Shattered Bonds – 16

16 – Starting Over

The setting sun on the red gates of Konoha made them glow and baked the skyline beyond a warm yellow. Naruto couldn’t help but smile. Even with the late July heat bearing down on him, it was like his village was giving him a welcome-home hug. He was glad to be home. Waving once at the guards on duty, he patted his rucksack, listening for the sloshing of a bottle, and turned toward the Hokage’s office.

The last few months had been hard, some of the hardest in his life. But no one even knew. On the surface everything had returned to normal. He had a steady stream of missions and made frequent stops at Ichiraku’s during his periodic time off. He kept busy, smiled at his friends and no one asked questions. To them, he was the same old Naruto.

But beneath it all, he knew he had changed. He felt it, before he was even aware of the shift. During his visits to lands that had been touched by war, either through direct fighting or by the heavy price they’d paid in loss of life, he felt their tragedy first hand. But this wasn’t the bloodshed of the battlefield, sights that he’d steeled himself against years ago. This was the heartbreak of those left behind, those who had to pick up the pieces, those who had to move on.

He’d seen it from both sides now. He understood love, and he understood loss. And on his many missions, helping reopen bridges and rebuild towns, he discovered he was slowly rebuilding himself as well.

The pain of realizing what he wanted from Sakura only after it was too late to stop it slipping from his grasp had been a bitter blow. And that long walk back to Konoha from the Sand, after failing in that doomed quest, Naruto spent more time thinking about himself and what he wanted than he ever had before.

For the first time since he stepped foot inside the academy at eight years old, Naruto realized he was free. The war was over, they’d won and he’d achieved feats as a shinobi that almost no one else had. He could chart his own course.

But he was adrift.

And to his surprise, he discovered he couldn’t blame it completely on his disappointment with Sakura. Even though he didn’t succeed in winning her back, despite trying his hardest, he still didn’t feel like he’d completely lost. In fact, he had to admit that he’d gained something.

His friendship with her had been restored. And he realized now just how much he missed her presence in his life. If that’s the way it had to be, just friends, then he’d accept it. It was bittersweet. He guessed he just loved her too much to see her unhappy. And if staying in the Sand made her happy, then he was happy for her. Now he just had to move on to his own goals….

But the visit to the Sand had thrown his dream of Hokage into doubt as well.

Watching Gaara work the room with quiet diplomacy, Naruto guessed he’d have to do that too one day. Pander to all those heads-of-state. Learn all that stuff. Naruto shuddered, even as the sun beat down on him. He wanted nothing to do with that part of being Hokage.

Fighting? That he could do. Rallying everyone behind a cause? Any day of the week. But host a dinner for daimyos and clan heads…? He’d rather battle Madara again.

As long as he didn’t have to do a lot of talking then he’d be fine. He was never very good at that. However…that’s all Gaara seemed to do these days….

That tiny seed of self-doubt was enough. It grew over the four more days of traveling across the endless Sand deserts until Naruto felt as directionless as the wind that constantly scoured that land. By the time he saw the high walls of Konoha in the distance, he wondered if ruling a village was something he was even cut out for.

Ignoring the gnawing doubt, Naruto turned back to what he knew: missions. They were familiar, routine, and he slipped back into that grind easier than he would have imagined possible. He requested hard labor with the civilian rebuilding efforts instead of covert operations, and the missions came in at an unending clip. There was so much work to be done, and was glad to do it, even if it wasn’t much different from the D-rank missions Team 7 was assigned as kids.

For a little while, in the beginning, it really did feel like he was starting over. He had never met the shinobis he worked with. They were lifelong genin and chunin with no particular skill, very different from the friends he come through school with. They had shined in the war and gone on to take prestigious roles in the reconstrucion.

But Naruto couldn’t ignore that even though he’d signed up for the most menial of the rebuilding efforts, it still felt a little bit like flunking the shinobi academy all over again. His friends were moving on while he stayed behind. They had clear paths in front of him, while he was still floundering. They’d figured everything out while he was still struggling to learn the hard way, which seemed as slow as the rebuilding projects he worked on, piece by piece, brick by brick.

But he didn’t wallow in self-pity for long. The men and women he worked beside were able and proud, as they were often the only shinobi to come from their clan. The families they helped shed grateful tears for their work.

And he knew now that both his teammates understood, and unbelievably still cared, even when he thought they didn’t. Most importantly, neither had given up on him. Sasuke with his letter and Sakura with her little pink notes.

That thought buoyed him so that he knew it wasn’t like the academy at all. They weren’t leaving him behind, they were just waiting for him to catch up. And he had to figure out how to do that on his own. Just like learning to be a shinobi, there were no shortcuts.

So he threw himself into the reconstruction efforts rebuilding the shinobi and civilian world. With every barn he returned to rights, every crying widow who’s crops he replanted, he felt like he was moving them a step in the right direction. It would never be the same, but he was helping them have a better life. Even if it was just a small step, it was still a step. And little by little, he started to find his way too.

As he worked with his hands, his thoughts often drifted to Sakura. He trained himself not dwell on the sad memories, but instead about her field medic work and what new things she must have experienced.

What was it Tsunade said about Sakura finding a new direction after things didn’t work out? He often turned that thought over in his head. Maybe it applied to him too. But the idea of becoming Hokage now, after witnessing Gaara and the diplomats of Suna, had not regained its shine.

Adding to that unsettling fact was that after months of being away from Konoha, Naruto discovered he really liked being out in the field. He enjoyed meeting people, working with his hands and rebuilding villages. The memory of Gaara as a Kage still made him feel suffocated, even in the middle of a wide open field.

As he planted seeds for winter cabbage in sweltering late July heat, Naruto dwelled on his life’s goal. Growing up, he had never once doubted that being Kage was what he wanted to do. But faced with reality, seeing Gaara pandering to diplomats and remembering now just how much time Tsunade spent behind stacks of scrolls, he wasn’t so sure anymore. What if he wasn’t right for the job? He didn’t like the answer that he came up with.

Naruto sat back on his heels and wiped the sweat from his face with his forearm. Long rows of mounded dirt ran away from him in all directions. This was it, the last field was planted, his mission was done. And for the first time in two months, it was time to go home. To Konoha.

Passing a general store on his long journey back, Naruto spied a bottle of sake, the local specialty, on the shelf. It reminded him of Tsunade and he tried to ignore the pang of guilt. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been by to see her. He told himself he wasn’t avoiding her, but…. Looking at the bottle he decided it was probably wiser to pay her a visit before he was summoned. So before he had time to reconsider, he pointed to the sake and laid down more than enough money for the grateful shopkeeper.

A week later, standing in her doorway, dusty and red-faced, Naruto clutched the neck of the bottle in his hand, but he didn’t announce himself. The nagging doubt came back in a wave. More than just the usual greetings, he realized there questions he needed answers to that he didn’t even know how to ask.

And he didn’t want to reveal his secret trip the Sand village and his failure with Sakura, another lifelong goal that hadn’t turn out the way he’d expected—

“Well, well! What brings you here?” Tsunade grinned broadly at him from behind her desk. “Are you just back from your latest mission—” She spied the bottle and her eyebrow shot up. “Wait— Have you done something wrong?”

Laughing deeply, his troubled thoughts were pushed aside for the moment. Smiling, he strode across the room and plunked the bottle on the desk in front of her.

“I haven’t done anything Baa-Chan! Can’t I just you a drink?” She shot him a look of goodnatured skepticism. “Of course, if you don’t want it….”

“Right. Sit down.” She snatched up the bottle and pulled two sake cups from the drawer while he dropped into the chair across from her desk. A little puff of dust rising from his travel-worn clothes.

“How are you,” she began, raising her cup to him in gratitude. “I’ve gotten favorable reports of your work. Though catching up with you has been difficult. You’ve been all over the map!” She lifted the bottle and tugged out a map from under the papers. It outlined the rebuilding campaign, and Naruto recognized most of the names on there. They drank sake, pointed to the map and talked about the reconstruction efforts and all his missions.

Finally she sat back, content that she knew all his activities of the last few months. “It’s good to see you. I don’t think I’ve laid eyes on you since you returned from the Sand.” She shot him a knowing smile and Naruto had the good manners to look sheepish, rubbing the back of his neck. “Well…you certainly have gotten tan, I’ll give you that!”


“Apologies, Godaime,” he said, bowing, hoping a formal apology would placate her. She smirked and pointed to her empty cup, which he filled. The rice wine went farther in smoothing things over than his apology did. “I know I didn’t log that I was leaving the village. But it was a sudden…uh, opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”

She sipped slowly, watching him and not believing him for a second.

He had forgotten that he’d told no one he was leaving. He should have realized she’d know anyway. She always seemed to know everything about everyone in the village, including him. But admitting his transgression gave him an an unexpected opening.

“Actually I wanted to ask you about something…um…something I heard in Suna.” She tipped her head, curiosity piqued. “Gaara and several daimyos mentioned the tension in the Waterfall country and seemed to think I might know something about it. I don’t, of course,” he smiled, “but I was wondering…should I?”

Tsunade’s brows knit together in surprise. “What do you mean?”

Naruto shifted in his seat uncomfortably. “I mean, should I? If I’m to be a Hokage someday, aren’t those the types of  things I’ll need to know? Not just the rasengan or the sage mode, but which countries are at war, which are allies and which ones, like the Waterfall, we have to keep an eye on?”

“That’s very good, Naruto. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Seems you did learn something from your unscheduled trip to the Sand.” She raised her cup. “And so this is why you’ve brought me expensive sake?”

Naruto cringed. “No! Really! I just saw it and thought of you!”

He knew he couldn’t get out of it so easily, and now he’d probably get an earful from her. But to his surprise, she just rolled her eyes before draining her cup and setting it on the blue patch of map marked “Waterfall.”

“Well, the Waterfall situation is tenuous,” she said, expression turning serious, as if she were actually a little relieved to have someone to talk to about it. “We’ve been watching them since the spring. We have several diplomats on a committee to discuss a peace treaty, but they have several infighting clans that are making it difficult. There’s the head clan, the Ryujin, with their water vortex jutsu, and they are tasked with protecting the village. A plum position with lots of benefits. But there are several secondary clans that would like to unseat them, namely the….”

She splayed her fingers and rattled off clan names, locations and secret jutsus until Naruto’s ears rung with information, and his mouth fell open at the thought of one person knowing so much about another village, in addition to their own. No wonder she looked excited to talk about it. Even if he studied for weeks, he didn’t think he could ever cram all that into his head—

“Naruto, are you following all of this?”

“Uh…yeah?” But Tsunade saw through him. “No,” he admitted. “It’s, uh, a lot to take in….”

She propped her chin on her hand. “Naruto, why are you asking about this? It’s not anything you’d be interested in—“

He straightened suddenly. “You see, that’s the thing. I should be interested in it, shouldn’t I? If I want to be the Hokage, I’ll have to be! Gaara knew so much about it, and when they asked him—“ He looked at his knees, voice dropping. “I couldn’t answer a single question. But he had everything together.” His eyes met Tsunade’s again. “But he’s really good at being a kage, I mean. Naturally, without even trying. He may be better at being the Kazekage than he was as a shinobi.” He shook his head, blue eyes never leaving hers, “After seeing him, I just don’t know…. Maybe I’m just not—“

Tsunade raised a hand, stopping him. “Ah, I see. You’ve seen Gaara and this stems from your old rivalry.” He shook his head half-heartedly, but Tsunade laughed at him. “Naruto, you can’t just pop up and be a kage because you want to. Gaara had to work long and hard to get to this point. He had to gain the trust of his council and figure out how to run his city. It hasn’t been an easy road for him. Not by a long shot. Did you know there was almost a revolt when he first came to power?”

Wide-eyed, Naruto shook his head. Tsunade nodded solemnly.

“Only the promise of ironclad alliances with a few of the other nations, including us, that would come to pass with his taking the kage seat quelled the rogue councilmen and their clans.”

Naruto sunk back into his chair, draining his fourth cup. Or fifth cup. He couldn’t remember. “Wow. I didn’t know any of that. He made it look so easy, like he liked all the work, an office job, signing papers and talking to those men for hours and hours….”

Tsunade nodded wearily, pulling a fresh bottle of sake from her own stash in the drawer. “Being a kage is ten times harder than being a shinobi.”

Naruto looked as if he was seeing her with new eyes. “Was it…. Was it like that for you too? When you first came back?”

“Yes,” she said simply. “Yes it was. Very hard. I wasn’t their first choice, and there were days I wanted to walk away from the whole thing.” She sipped her drink. “But I realized there was no one else but me to get it done. So I stuck it out.”

Naruto quietly took it all in. Tsunade refilled his cup. “Gaara said that a village, it was like love…or something….” He shook his head — he was a little hazy on the exact phrase — then swirled the sake before taking another swig.

Tsunade shrugged and set down her empty glass. “Now, why are you in here? Shouldn’t you be off training somewhere? I hear they’ve replaced the kunai posts,” she added with a wink.

Naruto laughed, feeling a warm surge of confidence. “No, I’ve been thinking about what you said…. About finding another direction.” His cheeks flushed a dull pink. “I want to be Hokage, someday, but I never do anything about it. And when I went to the Sand, I realized I didn’t know much about our place in the world. So…maybe it’s time I learned!”

Tsunade beamed at him. “I wasn’t sure if you still wanted to…. Well, you seemed lost for a little while there. But if you want to learn, then I can help—“

Naruto wasn’t sure if it was the sake or not, but he her note of approval made him feel like he’d found his way. Finally. It buzzed in his head, and the certainty swelled in his chest like a bubble.

“Yes, Baa-chan, more than anything!” He felt sure of himself now. Even a little giddy. “I know everything there is to know about being a shinobi, right? So, how hard can it be?! I’ll figure it out, like getting through the academy or learning my shinobi skills. Just like Gaara, you know. It’s time I moved up to the next level too—“

But instead of being impressed, or whatever Naruto thought she might be, Tsunade waited across the desk like a tiger ready to pounce.

“So…you’ve figured out what you want,” she began smoothly, almost sweetly. “Good…. Then there’s just one more thing you need to know….”

And then she roared.

Being Hokage is the hardest thing you’ll ever do!

The bubble burst. The buzzy feeling died. Naruto sobered quickly in the face of the one woman that made men like Jiraiya tremble. But Tsunade wasn’t finished.

“You’ll have to work your tail off! Be patient and polite even when you don’t want to,” she yelled, “and you can’t resort to fighting, even when the other party deserves it!” She slammed her hand down on the desk, making the papers and cups and bottles jump in the air. “You’ll have to forget everything you’ve learned as a shinobi!”

Naruto gripped the arms of his chair, speechless. “Wha—?”

Face wreathed in smug satisfaction, Tsunade eased back into her seat. “Shinobi code relies on violence first. Manipulate with a jutsu to get what you want or just overpower to get the job done. A kage uses diplomacy. Peace, treaties and alliances come first. Violence is for only for protection and always the last line of defense.”

“But what about Root? Anbu? The interrogation squad— They all hunt down potential threats, stopping them before they become a bigger problem—“

“But they are not the Hokage, are they? No, the Hokage is held to an entirely different set of standards.”

Naruto looked at the empty cup in his hand and frowned. Tsunade lifted the sake bottle to refill it but he shook his head and put it back on her desk, pushing it away from him. Tsunade just poured his share in her cup.

What she said went against everything he knew about being Hokage. To be the kage you had to be the most powerful in the village— In the whole country. This was fact. The Hokage — any kage — was always the greatest asset, stronger than any shinobi and greater than any jutsu.

But now she was saying he was wrong? It was none of those things?

“I felt the same way,” Tsunade said, pausing for a drink as if the outburst had never happened. “But the truth is a kage is a walking contradiction. The most powerful, but also the most peaceful. You have to wield strong enough jutsus to protect the village, and yet be judicious enough to know when to use them. It is a constant balancing act. Everyday, in every alliance.”

Naruto listened intently, understanding sinking in.

“But that’s not to say it isn’t hard. Don’t mistake me. This job, being Hokage…it’s the toughest thing you’ll ever do. Harder than becoming a shinobi. Harder than passing the final jonin exam or the Anbu entrance trials or taking down a Root team. Harder than….”

Tsunade’s voice trailed off. She watched him, his expression heavy as he weighed her words.

“You have to leave everything you’ve learned as a shinobi behind,” she said. “You have to start over. It will be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Because it’s not your strength that makes you a good Hokage but what you are willing to sacrifice: Yourself. You have to rebuild yourself and become what the village needs. Not what you want to be.”

She sighed. She was dashing his dream and she knew it. But he needed to know. “I have often wondered if you’d still be interested in the job once you knew what it really was.”

Naruto tore his eyes away from her to stare hard out the window. He was more still than she thought she’d ever seen him. But she wouldn’t push him.

Finally, he looked back, eyes almost grey with reflected evening light. No trace of a smile lit his face, and Tsunade smothered a gasp at just how much he looked like his father in that moment. He was suddenly Minato, somber and intent and deeply determined to shoulder the worries of the whole village at such a terribly young age.

But Naruto swallowed, throat bobbing nervously, and the picture was shattered. Naruto was still gripped by the doubt that she knew a fully-realized Hokage could never let show.

“So…. You don’t think I should do it?” It was more statement than question and he didn’t wait for her answer, turning away as if he’d already come to the conclusion himself.

Tsunade’s voice softened. “I only said it was hard. And it is. Harder than anything you’ll ever do…. And perhaps harder for you than anyone else.” This clearly didn’t make him feel better. “But I have never known anything you couldn’t do, once you set your sights on it. If this is what you still want, being Hokage, then expect a lot of work. There aren’t any shortcuts.”

There was a heavy silence between them. Naruto sat stony and emotionless. Tsunade banked her disappointment. She knew what was coming and it wouldn’t be fair for him to discover that his dream of becoming the Hokage had been her dream too. But if he wanted out then she’d let him go—

He took a deep breath and she held hers.

“You’re right,” he said finally. “There never are any shortcuts, are there?”

Then, against all odds, a brilliant smile broke across his face.

“But I haven’t given up yet just because something’s hard!”

She beamed. “No. You never have.”

“I guess,” Naruto said, relaxing and sounding more like himself again, “I just didn’t think about what was involved. I didn’t know where to start and…. Well, maybe I wasn’t ready to start until now.”

Tsunade nodded. “There’s never a right time. Sometimes it is goes slowly, but sometimes, like in my case, its all of a sudden.”

Naruto considered the loss of the Third and what a hole it left in their village. It must have been even harder for Tsunade. As his student and unexpected succesor.

She cleared her throat. “Whenever you’re ready, you can start by attending some meetings with me. They are long and dull and boring, but they are important so they can’t be missed. However, this will probably eat into your mission schedule, so….”

Naruto nodded solemnly, “I understand.”

She pulled out her calendar book and opened the months, flipping through each one. “I have a meeting here with the daimyos and here with the council and here with a group from the Sand.” She flipped to about six months out and Naruto saw “Sakura’s return” penciled in one of the blanks. His breathing hitched, but he exhaled softly and told himself not to worry about it. She was happy. And now, with a new goal in front of him as well, so was he.

“Here,” Tsunade pointed to one the following week. “You can come to this one. It’s a small council meeting. It’s a good place to start.”

Naruto nodded, his smile growing with his feeling of certainty.

But Tsunade pointed at him. “And I’m not kidding! Becoming a kage will be especially hard for you.” Naruto looked at her seriously. “You like to be out, active, doing things for people and seeing the effects of your hard work right at the end of your fingertips. Being Hokage is not that. It takes patience and perseverance. And even when you’ve done your best, things won’t work out the way you planned. But you have to accept it, and move on. Do you think you can do it?”

Naruto’s big smile returned, this time earnest and sure, suffusing his face with self-confidence. He felt something shift in his chest and come back into balance, as if he’d finally found the path he was meant to be on. “Yeah, Baa-chan, I’m sure I can do it.”