“That concludes my report,” Kakashi told the Third Hokage, painfully awarethat the sun had just set, and that the rest of the day was probably a write-off after the tiring journey. “You can find additional details in the writtenversion.”
The Hokage nodded. He’d suspected he might regret letting Naruto loose on theunsuspecting wider world, but the boy had truly surpassed his expectations. Injust a few short weeks, he’d managed to defeat a Jōnin, unleash and re-imprison an eldritch horror, win a brewing civil war (if that was the rightterm for Gatō‘s inevitable conflict with the mercenaries Wave was going tohire) before it had even begun, and alter Leaf’s status in the Country of theWave’s eyes from “favoured trading partner” to “land of invincible heavenlysaviours”. Even with Kakashi’s help, that was quite the first C-rank mission.
“Thank you, you three. You are dismissed. Naruto, please stay behind.”
Sakura, Sasuke and Kakashi bowed and left. Naruto mentally moved his plansforward. This wasn’t a confrontation he’d intended to have just yet, butsometimes you just had to play the hand you were dealt.
“What do you want to talk about, old man?”
“Naruto,” the Third leaned forward, “I need you to tell me everything aboutyour experience with the Nine-Brained Demon Fox. Everything. Even the thingsyou didn’t tell Kakashi.”
“What things I didn’t tell… oh, screw it.” Naruto was tired after a long dayof travel followed by what felt like many hours of standing theresupplementing Kakashi’s report, and didn’t feel like playing games. “I’m goingto make you a deal. I’ll tell you everything if you tell me everything.”
“What do you mean?” the Hokage frowned.
“About the Demon Fox, and my parents, and what really happened twelve yearsago. I think it’s long past time I knew.” This was it. He’d practised thisconversation a hundred times, following all the ways it might go, all thedifferent points of leverage he could use. He couldn’t screw this up, or itmight be years before he got another chance.
The Hokage, too, had practised this conversation, or ones not too different,more times than he cared to think about. “Did it not occur to you,” he asked,“that there might be very good reasons for you to remain ignorant of certainmatters?”
Naruto nodded. “Yes, it did. I know I’m young, and just a Genin, and betweenmy general ignorance and my low security clearance there’s a lot of stuff youfeel you can’t trust me with. And if I thought this secrecy was yourindependent judgment, I might even try to respect it.”
He took a deep breath.
“But this whole scenario is just too stupid. What kind of idiot puts anindiscriminate, uncontrollable superweapon inside a child and just hopesnobody notices? What kind of idiot then lets everybody and their dog bullythat child, eroding his loyalty to the village when he can destroy it in theblink of an eye? And let’s not even talk about the security implications ofturning a highly valuable yet completely defenceless child into a socialpariah whom, forget protecting, half the village would kill if they wereprepared to get their own hands dirty and thought they could get away with it.Frankly, it’s a miracle I’ve made it this far without being kidnapped orassassinated by enemy agents, or made to meet with an unfortunate accident bya local.
“They call you the Professor, the most intelligent ninja Leaf’s ever known.There is no way you’re stupid enough to have set this situation up yourself,which means someone else overruled you.”
The Third controlled his expression carefully, while reeling on the inside.Was this really the same Naruto who spent all his time playing pranks andreading manga? The indefatigable but ultimately somewhat simple boy who tookdisastrous exam scores almost as badges of pride, and invested all his cunningin surprising people and finding ever new ways to draw attention? Just whathad happened to him in Wave, that he should suddenly talk like this, throwingthe Third’s own failed arguments from twelve years ago right back in his face?
“You’ve always been caught in the middle between good and evil, haven’t you?”Naruto asked rhetorically. “You erased my parents’ names from my birthcertificate, changed the date, told me their deaths were part of a mission sosecret you weren’t even allowed to say who they were. Then you gave me mymother’s name anyway.”
The Hokage nodded mutely. It had been the only thing he managed to get acompromise on, and that had only been because if the child had to be hated somuch, then no family would consent to him sharing their name, and a name withno other bearers would scarcely be less conspicuous to anyone knowing what tolook for. Time had shown that people were perfectly happy to assume the boysome distant relative, taken in as a refugee much the same way Kushina herselfhad been.
Naruto went on. “You let the villagers hate me, but you yourself were alwayskind to me, even though you should have been too busy and important to evertalk to some random boy. You let the Academy instructors screw up myeducation, but when you noticed Iruka-sensei treating me like a person, if avery bad one, you talked to him, and whatever it is you said made a hugedifference.”
How had Naruto even known about that last one, the Third wondered. Heck, howhad he known any of it? This wasn’t just some sudden transformation. This wassomething more. Had he - and everyone else - been underestimating the boy allalong?
Naruto, meanwhile, wasn’t enjoying what he was doing. It was true, every word,but he could see the effect his words were having on the Hokage, and he hatedthe idea that people could be reduced to something like this, with pressablebuttons and predictable effects. Or at least people he cared about, whotreated him as a human being and deserved the same in return. But he hadn’tforgotten Kakashi-sensei’s words. Some things were just too important, and hehad to be prepared to make sacrifices for them. Perhaps, he reflected, thepath of the ninja really was making him sacrifice his innocence - just not inthe way Morino-sensei had meant.
“This is your time to make a choice,” he told the older and wiser shinobi.“You can stay stuck in the middle, not evil enough to do what everyone else isdoing, but not good enough to do what’s right. Or you can help me. There arethings I need to know, and the longer I go without knowing them, the morelikely things are to go horribly wrong. You’ve just seen that you can’tprotect me, least of all from the consequences of my own decisions. And if Iam to make the right decisions, I need to base them on the truth.”
The Hokage sighed, completely outplayed. Naruto was apparently a natural atemotional manipulation, and the fact that he was using it as a tool,consciously or unconsciously, did not make his words any less accurate.Perhaps he should have been fighting back, using all the power of insight athis disposal to cut through Naruto’s reasoning and put the boy back in hisplace. But the fact remained that somewhere, deep down, he wanted theabsolution that came from finally being honest about at least a few things,wanted to be able to face Minato’s shade with the beginnings of a clearconscience.
“I suppose there’s no chance of going for total containment at this stageanyway,” he told Naruto. “Not with Zabuza, Tazuna and this Haku boy allknowing about the Demon Fox.” He lit his pipe with an air of resignation,preparing for twelve years of conspiracy to go up in smoke and needing thatextra bit of familiar routine to help ground himself for what was to come.“Very well. But first, tell me what happened.”
Naruto described his experiences in as much detail as he could. It was ratheruncomfortable to talk about his mindscape with someone for the first time, andfrankly painful to have to relive his first contact with the Nine-BrainedDemon Fox, a being equal parts the terrifying mystery of darkness and theunbearable horror of that which should not be seen. He struggled to explain inwords the experience of being in its presence, of that merciless,dispassionate, silent attention directed at him from every angle. It was likebeing in a huge crowd of people at some popular event, and suddenlydiscovering that every single one of those people was there for the solepurpose of observing you, and had been focusing their attention exclusively onyou all along, and watching them turn their heads to look at you all at thesame time, never blinking.
No, even that didn’t describe it. It was that moment of shock, frozen in time,merged with the helpless horror of the vivisection table and the desperateprayer to go unnoticed by a being so vast that it would crush you simplybecause that was easier than the alternative. Naruto still saw those eyes inhis dreams sometimes, and didn’t know if they were born of his imagination orif they had followed him back from inside the Fox’s prison.
The Hokage listened without interrupting. Inside him, a guardian’s compassionwarred with a scientist’s professional detachment, both sides insisting thattheirs was the only wise and ethical way to respond to Naruto’s account.
“I’m sorry you had to experience that, Naruto”, he finally told him. “Theprice paid by a demon host is high, and you never asked to pay it. Now lift upyour shirt.”
“Lift up your shirt. I need to see the seal.”
Naruto obeyed. The Hokage put his hand on the boy’s stomach. Immediately, ablack pattern appeared, four concentric circles of elaborate intertwined sealsaround the navel, the outermost slightly paler than the rest.
“He wrought well,” the Hokage commented. “It’s as flawless as the day it wasmade. At least we don’t have to worry about the Fox breaking loose of its ownwill.”
Naruto nodded. “Good. Now I believe you have some answers for me.”
“Yes,” the Hokage sighed. “I suppose I do. Your mother, as it seems you know,was Uzumaki Kushina, a refugee from the Hidden Village of Whirling Tides. Shewas also the previous host for the Nine-Brained Demon Fox.”
“And my father?”
The Third braced himself. He had not been looking forward to this part. “Yourfather… was Namikaze Minato, the Fourth Hokage.”
He looked up, expecting shouting, slamming of hands on tables, or at least aflat “what.” He would even have tolerated a small amount of violence beinginflicted upon his person, though it was important for the sake of disciplinethat some lines remain uncrossed. Instead, Naruto was completely silent.
“My father… was the Fourth Hokage.”
Naruto didn’t even know where to start with this. He literally didn’t. He feltlike his brain had been completely locked up by the revelation. There were toomany implications. He couldn’t process them all. Or any of them. As soon as hestarted on one, his thought process was disrupted by another.
“I know this is a lot to take in, Naruto. Don’t try to figure it all out atonce,” the Third advised him. He was starting to update his perspective onNaruto, who was clearly much more intelligent, and much less… uncomplicatedthan he’d appeared to be. Suddenly, the Hokage could see Naruto’s parents inhim in a way he never could before, however hard he’d tried. Minato’s razor-edged intelligence, so sharp he had a tendency to cut himself, and Kushina’sundeflectable angry passion… Naruto wasn’t his parents, but thinking of themhelped the old man know how to deal with him.
“I’m going to tell you the story in order. It should answer many of yourquestions. The rest we can talk about at the end.”
“Your parents met when they were young, not much older than you. Theirrelationship was… unique, in many ways. Your mother was strong-willed, short-tempered, fiery. She told me once, much later on, that keeping that intensecore of fire going inside her was what helped her cope with the strain ofcontaining the Nine-Brains - if her thoughts and feelings were rapid, intense,moving in straight lines, it was that much harder for them to be influenced orcorrupted. You have to understand, her seal was very different from yours. Sheonly had limited protection from the Demon Fox’s corrosive influence.”
Naruto wanted to ask about this, but had already agreed to wait.
“As for your father… have you ever heard the term ‘Yamato Nadeshiko’?”
That was more like it, the Hokage thought to himself.
“You’re telling me the Fourth Hokage, my father, was the epitome oftraditional feminine beauty,” Naruto stated in the same flat, disbelievingvoice.
“In a manner of speaking,” the Hokage smiled. “If Kushina was like fire, thenhe was like flowing water. He was soft, gentle, quick to laugh or to forgive,patient and slow to anger. He always looked out for others, and had a deepsense of responsibility. And at the same time, he had an inner core of steel,a courage and strength that allowed him to fight for the village andultimately become its greatest protector.”
“My father was a Yamato Nadeshiko,” Naruto thought. “This is why you don’tscrew with old people’s feelings. They’ve got the experience to screw with youright back. I’m not going to be able to get that image out of my head formonths.”
“Their relationship was complicated,” the Hokage continued. “They werefriends, rivals, enemies and just about everything else before they becamelovers. Always, though, they seemed to complete each other in a way no-oneelse could, water to keep the flames from roaring out of control, and fire tolight the way through mist and fog.”
The feelings Naruto was experiencing as he listened were not ones he wasfamiliar with. It’s not like he’d never wondered about his parents before, oreven daydreamed about meeting them - they weren’t really dead, they were juston an extreme deep cover mission, or they’d been taken prisoner and finallyescaped, or someone had invented a resurrection ninjutsu that could bring themback to life - but this sort of bittersweet longing was new to him, like hewas finally finding out what he was missing, and that made things both betterand worse.
“However,” the Third went on, oblivious to Naruto’s inner turmoil, or perhapssimply knowing that it was beyond his power to heal, “there is a fundamentallaw regarding female demon hosts. The first time a host gives birth to achild, the process temporarily weakens the seal. This is an incomparablyperfect time for any enemy of the village to strike, attempting to steal or atleast release the Demon Beast. Thus, every precaution is taken to keep thechildbirth secret - to the point of concealing the relationship itself untilthe child is born and the danger is past. If no-one has any reason to expect apregnancy, it is that much easier to hide it. Kushina knew this, and kept herrelationship with Minato absolutely secret from the public.”
The Hokage was right. This was filling in a lot of blanks. Naruto reallywanted for him to slow down, to tell him more about his parents - what theywere like, what they did with their lives, down to every last detail - but atthe same time he knew that there was a more urgent need to understand exactlywhat had happened to them, and why. There would be time to get more detailslater on.
“Unfortunately, it would seem that in this case it wasn’t enough. We stilldon’t know what happened, because of course those who could tell us did notsurvive, but something or someone struck at the moment of childbirth andunleashed the Nine-Brains on Leaf.”
Naruto’s eyes widened. Then… it hadn’t just been a natural disaster. There wassomeone responsible for… well, everything. Someone who would be forced toanswer for their crimes, if it was the last thing Naruto did.
“The destruction was unimaginable,” the Hokage told him, his eyes focused onsome point long ago. “The old village was wiped off the map. Countless peopledied. The Leaf you know is the result of rebuilding, slowly and painstakingly,to take advantage of the natural concealment and defence offered by the craterthe Demon Fox’s attack left behind. And your parents were the only reason itsonslaught had stopped at all.”
“What do you mean?”
“Even before the Night of Tragedy, Minato had been conducting sealcraftingresearch in order to develop a superior seal to contain the Demon Fox. He wasa prodigy, and the latest in a line of great shinobi to attempt the task.”
For a second, the Hokage heard another voice, from an earlier time still.“Sarutobi-sensei,” a pale young man had exclaimed, bursting into his officelast thing at night, “I’ve finally figured it out! My updated cursed sealtheory is going to blow Jiraiya’s ill-conceived dabblings right out of thewater! Just listen to this…”
With a regretful smile, the Hokage returned to his story.
“The work was tremendously important, because a human being is not inherentlycapable of fighting a free Demon Beast. Their intelligence is simply on adifferent level, capable of performing what we would consider miracles ofprediction and calculation. Our only salvation is that it is also somewhatalien in nature - they are not creative the way we would expect a human ofsuch genius to be creative, and just as they can accomplish feats far beyondeven theoretical human comprehension, there are times where they appear tomake mistakes a human in their position would not.
“Unfortunately, when the Fourth Hokage faced the Nine-Brains, his work was notyet complete. Nor could he seal the Demon Fox as the First Hokage had donebefore him, through the power of a Bloodline Limit. Instead, he was forced toresort to one of the most advanced forbidden techniques, the Moment ofClarity.”
The Hokage paused to refill his pipe. The tobacco was unusually bittertonight.
“The Moment of Clarity temporarily unlocks a human being’s complete mentalpotential, enough to enable them to function on the same level as one of theDemon Beasts. He used it to instantly complete his research, and apply it toseal the Demon Fox into you. We call his work the Perfect Seal, and aftertwelve years we still barely understand what it is he did.”
“What happened then?”
“He perished,” the Hokage told him. “The human body can’t operate at thatlevel of function for more than a few seconds - that is why it’s a forbiddentechnique. I’m afraid we still don’t know exactly what happened to your mother- we speculate that her sacrifice was part of the power source that allowedhim to create the Perfect Seal in the first place.”
Naruto nodded, feeling his throat seize up. It wasn’t fair, hearing all this,hearing about his parents’ deaths, like it was something in a history book,long ago and far away. Gone, filed away, too late to be undone, for furtherinformation please see the index. Why couldn’t he have known them, or at leasthad memories of them, something that would make the world in which they werealive a real place?
“Why me?” he asked the obvious question.
“I don’t know,” the Hokage admitted. “Only they could tell you that. But itisn’t hard to understand. Minato was about to die. Kushina could not accept anew seal on top of her recently broken one. You were their son, and theybelieved you could accept that power and wield it for the greater good.Perhaps they even thought it would protect you.”
“Protect me?” Naruto echoed incredulously.
The Third looked down. They hadn’t known that he would fail them the way hedid. They couldn’t have expected the scale of the power shift. With hisprotégé gone and his credibility as protector of the village at an all-timelow, he’d had to struggle to retain even a minimum of influence over events inthe immediate aftermath of the Night of Tragedy.
“I know. It did the exact opposite. And you’re right - I am to blame for that.Others insisted that we had to keep your identity secret to stop enemies ofthe village coming after you while you were young and defenceless. I told themthat it was better for you to be known as the child of heroes, to have theloyalty and support of everyone in the village, but they argued…”
He stopped. He could see fate branching out in two different directions beforehim, depending on whether he told the full truth or the partial truth. Thepartial truth would probably have been better, for Naruto and for the world…but the old man couldn’t do it. He’d had twelve years of concealing the truth,trying to soften it, even for himself. The chance to finally let go, toconfess and accept judgment, was too much for him to resist.
“… they argued that a weak, broken child would make a better tool, easier tocontrol when the time finally came.”
And that had been it. The argument the Hokage hadn’t fought against hardenough, the betrayal of all his beliefs that he had just allowed to happenbecause… because he hadn’t had the influence to fight his opponents head-on?Because he’d still been reeling from the loss of so much that he’d loved, andcouldn’t bear to endanger what was left by provoking a major conflict at thetime when the village was most vulnerable? Because his liberal, humanisticteachings had failed to protect the village in its hour of need, and he couldno longer trust that his way was definitely better? They were excuses, one andall, and he’d spent twelve years asking himself whether he’d just been acoward, afraid to risk everything simply to do what was right.
He came out of his thoughts to realise that Naruto was still silent. Eerilysilent. Silent as if time itself had stopped, frozen and ready to shatter.Silent to the point where the Hokage felt the need to fill the silence nomatter what.
“But they were wrong about you. You were Minato and Kushina’s son, and Iwatched you defy your destiny, over and over again. I know it may not seemlike much, but I did what I could to help you. I kept you independent, and outof the hands of those who would shape your upbringing as they did with many ofthe orphans of that night. I saw the proof of your unbreakable spirit in yourpranks, and never let them accuse you without incontrovertible proof, evenwhen there was no-one else it could possibly be, and kept you from many of thepunishments they-”
“Who are they?” Naruto interrupted in an icy-cold voice. “Who made thosedecisions about me?”
The Hokage shook his head. “I can’t tell you that. Even ignoring the matter ofconfidentiality… you have to understand, Naruto. There are some enemies youcan’t fight. Enemies you shouldn’t even have to fight. You’re twelve yearsold.”
Naruto’s eyes flared. The Hokage instantly knew he’d said the wrong thing.
“Am I too young to have feelings? Too young to be hurt? Too young to seekrevenge?”
“Yes!” The Hokage snapped.
Naruto shrank back, suddenly reminded that he was talking to one of the mostpowerful ninja in the world.
“Listen, Naruto,” the Third said, his voice stern. “I have seen many fineshinobi ruined by the path of vengeance. It is a vice greater and moredangerous than alcohol, or money, or women. It will throw you against enemiestoo powerful for you to fight, and force you to sacrifice everything you holddear for even a tiny chance at victory. And even if you do win, all you willbe left with is the taste of ashes. I am not saying this to you as anauthority figure preaching morality. I am saying it as an old man who has seencountless mistakes, and made countless mistakes, and knows what it looks likewhen somebody is about to make a truly terrible one.”
Naruto didn’t say anything for a while.
“You understand that I can’t just let this go, don’t you?” he finally asked.“I can’t know that everything I’ve been through in my life is the result ofsomeone’s deliberate decision, and just forgive that person or forget theyexist. Even if my own vengeance didn’t matter, the kind of person who wouldbreak a child to turn them into a better tool isn’t someone I can allow tolive in the same world as me.”
The Hokage sighed yet again. “I understand. And the side which you far toogenerously called ‘good’ earlier is not so overflowing with champions that itcan afford to turn one away. But it’s not time yet. No matter whether you seekjustice or vengeance, you are not ready yet to fight these battles withoutlosing either your life or your humanity. Please believe me as one who hasseen too much loss of both.”
“… I understand.” Naruto didn’t, not yet, but he at least knew that there wastoo much he still needed to get his head around. He wasn’t ready to make anydecision yet about what he’d heard today. If there was anything he neededright now, it was to go home and think. Think until the world made sense onceagain.
“Just one more thing,” he added. “What about Raijin? Did he really die on asecret mission, or did he ‘die on a secret mission’ like my parents did?”
The Hokage looked pained for a second. In a voice forced into evenness, hetold him “I’m sorry; I can’t answer that question.”
“What? Why not?”
“Or that one. I know it’s frustrating, Naruto, and I know you deserve better,but I really have told you everything I can for now.” And he was alreadystarting to question whether he had just doomed Leaf Village and/or the worldby giving the volatile pre-teen wielder of the world’s single greatestdestructive force information that could only make him more volatile still.
Naruto fought down the anger trying to break free inside him. There wereplenty of other emotions trying to do the same; it could get in line.
“I think I’ve heard enough for now,” he told the Hokage. “I need to go.”
As he got up and opened the door, the Hokage called out to him. “Naruto… I’msorry.”
Naruto nodded, softly and without compassion. “I know.”
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