Naruto held a hand to his face, rubbing at the bridge of his nose in his exhaustion as he placed down yet another document that needed a signature, a stamp and a glance over at least. A sigh excaped his lips as he moved his eyes with trepidation over to the stack still awaiting his notice, still looking as tall as ever. He swore every time he looked over it seemed to grow or multiply; it made him wonder if his father had this exact same problem.
"Thank you again for this Naruto; I hate to burden you." Naruto sent a small glare over at the grinning old man currently resting on the office's couch; he could tell the man meant none of his words and was actually feeling a great deal of satisfaction at somebody else feeling his pain. However the glare didn't last long, it couldn't when looking at the aged Hokage. Truly Naruto had never seen Hiruzen look so old; his skin seemed paler than usual, his wrinkles deeper and his eyes had a gaunt quality they had never had before.
It had been over two weeks since the failed invasion from the alliance between Sunagakaure and Otogakure. It had failed because the moment Orochimaru fled after their conflict on the roof, he had taken the majority of his forces with him, leaving Suna stranded in the middle of very hostile territory, outnumbered and overpowered. They had retreated soon after and surrendered not long after that. Their plan was a failure; no doubt they had intended on releasing the Jinchuuriki to wreak havoc on the village. However the stadium had acted as a natural prison until Tenzo was able to arrive and subdue the beast with help from two whole platoons of ANBU.
That man alone was one reason the Hokage's desk, or Naruto supposed it was his for the time being, was so stacked full of documents. As soon as the rest of the elemental nations heard there was another living Wood release user Konoha was flocked with nobles vying for the man's attention. No doubt they saw in him the second coming of the Shodai; Naruto had worked with the man long enough to know he was far from the power of the legendary Senju. Hell, by Tenzo's age the man had already risen to become the Senju clan head and was well on his way to forming Konoha itself.
Naruto wished right now that he was back in ANBU so he could just relegate all this work to somebody else, that person usually being Tenzo. When Hiruzen had recovered enough from his encounter with Orochimaru to speak he had surprised everybody by naming Naruto as the interim until he fully recovered. This was in the face of people like Kakashi, Shikaku and even the Sannin, shocking the populace. It was almost as good as the Hokage announcing his new successor and was met with mixed opinions, mostly due to his age. However the Sandaime wasn't going anywhere just yet, even with a sword wound through the chest the stubborn old geezer hung on.
"It's fine Hokage-Sama, It's not so different from the reports I had to file as a captain." That was true enough, although Naruto left out that it had been one of the only aspects about ANBU he was glad to see gone. Much like the rest of the population Naruto was both confused, honoured and simply dumbfounded by the Hokage's decision to name him interim. However that had cleared up quick enough after the first day when he saw the mounting stacks of paperwork the aged Hokage had left him with; it had all turned to irritation.
Not only that but there was the massive backlash from the invasion; building repairs, infrastructure repairs, death reports, MIA reports, rubble clearing, notices from the merchants' guild… it all passed through this desk at some point and that also meant under Naruto's hand. However as the redhead looked across at the half-awake Hokage he couldn't hold any anger in him. It certainly didn't help that Konohamaru was curled up in the man's arms. Naruto had rarely seen someone more distressed than the young boy after hearing his grandfather nearly died.
"Are you sure; I'm not keeping you from the hospital am I?" Naruto smiled faintly at that; speaking of injuries Anko, the stubborn idiot, had somehow gotten it into her head that she should be the one to fend off Orochimaru's massive snake summons. She had limited success on that front before managing to take an oversized fang straight through the arm. While Anko was rather famous for being resistant to a good number of poisons, one of the better gifts Orochimaru gave her and one she often used to win bets down at the bar, the amount that had been injected into her would have been enough to make a boss summon queezy.
Most of Naruto's visits, and there were a lot of them as he worried himself sick over his idiotic girlfriend's declining condition for the first few days, were spent just trying to keep Anko in her room. She was being treated for very severe toxin damage throughout her body, not to mention the massive hole in her arm that was steadily being fixed by the village's top med-nins. Unfortunately it was a long treatment; Anko and hospitals had never particularly gotten along so Naruto had to go along and entertain her for hours at a time to stop her going stir crazy and accidentally attacking an orderly… again.
Naruto chuckled to himself as he returned to the documents, a frown flickering over his features as he noticed yet another report from the Chuunin patrolling the Taki border. Ever since he had started filling in for the Hokage, at least on a temporary basis, he had noticed a startling increase in such reports. However it was hard to place the reports of increased activity and strange encounters with opposing patrols with what he knew of Taki. Konoha and Takigakure had been allies for generations, ever since the Shodai had made peace with them after they sent and assassin after him. However he didn't have the full picture; he wasn't the Hokage after all.
That thought made him pause, pen quivering over a document for a moment.
"Why me Hokage-Sama?" Naruto asked suddenly, looking up from the stack of paperwork with a troubled expression. The Hokage started awake, having been steadily falling asleep as Naruto worked; Konohamaru stirred but didn't wake.
"What do you mean Naruto-kun?" Naruto's eye briefly twitched but otherwise his face remained downcast, his brow furrowed.
"Why make me the interim and not the ANBU commander, or Shikaku-san, or even Kakashi. All of them have greater experience than me; wouldn't they make better options?" The Hokage took in his fretful appearance before smiling serenely.
"It is true, that those you named would have done an adequate job, perhaps even better than you given, as you pointed out, their experience." He chuckled softly to himself as Naruto looked down at the paperwork with an indecipherable expression. "However it is for that very reason that I chose you Naruto-kun. As you already said, they have the experience." Naruto let out a long, withdrawn breath as he placed the pen down, his eyes becoming more neutral. For a moment, when Naruto's hands steepled over the desk, Hiruzen blinked, having to rub the image of Minato out of his eyes at seeing the man do the exact same motion when becoming serious.
"So, this really is some kind of grooming to ingratiate myself with the position of Hokage." There was no real question to his tone, so Hiruzen decided not to answer it as such, instead adopting a kindly smile as he straightened up on the couch. For a moment he winced, his breathing becoming heavier as he brought a hand up to his chest, before it passed.
"You say that like I have some nefarious scheme in mind Naruto?" He chuckled again but Naruto knew he was now serious, especially with the lack of affectionate suffix. "Can you blame an old man for looking out for the future of his village, especially after a fright like this?" He gestured vaguely to his chest again, careful not to disturb the dozing boy curled up beside him. Naruto however adopted a look of discomfort as he shifted in his seat.
"But then, why me still? Surely Kakashi would be more appropriate?" Naruto argued only for Hiruzen's kindly smile to take on a melancholic twinge.
"Kakashi, as you well know, has many demons in his own past, personal issues that he would have to go a long way in solving before he could be ready for such a responsibility. I am sure, given time, the man would make a wonderful Hokage, especially with the ideals your father and his teammates gave to him before their passing. However when I am presented with better, brighter, younger options I would be remiss not to try and seize them." Naruto's fingers fidgeted for a few moments.
"But Kakashi-taichou and I-" cutting the teen off by raising a hand Hiruzn predicted and pre-empted his question.
"Naruto, you and I both know that were the two of you to spar, there would only be one outcome at this point in time." Naruto frowned; he knew his former Taichou was no slouch but the man had been rather lackadaisical recently.
"But a Kage is not determined by their combat abilities." The redhead pointed out quickly only to have Hiruzen laugh jovially.
"Too true my boy; your intelligent mind, compassion and ability to make friends with anybody you choose were also very helpful in making my decision. Why do you think I was able to trust you with the position of an ANBU captain, or with such a promising young team of Genin?" Naruto frowned again at having his arguments rebuked at every turn.
"But, to be a Kage is to be a leader; I'm not exactly the most strategic person." That was true enough; the redheads forte was always tactics, not long-term planning. Again though, the Sandaime only chuckled.
"Naruto, I will tell you something that those in this village old enough to remember even care to forget. The Shodai was one of the worst strategists this continent has ever seen as his own brother, my Sensei, would never let him forget." Hiruzen sighed at the slight reminiscence before smiling brightly again, as if waiting for Naruto to offer up another argument, even as they became increasingly flimsy and desperate.
"Wouldn't you prefer one of your students to take over as Hokage?" Naruto immediately regretted the question as he saw the pang of sadness pass through the old man's eyes.
"At a time, yes that would have been my fondest wish. However one has embittered herself from this village far too much to see anything in it other than bad memories and pain. Another is gallivanting across the continent, still trying to find himself like some indecisive teen and acting with the same maturity. And the other… well, the other is Orochimaru." Hiruzen's voice contained no spite, just tiredness and it was obvious enough was said on that topic.
"Sorry." Naruto said quietly and sincerely; he hadn't meant to bring up something so painful for the old man. However the grey-haired Kage simply offered a small smile, the twinkle returning to his eye.
"It is fine my boy; after all I am the man who couldn't stop any of them." The room lapsed into an uncomfortable silence for a while before Naruto finally worked himself up to break it.
"Do you really think I would do okay?" The redhead asked tentatively, only to receive a warm smile in response from the aged man.
"Do you know, that those are the exact words you father said to me, almost eighteen years ago?" Naruto blinked in surprise, not having expected that at all. "You remind me so much of him; you both have the same intensity for work, the same love for your family, the same compassion for your friends." He chuckled fondly. "You even had the same look of disgust he had the first time he was forced to sit down and do paperwork for more than an hour. Yes, you are very similar to your father." Naruto's brow furrowed at this as he leaned forward in he comfortable revolving chair.
"So you think I would make a good Hokage because of my father?" Naruto questioned, only to be ignored as the Hokage continued, as if oblivious to his interjection.
"Yet, I also see a lot of your mother in you, in the way you face your enemy, in the strictness with which you command your subordinates, your ability to make friends and, of course, your hair and eyes." He sighed sadly before adding. "I'm sure Sukoru-Chan would have been the same." Naruto's heart clenched hearing that name but it was quickly passed on as the Hokage turned to look at him again, his face more serious.
"Naruto, choosing you to become Hokage because you share these traits with your parents does not make you any less deserving of the position. You were the one to choose to act that way, it is you, not the aspects of your parents within you, that I place my trust in. Eventually the village will come to see it too." He chuckled as he allowed himself to recline into the comfortable couch. "Just think on it, the decision isn't imminent, I have a few years left kicking around in these old bones yet." Naruto nodded quickly, although with a slight hesitance.
"I can do that much at least Hokage-Sama." Naruto finally acquiesced, only to blink in surprise as the old man winked at him.
"If you're going to be my successor, call me Hiruzen." Finally Naruto allowed his previously serious expression to slip into a more relaxed smile.
"I think that will take a little more getting used to."
Ami nervously fretted about outside the hospital room, the box of Dango under her arm slowly cooling as she nervously shuffled from one foot to the other. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time; come and visit Anko in the hospital, maybe try to form a connection between them. She had been hoping that having a strong Kunoichi, and Anko had to be strong if Naruto-Sensei was dating her, take her under her wing would finally make her feel like she wasn't such a dead weight in the team. Oh sure she helped occasionally, but it was often Sasuke doing all the work and unlike Sakura Ami felt the intense need to actually change that.
Finally though she decided that, from the brief glimpses she had seen of the woman, being so hesitant wouldn't exactly put her in her good graces. She quickly pushed open the hospital room door only to blink as she came face to face with… well, it certainly wasn't a face. Anko was halfway in the process of climbing out of her room's window, this involved her raising a leg up onto the ledge. To put that in perspective it was enough to say the gowns weren't the most conservative pieces of clothing ever created and there was somewhat of a draft from the now open window.
"Lacy…" Was Ami's only thought as Anko turned around slowly, her face pale and nervous until she spotted the fact it was not a nurse that had come in.
"Oh Kami Gaki it's just you, you nearly scared the crap outta me." Anko sighed and pulled herself out of her awkward position practically straddling the window, apparently dissuaded of her escape attempt for now. "Ooh Dango." In a flash of moment too fast for Ami to see Anko crossed the room, liberated the offering of dumplings from her hand and flopped on her bed, a skewer already dangling from her mouth. "Thanks kid, the hospital food sucks and I only get my treats when Naruto visits." Admittedly that was every few hours or so and would likely be even more frequent if he wasn't so busy. About the third skewer in and Anko finally noticed Ami was still awkwardly standing there, at a loss for words.
"Well come on Gaki, I don't bite." The woman looked up a moment almost thoughtfully like she was reconsidering her words before looking over Ami's body and offering a predatory smirk. "Although the Dango was a good start so we'll see if you're lucky." She winked at the girl cheekily only to see her turn an amusing shade of pink before shaking her head of it; the squeak was a little cute though. Anko just chuckled good-naturedly and patted the spot on the bed next to her, still unable to completely rid herself of the devious grin. "So what'd you come all the way out here for kid apart from ruining my escape attempt?" Nervously Ami accepted the invitation and sat down, smiling weakly.
"I just wanted to see if you were okay, I heard from Naruto-Sensei you got hurt pretty badly." Almost immediately Ami was crushed into Anko's side in a rather awkwardly positioned half-hug, her head pressed against the side of the woman's breast as she balanced the box of Dango in the other hand.
"Aww, well if that ain't cute I don't know what is." Finally Ami was released, although not without regaining a few shades of that original pink. "But don't worry about me kid, I'm basically all better." She flexed her arm to prove it, showing the raw pink flesh in a rough circle on her bicep that was obviously where she had been pierced by the snake summon's fang. "So what did you really want?" Ami turned to Anko, gaping a moment as he mind struggled to come up with an answer for a moment before sighing helplessly.
"I wanted to ask if you would train me." At that one of Anko's thin eyebrows rose, a bemused expression crossing her features.
"You already have training from Naruto Namikaze yet you're asking me for training?" Ami nodded quickly, not wanting the woman to instantly dismiss her.
"Yeah! Naruto-Sensei is great, and I know he's doing his best to train all of us equally but…" She looked down for a moment to find the right words "…sometimes I just feel that…" Again she struggled before Anko finally decided to reduce her torment slightly.
"You feel like there are some things, as a man, he can't teach you, as a Kunoichi." The older woman finished for her, instantly getting a nod of approval that was met with an amused smirk. "You do realise those 'things' are generally what you learn as you become a Chuunin?" Ami frowned at that before shaking her head slowly.
"But if I have the opportunity to learn them now, why wait?" She answered, mustering the confidence she had to look Anko in the eye. For a moment the purple-haired woman's eyebrows nearly shot into her hairline, remembering a very similar young purple-haired girl repeating almost those exact words to a certain blonde.
"But why me of all people? I understand Kurenai Yuuhi is currently a Sensei." In Anko's mind the woman was already used to dealing with kids, one more couldn't hurt. However to her surprise, and secret pleasure, Ami immediately shook her head, rather fervently too.
"No! It has to be you; if you're Naruto-Sensei's girlfriend it means you have to be really strong!" A light dusting of pink entered Anko's cheeks as he looked down, casually buffing her nails on her gown and smirking at the praise.
"Well, you're certainly not wrong there." She relied without a hint of humility only to blink as Ami shot to her feet, an excited twinkle in the girl's eyes.
"Great! When can we start?" She happily exclaimed only fro Anko to blink and wonder when she agreed to anything.
"Did I just get played… by a thirteen year old girl?" She shook her head of it and immediately grinned, unnerving Ami slightly by the devious glint in those solid chocolate orbs.
"Ami was it? I think this is going to be the start of a beautiful relationship." She chuckled to herself. "I've always wanted a minio… student." She quickly corrected, only to have Ami back away a step, wondering just what kind of deal she had struck, and what it would cost.
Hiruzen walked into his office almost a week after revealing to Naruto his decision over making the redhead Hokage. He was looking a great deal better, some colour back in his face and he was no longer using a walking stick to get around. That was the best part for Hiruzen, using the wooden stick made him feel like Danzo and that was something he could do without. As much as the Sandaime respected his old friend, hearing that annoying tapping every time he entered a room really got on his nerves sometimes.
As he walked in he was forced to scoot around a large table that hadn't been there a few days ago. It took up a large portion of the room and was inscribed with many intricate seals that almost seemed to fade into the old wooden surface. This was mostly so they wouldn't distract from the meticulously ink-drawn map of the elemental nations that was overlaid on the seals. It was a relic from the Nidaime's time so the nations' borders were a little out of date but Naruto, over the last week or so, had gone through the pain-staking process of updating it. It included the borders, hidden villages as well as capitals and the better known towns scattered across the continent.
Right now the redhead was absently leaning on the table, casually flicking through a book as his eyes occasionally glanced to a small, tightly coiled seal that seemed to be quivering slightly on a random plot of land in the Land of Hot water. Right now it was the only one on the map as the old table had only recently been dug up from the archives building where they had been using it as a coffee table. Naruto had only found out what it was because he was often engrossed in the Nidaime's old notes; hell, even Hiruzen hadn't known it existed.
"Any luck yet Naruto?" The Jounin looked up and shrugged, motioning absently to the table and the small seal that stood out more than the rest.
"Nothing yet, she seems to just be hiding out in the backwater villages in the Land of Hot water; however she does slowly seem to be working her way towards the Land of Rice, which would corroborate with your information on the Sound village." Hiruzen nodded slowly; he should have suspected this kind of behaviour from such a powerful subordinate of Orochimaru. They would be careful, making sure they are not trailed, before going back to the village. "I just wish I managed to stick one on the Snake himself, then we wouldn't need this." Hiruzen could only offer a shrug in response, returning his attention to the board.
It had been Naruto's idea to stick a tracking seal on Guren, using a modified version of the Hiraishin shiki. Originally they had hoped that she would be sprung from the T&I cells internally, hopefully revealing any moles or spies Orochimaru had managed to implant in the village. However when it became obvious the Sannin wasn't making any great efforts to recover his subordinate they had been more direct. It had only been a theory that Guren might be able to use an intact crystal to overpower her Chakra restraints; luckily it worked though and Guren believed she had escaped on her own. Now they just had to wait for her to reach where she was going and they might just discover Orochimaru's location.
"This is all very impressive you know Naruto, definitely Hokage-esque thinking." Hiruzen spoke up with a small chuckle, enjoying the embarrassed and uncertain look on Naruto's face. Over the past few days it had been fun to tease the boy about his decision. It seemed like a bit of harmless fun but Hiruzen was also subtly reminding the teen that he had a decision to make without putting too much pressure on him to decide.
"Ah Hokage-Sama, you know I…" Naruto trailed up as Hiruzen raised a hand to cut him off, a small smile pulling at his lips.
"No need Naruto, I'm only joking with you." The redhead just nodded cautiously before returning to his book, still occasionally glancing at the little seal that represented Guren's location. The Sandaime looked up, his eyebrow quirking as he spotted three other Naruto's sitting around the desk, each tackling their own small pile of paperwork. The familiar sight brought a wider smile to his face. "So I see you discovered the trick to paperwork eh?" The old man chuckled good-naturedly as Naruto ran sheepish hand through his hair.
"Yeah, this just seemed… easier." Hiruzen nodded, a knowing smile on his face.
"Oh I know, it took you look enough." At that the Namikaze just half-heartedly glared at the Kage, who still didn't let up with his smirk.
"No thanks to you." The redhead shot back, snapping his book closed as he reached the end of a chapter. However the Hokage just tapped his nose conspiratorially.
"Experience my boy, it's all about experience." Naruto just nodded dismissively as he looked over a document one of his clones had handed him. "I used to do the same in my younger days, now I'm afraid the shadow clone is a bit too strenuous on my body for such a trivial use." Naruto nodded before pausing, looking back at the still relatively large stack of paperwork on the desk.
"Then how do you handle it now?" It was a good question; the man couldn't be kept in his office all day as he could often be seen taking strolls about the village or visiting the academy.
"Oh that's simple, I have my secretary handle most of it." Naruto's eye twitched and the three clones all nearly dropped what they were working on to all stare at the aged, and in their opinion possibly senile, Kage.
"Then why am I doing this?" Just as good a question; he could be with his girlfriend, or his students… or sleeping! However Hiruzen just tapped his nose again; before he could speak Naruto raised a hand and waved it off. "Right, right… experience." Hiruzen smiled with a curt nod; however it didn't last long as there was a sudden, ear-splitting crack and both men were thrown across the room by a blinding white flash. It happened so fast neither could react as one moment they were standing about the room, the next they were laying in the charred and destroyed remains of the office.
"What the hell?" Blinking in surprise, Naruto looked up at the new hole in the roof as he dragged himself out of the smashed couch he had been flung into. A moment later, when he looked down and saw whatever had struck them had seared right through the table he let out a long groan. "I'm going to have to fix that now." That was an understatement; there was nothing left but blackened ashes and a hole in the floor. "What happened?" Naruto wondered if they were being attacked again.
"A lightning strike?" Naruto asked incredulously as he stood outside with the Hokage and a few Shinobi that had witnessed the 'attack'. To show his incredulity he looked up at the sky, which was perfectly blue with a few fluffy white clouds lazily drifting across. It was what Ensui-Sensei would have called a perfect Nara day, lazy bastard that he is. However it was true; there were multiple people corroborating the story that the sky had suddenly darkened around the Hokage tower, nasty-looking grey clouds had gathered and suddenly a bolt of brilliant white lightning had struck the roof. It had taken almost ten minutes to douse the following blaze it had caused and in that time any evidence of the strike's cause vanished.
"Do you think Kumo was behind this?" The redhead asked as he turned to the Hokage; the man seemed to be in deep thought, pipe hanging from his mouth unlit.
"It is… possible; I suppose. Although how they got into the village and managed to set up such a powerful Jutsu without any sensor in this village noticing…." He trailed off at that but the underlying point was clear to everybody. Either Kumo was behind this and there was a serious security leak somewhere, or it wasn't an attack from Lightning Country.
"Perhaps somebody trying to frame Kumo?" Naruto tried again, only to receive an absent shrug from the Hokage; and they said Oonoki the Fence-sitter was indecisive.
"Certainly just as possible, although we currently have no evidence either way." Naturally none of the Shinobi were even considering that this was a natural event; none of them were that naïve. However at that moment Naruto's attention was diverted away from the Hokage tower as he spotted his most tenacious pupil running towards him… although he had to blink to make sure it was actually her.
He knew Ami had been hanging around with Anko a lot recently, especially once his girlfriend had gotten out of the hospital. However he hadn't expected the girl to change so drastically so quickly. She now wore much less concealing clothes, instead opting for a kind of red dress that slipped down one shoulder and only went down to mid-thigh. Apparently Anko had also managed to transfer her love for all things fish-net as now Ami was swathed in it, from fishnet stockings under her taller, boot-like black sandals, to fishnet armlets and an undershirt that only went over one shoulder.
"Ami… what are you wearing?" The out of breath girl, who looked like she had just come out of a training session with Gai, immediately blushed, her body withdrawing in on itself like she could hide the drastic changes to her wardrobe.
"Ah, A-Anko-Shishou said that if I really wanted to change how I acted, I first needed to stop caring what other people think. She helped ick it out for me." Naruto immediately brought a hand to his forehead in exasperation… of course she did.
"Anko-Shishou? No wait, I'm not even going to ask; what did you need?" Ami's eyes immediately lit up as she remembered why she had sprinted across the entire village to find her Sensei.
"Ah right, there was a girl! She was painting the village, except it wasn't the village because it was all stormy. She looked really sad so I came over to talk but then, then she drew, or painted or whatever, she painted the Hokage tower getting struck by lightning!" Naruto just quirked an eyebrow at the ranting girl; she was speaking almost too quickly to understand.
"Ami, the Hokage tower did just get hit by a bolt of lightning, I imagine that would be something noteworthy to paint." Ami quickly and fervently shook her head.
"No no! She painted it before it happened! I think she made it happen!" At that all of the assembled Shinobi looked at her in surprise; however it was the Hokage who sighed, massaging his forehead with a look of regret.
"I see, I suspected as much."