Shattered Bonds – 17

Chapter 17 – The Road to Kage

Traveling to the Waterfall country was the first hurdle for Naruto in his training to one day become a Kage. He tugged at his collar, hot and itchy from the unseasonably warm day.

But it wasn’t the civilian clothes or the snail’s pace they traveled or even the confined quarters that was getting to him. It was the road itself. They’d hit so many bumps it felt like his teeth were going to shatter. If he’d known it was going to be this bad when he left Konoha, he might not have come along at all….

Weeks before, Naruto had been silent through out the planning meeting. But when Tsunade’s office finally emptied out, he wondered aloud if it wouldn’t just be easier for them to set off alone and travel light as shinobi did. Let the packed wagons meet them later.

Tsunade smiled ruefully. “While it would be easier, the purpose of this visit is to make a statement. And traveling in traditional carriages is one way we do that.” Naruto rolled his eyes. “Be glad. At least it’s not palanquins this time.”

Naruto looked aghast at the thought of being trapped in a curtained platform while men carried you. It seemed downright cruel. 

“But that doesn’t happen anymore—? Does it? Konoha doesn’t even have those old chairs—“

Tsunade grimaced. “Oh yes, we do. They’re musty and old, and sometimes — very rarely — we have to dust them off and use them. For ceremonies and such. Usually not for official travel though.”

Naruto shuddered at the thought but shook it off. He took a deep breath remembering it didn’t matter. He would be out in the fresh air, running alongside the state carriages or stealthily hopping through the high limbs making sure there were no attackers on the road below. 

“Well, your carriage might take a while, but I’ll be with the security detail. Which reminds me, who did you assign—“

Tsunade shook her head slowly, watching him, a wry smile curving up her lips.

Naruto was slow to catch on. “W-What do you mean….”

Tsunade looked like she was holding back a laugh. “You’ll be riding with me, in the carriage. You’ll be with the Hokage’s entourage, as a diplomatic attendant. Not a shinobi.”

Naruto’s face fell. But before he could break into a whine, Tsunade stopped him. The humor was gone from her voice. “If you are going to learn how to be a leader, you must first act like one.”

Naruto shut his mouth. He recognized her tone and knew better than to argue back. Besides, this must be how it’s done. It probably wouldn’t be that bad—

The carriage lurched suddenly and banged its way through a series of potholes. Each one knocked Naruto against the side, harder and harder. Just when they seemed to be out of it, one last bump pitched him sideways, making him hit his head on the wooden door frame. 

Scowling and muttering curses under his breath, Naruto rubbed the side of his head

Beside him, Tsunade smirked. She did not seem to feel the jolt and shake from the rutted road. It was only then that he noticed she was channeling her chakra downward to keep her balanced on the seat as the carriage lurched beneath her.

He sat back and adopted the same secret shinobi move, glancing sideways at her and seeing her teasing smile. She may have to act like a Kage, but she was not above a few shinobi tricks to keep herself comfortable. He looked across at the two wrinkled old council members just as another bump shot them upward.

Smiling fully, Tsunade turned to him. “Now that you’re comfortable, let’s talk about what you can expect.”

Naruto nodded with intent and earnestly listened, but just like the half-dozen times before in her office, he started to lose track of the names, places and history of this long-running conflict. It was just too much. 

Each time he tried to listen for the kernel of story, the one phrase or clan name or ninja who was at the heart of the struggle. But each time he missed it. 

He tugged at the tight neck of the civilian dress clothes provided by Shizune…mind wandering again…. 

Maybe there wasn’t a kernel of truth at all. Maybe it was just one series of events that led to another, like falling pieces on a game table, knocking one another over. Or maybe a cascading series of events, like a waterfall, just like the country where they were heading…. They probably have loads of waterfalls there. Maybe their whole village is inside one—

“Naruto! Are you even listening?!”

Huh?! Yeah! I just— Well, that last part…. Do you think you could repeat it again? It was— I mean, I kind of got lost there—“

Tsunade sighed. “It doesn’t matter. Not this time anyway. Just follow who I talk to, try to pick up names and places. All you need to remember is that these people might one day be our allies, the next day our enemies. So you have to watch them. All of them. All the time. It’s easy,” she said with a smirk. “Just don’t forget to remember as much as you can!”

Naruto looked at her skeptically. That wasn’t an easy task. But the council members across from her sharpened their attention in spite of the bumps. They nodded hawkishly, approving of Tsunade’s strategies. 

Naruto nodded back, but he had the queasy feeling that he was the only one who didn’t get it. And he’d rather be outside, patrolling up in the trees. Where things made sense.

The Village Hidden in the Waterfalls was not what Naruto expected. He had spent the rest of the journey imagining a secret city built in a vast mountain cave,  hidden behind a curtain of falling water. 

Instead they rounded the corner to see a walled village just like Konoha. Clouds of mist tumbled over the edges of the farthest walls, hinting that there must be at least a few waterfalls contained within the village, but otherwise it seemed the same. 

There was a single entry road through the peeling gates and a gatehouse with a bunch of guards hanging around. At the sound of an approaching carriage, they jumped up and began acting more formal and stern. 

The Konoha carriage lurched to a stop, but before their Leaf shinobi guards could land, the Waterfall patrolmen yanked back the curtain on the vehicle and unceremoniously peered inside. They made a big show of checking their clipboard and narrowing their eyes at the newcomers before they were satisfied and waved them through.

Naruto harrumphed at the treatment, sure that Konoha guards would never be so rude, but Tsunade merely smiled and tugged the curtain closed.

Naruto was about to grumbled loudly about how they were rude, but Tsunade raised a hand.

“Each village has its own way. We’re no different.” Naruto didn’t look convinced. “You might find that a little patience can go a long way. Shinobis may get to show their power, but leaders have to show restraint.”

The other Konoha diplomats in the carriage nodded in agreement, and Naruto grudgingly agreed. Thankfully the carriage started up again and he didn’t have to listen to any more wisdom about how to be a leader.

State dinners were very different affairs from shinobi events. Even though the two villages had been allies in the war, they were treated incredibly formally. Because Naruto was now with the Kage’s entourage, he was ushered into the long, columned state room. The big round door was embossed with patterns of cresting waves and tumbling waters. Naruto watched longingly as it closed on the rest of the Leaf shinobi guards, who were doubtless going to relax after their long trip. 

But not them. The Kage’s envoy was shown to the center of the hall, to a row of benches lined with dark blue cushions, and allowed to sit. They faced a throne carved in the same rippling pattern as the door and lined with the same dark cushions. 

Naruto had just sunk into the smaller cushion on the end when a man in traditional Waterfall blue-and-gold robes stepped forward. He unrolled a scroll that dropped to his sandaled feet, and Naruto fought the urge to groan. Naruto sat through eight scrolls of Waterfall history, important battles and clan names. 

Only slightly more interesting was the reading of Konoha’s history. It was just a single scroll, and Naruto glanced to the side wondering if Tsunade perceived it as a snub. She only smiled placidly, so he couldn’t tell. 

After that was the exchange of gifts, the acknowledgement of alliances between the villages, the reaffirming of treaties, and then finally…dinner. Naruto thought he was going to slide off the bench he was so hungry.

They were ushered into another state room with a long table already set for dinner. But between them and their meal was another gauntlet — a long line of men from each of the same Waterfall clans Naruto had been hearing about for the past few hours. His stomach growled at the smell of food, but he smiled and set about to greeting each man as fast as possible, just like Tsunade was doing. Many smiled and asked about his health and his occupation now, having heard of him from the war. It softened the edge of his hunger.

A commotion was heard at the empty space at the end of the line. It drew the attention of the men around him and more than a few unkind words about the latecomer. 

“Late as usual—“ “Such a disgrace to the clan— “It’s not proper—“ “Not dignified—“ “She has no place at an event like this….”

Naruto turned his head, expecting to see someone who might ruffle the feathers of civilian leadership. Someone like Anko.

Instead it was just a girl of about his age. She scrubbed the back of her neck, jittery with nervous energy. Her tousled, wind-blown hair was unapologetically bright blue, and she scanned the room with amber eyes.

She saw the open spot in the receiving line, threw back her shoulders and took her place, long skirt flapping around her legs as she walked. She stood out. And she knew it.

Her clothes were a strange variation of Waterfall clothing, a mix of civilian and shinobi. On the bottom, she wore a long skirt that was identical to the formal attire worn by the clan women of Waterfall. But she’d cut the sides up to just above her knees. 

On the top she wore a long-sleeve shinobi shirt, same as the other Waterfalls nins…except she’d cut it off right across the middle. It hit just above her waist band, exposing a strip of her stomach. 

The clan leaders looked at her with thunderous frowns as she passed. The civilian women whispered behind their hands. The shinobis standing around the edge of the room just rolled their eyes. 

She shot a glare back at some of the old men as she passed. A few even shuffled away, as if afraid they would catch something. 

But she didn’t care. Her eyes swept the room again, looking intently for someone…. They landed on him.

She caught Naruto’s eye, smiled brightly and then waved. She was here to see him, and a bunch of stuffy old men weren’t going to stop her.

Naruto found himself smiling back. He liked people like her.

There were so many introductions to be made, and since Naruto was accompanying Tsunade and representing Konoha, he couldn’t leave her side. Not unsurprisingly, the boisterous girl was not brought forward for introductions, all though one clan head sniffed in distaste when Naruto asked about the latecomer.

“She’s the only one left in her clan. So I suppose she has the right to attend. But I don’t think it’s proper.” 

They all glanced over at her just then. With terrible timing for her, she had just snatched a steaming bun from a passing plate and was popping it her open mouth, when she glanced up to see their eyes on her. Caught, she ate it in one embarrassed gulp. 

Naruto smothered his laugh. 

The grumpy diplomat sighed deeply. “If it it were up to me….” He left the rest of the thought hanging in the air before turning his attention and compliments back to Tsunade.

Dinner was a long drawn out affair, with too much sitting and listening and fawning, and not nearly enough food for Naruto. By the time it was over, Tsunade was laughing with a few diplomats she’d known for a while. Her cheeks were pink from drinking sake. 

Naruto was not allowed any of that. Even if he wanted it, which he didn’t, he was there as her assistant, and she made sure he understood that. He couldn’t observe if he was tipsy. But clearly having him there meant that Tsunade could unwind a bit. 

The plates of food had long since been cleared, and people were starting to filter out. Naruto leaned back. His stomach growled. 

Two shinobis his age appeared at the door. They didn’t step inside, but looked around the room. He off-handedly wondered if they were here to catch a glimpse of him too, like the girl had. If an interesting new shinobi came to Konoha, he could imagine all his friends sneaking around, trying to get a look at them. 

But the young Waterfall shinobi looked right past him. In fact, they were looking for her. 

Finding her, they beckoned her quietly to leave. From the other end of the long table, she noisily jumped up, grateful to have a reason to go. Naruto noticed no one bid her farewell, and she, in turn, didn’t give even a backward glance at the room.

At the door, she greeted her friends, clutched her stomach, and Naruto could swear he heard her say “I’m starving! Let’s go get some real food!” 

But maybe he was just projecting his own hunger pangs onto her—

She turned back suddenly, and finding him with her amber eyes, nodded at him. Naruto looked to either side, then back at her. She grinned from the doorway, silently mouthed, “Come on!”

Naruto cleared his throat, put on his best ‘mature voice’ and tapped Tsunade on the shoulder. 

“Pardon me, Hokage-sama, but I thought I might leave a little early, take a walk, you know, familiarize myself with the village—“

Tsunade smirked back over her shoulder at him and cut him off. “You can go with her. Just stay out of trouble, Naruto.”

Naruto looked down, hiding his smile. Of course, Tsunade didn’t miss anything. 

“Thanks Baa-chan,” he said quietly, just so she could hear it. 

She laughed at him. “Don’t be out late. Talks start early tomorrow morning.”

He bowed and moved quickly away from the table.

Outside, the girl and her shinobi friends were talking loudly, laughing and acting just like his friends back home. They were teasing her about her strange clothes. 

“Yeah, well, I’m the only one left, so I get to choose right?” She pointed to her outfit. “Clan on the bottom, shinobi on top!” 

They laughed, shaking their heads. One pointed at her cropped top, the edge of which was already starting to fray. “But what happened there? I don’t think sensei would approve—”

“Well, it got too hot, so I just—“ Her fingers were cutting like scissors across the fabric—

Her two friends grew quiet as soon as they saw Naruto approaching.

She turned suddenly and seeing him, stuck her hand out to greet him. “Naruto Uzumaki of the Leaf.” Instead of her own name, she had said his. Loudly. 

Momentarily confused, Naruto extended his hand out of habit. She shook it vigorously in a way that reminded him strongly of Lee. 

“Yes,” he said, starting to smile at the girl’s strange ways.

She nodded, continuing to shake his hand. “I’m Fu Mizuno. Welcome to Takikagure!”

He laughed. “Thanks! I feel very welcome here!”

He smiled brightly, and she smiled with him, making her cheeks go a little red. Suddenly realizing she was still shaking his hand, she stopped quickly and turned to rattle off the names of her two teammates, who were just then leaning on the low wall a behind her, in no order.

“And these are my teammates, Hayase and Junto.”

Naruto said hello to both of them, even though he didn’t know which was which. One was short, one was tall. Both had the same moppish dark hair. 

They must have been used to her ways. They both muttered “Hey” at the same time, not bothering to clear any confusion.

She turned to Naruto, enthusiasm bubbling over again, and announced. “I’m starving! Let’s go eat!”

She started walking with Naruto, and the two teammates fell in behind them without a word. “There are so many interesting places open late here. Food I’m sure you don’t have in the Leaf village—“ She listed off several dishes Naruto had never heard of before, waterfall specialties he assumed. But she turned to him suddenly, eyes wide. “I know! Do you like ramen?”

Her enthusiasm was infectious. His face broke into a wide grin. “Do I? I love ramen!! Let’s go!”

Over dinner at a ramen stand that was very much like Ichiraku’s back home, he and Fu carried on most of the conversation. She was just as curious about the differences in their village as he was. They talked about everything from food to fighting styles. Her teammates commented from time to time, but mostly they were quiet.

She talked loud, told funny stories, snorted at his jokes and ate just as much as he did. They both had impressive stacks of bowls beside them when the owner told them it was closing time. 

The two partners had long since left. They were nice, but quiet. Her loud personality stood out from theirs. But then, he thought, she’d probably stand out anywhere. She was definitely different from everyone else he’d seen so far in Waterfall.

Naruto’s cheeks hurt from smiling and his stomach hurt from laughing so hard. Particularly after an impression of one her teachers sent a noodle bowl flying backwards over the counter. It was a good thing she knew the owner, otherwise he’d probably have thrown them out. It did look like his patience was a little thin with the loud diners when he was wiping down the counters though.

They walked through the empty streets of the Waterfall village, and she pointed out some of the sights. “I could show them to you, if you’d like.” Her voice was so friendly and hopeful in the darkness. 

How could she have known that was exactly what he was looking forward to —  getting to see another village and find out what it was like. And to be shown around by someone who seemed like a long-lost friend he’d only just met…. What could be better?

“I’d love that,” he said warmly.

“Yosh,” she burst out. “‘M’kay, after your boring meeting, I’ll meet you at the ramen stand. That is, if you’re not too tired from sitting around all day listening to them go on and on and on—” She made a face like the thought made her sick. “And if I’m not too full from eating more ramen than you,” he laughed at her taunting, “then I’ll show you around some of the sights our village is famous for.”

Naruto stepped away from her, curious about the last bit. “Like what?”

She grinned, walking backwards. “What else?” She raised her hands up. “Waterfalls!”

Naruto walked back up the steps to their lodging thinking it was best time he’d had in a while. She seemed like someone he could have grown up with or gone to school with. She was just…fun.

When he got to the hallway where the Konoha envoy was staying, it was very quiet. He worried suddenly he might have been out too late. But he looked down the hall towards Tsunade’s suite of rooms and realized the lights had never been turned on. They weren’t even back yet. She was clearly having a good time too. 

Laughing, he shook his head and closed the door.