A/N: Once again, a long delay is followed by a chapter longer than any before. I hope not to make a habit of this. For those of you who have patiently stuck with me through the intervening time, thank you for your faith in me.
Just to reiterate, this is intended to be a long fanfic, and if it cuts out anytime soon, this will not be because of authorial intent, but because I suck and/or some sort of horrible real-life issues come up to distract me.
If you've sent me PMs which I've overlooked, or asked questions in reviews, please poke me and I'll get to them. Things are a bit busy right now, and honestly, I've been prioritising finally getting this chapter finished over actual work in some cases.
The anime is currently in the middle of the Kakashi ANBU Chapter (presently covering his discovery of the second Wood Element user). Please post no manga spoilers past this point.
Kakashi, heavily (but in truth, insufficiently) restrained, sat in the defendant's cage and pondered his options. Time was running out. The Hokage's defence had been spirited, unleashing a barrage of legal minutiae with the speed and precision of his legendary Shadow Shuriken Technique. But in truth, all their efforts had been hobbled from the beginning. With the limitations Danzō had been able to impose on what testimony and evidence they were permitted to offer (read: virtually none), all they could do was try to demonstrate that the tribunal itself was illegal in the first place. Of course, since Danzō had spent a great deal of time preparing for this, even altering records to make sure the Hokage missed outdated laws he'd intended to repeal, there were no easy openings to be found.
Kakashi toyed with the idea of escaping and becoming a missing-nin as an alternative to execution, but he wasn't exactly fond of the prospect. There weren't many things left that he cared about in life, and he'd lose them all if he abandoned the village (except perhaps Jiraiya-sensei's novels, which could be bought anywhere on the continent). Nor did he relish the idea of someday being forced to face his former comrades in mortal combat. Kakashi saw himself as falling right in between the two "safe" categories: the missing-nin whose capture wasn't a priority because they were of little threat to the village (like the rare traitorous Genin), and the missing-nin whose capture wasn't a priority because of the number of lives it would cost (like Uchiha Itachi). In other words, in his case pursuit would come quickly. And even if he managed to survive, what was he to live for? Kakashi had never seen himself as a hardcore village loyalist like Asuma, but when it came down to it, he found it striking how little purpose he had in life that wasn't in some way tied up with Leaf.
Death as a victim. Life as a traitor. There wasn't much time left to make the decision.
A dart flew through the corridor, passing just outside the blocking reflex area of the first guard. The second had time to see it, and after quickly checking it for exploding tags, moved to block. Before he could, however, it exploded in a puff of mist. The guard leapt back, his attention focused on defending against a possible attack out of the smokescreen.
But his defensive reaction, appropriate in most normal circumstances, let him down. The moment the mist began to fade, revealing a boy in an improbable orange and blue outfit, the latter was already throwing a second dart. Even as the first guard struck him down, it was already too late. The dart was in the air, thrown not at the second guard but past him, and by the time he made the mental adjustment necessary to intercept rather than evade it, it was already speeding towards the stairs to the tribunal room.
The judge cleared his throat. Although Kakashi had attended a number of trials and military tribunals before (though not usually in this capacity), he had never seen the man before. Somehow, this did not surprise him.
"Having reviewed all pertinent evidence on the charges of mission sabotage and treason against the Hidden Village of Leaf, this tribunal hereby finds the defendant..."
Kakashi gritted his teeth against the inevitable.
Naruto had never dreamt he'd get a chance to say that, and in a (sort of) real courtroom, no less. First Ikazuchi Saga, and now this. Naruto strongly suspected that normal people's lives did not end up regularly mirroring the manga they were reading, but on reflection, this way was so much better.
Of course, in the manga the person shouting this was a qualified lawyer who sometimes knew what he was doing, and did not then promptly have his arms twisted behind his back by a pair of angry guards.
Naruto quickly assessed the situation. There was Kakashi-sensei in a chair that was less furniture and more armoured container, similar to what he'd seen in the ANBU complex. Off to the right was a clerk writing down the proceedings. In the middle, on a raised dais, three people were seated behind a desk. The Hokage, giving no sign he recognised Naruto, was on the left. In the middle was the judge Naruto had interrupted, a balding man in a voluminous brown robe, with oversized round glasses that gave him the look of a very important mole. And to his right was an old man with a bandaged right arm and right eye, looking rather bored. Aside from a few other officials and guards, there was a conspicuous lack of an audience, or indeed a jury. Not that Naruto was an expert, but the whole tribunal seemed hastily thrown together, with only the lightest nod to conventional legal procedure as he knew it.
The unfamiliar old man promptly turned to him. Without any particular emotion in his voice, he said "The Uzumaki child. I see. Guards, take him to an isolated cell, and prepare an interrogation chamber. We will determine an appropriate punishment once we know how he infiltrated this tribunal."
"Wait!" Naruto shouted, aware that all eyes were still on him. "I have vital testimony that's relevant to this trial!"
The old man shook his head slightly. "If we had need of your testimony at this tribunal, Uzumaki, we would have summoned you when it began. Guards..."
This was not going the way Naruto had hoped. The guards started to drag him towards the door. A couple of metres more and he was going to lose his one chance to save Kakashi-sensei, just like that, dismissed with a few simple words. What were his options? Violence? No. Blackmail? Maybe. If he...
Then he caught sight of a subtle movement, the Hokage's hands folding beneath the desk into two familiar hand signals, "need" and the first half of "explain later" (Leaf hand signals having no separate sign for "explain"). Who needs to explain what? Naruto tried to figure it out. Did he mean- oh!
"Hold it!" Naruto exclaimed, hoping like hell he was interpreting the message correctly, and aware that he'd only get one shot at this. "If my testimony is being dismissed, I have the right to an explanation..." a number of fingers extended, "under article 6, clause 5," a quick side-to-side eye movement, a repetition, "no, 15, of the..." more signs. Lair, miles? "... Fair Trials Act!"
The Hokage smiled.
Danzō's habitual frown concealed the sense of satisfaction he felt on the inside. Finally, Hiruzen had dispensed with the tiresome legal fencing and brought out his real weapon. Needless to say, Danzō had never had any intention of making it easy for him - one of his first acts during the trial had been to cite the obscure ancient law that permitted an accuser to forbid a Demon Beast host from testifying (on the grounds that any such testimony could be unconsciously manipulated by the Demon Beast, thereby giving it a way to influence the course of the trial). By locking Uzumaki out of the tribunal entirely, he'd completely disarmed Hiruzen in one of the trial's two sections.
Hiruzen's counter was effective, if late in coming. Now Danzō had to either admit Uzumaki to the trial after all, or explain to the boy that he was the host to the Demon Fox, doing which without permission from the office of the Hokage would break the very law he'd helped write. It was entirely possible that the boy already knew, after the events at the so-called Bridge of Courage, but the mission report did not spell it out, and so for legal purposes Danzō had to assume ignorance.
Of course, as with any well-formed plan, his opponent's best moves only played into Danzō's hands.
"Let it be put on record that I retract my earlier objection to Uzumaki Naruto's testimony."
"Shimura Danzō, objection retracted..." the clerk muttered, conveniently giving Naruto the old man's name.
Danzō looked at Naruto. "I commend your knowledge of the law, Uzumaki," he told him in a cool, measured voice. "Proceed with your testimony."
What Naruto heard was "well done, boy. You've just removed one pebble from the avalanche that is about to bury you alive. By all means amuse me before you run out of air." Danzō's one-eyed gaze was filled not with hostility but with curiosity, an entomologist watching a butterfly struggle beneath a pin.
Was this the man who'd sentenced him to a life as an outcast? He could believe it. To Danzō, it seemed Naruto barely qualified as a diversion, a feeble attempt at rebellion from a tool found outside its drawer. Or was he just projecting his own feelings onto a stranger? He didn't really know who this man was, or what his motives were for trying to frame Kakashi-sensei. The only thing Naruto knew for certain, after hearing Danzō speak, was that he was being severely underestimated.
"Kakashi-sensei didn't order me to kill Gatō," Naruto announced. "In fact, I didn't even kill him."
All eyes in the room went wide, especially Kakashi-sensei's.
"What do you mean?" the Hokage asked. "Are you saying that somebody else killed him? Or that, early reports from the Country of the Wave notwithstanding, Gatō Amand is still alive?"
Naruto swallowed. He thought he'd made his peace with this, with the betrayal he had to commit, but the wave of crippling guilt said otherwise. Even so, Naruto told himself, he had to do this. He had to use the most effective tools he could think of. There was too much at stake.
"Gatō was killed by the Mist missing-nin Haku, acting independently."
Another fragment of innocence sacrificed for the power to protect someone that mattered. Another step towards being a true ninja.
Danzō raised an eyebrow. "You would have us believe that a missing-nin," he spoke the word as if it referred to some particularly wretched species of parasitic worm, "turned around and killed his employer, thereby losing his payment and doing great harm to his professional reputation. By all means, Uzumaki, do tell us what motive you propose for this extraordinary act."
"I seduced him."
Mouths dropped open, including the Hokage's. Kakashi, on the other hand, relaxed a little as Naruto's line of attack began to make sense to him.
Danzō's expression finally changed, from dispassionate curiosity to frank disgust. "You did what?"
Once Naruto had begun, it was easier to carry on. "I approached him while he was in civilian guise, determined his identity and seduced him. I can call witnesses, including our host Tsunami and the staff of the Silver Leaf Inn in the Country of the Wave. If you want to, you can suspend the trial for a few weeks while you send messengers."
"This is ridiculous. Are you saying you, a twelve-year-"
"There is precedent," the Hokage cut him off. "During the Warring Clans period, child spies were expected to go to any necessary lengths to fulfil their missions, no less than their seniors. Even in modern times, there have been incidents like Hidden Rock's Yamane scandal, where-"
"Enough," Danzō scowled. "You've made your point."
He turned back to Naruto. "So, Uzumaki, you are confessing before this court that you... colluded... with a Mist missing-nin without your squad leader's explicit permission, or even his awareness, and further conspired with this missing-nin to alter the course of your mission?"
From the way he saw Kakashi-sensei stiffen out of the corner of his eye, Naruto guessed that saying "yes" would be a very bad idea. The facts were the facts, though. He had completely bypassed Kakashi-sensei in his efforts to deal with Haku, and probably broken a dozen laws in doing so. At the same time, he sensed the trap in Danzō's words. Danzō probably wanted him to claim he had Kakashi-sensei's permission - at which point the trial would immediately revert to Kakashi-sensei being accused of treason.
But he couldn't just say nothing. Hesitation would be taken as a sign of weakness, and Naruto's instincts told him unambiguously that he did not want to show weakness in front of Danzō. He opened his mouth-
"If I may clarify a certain detail..." The Hokage interrupted him before he could speak. "I have consulted the latest missing-nin postings provided by Hidden Mist, and this Haku is not listed. We must infer that he is a personal apprentice of Zabuza's, recruited and trained without Mist's involvement. As such, he must be legally classified as an unaligned shinobi rather than a missing-nin, and interactions with him do not break Leaf law."
Danzō flicked his good hand in the air dismissively. "Mere sophistry. Haku serves the missing-nin Zabuza. Zabuza's interests are his interests. In conspiring with Haku, Uzumaki may as well have been conspiring with Zabuza himself."
Naruto had not wasted the precious seconds he'd been given to think. "What I did went directly counter to Zabuza's interests. During the fight on the bridge, I told Zabuza I'd assassinated Gatō, which stopped him killing me when his side had the advantage. Then, when Haku went to investigate, he discovered he had a chance to save my life, as well as avoid putting Zabuza's at risk, so he killed their employer to do so. Afterwards, I took the credit for the assassination. Final result: Zabuza got lied to twice, abandoned a battle he was about to win, and lost any chance of getting paid. You can't tell me that sounds like a conspiracy between him and me.
"You have to admit," he added, "this is all much more plausible than the idea that a mere Genin like me managed to infiltrate Gatō's fortress and take out him and his huge army of bodyguards on my first ever C-rank mission." Or are you going to go on record as telling me why I'm no mere Genin?
Danzō considered this. "If this mission was such a triumph of manipulation on your part, Uzumaki, then why did you lie in your report?"
"Because..." Naruto allowed himself to look awkward, a mask of discomfort over a mask of confidence over feelings that were too complicated for either label. "Because I didn't want to tell anyone I'd seduced an enemy ninja on my first serious mission. I mean, what would people think of me?"
"So that's how it is," the Hokage said. "This story is odd, but it certainly fits with all the information we have, including accounts from the other members of Team Seven about Haku's strange behaviour throughout the battle. Submitting inaccurate mission reports is a disciplinary offence, for both of you," he looked from Naruto to Kakashi, "but it is certainly not a tribunal matter.
"As for Haku, given that he has no connection to Leaf, and that his victim was an active enemy of Leaf at the time of the assassination, I don't believe our laws have anything to say on the matter. If anything," the Hokage gave an innocent smile, "perhaps we should send him a gift basket if we ever find a postal address to use."
Naruto suppressed an enormous sigh of relief. He'd hoped that this would be the case. Either way, though, when it came down to it Haku was far from Leaf, location unknown, and more than able to defend himself with Zabuza's help, while Kakashi-sensei was here and defenceless. Doing things this way was always going to be the right decision, even if it didn't feel remotely like it.
There was a pause as everyone waited for Danzō's counterattack.
The Uzumaki child was doing well, better than he had expected. Yes, he would indeed make a very valuable tool, even if he was a- no, no matter. Every shinobi had his flaws, and as long as they did not interfere with the mission they were easy enough to overlook. And if Hiruzen could make such effective use of the boy, how much more value might he have in Danzō's own hands?
In a sense, that question had been the true objective of the exercise all along, the third layer of Danzō's goals. He was already in the process of accomplishing it while poor, naive Hiruzen was still wrestling with the second layer, and the Uzumaki child, if he understood anything at all, was probably still on the first. It was why, in the end, Danzō would win. His opponents were always busy foiling the wrong plans.
But back to the tribunal. Uzumaki's story was good enough to pass initial inspection, and challenging any of its weaknesses would ultimately come down to external evidence - all of which was in Wave. That would mean stretching out the trial, which was the one thing Danzō could not permit.
The optimal scenario was to obtain the Uzumaki and the Uchiha in one swift stroke, simultaneously remove Hiruzen's strongest piece, and present the whole thing to the rest of the world as a fait accompli. It would be a bold move, provoking the anger of many enemies and even of many allies. But there'd be precious little anyone could do about it after the fact, and the gain would be more than worth it. Fulfilling all three layers at once would make the significant expenditures it had taken to get this far seem trivial.
None of this was necessary, of course, for Danzō to achieve his projected scenario, and this was what Hiruzen lacked the subtlety to grasp. The only thing Danzō actually needed to do at this point was make sure the trial concluded quickly.
Even a few days' extension, and the balance of power would tip. That much would be obvious even to Hiruzen. Every day increased the risk of others discovering the tribunal's existence - had Hiruzen not already managed to bring in Uzumaki, despite a 24-hour watch by some of Root's best shinobi? And if the likes of Koharu and Homura grasped the full extent of what Danzō had done - the bribes, the manipulations, the blatant distortion of the law - they would come down on him like a ton of bricks. Danzō knew from long, bitter experience that the deadliest shinobi in Leaf's Bingo Book weren't as much of a threat to village security as the occasional "ethically-minded" citizens who discovered what Root did in order to keep them safe every day.
"Thank you for your contribution to this tribunal, Uzumaki," Danzō stated, the emotion in his voice completely gone once again. "Guards, take him away."
"I'm not finished!" Fortunately, Naruto had long since mastered the art of not being dragged away by hostile adults. "I have more evidence to offer!"
The Hokage spoke up. "Michizane, Kuroi, please let the young man go."
Not to be ungrateful, but Naruto rather wished the Hokage had said that to begin with. The two guards were apparently very single-minded people, and had continued to hold him tightly throughout his entire earlier testimony.
"Right." Naruto reached for a scroll tucked into his belt. "I have here the testimony of the missing-nin Onigahara Tariki." He threw the scroll to the startled clerk (who, however, was still a ninja, and managed to catch it).
Naruto looked for a change of expression on Danzō's face, but apart from a slight deepening of the latter's frown, detected nothing.
"Is this the best you have to offer, Uzumaki?" Danzō finally asked. "The mendacious ramblings of a missing-nin, as interrogated by a Genin fresh out of the Academy? Your already questionable credibility is plunging to striking new lows."
"Actually," Naruto responded in a casual tone which he knew from experience to infuriate any authority figure attempting to chastise him, "if you examine the scroll, you'll find the seals of two ranking ANBU interrogators, confirming that they attended the interrogation and can vouch for its adherence to ANBU procedure." Naruto didn't know what miracles Nao had performed in order to get a pair of ANBU specialists out of bed to work on an assignment of dubious legality in the middle of the night on zero notice, but he was aware that he now owed her his very immortal soul, his firstborn child, and enough favours to run a medium-sized informal economy.
The Hokage glanced at the clerk.
"Yes, sir, these all appear to be in order."
"Then please read the testimony out in full."
The clerk unrolled the scroll and turned red as he saw the contents. He coughed.
"Uh... Very well.
"It was way too fucking early in the morning for this shit..."
"Sir, while the prisoner is out of hearing range, do you mind if I ask a question?"
Out of hearing range? Have you even heard of Mist ninja, you snot-nosed brat? You think just because these two morons have taken me halfway across the valley for a piss, I can't hear what you're saying? Well, I know who I'm gutting first when I make my escape.
"Why do I always get the greenhorns? All right, Ichijō, ask away."
"Sir, if Captain Hatake needs urgent reinforcements, why can't we just leave two of us with him for now? It's not like it's going to take more than two people to keep that missing-nin under guard."
Just two people? Oh, please give me even a couple of hours with just two people. All I need is two seconds' distraction, and I'll teach you why they used to call us the Bloody Mist.
"Ichijō, are you questioning Master Danzō's orders?"
"No, sir, I just-"
"Who picked you up out of the trash after your family got killed in the Night of Tragedy and the rest of the world turned its back on you?"
"Who spared no expense in getting you food, and shelter, and training, asking nothing in return except your loyalty?"
"Who took your worthless carcass and fashioned it into a precision tool capable of protecting the village?"
"And you would question Master Danzō's orders?"
"Never, sir. It's just... with my low combat potential, I've mostly been doing support work in the main compound, so I'm not used to how these missions work."
"You and I aren't privy to a millionth of the information Master Danzō has running through his head at any given moment. Don't try to second-guess him. In any case, I've been instructed not to pass on Team Seven's request for reinforcements. And if Master Danzō doesn't want them to get reinforcements, they don't get reinforcements. Is that clear?"
Danzō's expression hadn't changed by the end of the reading, though all eyes were now on him.
The Hokage was the first to speak. "This testimony all but explicitly states that the four ninja who conveyed the prisoner were Root members, and that they withheld vital information at your orders. What do you have to say?"
Danzō seemed unconcerned. "Clearly, they are a rogue group. Their leader likely manipulated them into thinking they were carrying out my orders."
"You heard their testimony in person earlier," the Hokage observed. "How could you not have recognised members of your own organisation?"
"As I'm sure you know, Root members have no permanent names, and are assigned new ones periodically, typically when embarking on a new mission. The team leader violated protocol by assigning the group new names without my knowledge, so I could not recognise them. As for their faces, do you expect the head of a large organisation to know every one of his subordinates by sight?"
Naruto's eyes narrowed. It was obvious, utterly obvious, that Danzō was lying. There was no possible way in which any of what he was saying could be true. And yet he didn't have any evidence to prove it. All of this was an internal Root matter. Any records would be Root records, which Danzō could falsify or destroy. Any witnesses would be Root members, whom Danzō would be able to influence. Was he really going to get away with it, just like that?
"Have them thoroughly interrogated," Danzō went on. "I feel confident that they will deny receiving any orders from me that would violate village law."
The sheer casual confidence with which Danzō said it made something click in Naruto's head. "You train all your ninja to give you plausible deniability, don't you?"
"Nonsense, Uzumaki. I suggest you watch your tongue, and avoid making such ridiculous accusations unless you have the evidence to back them up, especially in a court of law." But behind the insulted tone, was there a glimpse of approval, of all things, in Danzō's eye? Somehow that made Naruto feel uncomfortable, more than simple condemnation would have.
Danzō had got what he wanted. It was a shame to have to sacrifice those four shinobi - manpower was one of Root's chief weaknesses, for a variety of reasons - but he'd selected them in full awareness of what to expect. They were four of Root's weakest. Yes, they'd been inculcated with the absolute loyalty that allowed them to sacrifice themselves on demand. But they had otherwise failed to kill their emotions as a true shinobi must, and that made them much more expendable than the other, properly hardened, tools.
Doubtless, Hiruzen would be celebrating a great victory tonight. Never once would it occur to him that he had been fighting on a battlefield set up to Danzō's exact specifications, demonstrating exactly what tools he would use under given conditions, how he would use them, and what they were capable of. The knowledge Danzō had gained about Uzumaki alone was invaluable, once he finally found the time to sit back and analyse it.
With every battle Hiruzen won, he came closer to losing the war. For while Hiruzen had learned from Hashirama, the great leader, Danzō had learned from Tobirama, the great strategist.
"Who the hell designs an alarm clock you can sleep through?" Naruto ran at breakneck speed through the streets, various colourful swearwords picked up from Mizuki-sensei running through his head. After the tribunal, and the confession by the Root ninja, and the deliberations, and the final verdict, and the celebratory ramen, and the "debriefing" from the Hokage and Kakashi-sensei, and the paperwork necessary to get him off the hook for everything he'd done, he thought he'd just have a quick nap to take the edge off his exhaustion before the date with Hinata and now he was late.
"I'm sorry so sorry I didn't mean to be late have you been waiting long I'm really sorry whoa." By the end of the sentence Naruto had mentally slowed down enough to actually see Hinata, rather than merely register her presence, and was glad he did. She was wearing a pale lavender kimono which perfectly brought out her eyes (something the Hyūga probably had a lot of experience with), decorated with a purple flower pattern. It wasn't an ultra-formal kimono with the Hyūga house crest, which Naruto gathered was the kind of thing everyone from a proper clan owned for important occasions. Did that mean it was something she'd picked out herself? Given what he'd had to endure to find a decent outfit, it was hard to imagine shy, hesitant Hinata going through the presumably much more demanding female version of the experience.
(Sakura's recommendation for him, incidentally, clove surprisingly close to Tsunami's, being based around red and black, with a stylish and painfully expensive jacket and a comma-shaped magatama pendant).
"No, I- I just got here. Are you OK?"
"Sorry," Naruto panted. "Out of... breath. You... look amazing."
Hinata went somewhat pink. "Th-Thank you. Um, you too."
At this point the conversation stalled somewhat, as it occurred to Naruto that in all the chaos surrounding Kakashi-sensei's tribunal he hadn't actually had a chance to plan what to do on the date, and also that he didn't know a single proper restaurant, since until recently he couldn't afford to eat at any. Unfortunately, while Sakura's date tips had been sparse (and mostly along the lines of "whatever you do, don't be yourself"), she'd been very clear about the unacceptability of ramen or barbecue shops.
After a few seconds of awkward silence, he decided that the simplest solution was probably the best. "Um... do you happen to know any good places to eat?"
Hinata gave this some thought. "There's a very nice restaurant I've been to with my family. It's up on the hill two blocks down from the Aburame residence. Oh, but it's very expensive, so maybe-"
"Don't worry, I'm paying." Naruto said with a confidence that wasn't mirrored in his wallet. He could probably afford a decent meal for two at this point, but his idea of restaurant prices was approximate at best. All he knew was that they were high enough for him never to have gone before.
"Actually, I think I should pay," Hinata unexpectedly objected.
"What? But you're-" Naruto stopped himself just in time. He only had an approximate idea of what a social faux pas was, but he was pretty sure that saying "you're poor" at this juncture would qualify.
Unfortunately, Hinata stood there waiting for him to finish his sentence.
"... really beautiful?"
Hinata blushed and looked down at her feet.
Naruto made a note in his mental database (which had been reset after his date with Haku, because if he couldn't even tell the other person's gender correctly, who knows what else he might have got wrong?). Complimenting girls while on a date - good. Do more of this.
"So what were you really going to say?" Hinata finally asked just as Naruto thought he'd got away with it.
"Uh... well, I just thought it wasn't fair to make you pay given that... um..."
Once again, Hinata waited as he trailed off. When no elaboration was forthcoming, she finished the sentence for him. "I don't have much money? But you don't either, Naruto. And I don't have living expenses like you do."
"But I have my A-rank mission pay," Naruto announced triumphantly. And if it's not enough, I'm going to have to get very creative, so let's hope it is.
"I've been saving up money from missions too," Hinata countered.
"I eat much more than you do, so I should pay."
"I'm the one who picked an expensive restaurant, so I should pay."
"I asked you out, so I should pay."
"Um, that argument doesn't make sense."
"Huh. So it doesn't. But yours doesn't either."
There was a pause.
"Let's split it," they said more or less simultaneously.
"Lead the way."
The Dreaming Dragon was, in all likelihood, the fanciest place Naruto had ever set foot in. The waiters were dressed several orders of magnitude richer than he was. The floors were some kind of really rare lacquered wood (probably), the walls were lined with gas lamps and beautiful paintings, and Naruto felt very sharply that he did not belong. Usually he would not have cared, indeed would have relished the opportunity to defy expectations, but tonight for some reason it was important.
The staff clearly recognised Hinata, and the man at the front desk gave her an enormous smile. "Lady Hinata! Always a pleasure to see you in our humble establishment. Are you dining alone tonight?"
Then he noticed Naruto. An initial look of disbelief changed smoothly to one of horror and disgust, as if he was seeing a tiger-sized cockroach crawling towards his kitchen. Then the smile reasserted itself, though now with something of a glued-on feel. "I'm terribly sorry if that ruffian is bothering you, Lady Hinata. I don't know how he got in here. I'll have someone throw him out at once."
Naruto tensed, but before he could react, the temperature dropped several hundred degrees. Then an icy voice, a perfect crystal of cutting edges and disdain, rang out across the suddenly silent room.
"And who are you to pass judgment on honoured guests of the Hyūga Clan, commoner?"
The man almost literally froze, not moving a muscle, his face white as a sheet. Naruto glanced around wildly, feeling a wave of panic at the idea of being discovered by an angry Hyūga elder so soon, but couldn't tell where the voice was coming from.
The unseen speaker continued, in tones of purest imperious contempt. "Now take us to your finest private room at once, and I may consider not telling my father of the insult you've dealt to our clan's honour."
The waiter, his movements shaky and erratic, stammered something incomprehensible by way of apology, and half-led half-fled them to a second-floor private room. After muttering something about "menus", he ran away, leaving Naruto and Hinata alone with a table and a great open-balcony view of the village.
For a while, no-one said anything. Naruto, for his part, simply did not know what to say. While his manga did in fact cover contingencies for if one's date became demonically possessed upon reaching the restaurant, he didn't have any sealing tags and he wasn't entirely sure how to wield the Power of Love.
Eventually, Hinata spoke first, her voice shaking so badly it was impossible to even imagine her as the same person who had just excoriated a grown man.
"Oh, I'm- I'm so sorry! Please forgive me! I know this was supposed to be a fun date, and now I've gone and ruined everything, and if you want to call it off right now I'll understand, and you don't have to-"
"What are you talking about?!" Naruto exclaimed. "That was awesome! Kind of scary, but awesome. I've never had anyone stand up for me like that before. So is that what you're like when you're angry?"
Hinata, somewhat bewildered, wiped her eyes with her kimono sleeve. "You... mean that? You're OK?"
"Sure!" Having got over the initial shock, Naruto was now mentally replaying the image of the waiter's smug face turning ashen, and enjoying every second.
"Oh." Hinata seemed to relax a bit. "That's... that's good. I'm sorry. I've never done that before. I mean, as the heir I was trained in how to use the Voice, but I've never been able to do it properly. Except then I saw how he was treating you and... and I felt like I had to do something... and... are you really sure that was OK?"
"It was awesome," Naruto repeated firmly. "And you know, if you went around being that assertive more of the time, I think-"
Naruto was interrupted as the door swung open and what appeared to be the entire staff of the restaurant, several dozen people, all poured in. A very richly dressed man, likely the owner, stood at the front.
Before anyone could say anything, he fell to his knees and pressed his forehead on the ground, shortly followed by the people behind him.
"Lady Hinata, on behalf of the Dreaming Dragon, I most humbly beg your forgiveness for the unconscionable behaviour displayed towards you. Please, in your infinite generosity, overlook this unworthy act and find it in your heart to forgive us. Needless to say, we will not be charging you for this room or for your meal, and the lowly scum who dared insult your honour will be fired at once."
At this last line, Hinata opened her mouth, then hesitated. She looked to Naruto, as if to say "you're the victim, you decide."
But Naruto didn't know what to say. The right thing to do, the fair thing to do, would be to let him get fired. You shouldn't be allowed to get away with treating people like that, pure and simple. At the same time, the merciful thing to do, and the kind of thing he imagined Hinata would do on her own, was to forgive the man. He was just buying into the same sort of crap that made everyone else look down on Naruto, no better or worse than the others except that he got a chance to act on it in the wrong time and place. And besides, what would Hinata think of him if he chose revenge rather than mercy?
Then again, they were dating (unless tonight went really badly). Whatever his true self was, she'd find it out sooner or later. Did he want her to find out he'd been pretending to be "better" than he was, or did he want to bet on her accepting his flaws (if flaws they were)?
So the ball was back in his court. What did he want to do? Did he believe he could change this man's rotten ways with one decision or the other? Frankly, no. The only lesson to be learned from this experience was "hide your prejudices if you risk offending someone powerful", and that would be the waiter's conclusion whether he was fired or not. Even if Naruto decided to spare him, there was no guarantee that the man's opinion would change, not with Hinata available as a much easier target of gratitude that wouldn't require changing how he thought about people.
Damn it. How did you go about changing the world when it was so hard to believe it could be changed in the first place?
And then, before Naruto could decide, it was too late. The restaurant staff filed out, shuffling backwards as if Hinata was an empress, and the pair were alone again.
One order of "one of everything, except two of this, this, this and this" and another, more restrained order from Hinata later...
"So I have to ask, what was up with that? I mean, I know the Hyūga Clan's important, but really..."
"Well, Naruto, do you remember your history lessons?" Hinata asked.
"The founding of Leaf."
Naruto thought for a second. "If you mean going back to the very beginning... Well, you had the Warring Clans period, when all the ninja clans spent their time constantly fighting each other, partly in the process of hiring themselves out as mercenaries and spies, and partly because that's what they'd always done. Then one day Hashirama of the Senju got fed up with that. He said he wanted to prove that different clans could live peacefully alongside one another, and alongside common people (who basically thought ninja were like demons - huge magic powers, know all the secrets of the world, be very very respectful if you see one, but generally stay the hell away if you want to live). And since the Senju were the strongest clan in this part of the world, he thought he had a good shot at pulling it off. Although personally, I think he was crazy to go to the Uchiha, and to Madara of all people, with his plan. I mean, his worst enemy? The leader of the other strongest clan, who'd had a bitter rivalry with the Senju for generations? Really?"
Naruto glanced at Hinata as if to ask if that was what she'd meant, but she appeared to be listening curiously to his take on Leaf history (and also wrestling with a particularly recalcitrant grilled eel). So he continued.
"But by some miracle he did manage to bring Madara round to his way of thinking, and they signed the First Waterfall Accords at the Valley of the End. Obviously, it wasn't called that back then, but I can't remember the old name. Anyway, everyone knows the Accords - one village, one family. No battles, no spying, no theft. All that stuff. Then they brought in all the other clans, and went to the Daimyō of the Fire Country and they signed the Second Waterfall Accords. It was a pretty sweet deal for both sides - the clans got a huge area of uninhabited forest to rule as a semi-autonomous region, while the Daimyō got all the Fire Country clans that mattered officially recognising his legitimacy, swearing never to take up arms against the Fire Country or interfere with its politics, and committing to defend it against all other ninja in times of war. And frankly, what else was the Daimyō going to do? Say no and alienate an alliance of all the most powerful ninja in his territory? Who would then either take his territory anyway or offer the same deal to one of his neighbours? I don't think so.
"Anyway, then they all decided that the village would need a single leader, and somehow or other it ended up as a straightforward vote. Only pretty much everyone, including most of the Uchiha, voted for Hashirama. Which unsurprisingly made Madara furious. He declared he'd been betrayed, made his big speech about the blind leading the blind, and left the village for good. So Hashirama became the world's first Kage and Madara became the world's first missing-nin. And, well, we all know how that played out in the end."
Hinata nodded. "You know, Naruto, it took two days for Iruka-sensei to say all of that... although I guess he did have to deal with the Exploding Chalk Incident halfway through. But can you skip back a bit? How did they go about gathering the clans?"
Naruto couldn't help thinking that Hinata was mirroring his own didactic approach from many of their training sessions. He wondered how he should feel about that. "Promises, concessions, and dark hints about what would happen if they were the only clan to be left outside this huge alliance, mainly. They spent ages getting the Hyūga in, promised them the moon, then sought out a bunch of existing alliances, like the Ino-Shika-Chō guys, and I think the Aburame Clan actually volunteered - they were big on unity, but not strong enough to lead an alliance themselves. I mean, I could list a bunch of others, but..."
"Do you know why they went for the Hyūga first?"
Naruto shook his head. "I've always wondered. I mean, I know you guys have the Byakugan, but... well, no offense, but it doesn't really seem like it's in the same league as the Wood Element or the Sharingan."
"You know," Hinata said, "you probably shouldn't say that around any other Hyūga, particularly the older generation. Especially the Sharingan - it's kind of a sore spot."
She paused. "People don't realise it because it's not something you can see easily, but the Hyūga are amazing at intelligence gathering. It's the Byakugan's greatest strength, and my clan was working to make the most of it long before we developed the Gentle Fist. This is a huge generalisation, but if the Senju were the best warriors and the Uchiha were the best ninjutsu users, then the Hyūga were the best spies. It's how we survived even though we were always a fairly small clan surrounded by combat heavyweights. It's also why Leaf's founders went to such lengths to bring us in even though we've always been a bit... well, standoffish.
"Sorry," she stopped. "I'm not boring you?"
"No way," Naruto grinned. "This is good stuff."
"I know this is a bit, well, arrogant coming from a Hyūga, but Leaf history makes much more sense when you see it in terms of three founding clans rather than two. The Hyūga balanced what could have been a constant power struggle between the Senju and the Uchiha, who had generations of enmity to work through. That's why in the history books, you sometimes see references to Leaf's Three Noble Clans."
"When you say Leaf history makes much more sense..." Naruto trailed off questioningly.
"For example, think about what happened to the Senju."
"Hashirama encouraged them all to intermarry with other clans to strengthen ties. Except the Uchiha, obviously. The bloodline got so diluted they pretty much don't exist as a clan anymore. The First Hokage was the last Senju who could even use the Wood Element."
"Right. So why didn't the Uchiha take over when that happened?"
"Huh," Naruto frowned. "I never thought of it like that."
"This isn't all my own thinking," Hinata admitted a little sheepishly. "I had tutors once."
Naruto shrugged. "Once you know something, it's yours to keep."
Hinata didn't argue the point. "The Second could see the big conflict coming, so he chose someone who wasn't from any important clan to be the Third. The Uchiha didn't like the Third because they associated him with the Senju, and the Hyūga didn't like him because the clan seniors felt he wasn't giving them enough respect (although they feel like that about everybody). But he had legitimacy from being the chosen heir of the Senju, and was, I mean is, a great Hokage, so they accepted him eventually."
"Right. And I guess you're saying he chose the Fourth on the same principle? Because the last Namikaze," Naruto's voice trembled a little as he said that, "was a neutral party everybody could accept?"
"Yes. Obviously, at the time the Hyūga and the Uchiha were both putting pressure on the Third to choose a successor from their clan, so I guess having someone as amazing as the Fourth turn up was a godsend for him. The Fourth was talented and charismatic and a war hero, so it wasn't as hard to get him accepted."
"Only it didn't work." Because of you, Naruto added silently, thinking at the Fox.
"No," Hinata agreed. "And after the Fourth died and the old village got destroyed, the balance started to fall apart. For a while, people stopped believing in the Hokage, so the Third couldn't control the clans as well. And at the same time, both the Hyūga and the Uchiha believed they deserved a bigger share of power, so they tried to make that happen during the reconstruction. Apparently, things got really bad."
"Hang on," Naruto reached the inevitable conclusion. "So if the Hyūga and the Uchiha were fighting for dominance all that time, what happened after the Uchiha Massacre?"
"Um." Hinata hesitated. "I don't think I can really talk about that so much. All the other stuff is history, that's fine, but there are things about Hyūga politics that I've only been taught because I'm the heir, and I'm not supposed to discuss them with outsiders."
Naruto thought. "No, don't worry, I think I can put the pieces together on my own. The Uchiha are gone. But the Hyūga aren't in power. So someone's holding them back. I guess the Hokage, though it could be a secret alliance of other clans. Probably the Hokage, though, because you can't fight a political battle without a public face, and there's no-one else publically facing the Hyūga. That means when he retires, there's going to be a lot more pressure than before to choose a Hyūga successor, with nothing to counter it.
"Man, this doesn't look good. If he picks a neutral successor, the Hyūga will go on the warpath, because they've been waiting forever to get into power, and now they're supposed to be the only option. But if he picks a Hyūga, that's practically a dictatorship, because for the first time there won't be anyone to balance their power. I can't see any of the other clans being happy with that. And he has to pick a successor himself, because if he doesn't, there'll be a legitimacy crisis, like at the start of War of the Tengu, and then it's civil war for sure. Hang on..." a horrific thought occurred to Naruto, "what about Sasuke? He's an Uchiha, in fact, the Uchiha. How does he fit into all this?"
"Well," Hinata said after a moment's thought, conspicuously not denying Naruto's chain of logic, "I think if the Third chose him as his successor, and he had the legitimacy of being an Uchiha, and he was as amazing as the Fourth, and he had enough popular support, the Hyūga could accept him as Hokage. But it's a moot point. Sasuke is very talented, but he's not going to be Kage-level by the time the Third finally retires."
"At which point," Naruto concluded, "all hell is going to break loose."
"I'm sorry," Naruto broke the gloomy silence. "I know dates are supposed to be, uh, romantic and stuff, and I realise talking about village politics is way on the other end of the spectrum."
Hinata shook her head. "I don't mind. I've... um... missed having someone to talk to. And... I think..."
Hinata trailed off and started fidgeting, her body language somehow suggesting that she was trying to hide without moving in any way.
Naruto waited - part curiosity, part revenge for being forced to finish his own sentence earlier.
"I think... this is romantic enough," Hinata finally said very quietly, looking at Naruto across the table.
For once, the silence Naruto found himself in wasn't uncomfortable. He looked into Hinata's eyes, returning her gaze.
Clichés from the girly romance manga he definitely never read ran through his mind, and suddenly he realised how none of them fit. Hinata's eyes weren't windows to her soul. He could not stare into their dark abyss to try and glimpse her true self, or watch her pupils widen to convey the depth of her interest. In fact, he doubted she even had pupils behind the uniform almost-white surfaces that marked Byakugan-adapted eyes.
What was it like, he wondered, to look at the world from the other side of those barriers? What was it like to see without anyone else knowing what you were looking at, to remain opaque even as everyone else became transparent? Was it the Byakugan itself that made Hinata fade into the background, always watching, never seen?
Yet here and now he could feel it, Hinata's completely focused attention, as if it were a ray of light shining directly at him. Why him? Why would someone who could see the whole world just by spending a little chakra choose to forgo all that, and look only at someone like him?
And suddenly it clicked. He knew this, Naruto realised, this hunger for knowledge that shut everything else out. He'd felt it often enough, though never directed at a person like this. And even if he couldn't understand why, he couldn't deny the purity and intensity of those feelings any more than he could deny the light and warmth he felt standing in a sunbeam.
And then it clicked again. Naruto felt a desire he had never before put together out of the stray pieces of thought and emotion drifting around inside him. He wanted to know her, to see past the impenetrable wall of her eyes, to reach through all the layers of fear and shyness and fragility and fully comprehend the complex inner world he had only glimpsed up until now. To know her, so fully and deeply and completely that the barriers between them broke down and-
With a start, Naruto backed off, looking away from Hinata as he felt himself touch depths of emotion that were somehow beyond his power to handle. This wasn't... What had he just... Was this what...?
In his confusion, he felt almost grateful as the spell was broken by the arrival of a waiter.
"Lady Hinata, would you and... your companion... like to see the dessert menu?"
"Yes, please!" Hinata nodded vigorously, apparently also not entirely at ease with her side of the experience.
Naruto barely glanced at his menu. The "one of everything" policy had served him well so far, and he saw no need to abandon it.
Hinata was unsurprisingly more restrained. She did seem about to say something to the waiter when Naruto clarified that yes, he wanted the large rather than medium Tower of Trials ice cream, but ultimately went bright red and stayed silent.
"So, um, Naruto, did you say earlier that you had A-rank mission pay? I thought you were on a C-rank mission. Did something happen?"
"Well, I discovered that I'm possibly gay, in which case I guess you and me dating doesn't have a future, and I also now have unresolved feelings for another boy. Plus it turns out that there's a horrific monster living inside me which can take over my body and go on murderous rampages. But other than that, no, nothing special."
Naruto emphatically did not say this, but it certainly ran through his head. What was he supposed to tell Hinata? On the one hand, any one of those revelations was a humongous bundle of explosive tags which you did not drop on someone on a first date, while the full set would probably be the Kyubey to the Leaf Village of his romantic prospects.
On the other hand, Naruto had learned from his manga that dishonesty and miscommunication accounted for 90% of relationship disasters (with the remainder mainly involving alien or supernatural intervention), and there was no possible scenario in which lying to Hinata about stuff this important right off the bat was likely to end well. It was, after all, apparently a law of nature that terrible secrets always came out at the worst possible time (see "finding out someone is your mortal enemy right after you and he fall in love").
Fortunately, in the specific case of Hinata, a pre-existing solution presented itself.
"Uh, can we put that on the 'for another time' list? Sorry."
Hinata looked surprised, but nodded.
"Instead," Naruto sought a safer conversation topic, "how about you tell me about all the village stuff I missed. Anything interesting happen?"
"Well," Hinata smiled, "there was the thing where Kiba somehow got the idea that when a girl beats you up, it means she, um, likes you. And then he met Ino on a bad day..."
"... and now we know that trying to build a suspension bridge off the Second Hokage's head carving is a very bad idea," Hinata concluded as they headed out of the restaurant.
"Oh, man! I wish I could've seen his face!" Naruto laughed.
Hinata laughed too. Then she and Naruto looked at each other. It was time to part ways.
However, just having a restaurant meal for a first date was somehow... un-Naruto-like. And Hinata's story had given him an idea...
"Hey, Hinata, come with me. There's something I want to show you," he announced.
"This way! Also, Multiple Shadow Clone Technique!"
The clones scattered into the darkness, their purpose a mystery to the somewhat confused Hinata.
Naruto led Hinata to the edge of the village, the side opposite the Hokage Monument. It was a fairly unremarkable place, with only a few fields filling the emptiness before the near-vertical crater wall. There was nothing apparent to commend it for dating purposes except perhaps the degree of privacy granted by its remoteness.
"Here we are. Could you close your eyes? And keep your Byakugan off?"
Hinata hesitated, a look of discomfort on her face. At first Naruto wondered if she wasn't willing to trust him, but then a more charitable explanation occurred to him. Hinata was a Hyūga, with the ability to see perfectly even in the dark or through closed eyelids. Actual blindness would be much more alien to her than to most people.
Realising this, Naruto was grateful when she finally nodded and closed her eyes, though he wasn't sure why she flinched as he took her hand and started to lead her onwards.
"OK, you can open your eyes now."
Hinata did. To her surprise, she could see the entire village in front of her, a sea of multicoloured lights, almost like a starlit sky seen from above. But she could also see the Hokage Monument, with its carved faces gazing at her from across the crater. Where were they? They weren't on the edge of the crater, an area of hostile terrain and countless booby-traps set to deter intruders. They were actually within the village boundaries, yet somewhere very high up - the only view like this she knew was from the tops of the Hokage head carvings, a normally off-limits area where they'd been taken once as Academy students.
She let herself take in the view. She was also keenly aware that Naruto was still holding her hand, in a warm, solid grip that made part of her melt. He relaxed it after a few seconds, as if trying to let go. But although Hinata doubted she'd have the courage to take his hand on her own initiative, she did at least manage to hold on to it when it was already there. After a second's hesitation his hand tightened around hers again.
"Where are we?" she finally asked.
"You can use your Byakugan now. Take a look."
She did. But the first thing she focused on was his chakra. It was more faint than normal, divided among all those shadow clones somewhere out in the darkness, and unusually concentrated in the hand with which he was holding hers. Chakra followed attention, so did that mean...? Hinata giggled on the inside. All that time holding her hand as he led her here, and he'd only just realised that they were holding hands, like a couple? Naruto was special, wonderful, unique, but in just a few ways he could be a little bit dense.
Even so, she envied his composure. Here they were, on their first date, alone in mysterious yet definitely romantic surroundings, and somehow he wasn't feeling pulled in every direction by a dozen different emotions. He didn't have to keep stopping to remind himself that this wasn't yet another of those dreams that felt joyful to experience and agonising to wake up from. He didn't have to keep asking himself whether he really deserved to be here, when his partner was worthy of so much more.
Finally, she turned her conscious attention to the terrain around them - and laughed out loud in surprise. They were standing not on rock, but on a complex interlocking assembly of transformed shadow clones. The exact shape was too complicated for her to grasp, but it was attached to the near-vertical crater wall, and it fit together into a giant faux-archaic carving of Naruto's head, Hokage-style. It was just so... so Naruto to do something like that. She wondered if he'd leave it there until he went to sleep and his clones vanished, just to provoke outrage in anyone who happened to spot it in the dark.
"Glad you like it," Naruto commented. "I wanted you to be the first to know - well, outside Team Seven and the entire Country of the Wave, anyway."
"Know what?" Hinata asked.
"I've decided. I'm going to become Hokage. I will surpass all the Hokage who came before me, and I will change the world."
It should have sounded ridiculous, just another instance of Naruto pretending to be a manga protagonist for his own amusement. But this time Hinata couldn't hear the traces of irony that normally accompanied Naruto's grand declarations. Nor was he striking one of his many dramatic poses. The one thing she did see was the way his chakra burned just a little more brightly as he spoke. We name it "resolve", daughter. It is a light that shines through the endless human weakness that surrounds us, and reminds us that there is a sun waiting somewhere beyond the clouds.
Hinata smiled. "I think you can do it, Naruto. I really do."
Naruto beamed. "Thank you."
Then he stepped forward a little, pulling her towards the edge of the "carving".
"It's not the main reason I brought you here, though. I had to kind of guess the range of your Byakugan, but... well... try and pick out my clones down in the village. They'll be flaring their chakra as much as they can to make it easier."
Hinata tried. It was harder than Naruto probably realised, with the sheer number of people she could see when she extended her range, but between the flaring, the high vantage point that meant she didn't have to filter out as many obstacles, her intimate familiarity with Naruto's chakra, and the fact that at this time of night people who weren't Naruto tended to be in predictable locations (mostly home and asleep), she finally managed it.
It stunned her how many there were, yet another reminder of Naruto's incredible chakra control. Once she thought she'd found the last one, she broadened her focus again, letting herself see them all at once. The result took her breath away.
The entire surface of the village, as far as she could see, was illuminated by two traditional characters written in shadow clone formation. They were the first ones she'd learned to read as a child: "The Sun Beyond", read as "Hyūga" since time immemorial.
But they also had another, gentler, reading, one of which Naruto was doubtless aware: "Hinata", "Where the Sun Shines", the reading once favoured by her mother. As much as anything else, it had been a wish, and Hinata had spent most of her life afraid that she would never fulfil it. She remembered feeling a guilty sort of relief when she learned that everyone else in her age group was already writing their names in the simpler modern script, meaning that she could too, that she could treat her name as just a set of syllables.
Now, those same two characters blazed before her eyes, written for Hinata and not for Hyūga, written by someone who had promised to help her become the person she wanted to be. Written by someone who thought nothing of writing her a message several miles in size on the spur of the moment, just to make her happy. Honestly, the fact that the whole thing looked so beautiful was almost an afterthought.
After some time, Naruto stepped around in front of her, his image now overlapping the vista below, and took her other hand.
"It's right there in front of everyone in the village, and you're the only one who can see it. Just like before." He smiled. "Thank you, Hinata. Thank you for being the one person to see me as I really am, and for accepting what you see."
He took a deep breath. "I know I don't always get people as well as I think I do, and I know sometimes I can barely see past the end of my own nose, but I'd like to see you for who you are too. I want to learn to see and understand and accept all of you, every last bit without exception. If... if that's OK with you, I mean."
Hinata didn't answer. In fact, she couldn't. Instead, in a gesture of unthinking boldness that would mortify her when she recalled it the next day, she stepped forward and threw her arms around Naruto's neck, holding him in a tight hug. This... this was even better than it was in her daydreams.
After a few seconds, Naruto tentatively put his arms around her waist.
They stood like that for a long time.