Junichi protested weakly, yet reached for his wallet. "I suppose that's a fair deal."
Naruto ignored him, and plopped on the nearest empty seat. "Carry on," he announced to the surrounding people. "I do not have time for a lengthy questioning, but things have not changed much since I last spoke in public." He took another look around himself, nothing more than a couple of curious onlookers. "As you can see, my health's improved," he pointed out half-jokingly. "There's still a lot of things on my mind - and many issues in Konoha for me to tackle, so you have to excuse me for sparing only this much. So please, the answers will come in due time."
Surprisingly enough - that was what it took to get most of the attention away from him. Not that people stopped throwing him looks, or having conversations about him - but at least they kept some measure of distance.
"The answers will come in due time," Naruto echoed himself in a whisper. "It's not the same, is it?"
"What's the same?" Junichi asked, curious.
"It's kind of what the disagreement was about." Naruto admitted as he tapped his fingers on the stall, impatient. "Who to share the intelligence with, and who to keep in the dark." He kept the Hiruzen's name out of the conversation - trying to keep it vague enough for the bystanders. Junichi would doubtlessly keep to this unsaid agreement as well.
Their public place for the discussion was as good as any street of Konoha, but it still meant they had to watch their words. After all, it was a ninja village. A couple of ANBU were overwatching the conversation at the edge of hearing, same as a single Uchiha police member. All three tried to look inconspicuous.
"Secrets are always complicated," the Jounin grunted in agreement. "Perhaps the most difficult choice the Hokage faces."
"There must be a way to solve everything," Naruto said. "I just have to figure it out. There are things that I know would be wrong to spread, but there are also..." he didn't finish.
"Even if you disagree on the details," Junichi finally relaxed enough to sit down. "You're both keeping our best interest in mind."
"I hope so." Naruto leaned slightly backwards, and licked his lips. "I sure hope so."
His father's white cloak fluttered about with the move, hanging free off the seat with no backrest in the way.
Junichi gave Naruto a long look. "Whatever happens, you are the Hokage, and the decision is yours to make. Not anyone else's, whatever they might think."
He was planning to say something else, but stopped when Teuchi finally brought a bowl of ramen to place before Naruto.
"Thank you," Naruto said as he took the bowl, and took in the wonderful smell of his favourite food. "Junichi, please pay for it, before Teuchi forgets to take what you owe him."
The Jounin sighed and placed a few notes on the counter, just as Naruto began to inhale his early supper. He took care to take breaths of air between mouthfulls of ramen, but otherwise the speed he ate as was impressive.
And Teuchi didn't even use the biggest bowl. Naruto paused mid-gulp, and thought over calling the man on it. But that might have been wrong - didn't Teuchi start offering a bigger serving only later on? He shrugged and returned to his food.
Both Teuchi and Junichi appeared slightly puzzled, so Naruto decided to play it safer. "Not much time," he offered as an explanation for his bad eating habits. That was enough.
After running through a large bowl in but a couple of minutes Naruto finished it, and let the bowl rattle on the counter as he retreated, leaning back and rubbing his stomach. He had missed the taste of Ichiraku's ramen - and even if Teuchi's most expensive choice wouldn't have been his first - ordering anything else wouldn't have been a lesson good enough for Junichi.
"Ah," Naruto said, in a tone that was only half-joking at best. "Maybe I should go for another, don't you think, Sarutobi-san?"
The Jounin fidgeted - Naruto hadn't chosen the most expensive item for nothing. "I- I'd have to pay for it later," he replied looking at Teuchi. "Could I?"
It was not that Sarutobi family would feel the impact of a couple bowls of ramen - Naruto remembered that the Third brought him more than a few bowls of the very same dish in a single day - the problem was that Junichi, having been on duty as ANBU wasn't supposed to carry any personal items, nor more money than a couple simple meals could require.
Which, in fact, was the whole point of his harmless joke.
"Nevermind," Naruto said and Junichi sighed in relief. "I changed my mind."
"Your wife's been rubbing off on you, Hokage-sama." Teuchi showed a polite, innocent smile, and Naruto felt his chest go numb. "When is my number one customer coming back? Last I heard of her she was to go on a long term mission, a couple months back?"
Teuchi didn't know Kushina was dead! Naruto realised - and any pretence at a good mood broke down. Had he allowed himself to relax too much? Was he stepping over his mother's memory, again?
The sudden wave of whispers in the crowd confirmed that barely anyone realised that Kushina was no more - even if Naruto's clone had seen her name on the stone. Such was the extent of loss in Konoha, that people didn't really have time to look for those gone beyond their closest kin and friends.
"She isn't coming back," Naruto said, pushing a lot of his father's grief into the words, whilst tearing open an old wound in his heart so that it would be ever more believable. He didn't have to try hard. "I-" he choked on his next word, and changed his mind. He turned to his companion, instead of facing Teuchi, who was frozen at his unintentional faux-pas. "Thank you for the meal, Junichi-san - and the talk, even if we didn't finish it."
As Naruto looked around he saw many of the onlookers frozen, staring without any pretense - yet most looked to be sorry for having broken his mood, even though it hadn't been their fault.
"Don't apologise, Teuchi-san, please," he added in the silence that had followed their previous exchange, before the man even tried to. "You did not know."
No one moved.
Naruto slowly stood up. "Everyone has lost somebody dear to them in the attack," he addressed the people around him. "Please, do not treat me any different for the choice of my hat, or the cut of my clothes."
His lame joke fell flat on its face. "Whatever your loss," he continued, regardless. "Whatever your pain, remember that life goes on. Never let your pain or loss control you."
He paused. A few onlookers nodded in agreement.
"There's not much else," Naruto offered. "Konoha will be rebuilt - same as our wounds will close in time." He turned sharply, and noted a certain silver haired shinobi in the surrounding crowd - watching him back. "For now, take joy in those who lived to see another day."
And that was it. Sounds - and whispers - returned. "Later," Naruto gestured for Junichi, who remained seated throughout Naruto's second impromptu-speech for the people of Konoha. Then, he took off in a easy stroll, motioning for his new focus - his teenager sensei.
"Yo, Kakashi," Naruto almost chose a more formal greeting, but decided that familiarity wouldn't hurt. Even if his former sensei was standing in full uniform, his perverted literature nowhere in sight. The young jounin also looked like he had been running here just after some strenuous task - there was a more substantial air of tiredness around him. "Walk with me, if you're free."
He could feel the smile under Kakashi's mask - a smile that was hesitant, since only moments ago they had been talking about loss - and Kakashi obviously did not want to appear too happy, however much satisfaction a supposed revival of Minato's well being brought him.
"How are you holding up?" Naruto sped up the pace a bit. "Better, I hope?"
"Good," Kakashi said simply. "Thanks, sensei."
"I didn't do anything," Naruto said, as he tried to remember if he was taking the right path. "But you're welcome."
Kakashi fidgeted. "What about you, sensei?"
There was a pause. Neither of the two spoke for a while, taking the narrow path of the streets, rather than the rooftops. Kakashi was walking half a step forward, watchful - and Naruto dragged slightly behind, both of them shadowed by a couple of ANBU, who had been following them since Ichiraku's.
There were not many walking out in the streets, but by the sounds of it, the village was wide awake. Sometimes they passed a makeshift team of academy students helping to tidy up. Most would stop to gape at him as he passed, with the cloak fluttering lazily, a silver haired Jounin at his side.
The streets looked a bit more tidy, and the smell of decay and burning wood had receded somewhat. There was a lot of work to be done, but the worst was over.
As for Kakashi, Naruto's thoughts focused on this younger version of his sensei - Kakashi looked to be taking it all in stride. Disheartened, perhaps, and concerned over Minato, but otherwise looking a lot better than before. It still weirded him out, to have his future sensei be the younger one of the both of them, but Naruto figured he could get used to it eventually.
Another weird thing was the absence of Kakashi's signature literature. Didn't this mean that the young Jounin was entirely focused on Naruto as well - observing and completely focused?
Had they been in a private setting Naruto had no doubt Kakashi would have said something - now, they could only take comfort in silence. Naruto scratched at his chin. Perhaps that was precisely it - same as Kakashi-sensei could be a calming influence just by being nearby, the presence of Minato-sensei for this Kakashi proved a pillar in a difficult time.
It was Kakashi and Iruka who offered him comforting words at the Thirds funeral - and now it would fall on to him to honor the Fourth's legacy - even if it wasn't the way he expected to. Naruto smiled faintly to himself.
How things have changed.
"I've seen enough," Naruto said quietly, breaking Kakashi out of the silence. "The state of Konoha's not what it could be yet, but progress is visible. Let's head to the rooftops - it will be faster."
"I helped," Kakashi pointed out, as they jumped on the nearest roof remaining side by side. "To clear out the streets."
"Not by choice, did you?" Naruto adopted a slightly patronising tone. "Jiraiya made you do it."
Kakashi shrugged, as if trying to say that there was no real difference.
"Talking about Jiraiya," Naruto said and took a look around himself. He had chosen a slower pace, hoping the man would catch up. "He's usually more punctual, unless..." He turned to Kakashi. "Do you know if any of the bathhouses are finally open?"
"I think I know one that is." Kakashi peered at his supposed teacher. "Why?"
"Jiraiya." Naruto sighed, as if the name explained everything. Knowing Jiraiya, it probably did. "Which bathhouse are you talking about?"
"I forgot the name," Kakashi replied boredly. "It's just a couple of blocks that way."
"Good." Naruto nodded, and took of in a faster pace, jumping the rooftops faster, forcing Kakashi to up his pace as well.
Moments later, he stood at the edge of large roof, his shadow towering over a certain perverted shinobi.
"Having fun, Ero-Sannin?" he asked loudly, and the man in question jolted, surprised. "Is someone forgetting something?"
Jiraiya had the gall to look insulted. "Aren't you the one who stole a Jounin away his important mission? I remember ordering your kid to be useful."
"Moving trash is hardly important," Kakashi grumbled. "Gai stepped in to replace me for a while. It's been a day, too."
"So." The white haired Sannin pointed with his finger accusingly. "You admit to knowing where Gai is?"
"You are no longer looking for him, why do you care?" Naruto interjected. "Don't play games, sensei, we caught you red handed."
"So I spent a couple of minutes watching... the sights," Jiraiya admitted. "Strictly for research, too. No one was harmed by it. Why do you care?" He paused, giving Naruto a longer look. "What's with the getup?"
Naruto blinked, puzzled, and looked over himself - there was nothing wrong he could see - but he realised the reason of the question all the same. He had not had any time nor inclination to find another set of his father's clothes - so he simply donned the father's cloak over the clothes he borrowed from Mikoto.
It was similar enough not to make people question it, but when the wind blew just right, his cloak would shift, revealing an Uchiha clan fan. Any skilled shinobi would surely notice that - and in retrospective, it might have been another reason why the Third was in a bad mood, even if the man didn't call him out on it.
"Don't know where the rest of my things are yet," he said a half-truth. "I'll change before the meeting of the clans. Stop switching the subject. I was looking for you."
Jiraiya gave him a look - I know you did this on purpose. "Alright," he said instead. "You found me. What now?"
"I need to talk to you, sensei - I'll need advice on this evening's meeting," Naruto said and gave short a sideways glance to Kakashi. "'I'd like both of you present when I visit Ibiki's lair, too, which is where we'll be heading in a minute."
"You know I don't like Ibiki," Kakashi grumbled as he took out one of his books. "I changed my mind - I think there are a few errands I could run. You could easily visit Ibiki alone." He didn't make a move to leave, though, not yet - only opened the little book somewhere in the middle and started reading. Or, pretending to.
Jiraiya looked surprised. "What are you playing at, Minato?"
"I just thought Kakashi's insight could work to our advantage."
"My insight?" Kakashi frowned over his book. Jiraiya didn't look convinced, either.
"I'll tell you the details when we're with the Intelligence division. But yes, Kakashi - your help would be valuable, due to a circumstance that I don't want to broach near the bathhouse, of all places." Naruto purposefully turned slightly away from Jiraiya.
"Hey," the Sannin protested. "You really want to bring the kid?" Do you plan to mention Obito? was a question Naruto heard in his mind.
"Why do you think I asked him to come with me?" Naruto said. "He's not just a child, either, he's an important Jounin of Konoha." He paused, looking at the single eye of his former teacher. "Kakashi, I could order you to come, but it's more important that you choose for yourself. It's not going to be pleasant, the thing I plan to ask from you, and if you refuse, it wouldn't cost me much."
Kakashi closed his little book, and it disappeared into his uniform. "I can handle-"
"Wait." Naruto raised his hand. "It will hurt you - perhaps as much as losing Rin already did." Perhaps, as much as losing Minato must have hurt you.
Jiraiya looked on curiously, but offered no comments.
"This isn't an opportunity I'm offering, but rather another challenge," Naruto said. "It might even be dangerous to your health - I am not an expert in the matter, even as I have a gut feeling it should work." He paused. "It might not, and the whole thing will prove an unnecessary risk. So, what do you think now, that you know it's not as simple as wanting to help?"
Kakashi considered it for a short while. Even though Naruto saw determination light up in his eye quite early on, the Jounin did a token effort of appearing to be thoughtful for a longer while. Then, he blinked a few times, and straightened himself up. "I can handle a challenge."
"Good." Naruto gestured to follow him. "We needed to be with the Intelligence division a few minutes ago, already."
"You set up a time for the meeting?" Jiraiya asked, as they started a short trek on the rooftops. "Shikaku did not say anything about a set time."
"I got the idea over breakfast." Naruto shrugged. "I didn't send anyone else to you, since I believed you wouldn't slack off and actually meet me after I finished my talk with the Third. Yet you decided to sneak off to the bathhouse instead."
"Hey, hey - you're the one who decided to have a quick snack, instead of finding me - and yes, I heard about it already. Next time, tell me it's important," Jiraiya said, as the three of the them cleared yet another rooftop.
"I knew that news of my snack would spread like wildfire, and every shinobi would soon know," Naruto admitted. "I was hoping Kakashi would get curious when he heard about it - and he did show up. It's what I'd have done, had I heard of my injured Sensei walking in public again."
Kakashi gave Naruto an evaluating look. There was a hint of a smirk under the mask, as if Naruto had conformed to the expected behaviour.
"Why the hurry, though? It's not like Inoichi and Ibiki can't work without supervision?" Jiraiya asked another question as they finally reached their destination. The entrance was guarded by a pair well hidden ANBU and a couple of Uchiha Police members standing in the open. The Sannin gave the latter two a curious glance - doubting if they were supposed to be posted there at all - at least not originally. His eyes narrowed. "You called for Fugaku, too."
"I did - after breakfast. Since he never returned home, I had to send one of my clones to fetch him." Naruto nodded, and motioned for the guards to move aside. "Now - let's pay a visit to our dear guest from Iwa, shall we?"
Not much to say, even though it has been a long time since the last update - a year but for twenty days. I'm sure you won't care for any excuses I can offer.
Roarian helped with the start of the chapter, so cheers for that.
In original fiction news, the paperback copy of the DLP anthology 4 is late - if that ever comes out, you will find the links in my profile.