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Tobirama Kicks Some Sense Into Konoha

Chapter Text

When he slapped a hand down to the ground, releasing a burst of chakra in order to form his new transportation seal, he expected two outcomes. Either he shredded himself into a bloody pulpy mess and thus do the job of the Kinkaku Squad for them because he was too hasty to properly check his seal, which was a beginner's mistake and something he hadn’t done since he was a child, or he lands miles away from the fight because his experimental seal actually worked.

As he hunched over his last desperate move, glaring down Kinkaku’s oncoming attack, he poured his chakra into the seal he formed from his own memory and chakra. For the first time in a long time, he prayed and begged for something to work and save him.

Then in a blinding flash of blue, Kinkaku was gone and the blazing fire of chakras that seared at his senses had disappeared as if they were never there.

The sheer force of chakra exhaustion slammed into him, making his joints weak and give out. Tobirama lay there blinking the growing number of black spots from his vision. Tree leaves danced and shifted above, letting hypnotizing rays of light trickle through. Around him, familiar traces of his departed older brother. He breathed deep, head spinning in a riot. He’d made it back to the Land of Fire. His brother’s trees stood sentinel over him, still watching over him.

Tobirama let his eyes close as an incredibly bright beam of light crossed his face and lingered there.

He’d rest before moving again. His village, his team needed him. Mito, his nieces and nephews, Tsuna-chan. He’d get back to them as soon as he could hold a more coherent thought.

 

*****

 

The next time he opened his eyes, he knew he’d been asleep for a long time. His body was stiff, his mouth dry, and his chakra mildly restored from the dredges it had been before.

Tobirama calculated that it’d probably been about nine hours given his chakra levels. A stupid amount of time to remain vulnerable and asleep.

“You’re alive!”

A stupid amount of time to remain unaware too.

He felt slow as he contorted his body from a prone position into a low crouch, kunai gripped in both hands. His lips twitched to hiss and bare his teeth like his summons had taught him to do so long ago.

But what he found in front of him wasn’t a threat. Not like he was expecting. A young and small blond child stood in front of him with some of the brightest blue eyes Tobirama’s ever seen. His own red eyes narrowed as he took in the way those blue orbs darted between his weapons before the boy shrunk in on himself and shuffled back a step. The boy was small actually. On dirtied and scratched cheeks, Tobirama could make out his cheekbones and jaw easily. Malnourishment. Even his clothes, baggy, worn, and dirty as they were hung off of too-thin shoulders and gaped around tiny limbs. For the sake of the Sage, the kid wasn’t even wearing shoes!

The sight of an obviously starving child made something cold and angry turn over in his stomach, but he pushed it aside for now in favor of very slowly loosening his fingers around his kunai. “Easy,” he murmured lowly, letting the weapons dangle from his pinkies. “I won’t hurt you.”

Tobirama was trying to figure out if the boy was shinobi or civilian born, and the lingering suspicious look he got made him start favoring the former. Then any murky distrust cleared up in a look of understanding the man couldn’t follow. “Oh! I snuck up on you, huh? That’s why you got your ninja weapons. My bad!” Tobirama felt his head tilt to the side as the boy laughed at himself before running a hand under his nose in the careless way children do. “Say, that’s a good ninja thing, right? Being able to sneak up on ‘nother ninja.” The boy pointed at Tobirama’s head, where the leaf symbol was carved into his happuri. At least the child was familiar with Konoha and didn’t feel threatened.

The Hokage carefully moved out of his crouch and instead sat on his heels, careful to keep himself small and still. He didn’t miss at all the way the kid maintained his distance and twitched at every large movement; especially when he moved his hands. “A vital skill,” he agreed, resting his chin on his knees. “Do you want to become a ninja?”

“Yeah!” Tobirama would admit he had to suppress a flinch at the suddenly loud voice. “I'm gonna be such a awesome ninja, just you watch! I’ll become Hokage, believe it!”

Ah. Well. The current Hokage tilted his head to briefly hide his mouth against his knees, not trusting his lips to stay still. “Hokage?” he repeated curiously, cocking an eyebrow as he got his expression under control. “You’re a bit young, aren’t you?”

“So?” The tiny blond—he’d never really seen a blond like this before. Not even little Tsuna-chan’s hair was this bright and golden—pouted and crossed his arms. “I’ll be the youngest Hokage ever, believe it! Don’t you dare laugh at me!”

His other eyebrow rose up to join the first. “I’m not laughing,” he assured the child. “If anything, I do believe you. Knowing what you want, what your goal is as early as possible so you can work as hard as you can, that’s good.”

The boy’s eyes widened to impossible size and his breath audibly caught. “You…You believe me?” he whispered and Tobirama wanted to curse whoever decided to put this child down for his dreams. Yes, he was a realist and a pragmatic—a complete and total nihilistic cynic at times as well, he would admit—but just because he couldn’t dream anymore didn’t mean others shouldn’t. Besides, he was more than willing to give up the hat at this point. If the boy wanted it and could protect and lead the village adequately enough, let him have it. Saru was going to be tired of the stupid hat soon enough, no doubt.

Tobirama hummed and bobbed his head, trying to affect the serious expression he’d used to convince the council of his ideas and plans. “Given you work and train hard, eating your vegetables and attending your studies, you can become Hokage.”

He fully expected the boy to blanch at the idea of eating vegetables and following his lessons. His nieces and nephews always did when they were younger and even Tsuna-chan had done it. Still does if Tobirama’s honest. He just pretends not to notice when the little girl flicks her veggies into his bowl.

But the boy looked as if he’d been struck. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly as a bright flush rose on his cheeks and his eyes took a distressingly shiny sheen. The man braced for imminent tears, mentally flailing to figure out what he’d said wrong, before the boy visibly steeled himself. His chin trembled worryingly, but he blinked rapidly and took a deep breath. “R-Right. Right! I’ll be the best,” the boy’s voice cracked here and his eyes squinted hard in a wide, toothy grin. Tobirama let him pretend he didn’t see the tear that slipped out of the corner of his eye. “The best Hokage! Believe it!”

“I do,” Tobirama replied quietly, sincerely. He wondered if that was the kid’s favorite phrase right now. “I’m Tobirama.” It was still a habit to never give a family name. “You? What’s the name of my future Hokage?” he asked teasingly in a rather stilted voice. He was still trying this joking thing Kagami and Torifu were on his case about. Izuna would be laughing himself sick at the mere thought.

If it was possible, the child’s smile widened even further. He sniffled and Tobirama was thankful to see that the oncoming tears had been averted. “I’m Naruto Uzumaki and I’m going to be the Fifth Hokage!”

“Uzu…Fifth? That’s a rather specific number.” Tobirama was horrified at the implications that an Uzumaki child was out in the wilderness starving. His sister-in-law was going to murder someone, he just knew it. He’d leave the pointed questions for later because he definitely wasn’t going to leave the child—Naruto—here.

“Eh? No, it’s not.” Naruto crossed his arms and visibly thought hard about something. For all his genius, Tobirama sometimes had a hard time following the logic of children. They made jumps and associations that he didn’t. “The Fourth Hokage may be dead, but he saved the village from the Fox! Everyone knows that! Jiijii may be Hokage again, but the next person will be the Fifth Hokage! One, two, three, and four! See? I can count!”

Tobirama didn’t…know where to start with that. Everyone knew that the Fourth Hokage had saved the village from the Fox. The nine-tailed fox? But that wasn’t possible. The Kyuubi was sealed inside of Mito, the seal-mistress keeping the chakra-being firmly under her watch and refusing to be a  threat to the village. Tobirama knew that if there was any doubt of the seal’s integrity, Mito would’ve sought him or her home clan out for assistance. But what else could be referred to as “the Fox”? Not to mention the reference to the Fourth Hokage and alluding to this “Jiijii” being the third…

“Naruto?” The blond hummed. “Who’s the current Hokage right now?”

The boy frowned, his eyes flicking to the leaf symbol on his forehead. “You don’t know. Jiijii’s been around forever.”

“Yes, but what is his name?

“Um. I’m not sure. Jiijii’s always been Jiijii, you know?” Naruto scratched the back of his head, grumbling to himself. “He always checks up on me. Ever since I could ‘member. Hm…Oh!” Tobirama tried to calm his racing heart and spinning thoughts as the boy perked up. “I heard other adults and stuff call him something. They always yell at me for calling him Jiijii. Say ‘m no’ s’ppos’ to,” he mumbled petulantly and Tobirama shifted, having to mentally keep a hold of his patience and composure. Naruto straightened. “They always say to call him San-dai-me-sama. Is that his name? It can’t be. Too stuffy for Jiijii…”

Tobirama swallowed dryly. “Is his name…Hiruzen Sarutobi?”

He almost wished joy hadn’t dawned on Naruto’s face. “Yeah! That’s the one! Monkey, monkey.” The boy giggled and hooted like a monkey while Tobirama silently crumbled in on himself.

That wasn’t possible. Not enough time had passed for Saru to be properly placed in office let alone enough time for a Fourth Hokage to be selected and inaugurated.

But…

But.

His seals. His Hiraishin. They dealt with space and time. That had been the crucial addition that Mito had suggested he try in order to perfect the jutsu. Tobirama tried to recall the exact seal he’d formed during battle. His eidetic memory failed him as it usually did in times of high stress and trauma and over stimulus. He cursed his fallible mind. Just when he needed answers. Where else could he search for answers?

Home.

“Naruto.”

“Yeah?”

“How far from here is the Hidden Leaf Village?”

“…How far? Mm. We’re already in the Hidden Leaf Village.”

Well then.

Chapter Text

By the time they actually reached the central administration building, Tobirama was having to nearly choke himself trying to restrain his killing intent. If he wasn’t getting double-takes and gaping expressions, then the little boy perched on his back was getting glares and hisses and curses. He hadn’t understood why Naruto tried insisting they take “super, secret ninja paths” until the first mutter of “demon child” was spat in their direction.

Naruto sniffled and buried his face deeper in Tobirama’s fur mantle, his grip never wavering on him and his small heart beating trustingly against his back. Truly, he was the only thing keeping Tobirama from losing his temper at the moment.

Step back,” he snarled when an Anbu stepped out of the shadows of the hallway.

Well, most of his temper. The small flinch he felt go through Naruto was pretty good incentive to hold back. He turned his head to nudge his chin against blond hair. “Sorry,” he murmured, stepping past the paralyzed Anbu. “I’m not mad at you,” he promised. Naruto hummed in answer, but didn’t lift his face from the fur.

Tobirama would take what he could.

Deadly glares and pointed blasts of killing intent let him progress easily into the upper portions of the tower and straight to his office.

Or, what used to be his office.

He opened the door quite civilly, finding satisfaction in taking an unassuming approach to the steady and familiar chakra signature that hadn’t been made aware of his presence.

Sage above, Saru had gotten old.

Tanned, sun-spotted, and wrinkled skin graced his former student’s face. It was hard to see his student in the old man. He couldn’t quite reconcile the youthful, shocked, and scared face of Saru with the man currently occupying the Hokage’s desk. To him, it had only been a little over a day since he’d last seen Saru. But if the changed village set up and the four faces now carved into the cliff hadn’t convinced him, then he wouldn’t be a genius.

“Yes?” the old man grunted, his eyes still flicking over a piece of paper as Tobirama shut the door behind him. He activated the privacy seals of the room with a bit too much chakra edged in rage than he should’ve, but if it made Saru stiffen and jerk his eyes to glare at him, well. Tobirama always had enjoyed taking his enemies by surprise.

“Hiruzen Sarutobi,” he gritted out, a flame worthy of the Uchiha lighting in his chest. “How dare you sit in this office as if you have a right.”

The pipe that his old student had been smoking fell from limp lips. “Se…Sensei?” he rasped, bracing his hands on his desk. “What…Kai!”

Tobirama sneered, unimpressed. “This isn’t a genjutsu. I am not an imposter.” He slammed the full force of his diminished chakra out, taking extra care to gently envelop Naruto in his chilly chakra rather than let him feel the press of it. The boy shivered and lifted his head curiously and Tobirama wondered if anyone had ever offered the boy such a comfort. Naruto was absolutely blazing with chakra at such a young age. To feel someone stronger able to contain and calm his chakra should’ve been familiar to him, but Tobirama couldn’t bear to finish that train of thought lest he become actually enraged.

The Anbu who appeared in the room, weapons drawn, struggled to withstand his onslaught of strength.

“Do you doubt me. Saru,” Tobirama challenged. The old man quickly shook his head, sweating under the weight of his chakra. Aside from Kagami, Saru always had been the smartest of his students. Good to know he still kept his wits. The former Hokage gathered his chakra back to himself, but kept Naruto shrouded and covered in his protection. “Stand down!” Tobirama barked when one of the Anbu twitched.

“Stand down!” Saru repeated and only then did the force take a step back. “Leave us!” Interestingly enough, they didn’t obey.

The one in the dog mask with the distinctive chakra of a Hatake turned his head. “He has Naruto, Lord Hokage.”

Saru jerked and his eyes zeroed in on the tuft of blond peeking over Tobirama’s shoulder. The Senju bounced Naruto a bit higher to allow Saru to see. “Hi, Jiijii,” he greeted shyly, quietly.

“Naruto…” Sarutobi murmured before catching the thunderous expression on his old sensei’s face. Oh yes, Tobirama thought vindictively as Saru paled drastically. He knew what he’d done wrong. The apparent Third Hokage swallowed before clearing his throat. “I am aware. Dismissed.” The Anbu flickered out of sight, leaving the room, but lingering outside the windows, doors, and vents. “Sensei—”

“No,” Tobirama growled. “You’ve lost the privilege of calling me that.” Sarutobi flinched. “I am livid with you, Saru. I wake up after fleeing my fight with the Kinkaku Squad and find an Uzumaki child in my brother’s old playground, which has become more treacherous than I remember. I find him—” Tobirama bit his cheek to stop himself before once again turning his head to peer over his shoulder. Naruto’s bright blue eyes were shadowed and weary now. “Naruto-kun,” he started in a softer, quieter tone, “I’m most likely going to raise my voice. I have a jutsu that can mute your hearing. Do you want me to use it?”

The boy’s eyes widened in surprise before looking back to where his “Jiijii” was rising to his feet slowly and shakily. “I…I want to l-listen, believe it,” he muttered, burying his face in Tobirama’s fur mantle once more, his arms and legs squeezing tighter. “I want to know,” he continued, his voice barely audible with as muffled as it was.

Tobirama nodded and chinned the top of the boy’s head for a moment, swearing to try to keep his voice down. “Very well. Hiruzen Sarutobi, I should call for an inquisition on your doings and failings. I found Naruto Uzumaki in the 44th Training Ground, alone, hunting for food because no one would let him buy anything.” Tobirama gnashed his teeth, his breathing picking up a small bit with his growing ire. “I was told that it’s fine. It’s fine because Jiijii would be giving him his allowance soon and knew he went there for food.” The man had to resist the urge to yell or shove Sarutobi out the window as the old man leaned on his hands on the desk, eyes squeezed shut and breathing carefully measured. Saru’s chakra wasn’t anywhere near as controlled and composed, a riot of guilt and shame. “He tells me that he lives on his own. A child. At five years old. Is left by clan and village alone. Reviled and hated for having the same chakra as my sister. Something he himself knows nothing about. Do you understand the very basics of what I’m trying to say?”

“Yes, sensei,” came the prompt response.

“Do you understand why the Hidden Leaf Village was founded?”

“Yes, sensei.”

“Then why,” Tobirama hissed, his sage marks tingling and itching to grow and be released, “has the very same village that was made to protect children abandoned one?” Silence. “Why has the Hokage, my former student, so blatantly and knowingly turned his back on an innocent child?” More silence. “Sarutobi, you will answer me,” he whispered, his vision sharpening and narrowing in on only his student in a manner he usually did with enemies.

The old man cringed before opening his eyes. He kept them lowered—good—and blew out a breath. “It’s complicated.”

Tobirama could not believe what he was hearing. When the silence dragged on, Sarutobi eventually risked lifting his gaze. Whatever expression was on his face had the old man stumbling back a step, knocking his chair over. “Let me be perfectly clear, Sarutobi. You will uncomplicate this. You will fix this hatred that has taken root in the village or so help me, my brother’s dream or not, I will burn it to the ground. Am I understood?”

The Third Hokage nodded mutely.

“Good. Rescind all guardianship rights you have over Naruto Uzumaki and transfer them to me.” Tobirama schooled his expression once more, returning to his stoic mask. “I am ashamed to have been your teacher, Sarutobi.” With that, he reached out for one of his classic Hiraishin markers that he left during his walk through the village and disappeared out of the office.

He landed on top of what used to be an apothecary, but was now a flower shop. For a long moment, he looked out over the alien village and tried to accept that this was the Hidden Leaf Village.

It was the shifting on his back that drew his attention back to the here and now. “I’m sorry you had to hear that,” he apologized softly.

He felt the boy shake his head. “’S okay. You weren’t mad at me. I like Jiijii, but…has he really messed up?”

The man nodded grimly. “More than you can know.”

“And you’re his sensei?”

“Was. But yes.”

“Then it’s your job to yell at him and teach him, yeah?”

“A sensei’s job is to impart knowledge and guide their students,” Tobirama corrected. “Not to yell and cow them and belittle them.”

“…Yeah, that.” Naruto lifted himself higher onto Tobirama’s shoulders and sucked in a sharp breath. “Whoa! The village looks so cool from up here!”

Tobirama had to admire the sound and look of admiration and warmth coming from the boy. He’d merely seen a glimpse of how Naruto was treated, and yet the child still looked out upon the village like it was something incredible and precious, babbling away as he pointed out the things he could see and where he himself had climbed up. For a moment, he recalled a younger Hashirama gushing over the flowers and plants he’d found and an even older Hashirama sitting on the cliff to point out how the village had grown as if Tobirama hadn’t been there at his side helping grow it.

He missed his anija.

“Hey, hey. Tobi-jii.”

“Oji,” Tobirama corrected, shrugging when the boy made a ‘huh’ sound. “I believe I’m distantly related to you, an uncle in some way if not a cousin.”

“Wait, really?!” Tobirama shifted and adjusted his arms as the boy scrambled up and over his shoulder. It had been a while since a child used him for climbing practice, but he was rather tall. He’d gotten a lot of practice in making sure a little one didn’t fall. “We’re family?!” Naruto demanded. “But we don’t look anything alike!”

The man huffed and smiled ruefully. “I look nothing like my family. My anija had dark skin, brown eyes, and brown hair. Much the same as the rest of my family. But my brother did marry Mito Uzumaki, the first-born daughter of the clan head at the time. So, yes, I think we’re related in some way.”

“I…I have family? A clan?” the boy asked, stunned beyond all belief.

“Yes,” Tobirama confirmed with every ounce of certainty and authority he had. “For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say I’m your uncle. You are my nephew. We’ll figure out where the rest of the Uzumakis got off to.”

The look of excitement and joy rocked Tobirama down to the bone. It had been quite some time since anyone so happily claimed him as family. He hugged his nephew back tightly, soothing the sad and biting cracks in his raging-fire chakra.

Everyone else had seemingly forgotten why the Hidden Leaf Village was founded, but not Tobirama. If he had to, he’d look after every child himself.

Chapter Text

“I’m home!” Naruto called as he unlocked the very inadequate metal bolt lock and opened the door to his apartment. His apartment that was very much in the red-light district and looked like it was violating all of the building code requirements he’d drafted upon the village’s founding. Tobirama would have to read up on all the current laws to make sure he knew what had changed and what he could use to strike out with.

And strike he would because he had half a mind to flash back to his old office and throttle Sarutobi. The ceiling was bowed and discolored in spots, telling of water damage, the wooden flooring looked more brittle than even Hashirama’s earliest attempts at wood for building material, and around the windows and the door he came through were scorch and knife marks as if a confrontation had occurred. That spoke nothing of the bare nothingness in the way of furnishings. There was a ratty futon that might be serviceable, a low table with a single pillow to sit on, a rusty kitchen oven and fridge, and a bathroom that was missing a door. Tobirama could even smell the mold in the air.

It was appalling and Tobirama wondered quickly if the old Senju compound was still standing and habitable. He would need to check post-haste because he was not allowing himself to stay here let alone a small child with an impressionable immune system. Not that his bijuu would let him get sick, but this still couldn’t be good for his health.

Tobirama toed off his sandals by the door and watched as Naruto made a circuit around the room, checking his futon, a hidden cubby in the floor boards under the futon, in a cardboard box under the sink—which was leaking he noted in distaste—and then in a tiny vent near the bathroom. Even from across the small apartment, Tobirama could see bundles of cloth, some small bags, and other trinkets.

The boy bit his lip when he finished his route and caught him staring. “Sometimes I come home and is like someone was here, ya know? And sometimes they take my stuff, believe it,” he explained as if he was remarking on the weather.

Tobirama tsked and shook his head before reaching up to remove his happuri. “You’ve done well to keep your possessions safe. That was clever of you.” He ran a hand through his hair, grimacing as he felt day’s old sweat and grime in it. Technically, he was only just coming to a place of rest after a mission, an attempted ambush, time travel, and a rather hectic reunion. He hasn’t had the chance to go through his usual post-mission routine.

He checked his surroundings once more and was pleased to find that no less than eight Anbu had taken up positions around the apartment building. Good, it seemed like security and threat evaluation hadn’t fallen on the wayside for the village.

“I can be smart!” Naruto crowed, jabbing a thumb at his own chest before grimacing when his stomach audibly rumbled. “Ow,” he whined, patting his belly consolingly. Tobirama couldn’t restrain a twitch at the reminder that this child was starving. Something in him also relaxed because this? This was something he could fix right now.

“I will cook dinner,” Tobirama announced, stepping lightly across the dubious floor boards to see what the boy had in the way of kitchenware and food. “Why don’t you take a bath? It’s been a long day, I think.”

“C-Cook?” Naruto stuttered as if saying the word for the first time. The man paused in the middle of peering into mostly empty cupboards to quirk an eyebrow. “I don’t have…Um. Aren’t I s’ppos’ to cook for you? ‘Cause you’re the guest?”

Tobirama tilted his head before returning to his survey of the kitchen. “In normal conventions, you would be right. However, I am your family and the adult in the situation. I will get food and cook.” He closed the fridge with finality. Everything was about as empty or bad as he’d thought it was going to be. When he turned back to Naruto, he was a bit surprised to find Naruto flushing bright red and looking slightly panicked. “Nephew? Sprout? What’s wrong?”

Small hands gripped and pulled at the hem of the threadbare and strained shirt. “There’s no…food?” the child managed to get out as Tobirama took the three long steps needed to cross to the bathroom. Once again, Tobirama dropped into a low crouch so as to meet Naruto’s gaze on an even level. “I don’t have money?”

Tobirama felt sad momentarily—and angry, but that seemed to be a constant now—before pushing it aside in favor of doing. “I will get food and cook,” he repeated coolly. “I am not asking you for money or for anything other than for you to take a bath.” Carefully, he reached out and nudged a knuckle to the boy’s shoulder, giving him time to see the move. “Leave dinner to your uncle, sprout.” A bit under-handed, but it finally seemed to reach Naruto before he could start hyperventilating.

“Sprout?” he repeated, clearing his throat.

Tobirama grunted. “The Senju clan calls any young one a sprout. Like a small tree or plant.”

“Oh. So it’s a nickname? A good one?”

“Yes. Now, into the bath. I’ll start dinner. Clean and scrub well or you’ll be taking another bath,” Tobirama warned, exhaling softly through his nose when Naruto squawked in offense.

Once the boy had the water running and was focused, he formed a quick hand sign and used some of his slowly returning chakra to create shadow clones. Or a shadow clone. Tobirama growled quietly to himself at the obvious show of weakness before getting down to business. “Go to the market and get basic groceries and cooking tools,” he instructed his clone, absently noting that he did look like he’d come fresh from a harsh fight. He pulled an empty storage scroll from his hip pouch and handed it over along with his small stash of emergency money. “If this currency is no longer usable, take what you need to and take note of the prices and locations of the stores. I’ll repay the funds once I have them.” He’d need to check and see if the Senju treasury still existed or if it had been absorbed by the village.

“Yes, sir,” his clone replied before henging into the appearance of an unassuming civilian. He then disappeared in a flash to one of the markers elsewhere in the village.

With that taken care of, Tobirama then moved over to the low table and pulled two other scrolls out. One was filled with his camping supplies and contained extra hygiene and sleeping supplies he’d need later. The other he unrolled and accessed, easily grabbing the sealing ink and paper to begin drafting and painting. In short order, powerful wards, alarms, and traps decorated the apartment’s walls and entrances, securing the location to Tobirama’s standards.

From the bathroom, he could hear Naruto splashing and humming to himself, his chakra lighter and bouncing. Outside the insulated bubble of relative safety he’d made the apartment into, he could sense the placid chakras of the Anbu regularly disturbed with spikes of boredom, concern, confusion, and sometimes even a wave of amusement that would flash around the group of them. Tobirama was familiar with the feeling of gossiping shinobi.

His clone returned soon enough and Tobirama rose from where he was sitting to help take the supplies, pleased to see the wealth of greens and the pink of fresh fish. He quickly set a new pan on the rusty stove top and after finagling with the dials—since when did ovens stop needing to be manually lit?—he got a small flame going.

“Do you need me for anything else?” the clone asked, keeping his voice down in respect to the child singing offkey in the bathroom.

“Actually, yes,” he replied, pouring a bit of oil into the pan. It was disconcerting that he didn’t recognize the labels or merchant names on any of the products. Rice was always safe however, and he set up a pot on another burner with water. “I need to know what remains of the Senju clan. Specifically, in the way of accommodations, funds, and any surviving Senju.” He couldn’t feel the distinctive chakra characteristic to his own clan, but if he had clan in the village, he would seek them out.

The clone nodded and returned to his usual appearance. “Right away. But if I’m not returning memories, you should know an Anbu tried to help me. The Hatake one.” Tobirama frowned as the clone continued. “He slipped supplies into my basket, distracted the shop keepers while I left, and signaled me into certain shops. He never made direct contact with me, but I also believe he left behind money in payment to the shopkeepers.”

His frown deepened as he waved his clone away to his next series of tasks. A debt owed. He’d have to see about paying the Hatake back as soon as possible before he tried to call in the favor or use it as leverage.

After he set out the new plates and cutlery and felt safe in leaving the fish alone to cook, he entered the bathroom to find Naruto blowing bubbles into the surface. The boy beamed a smile at him, one Tobirama returned with a small one of his own. “Finished?” he asked as he pulled a towel from the sink and held it open for Naruto.

“Yeah! Squeaky clean, believe it!” he chirped and Tobirama agreed. Now that the child was clean, he realized that the scratches on his cheek weren’t actually scrapes or injuries, but natural markings. Whisker markings. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what those meant. While Tobirama scrubbed the towel over Naruto’s hair, he also noticed that the boy was as skinny and thin as he thought. Not dangerously starved, but very, very hungry for quite some time.

It brought up bad memories of when he was still young and Itama and Kawarama were under his care. A harsh and long winter had drained all of the clan’s larders and stocks, leaving them hungry and freezing. He remembered feeding a quietly whimpering Itama, soothing a crying Kawarama, and promising Hashirama that he’d eaten—liar—when his anija managed to grow vegetables on the rare occasion. If Tobirama had taken to selfishly stocking his own food stores and stashes after that solely for his brothers and not the clan, then he’d only stand by his actions. Seeing his brothers cry and despair over the pain of hunger was haunting.

“There,” he announced when Naruto’s hair was mostly dry. “Get dressed. Dinner is almost ready.”

“It smells really good, Tobi-oji!” Naruto scurried out of the bathroom stark naked to a pile of clothes by his futon. Tobirama wrinkled his nose when Naruto did a “smell check” of his clothes as Touka had unashamedly bragged once. He mentally added laundry to a growing list of chores, if not outright shopping for new ones. “Is it ramen?”

The man gave a short bark of laughter, surprised, while returning to the stove to plate dinner. Definitely an Uzumaki. “No. Just fish and a stir fry of vegetables and rice.” A thought occurred to him belatedly. “Are you allergic to anything?”

Naruto blinked slowly as he pulled his head through a shirt. “Allergic?”

Tobirama clarified, “Do any foods make your stomach hurt or make you sick?”

The boy’s face scrunched up. “Eh. No? I mean, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Like. Like um. Milk! I like milk, but when it’s lumpy I have to poop a lot.” Tobirama bet. “And, and! I like meat, but most of the stuff I get is like. Bad smelling?” Naruto shrugged. “Even when I really, really cook it, I throw it back up. I try my best to cook, believe it!” he declared happily before shrinking in on himself contemplatively. “But some foods just don’t work. Ramen is always good though! Ramen never makes me sick.”

The former Hokage pushed down a rising tide of affront and offense with growing ease. This was also something he could fix. “Good to know,” he said honestly, carrying to plates and chopsticks to the table. “Come eat.”

Naruto scurried over to the pillow and practically drooled over the painfully simple dinner Tobirama had made. “Thanks for the food!” the boy exclaimed before digging in ravenously.

“Thank you for the food,” he echoed in a quieter voice, watching as the child attacked his food with speed. Inwardly he cursed himself for not making a larger meal. Not only was the boy hungry, but he was an Uzumaki, a clan that had notoriously large appetites.

He cut his fish in half first thing before starting in on his own meal. When Naruto polished his plate off in record time, he reached out for it. “I’ll get you more, have some of that tea,” he instructed. With the boy distracted by smelling the beverage suspiciously—Tobirama’s clone had had the foresight to grab a sweeter tea and honey, which was a ridiculous luxury Tobirama hadn’t been expecting—he slid half of his fish onto the plate before returning to the stove to plate the rest of the rice and vegetables.

He gave the plate back to Naruto but stopped the boy as he went to eat again. “Try eating slowly,” he coached, rubbing the back of Naruto’s tiny hand with a thumb. “It may be hard,” he admitted, recalling his own time of recovering from starvation times or when he’d been imprisoned without food, “but you’ll upset your stomach if you shock it too badly with too much food. Give it time to stretch and get used to it.”

He didn’t know the cause of the brief sheen of tears in Naruto’s eyes, but he dearly hoped it wasn’t out of an incorrect belief that Tobirama wouldn’t let him eat or would take his food way. The tears cleared up before Tobirama could explain and Naruto nodded with a wane smile. “Yeah, yeah. Throwing up isn’t fun, you know? Thank you for the food!”

Tobirama let it go, but struck up a conversation this time, prodding Naruto to answer and speak while also reminding him not to talk with his mouth full. He did so in an effort to help Naruto slow down while eating. He asked Naruto about his favorite places in the village, his favorite foods, and hobbies. It was so normal. He hadn’t had such a menial innocuous talk in what felt like an eternity. Ever since becoming head of the Senju clan and Hokage, every word he said was law and he had to think carefully before speaking and evaluate any information given to him with extreme caution. But speaking with Naruto? His nephew? Refreshingly free of any burden or expectations.

The man was wary when Naruto still managed to clear his plate of food again, but his nephew showed no signs of distress or nausea. In fact, he sighed happily and yawned. Tobirama felt something in him soften at the sight of the child rubbing his eyes sleepily, before steeling himself.

“Naruto, I know you are tired, but I wish to speak with you,” he announced, waiting and watching for those blue eyes to focus on him.

“Hm? ‘Bout what?”

Blunt and straight forward has always been his way of handling things, but even he knew he couldn’t shatter a child’s world so unapologetically. “It’s obvious that some truths have been kept from you and I don’t want to deceive or lie to you.”

Much, much later, when the moon was high in the sky and the village slept, Tobirama sat awake in a poor excuse for an apartment, listening to the wet raspy breathing of a child sleep. He wished he could do something to soothe his little nephew, to wipe away his tears and hold him, but Naruto very clearly had personal space and wasn’t used to having someone with him. When he’d crawled under his blanket and cried, giving Tobirama his back, he’d gotten the message and retreated to the opposite side of the apartment.

Listening to Naruto cry himself to sleep made something dark and ugly curl and solidify in Tobirama’s chest. He never wanted to feel like this. He hadn’t felt like this since Hashirama had tried driving a blade into his own heart. But unlike then, he could do something about this. Back then, only Madara could stop that blade and keep Hashirama around. This time, Tobirama could and would reach his family.

Chapter Text

Tobirama slowly strolled through the trees and bushes, arms crossed and head on a swivel with unseeing eyes. It was odd. This very park was one of the first Hashirama had grown for the village. His anija had been so eager the moment the suggestion had left Tobirama’s lips and thus this iteration of parks was…over-the-top.

Refocusing on the physical world for a moment, he looked up at the looming trees with their boughs so thick and plentiful they practically made a roof over his head. He could remember the trees dancing for Hashirama’s happiness and creaking to reach down to touch him. Tobirama had never really understood his brother’s connection to nature. Sure, he’d helped his brother learn how to use Mokuton, yin and yang release, and how to wield Sage chakra, but Tobirama had only really seen chakra and jutsu as tools. Watching Hashirama, one would think the very trees he used to create buildings or shield their village, that every tree and flower had a name and personality.

Tobirama didn’t envy that level of empathy, especially on someone as compassionate as Hashirama.

The popping and fizzy chakra of his little nephew flashed brightly in excitement at his seven o’clock, four meters away. Tobirama wondered if the boy would try to ambush him now, but curiously enough he remained where he was, his excitement growing with every step Tobirama took. Maybe…

There it was. A rudimentary trip-wire trap.

Outwardly, he showed no sign of noticing and casually stepped over the obvious rope. Even as surprise and pouting disappointment sunk into the chakra presence, Tobirama felt a curl of pleasant surprise. He had to admit this was the first time a child had tried to trap him. Most kids he watched who wanted to play would try to spar with him or ambush him.

As Tobirama lazily circumvented two more traps, he found himself smiling at the determined sparks in Naruto’s chakra. The boy was a rather ingenious trapper even if he needed lessons in stealth and subterfuge.

He continued to stroll through the remote part of the park, letting Naruto hurry to another location to trap it. His mind turned back to his early morning thoughts.

His clone had dismissed himself as the sun had been rising, letting his memories and discoveries crash into Tobirama’s head. He really needed to work on smoothing out that part of the jutsu…

Apparently, the Senju compound still stood. In the file, it was deemed inaccessible. In the special notes, it was speculated that the compound was protected by a combination of Uzumaki seals and his older brother’s lingering Mokuton. That fact had Tobirama frowning. Mito was quite obviously in the Pure Lands now and while he had nothing confirming that she was the last active Senju of the Leaf, he suspected it was so. It made him wonder what the political climate had been like—was like—that his sister-in-law felt a need to implement trespasser seals and reawaken Hashirama’s dormant siege trees.

It was a worrying thought and only increased Tobirama’s paranoia.

Regardless, he now knew that he had a home. A fortress, really. And it was just waiting for him to return. Hopefully. He hoped Mito had put blood or chakra locks on those seals to allow future passage through and hadn’t just locked it up for eternity.

On a similar note, the Senju clan was labeled as extinct in Konoha records. In the privacy of his own mind, Tobirama cursed how Hashirama had encouraged their clansmen to become the village. It had been unnecessary and crippling. It rankled his pride (it hurt he was alone) that his own clan was dead while all the other clans survived and prospered, even the Uchiha.

But there was one lone surviving member of the Senju clan. Little Tsuna-chan.

She was why his clone had taken all night to gather information. Tsuna-chan had made a name for herself, becoming a “Sannin” and an advocate of the importance of medic nin to be trained up and implemented in the field. She became a war hero in the Second Great Ninja World—there had been three wars now, Hashirama was never going to forgive him for not preserving or setting up lasting peace. Her files had noted she started to destabilize as the war progressed and Tobirama wondered what had been done to try to support his grand-niece, but he didn’t see any notes or reports of enforced leave or mental health checkups with the Yamanaka clan, policies he’d personally pushed through during his tenure as Hokage.

It was nice to see his work had been so casually trampled on to the effect of driving his little Tsuna-chan into “retirement” and to “last known location: unknown”. Tobirama knew administrative speak enough to see that she was practically a missing nin that had been allowed to go free for publicity reasons and the body count that would’ve happened if they’d tried to bring her in.

He felt pride and despair at hearing the fate of the giggling, pensive, and mischievous little niece he’d watched over. The last of her family and clan, war-broken and exhausted, and now without a village and clan. He would need to track her down as soon as possible.

Though his duty to Naruto and to righting the village may keep him bound to this location. He could perhaps send out shadow clones or his summons.

At least he wasn’t going to be hurting for finances. No matter how Tsuna-chan picked up her grandfather’s gambling vice, she’d been wise enough to leave the clan funds alone. The bank alone said a couple hundred million yen was sitting in the Senju name under a strict set of criteria on just who could withdraw the money. Again, Mito’s work.

Tobirama was going to kiss his sister-in-law’s cheek for her foresight. Someone in his family had sense and it was now going to be to the benefit of giving him and his little one a safe place and resources without strings attached. He’d just have to see if he could jump through the hoops she’d set up.

The thought brought a wry smile to his face. He missed his brother, yes, but it was only really now sinking in that he’d also lost his sister too. He would need to find her grave to pay his respects and make a shrine again. It’d upset him this morning when he hadn’t been able to pray for Itama, Kawarama, Touka, and Hashirama.

“Tobi-oji-san!” a pitiful voice wailed and it was on the tip of his tongue to scold Hashirama for whining. But it was only Naruto behind him, standing by his most recent trap that Tobirama had evaded. The blond pouted outrageously and crossed his arms huffily.

It was a major improvement over this morning’s downcast reddened eyes and subdued voice.

“Yes?” he inquired innocently.

The pout grew if that was at all possible, and Naruto stomped his foot. “You’re not playing fair!”

“No, I’m not,” he agreed and nearly laughed when righteous anger suffused through chakra and thin face alike. Tobirama chuckled as he went back to the trap, taking a knee beside it. With a small touch, he shifted the leaf and tree branch cover hiding the ankle-deep mud spot. “Your traps are good work,” he praised, shifting the cover expertly. “That skunk one was very clever. It would’ve alarmed an unaware enemy and made them easier to track. You take advantage of your surroundings, that’s good. But they’re easy to spot.” He felt Naruto’s chakra even out and sharpen to attention. The boy came to his shoulder and watched him work. “On this entire path, do you see such a dense patch of fallen foliage?” At his confused look, he repeated himself. “Fallen branches and leaves.”

“Oh!” Naruto looked up and down the path before frowning. “Nooo…”

“So there’s two things you can do to hide your cover,” the man explained. He pointed up to the trees above. “You can artificially—fake, done by your hand and not naturally—cover a good portion of the path in leaves and branches. This makes an enemy believe that this is natural and they won’t think twice about your particular spot.” Naruto nodded, but wrinkled his nose when he looked up the great height to the tree tops.

“But that’s way up there!” he pointed out.

Tobirama smiled and shifted to sit on his knees. “Yes, but often times shinobi do travel through the trees or walk on water. Civilians and shinobi pretending to be or traveling with civilians will take paths like this. You’ve noticed how a lot of shinobi travel over the rooftops, right?”

His nephew nodded eagerly. “Yeah! I want to do that someday. It’s so cool, believe it!”

“I’ll teach you,” Tobirama promised. “Back on topic, though. I mentioned one way is to disguise an entire area in order to hide your trap. But there is something else you can do that I think you’ll find useful.”

The boy danced in place, glee and mischief bright in sky blue eyes. “What is it?!”

The Anbu that came later fell perfectly into the trap. Naruto was practically howling in Tobirama’s ear with laughter and he was smirking at his nephew’s success. The Anbu, Bear, hung in the limp surprise of a nonthreatened shinobi caught completely unaware. With the boy on his back, Tobirama had coached him through laying an obvious falling-branch trap and then predicting where a shinobi would move to avoid the trap before trapping that path in a much more subtle manner. Lulling an enemy into a false sense of security by letting them dodge a trap only to get them on the second step. It was one of Tobirama’s favorite ways of trapping.

Bear curled up to examine the ninja wire wrapped around his ankle, a donation from Tobirama to Naruto so the second trap could be hidden properly. The Anbu relaxed again and turned his masked face in his direction. “Niidaime-sama,” he greeted quite calmly, though Tobirama took great satisfaction in the disgruntlement and annoyance in the man’s chakra.

He nodded in return, bouncing Naruto on his back absently. “Bear-san. How many I help you?”

Upside down and caught, the Anbu impressively remained professional as he pulled a scroll from a pouch and unsealed the contents, holding out a thick folder of papers. “From Sandaime-sama.”

Any humor Tobirama may have been feeling drained away. Showing a surprising amount of sensitivity, Naruto also quieted and climbed higher so his cheek could touch his uncle’s. Tobirama branch-hopped closer and took the offered folder. He opened it one-handed, glancing at the first page, before closing it again. It was the guardianship papers signed with the Hokage’s executive clearance and relevant files on Naruto. At least Saru moved fast.

The man hummed and leapt back, giving Naruto the folder to hold. “My thanks,” he intoned. “Tell Saru I’ll be in touch with him and his old squad mates soon enough.” Let the man sweat over that for a while. It would make him worry while Tobirama got settled. “It’s lunch time, Naruto. Are you hungry?” he asked, turning his back on the Anbu. He should be able to figure out how to free himself.

“Yeah, believe it!” the boy cheered. “Let’s get ramen! You can meet old man Teuchi!”

Tobirama deadpanned for a moment. He had funds from his stash and the generosity of Hound the night before, but if Naruto had as much of an appetite for ramen as Mito did then he wouldn’t be able to keep up. “Why don’t we head home for lunch and for dinner get ramen?” he suggested, pausing to create a shadow clone. The clone disappeared off to the bank without having to be told. He changed course and bounded over the playground in the park, heading back towards the red-light district.

Naruto oohed and awed for a moment over the “cool jutsu” before refocusing. “Aww but I want ramen now. It’s been forever since I’ve been to Ichiraku.”

“We’ll go tonight,” Tobirama promised, knowing that even if the bank didn’t cooperate he’d have to take Naruto out to get ramen. “I’ll teach you more about trapping over lunch,” he bribed. “I can even show you a few seals to make things interesting.”

“Seals?” Naruto repeated curiously.

“Oh, sprout, I’m going to show you why the Uzumaki clan was the most feared in the entire land.”

Chapter Text

He never let what anyone said about his preparedness—paranoia—bother him. Whether teasing, sneering, or taunting, Tobirama still went to whatever lengths he felt he needed to in order to be as prepared as he could. It had saved his life many times before when facing Izuna and saved the lives of many of the people under his protection.

This situation may not be life-threatening, but Tobirama still appreciated being right.

His Uzumaki sprout was working on his fifth bowl of ramen and the bank promissory notes tucked under his fur mantle brought him comfort and not a small bit of smug pride.

It also kind of surprised him that the Ichiraku Ramen Naruto had been going on about all day was in fact the same Ichiraku Ramen business from the early founding of the village. Mito had been a frequent customer, sometimes dragging Tobirama out of his office to spend time with her brother. It was nice to see that the business was still in the same family and that the family had only improved upon their recipes.

“Another one, Teuchi-jii-san!” Naruto cried as he set his empty bowl on the growing pile.

“Please,” Tobirama insisted.

“Another one please, Teuchi-jii-san!” sprout obliged and Tobirama huffed approvingly, making the boy beam. He really was too cute. Tobirama tried to resist the urge, but he gave up and wrapped his chakra around the boy again.

The owner laughed and placed an already prepared bowl down in front of Naruto. “Here you go! Eat up.”

“Thank you for the food!” Naruto repeated and dug in yet again.

Teuchi-san smiled and shook his head, looking up to meet Tobirama’s own gaze. “Uzumakis,” he said simply and Tobirama nodded in agreement.

“I’ve heard from a good source that Ichiraku Ramen is something to rival the ramen of Uzushio,” Tobirama replied, slurping up his noodles happily. He’d grown to love the dish over the years. He still preferred cold noodles, but ramen was good, especially when it was salty.

The man’s eyebrows rose. “Really? That’s a high compliment. Who do I have to thank for it?”

The Senju shrugged noncommittally. “It’s been a long time since they or I have been here. You probably wouldn’t know them.”

Teuchi was a smart man. Had to be in order to be a civilian food stand that operated on the edge of the shinobi district. He let the evasion go with grace. “Ah. Well, if you see them again, please pass my thanks along.” Tobirama nodded, but busied himself with munching on a bit of fried fish. “Say, I didn’t catch your name, shinobi-san. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this little ball of energy and I’m glad to see that he’s doing okay.”

Tobirama blinked slowly, pausing mid-bite as he raised his eyes and scrutinized the other. To his credit, he only frowned slightly in response and held still. After a long moment, Tobirama swallowed and clicked his chopsticks together contemplatively. Before he could answer, Naruto burped loudly. “Naruto,” he scolded quietly and the boy giggled, rubbing the back of his hand across his mouth. Tobirama pursed his lips at the sloppy behavior and reached for a napkin

“’Scuse me,” he chirped. “Hey, Jii-san. This is my uncle, Tobi-oji-san, believe it!”

Tobirama licked the napkin, clicking his tongue to draw his nephew’s attention. “Hold still,” he ordered and warned all in two words. Naruto blinked in surprise before watching gamely as he reached out with the napkin.

He seemed boggled as Tobirama rubbed the broth splatter and bits of noodles off his whiskered cheeks. The boy then burst into giggles and batted at Tobirama’s hand. “That tickles!”

The adult tsked as he chased the child’s face. “Messy,” he rumbled and scolded himself for a moment on his failed attempt to sound softer and kinder. He meant the word with fondness, but to his ears it came out as stern. He caught a flailing hand gently in two fingers and wiped the back of his hand too. When Naruto withdrew his hands and held them protectively to his chest, Tobirama let him go and wiggled his fingers at the boy. “Better,” he declared, raising an eyebrow when Naruto stuck his tongue out at him. His nephew just smiled a second later and went back to his ramen.

After the moment had ended, Teuchi spoke up. “Uncle?” he repeated in confusion, looking between the two. He ended up focusing on Naruto with a frown. “I thought it was just you and Sandaime-sama.”

The look of over-exaggerated panic that blew Naruto’s eyes wide almost had Tobirama rolling his eyes. Tiny Hashirama. Tobirama prayed Naruto didn’t inherent his anija’s habit of becoming depressed at the drop of a senbon. “Shh!” he shushed the baffled food vendor, glancing at Tobirama.

This time the Senju did roll his eyes. “I’m not mad,” he assured the boy. “We can talk about Saru.” The weight of the adoption papers tucked away in the special storage seal tattooed on his arm helped ease some of his ire. He turned his gaze to Teuchi as he set his empty bowl on the countertop. “Another one please. And I am his uncle or cousin distantly through marriage. I am Tobirama Senju.”

Teuchi slowed in his assembling for a moment. “Senju. I haven’t heard that name in a long…” His expression darkened and Tobirama was impressed when the man leveled a glare at him. “Impersonating our Niidaime-sama is incredibly disrespectful and reckless.” He flicked a look at Naruto before slowly straightening. “Dare I ask if the Sandaime is aware of your presence around his grandson.”

Tobirama liked this man. A lot.

He leaned forward to rest his chin on his hand, soothing the anxious flickering in Naruto’s chakra. “There is no impersonating or illusion happening now, Teuchi-san. I am Tobirama Senju.” He closed his eyes and breathed deep, taunting the man with being nonchalant despite being challenged. “It’s nice to know some things don’t change. I first came here when the Mikio Boys opened up. My sister, Mito, insisted on determining if there was any hope for ramen in Konoha.” He opened his eyes again and regarded the floored man. “So many years later, your family has only improved your work. Mito would’ve been pleased.”

“Mito-sama was your sister?” the man murmured before shaking himself, his hands moving once more as if on autopilot. “That’s impossible. Mito-sama was an elder when I was a boy.”

Tobirama hummed, nodding in thanks when a new bowl was set in front of him. “Thank you. It’s also seemingly impossible that I am the Niidaime,” he pointed out helpfully.

Naruto snickered, calmer now that the atmosphere had settled. “Time travel’s supposed to be impis…em-poss-ibles too, you know?” he added, so pleased with himself to get in on the secret.

“Impossible,” Tobirama corrected gently, but agreed with him. There was an irony somewhere in the fact that he’d accidentally done the impossible task that the entire Uzumaki clan had been trying to figure out for centuries. He didn’t like the irony, but he could appreciate it. Mito would laugh when he shared it with her.

“Time travel,” Teuchi repeated, tone and expression flat.

Uncle and nephew nodded in synch, not even trying to be understanding or give weight to the fact that time travel was possible and had happened. Tobirama paused and tilted his head, examining an approaching chakra signature. He turned in his chair and stepped towards the banner of the shop, reaching out to snag the collar of the passing shinobi. “Cub,” he greeted as he caught the reflexive kunai lashed out at him. He deposited the waif of a young man onto the stool next to him and picked up his chopsticks again. “A house-special for him,” he requested, nodding at the stunned shinobi, who was blinking one lone dark eye at him.

It took the youngling a good second-and-a-half to gather himself and Tobirama critically examined the low, banked levels of the shinobi’s chakra levels, radiating exhaustion and aching depression. It was so different from the usual sparking and snapping feel of Hatake chakra. “Maa, Niidaime-sama,” cub said carelessly, finally returning the greeting. “Can I help you with something?” He returned his kunai to his thigh pouch. “Could I actually change that into a pork miso with extra egg?” he asked of Teuchi.

The man blinked before nodding, flashing a practiced pleasant smile. “Of course, coming right up!” Tobirama didn’t miss how the food vendor looked back at him with wide eyes. Having an actual Leaf shinobi backhandedly verify his story lent him some credit.

When there was a tug on his sleeve, Tobirama turned to Naruto, who was half on the counter, trying to get a good look at the new addition. “Tobi-oji-san, who’s that?”

“Cub,” he answered before tilting his head. “A child of the Hatake clan.”

The young man hummed and reached up to scratch his cheek. “Eh. It’s been a long time since anyone called me that, Senju-sama. Kakashi Hatake.”

Finally, he had a name to go to the Inu Anbu character. And he was also surprised it was a name he’d so recently read. “I am Tobirama Senju and this is my nephew, Naruto Uzumaki.” He leaned back in his seat so Naruto didn’t have to strain so hard.

“Hiya!” the boy chirped, waving a hand, before squinting suspiciously. He pointedly sniffed. “Hey, hey. You smell like Inu-nii, believe it.” Tobirama raised an impressed eyebrow at the casual observation. “And you got the same hair as him!”

Tobirama felt a flare of panic go through Kakashi, one that went surprisingly deep into his core. For a moment, Tobirama wondered if the man feared Naruto because of his tenant. He’d have to keep an eye on that. “You have a dog for a brother?” the other shinobi asked in obviously feigned alarm, making Naruto splutter at the wild assumption. “Does that make you a dog too?” he further goaded with “innocent” musing thoughts spoken aloud.

The Senju pointedly leaned forward again and returned to eating, letting Naruto rant about how he very much was not a dog and didn’t have a dog for a brother. “Hatake-san,” he prompted when his nephew had huffily buried himself in ramen, muttering about crazy old men. Kakashi hummed. “I’m curious.” Those two words would’ve normally sent his anija into a panic and had the Senju clan give his laboratory an even wider breadth than usual, but the people of this time didn’t know any better. “Would you answer a few of my questions?”

Irritatingly enough, the young man seemed to be affecting a lazy persona that would do even a Nara some credit. And an ignorant one. After a rapid slurp of noodles and affixing his mask back in place, the other shinobi blinked slowly and let the question hang unanswered for a few long minutes. It nearly irritated Tobirama. If the Hatake’s chakra hadn’t started stirring with unease and wariness, he would’ve snapped at him.

It reminded Tobirama that he was still an unknown in the village and recognized and verified as the Niidaime or not, he could still be a threat. Especially with his show of rage at their Sandaime. As an Anbu and a jonin of Konoha, Kakashi was right to give himself time to think of his answer with also the added benefit of maybe offsetting Tobirama.

Kakashi hummed and tilted his head, making the lights of the shop gleam off his crooked hitai-ate. “I can try,” he eventually replied, stirring his ramen to bring the noodles back to the top. “But I’m not sure what I might know that you don’t.”

Tobirama narrowed his eyes the slightest bit before consciously relaxing. Depending on how honest the shinobi was letting himself be, he might actually try to answer Tobirama and he might have a feeling on what Tobirama was going to ask. “I recently came to officially have guardianship over my nephew. Saru signed the papers today,” he remarked, turning to smile slightly at the bouncing boy. He was slowing down in eating, either getting full or listening. Possibly both.

“Oh? Congratulations.”

The Senju nodded and swallowed his mouthful before continuing. “As his guardian and family, I was also given a copy of all the paperwork in regards to him. Including papers on searches for any surviving family.” There was an agonized spike of distress in Hatake’s chakra followed by a choking miasma of guilt that made Tobirama’s skin crawl. Kakashi had caught onto his roundabout wording well enough. Tobirama hadn’t sat down with Naruto yet to discuss the information in the file he’d been given. He didn’t want to keep turning the boy’s world upside and speaking of the boy’s parents and how they died would surely leave him shaken. It wasn’t a talk Tobirama was looking forward to having.

“You know, in some orphan’s cases, all their records are sealed up,” Kakashi mused. “It was for some odd reasons…” He hummed and tapped his chopsticks against his mask. Teuchi was glancing sharply between the two, but moved over to Naruto to strike up a conversation. “Bettering their chances of adoption? Giving them a new, fresh start? I know some orphans were from shinobi families. Some would say there’s safety in being hidden, no?”

Tobirama ground his teeth for a moment. He knew Naruto’s records had been sealed as an S-class Hokage-approval-only secret. The paperwork to make it so was also in the file. But if what Kakashi was saying was true, Naruto’s records were sealed in an effort to protect him and make it easier for him to become a part of the village.

“And what would you say?” he prodded, distracting himself with making sure Naruto drank his tea.

The guilt was fading ever-so-slightly in the Hatake’s chakra. “Eh. I’m just a simple shinobi. I don’t say much. Just obey.”

If Saru had made it an order as a Hokage, every shinobi and resident of Konoha would’ve had to comply, regardless of personally feelings and thoughts. Tobirama could sympathize: what few orders Hashirama had given him officially had been given in order to stymie and stop him when he wouldn’t have otherwise.

He feigned a sigh. “Such is the lot of a shinobi. We must put away our feelings no matter what to complete our mission. Though I personally draw a line in the sand that I won’t cross.”

Kakashi turned and looked at him, pushing away his empty ramen bowl. “That has to be annoying to work around,” he observed, but Tobirama didn’t miss the wary and sharp gleam in his one eye. Curiously, Tobirama knew his other eye was still there. He could feel a blaze of chakra that was surprisingly different from Kakashi’s own, under his hitai-ate.

He met the jonin’s gaze equally. “It’s annoying that I find I even have to draw the line. No child should ever be hurt, abandoned, or killed simply because of orders.”

Another slow blink. “There are some who don’t share your opinion,” he said frankly and the Senju previously known as the White Demon gave a small and thin smile. It bared his teeth in threat. Not at Kakashi though. Because he wasn’t expressing his own opinion. He was reporting.

“It’s not an opinion, Hatake-san. It’s law.”

The other shrugged lazily. “Some are above the law.”

“They’re only above the law if others let them be.”

“Others?”

Tobirama nodded and relaxed once more. “I’m still getting a sense for Konoha of this time. I know the trunk of the tree is sick and needs to be cured, but I know the spirit of Konoha should still live in a few.”

Silence. Naruto and Teuchi were having a rather spirited discussion about different types of ramen, but something was tense and waiting between Tobirama and Kakashi. Finally, the young man sighed and sagged. “It’s not just the trunk that grew crooked,” he admitted softly, quietly, wary of any listeners. “The very roots have turned on the tree.” Tobirama pursed his lips but nodded. “I have a line too, Niidaime-sama.” He blinked but tilted his head in question. “Those who break the rules are trash. Those who disobey orders are trash.” Tobirama felt a moment of dread, wondering if he’d read the man wrong, but then he continued. “But those who leave their comrades behind are worse than trash.”

Oh. So this was his will of fire.

“Seems like a simple line,” he replied, intentionally keeping his voice light despite the underlying dark tone of their conversation.

Kakashi snorted as he got up from his stool. “You’d be surprised,” he muttered, a darkness swelling and cloying what should’ve been bright white chakra. “It was nice to meet you, sir.”

“You as well.” Tobirama reached under his fur mantle and held an already filled out promissory note to the man. “Thank you for the groceries.”

The cub stared down at the note for a long moment before his shoulders shook in silent laughter. He took the note and shoved it into his pants pockets. “All those places had kicked him out before,” he murmured, nodding to Naruto. “I shouldn’t have even left money. But there’s this pesky law about shinobi stealing from civilians.”

Tobirama clicked his tongue and snapped his chopsticks, imagining it as some necks. “Pesky. You shouldn’t have. But I’ve been teaching Naruto about trapping today.”

Kakashi gave a surprised bark of laughter. “I’ve heard,” he chuckled as he left the shop.

After he had a satisfied little Uzumaki and had paid Teuchi, they strolled their way through the Konoha evening streets.

Even if Tobirama had changed out of his bodysuit and armor and into a more informal blue kimono shirt and gray pants, he was still getting looks and whispers from passing civilians and shinobi. The rumor mill of Konoha had been impressively fast back in his own time and it seemed that it had remained so throughout the years. Tales of his return were no doubt making their rounds. Normally he’d just let it go and let people think what they wanted, but he couldn’t afford to have an angry crowd come for his head. He’d need to check in on what’s being said and start spreading rumors himself if he had to.

He tucked his hands into his sleeves and effected his usual stoic mask, only breaking it to send pointed glares at anyone who’s attention strayed to the child he was careful to keep mostly hidden behind his body.

“Hey, Oji-chan.” Tobirama was a bit surprised over the change in suffix, but kept his silence.

“Yes, sprout?”

Naruto flashed a smile up at him from where he was walking beside him, hands tucked behind his head. “Is Inu-nii a friend? Or like Jiijii?” he asked seriously. “’Cause, you know, Inu-nii’s helped me a lot. He brings me food and stuff sometimes. I can tell ‘cause he smells like blood and dog.” Tobirama has never had an acute sense of smell nor has he ever befriended an Inuzuka or Hatake enough to inquire about their senses. He wondered at the extent of such an ability and then wondered if Naruto had it due to the Fox because that wasn’t a characteristic naturally found in the Uzumaki line. “He’s nice,” Naruto continued, kicking a rock as he walked. “When I’d run away from the orphan kid place, ‘cause the head lady was mean, believe it.” Tobirama definitely believed it and made a mental note to tear apart the personnel operating the orphanage later. “I’d fall asleep in a park or some place. And I wake up quick like a ninja, right?” He watched in amusement as Naruto grinned with pride and bounced a little on his toes. “So, when a person came and picked me up, I woke up. I just pretended I didn’t. Sneaky, sneaky, believe it.”

“Very sneaky,” Tobirama agreed in a serious tone even if he was pretty sure whoever picked him up—given the start of the conversation, he could hazard a guess who it was—knew Naruto was feigning sleep. The mental image amused him. When he’d created and founded the Anbu corps, he hadn’t imagined them as babysitters, but if Naruto had come to see them, or just Inu, as a constant in his life, then he’d be slightly mollified.

The boy basked in the praise and pride for a moment longer before refocusing. “Yeah, and, it was always Inu-nii! He called me Naru-chan or little sun.” Inwardly, Tobirama melted at the pleased flush on his nephew’s cheeks. It seemed he owed Kakashi a bit more gratitude than he originally thought. And more grace on his initial judgement over how the lone surviving student of the child’s father hadn’t reached out to Naruto, orders or not.

The Senju exhaled softly before humming aloud. “I can’t see why he would call you little sun,” he lied, waiting for a reaction.

Naruto, of course, took offense. “Huh? Oji-chan, you gotta be blind! It’s ‘cause of my hair, believe it!”

“Your hair?” the adult repeated in false bafflement. “But the sun isn’t blue.”

“B-Blue?!” The boy’s hands flew up to his hair and smooshed his bangs down into his eyes to see it. “I have yellow hair! Oji-chan, you are blind!”

Tobirama chuckled to himself. Kids were so easy to rile. “Such disrespect,” he replied, admittedly missing the mark on sounding offended. Usually when he sounded upset, he also sounded angry as well and he didn’t want to risk that.

Naruto stuck his tongue out at him, pulling down an eyelid. Children. “Old man!” he taunted and this time Tobirama rolled his eyes and allowed himself to stick his tongue out in return. Naruto gaped in shock and then laughed merrily. He bounced and reached to tug at Tobirama’s shirt hem. “You’re funny.” The Senju gave the boy a small smile, accepting the compliment. “Hey, hey. So is Inu-nii a friend or not?” Naruto prompted again.

Tobirama thought for a moment. “I’m not completely sure. I believe he’s an ally. A friend. But he’s bound by his duty to the village.”

The boy frowned. “Duty?” He blinked before giggling. “Doodee…”

Ah bathroom humor. Tobirama has not missed thee. Ignoring the play on words with only a twitch, he answered, “A responsibility to something. Because Kakashi is a shinobi of the Hidden Leaf, he must obey the orders of the Hokage and fulfill the missions given to him to the best of his ability. Even if he doesn’t agree with them.”

Naruto squinted, kicking his feet out in exaggerated steps. “So he’s a friend, but his rezponsib…rezpunsa…”

“Re-spon-si-bil-i-ty,” Tobirama sounded out.

“Yeah, that. But ‘cause of that, he’s not a friend?”

“Close. A shinobi must be loyal to their village and Hokage above all else. You are very precious and important to the village.” Naruto scowled and Tobirama was quick to catch and soothe that angry and betrayed spike in his chakra. If the boy hadn’t been convinced of Saru’s wrongdoings before Tobirama had told the truth of his situation, he was now. Saru would have to do some quick talking the next time he was around the boy because Naruto’s trust in him was very much shaken. A bit of guilt threaded through Tobirama and he found himself sighing. “I do not doubt that Saru cared…cares for you, sprout,” he continued, despite the possible lie tasting bitter on his tongue. “You will be protected by the village no matter what. Even from me.”

Naruto stopped in his tracks and gaped at Tobirama. “What?” he gasped and the man reached out to steady the swaying boy.

“I am a new variable in this game,” Tobirama explained, carefully picking his words so he could be understood. “I have been gone for 40 years. Many things have changed but I have not.” He pursed his lips before squeezing a bony shoulder. He didn’t want to scare the boy, but he didn’t want to lie either. “I want to believe your Inu-nii is a friend. But should he or the village or the Hokage decide I am a threat or no good for you, he may be ordered to come against me and he is bound by duty to do so.”

“But…But you’re the Niidaime! How can you be a t-threat to the village? To me?!”

Tobirama shushed his nephew, trying to keep from drawing to much attention. “It’s okay,” he promised, taking a knee and brushing blond bangs away from alarmed blue eyes. “It’s okay, Naruto. I swear to you that I am your family and I am not going anywhere. No matter what anyone decides, I will remain right here with you.” He cupped Naruto’s jaw. It shot a bolt of fear through him when he realized his entire hand could hold the child’s jaw, he was that small and vulnerable.

And trusting.

Naruto leaned into the hand and Tobirama remembered he hadn’t given the boy warning of his touch. Thankfully, he hadn’t flinched or shied away, but it also humbled Tobirama beyond measure. Naruto believed on some level that he wouldn’t hurt him.

Tobirama swallowed roughly and breathed deep through his nose. “This is how things are going to turn out,” he started. “You and I are going to look about moving into my old home, so we can live and train properly. We will make sure the village does not see me as a threat and sees that we are family. I can’t promise that something won’t try to separate us, but I can promise that they won’t succeed. Understand?” Naruto nodded firmly, a spark of determination shining bright in his eyes. “We will see about making allies so we have backup and protection.”

This wasn’t a battlefield that he could dominate through sheer strength alone. If Kakashi’s vague warning was even barely credible, the political landscape of Konoha was treacherous and Tobirama would need to quickly find safe or neutral ground and allies loyal to primarily himself and Naruto.

For once, Tobirama acutely felt the lack of his Hokage hat. It would’ve guaranteed some loyalty and fear. That advantage, however, remained in the Leaf.

…He wondered when he started considered the village a threat.

That was a truly disturbing thought.

“We’ll make friends?”

Naruto’s question jarred him out of his dark thoughts and he nodded. “Yes, we will. We’ll make ourselves safe and at home. How does that sound?”

His sprout nodded again and grinned. “Yeah! I like this plan. I always wanted friends!” He froze for a moment before spearing Tobirama in place with sharp eyes. “Hey, we’re friends, right, Oji-chan?”

It was on the tip of his tongue to point out that they were family, of course they were friends. But Tobirama remembered with distaste that blood did not always promise loyalty or good intentions. “Yes.” He chucked a finger under Naruto’s chin, making the child’s teeth click lightly. “We’re friends, sprout.”

“Pinky promise!”

Oh, this infant of a child was going to be the death of him.

Still, he wrapped his smallest digit around Naruto’s much, much smaller one.

“Pinky promise.”

Chapter Text

Naruto jerked awake with a muffled cry, his teeth biting hard into his lower lip. He breathed roughly in through his nose, coughing when the snot there tried to kill him. But no one yelled out, no hands reached through the darkness to hit him or grab his hair. He was okay.

A low, rolling chirrup caught his hearing and he flinched at the new sound, before realizing he could hear a soft rumbling. The sound rose and fell rhythmically, up and down, up and down. It sent his heart racing for a moment because he was reminded of those really big tigers in the fenced-in forest. Though this sound was softer. Not a growl but…

“Sprout?”

The voice was low and rough with the unidentifiable rumbling sound, but he knew it was his uncle.

Naruto blinked again, trying to see in the dark. The longer he listened to the rumble sound, the easier it was for him to let his nightmare go.

Yet another rolling chirrup came and this time he could hear his uncle’s voice in the sound. And something weird and deep in him knew it was call, waiting for an answer. His throat felt tight for a second before he coughed, clearing it. “Y-Yeah?”

When the rumbling sound went silent, Naruto nearly panicked. It was suddenly too quiet, too empty. But then his uncle spoke again. “A nightmare?” he murmured, the words carrying across the quiet of the apartment. Sound and scent—ironblood, fur, and tea—told him that Tobirama was across the apartment near the bathroom, where he’d sat and slept last night too.

Naruto hadn’t even known why he’d done that until he’d been trying to sleep, wiping snot on his blanket, and wondered if the other man was watching him. It’d struck fear in him and made him look around the apartment, only to find him against the other wall, sitting with crossed legs and crossed arms asleep. Naruto hadn’t realized until then that he wouldn’t like an invasion of space and privacy. He always dreamed of someone living with him, giving him hugs like he’s seen parents give their kids and welcoming him home. He hadn’t known that actually having someone in his space might bother him.

But now the space was too big. In the dark, he couldn’t see the walls. It looked like the dark was growing and growing and reaching for him!

“Sprout?”

Naruto jumped and clung to his blanket before stilling when he heard a rustle of fabric. The purring chirping call-thing came again as footsteps came closer. “Hey,” the boy whispered as he heard and kinda saw the massive dark shape of his uncle. Tobirama was big and tall. Taller than anyone, believe it! It made him a bit hard to look at sometimes, but that was okay. Uncle Tobi always made sure he didn’t scare him.

“Hello,” his uncle returned, shifting until Naruto thought he was sitting crisscross applesauce again. “Are you okay?”

Naruto’s hands tightened on his blanket. He wanted to reach out and hug the man. He wanted that so bad, but the thought of touching anything, moving from his bed, made his stomach roll. His throat closed up, torn between so many directions. He didn’t know what to do or say and he had to answer or the adult would get mad!

“It’s okay, sprout,” Tobirama said lowly. “It’s okay. We’re here in your apartment. You’re sitting in your bed. My name is Tobirama Senju and your name is…”

He swallowed loudly. “N-Naruto. Uzumaki.” He tried to take a deep breath and found it hard. It was like a fat person was sitting on his chest, it was hard.

“Good. That’s good, Naruto. I’m 38 years old. How old are you?”

The boy’s nose wrinkled. “Old,” he muttered only to freeze for a moment, heart pounding.

Only. Instead of yelling or anger, the man chuckled, the sound similar to that rumble sound earlier. “I suppose so, yes. Growing up, no one expected to live past 30. I even have the hair for it, no?”

Naruto breathed, in and out. It…was kind of funny. His uncle did have old people hair. He hummed in answer.

Silence settled again, and this time it wasn’t so bad. Naruto could hear himself breathing. He could hear Uncle Tobi breathing. It wasn’t…all good, but it was better. The shadows weren’t out to get him anymore, chased away by someone else being here. They couldn’t get him if his uncle could save him.

“Bad dream?” the man asked after what felt like forever.

This time, Naruto could answer. He nodded and looked away, ashamed. Shinobi didn’t get scared. If he wanted to be Hokage, he couldn’t keep having bad dreams like this.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Reaching hands, hateful looks, choking, hurting, dying.

“No.”

“Okay. Would you like…” Naruto peered up at the top of the shadow of his uncle. He could almost see the man’s hair it seemed to glow. “Hm. A story? Something to drink? I never like to go back to sleep so soon after a bad dream. It comes back.”

The boy blinked and his jaw dropped. “Wait. You…get bad dreams?”

“Of course.”

Naruto scrambled to get up on his knees, trying to squint through the dark and see if Tobirama was lying. “But shinobi are supp’sed to be not scared, believe it! You were the Hokage. You can’t have bad dreams!”

“Nephew, I have more nightmares than you could ever imagine.” Naruto sat back on his heels hard, staring blankly. “Any shinobi will see things, do things that are haunting and terrible. Any shinobi will come away with things they can’t forget. I’ve seen many things and done so much worse. Everyone is afraid of something. Even shinobi. Even the Hokage. Especially all of them.”

“But…” Naruto frowned. “But shinobi can’t be scared.”

“And why’s that?”

His frown deepened. “’Cause then they can’t do anything. They’d be crybabies and that’s not cool, believe it.”

He felt more than heard the huff of air Tobirama gave. “There is nothing more deadly than a shinobi with fear in his heart. A scared shinobi will do anything to survive, to escape, to get home. Even I have had to be extra careful around people who are cornered and afraid. I cannot predict them and I know they will hold nothing back against me. Yes, fear can make you weak, control you, freeze you.” Naruto nodded, knowing this one personally. “But it can also be a strength. Fear has carried me home quite a few times and saved my family on occasion.”

Silence again.

“It’s a bit late, or early, for philosophy, however. Do you feel better?”

Naruto shuffled, trying to think, understand. His uncle said a lot of big words, but he could get the gist. Maybe not really get it, but he was getting sleepy. He yawned, lifting his blanket to cover it. “Uh-huh.”

“Good.” Naruto heard Tobirama stand up and a thought occurred to him as he pulled his own blanket closer against the cold night air.

“Aren’t you cold? You don’t have a blanket…”

“Hm? I keep myself warm. Don’t worry.”

But…Naruto did. He didn’t mean to, but he felt bad. He’d woken his uncle up in the middle of the night with his maybe-not-stupid, cry baby bad dream. And Uncle Tobi didn’t even have a bed or a blanket. “I can share!” he blurted, biting his lip.

“It’s alright. That’s your bed. If I get cold or uncomfortable, I have some camping supplies with me.”

A quiet beat.

“You promise?”

“I swear. Do I need to pinky promise?”

Naruto giggled and laid back down, pulling his blanket up over his face. A question popped up in his head. “Tobi-oji-chan?”

“Yes?” came the patient answer, back across the apartment.

The boy sat back up. “What was that sound? The first one.”

“Ah. A trait from my summons. I didn’t want to scare you by speaking after you just woke up. I was purring.”

Naruto didn’t know what a summons was but he knew what purring was. His uncle sounded different from any cat he’d heard before, but it’d… “It was nice.” He hesitated, wondering if he could ask. It was so quiet still and normally it didn’t bother him, but tonight was just weird and scary. “Can you…” he trailed off uncertainly, sucking his lip in.

His breath caught when the rumbly sound—Uncle Tobi purring—reached him. It really did sound nice and cool.

“Thanks,” he whispered as he laid back down, his eyes feeling heavy as he listened to the up and down, rise and fall in how loud the purring was. Listened to his uncle breathe through the purring, in and out, in and out, in…and…

“Sleep well.”

Chapter Text

Tobirama narrowed his eyes at the seemingly innocent line of trees in front of him. Nothing out of the ordinary, just a perfectly innocuous tree line with the path disappearing into it.

“What’s wrong?”

He stopped squinting suspiciously and looked down at the small blond boy at this side. The child barely even reached his waist, tilting his head back almost entirely in order to look at him properly. He glanced back at the “trees” before humming. This was a good chance for a practical lesson.

“Do you remember what I’ve taught you about seals?” he asked, taking a couple slow steps forward, trying to sense where the boundary was precisely.

Naruto followed half a step behind and halted readily when Tobirama put a hand in front of him. “Yeah? You were telling me what seals could do and what they look like.”

Tobirama nodded as he knelt, recalling how his nephew had easily picked up the basics of seal structure just from looking at it. He hadn’t quite gotten a measure of Naruto’s natural intelligence yet, so he wasn’t sure if that was his Uzumaki genes showing, innate genius, or both. Still, it pleased him that the boy now knew the importance of containing a seal and its properties safely.

“I believe I missed telling you a usage for seals. It’s not common, but it is useful.” The man gestured at the air in front of him. “This is an illusion. Like a genjutsu. There’s a seal at work here.” He glanced at the boy, who glanced around dubiously before looking back at him.

“Ji-chan, I think you might be crazy…”

The gall of this brat. Tobirama smirked and nudged his elbow into Naruto’s side, unsteadying him for a moment. “Look,” he instructed, moving his pointer finger down to the ground just in front of their feet. One pointed burst of chakra through his finger and the first illusion was dispelled, revealing a large square stone with a seal carved into it.

“Whoa!” Naruto spluttered and Tobirama preened a bit, keeping the boy from pushing his head through the illusioned boundary as he leaned in closer to look at the seal. “It’s a seal!”

“Yes, it is. It’s fairly complex.” He pointed to the two markings on either side of the seal. “These are symbols for ‘hidden’ or ‘illusion’. Basically, these two say, ‘Don’t look at me’. But when I disrupted the flow of chakra, I revealed it. Like removing a person’s henge.”

The boy nodded, seemingly not minding the hand holding the back of his coat. “Mm’kay. So squiggly water waves mean it’s hiding.”

“Yes. But note how one symbol is upright and the other is upside down. This creates a balance in the seal, keeping it stable for a longer period of time and hidden from all directions.”

“Oh! Like that thing where something looks the same on both sides.”

“Symmetry?”

“Yeah!”

“Exactly. Now, look at the seal as a whole. Do you notice anything?”

Naruto tilted his head from side to side, squinting hard. Tobirama wondered if the boy needed glasses. The boy frowned a second later and glanced up at him. “Hey, isn’t that a bigger squiggly water wave?”

Tobirama smiled, very pleased. “Yes, it is. Very good eye, Naruto.”

Naruto squirmed from where he was practically being held suspended by Tobirama’s hand on his coat back and pumped his fist into the air. “Cool! Just you watch, Ji-chan! I’ll become a seal master, believe it!!”

He missed working with children. He truly did. “I believe you,” he chuckled. “So can you guess what the larger illusion symbol is doing?”

“Hiding something,” the boy answered promptly before thinking, glancing back at the seal. “But not the seal,” he muttered. After a moment he crossed his arms and Tobirama felt an anticipatory thrill run through him. “Something bigger?”

“Correct. Often times, the size of the seal or symbol does not matter so long as you get the details and lines correct, but seals do have limits for how much chakra it can channel at any given time. For what this seal is doing, for how long it’s been working, it needed this larger space.” He reached out and tapped the very center of the seal. “This symbol means ‘line’ or ‘territory’. This seal has created a boundary, a wall, and the larger illusion symbol has been keeping it invisible.”

The look of awe and shock on Naruto’s face made Tobirama want to smile again. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had such an attentive and wowed student. No, that was wrong. He remembered Kagami quite well. Sealing, jutsu, and science were all so thrilling and satisfying. It was nice to be able to share his passion again.

“That’s so cool!” Naruto screeched, his eyes sparkling brightly. His chakra, warm and popping, whirled like a fire whirlpool to Tobirama’s senses. “Seals can do that?! How big is the-the line, boundary?!”

The Senju set his nephew back on his feet away from the barrier and straightened. “Big,” he answered simply. “Now. Do as I do.” He turned and stepped forward, putting his sandaled foot on the seal and passing through the barrier. The seal flashed the trigger up through his chakra coils, performing its check, but when it found his core to be Senju, it exited again with a fizzle of welcome/family.

Tobirama huffed, recognizing Mito’s signature touch to bloodline check seals. She valued and loved family and clan possibly more than he, Hashirama, and Madara ever had.

He heard Naruto squawk behind him and turned to see the boy flutter his hands, eyes darting around. The boundary seal had hidden Tobirama from view the moment he’d passed through, which would be surprising to anyone who didn’t know that. He crossed his arms and waited, silently encouraging his nephew to trust him.

Naruto blinked several times before sniffing the air and then opening his mouth to inhale. Curious. Usually tasting the air was a reptilian or avian trait, not a mammal one. Nevertheless, Naruto was looking to have some innate tracking talents. His eyes fell down to the seal before he took a deep breath and screwed his eyes shut. Bravely, he stepped on the seal and walked forward, right into Tobirama’s legs. Rather than be startled, the child giggled and rubbed his hands over his arms and chest. “That tickled!”

The man hummed. “Yes, Mito liked to welcome her family back even if she wasn’t present.”

Blue eyes blinked up at him. “Mito? Your…sister?”

“My sister-in-law. She was the heir to the Uzumaki clan until she married my anija. Her seal,” he nodded to the stone, “recognized you as Uzumaki and welcomed you home.” When the boy sniffled and blinked rapidly, he reached down and pressed the boy closer to his legs, encouraging him to latch on. He did so readily and Tobirama allowed him some time.

Outside the barrier, he could feel their Anbu guard and watchers buzzing agitatedly. Upset that their charges had disappeared from their senses and sight. A pair even appeared a few feet away, oblivious to the fact that he and Naruto were right in front of them. They looked at the seal curiously, but were wise enough to not poke at it. Just to be sure, Tobirama sent a burst of chakra at the seal and returned it back to its original hidden view.

“Sealing is cool, believe it,” Naruto sniffled, stepping back from him and scrubbing his face. “You said this was home?”

“Ah,” he grunted, turning so they could both face the clan compound entrance. Shaded almost completely by the true and present trees that towered over their heads. A wall as sturdy as the village wall—though much shorter—stood in front of them, brought together by large double gates with the Senju vajra carved into it. “This is the Senju compound, where my clan lived.”

“Whoooaaa,” Naruto breathed, stepping forward, heedless of the other bloodline-check seals he passed over that verified his identity. “It’s…It’s an actual secret hidden village!”

“Quite. Hold.” He came even with his nephew’s side and peered up at the looming trees, watching closely as they swayed and groaned in a breeze that wasn’t there. He could feel Hashirama’s chakra in the trees. It shared none of the awareness and buoyancy that had been there when his brother had been alive, but the sunny light chakra threaded from the roots to the trunk to the leaves that were now straining down to reach them.

He’d worn his armor today, slightly worried a trap would be triggered or the trees would’ve forgotten him, but he should’ve known to trust his anija’s words.

Tobirama took a deep breath and upturned his face as leaves brushed over his cheeks and hair. The chakra—his brother’s and nature’s—pulsed happily.

“My connection to my mokuton just keeps getting stronger,” Hashirama had once admitted, tending to the garden at his house. “Sometimes I don’t remember that I’m not supposed to have roots or that I can move without help. Oh, don’t look so worried, Tobirama. I’ve got a long time in me yet. Besides, even when my time does come, the trees will still be here. They’ve been with me and me with them for so long that they know you and Mito. It’s not always me doing it when you see nature moving around you.”

It was a bittersweet pain, feeling and knowing his brother and sister still had legacies and protections in this mortal life that knew and welcomed him like no time had passed. It made him miss them all the more.

“Are these ninja trees?! I’ve never seen trees move like this, believe it!”

Hashirama would’ve loved Naruto. So would’ve Mito.

“My brother grew these trees,” Tobirama explained as he walked up to the gates of the place he’d called home for years. “Do you know about the Shodaime and his mokuton?”

“Wood style?” his nephew repeated in confusion, barely looking away from the swaying and shivering trees. “What’s that?”

“It’s what it sounds like. It’s a kekkei genkai belonging to the Senju clan that allows the users to call upon the trees and land to fight for them. My brother was vastly strong due to it.”

“That’s why he became Hokage!”

“Hm. One of the reasons, yes.” Before he could reach out and push the gates open, a seal even he hadn’t noticed before blazed to life, performing one last function that reached out over the entire compound. The chakra in this seal, however, was different from Mito’s. He’d only felt it in its infancy. Tsuna-chan had laid this seal, the one that freed the compound from lockdown and lifted what felt like a preservation, stasis seal.

The gates opened, pushed by a soft explosion of released air, and revealed the ghost town that was his clan compound.

Despite it being years since anyone was last here, everything, buildings and paths, looked to be in perfect condition. No plant overgrowth to reclaim land, no brittle, failing wood, no dead grass. He could even hear a couple sozu clacking in the distance, breaking the thick silence.

Everything was right.

Everything was as it should be.

Except it was painfully bare of life.

Tobirama had never been so ungrateful to his sensor ability before. Usually, when he found himself away from loud and shifting chakra presences, he was relieved and took what peace he could. In this part of the village, he was fairly removed from the hustle of the village. It was quiet. But the aching nothingness of his clan compound hurt.

There wasn’t the sound of children playing or training, mothers calling for meal time, men laughing and telling stories, cousins calling out for each other…

It was silent and empty.

A small hand slipped into his own and he squeezed it gently. He took a deep breath and stepped forward, pushing down any melancholy and loneliness in his heart. Tobirama led the way to the main house, where he’d moved back in after Hashirama had passed, helping Mito with the house, children, and grandchildren.

He refused to look at the thriving flowers around the house entrance and instead opened the door with a hand that didn’t shake. A dark and shadowed hallway loomed in front of him and he very suddenly did not want to be here. It wasn’t home.

“You have to say ‘I’m home’.” The small voice nearly startled him and he frowned down at Naruto. The boy wiggled the hand he was still holding. “You have to say ‘I’m home’,” he repeated.

Tobirama glanced back down the hall and he could almost imagine little Tsuna-chan charging down towards him with a happy screech, Mito following at a more sedate and graceful pace, and Kimitada leaning his head out of the kitchen. He licked his lips and looked back at his nephew. “No one’s here,” he said lowly, denying the hurt that came with those words.

The boy scowled—an expression he would’ve otherwise found adorable if he was in the mood. “Don’t matter,” he stated imperiously. “You have to say it. You…You don’t know. Maybe someone will say ‘Welcome home’, believe it!”

“Naruto…”

“You got to!”

Tobirama squeezed his eyes shut, trying to calm himself. He’d known, objectively, that only he and an absent Tsuna-chan were all that remained of their clan. The rest dead or forgotten their roots as they focused on the families they married into. But it hadn’t hit him until now just how much it hurt to not have a clan anymore.

“…I’m…home,” he managed to whispered into nothing.

“Welcome home.” Tobirama felt his throat close as he opened his eyes again to find his precious little nephew staring up at him with a trembling chin. “W-Welcome home, Tobi-oji-chan.”

All his little nieces and nephews had called him the same thing.

He huffed and sat down hard on the genkan, giving his back to the empty house and gone family. “Welcome home, sprout,” he returned, pulling the boy into a hard hug. The boy squirmed and wiggled, but hugged just as hard once he got his face into his fur mantle and next to his neck.

After a few long moments, Tobirama felt back in control and let his nephew go. The boy kept his hands clutched tight in his fur mantle and traced over his expression with sharp eyes. Naruto eventually pouted and freed one hand to pat Tobirama’s cheek. “It’ll be okay,” he promised with every ounce of authority a five-year-old had, which was a surprising amount.

“It will be,” he agreed, once again rising to his full height, ignoring aching joints and stupidly weak muscles. Emotions always left him off-balanced and feeling his age. Tobirama took Naruto’s hand this time. “Come. There’s something I want to show you.”

They left his house and its emptiness behind in favor of moving to the rear of the compound, where the Senju clan’s love and passion for all things earthy and green truly showed. A beautiful garden thriving with trees and flowers and bushes flourished around a lazily flowing stream he’d personally made when the Senju compound had been moved to Konoha. And in the center of it grew a massive, old oak, its branches winding out to cover the entire garden.

“This is our family tree,” Tobirama explained as he led the boy to the garden, crossing a small bridge over the stream to get to the island the oak rested on. “This tree has been with our clan since we first became a clan and it has watched over countless generations. Births and deaths. Celebrations and tragedies. Wherever the Senju go, this tree goes with. We call it our ancestor tree.” He sank down to his knees and sat on his heels not too far from the thick healthy roots of the tree. Naruto copied him a moment later, looking puzzled but attentive.

This tree was why the Senju clan had warred with the Uchiha for so many decades rather than simply moving to new territory. The mokuton kekkei genkai had skipped several generations until Hashirama had been born. It was due to his brother’s ability that the Senju clan had migrated to this cliffed valley and come to live in Konoha, taking extreme care in personally moving the ancestor tree to their new land and coaxing the roots into new soil.

“It’s believed that our kekkei genkai was originally gifted to us from this tree, when a man long, long ago saw a sprout struggling to survive and grow.”

Naruto blinked and pointed a finger at himself. “Sprout?”

Tobirama smiled and ran a gentle hand through golden locks. “Yes, exactly,” he whispered, voice wet and rough. He hadn’t had the honor of doing this since his own little brothers had been born, but then he’d been back not even a decade later—twice—to pray the ancestor tree watch over his little brothers and shelter them in the Pure Lands. “This man cared for and nourished the little sprout, shielding it from harsh cold winters and greedy humans that would look to cut it down for wood. Years and years passed and this tree grew and grew. When the man was old and frail with sons and his sons with sons, the tree spoke.”

“Trees can talk?!” Naruto exclaimed, shocked.

Tobirama thought back to his own anija, spending hours in gardens or in the forest, listening, feeling. “To those who can listen. I…I cannot hear them. Not like you think. Not like how my brother used to hear them. But they do speak.” There were many times in the past that he always explained away as instinct and luck, foreknowledge and foreboding he had no logical way of knowing, but in the back corner of his mind he knew he was a Senju, brother to a powerful mokuton user. He cleared his throat and continued his story. “And this tree spoke to the now old man and it said thank you. Thank you for caring for me, for protecting me. How can I repay you? And the old man merely laughed. The old man, he said, you have sheltered my family and I for so long, kept us dry and hidden. That is thanks enough.

That night, the old man passed and the tree wept. It wept and wept, its leaves falling like rain. The old man’s sons wept with it and under the tree they buried their father, ensuring he would always be protected and watched over. And the tree spoke again.” Tobirama nodded at Naruto’s gaping expression. “The tree thanked the sons for giving it their father, so they may be together forever. And it asked them how it could repay them. The sons answered, teach us your knowledge so we can protect you and our father. Teach us so we may teach our sons and they may teach their sons. And so the tree did. It taught them a thousand skills, earning them the name Senju, and gifted them with the ability to hear, to speak, and to fight with the tree’s kin. Our mokuton kekkei genkai.”

Naruto smiled and looked up at the tree, clapping quietly. “This tree did all that?” he asked in wonder.

Tobirama hummed in affirmative, even if he believed the story was faintly off. It was a rumor in the Senju clan, mentioned in whispers by the elders as they watched Hashirama practice his mokuton with prodigious skill. Not even in the clan archives had Tobirama been able to confirm it, but as his brother aged and changed, Tobirama came to suspect the same. Those strong in mokuton, if they did not fall in battle or to illness, eventually became one with their skill. They became the skill and chakra that came as easy as breathing to them…until it didn’t.

He personally believed that this tree was an ancestor of his, the first to exhibit the genetic mutation of their kekkei genkai and become strong enough in it to have been called completely to nature as his brother inevitably would’ve been.

But his theory didn’t dampen his own awe and reverence for this tree. If anything, it solidified it. He was not a pious man, but this tree, if he was right, was family and undeniable proof of the Senju clan’s deep and lasting connection to something as precious and full of life as nature itself.

It humbled him.

He cleared his throat and ran his nails gently over his nephew’s scalp. “It is tradition,” he continued, “that when a new member is gifted to our clan we present them to the ancestor tree and ask it for guidance and protection, for welcome and succor.” He breathed deep and looked back to his sprout. “If you would allow me, I would present you to our ancestor tree. To formally take you into the Senju clan and claim you as clan and kin.”

Formal, ancient words that were normally spoken to a person recently married to someone from outside the clan. Very rarely did the Senju clan take in orphans or outsiders. But Naruto was family and Tobirama dearly wished to call him kin.

 Naruto’s jaw dropped as he stared up at Tobirama. “You…You want…” He looked wildly between the tree and the man, speechless.

“By the law of this village, I am your guardian and you are my charge. By marriage some time ago, you are my nephew or cousin.” He nodded to the ancestor tree. “By the old Senju clan way, I want to name you kin. You would belong to my clan, live under its protection and roof, call upon our sigil to battle, learn our thousand skills, and call our blood home.”

“Yes,” Naruto rasped, tears dripping from shiny blue eyes. “Yes, yes, yes, please.” He hiccupped a sob and tried to wipe his face clean. “I-I want that. I want to b-be clan and…and family and home please, oji-chan, please.”

Tobirama leaned down and shushed the boy, pulling his rough hands away and gently wiping his face clean and dry. “It will be so,” he swore, trying to keep from being overwhelmed again. He pressed an impulsive kiss to the boy’s forehead and buried his face in sunny hair. “It will be so.”

Gently, he pulled the boy to his side and wrapped a secure arm around his shoulders. Once the child was coherent enough to look at him, waiting, he folded them both forward into a bow. Tobirama squeezed his eyes shut, old memories—times of joy and earth-shattering, soul-ripping grief—surged to the fore of his mind. He breathed through it and recalled the ceremonial words.

“By family, kin, and blood, I, Tobirama Senju, come to beseech our great and venerated ancestral tree,” he invoked and just like the four times before he felt the nature chakra of his surroundings spin to a halt: watching, waiting. “I, first-presented son of Himari Senju, named on these very roots, bring tidings of joy and celebration.” The leaves overhead rustled and the sozu in the distance silenced. “New life, new growth. I bring a sprout to our garden, our ancestral tree. A precious life, to love, to care for, to protect.” Naruto shook at his side, sobbing quietly. “I, Tobirama Senju, name this sprout clan and kin. I name him my own.” He gritted his teeth, trying to keep his voice clear and steady through the sheer emotion trying to choke him because Naruto was his and he would always be his. “I bring him here today before our great ancestral tree to beseech welcome unto his small life. I beseech and beg for his acceptance as mine, as clan, as kin, as Senju.”

The air around them warmed to an unnatural degree, heavy and pregnant with chakra and life. It wrapped around him and Naruto, infinite in a way not even Hashirama had ever felt. By old clan ways lost in tales and fables, something heard him.

And it answered.

The creak of wood sounded overhead and Tobirama coaxed a shivering and shuddering Naruto to rise, to look to the boughs above.

Right before their eyes, a new branch grew, sprouting from a larger paler limb. It didn’t grow for long, thin and new with life, but it flourished with bright and healthy leaves.

A new member to their ancestral tree.

This time, Tobirama didn’t try to stop the tears from flowing from his eyes as he saw the new branch growing next to two scarred and fallen branch nubs. There were so many scarred rough spots on branches taken before they could sprout new life. But no more.

No more, he swore to himself as he gathered his nephew, his kin, in his lap and to his chest, shushing his cries and gratitude. No more branches would fall.

This one would never fall.

He would personally see to it.

Chapter Text

“It must be orange,” Tobirama informed the store owner stoically. Naruto was nodding fervently at his side, somewhat hiding behind his leg.

The young man looked a bit lost, looking between the man from history to the demon-not-demon child.

Saru had rescinded the S-class silence order on the jinchuriki secret, releasing an official statement about how Naruto was a hero for jailing the kyuubi and keeping it from attacking Konoha. It did absolutely nothing to fixing this whole mess he’d made around the child, but it was a first step. At least Saru had been smart enough to not exert such blanket executive power and order punishment on any who harm or mean Naruto ill will.

As it was, Tobirama took no pleasure in the sour expressions on most adult’s faces and the uncertainty on the faces of the younger generation. It took more than a statement and the revelation of a long-hidden truth to ease let alone erase years of hatred and habit. But rather than tempt himself with the project of fixing all of that, he gave himself a much easier task.

Furnishing their “new” home.

A week into living at the Senju compound and Tobirama was a bit exhausted of shopping for things and items, but his sprout seemed to get a thrill out of interior decorating.

And out of the color orange.

Not that Tobirama could blame him a bit for that. Learning that his parents were the Yellow Flash and the Red Hot Habanero just gave the boy more love for the color he already liked. But now Tobirama was seeing more and more of the bright, headache-inducing color.

“We have a few paintings with that color,” the store owner said and Tobirama felt his eyebrow twitch.

Wonderful.

Two paintings, training weights and weapons, books, and incense sealed away for ease of travel, Tobirama happily sank into a corner booth of a dango shop that had been around in his own time. He sipped herbal tea while Naruto ate probably more dango than he should let the boy have, but it was a good day and he couldn’t refuse a sweet tooth.

He listened absently as the boy rattled on about trap and prank ideas that seals could be used in and then smiled fondly as the boy used bastardized terms to describe the seal components he’d use. The boy understood the parts of the seal and their proper terms even if his reflexive vocabulary had him using different terms. Tobirama could speak the technical terms and Naruto would know what he was talking about and that was all he asked. And if there was the added benefit of speaking of a bloodline craft in code while in public, then all the better.

Meanwhile, he kept track of the other shop occupants. They were in a shinobi part of the village, so it was quiet and the atmosphere calm and even. They got more than a few looks and hushed conversations, but they were mostly left alone.

Naruto yawned and Tobirama weighed his chakra on the boy a bit more, giving him an embrace via chakra. The boy stretched his arms over his head and chewed on a dango stick.

“Time to head home?” Tobirama inquired, already finishing his tea.

The boy blinked hard before pouting. “No,” he whined. He pouted harder when Tobirama made a disapproving tongue click. “No,” he muttered.

“But I could use a nap,” Tobirama admitted, honestly feeling a bit weary. Normally he was sequestered away in his office or his lab instead of being out and about and dealing with people. People were exhausting. “If I take a nap, would you want to feed the koi?” The boy immediately perked up.

Tobirama had cared for and absolutely spoiled his collection of koi from the time he was a child to just before his jump in time. He had full faith that Mito took care of his koi and he’d been afraid that his koi had perished in the intermittent years due to the fact that living things couldn’t be preserved under stasis seals. But, when he’d checked, most of his koi had survived and there were koi he didn’t recognize as well, either spawn or newly bought additions. Either way, he was happy the creatures had survived and Naruto had been absolutely floored to find fish almost as big as him, claiming he wanted to ride one.

Tobirama had almost suggested finding the koi fish summoning contract before he returned to his senses.

His sprout seemed happy feeding the koi and fattening them up and then also sitting with the ancestral tree. Tobirama hadn’t invaded on the boy’s time in the clan garden and made sure he didn’t overhear any of what the boy said, but he could feel the happy bubbles and fizzing bliss in his chakra when he was there.

“Mkay!” Naruto chirped, sliding down from his seat. Tobirama clicked his teeth and mock growled when a tiny hand grabbed the last dango stick from his plate, but Naruto just growled back and darted for the door. Tobirama took his time filling out the banknote before stiffening when he felt a presence suddenly appear in front of his sprout. Familiar or no, that had been intentional. “Inu-nii!”

“Hm? My name is Kakashi,” the jonin drawled, tipping his chin down to see the boy that had run into his legs. “You can say that, right?”

“Hatake-san,” Tobirama greeted as he exited the shop, folding his hands into his sleeves. He tilted his head and peered at the man, taking in the slightly agitated sparks and low simmering anger of the young man’s chakra. “How are you?”

Kakashi blinked slowly at him, hands shoved deep into his pockets. “Niidaime-sama. I’m well. Yourself?”

“The same.” Tobirama thought for a moment before rolling his shoulders. “Naruto and I were about to return home. Would you care to join us for some tea?”

Naruto bounced and poked the other man in the side with his finished dango stick, the other stolen stick of dango was already halfway finished. “Yea’!” he cried, muffled by the food in his mouth. “Co’ ‘ave tea! I’s goo’, be’ie’ i’!”

“Naruto.” The boy blinked at the chastising tone before Tobirama elaborated. “Don’t talk with your mouth full. It’s rude and you spit on people.” Naruto blushed and clapped a hand over his mouth, scanning Kakashi for said spit. His apology was mostly unintelligible behind his hands. “Apologies,” Tobirama repeated, more formally. “He’s merely excited to show someone his home-work. He’s been working hard on decorating his room and the house.”

“Oh?” Kakashi hummed, looking down to the young boy. “Is that so?” Naruto nodded quickly, bouncing again. “Well, my schedule is usually so full…” Tobirama was curious when he felt the cub’s chakra still in thought. Physically, Kakashi played a game of words with a pleading, begging child. Because he was watching closely, he felt the gleeful twist of spite. Something that had the Senju bracing until Kakashi heaved a great big sigh. “If it’s at Senju-sama’s request, then I guess I must.” Naruto cheered while Tobirama thought. The off-duty Anbu was obviously here on some kind of task, so his “reluctance” wasn’t aimed at him or Naruto.

Two blue eyes and one gray eye looked at him expectantly. He felt the reflexive need to be obtuse and not make the request, but he was curious now. “Hatake-san, please come have tea with us,” he asked evenly.

The lone gray eye curved into an exaggerated smile. “Why of course! Lead the way!”

It was a bit of a walk from one side of the village to the compound, but every minute of it was spent with Naruto chattering away about anything and everything and Kakashi gamely following along. His interest even piqued when he realized Naruto was talking about seals, though the oldest was secretly amused at his confusion over Naruto’s terms.

Maybe not so secretly if that baleful glance he got was anything to go by.

As they approached the outer boundary of the compound, Naruto ran ahead with a yell and then abruptly disappeared from sight, sound, and sense. Kakashi didn’t look surprised at all, nor did he flinch when Tobirama put a hand on his shoulder as they crossed the boundary and kept it there until they were through the gates.

“So this is the Senju compound,” the Hatake mused, waving when Naruto paused then jumped and waved further down the lane before vanishing around the corner.

Tobirama nodded. “Naruto and I stay at the clan head house.” It was on the tip of his tongue to ask about the other’s clan compound, but he recalled that he had not felt another Hatake in the village since coming here. He had only sensed the cub and he never once went to the Hatake clan compound. Instead of asking, he warned, “Please forgive my nephew’s enthusiasm if he takes you through our gardens. He’s quite pleased with his work in them.”

The other laughed lowly and his shoulders dropped an impressive amount into a relaxed slouch. “No trouble whatsoever. The longer the better.” Normally such a darkly pleased glint in chakra and gaze would set him on edge, but he had a strong hunch that any malintent was aimed at someone else.

Still, he kept a close eye on the pair as Naruto did drag him to every plant and stream and pond, making sure Kakashi didn’t try to leave behind any seals or wander somewhere he shouldn’t. The Senju compound was still home to troves of scrolls, wealth, and weapons.

As the pair darted around the clan grounds, Tobirama slipped off the engawa to crouch on his heels. He pushed his fingers into the rich dark earth and channeled his chakra down into the ground, spreading it out like a ripple. The trees immediately surrounding the house swayed and rustled, responding to his prodding chakra. He kept a careful eye on Kakashi’s and Naruto’s chakra, but turned a good portion of his attention to stretching his sensing range to its limit.

It had been Hashirama a couple years before his death that had helped Tobirama develop an improvement for his innate ability. It had been such an innocuous question from his anija after he’d listened to Tobirama mutter about some enemy nin flitting around the boundary of his senses like irritating flies.

“Why don’t you ask the trees for help?”

With care, he feathered his chakra against the nature chakra lying like dormant fountains in the trees, and waited until it responded to his coaxing. If he were to believe trees were actually sentient and had come kind of way to communicate in a way he could understand, then he’d tell himself the trees gave him a welcome almost akin to a chakra hug. But trees were trees and he was not his anija. So he used the reservoirs of nature chakra in the trees as leaping points, cutting back on his own chakra expenditure and allowing him to increase his sensing range by nearly a factor of ten.

He frowned as he perused the chakra presences of a small civilian village two days run from the village, examining them closely for the signature of his grand-niece.

Nothing. He moved onto the next village, examining the roads and surrounding forest as he shifted his senses.

But search as he might, he could not find Tsunade anywhere in the Land of Fire nor its immediate surroundings. It was possible she was elsewhere in the land, simply beyond his senses. Or it was possible she had passed. He hoped not and reasoned that from what information he’d gathered from her records, she was a formidable opponent.

Tobirama returned his focus and attention back to himself and the village, reflexively double checking the positions of chakras he cared about. Naruto had inevitably taken the newcomer over to the ancestral tree and Tobirama was pleased at the awe and reverence along with a healthy dose of uncertainty that colored Kakashi’s chakra. If things hadn’t changed drastically, the Hatake clan was also an old clan and understood the importance of an avatar. Tobirama was aware that most clans zealously guarded their avatars, but the Senju clan had always been open about their tree.

Returning to the house, Tobirama set about making some tea and snacks for his sprout while thinking over the predicament that was his grand-niece. He’d searched with his sensing periodically for the past two weeks now. If he didn’t have confirmation of her health within the next two weeks, he’d see about sending out his summons and clones to locate her.

Naruto eventually toddled back to the main house, yawning and rubbing his eyes. He kicked off his sandals and grunted as he climbed up the high engawa. The trip to the actual step too much to do, apparently. Tobirama pulled the thick, plush pillow to his side and Naruto collapsed onto it with a sigh, tuckered out and finally ready for a nap.

Kakashi strolled over in the slippers Tobirama had left out for him. “The stories about the Senju gardens do them no justice, Senju-sama,” he praised, falling more than sitting to a spot at the kotatsu. Naruto giggled as Tobirama shifted his pillow so he was at least half under the warm table.

“We take pride in our gardens and do our best to honor our roots. And please call me Tobirama,” he demurred, reaching to pour one of his more bitter brews. He had a feeling Kakashi wasn’t one to enjoy sweets like himself or his nephew. He poured for his guest first, who was polite enough to wait for him to have his own tea ready before drinking.

As they sipped and Naruto slipped deeper into sleep, they made small talk. Kakashi informed him of how missions were usually looking and what to expect if he rejoined the roster, they debated economics, and puzzled over the natures of some jutsus and how to possibly improve them. It was a pleasant conversation, Tobirama thought.

“Would you like to stay for dinner, Kakashi?” he invited, setting down his cup and propping his chin on his hand. He smothered his own yawn. Warm tea, good conversation, and social exhaustion were making him relaxed and ready to nap.

The young man sighed and leaned back on his hands. “I wish I could.”

Tobirama lazily closed his eyes. “Are you finally ready to speak of the task you were given?”

Kakashi hummed lowly. It was so low that to Tobirama’s trained and conditioned hearing it edged near a growl. He slitted an eye open and sent the other a narrow look. The cub of the wolf clan tilted his chin to the side and up in apology. “The Konoha elders have sent a summons for you. They’ve taken issue with some of the paperwork you’ve filed.”

He’s had a clone or two handling a bit of paperwork on the side. He frowned, trying to recall what had been processed and approved and what was still pending. His own death certificate had been found faulty, his citizenship and his rights restored. The Senju clan no longer had the status of extinct and the clan compound was listed with him as the owner.

Which left only two processes left in the works.

“Which one?” he asked before sighing. “Or is it both?”

“The elders haven’t completely gone senile,” Kakashi drawled, his chakra once again darkening and growing heavier with his negative feelings. Tobirama had to admire the shinobi for feeling so much, but not letting it physically affect him. “They know to pick their battles with you. I believe the topic they wished to…discuss with you was the matter of your heir.”

Tobirama would’ve preferred if they’d decided to take issue with him resuming his title as clan head. But these were his old students, so of course they knew how to push his buttons. The ugly curl of poisonous fury that cut him it was so sharp, rose up again. He found himself clenching his jaw against the resurgence of the dark feeling. The past week and a half had lulled him a bit into a more relaxed mood, turning his attention to more positive focuses. Making a home for his sprout and formally welcoming him into his clan had done good for him.

But now he was being called back to work.

His eyes narrowed out into the middle distance. He bet his students hoped to catch him off guard, but if they thought they could pull one over him of all people then they were sorely mistaken.

Letting out a slow breath, he relaxed his body again. He felt Naruto breathing against his leg, deep and even. At peace. Birds were fluttering around the compound and he could hear his streams and sozu passing by, undisturbed by everything.

He needed to be exactly that before he drowned them all.

It struck him for a moment, making him wonder if this was how Madara felt before he left the village. Or possibly even worse given that his loved one was dead rather than just threatened.

Tobirama quickly shoved that thought away.

“And when did the venerable elders wish to speak with me?”

“Hm. It escapes me now,” Kakashi answered with such a light and uncaring tone that Tobirama raised an eyebrow incredulously. “It’s early evening now…I met you in early afternoon…I got my orders just before…Hm…Ah.” He perked up, his chakra curling in glee and amusement. “Immediately.”

Tobirama stared for a moment before a surprised laugh escaped him. He quickly turned his mouth into his hand, muffling the sound as his shoulders shook. Kakashi’s chakra lightened and gained a staticky feeling of happiness.

“I’m so busy you see. Small details just. Slip my mind. Especially when I’m requested to have tea with our newly returned Senju clan head.”

“Perfectly understandable,” Tobirama agreed, slowly bringing himself under control once more. “You are amusing, Kakashi. Thank you for that.”

“If you say so. But.” The other man rose to his feet in such a reluctant and lazy manner that he was once again reminded of the Nara. Maybe he was related in some way to the clan. “Now that I’ve delivered the summons, my job here is done. Thank you for the tea, Tobirama-san.”

Tobirama was admittedly not an impulsive kind of man. He liked planning, he liked taking his time to think the pros and cons of decisions and planning a couple moves ahead. So Kakashi wasn’t the only one surprised when he opened his mouth and said, “Unless I offer you another job.”

There was a moment of quiet before the cub tilted his head curiously. “A job? Normally I only take missions from the mission office.”

He did his best to appear gathered and collected. “I assumed so, but this is a small job. Barely even a D rank. I don’t want to leave my nephew alone, especially since I’ll be leaving during his nap. Could I ask you to stay and keep him company until I return? You can refuse.”

Kakashi’s shoulders dropped. “You’d trust me alone with your cub in your home.”

“I’d be leaving my summons behind as well.”

“Ah. Cats?”

“Of course.”

“So long as they don’t eat me, sure. Have fun with the elders~.”

The snarl of disgust Tobirama gave sent Kakashi’s chakra dancing in delight.

Chapter Text

Tobirama stepped silently and surely through the darkened halls of the Hokage Tower, his eyes nearly shut as he centered himself and focused on his senses.

The night was still young, but the work day was over for most. The tower was sparsely occupied with the exception of himself, his trailing Anbu, and the elders. His old students. Sarutobi, Koharu, and Homura. They remained behind, notified by one of the Anbu that had left his detail once he’d exited the Senju compound.

He closed his eyes entirely, displeased with the tense air. On principle, he should not feel threatened in his own village, but he could admit to himself that he did. His students have had a long time to seep and stew in their power and position, gathering people to their call and adding weight to their words. If it came down to a fight, a dispute, Tobirama most likely would not win. He simply did not have the sway he once did and his dedicated students would know such. However, he also knew they could not start a confrontation, they would need him to strike first. If people found out that they tried to move against their predecessor, their sensei, without due cause, they would come under question and lose faith. Not the biggest loss, taking a hit to their power base, but he hoped it would make them think twice.

Regardless of anything, he would not give them the satisfaction of seeing him off guard and he refused to give them ammunition against himself and Naruto.

He opened his eyes as he stepped once more through the door to the Hokage’s office, though this time it had been left open.

There were some candles lit around the room and a small lamp on Saru’s desk left on. Tobirama found Saru in his place behind his desk, but now he was standing and looking out the windows at the village below. Seated together on the couch were Koharu and Homura, both as aged as Saru, but less so. They looked softer and more pampered, enjoying the privileges of being long-surviving “wise” shinobi. Tobirama welcomed the advice and wisdom of his elders, but he could spit on the idea of elders having such a huge part in any bureaucratic system. It was more trouble than it was worth.

He was about to greet them, when he caught the silhouette of another figure. It was only through practiced habit that he kept any sign of surprise to himself. There was no chakra presence and Tobirama almost convinced himself the figure was a play of the candle light on a dark wall, when he caught sight of that distinctive X scar on the man’s chin.

Danzo.

Every single red flag Tobirama had went up in an instant. Why was his crafty, bull-headed, sly student hiding his chakra presence with a seal?

It set his teeth on edge.

He gathered himself as the door was shut behind him. The air was still between them all and Tobirama made the first move as protocol dictated. “Hokage-sama,” he greeted lowly, drawing Saru away from the window into a half-turn. He then turned his eyes to his other students. “Koharu, Homura, Danzo. Good evening, all of you.”

His only kunoichi student sniffed and deigned to turn her head in his direction. “Such impertinence, Senju-sama. Not only are you late, but you address your elder council so casually.”

One of the most important lessons he kept close to mind whenever he was at the negotiating table, was to never react. It was giving in, following someone else’s lead and that was paramount to losing in negotiations.

“I received summons to speak with the Konoha elders over a matter of paperwork.” He pursed his lips and left it unsaid how unimpressed he was that something as mundane as paperwork was why he’d been called here.

Koharu harrumphed and Homura adjusted his glasses. “Yes. There is an issue with your registry paperwork for your…heir.”

Tobirama tucked his hands into his sleeves. “So I’ve been told.”

The silence dragged out and the Senju felt a thread of amusement. Did they really think they could cow him into explaining himself like a guilty child? They’ve been left to rest on their laurels for too long. Tobirama was going to enjoy dumping them on their rears and boxing their ears.

Koharu apparently ran out of patience and frowned at him. Or frowned deeper. Tobirama was going to take petty joy in telling Naruto that she was a prime example of what getting your face stuck was like. “You have filed to have Naruto Uzumaki registered as the heir to the Senju clan, and that is unacceptable.” More silence that Tobirama took great pleasure in letting build. “Have you nothing to say?!” the now-old-woman spat and he smugly took his first victory.

“I am merely waiting to be informed as to what the issue is,” he replied evenly. “You speak as if I am already aware of this plight.”

The frown deepened even more, oh my. “Ignorance does not suite you, sensei.”

“Nor do children’s insults from you, Koharu. And I am not your sensei. Please stop slandering me by falsely associating with my name and clan.”

“Se…Senju-sama,” Homura scolded—ha—after also trying to call him by sensei. He always had been the most reasonable out of his students, if a pushover. “Please cooperate. This is a matter of grave importance.”

“I would assume so,” Tobirama agreed, “if you summoned me. But I fail to see how paperwork could amount to such importance.”

Finally, finally the shadow on the right side of the wall shifted. Danzo had never been the most patient person and Koharu and Homura were child’s play to lead in circles and back in on themselves. If he were a betting man, he would bet that Danzo was the one to orchestrate this meeting. “The issue of which you were summoned here for,” the now old, decrepit, and crippled old man started to explain, “is to inform you that your choice for clan heir is ineligible and we cannot accept him.” The man stepped forward, cane clacking against the floor. Tobirama examined him sharply, looking for any clues or hints. Strangely enough, this aged Danzo was very different from the one in his memory. His student had been hot-tempered and reckless in his need to prove himself. Tobirama had once found it easy to read the young man, but this old man was composed and stalwart. Stoic. “Consider this a courtesy, Tobirama Senju.”

“A courtesy?” he repeated in a humming, almost lyrical tone, never looking away from Danzo. “You speak as if you have already made this official.”

Danzo nodded, his one remaining dark eye meeting his. Tobirama was reminded of a placid lake of nothing but dead water, keeping anything from growing in it. “We have. We decree it so.”

Tobirama raised an eyebrow. “And yet I do not see a law saying that Konoha has any say in the inner workings of clans.” He raised his chin and inwardly cursed himself for ever lowering it to protect his throat. “You call me here to inform me that you are not pleased with my choice of heir? You waste my time.”

“The Senju clan is still a clan of Konohagakue,” Homura reminded him, as if he’d forgotten.

“It must still pay respect to the village,” Koharu continued.

Honestly, it was like hearing petulant children. He’d taught them better on how to argue their points. “Do not insult my intelligence,” he huffed. “We are all aware that there is no law in the village that would allow for village governance to exert their will over clan proceedings. No clan would’ve joined Konoha and allowed for an outside source to tell them how they should rule their clan, teach their children, and conduct their lives.” He’d written those laws preventing such oversight and overreach. Sage knows Tobirama has tried to find a way to insert some level of censure for inner clan abuse and mistreatment. The damn Hyuga clan still gave him migraines with their insistence that their kekkei genkai be protected with the Caged Bird seal and that it wasn’t a tool for slavery. Not even the Uchiha ever went to such lengths to keep their eyes to themselves.

“You cannot claim a random child as your clan heir!” Koharu protested. “The boy isn’t even Senju.”

Truly, they were trying to test him. “Incorrect. Naruto Uzumaki, son of Minato Namakazi and Kushina Uzumaki,” the chakras of Koharu and Homura spiked in surprise, telling him that they didn’t know he’d known about Naruto’s parents, “is a blooded Uzumaki, making him a cousin of the Senju by the marriage between Mito Uzumaki and my brother. As the boy was without clan and family, an orphan, by the inaugural establishing Senju-Uzumaki Pact it was my duty as Senju and clan head to take any bereft Uzumaki into my care. Not to mention, I have signed documents from the village granting me guardianship rights to Naruto.” Danzo turned his head towards Saru and shock and disbelief filled Koharu’s and Homura’s chakras.

Tobirama looked between all four of them slowly. It was strange. It was obvious that Saru hadn’t told anyone about signing the guardianship papers nor about giving him the information to know of his nephew’s parentage. And this whole time, the one who should have the power, the Hokage, hadn’t spoken a single word. Hadn’t made a single move away from the windows.

His students weren’t united, he could tell. Danzo was the obvious head here, but was he alone? Were Koharu and Homura working with him? Because Koharu and Homura were quite obviously in league given their proximity to each other while Danzo stood across the room and Saru behind his desk.

He recalled Saru’s pressed words when he’d demanded an explanation during his first day in this time. It’s complicated.

Tobirama was starting to believe him if this snarled mess was even the beginnings of what governing the village was like today. It made him internally grimace while also sighing a bit in relief. It meant that it would be hard for them to stop fighting amongst themselves and actually do something. Like try to take Naruto away from him.

Now, if they got the Uzumaki clan to come from Uzushio and claim the boy as a closer blood relative, he’d be in trouble. The Senju-Uzumaki Pact was one that officially made the two clans allies beyond their long-shared history of blood and family and he’d read it a dozen time before reaching out to their sister clan to arrange his brother’s marriage. He knew that the act of taking in an Uzumaki charge was meant to be a temporary measure until the Uzumaki was returned to their clan. However, Tobirama knew they would have to convince an Uzumaki to come and live in Konoha because they couldn’t risk their jinchuriki leaving the village, not even to his home village on the coast of the Land of Fire. But given that the Senju copy of the Pact was still sitting in the Senju archives, he knew they were not aware of the finer details of it.

He would also bet that if the Uzumaki clan or Uzushio itself were made aware of Naruto’s previous living conditions and treatment they would take the child back, by force and war if needed. Tobirama would not stop them, but he also would not leave Naruto’s side. It would be more difficult to reform Konoha if he was on the coast, but he imagined he could do it still.

Danzo looked back to him. “Any agreement you had with the Uzumaki clan is null and void.” Tobirama was lining up to rail the man for trying to control even more of the Senju clan let alone a clan affiliated with another Hidden Village, when he continued. “Uzushiogakure and the Uzumaki clan were attacked and eradicated 20 years ago. They no longer exist.”

Tobirama nearly flinched. That was…It should be impossible. The Uzumaki clan was nigh unbeatable, their village layered with seals for protection and alarms, storage seals for sieges. They had the largest chakra reserves of any known clan and the intelligence on how to use it all. Who…? He swallowed. “By whose hand?” he asked, needing to know.

“Kirigakure and Kumogakure.”

He had to stop himself from asking more questions, demanding answers. Their sister village—his sister’s clan—gone? And where was Konoha in that? Where were the other Uzumaki? Were Kirigakure and Kumogakure still standing?!

When his chakra flared and grew in density at his agitation, he fought to bring it back.

How could Uzushio be gone? He’d visited the fortress on the island and gave a cursory examination of its defenses himself. He’d traveled there from his years as a child to his tenure as Hokage to view the chunin exams. It had been a place of wonder and…and it couldn’t be gone.

“Our condolences.”

Tobirama lifted his gaze from the floor to find Saru solemnly looking back. They kept each other captive for a long moment, each trying to convey their own message, before Tobirama nodded, accepting the words. “I will need to pay my respects,” he intoned, his voice deep and grave. Yet more names to pray for. “But it does not nullify our Pact. It was made in a time that predated even the Warring Clans and made with utter destruction in mind.” He may be lying a bit. “So long as any Uzumaki or Senju lives, we are bound.” There was actually no clause detailing an end to the treaty. It was meant to go on indefinitely. “Siblings, until the end,” he murmured, hoping Mito hadn’t truly been alone. No clan, husband’s or home’s. Tobirama couldn’t imagine.

“As touching as that sounds,” Danzo replied and Tobirama dug his nails into his arm, the gesture safely hidden in his sleeves. “I can almost be certain that your pact does not include any such agreements over the case of jinchurikis.”

Ah. Here they go.

“Indeed, it does not,” he confirmed.

He blinked and resisted the urge to look in the direction of the Senju compound. What was Naruto doing leaving the wards?

Danzo speaking regained his attention. “Then it must be made clear that Naruto Uzumaki is an asset to the village. One we cannot allow to become loyal to anything but the village.” Koharu and Homura nodded firmly in agreement.

Homura folded his hands in his lap. “If any one clan were to gain the allegiance of or have sway over the jinchuriki, it would be detrimental to the future of the village.”

Koharu hummed. “The jinchuriki must be raised away from any political powers aside from Konoha itself. Only Konoha can provide for him and only Konoha can call upon him.”

Tobirama’s chakra ached behind his control of it. Everything about what he was hearing screamed threat and he wanted nothing more than to wipe them all out, but the niceties of society and civilization chained him down, leaving him near insensate with rage. “So you plan to be the one to throw him scraps to eat,” he growled, the temperature dropping in the room even further as his control slipped. “To give him rags to warm himself with and a debilitated apartment to house himself in. Alone. Hated. Reviled! So that when you deign to give him trash to live on, he looks upon you in favor.” A sharp hiss escaped him and he clicked his teeth shut, trying to keep from fully loosing his temper. “The offense you give out so callously is infuriating. Were it I who still wore the hat, you would’ve be executed for your actions and misdeeds. You all make me sick. How dare you even speak of treating a child like this?!”

“Do not raise your voice at us!” Koharu snapped, rising to her feet as her own chakra flared out. “We are the elders of Konoha and you will respect us!”

“You are nothing but power-hungry children who are so frightened at losing even an ounce of your position that you would subject a citizen of the village you lead to poverty and abuse in the name of conditioning him like a dog!" Tobirama roared. “This is what the leadership of Konoha has come to be?!”

Danzo stamped his cane. “The boy is the jinchuriki and belongs to the village.”

There was no stopping the crashing tide of his chakra now. “He is a child,” Tobirama hissed, the very air glowing around him. “A citizen of Konoha. You had no right to do that to him!”

“He is a weapon!” Danzo retorted and Tobirama was horrified at what he was hearing. Was this what his students had become? What had he done to make them so?!

The pictures on the walls rattled with the force of rising chakra. “Callous old fool,” he spat. “Have you lost your senses? Naruto is not only the son of your former Hokage, but a clan child. The fact that you’ve decided to take advantage of the genocide of Konoha’s sister-ally in order to brainwash and break a small child would have the village’s allies and supporters up in arms!” Tobirama turned his eyes on Saru’s back. “Minato Namikaze was loved and adored by this village. If they learned that Naruto was his son, you would have a riot on your hands. It is only by the grace of a militaristic iron fist that you have not had the clans revolt as of yet. Do you even comprehend what kind of precedent you are setting with your treatment of a clan child?!”

Koharu raised her chin. “The village must come first. Everything we do is for the betterment of the village.”

Tobirama had to school his expression and keep from sneering. “All of my teachings were for not if you’ve truly convinced yourself of such. You are straining the delicate unity that keeps this village a village. You have already placed a strain upon Naruto and began to turn him on the village.”

“No, that would be your doing,” Homura argued, his hands clenched in his lap. “Everything was fine and going according to plan until you came along, Senju-sama.”

His teeth hurt from how hard he was grinding them. “Setting aside how you admit that neglect and abuse of a village child was planned and premeditated,” he snarled, his voice low and rough, “I gave Naruto what he should’ve had from the beginning. Home, family, love. Jinchuriki are precious and a treasure to the village. With their very existence they keep us safe and you would squander that in pursuit of your greedy power games! Unbelieveable!”

Danzo tsked. “You are too soft, sensei. The life of one person is an acceptable cost to ensure the safety and protection of the village. You taught us that.”

Tobirama stiffened in incredible offense. He barely noticed drops of water starting to form in the air, his chakra so contained and dense in such a small area that it physically started manifesting without his intent and command. “I stayed behind to ensure your safe return to the village, to ensure the future of the village was secure,” he whispered, voice dangerously soft and sharp. How dare Danzo presume to make a mockery of his sacrifice, of what he had been willing to give for his students. How fucking dare he pervert his actions to justify his behavior. “I went willingly to give my life because my time to shape and mold the village for future generations had come and gone and it was time for me to pass the torch. I sacrificed myself, of my own accord, so that your generation and the generations to follow could support and protect the future. Not,” he growled, “so that decrepit old men and women could cling to their power and position at the very cost of that future!”

“You overstep,” Koharu snapped. “We know better than anyone how to protect and lead the village!”

“Arrogant, thieving, immoral despots,” he threw back, heedless of her oh-so-small power and affect. “You do not hear what I speak or you hear and you simply refuse to listen. Let me make myself painfully clear. This village was founded so no more children had to die or live their lives as soldiers and only as soldiers. Hashirama, Madara, and I all coveted this goal and for that goal, Konoha was established. To see you all claim that your actions are for the betterment of the village, that you do so to ensure it has a future, sickens me and gives me the greatest insult. The future of the village is the children, of which you are already crippling yourself through your narrow-sightedness and lust for power.”

“You speak as if we are still your students to lecture,” Danzo said, his voice monotone and factual, blocking out any chance to talk and reach a middle ground. “Times have changed and you will come to understand this. Let me be clear as to what is happening. Naruto Uzumaki is the jinchuriki that belongs to Konohagakure and as thus will be treated according to our will. He is a sacrifice for the safety of the village. A sacrifice whose duty does not end with the simple sealing of a being inside of him.” Tobirama had to hold himself perfectly still as Danzo met his gaze, challenging him. If he moved, he was afraid this entire building would come crumbling down. “Naruto Uzumaki is nothing but another tool to be used at the expense of ensuring the village remains strong. Nothing more.”

There would be no convincing them, Tobirama knew now. Where before with Saru, his old student had shown guilt and shame, he felt no such emotions in Koharu’s and Homura’s chakras. He saw no evidence of being contrite in Danzo’s demeanor. Of his students, these three were firm and stuck in their ways and beliefs. He would be impressed by their resolve if it weren’t so against his.

Another chakra, swift and severe, joined his in blanketing the room, making the floorboards creak and shudder. “You will hold your tongue, Danzo!” Saru bellowed, glaring at his fellow and drawing any attention away from Tobirama’s poorly hidden shock. The Senju reined his chakra in, making the air feel dry and coarse as he took the moisture with him. “Naruto is a full citizen of the Leaf and I will not tolerate any infringement on his rights and safety. Do I make myself clear?”

Danzo pursed his lips. “Don’t tell me you’ve gotten attached, Hokage. He is a child jinchuriki. He could lose control at any moment.”

Saru sneered. “Do not play games with me. We are aware of the seal’s strength and integrity; we know the sacrifice that went into ensuring that!” He jabbed a finger at a framed picture on the wall. Of the Fourth Hokage. “Minato gave his life to save the village and ensure that it would stay safe. I will not have you sullying his memory by defiling his son. I warned you away. I warned you all away.” The Hokage redirected his gaze to include Koharu and Homura, who were radiating disbelief and disgust. “And in return you also bound my hands, but not in this. Naruto has family now and we will not interfere in it.”

“You can’t seriously be thinking of entertaining this notion of them being who knows how many cousins removed by marriage,” Homura challenged.

“I have claimed Naruto through the old clan ways,” Tobirama interjected, drawing attention back to him. “Before my clan’s avatar he was accepted and welcomed as Senju. By our very chakra, he is kin and clan.”

Sarutobi nodded in sharp satisfaction, very much looking like an old general standing before his war table. Meanwhile Koharu and Homura spluttered denials and demands for annulment and banishment. Danzo merely stood silent and Tobirama wondered if his student had recognized he’d lost this battle or was plotting his next move. Possibly both and something else as well.

Regardless, Tobirama was walking away, not having won, but with his own desires and wishes still respected. Despite their opinions on how Naruto should be treated and what is best for the village, they could not take legal action or enforce their will onto him or his nephew. Like any other meeting with any ‘elders’, this meeting was pointless and merely a chance to argue. But Tobirama was pleased and disturbed with the knowledge he now had of his students.

Danzo was right. Times had changed and so had they. He knew better who stood against him; and also who wasn’t standing against him.

He looked curiously upon Saru, who stood and acted apart from his comrades. Curious.

“So mote it be. Congratulations,” the Hokage offered tersely, perfunctorily. “Do the elders of Konoha wish to raise anymore concerns, false though they may be?” Complete and total sullen silence. “Then this meeting is adjourned. Senju-sama, thank you for your time in explaining to the elders the laws and facts they already should’ve been aware of.”

Tobirama nodded, feeling conflicted in how this had turned out. “Of course, Hokage-sama.” He bowed his head and took his dismissal, exiting the office. He closed the door and felt the silencing seals activate.

This had gone both as he has expected and then as he hadn’t expected it.

Complicated indeed.

Chapter Text

Naruto hummed as he walked a familiar path through the village, looking silently up at the sky.

A lot had changed. Even things that seemed the same had changed.

His stomach growled lightly, reminding him that it was dinner time, but it didn’t hurt like before. The air was cold, but he couldn’t really feel it with his new clothes. It was late and he was alone, but he wasn’t really alone.

Naruto Senju. Eh. His name was still Naruto Uzumaki, but he was Senju now, like his uncle. He had a branch on the ancestor tree, his own room in an actual house in a…in his clan compound, and a man who was…family.

Everything was different now.

“Kit.” He hummed and felt thick fur brush against his side. “Not that way,” the big cat decided, pushing him down another road.

“Huh?” He looked away from the sky and realized he’d been unintentionally going back to his old apartment. “Oh. Okay.”

The cat—a snow leopard, Inu-nii said—chuffed, a sound he’d heard his uncle make a few times in order to get his attention. It was funny. The more time he spent around Airi, the more he realized how much Tobirama was like a cat.

They resumed their walk, his own footsteps scuffing the ground and Airi’s steps completely silent.

He used to do this all the time when he was bored. Just wander the village and see what he could find or play with. It was better than just sitting in his apartment alone. When he’d woken up from his nap to find his uncle gone, “summoned” to go do adult stuff, he’d been reminded of that feeling. Inu-nii or not, Naruto had felt…bad. Especially when Inu-nii’s eye never really looked at him, just skipped over the top of his head. So he’d left the compound, telling Airi he wanted to go on an adventure. At least the cat looked at him even if she didn’t talk much.

Naruto took a breath through his nose, taking in the smell that was just village and the stray scents of people who’d walked down this path before. He didn’t really come to this side of the village often, preferring the parks and roads just off the main paths. Busy, but not too busy. Less chance of people yelling at him and more just avoiding him.

He observed the park they were entering, taking in the trees and plants. Naruto thought they were pretty, but kind of stilted and flat. No real life to them. Not that he really knew what ‘life’ looked like before he’d seen the Senju gardens, but still. Plants and trees were cool. He liked the way they smelled.

Naruto stepped off the path through the park and went towards the trees, wondering what he could find and when Uncle Tobi would be home. He was hungry and didn’t want to eat or play in the garden or go to bed without the man there with him. Uncle made normal things better.

Airi chuffed again, rubbing against his side. When he looked down, the leopard turned her nose off to the right. He followed the direction and saw…another kid?

Weird. He didn’t normally see other kids out after it got dark.

“Hey,” he called as he changed his destination. The other kid jumped and it was hard to see them, but Naruto could see dark hair and a light-colored jacket. He smelled flowers, rice, and lavender at a distance. “Whatcha doin’?”

“U-Um…” The kid—a girl?—stayed hunched over her knees, head bowed. “I-I’m um…pick…ing…” A pale finger pointed to the flowers just in front of her.

“Picking flowers?” Naruto guessed, perking up as he came closer. “Oh! I think I know these, believe it. They’re uh…” He mimed with his hands, peering at these small ones. “They’re big and bright.” He squinted. “C-Cry…No those are the poofy ones. But it starts with a C hmm.”

The girl shifted. “Camellias,” she said so quietly Naruto almost missed it.

“Yeah! That’s the one! We got a lot of them in our garden, but I like the water lilies best,” he told the girl, coming to crouch by the girl. Naruto poked at the ground around the flowers like Uncle Tobi had shown him to do, feeling how wet the ground was. “They come in a bunch of colors, you know? And grow on water!”

The girl nodded shyly. “Mhm. M-Most of the flow-wers in my garden are d-dead because of winter. But um. I r-remembered seeing these and thought…” When she trailed off, tapping her fingers against each other, Naruto tilted his head curiously.

“Thought what?”

She jumped and for the first time Naruto caught a glimpse of her eyes. For a second, he thought she was blind they were so pale and white, but he saw how they flicked from him to the flowers and back. He’d never seen eyes like hers before. “Um. I th-thought I could t-take them home. I l-like bright…colors too.”

Naruto nodded in understanding. “I like the color orange, believe it! What’s your favorite color?”

Pale eyes stared at him before dropping. “Purple,” she whispered and Naruto thought critically about the color, crossing his arms over his chest.

Finally, he nodded again. “That is a good color! It even goes with orange. Darker with lighter, you know?” Uncle Tobi had said something like that when explaining why everything couldn’t be orange. That there had to be balance or something or other. Naruto wasn’t sure he believed the man.

“You…really think so?” the girl asked and Naruto was confused on why she sounded so…so like she was expecting to be yelled at. He hadn’t hit her or yelled at her…

He shook off the thought. “Yeah! I wouldn’t say it unless I meant it, believe it! It’s also pretty cool because there are a lot of flowers that are purple, yeah? I haven’t found a lot that are orange. Stupid…” He pouted.

“Ah. Um…” Naruto straightened and looked back to the girl. “Th-There are some…lilies. Not water lilies, but uh. Land? Lilies.” The girl tapped her fingers together quicker. “They’re or-range. Daises too.”

“Huh?!” The girl flinched and Naruto brought his flailing hands back to his chest, hugging himself. “There…There are orange flowers?!” She hesitated before nodding. “That’s awesome, believe it! I’m gonna get all the orange flowers! And! And I’ll get you all the purple flowers!”

“W-What?”

The boy smiled. “Eh, it makes sense, doesn’t it? I like orange, so I’ll get all the orange flowers. And you like purple, so you should have all the purple flowers. There’s a lot in our garden. You should come see and pick some!”

The girl froze almost completely, staring at him. “Y-You’d let m-me take…flowers from your um…g-garden?”

“Yeah! It’s a pretty cool garden and everyone should see it, believe it!”

A new voice chuckled and Naruto nearly fell over from Airi butting against his side. “I’m pretty sure you should ask Tobirama-bocchan before inviting people to the compound, kit.”

The girl squeaked and jumped again. “A…A…t-talking cat?”

“Snow leopard,” Airi corrected, sitting down and lifting a paw to groom herself.

“This is Airi,” Naruto introduced. “She’s my uncle’s summons. She’s watching me until he gets back.”

“Oh.” The girl bobbed up and down in a bow. “An honor to m-meet you, Airi-san. I am Hinata Hyuga.”

“Pleasure,” Airi purred before turning to press a cold wet nose to Naruto’s cheek. “The kit of my bocchan is Naruto Uzumaki. Forgive his manners, we’re still training him.” The girl, Hinata, giggled into her hands while Naruto huffed indignantly.

“I don’t need training, believe it!” he crowed before falling over completely when Airi bumped into him again.

Hinata’s giggles rose in volume once more as Airi looked down imperiously. “Kit, you have a long way to go.” The ears on the top of the snow leopard’s head swiveled around almost completely before she turned to look over her shoulder. “Bocchan,” she greeted.

Naruto scrambled upright and beamed in the direction she was looking. “Tobi-oji-chan!” he cried as the man appeared out of the shadows of the park. “You’re back!”

Red eyes practically glowed through the evening dark and found his. Naruto smiled sheepishly as a familiar eyebrow rose, but his uncle’s expression stayed open and not-tense. “I am. However you are not where I left you.” He felt the familiar heavybigstronguncle wrap around him and relaxed under it.

Naruto scratched his cheek. “I got bored.”

The man came even with a tree and looked over the three of them. “And where was Kakashi in this?”

“He was boring,” Naruto explained simply. “So I left him.”

The other eyebrow went up and the boy worried for a second that he’d done something wrong.

Airi spoke up. “Kaa-san stayed behind and said she’d make sure he left. The dog kin tried making dinner for the kit. I suggested kit take a walk when I smelled smoke.”

Naruto giggled when Tobirama looked very unimpressed at the news. “I see,” he rumbled before sighing. “I’ll make him pay for any damages done to our home. So you haven’t eaten yet?” Naruto shook his head, excitement filling him. “Dare I ask what you want to eat?”

“RAMEN!!” the boy exploded, jumping to his feet. He was about to bounce over to his uncle’s side before a thought occurred to him. “Oh, hey. Oji-chan, can Hinata come with us? We were talking about flowers. She likes the color purple!”

Tobirama tilted his head slightly to the side and Naruto waited eagerly as he looked to the little girl. “Hello, Hinata-chan. I am Tobirama Senju.”

“H-Hi, Senju-san,” the girl managed to get out quietly.

Naruto looked between the two quickly, before frowning when he saw his uncle pause. Was something wrong?

“Are you hungry? Naruto and I are going to get ramen. It will warm you up. You don’t seem properly dressed for the cold.”

“Huh?” Naruto looked back to the girl and did notice she didn’t have gloves on and only had a thin jacket. “Here! You can have my jacket.” He unzipped his outer most jacket and offered it to the girl. He still had a jacket on and yeah it wasn’t his orange one, but it still kept him warm. “Come on! We can talk more about flowers and stuff at Teuchi-jii-san’s place! He makes the best ramen, believe it!”

“Um…sure. Okay.”

He took the girl’s hand after she slid the jacket on and pulled her along to Uncle Tobi’s side, taking the man’s hand in his free one. He smiled up at his uncle. “Ready! Let’s go get some ramen!”

Chapter Text

Tobirama checked his chakra sense for the sixth time since they set out from the compound, ensuring that the person he was seeking out was in the same spot. It hadn’t taken much debate with himself before he decided to venture out, knowing he would forever be curious and time was a precious commodity.

Naruto yawned on his shoulder, wrapping his arms tighter around his neck, before relaxing again. He did regret pulling the boy out of bed so early, but it was the best time to catch everyone in the same place before the tasks of the day drew them in different directions.

He allowed himself the opportunity to nuzzle into freshly washed blond locks, breathing in the jasmine and sandalwood shampoo the boy had decided was his. Naruto tilted his head into it and Tobirama smiled at the gesture. Peace welled up inside of Tobirama. Warm child tucked under his haori, the village quiet and waking, and tentative hope for the day: it was a heady combination.

Some nerves came back as he found himself approaching the open and inviting archway. Proudly painted at the pinnacle of the arch was the Akimichi clan symbol.

There were no guards at the entrance to the compound, but Tobirama spotted the string of wood panels, decorated with various kanji of food dishes. Charming. “Naruto,” he prompted, rousing the boy from his doze while he reached up for the pull string. With a slow pull, he set the wooden panels cycling, clacking against each other as they went. He felt the chakra presences from the visitor’s house flicker in response to the sound and stepped back to wait. The boy hummed into his neck. “We’re here.”

“’Ere g’nna be f’d?” his sprout mumbled.

“More than you can imagine.” If all went well.

The door to the visitor’s house slid open and out stepped an Akimichi woman. Tobirama saw and felt a few more people curiously look to see who was visiting this morning and then patiently waited out their inevitable shock.

The woman comported herself professionally despite doing a double-take. “Niidaime-sama,” she greeted, bowing. “Can I help you with something?” Her eyes fell to the shifting bundle on his chest, softening when Naruto blinked sleepily back at her. “Hello, Naruto-kun.”

“Eh? Do I…” Naruto yawned widely, “know you?”

“Not personally, no.”

Tobirama bowed his head. “Akimichi-san. Please forgive our intrusion. I was hoping to inquire after Torifu Akimichi’s health and possibly visit if it was not too much.”

The woman smiled. “Elder Torifu? He’s still kicking a fuss and nagging the kids. I’m sure he’d be happy to see you. Come inside?”

“Thank you, that would be wonderful.” He followed her back into the visitor’s house where she got him settled with tea at a kotatsu. Also in the house were two other Akimichi, another woman and a man. They shared trivial greetings and niceties.

Naruto wiggled out of his hold and reached for some of the fruit left with the tea. “Where are we, Oji-chan?” he asked, sniffing the air curiously.

“We’re at the Akimichi clan compound. I have an old student here and I wanted to see how he was doing.” He’d told the boy such last night, asking if he wanted to come with. Tobirama was beginning to learn that Naruto was not much of a morning person despite having endless energy. He thanked any god that was listening for that good fortune. Children were nightmares to watch before his third cup of tea.

His nephew accepted the peeled orange he handed him. “Aka-hm?”

“Akimichi. One of the four noble clans of Konoha, if that is still the same.”

The Akimichi man glanced over. “It is,” he confirmed and Tobirama nodded his thanks.

“They are one of the strongest clans in the entire village,” Tobirama continued, sipping the fruity, light tea they’d been given. It was tart and citrus-y and he wasn’t sure if he liked it or not. It was different and exotic for certain, though. “The Akimichi were the first to join the village after the Senju and Uchiha made peace and united. They are known for their incredible strength and large clan numbers. One Akimichi could wipe out an entire platoon of enemies let alone a team of them.”

Naruto looked dazzled. “Really?”

The Senju nodded seriously. “Quite. They are also known for their incredible cooking.” He had to keep his lips from quirking when the boy started to practically glow at idea of food. “They are a good clan to be friends with. Loyal and kind should you treat them the same.”

Naruto blinked, the sparkles fading. He pursed his lips and looked up at him. “Friends? But…what if they…” He moved a hand to his stomach, where the seal of the Shinigami lay. Tobirama had to give Minato some respect—grudgingly—for having the gall to use a SSS-rank forbidden jutsu of the Uzumaki clan.

The Senju nudged the back of a knuckle to the child’s hand. “I personally don’t think you’ll find many of those people here, but if we do, I’m right here. No matter what, you can come back to me and we’ll be okay.”

The child didn’t look totally convinced, but he accepted the bundle of grapes—an absolute treat he’d only seen in the courts of the Daimyo—that Tobirama held out for him. He wished there were more assurances he could give the boy, but he didn’t know what else to say or offer.

Sometimes, no matter what, there were always going to be people who hurt them and hated them. Even after decades of service and contribution, many of the Senju clan couldn’t speak with him without making the sign to ward off evil. It hurt, but he’d come to just value their opinions and words less than everyone else’s. However, it was a harsh and unforgiving method, and one he didn’t want to teach Naruto to do.

The woman returned a few minutes later, her bottom lip held between her teeth and her eyes full of mirth. “Elder Torifu will see you,” she announced as if he couldn’t feel his old student’s flurry of potent emotions. Excitement, exasperation, nervousness, joy, and irritation. It was a change from the normally serious and darkly amused student during the war. “We almost didn’t believe the rumors when we heard you had returned, Niidaime-sama,” she said as she led the way across the open courtyard and through the fire pits. Some of which had whole animals on them being manned by younger Akimichi. The woman waved to a few as they passed. “But Torifu-jii-sama just huffed and puffed and said he knew you’d come back.”

Tobirama raised an eyebrow. “It’s been almost 40 years since I was last reported alive,” he observed and the woman’s pigtails bobbed and swayed with her nod.

“That’s what we said. He never mentioned anything in all those years, but the second we got word, he was the first to believe it.”

Curious. “I suppose I should feel flattered by his faith in me.”

She threw back her head in a loud laugh that had Naruto squeezing his hand harder. He tugged the hand behind himself in reflex, guiding the boy to tuck himself out of sight. “Kami knows you’re the only one he has faith in!” Before he had a chance to puzzle over that statement, she came to a stop in front of a house and slid open the door without so much as a knock. “Ojii-sama!”

And from the side room closest to the door came Torifu. He had gained in size with age, much like any Akimichi would’ve. He was easily three times as wide as Tobirama was and taller than him by a head, which was a rare thing for Tobirama to realize. Only Hashirama had been taller than him for a long while. His painted cheeks hung heavy like the jowls of a bulldog, the purple stars standing out against slightly tanned skin. The spikey mess of brown hair—now gray with some parts of white—had been tamed a bit, now laying back for the most part, but still as bristly as before. Tobirama found himself reminded of a boar as he came under the gaze of those narrowed black eyes.

Black eyes that widened and lit up. “Sensei!” the man boomed and Tobirama used every ounce of his speed to push Naruto back and out of the way as he suddenly found himself swept up in an embrace that put Hashirama to shame. “It’s you! Welcome back, you prickly bastard!”

Tobirama wheezed and was more than a little disconcerted to find his feet no longer touching the ground and his arms tightly pressed to his sides. “So many years and you still have such disrespect for your honorable teacher,” he snarked back with the last of his air. It was a good sacrifice.

The Senju was treated to a rare case of motion sickness as he rose and fell with the old man’s merry laughter. “And I still say people are too afraid of you to actually see you!” His lungs and ribs thanked Torifu when he put him down again. Standing on his own two feet was a wonderful thing. Tobirama gracefully held still as his former student examined him closely. “You haven’t aged a single day, Sage strike me now. I know plenty of women who would kill to know your secret. Ah! And with a little one!” Tobirama felt small hands grab onto his pants again and dropped a hand gently onto Naruto’s head. Torifu took a step back and bent down from his great height to peer at the child with a crooked smile. “Hello there. I’m Torifu Akimichi.” He saw Torifu’s eyes flicker slightly from side to side, taking in the whisker marks on his nephew’s cheeks. The elderly man still asked, “And who might you be?”

Naruto shifted his hands to full on wrap around Tobirama’s leg. “’M Naruto Uzumaki.”

“My nephew. My sprout,” Tobirama supplied and relaxed as honest joy spread through Torifu’s chakra and a wide smile lifted his heavy cheeks.

“He’s your uncle?!” he gasped in mock horror. “Kid, I’m so sorry, he’s so boring.”

“Tobi-oji-chan isn’t boring, believe it! You take that back!” Naruto shouted only to pause when Tobirama carefully tugged on some of his hair.

The Senju huffed and rolled his eyes for the boy to see. “Don’t mind, sprout. He’s teasing me.”

“Eh?! Why?” The boy narrowed blue eyes at Torifu as the man straightened slowly, old joints and pains obviously plaguing him.

“Tobirama used to be my sensei,” Torifu explained, sharing an amused look with his teacher. “It gives me special rights to tease and play with him, keep him from getting bored and too stuck up.”

“Really?!” Naruto exclaimed at the same time Tobirama deadpanned, “No, it doesn’t.”

The Akimichi chuckled to himself and stepped back again, turning to the side. “Well come in, come in! My wife and son are making breakfast. Are you two hungry?”

That was the magic word. Tobirama watched as his nephew darted forward further into the house, barely remembering to take off his sandals.

Tobirama was treated to a warm welcome from Mina, Torifu’s wife, and Toichi, their son. Naruto was swept up in a traditional Akimichi lifestyle of a warm bustling kitchen, constant chatter, and plenty of food to eat.

“You’re going to lose your boy to my wife,” Torifu warned. They were both seated at the dining room table watching as Mina let Naruto taste the cooking stir fry from her wooden spoon.

Tobirama doubted that given Naruto still glanced in his direction, probably making sure he was still present and in the room. But he played along. “He needs a woman’s influence in his life,” he said reasonably and Torifu nodded in agreeance.

“Mina was a good mother and put the fear and respect of any woman, kunoichi or civilian, into Toichi.” He waved a meaty hand to his much younger and slimmer son, who took more after his mother than his father. The man smiled at his father’s attention, setting down some warm sake and tea. It was much too early for Tobirama to even consider drinking as acceptable, but he knew Akimichi had a ridiculously high metabolism and tolerance for alcohol. “He’s grown to be a fine son, don’t you think?” Tobirama nodded and took in the man’s presence and bearing. He was easy and relaxed, an Akimichi at home with friends and family. His chakra reserves were modest, but it shared the dense quality that had made Torifu stand out from his clan in his youth. Just from chakra alone, Tobirama would put him as a chunin. “Now, we just need to find him a woman to make an honest man out of him.”

“Da,” Toichi groaned.

Mina giggled at her son’s plight. “All in your own time, dear, but please grace us with grandchildren before we’re gone.”

The man sighed and let his mother kiss his cheek. “Yes, ma.”

Tobirama sipped from his tea, careful not to let himself fill up on it. This would make it his…fifth cup of tea since he woke up and he normally didn’t have much of an appetite to begin with. “It’s good to see you with home and family,” he murmured quietly for only Torifu to hear.

Warmth and gratefulness softened his old student’s expression. “Thank you,” he returned honestly. “It was a stroke of luck to be honest. I was out on mission when I met Mina. Long story short, I came back skin and bones but alive thanks to her and when I had my wits about me again I begged her to marry me.”

“We have time,” Tobirama pointed out and subtly leaned into Torifu when the man nudged him with an elbow.

“That we do.”

Tobirama listened attentively as Torifu wove first the story of love and marriage and then of the joy of having a child. Naruto came back once or twice, hiding from fingers that would’ve pinched his cheeks, but ultimately entertained himself by following Mina and Toichi around the kitchen.

Breakfast was nearly ready when a knock came from the door. Toichi went to answer and returned with two new chakra presences. “Da, it’s Choza-sama,” the younger man announced and Tobirama was secretly relieved he would not have to seek the clan head out himself.

Torifu straightened from where he was laughing himself hoarse from retelling the story of Toichi’s first attempt at sneaking out. “Ah, Choza, my boy! Welcome! Have you and little Choji eaten breakfast yet?”

The tall clan head with a riot of spikey red hair grinned back. “Pardon the intrusion, Uncle. We had a small breakfast but we could always have more, couldn’t we, Choji?”

The child, who looked achingly small compared to the size and might of his father and great uncle, nodded quickly with a soft hum, though he was half hidden from sight behind his father’s leg. He looked across the room, focusing mainly on Tobirama and Naruto.

Torifu dropped a hefty hand on Tobirama’s shoulder. “Choza, this is my sensei, Tobirama Senju, and his nephew, Naruto Uzumaki.”

Tobirama sketched a shallow bow, prodding Naruto on the side to copy him. “Akimichi-sama, Akimichi-san,” he greeted. “Good morning and good meals.”

Choza blinked in surprise. “You know our ways,” he observed, moving to sit across from Torifu while Choji sat directly across from Tobirama.

Tobirama tilted his head at Torifu. “Students aren’t the only ones who can learn,” he demurred. “Torifu went to great lengths to ensure I and his fellow students knew how to cook and brawl.”

Torifu scoffed. “For all that you used those lessons. You’re still too skinny, sensei. Your nephew even more so.”

“Something I am working on,” he assured his student before leaning down to whisper in Naruto’s ear. “Choji looks a little alone,” he murmured and the blond stilled. “Why don’t you go tell him about our herb and vegetable garden?” His nephew glanced up at him uncertainly and he nodded in encouragement. When Naruto decided that crawling under the table to get to the other child was easier than standing up and walking, he turned his eyes to the ceiling in a plead for patience. The other adults laughed at his suffering as the food was finally laid out.

Light conversation was made over the meal though Tobirama dearly wished he could speak freely. However, it was considered rude to discuss business of any kind over a meal had with or made by an Akimichi. Meal times were times for friends and family and to strengthen bonds.

As predicted, Tobirama could barely finish half of his plate even with Torifu’s needling and Mina’s concerned prodding. He simply did not have the stomach space for more food. Naruto was more than happy to take his plate though, he and Choji having hit it off while talking about ramen of course.

Given the little Hyuga girl his nephew had also befriended over flowers and ramen, Tobirama was beginning to give credence to Mito’s drunk mutterings about ramen being a weapon of peace.

The meal eventually wound down and Tobirama made sure to give plenty of thanks and compliments over the cooking to Mina and Toichi, Naruto naturally following example with his own brand of enthusiasm and volume.

“Dad, can I show Naruto the butterflies?” Choji asked eagerly once the plates were pulled from the table.

Choza smiled at his son. “So long as Niidaime-sama is okay with it.”

Naruto immediately whipped around. “Can I go?!”

May you go,” Tobirama corrected out of reflex but agreed with a flick of his fingers to the door. “Stay in the compound. I’ll be here or I’ll come find you to let you know where I will be.” He taped two fingers to his head to indicate his sensor abilities. Naruto grinned and the boys clambered over each other with shouts and laughter, slamming the door open and shut in their hurry.

Tobirama offered a quiet apology to Mina about the door, which the woman waved away. Choza sighed happily, looking in the direction the boys had gone. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen Choji that excited. Having a friend will do him good.”

“Naruto as well,” the Senju added. “I’m not as energetic as he. Having friends his own age will give him an outlet that I cannot.” It was painfully obvious Naruto was a social butterfly and Tobirama couldn’t even begin to imagine what it was like to constantly have people hurt and bruise that portion of his being. He supposed it would be like if someone constantly dragged him out of his lab or his library and belittled him for getting exhausted around people and that made his heart sting.

“What brings you over today, Choza?” Torifu asked and Tobirama silently thanked his student for redirecting the conversation to business.

The clan head gave a somewhat guilty expression. “Sorry for cutting in on your reunion with Niidaime-sama, Uncle, but I was informed that he was here and…”

Tobirama rested his elbow on the table, gently shaking his head when Mina offered to pour him more tea. “I apologize for not requesting your permission before visiting your compound and clansmen.”

Choza waved his hand while Torifu made a sound of disgust. “As if anyone would stop you from visiting me. Speaking of, I expected to be visited sooner. And here I thought I was your favorite.”

The Senju pursed his lips. “I’ll admit that I was…hesitant after my reunions with my other students.”

Torifu’s expression and chakra darkened noticeably, his upper lip curling like he’d just smelled something rotten. “Che. Those four.”

“A falling out, then.”

“Like you couldn’t believe.” Torifu shook his head. “You would’ve been ashamed of us, sensei. The way we fought and tore into each other. Kagami and I couldn’t understand why they would do what they did. Why they are doing what they are now. It wasn’t long after your disappearance. They changed and not for the better.”

Tobirama found himself hesitating again before resigning himself to the truth. “So Kagami is indeed…”

Torifu nodded slowly. “Sage watch over him, but yes. A bad mission. Getting close to 30 years ago now.”

“Ah.” That was sad. Kagami had been his first student and the only one to get close to him. This was the boy he’d taught from even before the founding of Konoha and beyond the man’s promotion to jonin. Tobirama had been proud of Kagami and welcomed him into nearly all aspect of his life, his office, his lab, his home. He had loved Kagami.

He’d hoped, when he hadn’t sensed that familiar teasing, blazing flame of chakra that Kagami was out of the village for whatever reason. But that was not the case.

Torifu dropped a heavy arm around Tobirama’s shoulders, giving him a quick embrace. “He’s buried on Uchiha land,” he informed the other before withdrawing. Tobirama couldn’t help the small thought that Kagami wouldn’t have stopped touching him. He would’ve made himself comfortable draped over Tobirama and made it near impossible for him to move until Kagami felt like he’d been properly comforted. Such a touchy-feely Uchiha.

Tobirama nodded his thanks. “I will have to pay my respects. And soon. Before the elders try to muddle in my affairs again.”

Torifu groaned and genuinely looked pained. “Please tell me they didn’t try.”

“I am not one to lie, Torifu, you know this. Though they were especially idiotic enough to try to tell me who I could make my clan heir.”

Choza choked on his tea and pounded on his own chest. “T-They what?!

The Senju nodded. “They tried to argue that since the Senju are a clan loyal to Konoha, that I must concede.”

The Akimichi clan head flexed his jaw, looking well and truly angry. “The audacity of the elders. That’s unheard of.”

Torifu crossed his arms. “And that they thought it might work on you. Were they just looking to piss you off?”

“They are succeeding if that is their goal,” Tobirama muttered before sighing, reaching up a hand to rub the throbbing spot between his eyebrows. “It concerns me greatly that the elders of the village have gained so much power while Saru seems to let them have their way,” he said carefully, watching carefully for the reactions of not only his student, but Choza as well.

Torifu and Choza both looked mildly uncomfortable, their chakra swirling with uneasiness. “To be honest, sensei, you are not the only one to think so.”

Choza nodded, spinning his tea cup idly. “The Nara and Yamanaka clan heads have brought it up with me a few times. I know the Uchiha clan also feels the power imbalance.”

Tobirama frowned. “How so? I thought the Uchiha were still one of the four noble clans.”

The Akimichi head heaved a heavy sigh, frowning. “The Uchiha are…Well, they’re being pushed out.”

The Senju leveled his stare dead center on the other clan head. “What did you say?”

Choza winced. “It’s not official but actions speak loudly and no one is happy about it.” Tobirama bet they weren’t. If the Uchiha, a noble clan and one of the two founding clans of Konoha, were pushed out then what did that say for the other clans? The precedent that would set was catastrophic. “You’ve heard of how the kyuubi attacked the village five years ago, no doubt.” He nodded tightly. “Well, rumors started circulating. A lot of them. And they all tied back to the Uchiha being responsible for it or for standing aside while the village was attacked. Now anyone who is clan knows that the Uchiha were assigned to evacuation detail and guarding the shelters, but everyone also knows the story of how Madara Uchiha led the kyuubi to attack the village so long ago. Coupled with the fact that not a single Uchiha was there in the fight against the bijuu and public opinion shifted. The entire compound was moved to the outer portion of Konoha just two years ago. There was a line about it being better for the Uchiha, but we knew. Then teams with Uchiha on them started getting less quality missions, less vital missions. They’re still the wealthiest and strongest, but they’re feeling the pressure.”

Tobirama was struck speechless. He would’ve been less surprised if he was hearing the same tale but with the Senju had they still been around. The Uchiha were the core of Konoha and they were being pushed out and slighted?

How have they not revolted?

“And the elders are doing this?” Tobirama asked, needing to know.

“Danzo suggested it and the others followed. And the Hokage, as always, assigns missions.”

Tobirama clicked his teeth. He wasn’t surprised.

Torifu shifted a bit. “They’ve changed. The three, Danzo, Koharu, and Homura, they don’t trust the Uchiha. They turned on Kagami of all people, saying he was happy to have left you behind. That he was happy to see the Bane of the Uchiha dead.” Tobirama slapped a hand onto the table, trying to steady himself at the vile venom he was hearing. “As if they didn’t know his mangekyo was awakened after losing you.”

Tobirama took a very long moment to compose himself, breathing deep and visualizing blowing out the flame of fury raging in his breast. Eventually, he steepled his fingers and breathed over them. “May I place my trust in you two?”

“Of course,” Torifu replied promptly while Choza tilted his head.

“You are aware of my duties and responsibilities,” the red-headed man said in way of an answer, but it was answer enough.

“I have only been in this time for a short while, but I’ve been made aware of crimes and atrocities committed by the elders and by the Hokage that I cannot abide by,” he started. “They have consistently shown no remorse for their actions and motives and give no sign of being willing to change. I have no faith or confidence in their ability to lead Konoha or to have its best interests in mind. I do not speak of a coup de ’tat,” he assured Choza and got an understanding look. “I speak of seeing them and others like them brought to court for their crimes and punished justly for them.”

“And what crimes would you have them charged with?” Choza asked, his tone even and giving nothing away. His chakra let Tobirama feel how tense he was, but also how hopeful he was.

“What I could prove now and take to court are charges of child abuse, child neglect, child abandonment of various counts and severity. All of which were done to a clan child.” Tobirama had done his best to see about closing the gaps of inequality between noble-born clan members and shinobi originating from civilian families, but the uppity clan heads of the shinobi council from his own time had been incredibly hard to sway and convince. In this instance, however, it would work in his favor.

Choza tsked. “From the rumors I hear, there is a lot more you could charge them with, but those alone would disqualify them from any government administrative position. I’ll introduce you to Shikaku and Inoichi. They’re the clan heads of the Nara and Yamanaka clans with Shikaku being the jonin commander and Inoichi being the head of T&I.”

This meeting was turning out better than he’d imagined. He’d hoped to befriend the Akimichi clan head eventually and get an introduction to other clan heads, but to learn that the Nara and Yamanaka clan heads held such high positions of power and intelligence was incredible. If he could convince them to back him in his play to rip his old students from their lofty, filthy seats, then it would be a good amount of progress.

Of the clans of Konoha, they could be differentiated between whether they had ties to the Senju clan or Uchiha clan back in the time of Warring Clans. When Konoha had been founded, the Senju and Uchiha clans had reached out to their various allies and asked them to join. The Akimichi and Uzumaki were long-time friends and allies to the Senju clan and while the Uzumaki had declined and chosen to remain on their island, the Akimichi had agreed and brought with them the Nara and Yamanaka.

The Uchiha had close ties to the Aburame, Inuzuka, and Hatake, all of them following the Uchiha’s lead. The Uchiha also had a rivalry at one time with the Hyuga clan over the prowess of their dojutsu, which left the Senju to negotiate with the Hyuga. And due to some shared missions and good will, the Sarutobi had answered the call when Tobirama had reached out to them.

If Tobirama were to use old connections, he could get a chance to speak with not only the Naras and Yamanakas, but also the Hyuga. The Sarutobi clan was off limits due to Saru being the Hokage. But Tobirama could also possibly speak with the Uchiha given the tension they apparently had with the village. He owed it to Kagami—and to Hashirama—to do his best to see that the Uchiha are welcomed and at home in Konoha. Konoha would not be the village it was and is without Madara’s clan after all.

Maybe this political field wasn’t as treacherous as he thought if this was how his old students had done things.

“I would be thankful,” Tobirama replied to Choza, meaning it more than the man probably knew.

Choza smiled before looking over when Torifu grunted. “I almost forgot,” the elderly man mused. “Mina-chan! Could you bring…” The hallway door slid open, revealing the woman. In her hands, a red scroll.

Mina clucked her tongue. “Your memory may be fading with age, but mine is not, dear husband.”

“What did I ever do to deserve you?” Torifu kissed the back of her hand and accepted the scroll. He then held it out to Tobirama. “This is for you, sensei.”

The Senju frowned as he took it, turning it over and reflexively checking it for traps. “What is this?”

“Mito-sama gave it to me.” Torifu sighed as Tobirama startled faintly. “Kagami and I were often in the hime’s presence and company as the years wore on. I tried to convince her to move to the Akimichi compound when Tsunade-hime left, but she said she was old and not long for the world. She gave me that scroll just a day before she passed, Sage preserve her. It’s as if she knew the Shinigami was coming.” Tobirama turned his gaze down to the red scroll that suddenly felt so much heavier in his hands. Mito…had left this for him?

“I don’t understand,” he stated, struggling to look away from the simple scroll. “I should’ve been gone for a long time at that point. Why would she have left something for me?

“I was confused too. I even thought that her age was showing, shame on me.” Torifu sniffed and shook his head. “But she sounded so sure when I asked. She said, your branch hadn’t fallen yet.” Tobirama sucked in a sharp breath and Torifu glanced at him. “Ah. So it did mean something.”

“I…Forgive me, but I must go. I…” He gritted his teeth. “Where was Mito buried? No, wait.” A location came to mind unbidden and he knew instantly where she was. “I know. Apologies, but—”

“Go, sensei,” Torifu commanded and Choza waved as well even if he looked confused.

“I will introduce you to the others later. Have a good afternoon.”

Tobirama stood up and exited quickly, overwhelmed with the sudden realization.

A branch did not fall from the ancestral tree simply because a Senju died. A branch fell if a Senju died before new growth could spring from their branch.

Tobirama’s branch already bore the scars of Itama’s and Kawarama’s branches falling upon their deaths, much too young and new to be anywhere near an age to bear new life. Tobirama had been a rare exception to that rule. In his father’s absence due to battle and his step-mother’s refusal to present his little brothers to the ancestral tree, Tobirama had done it for them, taking the responsibility and honor of caring for and protecting his little brothers. His branch bore the marks of his failure and in his room were two very small and thin branches that were perfectly preserved in sealed boxes.

But because his branch bore no surviving life, if he had died before presenting Naruto, his branch would’ve fallen. Mito had been taught the very same story he’d told Naruto and knew their ways. She was one of the few wives who had branches on the ancestral tree, one of the few to be accepted. Butsuma’s first wife, Hashirama’s and Tobirama’s mother, was another who had been accepted. His second wife had not been and she’d hated the tree for it, refusing to present her blood sons to it.

Mito had known to expect to gather Tobirama’s fallen branch.

And yet, his hadn’t fallen. Mito had known Tobirama was alive.

And she’d waited. And waited. And waited.

Tobirama had to pause just outside Torifu’s door, struggling to not hyperventilate or let his grief show.

Mito had waited for him until the day before she died to pass on the burden of this scroll. She’d kept faith he would return for decades and Tobirama hurt to know he couldn’t tell her he was finally home.

Chapter Text

Tobirama sat in his home’s main sitting room, still and silent except for his own breathing. He rested his cheek on the knee drawn up to his chest, his other leg curled underneath him. Behind him was the large form of Mari, the snow leopard who had raised him next to her daughter, Airi, to teach him the values of her clan, and to teach him senjutsu. Her body caged him in, waiting for him to sit back and rest on her, but he couldn’t.

The several candles he had lit flickered with the draft flowing through the house. In front of him, set in painfully exact piles, were hundreds of letters.

From Mito to ‘My dear honored brother'.

Tobirama looked over the scrolls upon scrolls of Mito’s neat and tidy handwriting, written to keep him up-to-date on family events, milestones, and interesting happenings. Some scrolls even had small storage seals that contained pictures. Tsuna-chan and her genin team. Kimitada-kun and his wife, holding Tsuna-chan’s newborn baby brother.

Mito had written of everything. A chronology of events and thoughts and feelings from his beloved sister so that he may one day still be a part of the family that continued to grow and change in his absence.

He was aware of how Tsunade took an interest in medical ninjutsu and trained with her little brother, Nawaki, who was the absolute spitting image of Kawarama, every day. He learned of Tsuna-chan’s genin team and how they grew to become the Legendary Sanin, and their eventual falling out. He was told how the Second Great War robbed her of her children and one of her grandchildren. He learned of how Tsuna-chan could no longer look at herself in the mirror and hated her surname before eventually leaving altogether one night. He came to know of young Kushina, who would take Mito’s last earthly burden and relieved her of her duty.

Tobirama knew it was not just for his benefit that so many hours were put into writing all of this. He was now privy to Mito’s most private thoughts, her doubts, her concerns, her pain. He had come to know her before his disappearance, before Konoha even, and he knew she’d been lonely. Away from clan, away from husband and brother, and away from children and grandchildren as well, she had reached out in these letters, reaching for company and solace.

The man closed his eyes, tears flowing once more down his face. He’d given up trying to hide them from the frozen faces staring out at him from the many, many pictures occupying the family shrine.

Itama, Kawarama, Hashirama, Touka, Nawaki, Kimitada, Hatsue, Kasumi, Dan, Kagami, Madara, Mito.

Everyone to have ever been loved by a Senju of the main family resided here, prayed over every morning by Tobirama.

Tobirama clasped his hands together again, touching them to his forehead.

He prayed and pleaded to Mito, begging her to be at peace, that he had finally heard her. That her words had finally reached him. But it felt useless.

Tobirama ground his teeth against the ephemeralness of it all. He felt like he was desperately trying to reach a sister who was long gone, to take the hand she held out in patience for decades. And only now that he was desperately lunging for that hand, to tell her he was here, it was gone like dust.

“Please forgive me,” he whispered, his breathing ragged with the pain and burden he bore due to his own failure.

He lowered his hands once more and opened his eyes to look upon the scroll sitting just in front of him. The one Mito had hidden.

All of her letters had been hidden. But this one, more so.

The scroll Torifu had handed him was short: a dying woman’s wish that Tobirama live long when he finally returned and to live happily. But on the back, near invisible against the deep red dye of the scroll, was a storage seal array drawn in blood. One that could only be opened by Tobirama.

Inside the blood seal were the many letters Mito had written that Tobirama had read slowly and carefully in the dead of night while Naruto slept.

And it was with all the letters, that a message was hidden.

Every parting sentence--the one just above Mito’s signature and wish for the best for Tobirama—was different. Always innocuous and tellingly of a random subject unrelated to what was written in the letter before. Given his memory and constant puzzling, it wasn’t hard to put the message together with the last word of every parting sentence.

Instructions on where to look and a plea for forgiveness for overstepping her bounds.

On the back of the frame holding Kawarama’s picture was an incredibly tiny seal scratched into the wood. A drop of his blood released the contents, a thin scroll, different from all the rest.

“Tobirama,” it started, breaking Mito’s pattern from fondly addressing him by the formal title he had always begged her to stop using, “many years have come and gone since I last saw you. I had hoped there would come a time where I might welcome you home in person, but this scroll will have to do.

Welcome home, Tobirama.”

Tobirama ran a finger over the carefully written words, coaxing Mito’s voice from memory to hear the words as best he could.

“Your journey and mission must be long and weary indeed, but your branch remains strong and hale. I often go to the gardens just to bring myself that comfort. Wheresoever you may have gone, I know you have gone full of life. I mourn that I will not be able to see you with these mortal eyes once more, but all roads, no matter where they wind, always come home. I know, come time, we will meet again in the Pure Lands.

Tomorrow is the ceremony to transfer the kyuubi from myself to Kushina-chan. I mourn for her fate, alone as mine once was. Should you return while she still lives, could I ask you to look in on my niece? You would be able to answer her many questions and humor her love of ramen as you once humored me.

Tomorrow, I go to see my beloved husband once more. He has waited a long time and we both know how he can be unattended. Whatever mess he may have made in the Pure Lands, I am excited to be with him once more. Him and my children and clan. I have missed them all so greatly.”

Tobirama pursed his lips and reached up to rub the tears from his eyes. He was happy Mito was finally able to rest and be reunited with her loved ones.

“But before I go, I must impart upon you grave news. I know not when you will return, but return you will I have full faith, and should the pieces in this twisted game still linger, you will be in danger without the protection of clan or the hat.

Someone has disturbed Hashirama’s rest.”

Indescribable fury filled him still as he reread that line for the tenth time. It never changed no matter how many times he looked over it.

His anija was buried in the old Senju compound next to Itama and Kawarama with Mito also buried at his side. The old compound was even more protected and warded than the current compound here in Konoha. Tobirama, Hashirama, Mito, and Touka had trapped and sealed the old compound with its graveyard behind their deadliest traps, jutsus, trees, and seals, ensuring that only those of Senju blood could enter and exit. None would disturb their old land nor disrespect their dead.

He had once made pilgrimages to the site twice, then three times, then four times a year to visit his brothers and cousin on their birthdays. Other Senju had done the same.

The fact that not only had his brother’s grave been robbed but that a grave robber had slipped past every single ward and trap that had been there and gotten away made him very uneasy and upset. If they could get into the graveyard, then they could get into the current Senju compound as well.

“I myself could not understand it. My own seals to prevent such a thing have not been set off or changed and yet the tree that grew over Hashirama’s grave was angry and unsettled, drawing me to examine the soil. I dared not commit such a crime, not even to see the damage, so I know not what was done, what was taken, or if he is even still there. I can only speculate what someone wishes do to with Hashirama’s body or parts of it, but all of my conclusions are dark and atrocious.

What more, I cannot even cry theft or injustice. The council is well aware that Senju and only Senju may enter those grounds and only Tsunade and I remain. With Tsunade gone, I cannot implicate her further in a crime I know she would never commit.”

Mito does not further that particular thought, but Tobirama certainly does. Neither Mito nor Tsuna-chan disturbed Hashirama’s rest, of that he is certain. So that means someone else of extremely high skill in traps and seals found a way through or an unknown person of Senju blood had done the job. Given the time frame, only those of mixed Senju blood would’ve been around at that time, married into other families, two or three generations into new family trees, and would not have passed the bloodline checks of Mito’s seals.

If it was as Mito laid out, leaving only she and a recently retired and departed Tsunade with permissions to enter the graveyard, then it was possible that whoever infiltrated the old Senju compound knew that. It was possible the infiltrator knew that even if their actions were discovered, nothing could be done due to where the blame would inevitably fall.

Unfavorably and admittedly full of bias, Tobirama’s thoughts turned suspiciously to his former students. Could they be responsible? Or know who is responsible?

Shaking the thoughts, he refocused on the damning letter.

“There is also something else you must know. It is in regards to Kagami, your dear student. In the years past, Torifu-kun and Kagami-kun have kept me company and visited like dutiful children. You should be proud of them, they bring you honor and they bring me joy. They would’ve been fine additions to the ancestral tree, but only upon your bough.

But as you are probably aware already, Kagami has passed, though not from a mission.”

Tobirama felt his heart start to race again.

“Kagami came to me almost ten years ago now, shaken, uncertain. When I asked what was bothering him, he told me Danzo had reached out to him again. Torifu and Kagami had a falling out with the other four not long after you vanished, cutting most ties. So it was a surprise to hear such news. And suspicious. Kagami told me, Danzo was making demands and accusations. Baseless and slandering against him and his clan. When I pressed, Kagami admitted it was not the insults that bothered him as those were the same as before, but the demands. He told me Danzo had set his eyes on the Uchiha clan and was telling him to help him convince the Uchiha to spread their kekkei genkai and power. Preposterous. Nothing of that sort would ever happen. But Kagami told me he had a very bad feeling about it all. Something in the interaction had set him on edge.

Not even a week later, he came to me in the dead of night, injured and missing an eye.

Tobirama, Danzo has taken Kagami’s eye and would’ve taken his life that night if he hadn’t fled using his mangekyo sharingan. And I fear Danzo succeeded in taking Kagami, for he disappeared after fleeing my side, rushing to warn his clan.”

His student. Kagami. Taken and slain by his former teammate. Tobirama’s teeth creaked from the force of silencing his furious scream.

“I tried speaking to the Uchiha, tried passing on the events Kagami shared with me. But before I could even step off of Senju land, Danzo appeared before me with a bandaged eye.”

Tobirama’s fist trembled they were clenched so hard. That same bandaged eye he’d seen himself. The same stolen eye from his student.

“He informed me of Kagami’s tragic death, how his body could not be recovered. His family, his daughter and his wife were driven to distraction in their mourning and should not be disturbed.

I knew a warning when I was given one, Tobirama, and every day since I have felt Anbu following me. They once followed me onto Senju land before I put blood wards in place. I am watched, left alive if only by the burden I am to pass on tomorrow.

There is no doubt in my mind that if you return while Danzo and his co-conspirators still live, that you will be in danger. I beg of you to watch your step. Do not join your brother and I in the Pure Lands before it is truly your time, this I ask of you as a sister.

Now, as your sister-in-law and wife of your brother, I order you to bring justice for these crimes. These men and women are no longer your students, Tobirama, and for what they have done to our loved ones, I am ordering you to see they pay tenfold for their audacity.

Good hunting and favorable winds, little brother.

We will meet again one day. Until then, your brother and I will watch over you.

Mito Senju”

Carefully, Tobirama rolled the scroll back up and placed it in the seal tattooed just below the inside of his elbow. There it rested next to Naruto’s adoption papers and his most dangerous, forbidden research.

Mari lifted her head from her paws and shifted to rest it on his thigh. “You reek of rage and sorrow,” she observed in her rolling lyrical voice.

He dropped a hand onto her head. It disappeared completely from view into her thick fur. “A kitten of mine killed his littermate. And someone has violated my brother’s final rest.”

“The same person in both?”

“Unknown.”

She let out a slow breath. “Your rabid kitten will need to be put down and the kin stealer hunted down,” she said, grim and cold.

“Yes.”

There was quiet until Mari spoke once more. “This rabid kitten, were they the same that abandoned Naruto?”

“Yes,” he answered, the word strangled and stretched with a repressed snarl.

“Then you know what to do, kitten.” Her ears twitched. “The little one is coming,” she warned, drawing Tobirama away from his dark thoughts enough to register his sensor abilities once more.

His internal clock told him it was in the very late hours of the night as Naruto padded out of the hallway with Airi at his side. The boy yawned and rubbed his eyes, a blanket draped around shoulders to ward off the chilly draft. “Ji-chan?” he mumbled, blinking slowly awake. “Ya weren’t there when I woke up.”

Tobirama grimaced. He should’ve remained aware enough to feel his nephew’s chakra spike in the panic of a nightmare and been there to soothe the boy. “I’m sorry,” he offered lamely through a tight throat.

Naruto swayed and Airi braced herself against the boy so he wouldn’t fall. “You okay?” He looked around, taking in how close he was sitting to the shrine with the many scrolls and candles and how Mari was laying behind him. “Whatcha doin’ sittin’ ‘n the dark? It’s not good, believe it,” he muttered as he stumbled closer only to pause when he was able to really get a good look at Tobirama. The man was sure he looked like a mess, his shirt mussed and crumbled, his hair sticking up in more wild directions than usual, and his face shiny with tear tracks. The boy frowned deeply and reached up to touch his cheek. “What’s wrong?” he asked, sounding worried and alarmed.

He didn’t know how to answer that. How could he tell Naruto the truth and then explain so the child could understand the depth of how wrong things were? Could he even tell Naruto?

“What‘re all these?” the boy asked, scowling down at the scroll as if they were all to blame for his uncle’s state. He wasn’t entirely wrong, just off base.

“These are letters,” he rasped before clearing his throat. “Letters from Mito. She left them behind for me to read.”

Understanding and deep sadness flickered across the boy’s face. “You miss her?”

Tobirama dropped his eyes and moved them over to Mito’s picture in the shrine. “I do. I miss them all.” He waved a knuckle in a small motion at the array of pictures.

“Who’re they?”

The man sighed and finally leaned back against Mari, scratching the great snow leopard behind a soft ear. Airi took the chance to wiggle her way under her mother’s chin and bury herself between her mother’s bulk and Tobirama’s side. Naruto carefully leaned against his side as Tobirama stretched his legs out, cautious of the piles of scrolls. “This is my family. Kawarama, the boy with the crossed scar on his cheek, was my younger brother just after me. Itama, the boy with the two-colored hair, was my youngest brother. I loved them dearly. I lost them both when I still young. They were your age and a little older.”

Naruto made a quiet sound and clung tightly to Tobirama’s arm, tugging until the man unwound his crossed arms. “Your brothers died when they were…But I thought kids had to go to the Academy first. ‘Fore they become ninja.”

Tobirama sighed. “It wasn’t always like that. It wasn’t until we founded Konoha and made sure kids had to be genin before they were sent out on missions. I helped make the Academy so everyone could get the same education as everyone else, clan background or no.”

The boy nodded against his arm and pointed again to the shrine. “Who’s that guy?”

Tobirama chuffed a small laugh, knowing Hashirama would’ve gotten a kick out of being called ‘that guy’ instead of Shodaime-sama, Hokage-sama, or Senju-sama. “That is my anija, Hashirama. He was the first Hokage.”

“Eh? But he doesn’t look like the big face on the mountain…”

The picture Tobirama and his family had chosen for the shrine was of Hashirama in his garden, covered in soil and dirt like a child. He was beaming at the camera with the full force of his cheer and happiness. All around him, bright flowers bloomed on a lush carpet of grass. “Anija was the Hokage and he had to appear strong like the mountain, but anija was more than just the Hokage. He was our brother, husband, father, friend.” Tobirama smiled faintly, remembering all the times his anija was his overdramatic, idiot self. “A complete and utter fool that we loved. This picture best captured that.”

Naruto was quiet for a moment, still hugging his arm. “I think I like this picture,” he finally murmured.

“I do too.” Tobirama turned his gaze to the picture of Madara. A picture taken in profile of the man as he was talking to another of his clansman. Unaware that he was being observed, Madara looked open and attentive, engaging the other Uchiha with the corner of his lip quirked up and his hands caught mid-gesture. “That is Madara Uchiha, anija’s best friend. Anija loved him very much.”

His nephew frowned. “Did you love him?” Astute child.

The Senju paused before slowly answering. “I think I could’ve. If I hadn’t made him hate me.” When the blond boy looked up at him, he continued. “Before Konoha was founded, the Senju and Uchiha clans had been fighting for a very long time. It was a long and bloody war that my brothers and I had been born into. That Madara and his brothers had been born into. By the time we were all adults, it was only I and anija and Madara and his little brother, Izuna. On the battlefield only Madara could match my brother in battle and only I and Izuna could match each other. We fought and fought and fought…”

Tobirama closed his eyes, recalling the days and nights where he was always ready to go to battle, to face eyes of glowing red and fight tooth and nail to bring as many of his clansmen home. “And in one fight, I won. I struck Izuna down, wounding him. We learned days later that Izuna slowly succumbed to his wounds.” He took a deep breath, swallowing. “It wasn’t a graceful death. Nothing honorable or kind about it.” Finally gathering his courage, he looked down into the open and clear blue eyes of his sprout and silently begged the boy not to judge him too harshly for his actions however much he might deserve it. “I killed Madara’s little brother,” he confessed, “his ‘Itama’ or ‘Kawarama’. His ‘Naruto’.” The boy’s eyes widened and Tobirama nodded. “And he could never strike me back because peace was made after that. The kind of hate and resentment that poisons a man… It doesn’t leave room for much else.”

Naruto sniffled and blinked rapidly. “Did…Did you ever say you were sorry?” he asked and Tobirama sucked in a sharp breath.

He blew it out slowly before nodding tightly. “I did. I…I knew if I were in his position, I would not have nearly the same restraint as he did. If someone were to take you from me right now, I wouldn’t hesitate to slaughter and burn them to ash.” He leaned down and gently brushed a kiss over Naruto’s hair. “I approached him one night after a bad day of work and I made a deal with him. I told him, if he beat me in a fight, he could kill me.” Except, Tobirama knew he was never a match for Hashirama or Madara. Given time to prepare and proper motivation, he could give Madara a run for his money, but with Madara driven towards something, there was hardly a force in the word that could stop him. “I lost,” Tobirama said, shushing his nephew when he clung on tighter. Airi unburied herself and crawled over Tobirama’s lap to lay her front half in Naruto’s lap, purring and nosing his chin. “I lost, but Madara could not kill me.” Tobirama could remember the kunai pressed to his side, pressing enough to break skin. It would be irony to kill him with the same wound that killed Izuna.

“Why not?” The child rested his cheek against Tobirama’s arm, apparently tired of tilting his head back to look at him. “I mean, I’m really happy you’re here, believe it. But…I’d be really mad too if someone hurt you. Killed you.”

“I’m not sure,” he answered honestly. He laid his head back against Mari’s side, feeling drained and tired. “Maybe he didn’t want to risk the village by killing me. Maybe he didn’t want to hurt Hashirama by killing me. Maybe he knew killing me wouldn’t change anything.”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“Killing me wouldn’t bring back Izuna. Killing me wouldn’t fix anything. What would he be left with if he had killed me? His friend in grief, a village against him? Without a home, without a brother, what would he have done?” he mused aloud before sighing. “Well, he did actually find out what he would do.”

It was a heavy weight on his shoulders. Tobirama had approached Madara in the hopes of forming some kind of resolution. He’d hoped he wouldn’t die, but he’d made arrangements just in case. He’d hoped that whatever the outcome, something would change and maybe that something would be positive, something different from Madara disappearing for days at a time and coming back sullener, more depressed than before. But in the end, not even two days later Madara was gone.

“Madara did leave the village,” Tobirama said. “And he came back with the kyuubi.”

Naruto stiffened like a board. “Th-the kyuubi?” he whispered in horror, his hand dropping to his stomach.

Tobirama reached over to touch the hand. “No, this was not your birthday. This was the first time the kyuubi attacked the village. Anija went out to fight Madara and the kyuubi and won, killing Madara while Mito sealed the kyuubi inside of herself, becoming the first jinchuriki.”

They were silent for quite some time. Long enough that Tobirama wondered if Naruto had fallen asleep again with the rocking of Mari’s breathing. The pair of snow leopards certainly kept them warm enough with how they sandwiched them. Hearing his nephew sigh cleared up any confusion. “That’s a sad story,” he decided and Tobirama hummed in agreement. “And it started because of…the war ‘tween your two clans?”

The adult thought for a moment before nodding slowly. “Yes, I think that’s right. If we hadn’t been born in a time of war, we wouldn’t have had to fight each other or kill each other. Madara and Hashirama would’ve been friends from the beginning, all of our little brothers would’ve possibly been alive, and maybe we would’ve all gotten along together. Our own little village.” He turned to peer down at the boy. “Madara was a good man, sprout. He was hurt deeply by the war and unable to heal. But he loved his clan more than anything and he too, like anija, wanted peace. They both wanted to create a village where kids didn’t have to die anymore. Where people could be safe.”

Tobirama did admire Madara and during times where he was really pensive and honest with himself, he would admit that he mourned for the man and the pain he must’ve felt. He ultimately turned against the village and became a threat, but out of his old Hokage hat, out of his Senju clan head status, Tobirama could maybe begin to understand the man. It was a dark and sad path to look down.

“I don’t want that.”

The man blinked out of his morose thoughts and refocused on Naruto. “You don’t want what?”

Naruto tilted his head back with a deep frown. “I don’t want to love somebody and then let them die and be hurt like Madara. I don’t…I don’t want to feel so angry and mad and sad that I hurt my friend or my village, you know?” Tobirama watched as he sunk his teeth into his bottom lip. “Like. I’m mad at Jiijii. He lied to me and kept stuff from me and…” Naruto blinked quickly, “and stuff. But I don’t want to hurt him!”

The Senju crooned low in his throat at his sprout’s desperate look. “I believe you,” he assured softly.

Naruto’s chin wobbled dangerously as he tucked it into his chest. “I don’t want…this.” He pointed a finger to the shrine. “They’re all gone, aren’t they?”

“Yes. They are.”

“And you miss them. Like you miss Mito.”

“I do.”

“And doesn’t that hurt?” Naruto asked, his voice high and thin. He lifted his hand and patted his chest. “Here?”

Tobirama hummed and Mari took up purring, trying to offer comfort to the pair of them. “It does hurt,” he admitted quietly. “More than you can know right now.”

“I don’t want that!” the boy burst out, startling Airi. “I don’t want that hurt. I don’t want to feel that!”

Naruto breathed hard into the quiet stillness of the house, Mari’s brief purring quiet again. Tobirama mulled over how to respond because while he could understand what the child was saying, he could not allow it to stay.

“To avoid that pain, would mean you avoid people and the bonds you could form with those people,” Tobirama said gravely. “To avoid that pain, the one here in your heart, the one you already feel,” Naruto hiccupped a sob and squeezed his eyes shut, “would mean you could never know another person’s love, their joys, their strengths. It would mean you would never have the honor of having someone lean on you in a time of weakness because they know you would care for them. It would mean, that what we have between us, couldn’t be allowed to continue.” He thumbed away some of the tears slipping out of Naruto’s eyes. “Naruto, I have lost so many people and felt the claws of grief try to rip my heart out to give to the Shinigami. But I protected it, and I healed it, so I could still have it for when I met you.” Shiny blue eyes cracked open and Tobirama leaned to rest his forehead against his nephew’s. “My brothers, my sisters, my cousin, my family. They’re gone and I miss them so much and it hurts, but the joy and love I get from knowing you, from holding you close, is worth it. I would never, ever give you up because you are the very thing that takes the pain away.”

Naruto cried, “H-How can I miss pe-people I never even knew?”

Gently, Tobirama drew Naruto from his side and into his lap. Airi was quick to move out of the way, circling anxiously before pressing close to his and Naruto’s side. “Because you did know them. Whether you remember or not, you know your mother’s voice and your father’s hold. You know their love because you would not be here today if it weren’t for them. And that is more than enough to grieve over.”

Tobirama held the boy as he cried himself to sleep, shushing him and murmuring small promises of love and comfort. Airi purred and licked the boy’s face, drawing wet giggles as she purred loudly in his ears. Mari watched over them all, curling tighter as they fell asleep as the sun touched the horizon.

That afternoon, a new picture joined the shrine. An orange frame around a picture of a grinning Uzumaki and a lovestruck Namikaze. Every morning after that, Tobirama felt a tiny body kneel next to his and heard a soft voice offering prayers to those who stood watch over them.

Chapter Text

“Little kitten.” Naruto groaned and burrowed further into his warm bed. There was a quiet chuckle before something cold and wet was pressed and dragged through his hair. “Little sprout? Is that what you prefer to be called?”

When something large and warm moved at his side, Naruto gave up on sleeping and cracked open heavy, aching eyes. The smell of snow, pines, and cat welled up in his nose, making him sneeze. “Huh?” he grumbled, rubbing his nose.

As he woke up more the memories of last night came back and he realized he wasn’t in his bed trying to ignore Airi-chan rustling around to get him up for the morning. Instead of his plush and soft bed, he was laying on his stomach on a large chest that even now slowly rose and fell with every breath his uncle took. His head had been laying on the man’s shoulder, just over his heart. His uncle’s hands spasmed on Naruto’s hip and the back of his neck, holding him close and steady.

Naruto took a moment to stare at Tobirama. He’d never seen the man asleep. He was kinda used to the way his uncle looked and sounded and smelt now. Always frowny or quiet, barely moving or saying word. He looked exactly like his face on the Hokage monument most of the time.

But Naruto also knew he wasn’t that stony or rock-like.

It was in the smallest and tiniest things. His uncle was hard to read sometimes, believe it. Tobirama’s narrowed eyes would widen and soften just a bit when he looked at Naruto or…or his cheeks would relax when he wanted to smile. Tobirama’s voice was normally really deep and even and Naruto could tell he didn’t talk often or say much, but he always explained and actually talked with Naruto. From seals to jutsu to cooking to how things worked in the village, the man always took the time to make sure he had the answers and information he wanted. Even when Naruto was confused by an explanation, Tobirama didn’t get angry he just thought for a second and then tried talking in a different way. This happened a lot ‘cause his uncle used words and phrases he couldn’t really follow. That was fine though.

And! And! There was that quiet quick breath that meant his uncle had laughed! Naruto had only really gotten his uncle to actually laugh once so far—at the expense of an Anbu who found himself covered in glue from his seal trap—but even that breathy laugh was awesome to get!

Still, he’d never really seen Tobirama really relaxed. In his sleep, the only sharp and pokey thing about him were the red lines on his face. His eyes were closed and Naruto could see his eyes moving from side to side. And…and those were eyelashes!

Naruto held his breath and leaned in closer to see better. His uncle had white eyelashes. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed before. He’d seen that he had white eyebrows, but he’d assumed his uncle just. Didn’t have eyelashes.

The boy tensed when his uncle breathed in quickly through his nose, but the man stayed asleep, exhaling through his barely open mouth. Naruto tilted his head and listened. Listened hard. Just underneath the sound of Tobirama breathing, there was a rasp. A very familiar rasp.

Naruto clapped a hand over his mouth and smothered a laugh. His uncle was purring in his sleep.

A pleasant chuckle interrupted his laughter and he jerked his head up. Mari-san peered down at them with a large blue eye. It came to focus on him and he watched as the large cat’s lips pulled back into a smile. “My kitten likes to sleep,” the snow leopard pointed out. “When he sleeps well, you can hear it.”

Naruto sat up, feeling the blanket that had been laid over him and his uncle fall from his back. He shivered and quickly pulled it back up, warding off the chilly air. “He really is a cat!” he whisper-shouted. His uncle still chuffed and chirped at him to get his attention and Naruto maybe sometimes faked being distracted just so he could hear the sounds. Mari-san nodded her giant head, the red beads around her neck clicking against one another.

Airi-chan popped up at his side, the blanket comically draped over her head. Her own necklace of a few feathers were caught in her fur and Naruto reached to straighten them out. “Are we waking up now?” she asked impatiently. “It’s almost afternoon.”

Naruto blinked in surprise before reaching up to rub his eyes. He hadn’t meant to stay up so late. But between his nightmare and his talk with his uncle last night he must’ve been really tired.

While Airi went about bugging Tobirama until he woke up—Naruto hadn’t known his uncle was hard to wake up—Naruto twisted and looked at the shrine and the piles of scrolls. Mountains of scrolls really. Some piles were nearly as tall as him. A lot of the candles that had been lit last night were puddles of wax now, having burned down low.

There came a disturbing slurping sounds that sent goosebumps trailing up and down Naruto’s arms and the body under his stiffened like a board. Airi laughed as long arms suddenly pushed her away. “I hate you,” Tobirama growled, his voice rough with sleep. His face was back to being stiff and still, his eyes narrowed and redder than normal either ‘cause of the crying they did last night or ‘cause his uncle was still tired. Naruto sucked in a breath of air as a yawn took him by surprise. Man, he was still tired.

“Good morning, sprout.” Naruto clicked his jaw shut and reached up to rub the tears from his eyes. He looked down at his uncle, who was blinking up at him before he was yawning too. Naruto snickered when he saw his uncle’s tongue do the curling tip thing that cats do when they yawn. He really was like a cat! Tobirama grumble-purred as his jaw relocated itself. He poked fingers into Naruto’s side, making the boy squirm and laugh. “What are you laughing at? Me? You better not be laughing at me.”

“Stop, stop!” The boy curled up and tried to roll off of the man, but Tobirama held him tight. Tobirama sat and wrapped his arms around Naruto before squishing him between his arms and knees. “You’re crushing me!! Airi-chan, help me!!”

The younger snow leopard growled and braced her front paws. “You let the kitten go,” she commanded harshly, but her tail twitched and moved playful under the blanket.

Naruto squealed when he felt teeth nip his ear and it was on at that point.

Wrestling and snarling and shouting, it was a chaotic mess that eventually ended with Naruto giggling giddily as Airi carried him into the kitchen by his nightshirt collar and Mari dragged Tobirama by his collar. The man pouted exaggeratedly and kept his arms crossed the entire time, but the rough and catching purr in his chest gave away his joy right along with his sparkling red eyes.

Despite their play, Naruto had mercy enough to leave the man alone while he made tea and let the drink wake him up. The boy didn’t get why his uncle was always so focused on the drink in the morning. Yeah, it tasted sweet, at least the teas Naruto had did, but it was like Tobirama was waking up a second time with his tea.

Naruto hummed questioningly when the man made a hand sign and a clone poofed into existence. The clone bowed to them shortly before slipping out the kitchen window with a yawn. The original flapped a hand. “Hinata-chan’s come to visit,” he answered, barely even blinking when Naruto cheered and hurried to grab more bowls and plates. “There’s someone else with her too. They feel younger, so maybe another guest.”

The boy looked back from where he was grabbing kitchenware from the wooden cabinet. “Hinata brought a friend?”

“Seems like it. Is that okay?” Tobirama glanced over his shoulder, blinking slowly. “I can say only she is welcome.”

“No, it’s fine, believe it!” Naruto insisted. “Hinata’s friend can be my friend too, ya know?”

“Hm. It’s possible.” Mari came up behind Tobirama and dropped to lay behind his uncle with a grunt. It seemed to always be her favorite place, curled around her summoner. She must make a good backrest because Tobirama leaned back with a long sigh, resting as he resumed drinking his tea.

Naruto had just finished filling the plates and bowls with their late breakfast—it was more of a lunch but whatever—when the front door slid open.

“I’m home!” the clone called.

Naruto felt his breath catch in his chest. “W-Welcome home!” he called back, covering his uncle’s own reflexive answer. He got up from the table and went to the hallway door just as Airi-chan trotted down the hall.

“Hina-chan!” Airi-chan greeted happily, chirping as she moved closer.

His uncle’s clone was covering a yawn while Hinata waved shyly. “H-Hi, Airi-san. And N-Naruto-kun. Hello.” The girl sketched a small bow before stepping out of the genkan. She waited for the other young boy to come even to her side, taking his hand. “This is m…my cousin. Neji Hyuga.” The pair jumped when the clone disappeared in a cloud of smoke, but Airi-chan chirping got their attention again.

“Welcome, welcome,” the snow leopard said, turning in place before sitting down. “Bocchan and kitten are eating.”

Naruto nodded and bounced on his toes, “Yeah. I made you guys plates and stuff, believe it! Come on!”

“Oh,” Neji murmured. “We already—”

“Food’s getting cold,” Airi-chan reminded them all in a sing-song voice before rising again and leading the way back to the kitchen. “Bocchan, there’s another kitten here.”

Naruto waited anxiously, bouncing and rocking in place as Hinata and Neji crept into the doorway to the kitchen. His uncle didn’t even look up from where he was practically half-buried in Mari’s fur. “Come in, don’t be shy. You’re welcome at our table.” Naruto paused at the weird phrasing, but it seemed to relax the pair. They still bowed again, but they took their spots where Naruto had set out plates and bowls for them.

“I d-didn’t know y-you ate at this t-t-time, Senju-san,” Hinata started, tapping her fingers against each other. “I’m v…very sorry for intruding!”

“You’re not intruding!” Naruto rushed to say while Tobirama grunted.

“Mhm. We got a late start this morning. A late night last night.” He sniffed before sneezing. “Excuse me. I’m Tobirama Senju, little Hyuga. This is my nephew, Naruto Uzumaki.”

Naruto brightened and waved at the other boy. “Hiya!”

“And these are my summons. Mari is behind me and Airi is her daughter. They are family.”

Neji bowed his head. “I am Neji Hyuga, Lady Hinata’s cousin. Thank you for having me.”

Naruto frowned. “Hey, hey. Why do you call her Lady Hinata? And why is your head bandaged? You’re not hurt, are you? ‘Cause if you are Ji-chan knows a lot of healing stuff, believe it!”

Neji spluttered for a moment before visibly gathering himself. “I call Lady Hinata by her proper title because someone of her position should be addressed properly. And, no, I’m not hurt.” He lifted a pale hand to touch the bandaged winding around his head to cover his forehead. His hair was still free to flow once they passed the bandaged. It was so long. Honestly if Naruto hadn’t smelled that distinct boy smell he would’ve thought Hinata’s friend was a girl.

His uncle hummed. “Do you mean to say Hinata-chan is your clan heir?”

Neji paused, glancing at the brightly blushing girl. “You did not know?”

“No. Not that it changes anything, Hinata-chan.” The little girl squeaked at being addressed. “If anything, there should be no objections to you being in our company as we are of the same status.”

Naruto looked over as Neji shifted. “I’m merely here because Lady Hinata said she would be alone in the presence of men unknown to the clan,” he admitted and Naruto wondered why that would be a problem. His uncle seemed to know ‘cause he nodded.

“A fair concern. I would not wish to damage anyone’s status unwittingly.”

Hinata squeaked again, clapping her hands to her cheeks. “N-Neji-nii-san! Senju-san!”

Neji looked away with a stubborn frown while Tobirama tilted his head. “Apologies. May I ask what brought you two here?”

Naruto looked back and forth between all of them. What had just happened?? Why did Hinata look like she was about to light on fire???

Sadly, he never got an answer for that. Hinata simply lit up red when he tried asking her, Neji tsked and said it wasn’t any of his business, his uncle told him he’d learn when he was older, Mari said the same thing as Tobirama, and Airi just laughed at him.

He was so confused.

But at least he got to train that day with Hinata and Neji! And Mari even let him ride on her back! It was a good day.

Chapter Text

“Let’s play!”

Tobirama was sure they made a strange sight. Naruto was cheering and laughing, crying out, “Higher! Higher!” while Hinata smiled openly and looked back at him, silently asking the same. So there he stood in a relatively small park, signature happuri and fur mantle in place over a light blue yukata shirt and black pants that were wrapped tightly around his ankles. The kids, in contrast, wore jackets, scarves, and closed-toe shoes to ward off the cold. Given that he was partial to the cold and hated sweltering heat, he was happily under dressed for the cold weather.

Tobirama gave the pair of children pushes again, smiling when Hinata kicked her feet in barely repressed joy. It was good to see the little girl opening up a bit. He tilted his head back and regarded his latest charge’s balancing endeavor up above. Neji Hyuga, Hinata’s cousin, who had tagged along to their morning play date, was frowning in concentration as he walked back and forth across the upper beam of the swing set. The boy was only a year older than the other two, but Tobirama could see the drive in him along with his prodigious talent. He’d make a fine shinobi one day, but until that day Tobirama would see that he took some time to play as well.

Ignoring the staring of the other parents around the park—some were subtle about it and some didn’t even have the tact—Tobirama reached up and grazed his fingers under the hem of Neji’s pants along the boy’s ankle. The light touch drew a startled squeak from the boy and caused him to wobble in his balance, throwing out his arms and other leg to steady himself. A small tug on the pants had Neji tipping too much to the side to properly recover and he yelped, already curling in on himself to flip and right himself. Tobirama heard several mothers around the park gasp and jerk, but he simply stepped back and caught the child in his arms.

Neji blinked in surprise at being caught before glaring at him. “You did that on purpose,” he accused and Tobirama blinked languidly.

“Perhaps.” He dropped one arm and Neji tightened his legs reflexively. Tobirama may have also channeled a bit of chakra into his arm so the child was fastened securely, but he ultimately took some amusement in the Hyuga child hanging upside with his knees over the man’s arm. His amusement grew when Neji crossed his arms and continued to hang there. The boy’s frown of displeasure was ruined by the growing flush on his face as the blood rushed to his head. And the giddiness he could feel in the boy’s growing chakra. “I saw an opportunity, so I knocked you over.”

“Rude,” the boy declared seriously, his lips pursing together to fight a smile as Tobirama shifted his arm, causing him to sway gently.

Hinata and Naruto seemed to realize Tobirama wasn’t pushing them anymore and looked back. Hinata giggled at the sight of her cousin. “Neji-nii-san, you’re upside down,” she tittered.

“I want to do that too!” Naruto cried, jumping off his swing and scrambling to Tobirama’s side. He obligingly held out his other arm and the blond leapt, catching it with sure hands. His nephew grunted as he squirmed and hauled himself up until he got his legs over Tobirama’s arm. He laughed loudly as he dropped to hang upside, nearly incoherent with his glee.

The Senju nodded Hinata over and the girl went up to Neji, holding her hands up. Her cousin undid his arms and reached down. The girl gasped when she was lifted off the ground before grinning widely. “Nii-san, don’t drop me!” she begged and the boy grunted.

“I won’t,” he promised before yelping when Tobirama decided to challenge that and start turning in place. The boys really started to sway and swing and Hinata curled her legs up to her chest, going along for the ride.

In the back of his head, Tobirama knew he looked absolutely nothing like his public image and rumored reputation made him out to be, but children didn’t know that. And when children saw something new and fun, they flocked.

It’s how he found himself with several children clamoring for turns to ‘swing’ and Naruto holding onto an eager child with long, braided black hair, both of them begging each other not to let go. Tobirama chuckled, more than strong enough to hold a dozen children, but when they started chanting and working together to topple him, he let them push and pull at him until he crashed to the ground, immediately swarmed by victorious little bodies. They took to sitting on each of his limbs to pin him down and he would’ve admitted defeat and yielded if an overeager Inuzuka boy hadn’t jumped onto his stomach, knocking the air from his lungs.

In retaliation, he slipped his arms and legs out from little hands and sat up, snatching the Inuzuka boy up. The boy looked stunned as Tobirama tossed him lightly into the air, screeching in exhilaration as he was caught. He yelped and laughed as Tobirama growled loudly and buried his face in the boy’s shoulder.

“He’s eating me! He’s eating me, help!” the Inuzuka shouted and Tobirama gave him a good shake before rolling to his feet, his eyes scanning the other children as he tossed his ‘eaten’ child over his shoulder. They all stared in shock before scattering with screams when he bared his teeth in exaggeration and snarled.

It had been so long since Tobirama had actually played with kids. Naruto had reminded him of how tiny and small they could be in comparison to him, but chasing them and hearing them scream in laughter reminded him of how innocent they could be.

He recruited the Inuzuka boy to be his minion and set him loose before taking his time chasing and corralling the other children, letting his fingers only graze their backs and hands to tease them. He eventually caught all of them, the last one caught being Hinata, who he was proud to say sacrificed Neji with no remorse so she could get away.

The little girl laughed without restraint as he ‘ate’ her, pushing his face away with small gloved hands. “Noooo,” she wailed, panting with the exertion of having led him and his other eaten minions on a chase through the playground set and the surrounding trees. His minions cheered in success at having caught the last one.

Tobirama smiled and chinned the top of Hinata’s head with a brief purr. “You did a good job,” he praised, earning an even wider smile as she switched from pushing him away to clinging. He sat down right there on the spot in the middle of the park and tipped back slowly to lay on his back. “Monster is full,” he announced, feeling some of the kids take his position as permission to climb on him. “Monster needs a nap.”

He got some ‘aww’s of disappointment before they darted off either to play some more or back to their parents to tell them about the game they just played. Hinata sat primly on his chest, trying to fix her hair. Tobirama grunted as Naruto belly flopped onto his stomach and huffed when another of the boys—the Inuzuka one—flopped on top of Naruto, earning squawks of irritation. Neji was doing some cool down stretches off to the side, listening to another child speak rapidly to him. Tobirama thinks he heard the boy introduce himself as Rock Lee.

He heard footsteps approaching, but didn’t move, waiting for the inevitable yell.

Naruto didn’t disappoint. “Inu-nii!!” The Inuzuka boy yelped as he was dislodged, flailing as he rolled into Hinata. Tobirama steadied the girl to keep her from falling.

“Ka. Ka. Shi,” the young man sounded out. “That’s my name, brat.”

“And my name isn’t brat!”

“Eh. But you’re a brat.”

Hinata patted Tobirama’s chest. “Who are they?” she asked.

“Friends,” he answered.

Kakashi, from what the Senju could tell from his senses and his hearing, was holding Naruto up by his scruff. Fitting. “Ne, Tobirama-san, I heard that the Kinkaku Squad tried to take you down, but I guess all it really takes is a couple kids.”

Tobirama huffed, bouncing the giggling Inuzuka that had taken Naruto’s old spot. The child’s diminutive chakra was feeling weary and drained. He bet if he let the child stay still, he’d fall asleep on him. “Drat,” he replied tonelessly. “My ultimate weakness has been discovered. I guess I’ll have to kill you now.”

The Inuzuka snickered. “Get ‘em, get ‘em, Monster-san.” Tobirama dropped a hand on the boy’s wild hair and ruffled it roughly.

Kakashi finally let Naruto down and his nephew laughed and attached himself to the Hatake’s leg. “If you don’t kill me, your minion probably will anyway.”

“He’s my sprout, not my minion, cub.”

“Fair. Do you need help with the little monsters? They seemed to have multiplied.”

Now, wasn’t that an out of character offer. But Tobirama already knew it was out of character for Kakashi to approach him with another person in tow. A person Tobirama was very, very interested in meeting.

“It is getting time for lunch and a nap,” he replied, accepting the offer and excuse to spend time together back at the compound. He patted Hinata’s side, encouraging her to move so he could get up without sending her falling to the ground.

Naruto looked over from where he was still clinging to Kakashi’s leg. “Ji-chan, can Kiba and Lee come too?”

Kiba was an all too common Inuzuka name, so he knew who was who among the two new children. Kiba bounced up and down excitedly and smiling that hereditary toothy smile of his clan. “Yeah, can I, Monster-san?”

Neji scowled from where he was straightening out his coat and scarf. “That’s the Niidaime,” he scolded. The Inuzuka looked like he’d been struck while the other boy, Lee, looked confused on top of being suddenly uncertain.

“Niidaime?” Lee repeated, glancing at Neji and then to the Hokage monument barely visible over the surrounding buildings. “Like the Hokage Niidaime?”

Neji nodded seriously, turning a narrow-eyed pale glare back to the Inuzuka. “Yes. You should address him as Niidaime-sama or Senju-sama. Don’t be disrespectful.”

Kiba frowned and crossed his arms, becoming aggravated and testy. “You can’t tell me what to do, meanie!”

Neji bristled. “I’m just telling—”

“That’s enough,” Tobirama cut in as he rose to his feet, leaning down when Hinata lifted her arms to be held. He settled her on his hip and didn’t grimace when she touched her red nose against his neck. She shivered and he consciously rose his body temperature. “My name is Tobirama Senju, but you may call me Tobirama-san,” he introduced himself, turning his eyes back and forth between the two boys before pivoting on heel and also including Kakashi’s tag along. “A pleasure.”

The teenager visibly startled and their chakra took on a very nervous swirling. They glanced desperately at Kakashi, who calmly blinked. “Tobirama-san, this is Tenzo. He’s a comrade of mine.”

Tenzo nodded stiffly before bowing quickly. “An honor, Senju-sama.”

Tobirama tilted his head before wondering if it was Kakashi’s idea that brought Tenzo to him or Tenzo’s own urging. Still, he accepted the greeting.

“I’m Kiba Inzuzuka!” the dog-kin exclaimed brightly.

The other boy bowed. “I’m Rock Lee, sir. I…” He glanced at Neji, who nodded in encouragement, “I would like to come along if that’s okay. I want to train with Neji-san.”

“That’s fine. Do you two have parents waiting for you?”

Kiba shook his head. “Nah. Ma kicked me out of the compound and told me not to come back until dark.” He squinted up at the cloudy sky. “Don’t think this counts as dark.”

Rock Lee also gave a negative. “Um. The matron of my orphanage just expects everyone to be back in time for lights out.”

Tobirama twitched at the suddenly dark bolt in his nephew’s chakra. “Homugi-san?” he asked and an expression of surprise crossed Rock Lee’s face.

“Y-Yes. How did you guess?”

Naruto frowned and buried his face in Kakashi’s leg for a second. “I stayed there for a while ‘fore I was kicked out.” The boy shivered as Tobirama reflexively wrapped him in his chakra, though Tobirama was surprised when he felt Kakashi’s white, sparking chakra collide with his. The young man stiffened and almost withdrew, but Naruto whined and clung tighter. “Don’t.” When Kakashi looked to Tobirama, lost and panicked, he simply lifted an eyebrow and receded his own chakra to give him space. They could both hold the boy.

Returning to the topic at hand, he looked back to the children. “Then you two are welcome to join us for the afternoon. Come along now. I’ll make hot chocolate and tea.”

Neji took his free hand as they began to troop out of the park. “And milk with honey?” he requested reasonably.

“Of course. We’ll get everyone warmed up.” He thought briefly about creating a hot spring on Senju land. It would be nice to have on cold and chilly days like this.

When they reached the clan boundary, he tugged at Neji until the Hyuga jumped up to cling onto him next to his cousin. “Kiba-kun, climb onto my back. Lee-kun, if you could take my hand. Naruto, do you have them?”

“Yup!” his nephew confirmed and he heard him tell Tenzo to take his hand. He hadn’t let Kakashi go once during their walk.

Once he had the kids situated, he stepped over the seals and held them until the passed the gates. There, he let them all climb down and instructed them to go ahead to wash up from the park. He let them go, watching absently while the rest of his attention was on the tremulous and quivering chakra of Tenzo. He turned and saw that Kakashi had a steadying hand on his comrade’s shoulder, keeping him from falling over or walking back out into the seals in an effort to look at all the trees.

“In-Incredible,” Tenzo gasped and Tobirama could see his pupils completely blown wide. “I can feel them. Senpai, senpai, the trees. The trees are…alive.” Unintelligible mutters and sounds followed.

Kakashi sighed and tilted his head to peer at Tobirama. “Sorry. I didn’t expect him to react like this.”

The Senju huffed mildly in amusement and fondness, watching as his brother’s trees creaked and rustled. Dancing. They were dancing. Unbelievable. “My brother’s legacy is most ripe here in his old home. I can’t understand them or connect with them most days, but he still lives in them.” He scoffed and bore with the branches that rather clumsily tapped and pet his head. “It’s little wonder your friend is near insensate. This is the first time he’s feeling another’s mokuton, is it not?”

Kakashi watched the trees warily, but with a glint of awe. He was also now leaning back and digging his heels in to keep Tenzo from running away. “You’d be right.”

Tobirama rolled his eyes before batting the branches away and stepping over reaching roots. He touched a fingertip to the side of Tenzo’s neck, giving him a small permissions seal. “Let him go. There’s going to be no stopping him or my brother’s trees until they’ve acquainted themselves.”

Seeing the teen with long hair reminiscent of his brother run headlong into the tree line, absolutely bursting in excitement and joy, made him recall his own fool brother for a moment.

“I’ve never seen him act like that,” Kakashi admitted once his friend was out of sight. “I’m not even sure if that’s good blackmail material.”

Tobirama turned away from the gates and the jigging trees. “A friend wouldn’t hold that against him. If I’m right, my anija’s lingering personality is having an effect on him. I can feel your friend’s chakra resonating with the trees.”

“Ah, that’s right. You’re a sensor. Of unparalleled ability.” Kakashi came even with him. “How long have you known about him?”

“Almost from day one,” Tobirama answered candidly. “Mokuton is a very distinct flavor of chakra, much like a Hatake’s chakra.” His companion made a curious sound and he elaborated. “Hatake chakra is light and white, often with a spark of electricity. Mokuton is heavy and pregnant with possible life. Different from dry earth and refreshing water.”

“Makes sense.” He looked over his shoulder. “How long do you think he’ll be?”

“Some time. Nature is on no one’s time but its own.”

When Tenzo does find his way back to them, the kids are full and warm and passed out in a pile of pillows and blankets under the spare kotatsu that Tobirama elevated with some wood planks so they had room to actually lay under it.

Kakashi’s shoulders shook in silent laughter as his comrade tottered over, looking drunk out of his mind. “Welcome back, Tenzo! How are you?” he asked before muffling his laughter when the teenager tripped and faceplanted into the grass.

“Oh dear,” Tobirama muttered, having terrible flashbacks to finding his own brother in a drunken stupor.

“He’s so far gone,” Kakashi cackled, before getting up to retrieve his groaning friend. Tobirama sipped his tea, watching the pair curiously. The cub’s chakra warmed considerably as he looked fondly upon the other, so different from his usual dour and depressed mood. And the little sapling-to-be radiated contentment at the patronizing pat on the head he got, babbling about the roots and the trees and the soil and everything in between. Charming.

He waited as Kakashi coaxed his friend into the house proper and sat him at the table. Only then did Tobirama flare and expand his chakra. Kakashi blinked in surprise, but Tenzo took a deep breath. The glaze in his eyes slowly faded the longer Tobirama blazed to his senses, blocking out the alluring and blissful call of his anija’s trees.

Tenzo straightened, blinked. Looked around. “Hm? When did I…How…” Kakashi snorted inelegantly and dropped to sit by his friend.

“Perfect blackmail material,” he decided and Tobirama privately agreed.

The younger man gaped at the Hatake, offended. “Senpai!”

“It’s perfect!”

The Senju hid a smile in his cup, listening to the pair bicker. Like brothers, he thought nostalgically before chiding himself. Hashirama was long departed. However sweetly his memory came to mind, it would not do to call his brother from his rest. It was the present time, not the past.

“Senju-sama, please forgive me,” Tenzo begged, placing his hands on his legs and bowing. “My behavior was terrible.”

The man raised an eyebrow. “How can I possibly hold that against you when my anija was just the same?” He smoothed his expression out as they both looked at him, startled. “If anything, I should thank you for such fond memories.”

Kakashi smiled under his mask. “Careful, Tobirama-san. You sound like an old man.”

“I am decades older than both of you children.” Tenzo pouted while Kakashi flapped a dismissive hand. “But I assume you did not come here to listen to an old man reminisce,” he said, poking a bit of fun at his own appearance and older age. He turned his gaze completely onto Tenzo, making the teen stiffen and clench his teeth, but remarkably hold his eyes. Tobirama knew his red eyes could be unnerving. “I’ll admit, I thought about seeking you out myself when I first detected you. Especially when you kept disappearing into that void under Konoha.” He hummed when Kakashi and Tenzo both stilled. “Yes, I am aware of it, though I will admit that I am a bit lost on its purpose. I sense jonin and Anbu going to and from it, but the Anbu headquarters inside the mountain still exists and functions. Only a select few ever seem to go into that void.” Tobirama looked again between the pair and settled on Kakashi. “Care to tell me? I’m curious.”

Kakashi twitched and the Senju felt a bit of humor. Maybe he could condition the cub to fear that phrase like his clan once did.

The pair shared a quick look, made faster by their obviously lengthy time of working together. He was curious to see how they did in a fight. Maybe he’d ask them to spar. He was feeling lazy without having properly trained in some time.

Kakashi cleared his throat before very obviously reaching for his tea. “We came here to ask a favor, actually,” he said, drawing back to the original point of the change in conversation.

Tobirama felt himself sharpen just a bit. “A favor,” he repeated slowly. He tilted his head to the side. “And what do you offer in exchange?”

“Information,” Tenzo answered immediately.

“On?”

“On the inner workings of the village,” Kakashi elaborated. He reached for his mask and Tenzo turned his head while Tobirama timed his blink. He set his cup down with a delighted sigh. “I can guarantee you’ll find this information enthralling.”

Tobirama found himself intrigued. But he refused to let it show. “And your favor?”

Tenzo shifted where he sat on his heels. Tobirama noticed he hadn’t once reached for his tea. Wary? “We’ve heard that you are a seal master,” he started. “We wish for you to take a look at one and hopefully be able to remove it or tell us what needs to be done to remove it.”

He frowned and tapped his fingers on his cup. He’d been so certain they’d come to him for the teenager’s mokuton, but apparently not. “A seal on what?”

Tenzo tellingly stilled while Kakashi leaned his elbow on the table. He jabbed a thumb at his friend. “Him.”

Tobirama’s frown deepened. “Willing or unwilling?”

“Unwilling.”

“Show me.”

Tenzo shifted before clearing his throat. With one last look at his senpai, the teen sagged in resignation and opened his mouth. He stuck his tongue out and Tobirama immediately saw it and he tsked. “A binder,” he observed in disgust, squinting his eyes to see better. “Hmph. For your voice, speech. Someone was looking to silence you then. Who?”

Kakashi flicked his fingers and Tenzo closed his mouth again. “That would be a part of the information we would tell you.”

“Do you think you can undo it?” Tenzo asked and Tobirama could feel the aching hope in his chakra. “Everyone says you were one of the best seal masters to ever live outside the Uzumaki clan.”

Tobirama thought for a moment before sighing. “I can try. The thing that you should know is that ever sealer is different. The basics and principles of sealing remain the same, but it is much like how every person’s handwriting or way of speaking is signature to every person. I may be lauded as a seal master, but I’m self-taught. I could keep up with the seal masters of the Uzumaki clan, but my way of sealing was very different from them. And no doubt this sealer is different from me. What you have there is a very simple seal, but seals that are meant to be indestructible are better off simple. It’s why you don’t see complex seals lingering very often. That’s not to say this one is indestructible,” he explained when they looked grim, “however, I’m warning you that if there is a way to remove it, it will not be easy or free.”

“Please,” Tenzo pleaded shortly.

Tobirama clicked his tongue. “I already said I would try. Let me get my glasses and supplies.”

He found himself holding Tenzo’s jaw gently, looking over the black lines critically. “Simple, effective, brutal. Touch your tongue to the top of your mouth.” He examined the bottom for any continuation but found none. He pulsed a minute amount of his chakra around that seal. Not into it—Sage forbid he trigger the seal—but along its set chakra paths to evaluate it beyond what he could physically see. It took a moment or two, but he mapped out the two paths and anchors. “Okay. You can relax.” The man shuffled back and reached for his brush and scroll, sketching out the seal in question and what he observed. “It’s a strange seal, more complex than I originally thought.”

“How so?” Kakashi asked.

“It’s not connected to his vocal cords or breathing. It’s still a silencer, but it’s not set off by any preset words or phrases. Instead, it has connections up to the brain.” Tobirama drew out the incredibly miniscule array of tenketsu he knew existed in the brain. “It’s fascinating really. I knew which part of the brain contains information, memories, but I didn’t know which one controls speech. This seal has anchors in your memory center and a very specific part of your brain, here in the left hemisphere.” He lifted a hand and touched a spot above and a little in front of his left ear. “The anchor here in the left hemisphere is very specifically where the resulting effect of the seal goes. You find you cannot speak when you try to talk about certain memories, no?” He looked over his glasses at Tenzo and got a tight nod.

“That, and it completely paralyzes the body,” Kakashi corrected and Tobirama hissed before scowling down at the papers.

“How barbaric. It completely overloads the brain with stimulus starting at the speech center of the brain. The sealer couldn’t even be bothered to create another anchor into the brain stem.”

Tenzo barked a surprised laugh. “Are you really criticizing how the seal works?”

Tobirama shrugged, eyes never wavering from his work. “If you are going to seal something, seal it well. As is, the method of delivering the result is the weakness in the seal and what I’ll be going after to nullify the seal.”

“So you can undo it?”

The man grimaced faintly. “I am nullifying it. I do have a method that could fully remove it once I make it harmless, but it is unnecessarily rough and unpleasant. With time, I could possibly devise the seal’s antithesis. However, like I mentioned before, this seal is simple and it may be impossible to undo.”

“Then I want the guarantee.” Tobirama looked over once more, staring at the teenager. Tenzo ground his teeth together. “You have no idea what I could’ve done to help my village in the past if I’d been able to tell them what I knew and instead I’ve had to sit by in silence because of this damn seal!” Tenzo winced when he tapped a finger to his lips, glancing at the pile of slumbering children. “Sorry, but…Please, Tobirama-sama. I want to be free. I want to speak.”

The man sighed and set his brush down. “This seal has also been keeping you safe,” he pointed out, holding up a hand when the teenager went to argue. “Whoever sealed you made sure you could never speak of certain things and thus removed you as a threat to their safety. By removing this seal entirely, pleasant or not, the sealer may sense it. I am aware of my seals that I leave behind. It’s not just a side effect of being a sensor. I created those seals and left them charged with my chakra. If they suddenly vanish, I lose a tiny fraction of my awareness. Given that this seal seems to be made for silence and containment, if I remove it completely the sealer will most likely sense it and you will become a threat to them again. Are you willing for that to happen?”

Tenzo trembled, sitting stiffly as he stared at the tatami mats between them.

Kakashi clicked his fingernails against the table top. “And nullifying it won’t alert the sealer?”

“No. Tampering with seals is beyond even my ability to sense. I wouldn’t be able to tell something had changed until I attempted to use the seal. They won’t be able to tell that the result can’t be triggered any longer, only that it still exists.”

Kakashi turned his lone gray eye to his friend. “It would be safer to just nullify the seal,” he spoke, though Tobirama did hear the quiet tone in his voice. “I only got away due to my role in things and I’m too high profile. You’re not.”

“I know.”

“If the sealer knows you’re completely free, with all the information you hold, the sealer would do everything they could to silence you again. Quickly and permanently.”

“I know!” Tenzo whispered harshly, his shoulders bowing and head dropping. “I know, I know! But…But I’m foolish. I want to be free of it all.”

“It’s not foolish to want to be free,” Tobirama cut in, taking his glasses off and dropping them on the table. He thought for a moment before cursing himself. “This information you have, it doesn’t matter what you’d be willing to tell me or not, how catastrophic would it be if it got out?”

Tenzo thought for a moment. “The village would be safe,” he answered eventually. “There would be change, but the village would safe.”

Tobirama narrowed his eyes, trying to speculate what information the teenager carried. Change was good or bad depending on where you stood and how it affected you. And he knew that even if he pressed the pair of shinobi before him either wouldn’t or couldn’t tell him how it would affect him. Orders and seals were annoying like that. Well, that was operating under the assumption that he would feel the fall out. “Would it affect me?” he asked, trying to clarify.

“Yes,” Kakashi and Tenzo chorused, sure and certain.

Well. Tobirama looked to the sleeping pile of children and then to the seals surrounding the compound which was as impenetrable as he’d once taken some comfort in. “Then I’m going to ask that we postpone this. I will remove the seal, Tenzo-san, this I swear to you. But I need time to see that my sprout is safe no matter what happens and to study the seal further. It might be possible to remove without the ritual, but come what may I will take it off of you. In two weeks, return here.”

Tenzo sagged and gave a wane smile. “Thank you. Thank you so much, Senju-sama.”

He waved a hand. “No need for thanks. You are a few generations out, but you are of Senju blood.” Tobirama raised an eyebrow at the stunned and floored looks. “Why are you so surprised? You have mokuton. You are Senju.”

He did not like the slow and wary way the pair looked to each other. He did not like how their chakras shrank and curdled unpleasantly.

“Why are you surprised?” he asked quieter, softer, daring them to upset him.

Tenzo winced. “Ah. The thing is, I um…”

“He doesn’t remember his family.” Kakashi held himself perfectly still under expectant and hellish red eyes. “He never grew up around his family. He was taken.”

Tobirama scowled and felt like spitting. Unbelievable. The Senju had disseminated among the Konoha population; however, it would be no chore to trace the bloodlines and see where his clan had gone exactly. No chore for him, or anyone with the right permissions in Konoha. If Tenzo had exhibited signs of mokuton as an infant or toddler, he may have been taken and removed from his family to be raised like Naruto had been. Reliant on the village, mistreated and neglected, until he could only see the village as good for what scraps it did give him.

“Was it Danzo or Sarutobi?” he demanded tightly, struggling to keep his expanded chakra from weighing heavily upon any of the room’s occupants.

Kakashi hummed. “This information and topic are actually listed as top secret,” he reported and Tobirama tried not to bristle. “Your clearance level was already returned to that of a shinobi clan head last I checked.”

Blasted, infuriating, idiotic children!! His former students were truly asking to feel his temper. “So it was,” he bit out before taking a deep, calming breath. He counted to ten several times before deciding he was as calm as he was going to get. “Regardless, you are Senju. I can feel it in your chakra and I recognize your eyes. You are one of Chikage’s brood most likely.”

Tenzo blinked before sitting back hard on his heels. “You…really think I’m related to you?”

“You physically could not control or use mokuton without Senju blood,” Tobirama pointed out. “It is a wild and powerful blood line limit. Only those who have our vitality and skill could even contain it let alone try to use it in battle. I have the clan registry around here somewhere and a picture of Chikage I think. I’ll find it and if you wish, I would welcome you into our clan and compound.”

Tenzo’s jaw dropped. “You would do that? But. You don’t know if I’m a sleeper agent or a plant!”

Tobirama huffed. “I am not an idiot. I am perfectly aware that I do not know where your loyalties lie. However, the valuables contained in this compound are sealed and protected even more than the compound itself and I certainly wouldn’t be leaving Naruto alone with you. And without proper knowledge of how the seals work, you would not be able to bring others into the compound. What you would be able to do here is have a safe place to rest and recuperate, a place to train, and access to Hashirama’s notes on mokuton.” He shrugged. “I am also willing to teach you what I know of mokuton as well. I did help my anija develop and improve his skills quite a bit.”

Even Kakashi was sitting up straight now, staring at him in shock. Tobirama sighed and reached up to rub his fingers between his eyebrows. “I am weary of how the village is treating its shinobi, let alone how I once again find them treating my kin and blood. I may no longer be Hokage, but I am the Senju clan head and I have it within my power to fix at least some of the mistake my former students are so callously making until I can do something more permanent. Besides, I find a small bit a trust in the mere fact that we are speaking.” He glanced back and forth between the two. “If you were content with how things were, you would not be giving me coded messages or asking me to remove loyalty seals here in the privacy of my sealed home. The offer is extended to you as well, Kakashi. Forgive me, but I am also aware of how empty the Hatake compound stays.” Kakashi flinched with a sharp breath and looked away. “You both need not answer now, but the offer stands regardless of anything else we may do or discuss. There are plenty of open houses here that are secure and safe. My offer to teach your mokuton or give you Hashirama’s notes are also without the expectation you accept my offer, Tenzo-san.”

Tenzo looked like he’d swallowed his sealed tongue. “You are very generous, Senju-sama.”

“Tobirama, please.”

“Tobirama-san,” he squeaked and the Senju sighed.

“I think I’ve given you much to think about.” He lifted a hand and waved them in dismissal, sensing how their chakras were wound tight with anxiety. “In two weeks, return so we may remove the seal.”

Tobirama watched the pair flicker out of sight, hoping he hadn’t overloaded them too much. He’d suspected Tenzo was a relative of his just for having mokuton, but seeing those eyes gave him confirmation. His third cousin was infamous in the clan for those wide, staring eyes her mother and her grandfather before her.

However, given their reaction and the top-secret classification, he suspected there was more to the scenario than a case of removing a child from their family and brainwashing them. More Senju children with mokuton possibly? Or maybe clan children in general brainwashed to be loyal to the village instead of their clan. A horrific thought and something catastrophic to the village should it be made public. The clans in question would demand blood for their stolen children.

But the fact that it was top-secret information gave Tobirama a lead. Information such as that was filed away in only a few locations around the village in a system Tobirama had designed. He’d create a few shadow clones to go poking around in the repositories to see what they could find.

However, what he needed to prioritize was locating Tsuna-chan.

Two weeks. That was more than enough time to scour the entire land.

Chapter Text

Naruto carefully turned the kunai in his hand and flicked his wrist, spinning the blade before grasping it at the handle. He reversed his grip and then rolled it over the back of his hand. He wanted to get good at this, so Ji-chan would teach him more katas that worked with kunai. He wanted to be able to hit hard and strike deep. Or, at least, that’s what Ji-chan said was the goal.

He groaned as he fumbled and dropped the kunai, thankful his uncle wasn’t around to see it or else he’d be doing laps around the compound again.

Naruto just couldn’t help but be distracted. He was making lots of friends and Ji-chan promised he’d be starting the Academy after he turned eight. Naruto wanted really badly to keep doing whatever he was doing right. He wanted to keep his friends and his Ji-chan and his Inu-nii and his new Oni-nii. He wanted to keep this house and Ji-chan’s awesome food and being able to sit with his uncle and play games and…and…

The boy bit his bottom lip. He was scared.

Ji-chan said it was okay to be scared, but Naruto didn’t like it.

Naruto reached a hand for his kunai and started practicing again. He would be strong and protect everyone by being Hokage like Ji-chan and Ji-chan’s anija.

The reminder of his other uncle made him a bit sad. That story his uncle had told him about Madara and Hashirama was really sad. Naruto wasn’t used to stories like that. And what made it worse was that it wasn’t just a story; it actually happened. He didn’t know if his uncle realized it, but he’d looked so sad and lonely telling that story with only pictures of his dead family to be with him.

Maybe Ji-chan needs friends too, Naruto thought to himself. Torifu-jii-san was nice, but old. They always went to visit him and never him come to them. Choji was fun to play with though. His uncle needed someone to play with so he didn’t get sad or lonely again.

Like Madara.

When his kunai fell again, Naruto muffled a scream behind his teeth.

It wasn’t fair. The kunai or his sad uncle or anything. Why did people have to be mean and not work? The villagers hated him and Madara hated his uncle and his uncle hates…something. Naruto can tell that something about the village makes Tobirama really angry. He knows it’s the village because it’s the same angry he got when he yelled at Jiijii. His uncle didn’t seem to realize that when he gave Naruto those chilly hugs-that-aren’t-hugs—chakra, Neji had told him—that Naruto could feel his mood.

It kinda scared him how angry his uncle could get.

Naruto didn’t get it. It was stupid to get angry about something. It only hurt people. The villagers never felt any better even if they hurt him or beat him. Madara tried to attack the village but ended up dead. His uncle gets angry at the Hokage and the village.

He placed a hand on his stomach, remembering the seal his uncle had shown him. The seal keeping the Fox inside of him.

Naruto was hated ‘cause the Fox attacked the village and killed a lot of people. Including his own mom and dad. If the Fox hadn’t attacked the village, then none of this would’ve ever happened. Naruto would have a mom and dad and the village wouldn’t hate him and Ji-chan wouldn’t hate the village and…and it made Naruto sad. So much hurt because people feel hurt and try to make others hurt with them.

The boy took a deep breath and dug his fingers into his stomach. He didn’t want to hurt anyone ever. Not his village or his precious people. But sometimes, he got tired and sad.

Naruto closed his eyes and tried breathing like his uncle had taught him for med-i-ta-tion. Ji-chan had said it could help him calm down or think better. Naruto just thought his uncle was trying to get him to sit still and be quiet.

It did help, though. Made the feelings choking him go away.

He breathed again and again and again…

And jolted when he heard a deep, deep growl. It rose goosebumps all over his body. It was loud and everywhere. And he wasn’t even in his own room anymore!!

Naruto jumped to his feet, looking around frantically. He was in a kind of big cement room with water all over the floor. “Ji-chan?!” he called. “Ji-chan?!?”

“So loud.”

Naruto yelped and skittered back when a massive shadow moved behind metal bars that were so big he couldn’t see the top of them. A humongous, red eye glowed through the dark, staring right at him.

“So this is my container. An insect.” Naruto’s jaw dropped and he stared at the eye, his mind racing. The eye blinked and narrowed. “A mute insect? Even more pathetic.”

“H-Hey, I can talk!”

“Hmph. I think I preferred the silence.”

“Mean! But um. I was wondering actually.” Naruto scratched his whiskered cheek and tilted his head. “You have red eyes like my uncle. Are you his family?”

 

*****

 

Tobirama suddenly sneezed. He scuffed the back of his hand along his face and sniffled, hoping he wasn’t getting a cold with this weather. He had people to meet tomorrow and a hyperactive five-year-old to teach. Possibly other little children to teach as well if his days were going to become routine. They just seemed to appear and he unashamedly blamed his sprout for it.

 

*****

 

It was definitely getting to be part of his routine now. Waiting. Tobirama covered a yawn before hiking up his shoulders so he could rub his face in his fur mantle, trying to breathe some warmth back onto his chilled face.

He could sense the Anbu scattered around the Senju compound, most lumped here around the main entrance, but they’d relaxed and gotten comfortable in the time they’d tailed him and Naruto. Though, they didn’t relax so much that they didn’t know a little sprout was stalking them at times, herding them or leading them into traps and seals.

Tobirama was proud of Naruto’s work. He’d become an expert at low-level, simple illusion seals to disguise his work and was currently working on air-expulsion storage seals. His sprout had the planning and drafting of ideas down pat, spouting off ideas left and right. Now Tobirama simply watched for the joy of seeing his nephew figure out the scientific process by virtue of doing. He also watched to make sure Naruto didn’t mess up a seal, but that was another pro of learning and most of the time he let Naruto learn from mistakes so long as they weren’t really damaging or lethal. Besides, most of those “mistakes” prompted yet more ideas and questions. A mistakenly drawn seal was still a powerful force after all.

He allowed himself to steep in pride over his nephew before coming back to the present and to the two chakra signatures coming up the path. Rock Lee and someone else. A little girl?

“Good morning,” he called, sensing the Anbu immediately surrounding him perk up in interest. Eager, watching, waiting. He scanned over in their direction, trying to make sense of the change in mood for them from lazy alertness to at-attention.

“Good morning, sir!” Rock Lee exclaimed. Tobirama winced slightly at the loud voice in the early morning quiet, but shook it off. “This is my friend, Tenten,” the boy introduced, tugging on the hand he had in his. The little girl looked up at him determinedly, jaw firm and feet planted. Tobirama wondered briefly what he’d done to deserve such a mulish expression at their first meeting. “I told her you were showing me and other kids how to fight and be shinobi and she wants to learn too!”

Tobirama raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?” he asked, turning his gaze back to Tenten.

She nodded firmly, her bun shifting slightly with the forceful movement. “Yeah. I may be a girl, but I want to be a strong shinobi like the Sannin, Tsunade! And you can teach me how because you’re a Senju.”

The man smothered the urge to smile. “I never taught Tsuna-chan more than the basics of chakra control,” he pointed out and carefully controlled his expression when Tenten’s expression got even more stubborn if that was at all possible.

“But you’re also the Niidaime!” she pointed out, raising her voice now. Tobirama felt a ticklish wave of humor flow through the watching Anbu. The busy bodies. “You’re strong and you can teach me how to be strong.”

“Please, sir?” Lee pleaded, his hand tightening on Tenten’s. “Tenten is my best friend and a good person. She can do this!”

The last time someone had formally asked him to train them, it had been a bit more formal and stilted. Danzo as a young boy had followed Saru to their training ground and bowed, requesting his tutelage and wisdom so he may become a proper shinobi. Tobirama thinks he prefers this kind of asking. It brings up fonder memories of the Senju children begging a much-younger-Tobirama to show them jutsus and katas.

The Senju drew himself out of his memories, wondering why he was in such a nostalgic mood. “It will not be easy,” he warned the girl. “It will not be glorious. I have everyone else running laps and doing drills.”

“That’s right!” Lee cheered, punching a fist into the air as he shined a bright smile on his friend. “We have to have a good f…foundation before we can get strong!”

Tenten nodded and looked back at him seriously. “Lee and me are gonna go to the ‘Cademy together when we’re older and I want to show all those clan kids that we’re strong too. It’s okay if it’s hard. That means we’ll be that much stronger, right?”

Tobirama nodded. “I will show you how to be stronger and smarter. It will be up to you to see how far you go, but I can show you what to do. Is that agreeable?”

Tenten beamed at him. “Yeah!” Lee cheered at her side and he finally let his lips quirk into a smile. Oddly enough, he also felt triumph surge in some Anbu chakra signatures while others soured in discontent. What was with them today…?

He pulled the pair through the barrier and told Lee to head to the kitchen for the breakfast he had clones cooking for them all and the young boy lead his friend along. He then returned to his usual spot and waited some more.

Next to arrive was Neji and Hinata, prompt as usual with a nanny escorting them into his care. He sent them along with promises to paint and draw later and went back to waiting.

Kiba arrived next at a galloping sprint and a massive grin. Tobirama caught the overexcited child and listened to his story of how he slipped away from his mother this time. He also nodded to the lurking Inuzuka dog that just barely peeked around a tree before growling at Kiba and sending him skittering towards the main house with a laugh, yelling for Naruto to come play with him. Tobirama knew his clone would further wrangle the dog kin into eating a proper breakfast and not let him run wild.

Lastly were the guests he was waiting for in particular.

The trio of six chakra signature eased closer until Choji caught sight of him and hurried forward. “Uncle Tobirama!” he cried and the man crouched down to accept the hug from the affectionate boy.

“Hello, Choji,” he purred quietly, chinning between the child’s bristly pigtails. “How are you this morning?” He listened attentively as the Akimichi heir listed all the food he’d had for breakfast and how his mom had to wake him up extra early so his dad could meet up with his uncles.

Tobirama glanced up as Choji mentioned his uncles, looking to the three men closing the distance between them. “Are these your uncles?” he asked Choji and the boy bobbed his head, turning to point at them.

“That’s Uncle Shikaku and that’s Uncle Inochi,” he introduced.

Tobirama waited a second before sharing an amused glance with Choza. “And the others are…” he prompted and the boy squeaked.

“Oh. Um. That’s Shikamaru and that’s Ino.” Dark eyes looked up at him, underlined by red swirls on full, pale cheeks. “We’re supposed to be friends and stuff.”

Tobirama blinked, wondering if he should address that ‘supposed to’ mention, before letting it go. It was possibly just a mention to Choji being raised while being told who his two partners would be in the famous Ino-Shika-Cho triad. “I hope they make good friends,” he replied easily and softened when Choji gave him a smile. He straightened from his crouch, squeezing the hand Choji kept a hold of. “Akimichi-sama, Nara-sama, Yamanaka-sama, it’s a pleasure to host you for breakfast,” he welcomed. Choza gave a warm smile, Shikaku a polite nod while he checked on the boy sleeping on his chest, and Inoichi a soft good morning. Tobirama took an extra moment to look at the little blond girl attached to her father’s leg and waved slightly. “Hello. I’m Tobirama Senju,” he introduced himself, not taking it personally when she further shied behind her father. “Breakfast should almost be done and—Oh, good morning, cub, Tenzo.” Tobirama blinked as the young man flickered out of a shunshin in the midst of the group. He didn’t stagger as Tenzo also appeared and bumped into his back.

“Yo!” he chirped and Tobirama was mildly amused to feel how frazzled the Hatake was. “I was hoping to catch you before you went back in.”

Tenzo leaned around his friend and flashed a brief smile before yawning. “Would it be okay if we also came to visit?”

Tobirama let Choji shuffle to his opposite side in response to the two shinobi startling him. “Of course. I will be having a meeting later, but there is plenty of space and things to keep yourself occupied with.” And by things Tobirama meant children. Kakashi and Tenzo would be able to entertain or watch the troupe of children easily enough, no matter their methods or experience. It would at least entertain Tobirama to find them all later, no doubt.

Kakashi’s eye upturned in an exaggerated smile, reaching out to rest his hand on Tobirama’s elbow. “Great! Lead the way! Preferably soon.” Tobirama was now very certain that the group of very agitated Anbu swarming around the early morning village had something to do with Kakashi and/or Tenzo. Tobirama was tempted to stall for time, but he did extend an invitation of welcome to them and had clan heads and children to feed. The Ino-Shika-Cho trios linked up agreeably, following Kakashi’s and Tenzo’s example, and Tobirama led them through the barrier and onto the compound.

The chatter and bustle of his house was audible from down the street. Tobirama didn’t think anything of it when he heard Naruto scream briefly followed by the high-pitched roar of Airi. Then came a screech from Kiba and his clone’s raised voice.

“Sounds lively,” Inoichi remarked just before Tobirama reached for the door.

“We have regular visitors,” he replied. He slid the door open and called into the house, “Kakashi and Tenzo are here!”

“Inu-nii! Oni-nii!” several little voices chorused from inside the house.

Before they could get any further than one step into the hallway, Tobirama growled and narrowed his eyes at all of them. “Remember the house rules,” he reminded them curtly and got a few sheepish smiles and guilty looks. “We have more guests and some people I’d like you all to meet.”

Introductions went well. Choji was happy to see Naruto again and Ino took happily to Tenten and Hinata. Shikamaru refused to be budged from his father’s chest however. Tobirama suggested putting him down in another room to sleep peacefully but Shikaku smiled ruefully and said he had to eat at some point. Sure enough, when they all did sit down for the feast of a breakfast his clones had prepared, even Shikamaru was clumsily shoving bites of food in his mouth when prompted by his ‘troublesome’ father.

Breakfast was as lively as usual. He kept an eye on how much each child was eating, making sure they ate enough protein and vegetables. He drank his own tea and fell back into his nostalgic mood, comparing this morning to mornings past. He’d never had such active and loud mornings before and while it did leave him feeling drained and drowsy, he could hear the sound of children’s laughter and voices raised in happiness or excitement. He chastised them a few times to remember their volume, but overall just sat back and watched.

Shikaku himself was clutching a cup of tea, his eyes darting around. “Do you often find yourself in the habit of collecting clan children?” he drawled, his tone teasing and light.

Tobirama blinked slowly and squinted, double checking. “Two of them aren’t from any clan,” he corrected.

“So you’re in the habit of collecting children?”

“No, not intentionally.”

Kakashi looked over. “Tobirama-san is a kid magnet. He went to a park and came back with two more than before.”

Choza laughed. “Careful now. You wouldn’t want to be accused of kidnapping.” When Tobirama grimaced, he laughed harder. “Don’t tell me you already have!”

“Hyuga-sama was very concerned when he couldn’t see his daughter or nephew through the seal’s boundary,” he explained lowly, his eye twitching as he remembered the ten minute lecture he received for spiriting away the Hyuga clan heiress and their prodigy before getting a twelve minute long lecture on how to properly treat children of the Hyuga clan. It was the longest grant of permission to watch children he’d ever had to bear, but Hinata’s excited look at the news made it worth it.

The shinobi sitting at his table laughed at his expense, something he was oddly at peace with.

This reminiscing mood is affecting him deeply, he figures.

As everyone finishes eating, Naruto falls into his habitual spot of cleaning up after Tobirama cooks. His nephew ropes Kiba and Choji into helping him, telling Choji everything Kiba had told him about the Inuzuka clan so far.

Tobirama finds himself accosted by Ino and Tenten, who take his hands and try to drag him away from the table.

Inoichi tries to splutter, “I-Ino, we do not just grab people!”

“But Tenten told me he knows cool stuff!” the little girl protested.

Regardless, Tobirama let himself get pulled to his feet. “I’m afraid your father, uncles, and I need to talk, so I can’t show you any jutsu at the moment,” he informed the pair and before they could start pouting and whining he nodded over at where Kakashi had laid down on the floor from his spot at the table and where Tenzo was politely helping collect dishes. “Kakashi and Tenzo are experienced shinobi. I’m sure if you asked them nicely, they would be willing to show off for you.”

Kakashi shot up a hand. “I’ll start,” he volunteered, instantly making Tobirama suspicious because that was not the response he thought he’d get. Then he formed the tiger seal and vanished into a shunshin. The Senju rolled his eyes while Tenzo made an aborted angry sound, which may have been an attempted swear word if Tobirama went by the way the teen was warily eyeing the kids. He turned his eyes to the open hallway door. “Airi, Mari,” he called and heard an answering chirp from the nearby sitting room, “Would you help Tenzo and the kids track down and pin Kakashi?” A dark, satisfied glint flashed in Tenzo’s eyes and his chakra surprisingly flared at the idea. Who knew the kid loved a challenge? Or maybe it was the idea of revenge for seemingly abandoning him.

Mari padded into view, her massive bulk taking up the entirety of the door frame. There were startled yelps and screams from the kids who hadn’t met her before. “The cub?” she asked before shaking her head quickly. “He seems quick. We can trap him.”

Tobirama almost felt bad as he sensed all the kids, his two summons, and Tenzo troop out of the house, practically baying for Hatake blood. Almost. Tobirama didn’t appreciate people who tried to shirk their work. With the kids sufficiently distracted and occupied for the time being, he turned back to his guests. “We can go to the sitting room to talk,” he offered, checking his sleeves and fur for any stains. “Would anyone like something to drink?”

It wasn’t until they were settled at a kotatsu that Tobirama realized there was an addition to their group.

Sleepy dark eyes stared back at him. Utterly unimpressed with him. Tobirama cocked his head when the small Nara yawned wide enough to make his own jaw ache in sympathy. “Are you sure you want to be here for this conversation?” he asked the child.

The Senju felt light and airy amusement fluttering in Shikaku’s chakra as the man pulled his son closer to his hip. When the boy just grunted, Shikaku poked his side. “Use your words, Shika,” he ordered, his voice laced with humor.

The small boy wrinkled his nose and blinked long and slow. Finally, he shrugged. “Don’t wanna be out there,” he mumbled, pointing a finger in the direction of the cracked open door of the room. He then promptly dropped his head onto the table top with a decent sound thunk.

Inoichi winced at the sound before also looking at the door. “Are you sure it’s okay to let the kids go off like that? Ino can get pretty headstrong if no one’s watching.”

“Mari raised me from when I was young,” Tobirama set out the cups for water and tea. “If she somehow managed to keep me alive through the worst of my curiosity stages and research benders, she can manage a few kids. Besides, Tenzo is a responsible young man and they are all well within my sensing range. I’m keeping an eye on them.”

Inoichi nodded slowly while Choza straightened. “Uncle sends his regards,” he started, “and apologies for not being able to come. Mina threw out her back and he’s stayed home to be with her.”

“I’ll see if I can’t visit them both soon.” Tobirama served the tea, even to Shikamaru, who had yet to stir. The boy’s breathing was deep and even like he was asleep, but the Senju could feel the slight trembles and pops in his chakra that came from stray thoughts and emotions. “Thank you both for coming to visit,” he said to Inoichi and Shikaku.

Shikaku happily took his tea and breathed the smell of it in deep. “When Choza came to us like he did, we got curious.”

“And worried,” Inoichi added. “He said the council tried to tell you who you could make your heir?”

Shikaku huffed. “With Naruto being the jinchuriki, it’s no wonder they’d raise a fuss, but going so far as to try to tell the Senju clan head who could be his heir and who could not, is overreaching.” He lifted an eyebrow and regarded Tobirama closely. “But I certainly hope there’s more to discuss than the Council getting uppity. Choza was very careful with how he worded things with us, but we know treason when we hear it.”

Tobirama very carefully did not react as he found himself under the not-inconsiderable weight of three expectant and lethal gazes. He knew it was a risk bringing such talk and accusations to anyone in Konoha, let alone to the jonin commander and the head of T&I. Both of them quite literally specialize in dealing with traitors and threat evaluations. If he did not satisfy them in this meeting, then Tobirama was going to have to move quickly.

He was thankful he’d been so liberal with his hiraishin seal placements around the village and also in his paranoia in placing a seal on Naruto’s clothes.

“There is more,” he promised, carefully measuring how quickly he lifted his tea to his mouth lest he move too quickly and show nerves. These three were no match for him, but the threat they could possibly present to Naruto’s safety and the lack of his own proximity to his nephew made him antsy. He needed these three on his side or at the very least neutral and abiding. “When I last spoke with Akimichi-sama, the charges I could take against the elders were child abuse, child neglect, and child abandonment. Not only would I have my own testimony of the conditions and treatment I found him with, but I’ve also gotten ahold of hospital documentation of a disturbing amount of injuries and the orders to keep anyone who could possibly have a connection to Naruto away from him and away from the village if at all possible.”

“What kind of conditions?” Inoichi prompted.

“Abominable living conditions provided in the red-light district. The apartment failed all building safety codes and regulations and is currently slotted to be demolished after I filed an anonymous tip with the Civilians Council. Lack of supervision and oversight constantly from the age of four when the matron of the orphanage kicked him out onto the street with barely a stipend to cover normal groceries let alone…” He paused and took in the widened eyes and slacked jaws. “You…did not know.”

Choza took a deep breath and visibly relaxed his clenched fists from where they rested on the table top. “No,” he answered, shaking his head and his mane of red hair. “I thought Naruto-kun was still living in the orphanage. Who in their right mind would turn a toddler out onto the street?” He looked over at his friends and Inoichi shook his head, pursing his lips.

“Or place him in a derelict apartment to live on his own,” Shikaku mumbled quietly, dropping a hand onto his son’s head. His son, who’s chakra was cracking lightly with slight anxiety that smoothed out with his father’s touch. “And you have proof of this? Something tangible that could be taken to court.”

“Yes.” Tobirama still had Naruto’s folder in the seal on his arm. It was sitting next to another folder that contained further evidence to his nephew’s mistreatment. Hospital records, rare as they were but always life-threatening and achingly graphic when they were submitted. The orphanage’s records during Naruto’s stay with them and then when he vanished from the records for no registered reason. The S-Class order placed on anyone who could even mildly have a connection to the boy, slipped into his hand by a very drunk Kakashi one evening: it was officially rescinded but the issued date was still present. It listed quite a few names, including Danzo, Koharu, Homura, a handful of names he didn’t recognize, Tsuna-chan, and one Jiraiya on it as well as Kakashi. This Jiraiya being Naruto’s legal godfather. The building safety report on Naruto’s old apartment. The financial records that Tobirama had really had to dig for because the stipend assigned to Naruto had been labeled innocuously as ‘Emancipated Orphan’.

Day in and day out, Tobirama has had several of his shadow clones skulking through the village, digging through records rooms and archives that he’d helped develop the organization system for. He was looking for any and all information that could help him understand what had happened, what was going on, and what he could use.

“Good.” Shikaku reached up a hand and scrubbed his face. “And the Hokage knew about all of this?”

Tobirama did his best to keep calm. “He was the only one permitted to openly engage Naruto and build a bond with him.” The fact that Saru had seen a suffering child and had done nothing burned him. The fact that Saru obviously cared for Naruto and yet had still done nothing but let all of this happen made him ache to fight and kill. Even if Saru was possibly against it all—against Danzo and the others—he had still let this mistreatment go on for years and that was unacceptable.

“Damn it,” Shikaku cursed softly before straightening. “And you do plan to take this before the Clan Council and the civilian court?” Tobirama nodded. “Then we have the immediate issue of if the Hokage refuses to be charged and tried. This is not a democracy or even the daimyo’s court. We are a military organization and Hokage-sama is our leader. Should it be decided that trying him would endanger the safety of the village, then it won’t be allowed to happen.”

The Senju had to restrain the urge to stare or sag where he sat. Implicit in all of what Shikaku had said was the agreement that Naruto’s mistreatment was abhorrent and vile and an agreement that those responsible should be tried and punished.

He quickly shook off his surprise and resumed the conversation. “Unless the Hokage consents,” he points out. “I believe Saru, if charged, would allow himself to be brought to court.” Tobirama took a deep breath, recalling the figure of his old student standing still and quiet in front of the windows looking over the village. He heard the resentment in his voice as he put Danzo, Koharu, and Homura in their places. He felt the self-hatred and guilt in his chakra. “When I confronted him, he showed deep regret and guilt. Enough that he would bow under justice.”

The trio of clan heads frowned and looked at each other. “You truly believe that?” Inoichi asked curiously.

The Senju hummed. “I can feel chakra. I felt his emotions both when he was directly involved in the conversation and then indirectly listening in.”

Inoichi furrowed his brow. “Why would he allow himself to be punished for something he let go for so long? That would mean he was aware it was wrong, no?” Shikaku and Choza shrugged and made small suggestions while Tobirama thought back to the tensions and dark bitterness between his former students.

It was complicated.

“Regardless, in the interest of the village, we cannot charge the Hokage, remove him from office, and leave the village without a leader,” Choza brought up. “There is no successor chosen or in line and it would normally be up to the Council to decide the next Hokage in the event that a successor wasn’t selected beforehand.” He tilted his head up to the ceiling. “But if they’re also charged and removed from office…”

Tobirama tilted his head. “Council?” he repeated, this being the second time he’s heard the elders referred to as such.

“The Konoha Council,” Choza clarified.

“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that term. You do mean the elders, yes?”

Choza’s eyes widened suddenly. “You didn’t know. Oh, Kami.” He groaned and shook his head, alarming Tobirama. What didn’t he know?

Shikaku sighed. “Troublesome. I thought it was weird you were calling them the elders, like they were just old crones invited to give advice. Peh. If only.”

Inoichi finally had mercy on him. “The Konoha Council is a group of elders, yes. They are assembled and picked to advise the Hokage on decisions for the village. Right now, it just consists of Danzo-sama, Koharu-sama, and Homura-sama.”

“When was this established?” Tobirama asked, baffled at the use of such a council.

“Before my time as clan head,” Inoichi answered, shaking his head.

“I don’t understand. The Clan Council and the Civilian Council were made to advise and inform the Hokage of issues and events,” Tobirama said, frowning down at his tea. “Are they not consulted anymore?”

The Nara clan head shifted. “Maybe once we and they were regularly meeting with the Hokage, but like Inoichi said, that was before us. The Shinobi Council is usually called to meet to discuss logistics and missions, changing relations with other nations, so on and so forth. The Civilian Council doesn’t even meet with the Hokage anymore last I checked. They submit reports and complaints.”

Tobirama’s mind raced. Unheard of. Why would Saru allow himself to be isolated from the voices of his shinobi and village like that? Why would he allow the others to be the only ones to whisper in his ear and make village-wide decisions?!

“I hadn’t realized the village had become so centralized,” he eventually said before a stray thought had him stiffening. “What legal and administrative power does this Council have?”

“None,” Shikaku was quick to assure him.

Choza crossed his arms. “What makes them so annoying is that they can kick up a right fuss and cause a lot of problems if they fell like they’ve been insulted. They’ve got a lot of sway in the rank and file of the shinobi. I heard Danzo even has an elite force of specially selected jonin and Anbu under his command.”

Shikaku leaned down and rested his head on his arms, mimicking his son. “He does,” he confirmed and Tobirama did not miss the sudden spike of unease and agitation in Inoichi’s chakra, though it was quickly muffled and hidden.

The man caught his gaze and quickly looked away, making Tobirama very suspicious. “That aside, I’ll be honest, I’m not convinced we or I should go against the Hokage or the Council for this.” He tensed and tightened his grip on his cup. “There’s just too many negatives. I feel for you and your nephew, Senju-sama, I do, but if we try to oppose them on this and fail, we put a target on our backs.”

“Inoichi,” Choza hissed reproachfully.

The man pursed his lips and shook his head. “I don’t want to bring those kinds of consequences down on my clan. Not for something that has already been fixed and rectified. All this would accomplish is recompense and a village in turmoil if it was successful.”

Silence reigned in the room and Tobirama wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. The way Inoichi was acting, jumpy at the sudden mention of this secret group under Danzo’s command made Tobirama wonder if Inoichi was a member and would report all of this back to Danzo or if he was being blackmailed or threatened by Danzo and would do the same thing. He cursed himself, swearing internally. Had he shown his hand too early? It wasn’t his entire hand, but it was warning that Danzo would capitalize on to prepare for.

Damn!

He should’ve put more thought into the fact that the clan heads might care more for the village than their own clan as ludicrous as that sounded to him. It was a different era and times had changed after all.

It was on the tip of his tongue to apologize for wasting all their times and to thank them for their input when he caught a pair of dark eyes staring at him. This time, is was from the elder Nara. The man watched. And waited. His placid and smoky chakra tense and expectant. Not for an attack, no. But for Tobirama to finish.

For a quick moment, Tobirama wondered just what Shikaku knew. Not only was he the jonin commander of the Konoha forces, but he was a Nara.

He debated for one more moment, before following the Nara’s instructions. “It goes beyond Naruto,” he started and Choza frowned in confusion.

“You’ve discovered more?”

“I have,” he admitted quietly, holding Shikaku’s gaze. Still he waited for him. “I’ve come across evidence of bloodline theft and murder.” Inoichi and Choza startled in small ways, but not Shikaku.

The man merely closed his eyes and sighed before turning until his head touched Shikamaru’s. “It’s time for you to go, little fawn.” The boy groaned. “This isn’t for you to hear. Get going now.”

The boy grudgingly got to his feet and shuffled to the very door he said he didn’t want to go through and disappeared from view. Tobirama looked after him. “Will he be okay?” he asked, concerned for how a five-year-old boy might understand the heavy topics they’d discussed around him.

Shikaku nodded as he straightened. “My son is a perceptive child. He seems to have a sixth sense for when my wife or I are upset and comes looking for us. Even across the village, he could find me and he has found me when I’m at my worst.” The scarred shinobi looked haggard and weary for a long moment. “He knows not everything is okay in this village. He knows there are somethings I can’t talk about but I hate them and I can’t do anything about them because of my position.” Tobirama watched as Choza and Inoichi shared worried looks before the Akimichi shuffled and moved until he was pressed against Shikaku’s side. The Nara leaned gratefully into his friend’s larger body. “He knows the value of secrets and who to speak to and when.” The man suddenly snorted. “If he can be convinced to speak.”

“How very Nara,” Tobirama muttered in jest and got a strained smile in return before it dropped entirely.

“Which bloodline?”

“Bloodlines,” the Senju corrected. “I have proof and evidence of theft from the Senju and Uchiha clans.” He carefully set his tea down on the table and steepled his fingers. “My old student, Kagami, was attacked by Danzo one night. He came to Mito in a fright, missing an eye, before disappearing en route to the Uchiha.”

All three looked horrified and shaken. “Eye stealer,” Choza gasped, an unforgivable sin in Konoha due to the two powerful dojutsu clans it housed. He further choked and paled. “Danzo’s eye is—!”

Tobirama squeezed his fingers. He wasn’t as destroyed and torn up about this news as he had been that dark night. He’d had time to process and hone his anger and fury into something lethal. “I cannot sense Danzo’s chakra. He is wearing a seal. Something he no doubt did intentionally since it is well within my abilities to even sense that Kakashi’s covered eye is not his own but also a sharingan. I cannot confirm anything of Danzo’s covered eye, but that is also my suspicion.”

Shikaku looked down at his tea like Hashirama used to look at his cup in an effort to will it to fill with sake. “Dare I ask what was taken from the Senju?”

A hairline crack snapped into the Kotatsu table top. “My anija.” Tobirama closed his eyes tightly and quickly regained control of himself. “My anija’s grave has been disturbed. I didn’t know exactly what had been done to him until I uncovered documentation of orders to…” He took a deep breath. “To exhume my anija’s body and experiment with his cells in an effort to recreate the mokuton.”

“The Shodaime?!” Inoichi exclaimed before clapping a hand over his mouth. “Who—?”

“Orochimaru?” Choza spat and the Yamanaka’s teeth clicked together as he closed his mouth.

“The documents say everything failed,” Tobirama continued, needing to explain what his clone had dug up in a secret room in the Hokage tower. “I am not sure I believe it or not, because someone does have mokuton.” They all stilled and Tobirama opened his eyes, steel in his spine and a wildfire of rage in his heart. “They are entangled in a web of intrigue right now, but I’m working to free them so they can be safe and tell me what they know. If they were a successful result of the experiments or if a Senju child exhibited mokuton and the village took them from their family, I do not know. Either is terrible and a crime against me and my clan.”

Inoichi gaped before swallowing roughly. “They…They took a child.” His pupil-less teal eyes looked down at the table. “With mokuton.” The Yamanaka clan head paused, his chakra a writing mess of negative emotions. “How long ago?”

“A teenager. They do not remember their family.”

Shikaku turned his head and looked at his blond friend when the silence dragged on for longer this time. “Inoichi, what’s wrong?”

The tortured and grieving look on the man’s face when he raised his eyes struck his teammates hard. “I didn’t know there were others,” he whispered. He licked his lips before looking at Tobirama. “Danzo came to me a year ago. He told me his organization needed children with clan secret techniques.” Tobirama felt his blood turn to ice. “When I told him no, he…insinuated that my decision would cost me.” Inoichi’s mouth opened and closed before looking down again. “Two of my cousins died on missions soon after. And then, we,” he tilted his head to include Choza and Shikaku, “were sent on a mission that nearly killed us.” The Yamanaka lifted a hand and traced a finger down the left side of his face. In the exact same spot Shikaku was so visibly scarred.

Choza spluttered. “Are you saying our mission was rigged?!” he exploded.

“I can’t say for sure,” Inoichi murmured. “But it was all so fast, one right after another and after each damn fucking one, Danzo was there with the same request. A child of my clan. I told him no. No. No, no, no. Ino was so small and young. What if he asked for her? I couldn’t…And then Kotone got sick.” Shikaku hissed and Choza was frozen stiff. “And that man was there at her funeral and…and…Fuck!” The Nara put an arm around Inoichi’s shoulder and pulled him closer, holding him tight as the man shook and made a broken sound. “I said yes, I gave him one of my clan, Kami damn me. Fu was gone by morning.”

Tobirama sat back and turned his head to give the trio the illusion of privacy. The tale didn’t leave him unaffected. It made his stomach turn and his teeth hurt from how hard he was grinding them.

He was horrified at his former student’s actions.

And yet. Tobirama had a very bad feeling that his horror would only grow from now on.

He listened as Shikaku and Choza both confirmed with each other that Danzo had not come for any of their clan children before Choza rapped his knuckle on the table. “As Akimichi clan head, I support your plan to remove the Council and Hokage from power,” he declared, a furious spark in his dark eyes. “These plots and machinations go too far and I’m the most in the dark of the three of us.” He looked to the other two, waiting for their responses.

Inoichi had calmed down a bit more now, though his chakra and expression was nearly crushing in its guilt and despair. He turned to Shikaku. “Is it possible to do this and keep our clans safe?”

Shikaku narrowed his gaze before speaking. “We will need someone ready to step into the power vacuum that will result. The second we start throwing accusations and charges around, one side or the other is going to give. If its them, we need to be prepared to have new leadership put in place.” He relaxed a bit and switched his eyes to Tobirama. “I don’t suppose—”

“Absolutely not,” Tobirama cut off, lifting his chin. “I will not be Hokage again. That is a trial I’d like to leave behind me, thank you very much. Besides, the time for my generation, and the generation of my students, has come and gone. The village should be entrusted to one of your age and experience.”

Choza smirked and nudged Shikaku. “Hey, Shi—”

“No.”

The Akimichi sagged in exaggerated disappointment. “Then who would we have be the next Hokage?”

Tobirama tilted his head. “I may have a suggestion.” They peered at him curiously, waiting. “Would a Legendary Sanin do?”

Chapter Text

Tobirama carefully weaved short blond hair into a crown of braids, humming as Ino prattled on about how she liked a new dress her mom got her and the daisies on it could he put these daisies in her hair please? The man took the small flowers delicately and folded them into the child’s hair. Neji sat nearby, critically examining what he was doing on Ino’s head before mimicking it on Hinata’s. The youngest Hyuga sat content, painting on some spare paper. Rock Lee, Naruto, Kiba, and Tenten were sparring each other in the yard under Choza’s watchful gaze. Shikamaru was asleep on Tobirama’s fur halfway underneath the kotatsu with Choji painting at his side. Shikaku and Inoichi were on the engawa watching the sparring children. Kakashi was buried under Mari’s hefty mass, only a visible limp hand that could be attached to a dead body or a living one. Tenzo had wandered off into the trees again, Airi trailing behind to make sure he didn’t get too lost.

“Hey, Tobirama-san,” Ino started and he grunted to let her know he was listening. “Why are you so pretty? You’re a guy.”

His fingers still at the random question before shrugging, ignoring Shikaku hunched over and shaking form while Inoichi sighed long and deep. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he quoted. “You may think I’m pretty, but others may think I’m ugly.”

Hinata looked over, causing her cousin to grimace and grumble as he lost his hold on her hair. “Who c-could think you’re ugly? You are um. Pretty.” She blushed and looked down.

Tobirama could appreciate how much effort it had taken for her to say that. “Thank you,” he told the two young girls, “But when I was a child my coloration and looks were considered bad and atrocious in my clan. I was thought to be a cursed child.”

“But you’re just albino,” Shikamaru spoke up from behind him.

Tobirama looked over his shoulder and nodded when he found the boy squinting at him. Choji looked between the two curiously before going back to his painting. “Yes, that’s right, but my condition wasn’t well known and my clan was superstitious.” He was lucky his father hadn’t abandoned him in the forest the night he was born. Hashirama said that their mother had managed to walk out of her birthing bed and get to the ancestral tree, welcoming and naming Tobirama on its roots. It was why Tobirama’s own pale branch sprouted from his mother’s branch rather than from Butsuma’s like Hashirama’s did and it was also why Tobirama was still alive to this day. His father and the midwife didn’t want to become kinkillers after all. “It wasn’t until I went out on missions away from the clan that I ran into people who actually thought better of my appearance.”

Neji sighed and touched Hinata’s shoulder. “Apologies, but I do not think I can style your hair.”

Hinata flashed a smile at the boy. “That’s-s okay. I…I wanted to play with y-your hair. If that’s okay!” She squeaked and covered her mouth but relaxed shortly thereafter when Neji turned and gave her his back and his hair. Her pale hands were immediately buried in dark locks and she giggled happily, her chakra practically bouncing to Tobirama’s senses.

Ino huffed in his lap, careful not to actually move her head. “Well, you’re pretty.”

“Thank you.” He didn’t know what else to say to that.

“Do you think I’m pretty?”

Ah. “Of course. Your hair is very nice and your eyes a vibrant shade of green.”

“Vibrant?” she repeated in confusion.

“Very bright and glowing.” The little Yamanaka puffed up in pride, her chakra suffusing in warmth and happiness. He finally secured the last hair tie Inoichi had looped plentiful around his wrists and tugged a few loops into better spots. He took a few moments longer to place more small flowers in the girl’s hair before patting her side. “There. Done.” He eyed his work with an eye of satisfaction. Normally Hashirama put flowers in his own hair after Tobirama weaved it into a wreath of some kind, but this looked pleasing to him.

Ino was off like a shot, demanding her father’s attention to look at her hair. The man oohed and ahhed and even tilted his head. “A white carnation, crocus, daisies, and holly.” He looked back at Tobirama and looked vaguely surprised. “I didn’t know you were versed in flower meaning, Niidaime-sama.”

The Senju rolled his eyes slightly as he handed the spare flowers and plants to Hinata to put in the simple braid she was doing for Neji. “My brother adored flowers,” he explained, nodding to the main house’s personal gardens, bursting with life and color even in the middle of winter. “We often left messages or communicated with each other using flowers.”

Ino gaped. “The Shodaime liked flowers?” He nodded. “What were his favorite?”

“Poetically enough, peonies.”

Ino squealed happily, turning to look over the garden and see the abundance of peonies growing there.

“What’s…” Hinata cleared her throat. “What’s your favorite flower, Tobirama-san?”

“You can just call me Tobirama,” he reminded her gently, handing her a hair tie to secure Neji’s braid. “And I like hydrangeas.”

Hinata blinked in surprise before frowning. “Which meaning?” she asked quietly and the corner of his lips quirked upwards.

“They are rather contradictory, aren’t they? That’s one of the reasons why I like them,” he explained.

The young girl thought before nodding slowly. “I guess… I’m done, Neji.”

The boy nodded and lifted his hands to carefully feel over his hair. “Thank you.” Then a set of pale eyes looked up at him. Or rather, at his hair. Another set of pale eyes caught on and they both silently asked for permission.

Tobirama huffed a laugh and ran a hand through his hair. “My hair is lacking color, isn’t it?” They both nodded quickly. “Perhaps some flowers could help with that.” The Hyuga pair beamed and rushed to leave the house to find flowers for him. Ino followed them with a screech, more than onboard with the idea. Choji startled at the loud noise, but after a moment picked up his painting of a butterfly to take outside to his father.

Tobirama shifted from sitting on his heels to sitting with crossed legs, enjoying his peace before over-eager hands could return.

“My dad said you’re troublesome.” He tilted his head and once again looked back to the lazing Nara child cuddling his fur mantle.

“I’ve been called troublesome by many Nara,” he pointed out, but also asking for more information. A Nara’s ‘troublesome’ could mean a lot of things.

Shikamaru frowned. “He said that the last time you came knocking on our door we moved our entire forest. And now you’re knocking again.”

Tobirama thought for a moment before deciding to be upfront. “I highly respect the Nara clan. I value the friendship the Senju clan once had with the Akimichi clan, but I’ve always respected the Nara clan. I knew that having your clan’s support was monumental, though I should only, as you say, come knocking on very serious occasions lest I upset a sleeping Nara.”

Shikamaru huffed and buried his face in the fur. “Smart,” he admitted. “You know you’re troublesome.”

The man hummed in agreement. “Most people do know I’m more trouble than I’m worth to have against them.”

“And the village is against you, right now?”

Tobirama paused at the serious question. He shook his head after a moment. “No. Not the village. Just the ones leading the village.”

“And they’re the ones who hurt Naruto?”

It would’ve been easy to tell the child, yes, but that was misleading. “Indirectly,” he settled on and at the curious look he elaborated. “Through their actions and decisions, they lead others to believe their treatment and behaviors towards Naruto were acceptable. Some things, such as failing to provide for Naruto do fall on their shoulders, but I do not believe they ever raised a hand against my nephew.”

Shikamaru frowned. “Then how do you get everyone who hurt Naruto?”

“Patiently.”

The boy sagged. “Troublesome.” Dark eyes looked through the open doors of the sitting room where Naruto was showing Lee a grapple hold Tobirama had shown him recently. Naruto promptly yelped when Lee used it and made him land in a heap, though his crows of how awesome Lee was overshadowed the original startled sound. Tobirama was happy to see Choza still discreetly checked Naruto over for injuries before congratulating Lee. “But worth it,” he muttered, settling down to nap again.

Tobirama agreed. When the trio of flower pickers returned with their haul—Hinata carrying nothing but hydrangeas—Shikamaru crawled from his spot under the kotatsu and returned his fur to him, telling the others they should put flowers in it too. Tobirama retaliated by gently pulling the Nara boy to his side and poking flowers all the way around Shikamaru’s tied up hair, creating a circlet of red poppies. It was entirely too troublesome for Shikamaru to move at that point and he just slumped against Tobirama, snoring softly while Tobirama carefully regulated his chakra to keep the flowers being put in his short hair in place.

Chapter Text

Tobirama looked further up the path, taking in the moderately sized buildings clustered on the near horizon. These buildings were obviously not all residential in nature and while impressive, it made Tobirama wonder how many services and functions had been moved into the Uchiha compound solely so they could remain behind their compound walls. It also made him wonder whose idea it was to make such a move.

He discreetly rolled his shoulders under his kimono shirt and flexed the hand he had around his nephew’s. Naruto looked up at him curiously, before squeezing back silently.

Tobirama didn’t know if Naruto was aware of his uncle’s nerves, but he did appreciate the silent and quiet support.

The Uchiha compound was indeed in a new location from what Tobirama remembered and the new compound was quite different in appearance. He could remember visiting the compound regularly not only to work with Madara on administrative work but also to keep Kagami’s mother up-to-date on her son’s progress. The compound had stone white walls wreathed in a small stream and bushes. Beyond the wall he would’ve seen the tops of houses and small curls of smoke. This compound had walls that were higher, the bottom half made from stone and the top half the familiar white, though this white was regularly interrupted with the clan’s red and white uchiwa. The area surrounding the walls was now brown, bare of life with the exception of the occasional small tree.

There were also guards at the gate to the compound.

A pair of men regarded him and his nephew closely as they approached. They wore the clan’s typical dark robes with high collars and even though he could not see their backs, Tobirama had full faith their clan uchiwa was stitched between their shoulder blades.

The Uchiha pair bowed their heads when they were finally close enough. “Niidaime-sama,” they greeted quietly before the man on the left took a small step forward. “It’s an honor to meet you. May we ask your business?”

Tobirama didn’t know if he liked how he was welcomed so cordially and politely. Granted, it was better than the cold stares and curled lips he used to get from the clan. “I requested a meeting with your clan head and I was advised to arrive at this day and time,” he informed them. He hadn’t dared be so familiar with the Uchiha clan as he’d been with the Akimichi, especially given that he was hoping to speak with the clan head himself instead of a clan member. Clan heads were notoriously busy let alone a clan head who is responsible for the Konoha Police Force. He’d thankfully received confirmation and a reply promptly along with an invitation to lunch with the clan head’s family written in a hand different from Fugaku Uchiha. A Mikoto Uchiha, Fugaku’s wife. She’d personally requested Naruto’s presence interestingly enough.

The Uchiha man nodded and turned to the side. “Very well. I will lead you. This way.”

“Thank you,” Tobirama replied, bowing a bit in thanks.

He and Naruto trailed after the man and looked around the compound as they went. It was certainly more populated and filled than the Senju compound. It was reminiscent of the village, Tobirama observed. Dense building placement, hard packed dirt or stone walkways, people bustling to and fro with purpose.

Tobirama felt a little nostalgic, thinking of the old compound layout and how this one was different in a way that mirrored Konoha. Hashirama would be so pleased. Madara would be proud to see his clan so industrious and thriving even under pressure.

Arriving at a house slightly larger and more ornate than the others in the area, the guard bowed to the woman waiting serenely at the front door before vanishing in a shunshin. This time, Tobirama didn’t feel at all begrudging to bow a proper depth to the woman. “Uchiha-sama,” he greeted, glancing to see Naruto also bowing with him. “You honor us with your invitation. Thank you for hosting us.”

They straightened to see the woman coming up from her own respectful bow. Tobirama noted that Mikoto was every bit the poised and quiet beauty that was characteristic of Uchiha women. “It is us that are honored, Niidaime-sama, Uzumaki-san.”

The boy made a quiet sound before pouting. “Ne, call me Naruto.” He glanced up to his uncle for a second, unsure, before bowing again. “Please and thank you, Uchiha-sama.” Tobirama squeezed Naruto’s hand, amused at his clumsy attempts to be polite. His sprout had listened closely this morning when he’d explained that they were formally meeting a clan head and his family, which meant manners and protocols. He’d grouched and complained, but practiced with Tobirama and asked plenty of questions about certain situations that got wilder and more fantastical the longer the boy stewed on the topic.

His nephew had a habit of making him laugh and smile quite regularly.

The woman smiled and, after looking to Tobirama for permission, stepped closer and crouched down. “Naruto-kun,” she obliged, “let me see you.”

Naruto’s chakra swirled in confusion, but he held still as the woman looked him over closely. It was only when Mikoto reached a hand to touch his face that he flinched slightly. Tobirama tightened his hand around Naruto’s and shook his head when Mikoto looked at him in surprise. To her credit, the woman recovered quickly. “You have your father’s colors, but you look exactly like your mother.” Mikoto hummed and didn’t comment when the boy’s jaw dropped. “Kushina and I were close friends once. I had just had my second son when she was pregnant with you. These are her eyes.”

Tobirama has actually told Naruto the same thing when they’d first seen pictures of Minato and Kushina. Naruto had sat in his lap and traced his little fingers over the picture as Tobirama remarked over the features he saw in Naruto. He held Naruto close that day, letting his own bulk and strength hold the child together as he got his first actual look of his parents.

But to hear it from a stranger still floored his sprout. Tobirama silently enveloped the smaller chakra presence in his own.

Naruto swallowed hard. “You…knew my mom?”

Tobirama recalled that the name Mikoto Uchiha had been on the S-class order to never approach Naruto.

Mikoto nodded. “We first met while on a mission, but we quickly became good friends. She helped me through my first pregnancy and was there at my wedding. She was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met.”

Tobirama felt the swell of sorrow and grief in Naruto’s chakra, but it also rose with a wave of pride and happiness. Naruto beamed at the woman. “Of course, she was the nicest. She was my mom, believe it!”

The woman laughed and rose back up to her full height. “Oh my, that takes me back. Kushina has a similar saying.” She winked. “She was one of a kind, don’t you know?”

Naruto burst out laughing and Tobirama blinked at how bright his nephew radiated to his senses. “That’s awesome, b-believe it!” He laughed some more, leaning against Tobirama’s leg for balance.

“Well, I’ve made ramen for lunch, so I hope you’re hungry.”

“Oh no,” Tobirama muttered, barely audible under Naruto’ enthusiastic yell that startled all nearby chakra presences. Mikoto still looked at him quizzically, not at all daunted by the bouncing and chattering excited boy. “I hope you made enough for an army.”

The woman smiled. “I’ve cooked ramen for Kushina. Believe me, I know how much ramen an Uzumaki can eat. Come.”

Tobirama took a second to remind Naruto of his volume just before Mikoto led them into the house. The boy didn’t release his hand once while they switched their sandals for slippers and entered the house proper, but he certainly did pull Tobirama along when he felt the man was walking to slow when there was a promise of ramen in the air.

Mikoto smiled at Naruto’s excitement and stopped outside a shoji. “Come meet my family,” she said as she opened the door and revealed a rather small and bare drawing room. Tobirama was used to having a desk, kotatsu, and shrine in his sitting room, papers and ink spread out just waiting for someone to sit down and work, blankets folded up for when someone got too cold, and training weapons stacked neatly by the door. This sitting room was empty save for a short table and its three occupants sitting at it on black pillows.

Mikoto led them in and turned to the side, allowing the males of both families to view each other. “Senju-sama, Naruto-kun, please meet my husband Fugaku Uchiha.” The clan and family patriarch bowed his head. “My eldest son, Itachi.” The young boy, who couldn’t be any older than twelve though his chakra presence read as a jonin surprisingly enough, looked at them with tranquil dark eyes that caught Tobirama’s attention. Itachi followed his father’s example and bowed, but from the waist instead of his head. “And my youngest son, Sasuke.” The final person to be introduced looked to be Naruto’s age and was a dead ringer for Izuna.

Tobirama for a moment found himself standing on the Naka river facing down his Uchiha counterpart. His head felt too light without his happuri and his hands empty of his loyal sword.

He shook off the memory roughly as Mikoto’s soft voice drew him back to the present. “My dear ones, this is Tobirama Senju and his nephew, Naruto Uzumaki.” Tobirama was aware enough to bow at the appropriate time, bowing his head to mirror Fugaku while Naruto bowed from the waist like Itachi and Sasuke.

“Welcome,” Fugaku intoned, his voice deep but clear and firm. “It has been a long time since a Senju has come to the Uchiha. Please feel at ease in my home and clan.”

Tobirama let out a small breath. “A long time, indeed,” he agreed. “You honor us, Uchiha-sama. Thank you.”

“Hm. Thank you,” Naruto echoed before shifting restlessly. Tobirama knew what was coming before he opened his mouth again. “We’re going to have ramen, right?”

Tobirama braced for scorn and reproach that would shame Naruto, but interestingly enough there was no such reaction. Itachi’s chakra swirled and flickered with amusement and warmth while Fugaku crossed his arms and nodded. “Mikoto has worked hard on this meal,” he replied.

“I’m certain it will be more than enjoyable,” Tobirama said reflexively, catching and seeing the small warning. The Senju walked over to the two available pillows at the low table across from Fugaku. He didn’t presume to take the pillow immediately to the man’s right, which was no doubt Mikoto’s spot, and instead placed Naruto between Sasuke and himself. “How is the Uchiha clan, Uchiha-sama? As you said, it’s been quite some time. Just walking through the compound, it seems as if you’ve remained as strong and present as ever.”

He brushed his thumb over the back of Naruto’s hand soothingly as he heard and felt child sigh and settle into a comfortable position, turning his ankles out and sitting between them on his knees. He’d warned him ahead of time that this meeting was most likely going to be only him and Fugaku speaking as with more formal clans like the Uchiha and Hyuga children were preferred to be seen and not heard. Naruto had scoffed and spluttered indignantly until Hinata and Neji had confirmed his information. It saddened Tobirama to hear Hinata and Neji give advice on how to best pass his time and keep patience while the adults talked, but he was pleased to hear that the cousins had come up with a silent way of speaking and communicating with each other. After a while, Naruto had said he could just think about seals or pranks. Even now his nephew’s presence lost some of its clarity and fuzzed at the edges underneath Tobirama’s chakra, reflecting its owner’s inward focus. Naruto was meditating, it seemed. Tobirama made a mental note to alert the boy subtly if he was addressed.

Fugaku straightened. “As we should. We have always strived to better ourselves and each other and the years have been kind to us, lending us times of peace and strife as opportunities to test and rest.”

“Ah. I’ve read that there were two more wars since my time,” Tobirama remarked lowly, carefully.

“Yes. Neither of which were easy or without loses to the village or clan, but I’m proud to say a good number of my clansmen came to have flee-on-sight statuses.”

Tobirama raised an eyebrow. “Impressive. And forgive me for noticing, but,” he turned his gaze to Itachi and found the boy looking back at him serenely, dark bangs framing his face neatly, “I see such strength is present in your own sons. From a distance I thought you had a jonin and genin present with you.” Sasuke refocused from where he’d been listlessly staring at the painted shoji and blinked in surprise.

Predictably, Tobirama felt Fugaku’s chakra surge in pride that was so characteristic of the Uchiha clan, but he found he couldn’t look down on the man for it. He had felt similar pride when people remarked upon his students’ skills and strengths and knew he would feel the same way if people noticed Naruto’s intelligence and innate talent.

“There is nothing to forgive,” Fugaku allowed. “If anything, it’s a given that the Niidaime would see shinobi for their true strength.” He pointed his chin at his eldest son. “Itachi is a chunin with interest and recommendations to promote him to a jonin and Sasuke will begin the Academy soon.”

“So young,” the Senju remarked. “How old are you two?”

“Ten, Niidaime-sama,” Itachi answered.

“I’m five, but I’ll be six in July,” Sasuke added and Naruto squawked, apparently have been drawn out of meditation during the conversation.

“You’re already goin’ to the ‘Cademy?!” the blond exclaimed just as Mikoto returned with a tray of drinks. Sasuke puffed up his chest and smirked. Tobirama twitched as he was reminded of Izuna, the prideful, bragging peacock.

“Uh-huh! I’m gonna be just like aniki.” Tobirama’s twitch became more pronounced, drawing Fugaku’s questioning gaze, which Tobirama pretended not to notice in favor of perusing Mikoto’s selection of drinks. “I’m gonna graduate in one year too!”

Tobirama blinked in surprise at the implication. “You started early and graduated early?” he asked the clan heir.

Itachi nodded and Tobirama felt no small amount of relief that the boy didn’t remind him of anyone. “Yes. I studied and trained often.”

“Has the age of entry or graduation changed?” Tobirama asked, looking between the two adults and the chunin.

Fugaku gave a subtle smile and looked upon his son favorably. “Not at all. It is still eight and twelve.”

Tobirama’s stomach sank and had to still his tongue to keep from asking when he made chunin. The age requirements he’d placed in the Academy had been mandatory and inexcusable. He hadn’t wanted to see any child who didn’t even reach his waist to be out in the field or buried six feet under. He and Hashirama had fought the assembled and allied clans tooth and nail to pass this and it had only been when Madara had finally thrown his own lot in with the brothers that the mandate had passed.

“Have you all forgotten what it feels like to bury our young?! To hear a mother’s scream and to hold a too small body that will never move or breathe life again?! Fools! We will not send our children to die any longer and you will adhere to the age limit or so help me I will chase you out of the village myself.”

It had been one of the few times Tobirama had felt the support and strength of Madara’s conviction and passion working with him rather than against him. It had been exhilarating and easing all at once to have his once enemy raise his voice with him.

To hear that the age limit was being ignored and worked around made Tobirama feel sick.

How many small coffins were in the ground now?

He bit his cheek against the sobering thought when he felt a chakra brush against his. A summer breeze against his own snow melt river. Raising his eyes, he found Itachi watching him and…sympathy in his chakra. Weariness and sorrow glanced off his chakra before fading once more into peace.

It broke Tobirama’s heart.

A child of the village, so young, should not feel like a veteran shinobi no matter how strong he was.

Naruto suddenly tugged on his hand. “Ji-chan, can I start the ‘Cademy too?”

“Absolutely not,” he snapped and hid a wince when he felt Fugaku’s and Sasuke’s chakras flicker in surprise at his vehement denial, but he would not take it back. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, gently his voice once more. “There is much I still have to teach you. Foundations and basics you should know by heart before anything else.”

He had taken to teaching Naruto and the company of children exercises and katas in the afternoons. Today had been canceled due to this lunch, but normally he had the children practicing, stretching, running, and enduring a variety of skills and tests. It had become common practice for him to approach a child and hold a leaf to their body, expecting them to hold the leaf with chakra while they went about their laps, drills, or katas. Dropping a leaf meant immediate pushups or sit-ups for everyone. Neji was up to holding four leaves at once while Naruto struggled to hold one. On a hunch, Tobirama had his nephew hold a rock instead of leaf and the boy had cheered when he consistently managed to keep it attached to his body. Uzumaki chakra reserves worked oddly on chakra control.

His nephew whined and pouted, tugging on his hand insistently still. “You are already on your way to becoming a shinobi, Naruto. Patience,” he advised.

Itachi shifted and turned his attention from Tobirama to Naruto. “You’re most fortunate,” he observed and became the point of Naruto’s confusion. “Niidaime-sama is renowned and famous for his knowledge and skill in battle and in the shinobi arts. You could not ask for a better teacher and mentor.”

Naruto screwed up his face. “Yeah, I know Ji-chan is strong. He was Hokage, believe it!”

Sasuke frowned. “We all know he was Hokage. That’s what Niidaime means, idiot.”

“Sasuke!” Fugaku scolded and the boy looked away with a pout and curled shoulders.

Naruto stiffened in offense. “Hey, hey, I’m not stupid, meanie!”

“Naruto,” Tobirama murmured sharply and got a petulant look.

“He started it!”

“Please forgive my brother, Naruto-kun,” Itachi cut in, moving a hand to rest on Sasuke’s shoulder. “Sasuke isn’t around other children much and is still learning how to play nice. I’m sure he could learn from your example, however.”

Tobirama considered the boy—he’s still a child. Itachi’s maturity struck him as odd and out of place. He wasn’t even overly serious and withdrawn like how Tobirama suspected he was at this age. He simply carried himself with an adult’s countenance.

“Eh? You’re not around kids a lot?” Naruto asked and when Sasuke blushed the blond huffed. “You should come over then. Ji-chan lets me have friends over every day and we hang out and train and eat and play. It’s a lot of fun, believe it! Ji-chan, can Sasuke come over too?”

Tobirama nodded, accepting another small child into the growing hoard that seemed to surround Naruto. “Sasuke and Itachi are welcome at the compound whenever they like and their parents allowing.”

When the eyes of two young boys turned on Fugaku, he remained firm and unmoved. “We’ll see.”

Mikoto returned some time later after they’d had an adequate amount of time to talk and get to know one another over drinks. Tobirama was relieved that Fugaku wasn’t so much a believer in protocol that he silenced the children once they started talking, though he and Tobirama reminded them of their volume if the youngest children started bickering or arguing.

The Senju still remained tense despite the warm welcome. It wasn’t the enthusiastic reception from the Akimichi, but by Uchiha standards and from his own expectations, it was practically a celebration of their presence. It left Tobirama feeling off-balance. The weight of the knowledge he held and the questions he wanted to ask only left him feeling like this was only going to vanish.

It was sobering, knowing that this good here between them all was at risk due to his own machinations and plotting. Naruto had seemingly made a new friend as he is wont to do and found a connection to his late mother. Fugaku was cordial and polite and Itachi felt content to look between the conversations going on around the table. It made Tobirama feel a touch of guilt because he knew he would not stray from his path.

“I was actually curious, Uchiha-sama,” he started in a lull in conversation between himself, Fugaku, and Mikoto. “As I’m sure you’re aware, I once had a student from your clan. Kagami Uchiha.”

“I remember Kagami from when I was a boy. He almost single-handedly ended the First Great Shinobi War. Kagami was a credit to our clan,” Fugaku said, dipping his chin slightly to his chest. “No doubt due to your own teachings.”

“Along with the Uchiha clan’s teaching and Madara’s own tutelage,” Tobirama demurred humbly. “But he was a student I was truly proud of. I know all shinobi must face the Shinigami at some point, but I still grieved upon learning his fate.” Grieved and hated. But he stilled his chakra with growing skill before Naruto or Itachi could detect it. He wasn’t used to feeling so much, but he was always quick to adapt.

Mikoto bowed her head. “His enemies in Kumo caught up to him. We were told he gave his life to ensure village secrets could not reach the ears of the enemy. There was nothing to recover.”

Tobirama bet. Danzo was a wily and clever creature, disguising the truth in a half-lie. Still, he steadied himself. “It was an honor to have been his teacher. With your permission, I would like to pay my respects. Could I visit his grave?”

“Kagami Uchiha has surviving family.” Tobirama blinked in surprise before turning from the adults to peer at Itachi. The young boy tilted his head. “Nariakira and Ruriko have passed, but their son still lives. Shisui Uchiha is a friend of mine.”

“I…hadn’t dared hope,” the Senju eventually managed to say and felt the summer breeze brush up against his chakra again. This time, he extended a tendril in return and let their chakras mingle. To his own heightened senses and understanding of chakra, he felt the depth and breadth of the young child’s chakra. It had the potential to be swift and cutting, but presently it felt no lighter than spun sugar and as relaxing as a pleasant summer breeze.

Tobirama knew his own chakra didn’t feel nearly as pleasant. Cold and biting, nipping at anyone who wasn’t used to it. Brisk and swift, a river that stopped for no one not even himself.

But interestingly enough, Itachi didn’t shy away or withdraw, if anything the fluttering breeze pushed and tugged for more until Tobirama allowed his chakra to spill out just a bit more. Only then did Itachi’s chakra settle and seemingly make itself at home in that mediocre bit of his chakra.

“Father?” Itachi asked, cool and even as if he hadn’t just wiggled his way into a rather intimate gesture that Tobirama had only really done with family and loved ones. Children were always strange.

Fugaku nodded and waved a hand to his wife. “Mikoto, send summons for Shisui. He returned from a mission two days ago and should be nearby.” The woman murmured a confirmation before leaving to do just that. “Do you plan on repeating history and taking Shisui as a student?” Fugaku asked and Tobirama very barely detected a trace of humor in the man’s voice.

“I am willing to teach any who are willing to learn,” he answered noncommittally. Tenzo had taken him up on his offer to learn more about mokuton and its uses, asking questions and looking at scrolls Tobirama still had. And the children were always clamoring for new lessons even if they hadn’t finished their old ones. “To be frank, I feel a debt to Kagami and now to his bloodline.”

Fugaku looked at him in puzzlement. “I didn’t know Kagami had done anything to earn a debt from you.”

“Nothing like that,” Tobirama said before smiling wryly. “Kagami was the best of my students and while a teacher mustn’t have favorites, I will admit I was very fond of him. As I said, I feel his loss no matter the amount of time that has apparently passed. To me, I only last saw him a few weeks ago.”

If Kagami were here, he would’ve been digging through Tobirama’s own pantry shamelessly. He would’ve been slipping through the window of whatever room Tobirama was in and demanding attention. He would’ve invaded Tobirama’s rather large personal space and made himself at home like he’d rather be there than anywhere else.

It was a kind of casual love Tobirama didn’t even know existed until the boy-teen-man had given it to him so readily.

Fugaku got a strange expression on his face, his chakra morphing into an amalgamation of emotions Tobirama couldn’t parse through before they were gone again. Though the man’s chakra felt looser, more open. “As you say,” he assented. “I’ll admit, I was concerned when I heard news of your return, Niidaime. It’s become common knowledge your…dislike for the Uchiha.”

His what now.

“I beg your pardon.”

Naruto’s teeth clicked shut mid-sentence with Sasuke and his hand spasmed in Tobirama’s. The Senju attempted a quick purr to calm his sprout, but the sound was strangled with the offense and bafflement he was feeling. The atmosphere around the table froze and seemed to hold its breath. Sasuke leaned into Itachi, who was glancing rapidly between the two men.

Fugaku’s chakra tightened and stilled again at his low tone. He eyed Tobirama, meeting his unmoving and expectant red eyes before looking away again. “I assume you are not aware of the presumptions about you,” he started slowly, warily. Tobirama didn’t blink once, waiting. “When people speak of you, Niidaime, they praise your intellect and battle skills.” The Senju narrowed his eyes, spotting the flattery for what it was. Fugaku shifted uneasily, the move minute and barely there. “But they also speak with the implication of your feelings about the Uchiha. Or rather, your supposed feelings.”

“And what are my feelings about the Uchiha,” Tobirama murmured, knowing without a doubt he was not going to like what he was about to hear.

The Uchiha clan head sighed and crossed his arms. “That you think us a threat to the village. That we are a threat in general. That we should not be a part of the village.”

In the midst of his growing irritation and anger, he recognized a sentiment. He blinked slowly. “And who has spread such information.”

“Policies that you instituted. Your hate of Madara. The attitude and stances your former students have taken today about the Uchiha.” There it was. Why was he not surprised.

The smile Tobirama gave, wasn’t so much of a smile as it was a baring of his teeth. He quickly smoothed out his expression when Naruto tugged on his hand. The Senju took a moment to gather himself back into order before addressing his Uchiha counterpart. “I don’t think I have to say it for you to understand my feelings on these supposed feelings.”

The corner of Fugaku’s lips twitched. “I may have gotten a hint of disagreement, yes.”

Tobirama couldn’t really bring himself to regret almost losing his temper. Wait, no. He could. He didn’t want Naruto or other children to see him like that. “Let me clarify some things,” he requested, his voice even and calm. To help make his internal feelings match his outward demeanor, he lifted his free hand to card through Naruto’s hair, pausing the motion long enough for Naruto to see it. The boy turned his head into his lightly scratching fingernails. His nephew’s chakra unwound and relaxed at the action. “I do not hate the Uchiha. I never actually have. I once regarded your clan as an enemy to mine and a very strong enemy.” Tobirama looked back to Fugaku. “At one point in history, our clans fought like senseless beasts for upwards of a century. I was born into a bitter and blood-soaked war and raised to see the Uchiha as red-eyed murderous demons.” He paused before dipping his head. “Forgive me, but the Senju did not have favorable words for the Uchiha.”

“And neither the Uchiha for the Senju,” Itachi spoke up. The boy was focused entirely on Tobirama. “You had a few titles that were just as unfavorable.”

Tobirama huffed and nodded. “The White Demon of the Senju. Bane of the Uchiha. I killed more Uchiha than possibly anyone else, you must know this.” Itachi nodded readily, Fugaku also did though more slowly. Sasuke looked distressed and concerned and Naruto felt uneasy and still. “I fought and killed to protect my clan and family. Of all the enemy clans, I personally knew the numbers saying that the Uchiha were responsible for the most graves on our land.” He looked to the cooling cups of tea and bowls of ramen. “I gave the Uchiha clan most of my attention and focus as a result. I wasn’t the visionary my brother was. I couldn’t look beyond the endless battles and growing graves. But Hashirama and Madara could, and we had peace.

I will admit to being wary at first. Madara was unstable after Izuna was killed by my hand. I could feel it in him. But I could also feel and see the Uchiha clan itself setting roots in Konoha and making it home.” He shook his head. “I knew at that point that they no more wanted graves, large and small, than I or the Senju clan did. Your clan helped build this village as much as the Senju, if not more. My clan is gone now, while the Uchiha remain, after all. It’s just Naruto and I now.” Naruto tilted his head back. His nephew squeezed his hand tightly in comradery.

Fugaku thought for a moment before asking, “Then why did you assign the Konoha Police Force and prison to us? You must’ve known the kind of animosity that would come from us being the enforcers and wardens of the village.”

Tobirama sighed, looking back to the man. “The duty must fall to someone as must the consequences. I won’t apologize for it. That would imply I would change events.” He lifted his chin. “I entrusted the Police Force and prison to the Uchiha because I knew no other clan would fulfil the job as yours would. From my own dealings with the Uchiha, before Konoha and after, I knew no clan valued justice like yours did and that yours would endlessly pursue justice where others would not. I gave the Police Force to the Uchiha knowing they were strong enough to bear the ridicule and would not balk at challenging even the Daimyo for crimes and injustices.” Tobirama paused before tsking. “But it seems as if I did not take into account the ridicule and blame that would befall your clan should someone start a campaign against you. I should’ve had the foresight to ensure that couldn’t happen or happen as badly,” he muttered.

Fugaku scoffed. “Niidaime-sama, I doubt anyone could demand you see something that far into the future.”

“And yet they hold me responsible for the consequences of that lack of foresight all the same,” Tobirama pointed out and the Uchiha man looked like he’d tasted something sour. He nodded, agreeing to the point and Tobirama clicked his tongue. “Honor, justice. Even when we were enemies, I knew the Uchiha clan to embody these traits. They may have been working against my clan, but they held those values nonetheless.” He shrugged. “It’s why I never organized an effort to free any prisoners of war and simply negotiated for their return. After Tajima’s passing and the end of the child-killing squadrons, Madara and Izuna enforced high moral standards and restored the Uchiha honor. Even I could see that.”

Fugaku’s eyebrows were raised high, surprise clear on his face. “You have much to say about my clan. Not even all flattery, but…”

“Truth,” Itachi supplied quietly.

Tobirama pursed his lips and glanced at the ceiling. “I am not Uchiha, so I can’t claim to truly understand, but I did spend quite a bit of time trying to understand. To be plain, I am wary and leery of the Uchiha Curse of Hatred and what it can do to a person. Madara’s imbalance and his example of the Uchiha clan’s Curse of Hatred and my subsequent mistrust of him poisoned our interactions and thus poisoned the village.”

Naruto shifted. “You tried to make him better,” he offered weakly. “You tried to let him have his…justice?”

“It might’ve been justice at that point. But it also might’ve been revenge,” Tobirama replied. “Regardless, he did not follow through on my offer, but, then again, there was little that could even be done that could remedy my murder of Izuna. What was between Madara and I was most likely impossible to fix.” He turned his gaze back to the clan head and heirs. “For what little it matters now and for how pretentious it may sound, I am deeply sorry for the part I played in taking your clan head from the Uchiha. For this, I would apologize a hundred times over.”

The clan head frowned before glancing at his two sons. After a moment, he placed his hands on his knees. “I would like to think I am not among the number that would blame you for a decision you made or action you took in your own time that survived until today,” Fugaku mused, sniffing haughtily. “You are a man out of his time, Niidaime-sama. Many things have changed.” He looked to his sons. “Madara Uchiha has become a tale of warning to our clan. Of the dangers of love and loss. Our curse, you called it.” Fugaku straightened and was every inch the proud and strong clan head he should be. “We are no one’s puppets, not even to our own weaknesses. We are strong, and have been strong for centuries. We will not fall prey to anyone or thing.”

Tobirama smirked faintly. “I wouldn’t believe you the same clan if you said anything else.”

“I am beginning to see that you are your own man. Forgive me, I should not have let fairy tales shade my view of you.”

“I’m in fairy tales now? Times have changed much. I was once only in nightmares.”

They shared an amused looked before Tobirama looked to the three boys listening intently to their words. Naruto and Sasuke seemed a bit lost, taking the words at face value.

Itachi, however, looked placid and felt pleased. His breezy chakra swirled with a quiet excitement in Tobirama’s chakra. The man felt a bolt of fondness for how subtly open the boy was. He was aware of the flow of conversation, felt it solidify into something not-intangible. Tenuous though it may be, it was positive.

A positive connection between him and the Uchiha.

Tobirama had to blink a brief heat from his eyes. Hashirama would be proud. Perhaps Madara would’ve been pleased at one point as well. Tobirama had succeeded in almost becoming friends with the Uchiha clan.

His eyes felt warm again as he watched Fugaku ask Naruto about his own training and clan life. Itachi’s chakra buffered his warmly and Sasuke’s voice entered the conversation next to Naruto’s.

So emotional, he thought to himself in chiding. He glanced down at his animated nephew and knew at least that this change was not a result of a time, but a person.

From elsewhere in the house, Mikoto’s voice called, “I’m home!” and a second later it was echoed by an amused voice that was on the cusp of deepening and cracking, “I’m home!”

Fugaku and Itachi returned the call while Sasuke gasped and smiled, looking to the door. “Shisui-san!” he shouted.

Chapter Text

Sasuke gasped and smiled, looking to the door. “Shisui-san!” he shouted.

The newcomer laughed from down the hall. “Sasuke-kun!” The teenager copied the younger boy’s enthusiasm and excitement perfectly.

For a moment, Tobirama was reminded of a crow mimicking and repeating voices and sounds it’s commonly heard. There used to be one that lingered around Tobirama’s pond when he was younger and would repeat the common questions Tobirama would ask his koi. It always tried to sneak closer to get some of the koi’s treats. It wasn’t until Tobirama had seen that crow scaring off other birds from harassing his koi that he’d started feeding the bird and teaching it other words. Its descendants had possibly followed Tobirama and the Senju clan to Konoha, but in this time he hadn’t seen a sign of the birds yet.

The door to the sitting room slid open and Mikoto entered, followed by a young boy. Younger than Tenzo and not quite in the throes of puberty, though he certainly had the long gangly limbs of a teenager.

Dark eyes flickered around the room quickly, taking in Tobirama and Naruto’s presences in an instant, before refocusing on Fugaku. “Fugaku-sama,” he greeted formally before giving Sasuke a bright smile in the next instant. “Sasuke-kun!” He made grabby hands and the youngest Uchiha was out of his seat with a stumble. Mikoto lifted a hand to cover her smile as her son happily accepted the hug and not-so-happily took the generous hair ruffling. Sasuke retreated to his older brother’s side huffily, his favor and opinion of the other Uchiha shifting with the fickleness of children.

Tobirama observed all of this with no small amount of fondness and melancholy. He didn’t know for certain what relation Shisui had to Kagami, but he could see his student in the boy. Those were the rioting curls that had amused Tobirama to no end, that was Kagami’s jaw and face shape that the growing boy would eventually fill into, those were his student’s eyebrows. But those eyes were entirely Shisui’s, slanted and even feminine in a way, though feminine traits on Uchiha men weren’t all that uncommon. The Uchiha as a whole seemed to find beauty in the appearance of delicacy and fragility. Tobirama could appreciate the beauty and the irony. Especially when he’d seen more than a few enemy shinobi go easy on a dainty Uchiha kunoichi only to be torn to pieces brutally or burnt to ashes in an instant.

The boy propped a hand on his waist and waved at Naruto and Tobirama. “Yo,” he started and Tobirama felt his lips curl at the informality that had seemingly been inherited. “Nice to meetcha. I’m Shisui Uchiha.” Shisui looked specifically to Naruto, a breach in protocol but one Tobirama didn’t care much for anyway. “You look like a cool guy. What’s your name?”

Naruto puffed up and waved back with entirely too much energy for Tobirama’s taste. “I’m Naruto Uzumaki. I’m gonna be an awesome seal master and Hokage, believe it!”

Shisui smiled. “Oh? That does sound cool. I’m glad I was right about you! Hey, can I be your jonin commander?” Tobirama’s smile grew a hair, softening.

“Yeah!”

Fugaku cleared his throat, drawing his clansman’s attention. “Shisui. I’d like you to meet Niidaime-sama, Tobirama Senju.”

Whatever reaction Tobirama had been expecting, it wasn’t for Shisui’s smile to broaden and shine with a force he’d only seen from his own nephew. He was further surprised to see and sense that the smile was honest. “Hey there! It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Tobirama blinked and tilted his head, trying to see past Kagami’s likeness. It didn’t help that when Kagami had been Shisui’s age he’d decided that Tobirama was his adult male safe person to complain to about puberty, ask for help, and to panic with over his attraction to guys as well as girls. That smile on Shisui’s face was so familiar to him it made a lump lodge in Tobirama’s throat. “Hello,” he greeted quietly, subtly working past the clog on his voice. His next words came our clearer and louder. “Forgive me. I didn’t know you were aware of me enough to wish to meet me.”

Shisui waved a hand dismissively. “I didn’t really have connections enough to introduce myself, so I’ve been trying to figure out how I could justify meeting you.”

To which, Tobirama scoffed. “You are kin to a student of mine. You need no other reason.”

The teen bit his bottom lip, his chakra sharing a wind feature with Itachi, but his was more active and excitable than Itachi’s breeze. It spun and swirled with near overwhelming joy, though it was firmly contained to himself. Itachi’s chakra perked up and seemed to spin faster in reaction to his friend’s chakra. Tobirama wondered faintly if Itachi was a sensor. “I’m glad,” Shisui replied, pausing a moment to take a seat next to Sasuke. The teen bumped shoulders with Itachi before continuing. “I never got to meet my grandpa, but he left a lot of journals.”

The Senju lifted an eyebrow. Kagami had been journaling long before Tobirama ever met him and when Tobirama did learn that fact, he’d helped the embarrassed teenager-at-the-time develop and create an encryption and cipher that had eventually impressed Tobirama with its complexity. Kagami had apparently found a method to write and scribe in such a way that only those with the sharingan could read the entirety of his notes. And on top of that was an encryption of his own invention. “You know how to decode Kagami’s notes?”

Shisui nodded and smiled bashfully, ignorant of how a bolt of sorrow went through Tobirama. To have the sharingan so young spoke of power and trauma that so few could bear. Itachi’s smile flickered down into a frown for a moment and Tobirama concealed his own emotions. The clan heir was quite obviously a powerful or sensitive sensor. “Mhm. My mom gave me his journals when I was younger. He has so much written and stored in there. I kinda feel like I know him because of them all. He wrote about you a lot, Senju-sama. Not just what you taught him, but even small daily things. He really looked up to you.”

Tobirama hummed, honored and humbled that his student had apparently written of him so well and kindly that his grandson, who had met neither Kagami nor Tobirama, exhibited such happiness and closeness to them. He couldn’t stop himself from smiling at the young boy, his chest feeling a touch too tight. “I am so happy to see him live on in you and to see you doing well. Thank you.”

The teen fluttered his hands. “No, no. Thank you! I don’t think I’d be here if it weren’t for the impact you had on my grandpa. Not to mention he explained a few jutsu and techniques you taught him that are really useful. And…” Shisui reached up and scratched his cheek, “a few jutsu that I can’t quite figure out.”

The man huffed in amusement. “Because of the nature of the jutsu or due to Kagami’s rather odd way of thinking?”

Shisui looked at him with wide eyes. “Yes.”

That startled a snort out of Tobirama. He quickly gathered himself again. “It would be an honor to teach you a few things. You’re welcome at the Senju compound anytime.”

The teen gave a small cheer. “Thank you! Maybe finally I’ll be stronger than Itachi. Huh, Sasuke?” The youngest Uchiha frowned at Shisui and instantly denied it with a fervor that amused the adults in the room and flustered Itachi. The bickering only got louder when Naruto jumped in and said his uncle was the strongest, to which Shisui immediately argued against and even got Itachi to claim he was stronger when his cousin ribbed him hard enough. Which, of course, had Sasuke suddenly doubting how strong Tobirama actually was much to his parents’ consternation.

Tobirama flicked his fingers to show his ease and let the young Uchiha scrutinize him. He found humor in a small child of the Leaf doubting a Kage’s strength when trying to compare it to his older brother’s strength. The childish and pouty expressions and voice also helped distance Sasuke from Tobirama’s memory of Izuna.

While the younger generation was distracted with their debate, Tobirama leaned slightly to the side and discretely asked to have a meeting scheduled between him and Fugaku in the position as head of the Konoha Police Force. The man nodded and murmured that he’d send a missive with the time and his office number.

It wasn’t what he’d had planned. Tobirama had meant to speak with Fugaku there at their meeting about the information he had and the charges he wanted to bring against the Konoha Council and the Hokage, but he found he couldn’t bring himself to break the easy atmosphere of children fussing and adults looking on fondly.

Hashirama wouldn’t recognize him when he finally joined him in the Pure Lands if he kept changing at this pace.

 

*****

 

Tobirama carefully teased the needle through the collar of a newly bought mesh armor shirt. This time’s quality and variation of armor and weapons had improved and he’d been thrilled to peruse the selection of various shops and make inquiries about how they were produced and supplied. It seemed that during Saru’s tenure he’d heavily expanded trade agreements and Konoha’s reputation as a commerce hub.

The Senju had been disappointed to learn his favorite shop for ninja supplies and apparel was gone, but Kiba had suggested a store that his sister frequented. It had been a kunoichi-focused store, but had a wide selection of clothing and armor for both men and women. All in good quality and in his favorite colors. Tobirama had happily dipped into the Senju clan finances to properly outfit himself. He’d reluctantly hung up his old plated armor, but when a blue, sleeve-less vest hadn’t even ripped under a jabbed kunai—unlike his plated armor which scratched under the same attack—he’d written a large sum of money to the shop owner.

He’d also taken the opportunity to shop for training tools for the kids and some armor for his sprout.

Tobirama tugged the thread taut before tilting the shirt to view it better in the candle light. He checked his work critically. Thread wasn’t his usual means for making seals—not to mention he wasn’t always working on this small of a scale—but it was well worth going to the tedious effort if it meant he could strengthen and protect the mesh shirt, which would in-turn protect his nephew.

With the reinforcement seal carefully activated and now buzzing with chakra, he got to work on extra preservation seals. It was meant only to keep the threads of the reinforcement seal intact even under heavy wear, but it also had the added benefit of also working to preserve the shirt as well. Double the protection.

He hummed quietly as he worked, listening to the crickets chirp in the garden and the sozu clack to their own tempo. It was pitch black outside, but the sitting room was well lit with candles and a pair of lanterns at his side. At his back, Mari purred in her sleep, her inhales occasionally expanding to brush against his back. Upstairs he felt his nephew’s chakra ripple peacefully, like a drop of water hitting the surface of the water. Airi was at Naruto’s side, seemingly inseparable from the boy now. Tobirama was happy they found companionship in each other and that their mischievous playfulness made them good playmates.

As he was working on the preservation seal, which was thankfully mostly straight lines rather than curved lines, he felt a pair of chakra presences approaching the compound. Granted, he’d been aware of them from the moment they left their homes this late in the evening, but he didn’t waste energy presuming to be their destination until they passed the Aburame compound.

“Mari,” he murmured into the peacefully night. The large snow leopard’s breathing changed in an instant. Mari stretched and grunted as she roused herself. “Could you go see what Itachi and Shisui want so late at night?” Tobirama was currently listed as a retired shinobi, though he had plans to change that status back to active once Naruto was in the Academy. So they shouldn’t be coming to him for a mission. Nevertheless, they felt like they were slightly rushed or on a time crunch. “They’re circling to the rear of the compound,” he informed his summons. Where the least amount of Anbu were and where they had the best chance of slipping by undetected, he noted quietly.

Mari grunted, “Uchiha cubs? Here? Don’t tell me you’re already adopting from them.”

“I do not adopt,” he argued reflexively, refusing to acknowledge how she bumped into him when she got to her paws. “Children come to visit if they like.”

The snow leopard hummed disbelievingly. “And the fact that you are now only missing an Aburame child means absolutely nothing.”

Tobirama didn’t even deign to look in her direction. “You would be correct.”

Mari scoffed as she stepped off the engawa and easily disappeared into the dark of night on silent paws. An unseen ghost despite her light coloring.

He was just finishing the preservation seal as Mari returned with the two Uchiha boys in tow. “Good evening,” he murmured, tugging and rubbing his thumb over the seal. He needed to make sure his thread work was tight enough so the threads didn’t shift or move.

“Niidaime-sama,” Itachi returned, pausing a step away from the engawa. He and Shisui bowed respectfully, which Tobirama appreciated.

“Come in. It’s warmer past the seals on the house.” Tobirama neatly folded the mesh shirt on the other two he’d already finished sealing, allowing them time to takes their shoes off and enter his sitting room. “I would offer tea,” the man started, eyeing their clothes and the small bits of armor they were wearing, “but I don’t believe this is a social visit.”

Shisui looked away. “I’m sorry to have my first visit be like this, but something came up that we thought you might be interested in.”

The Senju wasn’t sure he liked whatever “interesting” thing might be brought to him under the cover of darkness, but there were a great many things he did not like to begin with. “Is that so,” he hummed. Mari laid down behind him and rested her head on his shoulder. He waved his hand, signaling them to continue.

Itachi took a deep breath and set his hands on his folded knees with precise movements. “During your visit, you spoke of several things. Your views of Madara Uchiha, the Uchiha clan. But we did not speak about Konohagakure.” Tobirama tilted his head, wondering where the boy was going with this. “With your permission, we would ask a few questions.”

A test then? A gatekeeping to this something that might be interesting to him? Hmph. No one had thought to keep him from information ever. “You may ask, though I may choose not to answer.” He would allow for them to take his measure.

Itachi nodded in acceptance. “We wish to know your thoughts. What is a village and what is a shinobi?”

Tobirama straightened and frowned. “You wish to discuss philosophy.”

Shisui pursed his lips but shrugged. “Of a sort. We want to know what you think a village and shinobi are.”

The man blinked before crossing his arms across his chest, something that had both Uchiha looking down at the movement. Their chakras shifted and popped unsettlingly. They were tense and waiting.

Tobirama looked between the pair before sighing. “The original idea for the village, to my understanding, was to create a place where there didn’t need to be fighting. Naïve as that thought was, the exhaustion and desire to keep from burying our clanmates, often times too young, became so enticing it brokered…peace.” The man paused and thought of Izuna’s death. He thought of Madara pushed to collapsing and defeat. Was that his only peace? Tobirama mentally pushed the thought down and continued. “From the idea of peace came other eventual milestones. First was we would stop fighting or we are not a danger to each other, so we can stop fighting.” The pair nodded in understanding. “Then came we can work together towards a common goal. Then we can come to live together as neighbors. So on and so forth from this initial idea of peace, of stopping children from dying senselessly,” Tobirama held up one finger before miming branching sprouts, “came this plethora of new understandings that grew and expanded until the entirety of it made a larger picture. A new understanding that necessitated taking a step back to see.” The Senju wove his fingers together, interlacing them into the serpent sign his anija favored for all his mokuton jutsu. “Unity.”

“The village is not a coalition of shinobi clans, merchants, tradesmen, and civilians. It is one entity. To be a citizen of Konohagakure means everyone is your kin. No matter birth, blood, or beginnings, we are one and together.” Tobirama took a breath and relaxed his hands. “In theory, the village is one large clan. And those who would cherish it, nourish it, and protect it are the shinobi. Anyone who believes in the village and supports it is a shinobi. From the deadliest and most veteran jonin to the child helping a relative stranger carry their groceries home.”

He rested his gaze on his hands for a moment before lifting them to the Uchihas again. “Does this satisfy you?”

Shisui had his head bowed and his hands clenched tightly as if in prayer. In unity. Itachi was breathing visibly in through his nose and out through his mouth, eyes shut as he measured his own body tempo. Their very chakras quaked and shivered under a burden Tobirama couldn’t sense but knew was there.

Finally, Itachi’s eyes opened again. His chakra spun with growing strength and determination. “The village is clan,” he breathed before nodding tightly. “I understand. Thank you.”

Tobirama hummed lowly in response before looking to the other boy. “Shisui?”

Kagami’s grandson took another moment before straightening. “I have one more question. If you would allow it.” Itachi turned his head, also waiting and listening. “How does the village address threats?”

There was no hesitation or thought in Tobirama’s answer. “In whatever way is in the best interest of the village.” The teen’s lips ticked down in a frown and Tobirama conceded that it was an ambiguous answer. “You must know that any threat response is dependent on many variables. But what must be considered above all is the safety, security, and happiness of the current generation along with future generations of Konoha shinobi. Yes, such a statement is also left up to the moral inclination of the decider. What I may find acceptable, you may not.” He certainly had no tolerance for threats, brief or sustained. Tobirama had always been a believer in swift and decisive action to ensure a threat did not return, but some problems and threats could not be met with violence. “But that is why Hokages must be selected carefully and with the belief that they will act with such a criteria in mind.” Tobirama waited a moment. “Does that answer your question?” Even when Shisui nodded slowly, Tobirama felt the thick, cloying doubt and uncertainty.  “You are still uneasy. Speak your questions.”

Still, Shisui shook his head. “It’s not your answers, Tobirama-san. It’s…the situation.”

The Senju cocked an eyebrow. “The interesting something you came to tell me about?”

“Yes.”

“And what is it?”

He knew the Council’s and Hokage’s behavior and attitude against the Uchiha was going to lead to the ruination of the village. He knew it.

Chapter Text

Naruto kicked the ground as he walked at his uncle’s side, feeling bad. He didn’t like to worry about things. It left his stomach aching. But his uncle was worrying him.

He turned his eyes away from where his friends were running and walking ahead of them with Oni-nii calling them and telling them not to go too far. His neck hurt a bit with how far he had to tip his head back to look up at the taller man and it was frustrating because his uncle didn’t look any different. Pale and clean and his usual stone mountain self, stiff and still. It was unlike his usual slightly soft edges and alert energy. Even the chakra wrapped around him felt slower and not all-there.

When he’d asked what was wrong, Tobirama had just said he hadn’t slept the night before. And maybe that was what was wrong, but Naruto couldn’t know for sure until his uncle took a nap.

But when Naruto told him to do that, he’d actually felt his uncle’s chakra bristle and coil. It was the first time the man’s chakra had felt unpleasant and had Naruto bracing for yelling. However, the man had only clicked his teeth and said he had too much to do.

Naruto wasn’t sure if he’d have preferred the yelling to that.

Apparently, someone was coming to visit today. Hence why they were moving towards the main village gate.

And if this was what had his uncle in a bad mood, then Naruto automatically didn’t like this person.

“Go play with your friends, sprout,” his uncle rumbled and Naruto jerked. When he looked up, he found red eyes peering down at him. Tobirama pointed a tattooed chin at where Tenten and Ino were running in circles around Tenzo while Kiba and Lee kept track of who was in the lead. Hinata, Neji, Choji, and Shikamaru stood off to the side talking, observing the people coming in through the main gate. “We won’t be here too long.”

Naruto pouted. He didn’t want to play. If anything…He hesitated, before pulling his hands out of his coat pockets and holding them up. He sighed when his uncle seamlessly picked him up and held him to his side. The boy buried his face in the fluffy fur Tobirama always wore. “Who are we waiting for anyway?” he asked for what had to be the hundredth time that morning. The fur wasn’t warm enough, so Naruto turned his face into his uncle’s neck, breathing in the man’s scent.

It had changed a lot since they’d first met in the forest. Tobirama had smelt like dirt and sweat and blood then. After cleaning up he’d started smelling less dirty and more like something sweet, but also still with that sharp tang of blood. Now, though, weeks and forever into their new life, his uncle’s scent was finally settling on what Naruto was figuring was his actual scent: something warm—almost musky—like honey that’s been smoked somehow and also an underlying smell of milk that hadn’t soured. Kiba had actually helped Naruto figure out that last part. Kiba had even said the man smelled kinda like a cat, but not. He’d been just as confused as Naruto when he’d tried to explain, so they just left it.

Either way. His uncle smelled good.

“You’ll see,” Tobirama finally rumbled, rubbing his back. It was the same answer he’d given for every one of Naruto’s questions and it didn’t change when the boy whined and kicked his feet. It was weird. His uncle always answered his questions, but not this one apparently. The man chuckled and bounced him. “Patience. You will see here soon.”

“How soon?”

“Soon.”

Naruto kicked harder before calming down, wrapping his arms tighter around Tobirama’s neck. “When did Itachi and Shisui come over last night?” The hand on his back stilled before resuming moving again. “I smelled them in the sitting room. They came to see you, right?” He felt the slight shift in his uncle’s chakra before it settled around him again.

“They did.”

“What did they want? You make everyone go home when it gets dark.” Naruto paused and corrected himself. “Unless it’s Lee and Tenten staying for dinner. But everyone else. And it was dark when I went to bed and they were gone.”

Naruto closed his eyes at the slight and gentle side-to-side rocking Tobirama was doing. It made him want to yawn. “They came to tell me something. Information.” The boy hummed sleepily, questioningly. “Do you recall how I once told you that we would need to make friends and allies in the village?”

It took a second to come back to him. “Mhm. The pinky promise?”

The shoulder under his head jumped slightly and he felt amusement ripple through his uncle’s chakra. “Yes, the pinky promise. It appears as if I am not the only one looking for allies. Shisui and Itachi came to me asking for help and support.”

Naruto frowned, trying to figure it out. Tobirama had said back then that they were going to make friends so no one tried to keep them apart from each other or let someone think his uncle was a threat to the village. But, if someone came to his uncle to be his friend like that then… “Why?” The boy lifted his head and looked up at his uncle. “Why do they need help?”

Tobirama hummed and Naruto watched as the corner of that red eye closest to him crinkled ever so slightly. “Good job asking that question,” he murmured and Naruto wiggled as the man pressed a kiss to his hair. His breath tickled his head. “Always ask why. Always question. Never just accept something at face value. A good shinobi always searches for what is hidden or what isn’t obvious.” Naruto smiled and returned a kiss to Tobirama’s red cheek mark. “To answer your question…Well. This information is absolutely secret, sprout. You cannot tell anyone. Do you understand?”

There was no hesitation in his nod. Naruto knew how to keep a secret. He’d overheard a lot of stuff and hadn’t told a single person anything.

“Then listen closely.”

Naruto tilted his head and kept still as his uncle pressed another kiss to his temple before staying there. He whispered the words so quietly that Naruto still strained to hear certain parts, but he was listening to every single word. The boy’s stomach and chest tightening with every horrible word.

“How…Are they really…?” Tobirama nodded at his trailing sentence and shushed him when he opened his mouth again.

“I’ve already stepped in,” the man promised and a massive weight lifted off of Naruto’s shoulders. “The Uchiha and I have come to an agreement. They will wait and try things my way first.”

“How could they even think about doing that?” Naruto looked around, tracking his friends’ locations and anyone nearby. Still, he kept his voice quiet and low. “They’re a part of the village. They can’t…do that.

Tobirama hummed and glanced towards the gate briefly. “You’ll find there is a large difference between can and should. The clan very much has the ability to do what I have told you. But should they? Now that answer will vary on whom you ask.”

“Oh. But still! They shouldn’t do that. They can’t hurt the village like that, believe it!”

The man hushed him again, reminding him of his volume. “You and I are of the same opinion, but look at it like this. The clan has been shunned. Pushed aside and ignored. Scorned and insulted.” Naruto swallowed roughly and looked away. Tobirama’s voice softened a bit. “You know as well as I the kind of hurt that brings to one person let alone the hundreds that the Uchiha clan are. Can you…Should you blame them for feeling as they do?”

Naruto…didn’t like the answer that came to mind. He really didn’t. He couldn’t put into words what it was like to be hated and yelled at like he had been for as long as he could remember. Especially when he hadn’t known why the villagers hated him. Did the Uchiha know why they were hated?

“Why…are they treated like that? Like this,” he asked, blinking away any hint of wetness in his eye. His chest hurt.

Tobirama sighed. “There are many reasons, but it mainly comes down to two. The Uchiha clan has been labeled as a threat and the village governance is working to marginalize them. Push them out,” he elaborated at Naruto’s confused look, “and there are rumors circulating that the Uchiha caused the Fox to attack the village five years ago. An evolved sharingan, a very strong sharingan can control a tailed beast like that.”

Naruto blanched, his hand clutching over his stomach. “D-Did they?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t believe so. The only one to have done such a thing in the past was Madara and I’ve felt no one in this village or the Uchiha clan that matches his power level.”

“So…So people are scared of the Uchiha for something they didn’t even do?” Naruto demanded. He shrunk when Tobirama touched a finger to his lips. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Keep your voice down. And yes, it appears so.”

“But that’s not fair.”

“Sprout. We both know that this life cares not for what is fair.”

Naruto sagged. “I know, but…It’s not right.”

“No. And that’s why we are going to work to make things right.” Tobirama’s lips quirked up the slightest bit. “Shisui and Itachi may have to come me in search of help, but I also came away with the pledged support of the Uchiha clan. We all came away a victor.” The man shrugged. “That happened quite a bit easier than I thought it was going to.”

The boy tilted his head. “Did you really think the Uchiha wouldn’t help you?”

“They have their own problems and it was unclear if they would wish to side with me when it is common knowledge that I seemingly hate the Uchiha.” Naruto made an over-the-top disgusted expression and smiled at the man’s huff of amusement. “Precisely. I had to make it clear to the clan that I was not what tall tales had made me out to be nor was I a supporter of my former students’ decisions and actions. By doing that, I showed that I was not an enemy, but do you know why that is not good enough to become allies?”

“You mean it’s not?” Naruto blurted only to blush when Tobirama smiled in a flash of humor. The boy pouted. “If you’re not enemies, isn’t that a good ‘nough reason to be friends?” he muttered. He felt more than heard his uncle’s chuckle.

“Allies, sprout. Not friends. Genuine friends come naturally with time. Allies, however, are a bit like temporary friends. Or friends that are united due to a common goal. Friends with a mission.”

Naruto made a high-pitched noise of understanding. “So you guys needed that common goal? Since you’re not friends and are actually allies?” He mentally traced back the conversation, following where his uncle had talked.

“Exactly. The Uchiha clan and I have found we share a common opinion about the Hokage and the Konoha Council. We may not have agreed at first on how we would approach the situation, but we all want the same end. With the help of Uchiha-sama, the clan has agreed to wait and attempt to legally displace my former students.”

Naruto hummed and idly kicked his feet. “I’m glad it all worked out.”

The hand on his back scratched lightly. “Me too.” There was a pause before Tobirama shifted. “Forgive me, but I think it’s best if you are down and away from me while I greet our newcomer.”

The boy straightened as his feet touched the ground. “The person we’re waiting for?! He’s here?!”

Tobirama straightened to his full height and nodded, adjusting his sleeve cuffs. “She’s here, yes,” he corrected. “Stay here for a moment.”

Naruto danced from foot to foot, impatiently obeying his uncle as the man stepped forward and more into the main street. Absently, he saw the stares and whispers that followed his uncle, shinobi and civilians moving out of his way and ducking their heads to talk softly with their companions. And the entire way, his uncle never once looked or showed that he was aware of other people.

The boy grinned and clapped his hands. His uncle was so cool.

When Tobirama came to a stop near the gate, Naruto tried to see what he was looking at. There were a few people coming in the gate. An old man carrying a bag over his shoulder, a shinobi team checking in, another old man walking with two young women, and a merchant with a cart. Given his uncle’s correction that they were waiting for a woman, Naruto put his bets on the two young women.

The older woman was blond and given what he’s heard from a lot of adult men, very pretty and very curvy. She wore a green haori and gray kimono shirt with a blue sash wrapped around her waist. The younger woman walked a few steps behind the other. She was shorter and had short dark hair and a dark gray ankle-length kimono. In her arms she carried a small pig, which was weird. Both of them wore heels.

Naruto wondered which of the women Tobirama was waiting for and why he was waiting for a civilian woman or how he knew someone so young. Torifu-ojii-chan and Jiijii were old as dirt, after all.

Still, the blond lady seemed to recognize his uncle. She froze in her steps and she looked visibly shocked. It was only when the old man at her side nudged her that she came out of her surprise and…looked ready to murder Tobirama.

Naruto felt a bolt of fear go through him when the lady stomped forward. Even across the plaza he heard her yell furiously, “You bastard!” She pulled back an arm and drilled her fist at his uncle.

The boy lunged forward with a cry, scared for Tobirama, only to fall on his face when the man lifted a hand and caught the fist easily. Even when the ground immediately under and behind him cracked and broke and a wind out of nowhere razed down the street, Tobirama stood unaffected. Naruto gaped before kicking himself for forgetting that his uncle was crazy strong. He’d been Hokage, believe it.

“N-Naruto-kun, are you ok-kay?” Hinata asked worriedly, trotting over to his side as he picked himself up off the ground. “W-Who’s that attacking Tobir-rama-ji…Tobirama-ji-chan?”

“She’s a hag is what she is,” Kiba bit out in a growl, baring his teeth and glaring at where Tobirama was speaking quietly to the woman while still holding her fist back.

Lee fretted by where Tenten stood still and quiet at his side. “Should we help him?”

Naruto frowned, trying to pick out cues from his uncle and see if he needed saving. Kiba, however, was angry. “Yeah, you bet we sh—”

“Oh!” Tenten suddenly flailed and nearly hit Lee with her hand. “Oh! Oh!” She whirled on them and grinned widely, her face a bright red. “Guys!” she hissed. “That’s Princess Tsunade! One of the Legendary Sannin!”

Naruto blinked. “The who what?”

Tenten bounced in place. “One of the Legendary Sannin! Tsunade, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru. They’re some of the strongest ninja to ever come from the Hidden Leaf Village!”

Shikamaru hummed. “Oh, that’s right. They were the Sandaime’s students.”

“Whoa, really?” Kiba gaped, straightening and looking at the woman and old man with wide eyes. “They have to be really strong.”

“Strong and powerful.” The gaggle of children turned to find that their Oni-nii had come up behind them and was warily eyeing the newcomers. “You all would do well to not upset Tsunade-sama or Jiraiya-sama. They’re strong in their own right, but hold a lot of respect in the village.”

That pulled Naruto up short. He’d learned from asking his uncle and hearing the man speak, that respect was important. It was what kept people like the Council in power and what made certain shinobi Hokage. Naruto looked to this Tsunade and Jiraiya and wondered who they were really. He figured that people with respect and strength like that were usually people you wanted on your side as…as allies and friends if possible.

The figurative lightbulb went off in his head.

Oh. So that was why his uncle was waiting for them.

The boy looked back at his uncle and found that he was no longer holding back an attack and was now talking to Tsunade and Jiraiya normally. As he watched, he saw Tobirama focus on the woman and…smile. He smiled that smile he gave Naruto and the other kids. And Tsunade smiled back, reaching out a hand to touch Tobirama’s hand where it was crossed over his chest.

Something hot and ugly grew in Naruto’s chest when Tobirama turned and opened his hand to accept the woman’s, holding and squeezing it.

He was moving before he even knew it.

Naruto clung tightly to Tobirama’s leg and whined, looking pleadingly up at his uncle. Red eyes blinked down at him before warming. For him. And when he held up his arms the man picked him up easily. With both hands.

“And who’s this tyke?”

The boy tensed and bit his tongue as he heard the woman speak, her voice lower and rougher than what he’d thought it’d be, but no less clear. Naruto didn’t look over as he tightly wrapped his arms around Tobirama’s neck and laid his face against the small bit of skin showing, breathing in his uncle’s scent. When he felt familiar cool chakra spill over him, he sagged and sighed.

“This is my nephew. Naruto Uzumaki.”

“Uzu…I understand.”

Tobirama bounced him gently. “Sprout, there’s someone I want you to meet.”

Naruto shook his head. “Don’t wanna.”

“Why is that?”

He didn’t know. “’M tired.” He wiggled slightly. “Can we go home now?”

There was a slight pause before he felt his uncle nod. “Of course. It is getting close to lunch, isn’t it?” Naruto felt his relief grow. Home was good. Home meant uncle and leopards and garden and no lady. He nodded and closed his eyes before they snapped open at the next words out of his uncle’s mouth. “Tsuna-chan, Jiraiya-san, Shizune-san, you’re welcome to come as well.”

His thoughts stuttered to a halt.

The old man, Jiraiya, chuckled. “I finally get to see the princess’ castle? Count me in.”

“Shut it, Jiraiya.”

Naruto lifted his head. “Tsuna-chan?” he repeated quietly, shocked. Tobirama bumped his cheek as he nodded. The boy twisted and looked again at the young woman. “You’re Tsuna-chan?”

The blond lady blinked light brown eyes at him before scowling and propping her hands on her hips. “Hey, no one but my uncle gets to call me that. My name is Tsunade, brat.”

Naruto’s jaw dropped. “You’re…She’s…”

Tobirama hummed and patted his back. “This is my brother’s granddaughter, Tsunade Senju. Naruto, meet your cousin.”

Strangely enough, math started going through his head. The pictures in the house of a young girl, his uncle’s voice saying how long it’s been since he was last in the village, and the other man—the old man who is a teammate and Sannin like Tsunade supposedly is—at her side.

His jaw dropped further and he jabbed a finger at her. “You’re old!

His cousin’s colorful curses and swears blistered his ears until his uncle placed a deafening seal on him.

Chapter Text

Tobirama felt a small bit of sympathy as he watched his niece massage her forehead, leaning heavily on the elbows she had on the kotatsu table top.

Jiraiya looked intrigued and thoughtful. “So you managed to accidentally change an experimental version of your Hiraishin seal to travel not through space, but through time,” he said. It wasn’t a question, but Tobirama still nodded. “Any idea on what you did exactly?”

The Senju had a few theories on the exact seal he’d used. Given that he’d been attempting to use a seal for long, launching travel through space but had instead been launched through time and space—he had ended up back in Konohagakure rather than reappearing somewhere near the borders of the Land of Fire—he knew his experimental seal was incredibly close to the one he’d used by accident. Any hastily scribbled thoughts on the project were immediately stored in the seal on his arm. He didn’t need to even hear his brother ranting about forbidden jutsu and their dangers to know how beyond revolutionary a stable method of time travel could be. He entertained the idea and theory because he was incapable of letting such a thing go, but if he ever finished it, he’d burn every scrap of research to ash.

“No,” Tobirama replied shortly. “It was an instant seal from memory made in haste. Any number of things could’ve been changed.”

Rather than be put-off or suspicious, Jiraiya smiled. “A blind jump in time made as a last desperate attempt to survive another day. How convenient.” When the other man pulled out a small notebook and started scribbling, Tobirama tilted his head. Was he being made fun of?

Tsunade sighed and flicked her fingers derisively at her companion. “Don’t mind him, uncle. He writes garbage books.”

Jiraiya spluttered in outrage and started defending his “art” and “inspiration” to which Tsunade argued “oversized breasts” and “men who think with their dicks” didn’t make for good literature. Tobirama learned quite a bit about the pair in their small argument before Shizune, Tsunade’s apprentice, returned from the kitchen with drinks.

“I would ask that your watch your language around the children,” Tobirama requested evenly, resisting the urge to pour and serve drinks. Shizune gave him a sharp look when his hands twitched and made sure to give him his tea first. He murmured his thanks and kept his silence. His niece’s apprentice had a spine of steel, he could see.

Brown and black eyes settled on the little ones at his side. Naruto was cuddling Tobirama’s stomach from a spot in his crossed legs, alternately sending baleful looks at Tsunade and ignoring everyone. Shikamaru had decided that the morning venture was tiresome and that it was nap time, leaning heavily against his right side and snoring softly. Hinata was on his opposite side and listening attentively. Neji would’ve also been there, but Lee had insisted the boy help him spar and develop his taijutsu.

Tobirama was relieved to see that Lee wasn’t taking the news of his deficient chakra too harshly and was instead throwing his all into taijutsu and the bukijutsu Tobirama had promised to show him once he’d progressed in training far enough. He was, however, wary of the glint Kakashi got in his eye when Tobirama shared the news with him.

Tsunade huffed and accepted the cup of tea. She looked down at it disdainfully for a moment before sipping it. “I’m sure they’ve heard worse. But I can see you’ve taken a chance to settle down.” She nodded out the door to where the other kids were outside in the garden with Tenzo and a shadow clone of Tobirama’s. “You always were a softy for kids.” Tobirama blinked before pursing his lips, something his niece caught. She frowned. “What is it?”

The man paused for a moment before looking down at the two awake and aware children. “We’re going to talk about some topics you may not want to hear. Some sad and frightening topics,” he warned them.

Naruto didn’t look surprised in the least. “I know,” the boy mumbled and Tobirama felt a bit sad that his nephew had come to expect the conversation to come up.

Hinata glanced at Naruto before setting her jaw. “I w…want to stay. I want t-to know and h-help.”

The man sighed but allowed it. He ran the fingers of his left hand through Hinata’s hair, careful to keep from musing it too much. “You can leave at any time,” he told them before looking up again to the three adults. “I regret to say that I have not been able to settle easily back into this time and this village. It seems that the longer I am here, the more the atrocities build.”

Tobirama hated how rote it was to speak of what he’d discovered now. It was like he was just reading off of a list. But even if he held distaste for how desensitized he was getting towards these facts, he appreciated it in the moment. It allowed him to watch and observe the pair of Sannin with more clarity and focus.

Tsunade was easiest to read. Tightly controlled anger and rage at the news of what happened to Hashirama’s body and final rest and the news of them having blood still surviving with their kekkei genkai, ignorant of their family line.

Her disgust that the thus-far unnamed Tenzo was sealed from speaking secrets matched his own. Her eyes hardened to amber at him. “You can unseal him? Jiraiya can help if you can’t.”

Tobirama raised an eyebrow and glanced at the other man. Jiraiya shrugged. “I’m also a seal master. Maybe not to your caliber, but in this time and era, I’m one of the most educated when it comes to seals.” He looked sideways at Tsunade. “I might be able to help.” Tsunade sneered at him and he shook his head firmly. “If that’s what I think it is, it’s probably for the best I don’t get involved.”

Tobirama narrowed his eyes. “Do you know who sealed my kin?”

Jiraiya stiffened and took a deep breath, catching the warning and threat in his quiet words. “I don’t know for sure. I made sure I never knew for sure.”

“But you have a reasonable suspicion.”

“I can’t say.”

“Jiraiya!” Tsunade snapped. The pair’s chakra flared and popped and Tobirama made sure all three children were covered in his own chakra so they could not feel the effects. As it was, Shizune flinched and paled the slightest bit. “You’re sensei’s spy master. You know whatever this is, don’t play stupid.”

“It’s above me and I have no say,” Jiraiya bit back. “I spy outside the village, not inside. That’s sensei’s sphere of influence and I’m not stepping on his toes.”

Tobirama tilted his head. “So Saru knows who sealed my kin.”

Jiraiya froze before tsking. The man crossed his arms. “I don’t—”

Tsunade slammed her hand down on the table. “Jiraiya!

Tobirama growled when Hinata jumped violently at his side, Shikamaru startled awake, and Naruto curled into him tighter. “You both will mind your tempers,” he hissed. He looked in particular at Tsunade before switching his glare to Jiraiya. “You are an avid supporter of Saru.”

He nodded tightly. “I am.”

“Anything I may do to come against him, you will oppose me.”

Tobirama did not like the look in Jiraiya’s eyes. “I will.”

“Then I’m afraid I must ask you to leave.”

“So that’s it, huh?” Jiraiya tried to look down his nose at him. “You come back and you don’t like how sensei is running things, don’t like how he’s led the village to this point, so you’re going to what? Stage a coup? Kill him?”

Tobirama sniffed. The gall of this man… “Such things are not beneath me, but I wouldn’t do Saru the disrespect. However I will not tell you what I have planned. You’ll simply run to him and aid him with the information and I will not aid a man who willingly and horrifically neglected, mistreated, and abandoned a child, let alone my own kin.” His arms tightened pointedly around Naruto.

Tsunade’s eyes widened and she sucked in a sharp breath. “He’s kin?”

“I claimed him on the roots of the ancestor tree and his branch grows on mine. By old clan laws and ways, he is Senju.”

His niece’s face paled. “And you’re saying sensei…He was already Kushina’s kid. Minato’s kid.” She whipped around and stared at Jiraiya, who had his eyes closed and grinding his teeth. “Did you know?” The male Sannin didn’t answer. “Jiraiya, did you know?!” Tobirama fought the urge to gnash his teeth or bristle at the raised voices once more, especially when Hinata took his hand in her own trembling pair.

“No, of course not! Neither of us have been back in Konoha for years, Tsunade. Sensei told me he would honor Minato and take care of Naruto.” Jiraiya looked quickly at where Naruto was trying to bury himself in Tobirama and Tobirama felt his infamous temper snap.

“And I suppose you didn’t know you were Naruto’s godfather as well,” he snarled. He felt his sage marks needle and swell on his face, itching to be released with his temper. When Jiraiya paled and spluttered Tobirama felt his heart race, his fingers trembling with the need to go after blood. “For a supposed spymaster and educated man, you wield ignorance as an excuse too much. You knew and still know information and facts of this village, you simply chose to sit on your hands and let crimes and trauma continue to happen in your own village and against your own godson.” His words ran together quickly, one on top of another as he finally confronted the one man who should’ve been there for his sprout above anyone else.

Jiraiya’s eyes narrowed and his nose flared as he breathed. “I am a shinobi of the Leaf, it is not my place—”

It was so hard for Tobirama to not raise his voice, to not lunge across the table. But he very acutely felt the too-small weights in his lap and at his sides. He smoothed his trembling hands over his sprout’s back and lifted his elbows enough to allow Hinata and Shikamaru space to crowd closer. Hinata quickly took the opportunity, though the small Nara was sitting at attention now: dark eyes darting between the three adults with the awareness and knowledge his clan was cursed and blessed with.

Still, he managed to wrench his voice and temper into what is arguably his best weapon. Words. “Excuses,” he spat, refusing to let Jiraiya escape the reality of his own actions. “You had a duty to your student, to your student’s son, your godson, but you instead chose your village and left Naruto to suffer in isolation. You did that.”

“I was ordered to!” Jiraiya argued, desperation and rage sparking like fire in his eyes.

Tsunade finally found her words once more. “You’re…Jiraiya, look at me.” The man rounded, fully ready to turn his defense and anger on Tsunade as well, but Tobirama was pleased to see that where the man hadn’t shrunk under his glare, he flattered under his niece’s glare. “Minato and Kushina made you the godfather of their son?” she clarified in a relatively even tone, though if someone missed the warning and danger in her demeanor, they were blind and deaf. Jiraiya flexed his jaw, but nodded. “And you still left?!

Jiraiya tsked. “I think you’re the last person to criticize me for leaving, princess.”

“Don’t.” Tsunade’s chakra was truly flaring now. “Don’t you dare try to turn this away from you. Kushina was my cousin. Practically my little sister. Minato was practically your son. And you still left even after you knew…?”

Jiraiya seemingly didn’t know what to do or say in the face of the woman quietly erupting and seething instead of exploding as Tobirama was beginning to see was her norm. “I was told I was needed out of the village,” Jiraiya eventually admitted, his arms tightening around himself. “I was ordered away. Threats were growing on foreign soil and Konoha was weak after Mi…after the Fox.” Jiraiya glanced to Naruto and then quickly away. The Sannin took a deep breath through his nose. “Leave Konoha to them, report back about outside threats. That’s what I’ve been doing, Tsunade. Can you say you’ve been doing—”

Tsunade’s body language shifted, enough that he felt Tenzo, his clone, and the children, who were all outside, react to it. His niece shifted to rise up, her hands lifting and her chakra sharpening. Readying to attack. “You bas—”

Both adults choked and froze as Tobirama’s own oceanic chakra crashed down on them. “I said,” he started lowly, “You will both watch your tempers.” They trembled and seemed to be trying not to panic under his chakra. Shizune startled at the feel of it, but remained composed for the moment. The children, in contrast almost melted under it. Tobirama let his niece and her teammate struggle under his chakra for a moment while he checked on the children. Hinata blinked blearily but smiled as he skittered his fingertip down her nose.

“Troublesome,” Shikamaru spat with quite a bit of derision in his voice. He pouted when Tobirama tweaked his ponytail.

Naruto nodded in agreement. “Yeah. They’re not good at…um.” His nephew turned to squint at Hinata. “What’s the word for being good at talkin’ to official people about official things?”

Hinata tilted her head and Tobirama had an idea of the word Naruto was looking for, but let the girl think and answer instead. “D…Diplomatic?”

The blond brightened and nodded. “Yeah! They’re not good at bein’ dip-lo-ma-tic, believe it.”

Shikamaru huffed. “I believe it.”

Tobirama chuffed quietly to get their attention. “I’ll keep them from acting out any further,” he swore to them and basked in their determined expressions.

Shizune hummed in agreement, surprising him. “Apologies, Senju-sama. My master has a temper, but she is usually more in control of herself.”

The man huffed and reined in his chakra, releasing the pair of Sannin from their paralysis. “I’m all too aware that temper runs deep and vicious in the Senju line, but that is no excuse for frightening family and children.” Tsunade tsked as he directed his last words at her and looked away. She slammed the last of her tea back like it was sake. Tobirama turned to Jiraiya next and hardened his gaze. “My request still stands, Jiraiya-san. If you intend to stand in my way of bringing Saru and my other former students to justice for their crimes, then you are no longer welcome in my house.”

Jiraiya was visibly sweating from his time struggling under Tobirama’s chakra, but still straightened and met his glare head-on. “As a former Hokage you should know better than anyone how weak you’d be making Konoha by doing this.”

“You dare think you can speak to me of what a Hokage should do in this village?” Tobirama’s voice was soft and quiet. “You forget your place and I am not inclined to forgive you.” Oh how he wished he could really punish this man for everything he hadn’t done and simply let happen. “The Konoha I created would never allow for the systematic and traumatic neglect and abuse of a child in the name of making him a weapon.” Dark eyes darted down to the child trying to hide in his lap. “As a former Hokage, I give you my word that my actions are for the betterment of the village and how your actions have grossly sabotaged it. Now get out.”

When the man rose to his feet after a moment, Tobirama watched him go with narrowed eyes. He didn’t know what he had expected of Tsunade’s teammate, Saru’s lone-remaining loyal male student, Naruto’s godfather, and of a shinobi strong enough to know senjutsu. A spymaster and sealmaster, well-versed in the dance of finer, subtler information and yet seemingly…bull-headed and blind in his devotion to Saru.

Quite a contradiction.

“Do you really mean to try the Hokage in civilian court?” Shizune queried after a moment.

Tobirama nodded. “Yes. I have ample evidence to bring the charges about.”

Tsunade tapped a nail on the table. “And do you really think he’ll let you try him?” she asked almost tonelessly.

It was on the tip of his tongue to say, yes, he had no doubt. But as he was always reminded, he was a man out of his time. Times had changed. He had known the young Saru, his mischievous student. Tsunade had known Hokage Saru, Sarutobi-sensei.

“Do you?” he found himself asking in reply.

His niece was quiet for a long, long moment, clicking her nail on the table top. “I haven’t been in the village in a long time. I left when sprout’s mother was barely even older that he is now,” she admitted when she was ready. Naruto twitched at hearing his nickname come from someone not Tobirama. Tsunade flashed him a wane, barely-there smile. “I haven’t seen my sensei in even longer.” She took a deep breath and finally raised her gaze to look at Tobirama. “But even after so long, I still remember him as tired. He’s led us through two wars, the death of his successor, and more I don’t want to even think about. You know better than I do that being Hokage isn’t easy.” Tobirama nodded. “And sensei has been Hokage longer than you and grandfather combined. I don’t know if he’ll let himself go to court, but I know he’s tired and he loves this village.” The woman who had once been his tiny enthusiastic niece shook her head and ran a hand through her hair. “I shouldn’t say this. I really shouldn’t, but if sensei believed the village would be okay without him, he’d go along with whatever you have planned.” She waved a hand at him and accepted the tea Shizune refilled for her.

Tobirama took that in and for a moment felt guilt and shame for his pursuit of Saru. He’d worn that same hat—for a shorter time as Tsuna-chan had pointed out—and knew what it could do to its bearer. In this world, it was inevitable that one would be faced with hard decisions, but as clan head or as Hokage, hard decisions came as often as breathing. He knew, sometimes, there was no right decision.

However…

He glanced down to his nephew, who was trying to tug Shikamaru’s hair out of its tie.

Children. The village he had created alongside his anija and Madara had been made to keep children from going hungry, from dying, from suffering. The village he came to be in 40 years in the future had already had a strategically abused and neglected child drop at his feet, clan children torn between their loyalties to clan and village, and children taken from their blood family.

Old student or not, understanding or not, Tobirama could not reason how Saru could knowingly or unknowingly allow any of that to happen and allow to continue to happen.

“Does Saru trust you?” Tobirama asked his niece and she snorted.

“After I practically went rogue shinobi years ago? Probably. The old fool was always too forgiving of us.”

“Then with you wearing the hat, Saru should do as we’ve speculated.”

Tobirama had to give Tsunade credit. He’s never seen physical strength quite like hers.

Too bad he needed a new kotatsu table now. Knowing his nephew, it’d be orange.

Chapter Text

Hiruzen was waiting for them.

After so many years abroad for various reasons, Hiruzen could admit that he’d imagined how this reunion would go. His troublemaker, optimistic student with a penchant to make even the most boring days lively. His steady, dependable student whose eyes were forever on her loved ones to ensure their safety and happiness.

Hiruzen blew out a cloud of smoke and sighed.

He wished his quiet and bright-eyed student whose mind was always racing in a thousand directions was also with them, but he knew it would take a miracle to erase Hiruzen’s many mistakes.

His teeth set in a well-worn groove on his pipe as he heard the door to his house slide open with deceptive calm. Hiruzen took a deep breath and turned to the door of his study as the large form of Jiraiya stepped into view. The old man’s chest warmed and his shoulders relaxed as he got his first look of his student in years. Jiraiya looked well, strong, healthy. “Jiraiya,” he greeted, smiling. “It’s been too long.”

It hurt a bit when Jiraiya frowned and nodded tightly. “Yeah, it has.”

Not missing a beat, Hiruzen nodded to the spot across the table from him. “Come, sit. I have tea and sake.”

Jiraiya shifted uneasily. “Sensei, I’m not—”

“Of course you are,” Hiruzen cut in, telling himself he stopped the questions because Tsunade wasn’t here yet. Not because he still wasn’t ready to be questioned by his students. “Keep your old sensei company while we wait for Tsunade.”

Jiraiya grimaced, but obligingly stepped away from the door and towards the table. “It’s probably not a good idea for princess and I to be in the same room right now.”

The statement brought a fond chuckle to Hiruzen’s lips. “Not back for even a day and you two are at each other’s throats, hm?”

His jovial humor, sadly, wasn’t returned. Jiraiya didn’t look away from where he was pouring a cup of sake. “Yeah, of course. That’s all we ever did, all of us, wasn’t it?” he asked quietly and Hiruzen looked down.

He was beginning to see now—with the threat of being brought to justice for his crimes looming ever nearer—that the mistakes he had once seen as small and trivial where in fact deep and festering. Hiruzen fought the urge to meditate, to organize his thoughts and emotions and to put them at a more comfortable distance. He’d done that for too long.

Tsunade didn’t keep them waiting.

Where Jiraiya had entered as the picture of polite courtesy, Tsunade did not have the patience for social niceties. Hiruzen would be surprised if his door wasn’t damaged with how loudly it was slammed open. Tsunade’s chakra felt rough and abrasive as she stomped into the room, her face set in a fierce scowl, but Hiruzen felt saddened at her eyes. Those brown eyes, so like her grandfather’s, were always honest and open. And these eyes he was looking at told a story of hurt, confusion, anger, and pain.

Tsunade dropped down at the table and swiped up the cup Jiraiya had already poured for Hiruzen. She took Jiraiya’s cup in the next instant. The woman he’d helped raise and teach into the fine medic warrior she was today set the cup down on the table with excess force. Hiruzen was sure that when she turned her eyes on him and opened her mouth that he was going to get the talking-to of his life time, but then the pain returned to her eyes and Tsunade’s teeth clicked as she shut her mouth once more. She squeezed her eyes shut and exhaled roughly.

Silence hung heavy in the room.

Hiruzen looked between Jiraiya, staring listlessly into his empty cup, and Tsunade, trying to calm and center herself, and felt a kunai go through his heart.

“Welcome home,” he murmured into the quiet. Jiraiya twitched and Tsunade flinched.

The quiet remained untouched for another moment before Jiraiya roused himself back to the present. “We met Niidaime-sama,” Jiraiya informed him, unnecessarily.

“I’m aware,” Hiruzen replied.

Dark eyes stared at him. “You know he’s trying to unseat you.”

The current Hokage—though most likely not for long—huffed and exhaled smoke. “Yes, he’s made his intentions very clear.”

Jiraiya frowned deeply. Hiruzen thought for a moment how contrary that was to the man’s usual carefree and humorous attitude. “And you’re going to let him?” he demanded incredulously. Tsunade opened her eyes and also looked to him, waiting for his answer.

Hiruzen smiled thinly. “I have had the unique experience of having a ghost from my past reenter my life and make very clear his thoughts on my decisions and mistakes,” he drawled. “If you ever have the pleasure of the same, you’ll find yourselves quite willing to agree with your ghost.”

Tsunade winced. “Ghosts or not,” she rasped before clearing her throat. “You’re Hokage, sensei. You can’t just…let yourself be taken from the village.”

The old man raised an eyebrow. “You speak as if I’m going to die. Rest assured, my dear, if my old sensei wanted me dead I would not be here.”

She slammed a hand on the table. “Don’t,” she bit out roughly. “Don’t joke about that.”

Hiruzen bowed his head. “Forgive me. But death is an inevitability. One I’ve been waiting for, for quite some time now.” He missed his wife. Biwako had been by his side through everything and these past five years barely registered in his memory. Without her by his side, it all felt like a numb blur.

“Why?” Hiruzen looked to Jiraiya. His student looked at him over his cup as he took a sip. “Why did you summon me, ask me to find princess and bring her back, if not to help you stop this?”

Hiruzen gave Jiraiya a patronizing look. “Asking questions you already know the answer to does not suit you. Do not play the fool with me, Jiraiya.”

A flash of pain went across the other man’s expression before it went carefully still. “You want us to help him.”

The current Hokage hummed. “Yes, I do.” He chortled to himself. “Not that sensei needs help, but the transition will go smoother for the village with you two at his side. Sage knows Danzo and the others will not go willingly or gracefully.”

Jiraiya barked a laugh. “Of course he’s going for the Council too! Of course…” he muttered bitterly, draining the rest of his cup. He refilled it and Tsunade’s when she pushed hers in his direction.

“He wants me to be Hokage in your place,” Tsunade announced and Hiruzen nodded his head, having expected Tobirama to pick a potential candidate from either the elite of Konoha or from the Sannin. “Damn it, don’t just nod like you already knew that! You’re not that all-knowing!”

“I was taught by this man, Tsunade,” Hiruzen pointed out. “I learned from him and due to the mishap with time, he hasn’t changed much from memory. I cannot predict everything, but the obvious steps he would take, like who he would select to succeed me, I could hazard a guess at.”

Tsunade scoffed and turned to Jiraiya. “Am I the only one pissed off that he’s saying all this like it’s the weather?!”

“Nope.” Jiraiya rubbed an eye. “Sensei, why? Why are you letting what is essentially a coup d’état disguised as a court trial happen? This is going to look horrible not only to Konoha itself, but to our enemies! What if Kumo decides that this is a weak point and they should attack?”

“I have heard such a point from Koharu and I care not to hear it again.”

“Maybe if you’re hearing it from more than one person then you should start listening!”

“Or,” Hiruzen said lowly, “I can step down as Hokage and my chosen successor can take up the hat. Peacefully and smoothly.” They didn’t seem to be thinking about alternatives just yet and were still trying to stop the situation, so he helped them along.

Both his former students stared at him in shock before Jiraiya sighed heavily and Tsunade cursed creatively. Hiruzen took this time to refill his pipe with fresh tobacco and pour himself some sake.

“Unbelievable!” Tsunade eventually spat, throwing her hands up in the air. “Are you actually working with Oji-san? Just go ahead and tell me, sensei, I might actually believe it.”

“I am not,” he answered evenly.

“Bullshit!”

Hiruzen sighed. “Tsunade. Jiraiya.” They both quieted and gave him their attention. Dutiful students. “Regardless of events and opinions, there is one thing we can all agree on. I am old. I am too old to hold this office. I was too old when Minato succeeded me and I was much too old when I took the office back after his death. As Hokage, I’ve done my best to look after everyone in this village, but as time goes on and has gone on, I’ve become weak.” He looked between the pair. “There will come a time very soon where I will die or be disposed. I am sorry, truly sorry to cause you this pain, but it is the truth. I have no successor, no one to take up the hat once I am gone. Danzo will try.” Hiruzen scoffed. “But he will fail. He is just as old as me and what more, he does not have the Will Of Fire. I cannot sit back and let things go on currently, not with what I know is coming. With threats abroad,” he nodded to Jiraiya, who clenched his jaw, “and threats within, I needed to do something to ensure the village would be in good hands after I was gone.” He lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “The arrival of my not-so-late sensei, while not what I was expecting, was what I needed.”

Tsunade shook her head. “I can’t be Hokage. I’m not Orochimaru, sensei. I’m not…” She squeezed her eyes shut and Hiruzen saw her lift a hand to the crystal necklace she wore even now. “I can’t be Hokage. I won’t.”

Hiruzen felt his heart clench. The title, the office, the hat, was something so much more to Tsunade. Something terrible and painful. It was why he knew she was one who would be the best Hokage. “My dear,” he said softly, “I cannot force you to say yes. But within you, you carry the blood and knowledge of Hokages. All of them.” He nodded to the necklace she wore and pretended not to see her eyes shine with tears. “You know better than anyone what it means to be Hokage.”

Tsunade blinked rapidly. “I can’t…” She stopped when Jiraiya dropped a hand on her shoulder. The pair shared a long look before the man sighed heavily and looked wearily at Hiruzen.

“Is this really what you want?”

Hiruzen nodded. “More than anything.”

“Then get us up to speed on what’s going on in the village. We’ll pass it on to your old sensei.”

 

*****

 

Naruto stuck his tongue out in concentration as he touched paint-covered hands to the wooden surface. Orange bloomed prettily under his hands, finishing the orange hand-flower he’d been making. The boy smiled to himself at the sight of it before twisting to dunk his hands in the pail of water his uncle had left them to clean their hands.

All around the new wooden top for their new kotatsu his friends crowded around, chattering and painting. Shisui had even managed to talk Itachi into painting with his hands.

Uncle had found another kotatsu from somewhere after kicking out the other old man and his old cousin and cleaning up the broken table. He’d given them paint and told them not to bring the mess inside the house before disappearing into his office to work on a seal for the rest of the morning.

“So is that mean lady coming back?” Ino asked him after Naruto had scrubbed his hands clean on a dirty towel.

Tenten lifted her head from where she was drawing kunai in gray paint and scowled. “Don’t call her mean lady. She’s Tsunade Senju, one of—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Ino cut in mulishly. “She’s still mean. Yelled and broke Oji-chan’s table.” The other girl flushed but looked away. They’d all seen and heard the altercation from the backyard, gathering around Naruto, Hinata, and Shikamaru when Tobirama had quickly shuffled them away from the broken table and walked Tsunade off clan grounds. The trio had been startled and shaken, but not shaken enough that they couldn’t tell what the conversation had been about.

Naruto reached around Ino to swipe his fingers through the can of green paint sitting by Hinata. “Oji-chan isn’t happy with the old hag, so I don’t think so,” he answered, carefully tracing the stem to his hand-flower. “He almost yelled, believe it.”

Kiba scoffed and shook his head. “And she got mad about maybe being the Hokage? I don’t get it. Why would she get angry about that? Being Hokage would be awesome!”

That had been bothering Naruto too. It has been his dream since forever to be Hokage but this lady cousin of his yelled and broke stuff at the idea of it.

Neji hummed, not looking up from where he was helping Lee paint the Leaf symbol. “Maybe she doesn’t want to be Hokage because she doesn’t like the village. She’s been gone for a long time.” The older boy took a rag and cleaned up a shaky line Lee made. He then lifted his head and blinked before turning to Tenten. “Why did she leave?”

The girl opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out. Tenten closed her mouth with a frown before shrugging. “I…don’t know. Maybe because her teammate went rouge?”

“Whoa, what?” Choji piped up. He’d been in the midst of paining a pink butterfly. “Her teammate went…That’s not good.”

Shisui sighed, finally decided into intervene in the conversation between the younger kids. “Tsunade-hime’s teammate, Orochimaru, did go rogue shinobi a long time ago. If you go by the rumors in the village, Orochimaru was a really bad guy. He experimented on people and kids, killing a lot of our own people.”

Choji balked. “And Ji-chan wants Tsunade to be Hokage? What if she goes rogue shinobi too?!”

Itachi frowned and shook his head. “You can’t judge someone by another person’s actions. Tsunade-hime didn’t help Orochimaru do his experiments or escape. You should be looking at what she has done and only that.”

From outside the tightly packed ring of kids, another voice chimed in. “She’s been basically a rogue shinobi for years.” Shikamaru rolled from his back onto his side. He was laying on a large pillow placed on the engawa of the house, just inside the warming seals that kept the winter cold out. The small Nara yawned into his hand before looking at Itachi seriously. “My old man says that she left the village. Not on orders or on a mission. She just left. Shinobi don’t do that. Hokage don’t do that.”

The other kids echoed in agreeance. Only Tenten, Sasuke, and Naruto remained quiet. Sasuke looked between the Nara and his older brother, trying to decide what his opinion should be. Naruto silently filled in the leaf outline he’d painted for his hand-flower.

Tenten’s shoulders slumped. “She’s a legendary Sannin, though. And the Shodaime’s granddaughter. Ji-chan’s grandniece. And the student of Sandaime. If anyone could be Hokage, it would be her!”

Sasuke tilted his head to the side. “You can’t judge someone by other people,” he repeated. Unseen by most, Itachi sighed. The brother pair did some final touches on the cat they were painting.

Tenten made a frustrated sound. “She’s super strong! Isn’t that what a Hokage is?”

Naruto pursed his lips. “I don’t think so,” he mused lowly. “If a Hokage was just strong, then a lot of people could be Hokage. Sanday…San-dai-me would’ve stopped being Hokage a long time ago, you know. He’s old, believe it. Someone else could’ve been Hokage, like Inu-nii, the hag maybe.”

“Big brother,” Sasuke added and Shisui snickered.

“Me too!” Kiba exclaimed.

Hinata continued on from Naruto’s thought. “So if-f being strong isn’t j-just what a H-Hokage is, w-what else are they?” she asked. She had a field of small flowers painted in front of her by now.

Choji touched his chin with a painted finger. “Well, I know Hokages are picked. It’s not like we have fights to be Hokage.”

“Usually the current Hokage picks a successor,” Shisui agreed. “Tobirama-san picked Sandaime-sama as his successor and that’s how he became Hokage. Same with Sandaime-sama to Yondaime-sama.”

“If someone’s picked to be Hokage, then they have to be strong and popular?” Ino questioned and Shisui shrugged.

“Kinda. They can’t be hated, or else no one will want to follow their orders.” The girl made a noise of understanding.

“They gotta be smart,” Naruto added. “Ji-chan and the old man are both really, really smart. I think Hashirama-ji-chan might’ve been smart too.”

Kiba brightened. “Yeah! He’s the God of Shinobi, right?”

Naruto blinked in surprise at the title before laughing. “He had to be awesome if he was called that, believe it! Oh, oh! Hokage’s gotta be awesome too!”

Shisui and Itachi shared an amused look, their chakras coiling comfortably against one another. “We asked Tobirama-san about Hokages once,” Shisui admitted and little eyes zeroed in on him unerringly. “He said a Hokage is best chosen to support the future. The next generation of shinobi and how best to help them.”

Naruto smiled warmly. “A Hokage should keep kids safe.”

Shisui nodded and hummed. He placed his handprint under the crow he’d painted. “Basically.”

Rock Lee looked around the group, hoping for their answers. “So is Tsunade-hime all this? Strong, popular, smart, awesome, and…and will keep kids safe?”

No one really had an answer to that. They didn’t know the woman well enough to say.

Naruto glanced back to the house. “Ji-chan thinks so.” The boy frowned. He reached for the bucket again and dunked his hands, scrubbing them clean quickly. “Gotta pee!” he shouted when someone asked where he was going. He climbed his way up onto the engawa and veered his way through the sitting room and towards the hallway, but he passed the bathroom and instead headed for the cracked door.

“Sprout,” his uncle greeted as Naruto slid the door open. The man was peering over his shoulder from where he sat at the desk under the window. Glasses were resting halfway down his nose. “Is everything okay?”

“Mm,” the boy grunted as he padded over to the man.

Tobirama’s eyes flicked over him and he tsked. “You’ve got paint on yourself.”

“I was painting, Ji-chan. Didya forget?”

“I didn’t. Come here.”

Naruto sighed when Tobirama turned around and urged him closer, licking a finger and scrubbing it firmly over spots on his face. It wasn’t really a sigh of impatience. If anything, it was a sigh that went with his shoulders drooping. His uncle’s fingers were warm as they touched him, different from the cold chakra the man laid over him.

The boy couldn’t help but think back to how he first met his uncle. It was hard to remember, but he knew they weren’t like this. Tobirama always moved slowly around him, spoke quietly. Warned him when he thought he might scare Naruto. Now though? Now his uncle always seemed to be touching him. Ruffling his hair or helping clean his hands and face or guiding his body through stances and motions.

It made his chest feel warm.

“You’re soft.”

The deep rumbling voice—deeper than even his uncle’s—spread through his body like rising water. It wasn’t a voice he could actually hear: not when he was out of the mind jail cell place.

Naruto smiled and tried not to laugh. “My uncle is great, believe it.”

“The chosen kin of my first warden?” A scoff, one that sounded like boulders crashing together. “Yeah. Great.

He wasn’t sure how to respond to that. On one hand, the way Tobirama talked about Mito made her out to be a real kick-butt princess, but he also knew that Kyuubi had been imprisoned against his will because of her and that wasn’t okay.

In the end, he didn’t need to say anything. “Your musings on morals and ethics are paltry.”

“Paltry?”

Another huff, and silence.

He was briefly distracted by his uncle nudging his chin to make him turn his head. “How did you get paint behind your ear, sprout?” he muttered, his tone low and lilting as his lips quirked up faintly.

Naruto grinned and snickered. “Don’t know,” he replied as the man scrubbed the spot.

“Looks like you’ll need a bath before you go over to Chouji’s tonight,” Tobirama thought out loud and the boy bounced in place happily. Their bathroom and tub were huge, believe it. Naruto could swim in his bathtub and sometimes he could talk his uncle into doing water shows!

Oh, that reminded him.

“Ji-chan, what does paltry mean?”

“Small,” the man answered promptly. “Usually it’s in reference to quantity: how much you have of something. Like a paltry meal doesn’t have much food.” A white eyebrow rose as Naruto pouted. “Why do you ask? Has someone said something to you?”

“Noooo,” Naruto whined even as he sent the mental equivalent of a glare to the Kyuubi.

The fox just laughed.

Tobirama didn’t look altogether convinced. “If someone is giving you trouble, tell me. I’ll have a word with them. Now, was there a reason you sought me out? Hungry?”

Well. Yes, but. Naruto held up his arms. “Wanted a hug.”

The stiff lines of his uncle’s face relaxed and opened up. “Of course,” he murmured and opened his own arms. Naruto stepped into his lap and sighed again. Happily.

They sat there for a few long moments, holding each other, before Naruto spoke. “That old man,” he started, quietly and partially muffled from where his chin was tucked into Tobirama’s fur mantle. “Jiraiya. He’s my godfather?”

Tobirama stroked a hand up and down his back. “Yes.”

“And godfather means he’s family?”

“In a way. Godfathers and godmothers are picked by a child’s parents when they’re born. If something were to happen to the child’s mother and father, the godmother and godfather are to step forward and take the child under their care.”

Naruto’s stomach sank. “So this Jiraiya guy was supposed to be my dad?”

The chest he was leaning against rose and fell slowly. That sigh didn’t sound happy. “Essentially. Minato and Kushina chose him, asked him to raise you if anything ever happened to them.”

The boy’s fists tightened in the fur. “But he didn’t.”

“No.” He took a deep breath and when he exhaled, it shook and stuck. The arms around him tightened, wordlessly trying to comfort him.

“Is there…Is something really wrong with me?” he asked eventually. “Everyone treats me bad. Not just strangers but Jiijii, Jiraiya. Everyone.” Naruto sniffled. “And I’m not Kyuubi. ‘M not, believe it. But everyone still hates me, so…so…that must mean something’s wrong with me, yeah?”

No.” He clung tighter at the harsh, hissing whisper, wanting so desperately to believe it. “Hear me well, Sprout. I will always tell you the truth no matter what, so when I tell you that there is nothing wrong with you, you must believe me.”

Naruto blinked quickly, fighting back tears. “So then why?”

“This world and this village have done so many wrongs by you. And I wish I could point a finger and tell you it was one thing. If only then, it would be easy for me to fix. Over and done with quickly.” The hand on his back pressed flat. It was big enough to cover his shoulders. “The fact of the matter is that…it’s complicated. People are complicated. They believe themselves justified and right in what they did, but they are not. They are wrong to look at you and see a demon or monster. They are wrong, Naruto.”

He resisted for a moment when his uncle tugged him, but went with it after a moment. His chin shook as he peered back into earnest and sharp red eyes that had only ever looked at him in kindness. Even back in that forest before they knew they were family. A pale finger gently traced under his right eye, gathering the unshed tears. “You are no monster or demon. Truth be told, neither is your companion.” His left eye was brushed, dried with care. “People were wrong to treat you as they have and even more people were wrong to let it go on. But this does not mean all people are bad and wrong like them. You, for one, are not bad or wrong. Your friends are not. Kakashi, Tenzo, Torifu, and our other friends.” Tobirama sighed, cupping his cheeks in large, large palms. “You will come to find that there will always be people who are wrong and bad, but you will also come to find that there are people who will cherish you, protect you, love you.” Naruto reached up and laid his quivering hands over the man’s. “Your friends will always be there for you and steer you in the right direction. Live and measure yourself by how these people see you. No one else matters.”

Naruto sniffed hard and nodded. “O-Okay. And you…Are you…”

“Above all else,” came the answer to the question he couldn’t bare to ask for fear of rejection. “You, my sprout, I cherish above all else. You, I’ll protect with my final breath. You, I’ll love you until we’re both in the Pure Lands. I love you, Naruto.”

“I love you too, Ji-chan.”

Chapter Text

Tobirama leaned back to dodge the cluster of shuriken thrown his way before reaching out to pluck one of them out of the air. With a flick of his wrist, he sent it spinning back towards the child who’d used them. Sasuke yelped upon seeing the shuriken coming back at him, but Itachi pulled him out of the way by his collar.

Satisfied that the child wasn’t going to be hurt by his attack, Tobirama lifted a foot and jumped, flipping over Kiba. Kiba growled at the fact that his lunge had been evaded, but the Senju had to give him credit for pivoting quickly to renew his attack.

The man twisted away from Neji’s strike and stepped around Ino’s sharpened kunai.

Tobirama huffed in amusement as he continued to evade and dodge around the children’s barrage of attacks. He had to admit, they were getting creative. Hinata and Neji teaming up with Lee in an effort to corral him into one another’s attacks, Kiba and Tenten working with Choji in an attempt to bolster their leaps and attacks, Naruto giving Shikamaru a handful of seals to use while the blond acted as a distraction.

Tobirama was proud that they didn’t give up in the face of stacked odds and instead strategized and planned.

The fact that they seamlessly dragged the new Uchiha trio into their plans also pleased him. His own era was showing in the satisfaction he took in seeing Uchiha children working with other clan children and non-clan children. How the tables have turned and times have changed, he thought in humor while turning over into a handstand and then a cartwheel when Shisui took a playful swipe at his side. The teen laughed when Tobirama grabbed his wrist and pulled him along, “making” him trip and fall on his face.

The kids eventually tired themselves out though it was later than he’d thought it be. Their stamina was increasing with his training.

Tobirama brushed a hand through his fur mantle as the kids collapsed and panted for air. “Good work,” he praised. “Choji, you showed great speed in supporting Tenten and Kiba. Shikamaru, good follow-through on the strategies you committed to.” The Akimichi beamed and didn’t flinch when the Nara groaned and flopped against his side. “Naruto, your traps are improving with every seal you write. Keep it up.” His nephew jumped, ever a fountain of energy, crying his favorite phrase. “Ino, Hinata, you didn’t hesitate to come after me with the intent to hurt. If I hadn’t dodged, you would’ve struck well.” Ino smiled wildly and Hinata blushed. “Neji, Lee, good job herding me consistently. You made up for each other’s lack of speed with excellent teamwork. Tenten, Kiba, good energy and stamina. You never let up once.” The quartet celebrated in the varying degrees of energy they had left. “Sasuke, your long-range addition to the others’ close-range tactics was precise and accurate. It shows that you’ve been working with shuriken for quite some time.” The youngest Uchiha seemed to be fighting a smile and bounced ever-so-slightly in place. Itachi gave his younger brother a fond smile and patted his head.

Shisui jumped up and down. “What about me? What about me?” Tobirama resisted the urge to smile at the intentional childishness. Shisui had been with the younger kids the entire time, badgering Tobirama to ‘spar’ with them and then taking as many steps back as possible to let the younger kids have their moments to shine or to give them an opportunity to shine. Tobirama could see the teen’s future as an instructor or teacher.

“Your ability to set up attacks and defense was instrumental,” he complimented, playing along but also not lying. “Itachi.” The young boy startled, as if expecting to be left alone. Tobirama would fix that. “Good work watching your teammates’ backs.”

“Of course,” Itachi murmured, ducking his head. “Thank you.”

Tobirama nodded, satisfied and took note of the faint steam raising off of their over-warm bodies. “Remember to stretch,” he coached them. “Your muscles need to slowly cool down.”

Kiba flopped down onto his bum and lazily folded himself over his knees while peering up at him. “How’d you get so strong, Ji-chan?” he asked and Tobirama had to resist the urge to twitch. The children had quite suddenly started calling him Ji-chan and he didn’t know if he should blame his nephew, Kakashi, or the tiny Nara. Even now Kakashi’s chakra sparked in amusement and Naruto beamed. Shikamaru was being convinced to do cooldown stretches by Choji and not paying attention whatsoever. Kiba scrunched up his face. “I mean. I know you were Hokage and all, but how did you get that strong?”

This wasn’t the first time younger kids had asked him that question and his answer was still the same as it was back when he was ten. “Practice. Time. Dedication. Drive.”

Lee hummed from Kiba’s side. “What do you mean by that?”

“Being a shinobi is not just about learning powerful new jutsu as quickly as you can. The skills a shinobi must have are many and diverse—many and very different from one another,” he lectured to the watchful little eyes. “But they must also be maintained. If you ask any shinobi they will tell you that they take time to spar, to study, to sharpen their weapons. Taijutsu, genjutsu, and ninjutsu are all well and good until you forget them.” He nodded his head to where Kakashi was sitting on Tenzo while tending to his gear.

The pair hadn’t shown it earlier, but they had arrived at the clan compound anxious and tense for the evening to come. Tobirama’s two weeks were up and while he would’ve liked more time to assure that Tsunade would take over as Hokage, he felt confident enough in the support of the Ino-Shika-Cho alliance and the backing of the Uchiha to proceed with the removal of Tenzo’s seal and whatever information the pair wanted to share with him.

Tenzo had tried to participate with the group and had done an admirable job earlier while Tobirama had spoken with Tsuna-chan and her teammate, but when the Cub had shown up Tenzo had seemingly dissolved into nerves. He would’ve gone into the trees in some sort of quest for peace, but Kakashi hadn’t approved and had wrestled Tenzo to the ground before sitting on him.

The younger teen had given up on trying to go deeper into Hashirama’s tree grove and instead had resigned himself to his spot, though, judging by the feel of his chakra, Tenzo was still meditating and reaching out to nature chakra. Tobirama spared a quick thought to possibly teaching him senjutsu before he accidentally started to turn himself into a tree.

Kakashi didn’t spare any attention to the impromptu class and was instead focused on stringing ninja wire to shuriken. Shisui however, was paying avid attention. The teen nodded and looked between the children. “It’s true, you know. It’s not just about practicing to make sure you can get something right, it’s about practicing so you can keep doing it right and also keep getting better at it.”

Shikamaru had apparently had enough of Choji needling him and had just folded over his crossed legs and stayed there. “Sounds troublesome.”

Shisui lifted a hand and tilted it back and forth. “Sometimes, yeah. But if it means I can keep myself and my teammates safe, it’s more than worth it.”

Sasuke frowned, looking between his brother and cousin, before facing Tobirama. “How old were you when you started being a shinobi?” he asked oh so innocently.

Tobirama thought for a moment, debating which answer he should give. Finally, he huffed and shrugged his shoulders. “I first started going on missions when I was four years old.” The children, all of them, Shisui and Itachi included, startled. Even Kakashi stilled and gazed at him with his lone eye. Tobirama sighed and closed his eyes. “I was a message runner for my clan. I was to cross battle fields and enemy territory to deliver instructions, orders, and information.” His sensor abilities hadn’t been known at that point in time, but they’d been instrumental in keeping him alive.

When he opened his eyes once more, he saw that Sasuke’s eyes were blown wide. “You were younger than us?!” The Senju grunted in confirmation. “But…!” The boy spluttered and seemed at a loss for words.

Neji picked up the conversation line. “But why?” He waved a hand at his companions. “We’re too young to be shinobi. Why were you a shinobi even younger than we are?”

“For many reasons,” he demurred, tapping his fingers in the crook of his arm. “You all understand that I was born in a different time, yes? That through an accident I actually moved forward in time by a few decades?” Heads bobbed up and down. “The time in which I was born would be unrecognizable to you. There was no village, no laws, no rules. All anyone ever knew was clan and my clan was at war. Had been for centuries. Hundreds of years.” He shrugged. “My clan was large, but not infinite. We only ever had so many shinobi and were always in need of more.” His red eyes slid to the side, towards the ancestor tree. “Under certain leadership, it was determined that children would be trained to be shinobi. I was one of the youngest to start going on missions, but not by much.”

Itachi made a soft sound and Tobirama felt the child’s summer breeze chakra brush against his own before pressing insistently. Soulful and sad dark eyes watched him even as he opened up his cold chakra, allowing the boy to coil and settle in Tobirama’s chakra. It wasn’t quite the embrace Tobirama usually settled around the children, but a joining. A sharing, a unity of chakra. “Oh,” he mumbled. “Who did you lose?”

Naruto’s chakra spiked brightly, startling Tobirama and Itachi alike. The blond boy glared at Itachi. “You don’t just ask things like that, believe it!” he shouted and Itachi ducked his head.

“Naruto,” Tobirama snapped.

The boy flexed his jaw mutinously. “What? I’m right, that’s not something you just ask!”

“Ask?” Choji repeated while the other children shifted uneasily at the show up temper. “I…I don’t understand? What did Oji-chan lose?”

Naruto’s teeth clicked shut at Tobirama’s look and at the feel of cold chakra prodding him. The boy blinked rapidly when he settled his chakra around the boy. “It is fine for people to ask, sprout,” he assured his nephew.

Itachi’s chakra swirled hesitantly, lightening its touch. “Apologies, Senju-sama,” he offered quietly and Tobirama tsked, cutting off any further apology when he reached out and pressed more firmly against Itachi’s chakra.

“There’s no need.” Tobirama looked to Choji. “Itachi isn’t asking what I lost, but who. I once had three brothers. My anija was the only one to survive. My two younger brothers died at your ages. The war was not forgiving on them.” The man took a deep breath. “Their names were Kawarama and Itama. They were my precious little brothers.”

There was a heavy moment of silence as the children did their best to process what they’d been told and make their own opinions of it. The voice that spoke up first wasn’t one Tobirama was expecting.

“That’s why you’re doing this.” Dark angled eyes peered at him, sure and hard. Shikamaru narrowed his gaze and pointed a finger at Naruto, who scowled. “That’s why you’re talking to my old man and uncles and the Sannin.”

The Senju hummed and nodded slowly. “One of the reasons, yes.”

“What are you talking about?” Ino asked, looking lost.

Naruto crossed his arms. “Oji-chan is gonna charge Jii…the Hokage and the other bad adults with child neglick, a-ban-don-ment, and a bunch of other stuff. Shika is saying Oji-chan is doing all that ‘cause Kawarama-ji-chan and Itama-ji-chan died when they were little. Real little.”

Tobirama felt like he’d been punched. He squeezed his eyes shut at hearing his nephew refer to his brothers by uncle. If his hands hadn’t been tucked away, they would’ve been trembling.

Itachi’s chakra warmed considerably next to his and yet another chakra presence nudged against him. Shisui’s cyclone of chakra seemed to hesitate before surging forward, giving Tobirama the almost-long-forgotten feeling of a chakra embrace. His surprise nearly doubled when Itachi’s chakra also swelled in an effort to help Shisui embrace Tobirama’s chakra, though the task was near-impossible given the size of it even condensed as it was. His control slipped and his body shivered under the sensation of it and when he darted a look to them, he could see two aching sets of eyes watching him.

Tobirama quickly adjusted himself, regaining control of his expression while also shrinking his chakra smaller for the pair of boys.

The man refocused in the middle of Kakashi explaining, “…apply to go to the Academy at an earlier age, but the actual minimum age to apply is eight.” The young man waved a hand at the pair of Uchiha shinobi and himself. “There are even some cases where you can apply to graduate early. Usually those applications are denied, but the last war was hard on us. A lot of genin were allowed to start and graduate early.”

Tobirama could feel himself bristling. “And so the solution determined was to throw children to the front lines,” he growled, grinding his teeth. “There is a law in place to keep that from happening. There isn’t even a clause to allow for war-time extremes. Under no circumstance were children allowed to graduate early. There was a clause to allow prodigies and struggling students exemption from classes in exchange for personal mentorship, but none to allow for early genin licensing.”

Kakashi shrugged and held up his hands, showing the shuriken and ninja wire he had. “I wouldn’t know, but I do know it became a usual thing.”

Tobirama felt too warm. And not because of the fire-natured chakras pressing close to him. He took a deep breath, vaguely grateful that Shisui’s and Itachi’s chakra were keeping him from easily losing control of his own chakra. He let it go with a count of ten. “I’ll need to speak with Saru about that,” he eventually said. He faced the gathering of children, uneasy and unsure of what was being discussed. “I care very much for all of your safeties and happiness. I am aware that there are many things that can be said for my character, motivations, and past. But never doubt that I care for each and every single one of you and I would fight to my last breath to ensure your safety.”

 

*****

 

Kakashi watched his peripherals, observing Niidaime slowly herd his growing hoard of children into the main house. The little Hyuga princess was in her usual place in Tobirama’s arm and on his back was the Nara kid, already passed out for the nap time the Senju was going to coax the other kids into after a small snack.

He hummed and flexed his toes, absently trying to work some warmth back into the small appendages. He wondered if Tobirama was aware of how domestic he appeared and acted.

Probably.

The Anbu captain threaded the last of his shuriken with wire and packaged them into his weapons pouch. He then pulled out his whetstone and tugged his gloves off in order to sharpen the metal plates on the back of them.

Kakashi had been watching and evaluating the Senju almost from the moment he appeared in this time. When he’d seen the large man stalk through the Hokage building radiating enough killing intent to make even him pause, he thought it was history come to life. The White Wolf, the White Demon, the Bane of the Uchiha come back to haunt the village and its enemies.

He would admit he’d thought his sleep deprivation was causing him to hallucinate when he’d seen the Niidaime act so differently around Naruto. To see the Senju crouch low, move slowly, speak softly to the boy, his sharp non-sharingan red eyes taking in every cue and sign like a book was…shocking.

In the moment, he’d been reminded of a conversation he’d had with his dad so many years ago. Kakashi had been reading through a history book as big as his own chest and had come across a picture of Tobirama Senju. He’d seen his white hair and asked his dad if the Niidaime was related to the Hatake family. Sakumo had laughed. “No, but that wasn’t for a lack of trying,” he’d said and at Kakashi’s inquisitive head tilt, he’d continued. “Your grandmother tried for years to get Niidaime-sama to join our pack. Through marriage, adoption, kidnapping, by our avatar. All of it.”

“We tried to kidnap the Hokage?!” Kakashi had spluttered and Sakumo grinned in response.

“This was before he was Hokage and even before the village was founded. The Hatake clan were nomadic at that point and had ties to the Uchiha clan. Trade relations for pelts and prey in the winter for them and warm fires for us. Not binding, but friendly enough that we didn’t go near the Senju clan. At least, until one Senju started going on missions and reaching out to other clans.” Sakumo looked fond. “My mother wasn’t the kindest person in the world, especially to non-pack shinobi. But Tobirama Senju made an impression. She called him a Pack Of One, a man who was Pack At Heart.” Kakashi’s eyes widened and his father nodded. “A Senju by blood, but Wild at Heart.”

“But isn’t it lonely to be a Pack Of One?”

“Hm. Yes. But, to be honest with you, I never saw him actually alone. He and the Shodaime were infamous for their bickering, but it was obvious they were family, pack. And I remember seeing Tobirama-sama and Mito-hime together and there was no denying the love between them. And, of course, he had a pack of cubs that followed him. His students.” Sakumo shook his head. “A Pack Of One, but never alone.”

Kakashi listened absently to the lower rumble of Tobirama speaking inside the house and had to agree with his dad. The Senju was Senju, but even he could feel and see the Wild in him. As if his closeness with his summons wasn’t evidence enough of that.

He quietly scoffed and Tenzo stirred under him.

Oh. He’d almost forgotten his friend was there.

“Where did everyone go?” Before Kakashi even had a chance to open his mouth, Tenzo continued. “Oh. It’s nap time.”

Kakashi snorted in humor. Tenzo had been watching his apparent kin for a shorter time than Kakashi and was already well-versed in the older man’s routine.

Domestic and Wild.

He ran his whetstone alone his glove plate carefully, thinking of the information he and Tenzo carried. They had become used to Tobirama’s domestic and controlled mannerisms and actions and Kakashi didn’t know if he was eager or scared to see the man’s Wild and vicious side after they told him what they knew.

He knew for sure that Danzo, manipulative and cunning old man that he was, would be terrified if not dead by the time the sun rose again.

 

*****

 

Tsunade felt weighed down by her head and heart.

She tilted her head back and watched grandfather’s trees rustle and sway as she passed underneath them. Underneath her feet, grandmother’s seals warmed and flickered in warm chakra.

However many years had passed, however many derisive and dismissive words had passed her lips, the remnants of her grandparents, the last heads of her clan and family, still welcomed her. Tsunade reached up a hand and ran her fingers through the leaves of the trees leaning down to greet her.

She smiled wanly, reminded of her grandfather running his fingers through her hair.

Tsunade admittedly didn’t have many memories of grandfather. She’d been young when he’d passed. Almost too young. What she did remember was big and warm and happy. She never really knew him; not like she’d known grandmother.

But she knew enough to love him and to bear the burden of his necklace, of the duty of Hokage.

Tsunade passed the clan gates silently, alone. Her fingers came to touch the crystal resting warm on her chest. The duty of Hokage. It had killed her grandfather, her granduncle for a time, and now it was killing her sensei.

She snorted and shook her head. Rather, it had already killed sensei.

The things he’d told her and Jiraiya today sat heavy on her shoulders. The things he’d done, the things he’d confessed to…Tsunade wanted to claim that they didn’t affect how she saw her sensei, that she still loved him. But even Jiraiya the fool had been noticeably silent, his eyes averted.

Sarutobi-sensei, though, hadn’t appeared fazed. He smoked that damn pipe she’d railed him for years ago and just…reported. Action after action, decision after decision, inaction after inaction. One right after another, sensei damned himself further and further.

Tsunade hadn’t realized until then how changed and dead Sarutobi-sensei was.

Of course, how could she realize when she’d been gone for so long?

There was a chuffing sound, something that tickled at the very back of her mind in a long-forgotten memory, and she halted in her tracks to give the sound her attention. A summons, a massive snow leopard, stepped out from behind a house and padded over to her, yellow eyes gleaming in the setting sunlight. “Kitten of my kitten,” the snow leopard greeted and Tsunade nodded her head in greeting. “Kitten is in the main house. He’s working on a seal at the moment, but there is food for you in the kitchen if you want it.”

“Thank you…”

“Mari.” Golden eyes blinked and looked her up and down. “Kitten has missed you dearly. Welcome home, kitten of my kitten,” she said as she brushed against Tsunade’s side in the way cats do. Tsunade wasn’t able to speak around the lump in her throat. Not in time to say something in return before Mari was gone once more, patrolling the clan grounds.

Grandfather. Grandmother. Granduncle.

Had she ever left to begin with?

Tsunade’s hands curled into fists.

Did it matter that she’d left? That she’d lost everything?!

Uncle Tobirama appeared back into the village as if he hadn’t been considered dead for forty years and mourned as such. He welcomes her back and…and asks her to become the very thing that took everything from her. She talks to sensei for the first time in years and he asks the same thing of her.

Her chest felt like it was on fire as she finally reached the main house, her old home.

Those two had another thing coming if they thought she would just go along with their wishes.

She opened the door, gearing up to let her uncle know just how callous he was being, when a voice called from deeper in the house. “Welcome home.”

Tsunade felt like she’d been punched. It took her a second to find her voice again. “I’m…home.”

Tobirama’s voice—it was just as deep and rolling as she remembered it telling her hundreds of stories at her own demand—came once more. “We’re in the sitting room. Dinner is in the kitchen.”

She closed her eyes. Had she ever left this home? Had she ever left her uncle?

Because it seemed as though her uncle never left her.

Taking her time stepping out of her sandals, she ignored the smell of food in the kitchen and made her way to the sitting room of her childhood. It took more focus than she liked to push back the memories and nostalgia of being here again, but she managed.

It helped that when she stepped into the sitting room, it was to the sight of her uncle stuffing cotton balls into another shinobi’s mouth while a third lounged with deceptive laziness nearby. Tsunade frowned. “Your summons said you were working on a seal,” she murmured, confused.

Red eyes blinked at her and she could recall how they’d squinted in amusement and humor so many years ago. How they’d looked at her with undivided attention and never wavered. “I am,” her uncle assured her, ignoring how the long-haired shinobi groaned in disgruntlement at yet another cotton ball. The silver-haired shinobi nearby chuckled and waved a hand when his friend mumbled something unintelligible.

Tsunade had kept up-to-date with the bingo book and knew the silver-haired shinobi to be Kakashi Hatake, Sakumo’s kid. She hadn’t seen more than a quick glimpse of the pale baby just after he’d been born before she’d left the village. When Sakumo had committed suicide, she’d grieved the painful death of an old drinking buddy and sometimes-mentor of hers, but, if she was honest, she hadn’t really thought of his son until now.

Kakashi seemed to be at home and relaxed as he lazily signed with his temporarily-mute comrade. It was at odds with the full armor and weaponry he sported. His long-haired friend was sporting similar armor and tools, though they both looked more Anbu than the run-of-the-mill shinobi.

And now that she looked, her uncle was also dressed as if to go on a mission. She hadn’t noticed at first because she was looking for his infamous blue-plated armor, but it looked as if Tobirama had caught himself up on the latest armor and weapons. He was dressed in a sleek blue vest that looked stiff enough to have armor plates in it. Mesh peeked out from under his long-sleeve black shirt and he must’ve found arm guards a while ago because they were already covered in seal work. The only thing that remained true to memory was the ever-present fur mantle around his shoulders and the happuri mask, which he hadn’t even been wearing when he’d greeted her at the gate.

Tsunade’s stomach turned unpleasantly and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. These three were getting ready to battle. Her uncle was getting ready to fight and that set her nerves on edge.

“And where is this seal going?” she asked, not showing any sign of her unease or shock at observing their gear. The last time she’d seen her uncle geared up had been the second time he’d made the trip to Kumo for negotiations. The trip he never returned from.

The one young shinobi with his mouth full of cotton balls pointed a finger at his mouth. His pinched, resigned expression nearly made her lips quirk up into a smile.

Her uncle was setting up an array of brushes and ink that had a red tint to it. Seal ink. He picked up a pair of glasses and set them on his face before picking up a brush to examine its bristles critically. “I’m technically removing the seal in his mouth,” he corrected her before looking at her directly. “Tsuna-chan, this is Tenzo. He’s a cousin of ours. Four times removed.”

Tsunade had been told earlier that she had surviving kin that had been taken from his family. Tobirama hadn’t told her that her surviving kin had mokuton, but Sarutobi-sensei had and explained that Tenzo had mokuton because he was the lone survivor of genetic experimentation done by Orochimaru at Danzo’s request. Tsunade wondered if this teenager was the only survivor because of distant Senju blood and not by chance. Tobirama seemed convinced he was kin.

“Hello,” she greeted formally. “I am Tsunade Senju. May your branch grow well, sprout.”

Dark eyes widened for a moment before Tenzo regained his composure. He tried mumbling a few words, flashing a few signs, before settling on putting his hands on his thighs and bowing where he knelt.

Kakashi spoke up from the other side of the room. “He said well met and he looks forward to fighting with you. I’m Kakashi Hatake by the way. I apparently don’t deserve an introduction.”

Her uncle didn’t deign to look back at the other shinobi. “You, unlike Tenzo, have a perfectly working mouth, cub.”

“So ruuuuuude.”

“Whining is beneath you.”

“No, it’s not.”

Tsunade watched the exchange with a bit of surprise and was shocked when Tobirama rolled his eyes. “It’s actually good you’re here, Tsuna-chan. I could use your help, if you’re willing.” She hummed questioningly and finally realized she was still standing in the doorway. The kunoichi strode forward and made to settle by the brand new kotatsu. She peered down at the paint covering it, most of which were of small handprints. “I’ve heard you’re an accomplished medic, no?”

That wasn’t what she’d been expecting, but when those red eyes never moved from her, she found herself answering somewhat truthfully. “I haven’t been called to practice in a good number of years,” she admitted, tracing a finger over colorful, small handprints. “But, yes, I have my certification and training. Where are the brats?” The house was so quiet now without the little bodies scampering around her uncle’s feet.

The man waved a hand. “Home for the night. Naruto is spending the night at a friend’s house.” He nodded at Tenzo. “How comfortable are you with the human brain?”

Tsunade blinked. “Enough to operate via chakra. Why?”

“The seal I’m removing has an anchor in the speech center in his brain as well as an anchor to the memory center. I’m going to transfer the seal from Tenzo to a blank scroll and I’m confident there will be no damage, but having a second set of hands to confine and control where the seal flows will make the process smoother.”

The Sannin spluttered, processing the information quickly. “Why are you…Why not just nullify the seal?” she demanded, baffled. “The number of tenketsu in the brain is uncountable. To transfer the seal like that you’d be agitating practically every single one.”

Tobirama nodded. “I’m aware. I’ll be sealing his chakra to minimize the agitation and the chance of an anchor catching during the process, but I didn’t have enough time to draft the seal’s antithesis. It’s too simple and too crude.”

“Not enough time…?”

The older man shifted and waved between Tenzo and Kakashi. “They came to me asking to have this seal removed in exchange for valuable information. Information Tenzo physically cannot speak or give because of this seal.”

Tsunade froze.

“Danzo has his agents silenced. They’ve never been able to speak or testify to what happens in their ranks or if they are even a member of Root. It has made enforcing my disbandment ruling especially hard.”

She glanced at her supposed kin and the Hatake cub. “Are you—”

“Was.” A lone dark eye pierced her on the spot, or tried to. The brat had a long way to go before he could try to intimidate her. “We want the last of its influence gone. And with the seal removed, we could finally report.” Tenzo nodded tightly, looking down at the fist clenched on his knees.

Tobirama peered curiously between the three. His gaze eventually landed solely on Tsunade. “You know who wrote this seal?”

She swallowed, trying to figure out what she should say. “I…Jiraiya and I went to see sensei after we left here,” she confessed, feeling small and guilty for a moment until she heard her uncle hum. He touched a finger to his temple and she chastised herself. “Right. You already knew.” Tsunade sighed and rested her elbow on the table, her chin in her hand. To distract herself, she looked down at the colorful kotatsu and traced a finger over some of the paintings. There was a surprising amount of orange paint on the table. “Well, we had some questions for him and he…answered. Every single one. And more.”

Tobirama cocked his head to the side. “And does he know you’re here?”

“He asked me to come.”

That seemed to give him small pause. Tsunade could almost see his thoughts pick up speed and quantity, examining this from every angle and all of its implications. It was odd being able to see him now and know what was going on in his head, rather than be a child and think he had forgotten to eat again and that’s why he was frowning.

“Senju-sama.” Tsunade startled a bit and looked over to see that the Hatake kid had sat up straight. “We fully intend on reporting after…”

Tobirama rumbled a low, inhuman sound and waved a hand. “I will remove this seal tonight regardless of what I learn and when I learn it. Our original deal never specified when I was to be told, after all, but it did specify when I would remove the seal.”

Tenzo visibly relaxed, relieved, and Kakashi nodded, bowing he head. “Thank you.”

“No thanks are required. That being said,” he looked back to her, “I’ll ask that you hold your information until I’m done. If you are here to tell me what you’ve learned, then you can speak with Tenzo and Kakashi.”

She nodded, and took a deep breath. “Alright. You said you needed help?”

“Ah. If you could shield his tenketsu during the process and help minimize inflammation and agitation, we may avoid the worst of a migraine for him.”

Tsunade hadn’t expected to find herself standing over a teenaged member of her clan, hands on his head while her uncle carefully drew a seal in said teenager’s dry and open mouth. She could feel the smallest of tremors going through Tenzo’s body as he fought to stay completely still. It couldn’t be easy for him to be like this. A shinobi and a member of Root, kneeling between two stronger shinobi he wasn’t familiar with while striped of his chakra and in a very vulnerable position. The way he kept looking to where the Hatake sat showed where a lot of his trust was.

“Okay,” Tobirama eventually signaled, setting his brush aside and picking up the narrow blank scroll. With a flick of the wrist, he had the tail of it hanging open and free. He looked directly into the teenager’s eyes, firm and steady. “This isn’t going to be pleasant in the least, but it will be done and over with quickly. I swear to you, you will be free and unharmed. Are you ready?” Tenzo breathed in quickly through his nose before nodding. “Alright. Here we go. Tsuna-chan?”

Tsunade threaded her chakra through her hands and into the very delicate and temperamental tissue that was gray matter. She located the starry-sky of tenketsu in Tenzo’s brain and oh-so-carefully layered them in her own chakra. Painstakingly she found each and every one of them and delicately wrapped them. All…three thousand two hundred and nineteen of them.

The formerly world-famous medic nin took a deep steadying breath. There was no blood. There was no healing. This was purely preventative. No one’s life was truly in her hands. She was okay. Tenzo was okay. Everything was going to be okay.

“Ready,” she replied, her voice breathy and quiet instead of loud and firm. Damn her nerves.

She felt more than saw her uncle jab a quick paralysis jutsu into Tenzo’s jaw, tongue, and neck, freezing him in place with extreme precision. She felt the neurons start firing with blinding speed and activity, but what really caught her attention was the suddenly tangible mass of alien chakra. It felt so solid and in-grained to her senses, but even as she thought that it moved. It moved as if dragged. An oily ink stain from the back of Tenzo’s head and from the left side of his brain, towards Tenzo’s mouth.

Tsunade heard Tenzo gag and felt his body stiffen and strain, but she couldn’t let that distract her. She followed the path of the seal and healed the fried and strained neurons with a deftness that should’ve surprised her given how long it’d been since she’d done this, but she just found herself grateful and relieved.

Her uncle was right, it was a hard process that left much of Tenzo’s brain and gray matter irritated and trying to inflame itself, but it was over quickly and she wasted no time in soothing every bit of flesh she could.

Absently she saw her uncle pull his hand back from Tenzo’s mouth and over the scroll he had in hand. The seal that was dragged out was as long as her forearm and, like Tobirama had said earlier, simple. From the corner of her eye she could see that it was mainly one long thick line with some smaller, shorter lines running alongside it. The second the last of the seal was removed, the paralysis jutsu was lifted and Tenzo sagged, gasping for breath and reaching to clutch his head right over her own hands.

She shushed him absently, working as fast as she could to soothe the migraine. His brain was absolutely determined to swell, but she wasn’t going to let it.

The Hatake kid came over as Tobirama pulled back, murmuring quietly and pulling the sprout’s hands down from hers. It was the work of another few minutes before she pulled back, pleased. Tenzo leaned into Kakashi, just breathing while Kakashi ran his nails carefully over the nape of his neck, pressing periodically on the nerve clusters there to help ease the tension.

Tsunade, satisfied that Tenzo was in good hands, turned to her uncle. He was bent over the length of the scroll, examining it critically. “Was it successful?”

The head of white hair moved up and down. “The seal is here in its entirety. But it’s strange.”

She stepped over and also peered at the seal. Grandmother had taught her a thing or two about seals over the years, but it seemed like a normal seal to her. Oversimplified, but still normal. “How do you mean?”

Tobirama tilted his head side to side before trailing a hand around the head of the seal, its matrix. “I almost recognize it.”

“It was…Danzo.” Both Senju turned and looked at where Tenzo was sitting up under his own power. He winced and touched a hand to his head, but blinked quickly. “Danzo,” he repeated quietly. His lips flashed up in a smile and a small hysterical laugh left his throat. “Danzo. I can…I can say his name!”

Kakashi ran a hand briskly over Tenzo’s head while Tsunade glanced back at her uncle. The dark expression on his face made the hairs on her arms stand up straight. “Danzo sealed you?” he asked, his voice barely even a whisper.

Tenzo swallowed and nodded, moving his hand to cup his throat. “Yes. He does that to all—”

Tobirama suddenly stiffened, his eyes blowing wide. “No,” he breathed, his head whipping around to look out the door of the sitting room. “No, no, n—” A yellow flash blinded Tsunade before she could ask what was wrong.

“Ji…chan?”

“What just happened?!” Tenzo exclaimed, rocking to his feet. “Where’d he go?!”

“I don’t know,” Tsunade mumbled. “I’ve never—”

They all froze in place when it felt like an ocean of snow melt crashed through the air, raging like white water. Tenzo teetered into Kakashi, blood seeping down his chin from where he’d bitten through his bottom lip. Tsunade shuddered, more startled and scared than she’d been in a long time. Her heart hurt with how quickly it was pounding, but she still fell on old training. Locate the threat.

“The…Akimichi?” she announced after a moment of concentration. “Why—”

Kakashi was already lunging out the door. “NARUTO!”

Chapter Text

If Tsunade wasn’t in the narrowed focus of gogofightsavelivesdon’tletthemdie she would’ve been furious at herself that the Hatake brat was faster than her in reaching the Akimichi compound. As it was, her jaw hurt from how hard she was clenching her teeth. The Akimichi compound was in chaos, flames up in some buildings, craters in the land, blood—

She quickly averted her gaze and threw her whole body into lunging forward once crossing the clan wall. Kakashi was too quicksilver for her to easily track, but her uncle was like a flare in the night sky with how bright and livid his chakra was.

Tsunade whipped into the house expecting to find her uncle in the midst of a fight, protecting Naruto, or ripping someone apart.

She didn’t expect to find him braced over a familiar Akimichi, his hands blazing with healing jutsu while he focused entirely on the larger man’s face. Tsunade could remember Torifu from when she was younger. He would often visit and have lunch or breakfast with them, filling the whole house with his voice and presence.

He’d never once looked this small.

This bloody.

She felt ice dump over her and for a second she thought it was Tobirama’s chakra, but no. She felt the familiar stirrings of panic. Her heart trying to climb up to her throat, her lungs feeling like they’d been rubbed raw with sandpaper, the world crashing down on her shoulders. Her vision narrowed in on the torn hole in Torifu’s side.

Vaguely she knew that the cut was high enough and deep enough to have breached the man’s right lung and he should be drowning in blood right now if it wasn’t for her uncle.

Her uncle who was glaring death at…at the two unmasked Anbu shinobi currently on their knees.

The ringing in her ears was hard to hear through. Tsunade gasped for small breaths of air as she tried to force herself to look at…fuck. What were their names again? The pair of shinobi she’d been with. The brats.

They looked…frightened.

That. That helped. That helped her think.

They looked scared and…trapped? Like sitting on their knees wasn’t where they meant to be. The long-haired one was even on his hands and knees, visibly struggling to hold himself up against an unseen force.

A force that was directed at them and not her.

“…at the exact same moment I remove the seal you asked me to undo, my nephew was taken, and you sit there and try to say this wasn’t planned?!” Tsunade blinked hard at the low, gravelly snarl coming from her uncle. She looked back—only at him, not at what he was kneeling over, she couldn’t she couldn’t—and felt her breath catch when she saw that his chakra was visibly glowing around Tobirama it was so dense. “I will only ask you once more. Did you betray me? Did you betray Naruto?!

“No,” Kakashi, that was his name, Sakumo’s kid, rasped. “We’d never…”

The other one. Her kin, Tenzo, the one made-from-nature, choked. The floor boards around him tried sprouting and growing, only to curl down and be crushed. “Had…no idea…I swear, T-To…please!

“Ji-chan!”

It startled Tsunade. She’d opened her mouth to shout the very same thing, to beg for his mercy for the brats, but someone beat her to the punch.

She looked past her uncle and to the smashed-in doorway to what looked like had once been a living room. A small Nara child, characterized by the signature ponytail—though it looked a small push from coming undone—was standing there with the larger form of an Akimichi child braced on his back.

“They weren’t part of it!” the Nara exclaimed with enough animation to show just how distressed he was. He seemed out of breath and trying to keep his grip on his passenger. “The…The man. Danzo! He told other masked shinobi that the seal had been removed and they needed to evacuate headquarters. He stopped in the middle of all…this,” the amount of venom that was spat in that single word would’ve had Orochimaru jealous, Tsunade thought absently, “He had Naruto and was about to leave when he said that. It’s not Inu-nii or Oni-nii.”

And just like that, the tide receded.

Tsunade was passingly aware of Kakashi and Tenzo sagging and gasping for breath, but her hyper-focused attention latched onto the little Nara staggering. She caught his shoulder and mechanically helped guide the Akimichi child down to the ground, running a cursory medical scan over the pair. “Danzo did something to him. Looked at him with a sharingan,” the Nara muttered, digging his fingers into his hair and pulling. “He’s not supposed to have a sharingan, he’s not Uchiha. Why is he an eye-stealer?!” The amount of hysteria coming from any Nara, large or small, young or old, would’ve made her skin crawl. The hysteria coming from this little Nara made her fists ache to crack open a skull.

She refocused quickly on the Akimichi child. It was a genjutsu then. Sure enough, when she scanned the chakra pathways in the Akimichi’s head, Tsunade found it under the heavy-handed influence of a powerful genjutsu. She swallowed roughly and spread her own chakra along the child’s, layering hers thick and dense before fluxing it.

The Akimichi’s eyes snapped open in an instant. He gasped for air, flailing.

“He’s going to be okay,” Tsunade said dully right as a voice boomed behind her.

“CHOJI!”

Sannin or not, she knew better than to be in the way of any Akimichi on a mission. She pressed herself to the wall to give Choza room to come in and scoop the child up in his arms. Kami save them all if that was Choza’s son. She hoped Danzo hadn’t just attacked an elder of a noble clan and the clan heir. She really, really hoped.

Tsunade shook herself roughly. “He’s going to be okay,” she repeated, cutting in on the adult crushing the pair of kids to his chest. “They both are. Scrapes and bruises and a broken genjutsu on your son, but nothing permanent.”

Choza squeezed his eyes shut and nodded tightly. “Thank you,” he breathed, burying his face in his son’s hair. He leaned down and offered his open arm to the Nara. The child quickly went into his hold, burying his face in his uncle’s neck. Choji was visibly listless and in shock while the Nara’s shoulders hitched and jerked with panicked breaths.

“Tsunade.” She was turning to look before she registered who was calling her name. It took everything she had to not look down at Old Man Torifu as she met Tobirama’s red blood eyes. “I need you to take over healing Torifu. I need to go after Danzo before he disappears with Naruto.”

It felt like she was being strangled.

The ringing was coming back in her ears as Choza spoke up again. “Danzo did this? Danzo Shimura?”

“Yes.”

She winced at the lancing fury that went through the Akimichi clan head’s already tumultuous and aggressive chakra. “Did the village just attack my clan,” he whispered, his voice low and oh so dangerous.

“Unknown. Danzo could be working on his own.”

“Did a member of the Konoha Council just attack my heir, my honorable uncle, the Nara clan heir, and kidnap your heir?!”

The low and grinding snarl that came from Tobirama made everyone shudder and shrink. “Yes.”

Choza bared his teeth. “That’s reason enough. The Akimichi have been betrayed and we demand retribution. Will you stand in our way?”

“I’ll bring you Danzo’s head.”

“Good.” The man stood to his impressive height. Every line of his body tense and hard except for the arms that held the children close. “My uncle is in your clan’s care. I have a village to seize.” He stepped down the hallway, past everyone to the front door, and bellowed, “AKIMICHI TO ARMS!!! AKIMICHI TO ARMS!!!

“Tsunade!” That voice left no room for refusal and she was forced to turn her eyes to her uncle’s. His eyes burned and his face creased, his teeth bared in a snarl. Anger. Irritation… “Take over for me so I can save Naruto!”

Desperation.

Her feet moved before she even knew what was happening. That fear, terror, and desperation took her back to those times where she couldn’t move fast enough, heal fast enough.

When she couldn’t be enough.

Tsunade fell to her knees at Torifu’s side, her pants instantly soaking in the pooled blood. Her throat closed in on herself even as she knocked her uncle’s hands out of the way. Green healing chakra burst to life around her hands and she forced herself to press them to the gaping wound. “Save him,” she wheezed, barely able to breathe around the panic choking her. But like she’d realized before, she hadn’t forgotten how to heal. The steps were ingrained in her very soul even when it tried to shy away and shatter into pieces. Tears slipped from her eyes, unable to look away from the struggling, bleeding chest underneath her. “Save him,” she begged.

Not again, she pleaded silently, feeling her uncle disappear from her senses, the other two hot on his heels.

Don’t let her lose anyone else.

 

*****

 

“Where would Danzo go if he was looking to flee the village?” Tobirama demanded as he raced across the rooftops of Konoha. Kakashi and Tenzo kept pace with him at this reduced speed. Even as he was asking the question, the former Hokage was making his way towards the void in the ground where so many high-level shinobi vanished from his senses into. Vanished from his chakra sense like Naruto had moments after he felt Torifu’s chakra rise and drop.

Danzo must have used the same method he used to conceal himself to conceal Naruto. Perhaps a seal, given that Danzo was the one behind the silencing seal and given how the Hiraishin seals Naruto had been carrying weren’t responding to Tobirama’s summons.

“The underground tunnels,” Tenzo rushed to answer, nearly tripping over his own words to say them. Tobirama felt guilt and shame for how hard he’d come down on him and Kakashi but a large corner of his mind murmured that they still might be traitors, so he held off on apologies for the moment. “They can go in any direction. It’s how Root agents were meant to leave the village unchecked and unnoticed.”

The Senju ground his teeth. In any direction. Danzo could be going anywhere and Tobirama couldn’t sense him. He had no trail to follow and no way to discern where the man was going.

“All the tunnels start in Root headquarters,” Kakashi suddenly cut in, jumping forward with a burst of speed to make himself known to Tobirama. “There is no access to them other than through the headquarters. We can hunt him down there.”

His heart roared at the prospect of a hunt. “Do you have your pack?”

A lone gray eye cut sharply to him. “I’m a Hatake.”

Tobirama bared his teeth in a mockery of a smile before leaping to twist and flip over the main road bisecting the village. In the periphery of his senses and focus he could feel the spreading alarm and fear through the village. Choza was making good on his word to seize the village, the Akimichi moving in concert to the Hokage building and jonin standby station while small teams made for the Yamanaka and Nara compounds.

Civil war was about to break out in the village. A coup d’état that Tobirama had wanted to avoid.

As a stray thought he made a shadow clone. It broke off immediate and disappeared in a flash to the Uchiha compound.

“And what’s the quickest way to access these headquarters?” he asked, eyes scanning his surroundings as he neared the void. They were near the edge of the village where much of the village’s water refinery and purification occurred. The Naka river glinted in the moonlight to his left.

Kakashi surged forward again, lunging and moving with the grace and power Tobirama respected in the Hatake clan. Nowhere in the young man was the lazy and nonchalant persona he’d come to know. This was Kakashi Hatake on the move and ready for battle. “Through the ground!” he called, pointing a finger to massive circular opening in the ground nestled under weaving pipes.

The moment Tobirama set eyes on the hole in the ground, his focus narrowed. Beyond that point was Danzo and his personal force of Anbu made loyal only to him. Down there was his sprout.

“Hold!” Tobirama bellowed to the pair before launching off a building and into the maze of pipes. He tucked and curled before righting himself just over the hole. Far below he could see walkways with dark figures rushing across them. His chakra, thus far muted and hidden to conceal his intent and location, spilled out with the force of a tsunami as his hands came together. “Water Style,” he bit out, “Storm Upheaval!”

The dark figures stuttered to a halt on the bridges below for a precious second before the manifested ocean crashed down on them. Endless torrents of water fell into the undercity and Tobirama followed. As he did, he passed the seal barrier that had kept the area from his chakra sense and was startled to feel as many chakra signatures as he did. Danzo’s Root force was large and strong, both in number and skill if the already thrown kunai and jutsus coming his way were anything to go by. Most of which were knocked aside by Tobirama’s still ongoing jutsu. The rest, knocked off course or dodged.

Tobirama Senju, Second Hokage, Senju clan head, the White Demon landed in the crossroads of the highest walkway. Red eyes unmarked by Uchiha tomoe darted around, taking in information quickly. His hands shifted and his jutsu seamlessly switched. “Water Style: Water Shockwave.”

Whatever shinobi had managed to keep their feet or regain their balance after his initial attack were blasted away at a force that would’ve killed anyone caught off-guard or under jonin level. As it was, the walkway he’d just landed on crumbled to pieces from the force of his attack.

Water and rubble rained down in chaos and confusion, further unsettling and off-setting the Root forces. It was in battles like this that Tobirama thrived: striking when the enemy least expected it and striking true.

Seven shadow clones popped into existence as he fell to the next level. Four scattered into the first levels doorways and hallways, searching and clearing them. The remaining three readied for the battle to come. Tobirama crouched once he landed again, slamming his bloodied hand to the ground. “Summoning Jutsu.” Airi exploded out of the smoke with a roar and Mari stalked on silent paws. At her back, five of her kin leapt to the rails and rubble, gaining vantage points and a feel for the battle they’d been summoned to. Their armor and beads moving silently, absorbing the sound and light around them. Seals glimmered on the metal and wooden armor plates. “Find my cub,” he snarled darkly. “Find the cub-stealer and litter-killer. Seal any masked humans you come across.”

Kakashi and Tenzo joined him just as his summons vanished into shadows and around corners like ghosts. The younger teen looked grim and pale as he looked upon the drowned and partially destroyed pit. “The initiate’s barracks,” he said without context and Kakashi tsked.

“You go,” Kakashi commanded as he sliced his thumb open on the armor plate on the back of his glove. He knelt clapped his hand to the wet concrete. “Summoning Jutsu!” Tenzo grimaced before running at the railing and vaulting over it, falling to the lower levels.

Tobirama expected to hear the howls of wolves as smoke erupted from the Hatake, but to his surprise domesticated dogs were summoned. The dogs circled their summoner and growled at the gathering masked Root agents. “This is a mess. What’s the situation, Boss?” the small pug asked from where he was perched on the head of a large bulldog.

“Search and retrieval.” Kakashi pulled two kunai out of his pouch and spun them in his hands before catching them in reverse grip. “Danzo Shimura has taken Naruto Uzumaki and you’re to find and lead Tobirama Senju to them. Understand?”

Tobirama waited impatiently as the pack glanced at him. The pug turned back to the Hatake. “And what about you?”

Kakashi shrugged. He reached up and lifted his crooked hitai-ate, revealing the red scar bisecting an equally red eye. “A little demolition probably. I’m not so good in fights like these. Don’t fail me!” Then he was gone in a blur of silver and gray, speed and blades at the ready to cut through anyone in his path.

The Senju spared a quick thought to hope the man was wily and quick enough to avoid death and maiming against the army rallying around them. He also hoped that backup would come quickly. As it was, he could no longer sense the village or its citizens up above thanks to the seals on this place. “Can you track Naruto?” he demanded of the pack of summons. Normally he’d offer more respect to them, but he was feeling every second drag by like knives in his gut.

The pug scoffed and looked around with narrowed eyes. “In this washed up mess? Not normally. But the pup has the Fox. And we can track that.” The small dog jumped down from his perch and ran towards the rail. “This way!” he called just as he slipped through the bars and over the edge.

Tobirama jumped down after the summons, spitting water bullets at Root agents making moves towards them or towards where he could feel Kakashi ripping through other chakra signatures like lightning. Two levels down he saw a mass of roots and trees covering one walkway. In its grasp were several masked shinobi in various states of unconsciousness. Prowling over the wood was one of his snow leopards, smacking a paw on their heads and sealing them into temporary comas.

The hallway the walkway led to was completely blocked off by knotted wood. Further in that direction he could feel Tenzo charging down twisting hallways, heavy with vibrant mokuton. The man could hazard a guess that his goal was the series of rooms with small young chakra presences in it. The initiate’s barracks, like he’d said.

When he and Kakashi’s pack landed on another cross-section of walkways, he almost expected to go straight over the rail yet again. They were nearing the bottom of the pit, but the dogs scattered and sniffed at the ground, trying to determine a direction. The golden hound with sunglasses barked after a moment before throwing his head back and baying. The sound sent Tobirama’s blood racing.

They had a trail.

The hallway the pack raced for had several Root agents emerging out of it and Tobirama readied a jutsu only to stall it when Airi emerged from below the walkway. His littermate clawed her way up the wall before pouncing with a scream, seals exploding into existence with bursts of light that dropped the shinobi in an instant. Eyes that were normally warm and benevolent glittered like ice as she regarded the hunting pack. After a moment she turned on paw and sprinted into the hallway ahead of them.

Tobirama tried sensing what was ahead in this area. If he could not sense Danzo or Naruto, then he could sense the environment and the other people in it. He released his chakra, guiding it to flow through the hallways and map out every corner, door, and nook for him. A couple dozen shinobi were down here, moving like agitated insects towards the main shaft of the pit. The man ground his teeth as he felt how elaborate and far-spread the headquarters was. It was a maze and with as much of a head start as Danzo had on them, he could be anywhere and doing anything to slow down or stop pursuers.

He was so focused on mentally mapping the Root headquarters with his chakra that he nearly missed it when the pack took a sudden turn. Tobirama snapped out a hand coated in chakra and caught the wall, letting his momentum and the anchor whip him around the corner after the pack. “This is a dead end,” he called out in irritation. They were wasting precious time!

The large bulldog snorted and shook his head. “They definitely went this way. The smell of the Fox is thick here.”

Tobirama had to keep from snapping. When he felt his temper fraying, he quickly redirected his attention. “Is Naruto hurt?” It had been bothering him since he found Torifu bleeding out. Had his sprout been hurt when Danzo and Root took him? Had he fought back or was he restrained?

The pug was the one who answered. “Doesn’t seem like it. Can’t smell any blood.”

The dog with sunglasses glanced back at him. “He must trust you a lot. I can’t smell any fear at all.”

The lifted a bit of weight from Tobirama’s shoulders. Naruto was okay for now. He was okay.

They came around another corner and the Senju was both surprised and not surprised to see an open doorway in front of them. To his chakra sense, there was nothing but a wall here, but he’d seen before that Danzo had created a seal that blocked this particular sense of his. Annoying, but Tobirama should’ve realized his former student would put this seal to use after Tobirama’s return.

It was still disconcerting to run through the door and suddenly have his perception of everyone in the facility and the lower hallway levels disappear. Water moved down his arm to coat his hands and kunai, ready to be launched and to cut enemies to pieces. A room Danzo had passed through that was hidden from his senses screamed nothing but a trap waiting to be sprung. However, Danzo was proving to be unpredictable today, for the room they entered was mostly empty and had no exit.

Two waves of his chakra, one heavy and one light, swept over the room to detect for anything hidden or waiting to surprise them. The summons shifted uneasily and sniffed the air, hackles raised. After a moment Tobirama lowered his blades and frowned at the unoccupied room. “They came this way?”

“Yeah,” the pug drawled. “And they didn’t double back.”

The dog wrapped in bandages shook his head wildly and set his nose to the floor. “Then there’s probably a hidden exit somewhere in here.” The other dogs barked in agreement and scattered, searching the room with an efficiency Tobirama desperately needed to see right now.

He couldn’t help but think this was a false path. That this room was intentionally chosen as the destination of this misdirection so as to keep them occupied. So, what in this room was meant to keep their attention? It wasn’t even trapped and the only thing of note was the coffin wrapped in black cloth standing against the wall opposite the door they came through.

Tobirama pursed his lips and cautiously approached the hulking shape. It was of the right size and proportions to be a coffin, but truthfully he couldn’t see anything under the cloth. He scanned the object again with his chakra and tilted his head when it registered as dead and nothing to his senses. The former Hokage was beginning to get irritated that his chakra sense was being so frequently fooled.

Slowly, he stepped closer and leaned in to peer at the cloth. The lighting was dim and low in this room, only a few candles, but with his practiced night vision he came to see that the cloth wasn’t black at all. It was white and covered nearly completely in black ink. Tobirama’s heart began to race the more he examined the ink and the patterns it made.

Symbols.

Arrays.

Seals.

Infinitesimal and so delicately thin. Hundreds upon hundreds of seals covered the cloth.

Red eyes moved frantically, trying to discern the nature of the seals and the danger Danzo had left for them.

Stasis. Time. Preservation. Binding.

Tobirama adjusted the grip he had on his kunai. Something was sealed in this coffin. Something alive. That was almost unheard of, however. Living things couldn’t be kept under stasis seals. Tobirama had tried for years to figure out how to essentially store live human beings like one would store weapons or equipment, but the fact of the matter was that living matter still needed things to survive, like air, water, food. By sealing a living being, the sealer killed the being by asphyxiation first and by other means if the seal allowed air to pass through.

But this arrangement of seals…it was littered with arrays dealing with time.

Time was a dangerous area to venture into when it came to seals. Even the Uzumaki clan only permitted their most experienced seal masters to experiment and tamper with time seals. Tobirama was only ever able to successfully create the Hiraishin seal due to Mito’s studies and lessons on time theory and time seals. To see such delicate and fine time seals at work here in Danzo’s lair…

This wasn’t Danzo’s writing.

Tobirama straightened as he realized this. He knew Danzo’s handwriting. It hadn’t changed in years, he recognized it in the seal he pulled from Tenzo. The seals on this cloth weren’t done by his hand.

And with the Uzumaki clan exterminated—by Jiraiya’s own admittance—seal masters weren’t plentiful in this time.

So who sealed this?

It was so strange. Tobirama knew this wasn’t Danzo’s handwriting, but…

It was still familiar.

Not Mito’s work, not his own, not Danzo’s.

It was tight work, with the ever so slightest slant. As if someone…

“I hate having to write in a rush. I like taking my time so I can make sense of what’s in my head. And Sage help whoever tries to read what I write in a hurry. It’s like it’s another language, eh, sensei?”

Tobirama’s breath caught and he stared sightlessly at the seals. It couldn’t be.

“What is that?” he heard one of the dogs asked behind him. “Hey, Senju. What is that?”

His eyes moved to where the chest of the coffin would be and located the locking array. A bloodline seal.

A bloodline seal that was an exact copy of Mito’s.

He was dead.

Tobirama lifted a pale hand, refusing to let it shake as he reached for the bloodline seal.

He was dead.

His fingertips touched the seal array and his chakra flashed a bright blue before it was taken and fed into the rest of the array. The seal glowed and pulsed for a long moment before fading, taking the ink with it. The white cloth was rapidly revealed, the ink evaporating like mist under the hot summer sun. Without the seals, the wrapped cloth began to loosen and fall, revealing that it wasn’t a coffin underneath, but that the whole object was a cocoon of sealed cloth.

Pale skin, dark clothes, and black curly hair flashed in the gaps as Tobirama stood frozen.

He was supposed to be dead.

An achingly familiar face came into view, the right side of which was caked in blood coming from the closed eye.

Tobirama had mourned him.

The left eye flashed open and emanated a malevolent red.

Off all the red eyes Tobirama had seen in his life, this was the one he’d never flinched from looking into.

White teeth flashed in a snarl and it was only reflex that let Tobirama catch the hand that held the knife aiming to slit his throat.

“Kagami.”

Chapter Text

Kakashi spun and slammed the heel of his foot into the jaw of an oncoming Root agent. He heard it dislocate, but didn’t hear a cry of pain. The teen tsked and followed the kick up with a punch that shattered the mask the other was wearing. He refused to acknowledge that his muscles are quivering as his opponent fell and two more took his place. Instead, he drew a paper smoke bomb from his pouch and triggered it in his hand.

Gray, cloying smoke filled his immediate area, thick and dense, but scentless. Kakashi closed his eyes and breathed deep through his nose. The pair of Root agents fell on top of their comrade in the next moment.

It was only scent of the next newcomers that kept Kakashi from attacking them as well.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he said lowly, trying to keep the growl from his voice but ultimately failing.

The voice that came was tight, cracking with puberty, but trying to affect a lilting amusement. “Really? But this looks like where the fun is.” Shisui’s smile was more a baring of teeth than an actual smile. The younger teen spun his tanto in a circle, his sharingan spinning even faster. “Don’t be boring and hog it all.”

Itachi appeared at his side, looking frazzled and wide-eyed. “We felt Niidaime-sama’s chakra. It was furious.”

Kakashi clicked his teeth, shaking out his trembling hands as he evaluated his surroundings. For now, there was a moment of reprieve in the attacking agents. He took the valuable time to dig a soldier pill from his supplies and slip it into his mouth, crunching the bitter pellet. The potent but short wave of new chakra and energy eased his flagging body. “Danzo’s taken Naruto. We’re assuming he’s attempting to flee the village through the secret tunnels.”

Shisui blanched. “Councilman Shimura? Is the village attacking—”

“I hope not.” Kakashi cracked his neck and rearmed himself. He was wasting time here. “Right now, the mission is to find and retrieve Naruto, but you two need to leave. Every agent here is jonin level. You two are out of your league.”

Itachi narrowed his eyes. “You’re out of your league. We’ll stay with you as back up. Father was mobilizing the clan while we were heading here. Shisui sent a crow to tell him where we were. We can expect back up soon.”

Shisui shifted uneasily. “I’m not sure we want our clan involved in this.”

“We have to trust in Tobirama-sama and father.”

Kakashi looked between the pair of Uchiha suspiciously before shaking it off. He had a mission, a comrade to protect and a child to find. “Go home,” he ordered again, stepping towards the rail to jump further into the depths of the Root headquarters. “No more children are getting hurt tonight!”

“We told yo—”

It felt like a mountain suddenly dropped on them. They staggered not only under its weight, but against the very ground jumping and shaking beneath their feet. The crashing thunder of rock crumbling and smashing deafened them for a moment.

Kakashi wheezed as he yet again found himself under Tobirama Senju’s chakra, but this time it was different. Before, it was calculating—icy with restrained fury. This time, it was burning hot and jagged with rage and grief.

“No, no, no,” he whispered, feeling all his dogs fade from his summons. “Not again.”

A roar ripped through the air of the village.

“Not again.”

 

*****

 

“Kagami.”

Metal kissed Tobirama’s throat, barely held back in his distraction and surprise.

A curving black lotus mangekyo sharingan spun sporadically, stopping and going in fits as its user’s eye narrowed and widened. An array of expressions creased that achingly familiar face. Fury, surprise, disbelief, rage, fear, and eventually…shock.

Tobirama swallowed roughly as he held the gaze of that lone eye. “You’re…alive.”

He felt the tendrils of a sharp and powerful genjutsu push and break into his own chakra, but go no deeper than the surface. It swirled and tested, flaring to break any genjutsu that may be on it.

The kunai he was holding back shivered. “No way.”

Sage above, it was his voice. Tobirama knew this couldn’t be a genjutsu, but he still popped and surged his own chakra, dispelling any that may be there. Everything remained the same. Kagami still stood in front of him. Older, stronger, hurt, but still present.

“I thought you were dead,” Tobirama whispered, absently twisting the kunai out of his…his student’s hand to disarm him. It clattered to the stone floor loudly.

The hoarse laugh that came from Kagami sounded drier than the Land of Wind. “Shouldn’t… Shouldn’t I be saying that?” he asked, clapping a hand onto Tobirama’s shoulder, though it seemed more to support himself than anything else. Kagami swayed forward and Tobirama braced him, helping ease him to sit on the ground. The mangekyo sharingan faded back into a normal sharingan, which flitted over Tobirama’s face quickly. “You haven’t changed. Am I dead?”

“No.” The Senju took a knee and reached out to cup Kagami’s chin, turning his face so he could evaluate the damage to his missing eye. “It’s a long story. A mishap with a Hiraishin seal during my fight with the Gold and Silver brothers. I traveled forward in time.” The eye removal was clean and professional. And it looked fresh. Tobirama frowned before carefully laying a hand over Kagami’s eye, threading healing chakra into the socket. “You sealed yourself before Danzo could kill you?”

His student’s remaining eye widened in surprise. “You know about that? Yeah. Bastard finally had enough of me, but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.” Kagami gave a wane smile, tilting his head. His sweaty and greasy curls swayed with the motion. “Gotta admit. I wasn’t expecting to ever be unsealed.”

Tobirama sent him a small glare. “I, for one, am pleased you sealed yourself instead of killing yourself.” That was to put it lightly. His heart felt like it couldn’t beat any faster, his mind a harried mess of everything that’s happened. He felt off balance.

“How long has it been?” Kagami asked, reaching a hand up to touch the one healing him. It wasn’t a touch asking him to stop, but one that wrapped tightly around his wrist and just. Held on. “It’s been nearly a decade to me since I lost you, sensei.”

He felt his heart squeeze and ache. He had missed Kagami so much. “Approximately thirty years since your presumed death.”

“That long.” The man—he was much closer to Tobirama in age now, wasn’t he?—took a deep breath, trembling. “Please tell me Danzo is dead.”

Rage returned to Tobirama. “He will be soon,” he promised in a whisper. “He’s taken my nephew. I’m hunting him now. He’s amassed an army in recent times. We’re in their headquarters underneath Konoha.”

Kagami grunted that hereditary Uchiha grunt. “Fucking bastard. I’ll fight you for the pleasure of killing him.”

A surprised laugh left him. “Brat,” he muttered fondly, pulling his hand back. He helped Kagami to his feet again. As he helped dust Kagami off, he turned serious again. “He’s trying to disappear with my nephew. His life is on the line. I know I just found you. However—”

“If you put my life above your sprout’s, then you’re not my sensei.” Kagami rolled his shoulders and rocked his weight onto the balls of his feet, stretching. “We’ll catch up later. I’ll help you get him back. Danzo is going to die in the process anyway.”

“Hey! Senju! Uchiha!” The pair turned to find the dogs congregated in the corner of the room, scratching and shoving at the stone wall. “The passage is over here!”

“I won’t wait for you,” Tobirama warned as he strode over to the corner.

His student scoffed behind him. “I won’t wait for you. Get it right, sensei. I’m not your student to protect anymore.”

He couldn’t help the sharp smile that stretched his lips. “Such boasts. I won’t believe it until I see it.” Tobirama made a single hand sign and spat a water bullet at the corner of the room, blasting the hidden stone door into rubble. It was a narrow hallway and one Tobirama sprinted ahead through. It was yet another sealed area of the headquarters, but finally, finally he could sense a cluster of chakra presences heading away from the hub of the headquarters.

A guard escort. And in the middle of them two figures, one large and one small, that gave off no chakra signature.

Tobirama had found them.

Red edged around his vision as he ran, chakra boiling and lashing around all but the smallest figure ahead. It gave away his presence, but it mattered not. They had no time to react.

The air by his left side rushed and whistled. He’d felt Kagami accelerate behind him, but still the sheer speed he moved with surprised even him and it surely surprised the trio of Root agents in the underground multi-leveled prison complex. Kagami was barely a blur even to his eyes as he lashed out with a whooping war cry and dragged the masked shinobi to the ground. Tobirama hurdled over them, arrowing for the pair behind the Root agents. “Danzo!” he bellowed, slamming a kunai into the hand his former student had raised in defense. It surprised him when his weapon wasn’t met with another and instead sunk straight into the meat of Danzo’s right palm. He absently noted that no blood sprayed from the wound, but paid it no further mind than to maneuver the arm out of the way as he continued his lunge forward.

Just behind Danzo he could see a head of blond hair. His sprout was so close. If he could just get Danzo out of his way…!

Danzo narrowed his eyes, one black, one red. His lips parted as if to speak a jutsu, but Tobirama wasn’t going to let him. He’d slash his throat to keep him from uttering another vile, poisonous word!

He didn’t expect Danzo’s right hand to suddenly grow and explode.

Tobirama’s shouted as something slammed into his side, twisting his arm painfully between his own body and this force. He bit his tongue as he was slammed into a wall, the shock of it finally jarring his mind and vision into working. Above him, tiers of walkways began to crumble and fall down. When he reached for any seals to teleport to, one pinged back as active.

He vanished from one spot and appeared at Kagami’s side. Under the Uchiha’s feet were the bodies of his previous opponents. Kagami wiped at the blood on his cheek and sneered at Danzo. “Well isn’t that a dirty secret. Robbing graves in your spare time, eh, Danzo?”

For once in his life, Tobirama felt hot. Those were trees sprouting from Danzo’s right arm, branches and leaves twining around the column Danzo had hit him with. His hands shook as the wood and leaves creaked and groaned, drawing back to the too pale limb the elder sported.

“I should’ve killed you,” Tobirama found himself muttering, unable to look away from his anija’s mokuton. “I should’ve snapped your neck when I first saw you.” And it stung to think that because Danzo had been a waif of a teen when he’d first approached Tobirama. His voice quiet and demur and shy, but strong and set. His eyes, both of them, had never wavered from Tobirama back then. And now, the Senju couldn’t bring himself to look his former student in the face.

Danzo’s lip pursed into a pale line. “A good thing you didn’t. This village wouldn’t be standing if it weren’t for me.”

Tobirama couldn’t feel his lips as he spoke. He was so numb with fury. “Then I would’ve happily spit on its burnt carcass. You’ve gone too far.” He sensed Kagami’s smokey lightning chakra spin and shift, coiling like a snake preparing to strike. “Death will be too good for you.”

At the same moment Kagami’s chakra lashed out in an invisible genjutsu Tobirama’s feet moved. Ice senbon cut through the air in front of Tobirama, honing in on Danzo’s vital points. The old man’s chakra popped and his stolen sharingan spun to dispel the genjutsu Kagami had thrown at him. When red and black eyes swung to him, Tobirama vanished in Hiraishin. The Senju bared his teeth in a snarl as he appeared on the stolen mokuton arm where he’d tapped and left a seal earlier.

It was obvious that the mokuton wasn’t completely obedient to Danzo. If anything, the branches that twitched and moved towards his ankles froze and stilled, halting the attack its current wielder had no doubt commanded of it. Tobirama’s chakra pulsed and rushed through the limb from where his feet touched the pale white arm and resonated with the familiar and sickeningly twisted chakra there. He felt the shadow of natural life and the shockingly dark and twisted hate in it before it seemed to still and go quiet. The branches and wood were refusing to move as he struck down with his kunai on Danzo’s head and forced the golden gauntlet braces on the right arm to open and break.

Danzo used the remaining stubborn growths from his first surprise attack to block the barrage of ice senbon, but when he stiffened at the arm refusing to listen to him any further, Tobirama tasted victory. However, Danzo was a wily opponent and hardly ever without moves available.

It was a well-timed shunshin that allowed Tobirama to dodge the wind bullet Danzo spat at him point blank. He moved to Danzo’s left side, water slicked and hardened down his hands and kunai as he moved to strike the elder’s unprotected side. Kagami moved in concert with him, lightning chakra chittering and sparking down his tanto and highlighting the vicious grin he had on his face.

It tugged on Tobirama’s memory and perception, feeling both Danzo’s and Kagami’s chakra surging near his once again. Once upon a time it had been almost comforting and familiar. After so many years of training them, evaluating them to see how he could help best teach them to be better, Tobirama was intimately familiar with the feel of both men’s chakra.

He could read the pair like a book.

When he felt the slide in Danzo’s chakra signaling a wind jutsu, he almost lashed out a leg to knock Kagami out of the way. But then that smokey, popping chakra molded over his own, purposely telling him to hold off.

This was new.

Kagami pulled his tanto back tight by his side and thrust his bare hand forward. A seal bloomed in the air around his palm. The incredibly precise and detailed seal shined white as the Air Vacuum jutsu collided into it. Tobirama was already in the air above Danzo at this moment, jaw clenched to contain the water bullet behind his lips for the extra microsecond to build pressure.

Facing attacks from two directions, Danzo had no choice but to move.

And he moved right into Airi’s claws.

Tobirama’s litter sister screamed in fury as she sank her teeth into Danzo’s right shoulder and dug her back claws into his side. The surprise of the ambush made the elder stumble and Tobriama finally spat his water bullet. To his disappointment, Danzo dodged and tried to put Airi in the line of fire. However, he expected this and dismissed Airi, making her disappear in a cloud smoke.

What Danzo couldn’t dodge was Kagami finally completing his seal.

“Release!” Kagami shouted as he re-aimed his glowing seal at Danzo. The very same Air Vacuum it had absorbed was launched back at its original user. It was only Danzo’s stolen right arm and eye that allowed him to react fast enough and block without getting cut in half. The elder was slammed back, nearly into the same spot Tobirama had crashed into on the wall.

He was in the perfect position to attack, off balance and stunned. It was an opportunity Kagami didn’t hesitate to take, but Tobirama’s original goal had been met. Danzo had moved and thus cleared Tobirama’s path to Naruto.

Absently, he summoned Airi again on his way to the small boy. He gathered his sprout into his arms, squeezing the precious child close as he jumped back towards the hallway he’d come from. It put Kagami and Airi between them and Danzo, allowing Tobirama time to assess his nephew.

Tobirama breathed just a tiny bit better as he got his first real look of his sprout since he felt the boy disappear from his senses. Finally, finally he had his sprout safe with him again. “Naruto, are you okay?” he demanded, running his hands down the child’s arms. “Did he hurt you?” He sucked in a sharp breath when the boy flinched away from him and yanked his hands back from where he’d just touched. “Let me heal—”

“Stop it! Who are you?!”

The man startled and moved his eyes from where he’d thought his sprout had been hurt to find blue eyes. Blue eyes that were…staring at him in fear.

Tobirama reared back, making his hands easily seen by the child. “Naruto?” His nephew met his eyes, meaning he was tracking and could see him. “Does your head hurt?” He tried lifting his hands again, to feel along the child’s scalp, but the boy curled away and took a large step back. Tobirama quickly snagged the boy’s shirt too keep him safe within his range. “Naruto?” The man was getting genuinely worried now. Why wasn’t Naruto seeing him? Couldn’t he recognize him? “It’s me, Tobirama. Your uncle.” Was it a genjutsu? Danzo did have Kagami’s eye. “Kagami!” he called. “I need your expertise!”

“Trade out with me then!” his former student yelled back, sounding harried and harassed.

Naruto slapped and dug his nails into the hand Tobirama had still clutching his shirt. “No, you’re not! You’re not my uncle!”

Tobirama caught Naruto’s shoulder as he tried to lunge past him. “Naruto!” he scolded on reflex, alarmed. Scared.

“Danzo is my uncle!”

“What are you…” Tobirama froze as he recalled the fact that Kagami’s eye was uncovered on Danzo’s face. He’d reflexively kept his own gaze averted, but…

Tobirama stopped breathing as he turned his head, peering between the barricade of Kagami and Airi to look at his former student. Even in the dark dimness of the room, even with Danzo all the way across the room, that damned eye glowed. And on its iris was the rounded lotus of a mangekyo sharingan.

“As if they didn’t know his mangekyo was awakened after losing you.”

Kagami had received the mangekyo sharingan after believing Tobirama had died sacrificing himself against the Kinkaku squad. The same mangekyo sharingan that lent the users impossibly strong abilities.

Tobirama turned his gaze back to his whimpering sprout, who shook and trembled and looked across the battlefield pleadingly to Danzo. He swallowed roughly.

One of those abilities, he knew, was the strongest genjutsu known to man.

“Koto…amatsukami,” he rasped, his chest hurting with how tight it was.

Kagami jolted from where he stood braced. “That’s my… Don’t tell me…Danzo. Danzo, what did you do?!

The elder tsked. “What was necessary for the village. The jinchuriki’s loyalty and priorities needed to be fixed.”

No. No, no, no Sage please tell him he was wrong. “Naruto. Look at me.”

“Oji-chan,” his sprout cried. But it wasn’t Tobirama he was calling. Naruto was breathing hard as he fought the fingers that grabbed his chin and turned his face. Tears slipped down that heart-wrenchingly panicked face as he looked at him. No recognition. Only terror. “Oji-chan, help me!”

Tobirama struggled to right himself mentally from the blow to his psyche. His little one, his precious sprout…taken from him by Danzo.

His breath caught rough and wet in his throat, a smothered rumbling growl. “Danzo.” Tobirama closed his eyes against the sight of Naruto looking at him like he was a monster. “You’ll pay f—”

Any words he’d been about to say choked him as he felt a piece of paper press to the back of his hand, followed immediately by what felt like a building crashing down on him. The Senju shouted hoarsely as he found himself crushed to the floor by an invisible weight, his chakra draining out of him at an alarming rate into the seal on the back of his hand. The seal Naruto had put on him. “N-Nar…” he gasped, straining against the weight on him, reaching for the boy when he skittered out of reach.

“Bocchan!” Airi yelled upon hearing him and seeing him go down. At the sight of Naruto moving, she changed targets however. “Kitten, wait! Don—” She didn’t see the kunai in Naruto’s hand. Her gasp was ragged and stunned as she was stabbed before disappearing once more into smoke.

Kagami swore as he took in what was happening, pivoting to intercept Naruto, but Danzo was watching everything too. Tobirama’s cry of warning came too late. A mokuton tree caught Kagami and pinned him to the ground none-too-kindly. It didn’t even look like Kagami could breathe with how he kicked and strained, his face changing colors rapidly.

Tobirama could do nothing but watch as Naruto finally reached Danzo. Panic shot through him, everything in him telling him his nephew was in danger cowering by the elder’s side. But it felt as if any progress he made in trying to lift himself, trying to move, made the weight worse. Tobirama gritted his teeth and glanced at the paper seal on his hand.

An over-powered reversed weight seal powered by a wide-open chakra draining mechanism. The more he strained, the greater the weight the seal would press on him. Until his very body would be crushed under the tons of force.

Danzo had Naruto hold onto a seal, knowing Tobirama would eventually get his hands on his nephew again. Convinced, brainwashed, as he was, Naruto attacked him. And Tobirama hadn’t been looking because it was his sprout.

Bastard.

Tobirama broke out in a cold sweat as he was forced onto his chest again, the weight on his body making his very bones creak under the pressure. He had to get the seal off. He had to get to Naruto!

“Spr…Sp,” he tried to call, unable to expand his chest to breathe. Cracks formed in the rock under him. His shaking vision narrowed in on Danzo’s back. On the hand he had on Naruto. Leading him away! Tobirama wheezed, trying to move his hand to the seal on his opposite arm, but the deadly seal ripped and tore into his chakra with a voracious appetite, exponentially increasing the gravity weight by the second.

Naruto was getting further away. Gone willingly into an enemy’s arms.

He couldn’t die, he couldn’t, he couldn’t, he couldn’t lose Naruto!

As he activated his last resort—the one he hadn’t even used against the Kinkaku Squad—he ignored the voice in the back of his head telling him he’d already lost Naruto.

Kotoamatsukami was a perfect genjutsu.

Undetectable.

Irreversible.

Naruto would always look at him with terror now.

 

*****

 

Hiruzen had already cleared away his work by the time they kicked in the door to his house. Even as his Anbu leapt to his defense he waited behind his desk, hands in sight on its surface. He’d already sent his daughter and grandson away into a panic room, telling them to hide until he came for them.

The Hokage sighed as he listened to the fighting in his home. He had hoped and prayed that this wouldn’t come to fighting, to bloodshed. Sensei had always been one to try every avenue of diplomacy, manipulation, and avoidance before fighting was considered. He’d hoped that with Tobirama also moving pieces on the board, conflict could be avoided.

But it seems he was wrong.

Hiruzen wasn’t surprised when it was Choza Akimichi who stormed into his study. It had surprised him when he felt his sensei’s chakra flare and lash out in the Akimichi compound earlier, but he assumed that it was some kind of village-wide signal because soon after he began getting reports of other clans moving and seizing portions of the village. The Uchiha were mobilized at this point, the Yamanaka and Akimichi taking the Hokage tower and jonin station, and though he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of a Nara yet he’d been more than aware of the shadows in his office shifting and deepening. His sensei was apparently making it his personal mission to neutralize Danzo and Root if the last location of his chakra flare was anything to go by.

Choza looked thunderous as he came to a stop in front of his desk. At his back, other Akimichi followed. “Hiruzen Sarutobi, you are hereby detained for your crimes against my clan.”

Hiruzen raised an eyebrow, not having expected that. Charges for child neglect, abandonment, bloodline theft, gross misconduct and negligence, perhaps. But not crimes against the Akimichi. “You have me at a disadvantage,” he admitted. “I wasn’t aware that I’d done you or yours any harm.”

Dark eyes narrowed dangerously and he felt the killing intent from the other Akimichi raise and sour. “You deny sending Danzo Shimura to attack my clan?”

Hiruzen felt the blood drain from his face along with the exhaustion constantly weighing him down increase tenfold. “I do.”

“Do you deny sending your councilman to cut down my uncle and clan elder, harm my son, harm the Nara clan heir, and take the Senju clan heir?”

There was no air to breathe. The Hokage blinked dully, his hands tightening to the point of white knuckles. “He’s done what?” he asked in a barely-heard whisper.

Choza sneered at him before smoothing his expression into neutrality. “Surrender yourself peaceably into our custody. If you are truly innocent then you have nothing to fear, but until we have our justice, no one is safe.”

There was a ringing in his ears. “Danzo took…Naruto. I—”

The very air quivered and shook, silencing and stilling everyone in the room. It was a precursor to the deafening clap of air and crushing ocean cold as an entire section of the village erupted in an explosion higher than the Hokage mountain. A screaming roar shattered windows all over the village and every shinobi and civilian froze in complete and utter horror, turning their eyes to the horizon.

But instead of a fox looming out of the cloud of debris, blue chakra blazed and writhed and snapped, flattening nearby buildings.

The fury and bloodlust in that tsunami of chakra.

The Hokage swallowed roughly and turned his eyes blindly in the direction of what he could barely recognize as his old sensei.

It was so much worse than the Fox.

Chapter Text

Naruto was scared.

He clung tight to his uncle’s sleeve, trapping any sounds behind his teeth as his uncle made a whole tree hit the one-eyed Uchiha man.

“My enemies have come for you,” Danzo-ji-chan had told him as he pulled Naruto along. “My men will hold them back but we must go.”

He hadn’t expected his uncle’s enemy to be the Niidaime of all people. Senju had been terrifying, the way he’d moved so fast and grabbed him like that. Naruto hadn’t believed his uncle when he’d said that the little paper seal could save his life, but it’d taken out the former Hokage so easily! Even now the giant white-haired man gasped and tried to get up, his scary red eyes never once leaving Naruto.

A shiver wracked Naruto’s body and he turned to bury his face in his uncle’s side. He was so scared. He felt sick. His head hurt. He wanted nothing more than to sit with his uncle in their garden again, play with his elephant summons, and draw…

Elephants couldn’t purr…right?

Naruto winced as his headache spiked.

“Come, boy,” Danzo commanded, tightening the hand that held Naruto’s. The old man turned and started walking again, never once looking at him. It made Naruto’s chest hurt.

That wasn’t right either. He was sprout, wasn’t he? Like a little tree that would grow into a big tree. Like the…the big tree where his branch… No, that was silly. Trees couldn’t move.

Naruto lifted a hand to his throbbing head. Tears beaded his eyes as the overwhelming feeling came back now that the terror of being kidnapped was fading. His stomach rolled violently and where his hand was wrapped in an old withered palm, his skin crawled and itched. Every instinct and gut feeling in him was screaming that something was wrong and that he was in danger. But his uncle was here and keeping him safe. He was okay!

“No.”

The boy blinked at the very distant whisper. Even faded and washed out, he knew that voice.

“Bratling, you need to listen to me.”

Between one breath and the next, Naruto went from a super-secret ninja passageway to his flooded mind jail place. The jail bars could barely be seen with how close the Fox was to them, his luminescent orange fur overwhelming the dark bars. A glowing red eye—“You have red eyes like my uncle. Are you his family?—stared at him from within a band of dark fur.

Once Naruto was within its sight, it narrowed dangerously. “To think my host would fall prey to Uchiha whims. Despicable,” the bijuu spat and Naruto scowled.

“I don’t have to know what that means to know it’s mean. What do you want, Kyuubi? There’s a lot of stuff going on right now, believe it!”

Lips pulled back in a snarl. “You think I am not aware?!”

Kurama regarded the miniscule form of his current warden. Uzumaki. Wretched human lineage that thought they had the right to enslave and imprison him and his siblings. In those displeased blue eyes, he could see his first and second wardens.

“When you exert your power, you draw hatred towards you. Please stay quiet inside of me.”

As if Kurama had deserved to be put away like a lowly rat.

“You may be here to keep the world in check, but I am here to watch you.”

Like Kurama was an undeserved burden, like it was his fault she had to watch him.

And then, there had been him.

“You are no monster or demon. Truth be told, neither is your companion.”

That blasted Senju had no business in speaking about Kurama. Especially the Senju who was chosen kin of Kurama’s first warden. Kurama had wanted to scoff upon hearing those words spoken, because what did the Pale One know of him?

And yet that one had the gall to remind him of his father.

Kurama had watched as the Senju had spoken to Naruto. He had looked through Naruto’s eyes to see and feel the Pale One wipe the child’s tears away, to meet his gaze and ensure his words were driven deep. Deep enough to reach Kurama. Those red eyes should’ve infuriated him, but instead he saw the quiet happiness and pain as his father named them all. That voice should’ve irritated his ears, but instead he heard the conviction and truth and love in those words. The Pale One should’ve reminded Kurama of his uncle given his physical appearance, but still his father came to mind.

He tsked and raised himself from his lounge, making the infantile human jump and tilt his head back to watch him. Kurama didn’t care what others thought of him. Humans were all the same. Hatred and fear even when Kurama had done nothing to them.

“It’s not right that you were locked up like this. It’s not fair. So…So when I become a seal master, I’m gonna set you free, believe it!”

But children knew not of hate.

It was the only time in their short lifespans that Kurama could bear to think of them. Humans were slow and stupid, so it took time for their wasteful parents to teach them to hate and to fear. This one, his current host who insisted on annoying him during his naps—the fucking pest—had not yet learned to hate. He knew of it—Father give him patience, the child experienced plenty of hate and fear. By some celestial miracle, his host hadn’t been infected by it yet.

However, someone was trying to instill him with fear. Fear towards what may possibly be the one human who would teach his host not to hate but to love.

…Kurama wished he could kill the Pale One for making him dwell on the memory of his father so much lately. It was keeping him from his naps and making him soft.

He didn’t care. No. But if he hated one thing more than being jailed by an Uzumaki, it was being controlled by an Uchiha. Or at least, controlled by an Uchiha eye.

Kurama scoffed and tapped a claw to the water-covered stone of his prison. “Listen here, bratling, because I’m not going to repeat myself.”

“You never do anyway.”

“Shut up! We’re in danger. The one you call uncle isn’t your uncle. He’s cast a genjutsu on you, making you think he’s your family.”

The little thing didn’t have an ounce of respect or fear in him because he spluttered and didn’t believe him. “W-What? No, no. You’re wrong, you stupid fox! Danzo’s my uncle, believe it!”

Kurama was supremely unimpressed. “You know I’m right. You were practically born with me, you have the instincts to know when something isn’t right.” He lifted a paw and pointed a claw that was bigger than the child at the other’s stomach. “You burn and itch to get away, to be sick and purge yourself of this poison he put in you.”

He could practically smell the panic and discord growing in the boy. He could certainly hear his labored breathing and accelerated heart. “We’re…We’re being hunted! Of course I don’t feel good!” Tiny clawless hands rose up and dug into golden fur. “Danzo’s my un-uncle. He is! He…He found me and took me in and…and…”

Even as his host spoke, Kurama poked and prodded altered and changed memories to the surface of the other’s mind. He was a bit heavy handed with the amount he forced to come forward. The child cried out in pain as his mind was overloaded with memories he thought were true but his subconscious rioted against. Kurama felt an echo of the child’s strain, but he refused to feel guilty. The more stress he put the boy under, the sooner something would break. He just hoped it was the genjutsu and not his host.

“Give me your hand,” Kurama instructed, maneuvering and sliding his paw through the bars of his cell. He curled his claws to press into his palm. Wet blue eyes stared up at him, conflicted and confused. Kurama sighed, tired. “I know you don’t trust me, but you are my host. If anything bad were to happen to you, I’ll be in danger, so you can trust me to at least make sure you’re safe.”

The child hesitated for a second longer, peering between him and his fist, before shakily lowering his hands. “Y-You think I don’t trust you?” Kurama froze as the brat sniffled and scrubbed at his face. The boy stepped forward and gave a wane, strained smile as he held up his fist. “You’re my friend, believe it.”

This kid.

Kurama was careful to regulate himself as he felt the tiny, barely-there fist bump his. It wouldn’t do to poison his host’s chakra or burn out his growing chakra coils. But he hadn’t been sleeping away all this time, he could repel and undo the Uchiha genjutsu easily enough.

“Whatever, Uzumaki,” he grumbled as he resonated himself with his host’s chakra, guiding it to untether the mostly hidden illusion. “Let me nap, damn it.”

Naruto whimpered as agony split through his head. It felt like his head was going to explode, believe it! He didn’t mean to, but he fell to his knees and clutched at his head, breathing hard. It hurt so much. He felt dizzy with how everything was shuffling and changing in his head.

His uncle…No, no, NO! Danzo! Danzo had taken him, attacked his friends. Attacked Tobi-oji-chan. Wait, no. No, no, no, no. Naruto had attacked his uncle. He’d put the seal on his uncle and…and stabbed Airi-chan!

Bile crawled up his throat and his back spasmed as he was sick.

He’d…He’d hurt his uncle. He’d thought…

Naruto tried to be sick again, but a harsh hand clamped onto the back of his neck. “We don’t have time for this, boy!” Danzo hissed, pulling him to his feet roughly, forcing him to walk again.

He felt simultaneously hot and cold. He was scared down to his core, absolutely terrified because this old man wasn’t his uncle, was trying to take him away from his actual uncle. But he was scared enough to be angry. Scared enough to do something.

“Don’t touch me!” Naruto screamed. With the kunai he still held—the same one he’d stabbed Airi-chan with, oh God—he stabbed the stupid old man in the stomach. “You’re not my uncle,” he snarled, glaring at Danzo as he stumbled.

When the old man started turning to look at him, he felt Kurama move violently within him. “Don’t look him in the eye!”

Naruto squeezed his eyes shut on instinct and tried to pull back from the hand still holding his neck. If anything, it tightened. “You misbehaving miscreant,” Danzo whispered and Naruto fought as his other hand grabbed his face. “I don’t know how you did it, but you will look at me.”

“No!” Fear began to overwhelm his anger as wrinkled fingers moved over his eyes and dug in harshly. The blood on the kunai made his grip slip and he lost hold of his weapon. “No!” Naruto cried as his back met the ground. “Tobi-ji-chan! Tobi-ji-chan!

The next moment, Naruto could not recall happening. One moment Danzo was over him in this dark scary underground place and the next it was loud and bright. Naruto gasped from where he lay. No longer was there a stone ceiling over him, but the night sky up above. Bright, bright blue light made it seem like day and finally, finally he felt his uncle’s chakra lay thick and heavy over him. A snowy blanket that would keep him safe.

A smile ticked up Naruto’s lips as the blanket clung to him tight. His uncle was okay, his uncle was here! He rolled from his back to his side, looking to find his uncle. His smile dropped when he did see him.

They were still in the underground cave, though its roof was gone now, probably from the bright blue chakra radiating off of Tobirama. His uncle stood where Naruto had hurt him by putting that seal on him. The seal was gone now, yes, his uncle was standing upright, yeah. But…something was wrong.

Something was really wrong.

Kurama shifted uneasily inside of him. “I’d heard he’d been done in by the two leeches I had for a while, but I don’t know how they managed that if he was like this,” the bijuu muttered. “Kid, back up from the eye-stealer. In fact, just run away. It’s not a good idea for a weakling like you to be near this. You’ll probably die.

Naruto could barely hear his companion. He couldn’t look away from where Tobirama stood. His limbs and stance were loose, relaxed. He looked like a puppet dangling on its strings. “J-Ji-chan.”

“Hey. Are you listening to me?”

The fountain of bright blue chakra shrunk down from where it had been blazing up into the sky. It came down, down, down to burn like blue fire around his uncle. Two spouts of chakra flared at the top of his white hair. Slowly, almost lazily, Tobirama straightened, rolling his neck and shoulders until he lifted his head. From this distance, Naruto couldn’t see his uncle’s expression, but he felt the chakra around him tighten.

His breath caught when Tobirama was suddenly right in front of his face!!

His uncle was different. Those red eyes that always watched him and were the most expressive part of his uncle reflected his own eyes. Tobirama’s pupils were long and narrow, like a cat’s. The three red lines Naruto had traced on more than one occasion had grown and multiplied, making him look like the tigers in the big forest. Naruto held still as one hand rose up and reached for his face. At the tip of his uncle’s fingertips more chakra glowed, sharp and deadly.

He didn’t know what to think. Something was wrong was his uncle.

Then came the chuff and Naruto blinked in surprise. That…

Red cat eyes crinkled faintly as he looked back at Tobirama’s face and…and he purred.

Naruto sagged as the chakra clawed hand smoothed over his cheek and into his hair. “Ji-chan,” the boy murmured and a warm lingering kiss was pressed to his forehead. He closed his eyes and leaned into his uncle. He was safe. He was safe now.

A flash of light drew his attention and he opened his eyes again as Tobirama leaned back. Over his uncle’s shoulder he could see a wispy length of bright blue chakra lash like a whip, blocking Danzo from attacking his uncle’s back. Naruto scowled at the old man. That wasn’t very cool, believe it.

The thing of blue chakra flexed and threw Danzo back, giving them space once more. Naruto knew his uncle had to fight now, but he still wasn’t happy to let him go. Tobirama carefully worked the hands Naruto had clutching at his vest loose. With one last touch he vanishing in a flash.

 

*****

 

Threat, threat, danger, killfightkillitkillit!

His ears hurt from all the sound echoing loudly in this stone den, his nose stung from all the foreign scents. The dark of the den offered some relief, allowing him to focus and see as well as his eyes could. There were two other beings in this den-not-his-den along with him and his kitten. His kitten was behind him, quiet and alert. Part of him itched to chin his kitten and hold him tight, to rub away the strange scents that covered his natural scent of wind-forest-FOX, but the rest of him bristled at the presence of two others he didn’t know.

He bared his teeth and hissed low and long, warning them away, warning what would happen if they came close.

One was hiding under a tree, the other facing him. This one, this was the one who’s scent covered his kitten. This was the one who stole his kitten.

He gnashed his teeth and sank down onto his haunches. He curled his claws, his gaze narrowing in on the stranger facing him and his kitten.

When the stranger did move, he moved faster.

Attackkillmaimkillkilldestroy

Kittendangerprotecthideprotect

FearRAGEdisgustscared

The tree the other stranger was hiding under exploded when he kicked his enemy into it. He winced at the cacophony of sound hurting his ears, but the paleness of the limb in his claws drew his attention. Lifting the limb, he sniffed at it. He growled softly under his breath. Plantrottreebrotherunnaturalsicksicksicksick.

His skin hurt from even holding this thing it was so wrong. And then it started to move and threatTHREATTHREATTHREAT!!

The tree that exploded from the unnaturalWRONGbrotherthing made him take further steps back from it after he’d thrown it away. His kitten grabbed at his leg, shaking. He watched the treebrotherthing, eyes darting from leaf to moving leaf. It didn’t feel right, threat? Cover? Fleefightrunbreak?

Kitten whined, instantly drawing his attention. He purred, but the sound was strained even to his ears. He shuffled back further, herding his kitten further from the notrightbrothertree.

Shuffling feet and voices suddenly caught the edge of his hearing and he whipped his face upwards, glaring at the den entrance up above. He couldn’t see but he could hear. More strangers, more enemies, not good notgoodnonothreatscoming… He bared his teeth and grumbled a low growl, unsettled and unhappy. He should fleerunhidekitten.

He was just crouching to pick his kitten up when movement came from the corner of his vision. Too close enemy attacking!!

Enemyhereenemydown

He screamedroared as he slammed his enemyattacker down to the ground, claws deep in his shoulders and all his own strength pressing the other down, pinning him. His mouth salivated as he pressed a knee to the vulnerable unprotected belly of his opponent. Blood. Blood and pain and weakness. One eye gone, one limb gone. His enemy was weak.

Savage joy and satisfaction filled him up as he released one clawed hand and set into rippingtearingKILLINGDIEDIEIDIE

His blood sang and raced inside of him as he panted for breath. Soft growls slipped with every breath and he raked his gaze of the enemy under him, searching for signs of life. Bloodbloodpainbreath? He tilted his head, listening hard. No movement. Dead? He leaned down and breathed deep, holding the scent, before sneezing. Blood blood blood blood. No more.

A chuff called out for him.

He stiffened and turned his head, snarling and baring his teeth. The other one, the one who hid under the tree. Threatenemykill?? His limbs shook as he rose himself from his kill, readying himself to fight again.

But the other one chuffed again, the sound not quite right but still calling for his attention. He cocked his head as the other lowered himself, kept his eyes averted. The other completely turned his head, refusing to look at him.

Submission, fear, respect.

He blinked and slowly relaxed. Notthreatyet. But more coming.

He stepped quickly to return to kitten, eyeing the den entrance above and listening to the othernotthreatyet. Othernotthreatyet moved towards his kill and while he wanted to scare the other away hiskillhismealforhiskittenbackOFF he felt more fear from the number of encroaching predators.

His purr was stronger this time as he returned to his kitten once more. Kitten shook, reeking of fear and relief. Widelargeblueeyes stared up at him as he crooned lowly, trying to ease his kitten. Still, his kitten readily went into his grasp and he shuddered, desperately chinning his kitten.

He’d been so scared.

Notsafeyetfleehideyesgogogo.

He was rising to his feet when an alarmed shout came from OthernottreatThreatNow?. The ground under him dipped and rolled. PAINLOUDHOT ripped through his senses, something exploding behind him!! He curled around kitten, trying to shield, but the sound of cracking rock stole his breath. Den falling, den breakingrunRUNRUN!!

Terror gripped him tighter than his own grip on his kitten as the den caved in on them, burying them in choking darkness.

 

*****

 

It was hard to breathe.

Naruto coughed, waking up in jerks and spurts. The air stung his lungs, sticking to his throat, and when he tried to clutch at his chest, he found he couldn’t move.

Panic forced him to wake up the rest of the way. Recent memories of the night, having dinner with Torifu-jiijii, Chouji, and Shikamaru, being taken by a creepy old man with one eye, being brainwashed and attacking his real uncle, something being wrong with Tobi-ji-chan, and so much blood… The explosion, the cave in!

Naruto squirmed and strained to free his arms, legs, anything! But it felt like he was being pressed in on all sides. It was super dark too. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t move. He was…He was buried. They hadn’t made it out in time and now he was buried alive oh no no nononono!

Something in front of him shifted and coughed. Naruto froze before carefully feeling at what was keeping his arms and hands tucked tight to his chest. It felt soft, not jagged, giving. The very last thing he remembered was his uncle squeezing him so tight while Naruto screamed and clung to him.

Naruto swallowed, wincing at how dry his mouth felt. “J-Ji-chan?” There was no response. The boy sucked in a big breath, wincing as rock pressed tighter to his back as a result. “Ji-chan!”

He’d never been in such a small space before. His voice felt so loud and yet also like it didn’t go anywhere. Naruto shifted again, wiggling his legs. He whimpered when he felt the rocks pinning his ankles and the sharp pain that shot up his left leg.

“Ji-chan, wake up!”

He tried to grab a hold of the cloth in front of him, but it wasn’t the loose material his uncle usually wore. It was stiff and taunt and hard, refusing to let Naruto grab anything on it. His heart jerked and he threw his whole strength into wiggling his arm up. He needed…He needed…!

His fingers brushed soft fur and he grabbed a fistful of it.

Ji-chan, please!”

The chest he was pressed so closely to jerked and another cough came. Naruto sniffled and breathed hard, trying not to cry. He tugged on the fur he held so tight.

“Ji-chan?”

He couldn’t see anything, but he felt it when his uncle’s chin dipped just enough to brush the hand holding his fur. “Spr…rout.”

Naruto’s breath caught and he froze. He’d never heard his uncle sound like that. So quiet. So weak. His uncle’s next cough was wet, like he was trying to clear his throat. The man groaned quietly and the tears finally spilled down the child’s face. He smelled blood. “You’re…You’re okay. Right, Ji-chan? You’re okay?”

The hand on the back of his neck flexed and Naruto sobbed outright when he heard the bones there grind and snap before the hand carefully stilled again.

“You’re okay, right?!”

His uncle had to be okay. He couldn’t really be hurt!

It was so hard to breathe, there wasn’t enough air, he couldn’t breathe!

“Sprout.”

Naruto almost thought he was dreaming when he felt the achingly familiar chilled and heavy chakra wrap around him. It pressed on him in a way that made the rocks and stone burying them fade from mind, but it still wasn’t right. His uncle’s chakra usually felt like the biggest, thickest, bestest blanket in the whole village. When Tobirama laid his chakra on him, Naruto felt safe, like nothing could touch him, like a big hug.

This?

It was barely even a sheet.

The boy ground his teeth together as he closed his useless eyes, pressing his face into his uncle’s vest, muffling his cries. Tobirama shushed him with hitching and catching breaths. After he was finally able to push the sobs down, Naruto pleaded, “Please tell me you’re going to be okay.”

The chin grazing his hand turned and he felt sticky wet lips touch his skin there. “You’re g…going to be okay, sprout.”

Naruto caught onto the phrasing immediately and he yanked on the fur. “Not me! You!”

His head spun as his uncle shivered. He felt every small and painful movement, pressed so close to the man as he was. “I…I wish I could l-lie to you.”

No, no, no, please no not his uncle. Not Tobirama. Not again!

“Shh, shh,” Tobirama whispered. “It’s okay. I-It’s okay. Save your…your breath. Please, sprout.”

Naruto wailed brokenly.

Not his uncle, he prayed. Not the man who’d taken in him and shown him love for the first time in his life.

Please, he begged to anyone listening. Please don’t take him from me. Mito-ba-chan, Itama-ji-chan, Kawa-ji-chan, Kami-sama, anyone!

“…m-my idiot anija. He didn’t th-think I’d know where he was…where he was going. I knew he w-was…seeing an U-Uchiha…”

He’s my family. He’s my only family. He’s the one who finally saw me and I can’t…I can’t lose him. It hurt so much before him and I can’t go back!

“…M-Madara and I, we usss-used to just. Bicker at each o-other. S-Sometimes over silly things. Like…like tea. He thought I…I was cr-razy for liking this one tea…Can’t ev…even rem’mber what it w-was…”

I know…he was your family first. And you probably miss him a lot. But please let me have him for just a little while longer.

“…They w’ld’ve l-loved you. S-So much, sprout…”

Naruto tried not to hear what his uncle was whispering. Wheezing. Gasping. He knew the man was trying to comfort him, to calm him down.

But it was too much like a goodbye.

“Y-You’re g’na…be…good, spr…I…I love you. M-mm…m-more than…y’kno...”

Don’t take him from me! I love him, I love him so much!! I don’t want him to die!!

Naruto would never remember the yellow skeletal hand that dug through the stone and cradled them out from their living grave. He would never remember yelling and sobbing, clinging so tightly to his uncle that when someone finally wrenched him free, he ripped his uncle’s beloved fur mantle and took it with him.

He would remember finally seeing his uncle. He would remember seeing him laying too still, too quiet, too small on the broken ground. White and blue replaced by red and brown.

He’d remember seeing red eyes closed and a chest frozen as he clutched dirty white fur in his hands and screaming himself hoarse as he was torn away from the man he loved.

“HE’S NOT BREATHING!!” he would hear over and over and over and over and

Please.

I don’t want to be alone.

Chapter Text

Tobirama had never felt this comfortable. The aches in his joints, the stiffness in his back, the perpetual exhaustion in his bones…gone. He felt so light, cradled in soft lush grass. He could almost smell the rich earth underneath him.

Even with his eyes closed, he sensed this was his opportunity to finally rest, to finally put down his burdens and stop his trials.

To truly rest.

Small hands touched his cheeks, little fingertips tracing where his sage seals should be. In the corner of his mind, Tobirama knew he should be unsettled and alert, moving away from the hands and to defend himself. But he could only sigh in contentment, soaking up the kindness and gentleness in those hands.

Those very same hands fully pressed to his cheeks. Smalls drops of water landed on his face.

Was it raining?

“It’s not your time yet,” a young voice whispered. If Tobirama were breathing, he would’ve choked. “What are you doing here, nii-chan?”

A feminine voice softly chuckled off to the side. “Being a fool,” a woman teased in an even tone.

Another young voice giggled a moment before a second pair of small hands took up his own. “Yeah. Tobi-nii is always so reckless. Getting hurt and forgetting to eat and forgetting to sleep. Not that Hashi-nii was any help.” That last bit was purely directed elsewhere and Sage preserve him

He hasn’t heard that fully belly laugh in so long.

“Tobirama is a force of nature. I hardly think I should be held accountable for that!” the man drawled happily. “If anything, he was always my keeper. Isn’t that right, otouto.” A large hand, as warm as the sun smoothed his bangs back from his forehead. “Oh, don’t cry. It’s okay, Tobirama.”

No. No, it wasn’t. Tobirama had missed them so much. He’d missed them all so much that even as tired and weary as he was, even though he couldn’t move or open his eyes, he cried for them. He so desperately wanted to be with them again.

The first young one wiped the tears from his face, sounding sniffly as he spoke. “It really is, nii-chan. We’re happy here.”

The second little one squeezed his hand. “We can wait. Promise!”

Tobirama tried to open his eyes, he put all his focus into lifting his eyelids just a little bit.

But the man’s hand moved from his forehead to cover his eyes. “Don’t be so eager to join us, Tobirama,” he chided gently. “Once you lay eyes upon this realm, there’s no going back.”

It wasn’t fair!

“And you do need to go back,” the woman spoke. “While we can wait, your sprout cannot.”

How he wished he could sob and plead and beg.

Forgive me.

Please, please, please forgive me.

A slimmer hand, chilled and calloused from all the brushwork it used to do, slid into his free hand, lifting it from where it rested. “It’s as I told you, little brother. We are with you always and one day we will meet again.” A soft kiss was pressed to the back of his hand.

“Yeah, Tobi-nii! And then we can play again.”

“But not a day too soon, nii-chan! We love you.”

“We’re so proud of you. Until then, Tobirama.”

I love and miss you all so much.

 

*****

 

He hurt.

Tobirama bit the inside of his cheek against groaning as he roused himself from unconsciousness. His head felt muzzy and tight. Experience told him it was either a concussion or migraine or pain medication. Knowing himself, it was probably all three.

His chest ached sharply with every breath he took and it felt like kunai stabbed into his head when he slit his eyes open. Spots of black and white danced around his swirling vision, making it impossible to focus. He swallowed and felt his throat click.

How long had he been unconscious?

A hand gently touched the back of his and for an impossible moment he thought…but that wasn’t possible. He couldn’t have actually…

His sight was further obscured from the tears that welled up and he blinked quickly to clear them, straining to see who was with him.

It was the work of a few moments, but he managed to see he was in a hospital room laid out in a bed. It was dim in the room and the person with him…the shock of white hair told him that it was the cub at his side. He squinted and saw that Kakashi’s mouth was moving behind his mask. His ears felt stuffed. He couldn’t really hear anything over his own heartbeat.

He probably would’ve tried signing or signaling that he couldn’t hear at the moment, but the splash of gold at Kakashi’s shoulder distracted him.

Tobirama’s heart lurched at the sight of his sprout asleep on the teen’s shoulder. The monitor at his bed side began to beep faster, matching his accelerating heartrate when he made out the dried and irritated tear tracks on the child’s face. It hurt and his shoulder made its protest clear with a bolt of agony; however, nothing was going to stop him from reaching for his beloved nephew.

Except…Naruto didn’t know him.

Memories conflicted in his head and he halted his hand. Danzo had used Kagami’s mangekyo sharingan on Naruto, made him think Tobirama was an enemy. Of everything mixed up and cloudy in his head, he could clearly remember Naruto staring up at him terrified.

His hand shook as he slowly took it back. Tobirama couldn’t take his eyes off the sleeping boy and the gentle rise and fall of his back. His precious little sprout, his beloved nephew didn’t know him anymore.

Tobirama squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the pain: both mental and physical. His chest hurt from his erratic breathing and his head felt like a spinning top.

Sage, he hurt so much.

“Ji-chan?”

His heart beat was loud enough to drown out everything at this point. Except that small voice. Opening his eyes once more, he found bleary blue eyes blinking back at him. They quickly cleared and widened. “J-Ji-chan, you’re awake!”

Naruto recognized him. Naruto recognized him.

Tobirama didn’t know how, he couldn’t remember, but for once in his life he didn’t care about the how of things. His focus was instead on his squirming and crying sprout, reaching for him but held back by Kakashi.

“Give…” Tobirama coughed, “Give ‘m to m-me.” The pain of a healing body didn’t matter to him as he shifted and lifted his arms, wanting his sprout in his arms again. “Gimme my sprout,” he rasped, scared. His energy was already fading and he needed his sprout!

And suddenly the child was in his arms.

Something so tight and tense in his chest began to loosen as Naruto oh-so-carefully laid by his side and shuffled as close as he could without actually touching Tobirama. The man curled a quivering arm around the boy’s back and ruined that effort by tugging Naruto firmly to him. He hadn’t even noticed the fur in the boy’s grasp until his sprout pushed and nudged the fur to be under both their heads.

Tobirama ached and hurt in ways he hadn’t in a long time. Still. None of that mattered compared to the tiny heart he could feel fluttering in the chest pressed to his side or the shoulders rising and falling under his arm. It was the little puffs of breaths on his neck and the tickle of fur against his cheeks that finally allowed him to rest.

 

*****

 

For once in his life, Tobirama didn’t want to move or to work or do research. His eyes fluttered shut against the sight of the hospital room. He’d usually be gone and vanished from his room at this point, burying himself back in his study and lab, but with his sprout in his arms, he found the need to do anything was greatly diminished.

Tobirama pressed his nose deeper into freshly washed golden locks and breathed deep. Naruto snuffled in his sleep, grumbling and lifting a hand to push at his face. The man smiled, content with his lot in life right now.

“So, he’s your kid, hm?” Tobirama wasn’t really inclined to opening his eyes and having a conversation at this point, but he hadn’t quite gotten his fill of Kagami yet. The man was lounging in the visitor’s chair, slid halfway down and out of the seat with his feet lifted up and resting on Tobirama’s hospital bed. Kagami rubbed at his right eye and nodded at Naruto. “Can’t say I’ve seen you look like that with anyone but your family and me and the others before we became assholes.”

“Watch your language,” the Senju muttered reflexively. “And don’t rub your eye.” The eye Kagami had taken back from Danzo before the elder blew up everything.

Kakashi had debriefed him during whatever night he’d truly started to wake up. Time was slipping from his grasp, but his memories were slowly returning. He could feel his burnt chakra coils, void of his reserves of normal chakra. The man could also feel that the seals on his face were empty and bare; the nature chakra they normally held expended and gone in his previous fit of madness and desperation.

He’d come to learn that in his insanity, he’d nearly killed Danzo. Given that he’d nearly killed Hashirama during his first and only time fully using his sage mode, he didn’t know how Danzo escaped death at his hands. Sage, Tobirama was surprised and relieved that he hadn’t actually turned on Naruto and Kagami, who he remembered had been in his immediate vicinity, let alone turn around and destroy the village while his senses were still gone from him.

As it was, it had been Danzo who’d triggered the greatest damage. Not only did he trigger a self-destruction bomb seal after Kagami had retrieved his eye, but his seal was tied to the greater suppression seals that had masked the complex from Tobirama’s senses. Tobirama could imagine the entire Root Headquarters collapsed and buried all too well and it was daunting. It had only been Kakashi’s promise that he, Tenzo, their allies, and the initiates had survived the collapse that had allowed him to sleep once more.

The retrieval of Naruto had been a success and the extermination of Danzo complete. He was slightly saddened that his former student’s life had ended in such a way, but Tobirama felt that Danzo’s death either matched or was too easy for his crimes and atrocities.

Kagami rolled both eyes slowly and deliberately. Tobirama had to resist huffing a laugh at his cheek. “Medics gave me the all clear. One stolen eye returned and reunited with yours truly. It doesn’t hurt at all. It’s just,” he waved a hand back and forth in front of the eye in question, “Danzo must’ve used it at least a little because the vision in it’s gone down. I’m still adjusting to that.”

Tobirama hummed in understanding, thinking back to his notes and work he’d done on reversing or healing the degeneration on a sharingan wielder’s eyes. Back when he’d first started this line of research, he’d wanted to help keep his newly dubbed student Kagami from eventually going blind. Maybe he should look into it again, pick up where he left off.

“You didn’t answer my question.” Kagami pointed at the child once more. “He’s your kid?”

“My nephew,” he corrected, but when Kagami raised an unimpressed eyebrow he elaborated, “His branch grows on mine. He is my sprout.”

“Ah. That’d be what it is.” Kagami glanced away, towards the window. “It’s so crazy to think. The Senju are gone. The Uzumaki. Fuck—Sorry, frick, if what I’ve been hearing is true then the Uchiha were on their way out too.” Tobirama didn’t reply and just waited. “Has it…It’s really been thirty-some-odd-years. I have a grandson, sensei.”

“I’m aware. We’ve met. He carries your blood and line well. I approve of him.”

Dark eyes darted back to him and pale lips twisted. “Thanks,” he replied lowly, “But what I mean is that I was barely even a father when I was last free. Ruriko was still my little baby girl before Danzo came after me and now my grandson is a tried and tested orphaned shinobi.”

Still, he waited.

It was a long while before Kagami wet his lips. “How do you do it? How do you just let everything go and start again?”

“I haven’t.” Grief poked gently at his heart. “I pray and mourn for my family still. I couldn’t reconcile what most of my students had done and become. I’m still hanging onto my past, Kagami. I’ve lost them. But I’m not letting that keep me from living my present and preparing for my future. Their future.” He rubbed his hand up and down Naruto’s arm, so pleased that the limb wasn’t just skin and bones now. There was actual flesh, muscle, and fat to his nephew. “Grieve how you must, but you know as well as anyone that we can’t stop.”

It was in the very definition of shinobi life that death was a constant companion. They were trained and prepared to deal out death and to accept it. It was harder to accept a loved one’s death, but in the end, dead was dead and one day they would all be reunited.

Kagami bowed his head. Tobirama pretended not to hear the catch in his breathing. “I ripped up the tombstone my daughter, son-in-law, and grandson had honored and kept clean for years.”

“Is this how you grieve?” Tobirama already knew the answer: he’d helped Kagami through the loss of Madara and his mother. Neither of them were strangers to death.

“It’s how I rage,” Kagami whispered.

The silence dragged on once more. Tobirama didn’t know he was starting to drift and fall asleep until he heard the door slide open. He sucked in a quick breath and jerked his head up from where it’d tipped to rest on Naruto’s. His sprout startled as well, grumbling and stretching. Tobirama muttered an apology before focusing on his visitor. “Tsuna-chan,” he greeted before clearing his throat. “I’ve heard Torifu is in recovery thanks to you.”

His niece tsked and curled her lip, closing the door behind her loudly. “Did you know,” she started very deliberately, strongly, “that a shinobi’s body is so used to chakra that when there isn’t enough chakra present it begins to shut down? That the shinobi’s body is so used to having that catalytic energy thrumming through it that it uses chakra in minute amounts to perform bodily functions such as making the heart beat, mending wounds, and maintaining homeostasis?”

Tobirama felt like there was a threat in her words. He wasn’t sure if he was too tired or too apathetic to really feel wary of it. “Yes, that’s called chakra exhaustion.” Kagami was shrinking down further in his chair, watching Tsunade with wide eyes as she strode over to his bedside. Naruto shuffled their blanket higher, tucking it over his head and shivering. It was the work of a moment’s concentration, but Tobirama managed to start raising his body’s temperature to help warm the boy.

The smile on Tsuna-chan’s face was everything but kind and warm. “Then you must be aware that by constantly keeping nature chakra sealed in your body that your body has acclimated to not only your usual chakra but also your nature chakra.” Tobirama began to feel mildly threatened when her smile widened even further. “You exhausted yourself of both, dear. Honorable. Uncle.”

Ah. So that was why she was furious.

Tsunade opened her mouth, but paused as she glanced at the lump pressed to his side. Her teeth clicked together and Tobirama could visibly see her counting back from thirty while breathing deep and slow.

“I haven’t operated or practiced in years, Tobi-ji-chan,” she admitted at length, opening her eyes once more. “I mean that literally. Once I left Konoha decades ago, I stopped. And suddenly you put Torifu-jii’s life in my hands, your life in my hands. You…” She pursed her lips and signed swiftly. The medical terms came easily to her but it took Tobirama a few seconds to recall them.

Flail chest, broken bones, no breath, no heartbeat, dead.

That felt about right.

“You’re very lucky to be alive right now.” Tsunade sighed and pulled the clipboard from under her arm. “As it is, there is an issue with your health.” Naruto froze and Tobirama squeezed him tighter. “Your chakra will regenerate on its own given that you rest and eat; however, like I said, your body is expecting chakra and nature chakra.”

She flipped a page and read it quickly before nodding firmly. “Short term, there’s going to be no issues beyond fatigue, lethargy, headaches, muscle pain, and either excessive appetite or loss of appetite. Long term there will be worse issues, but I have no doubt you’ll gather nature chakra before that. Still.” She straightened and put her hands on her hips. Tobirama was struck with the image of his anija taking a similar stance, though he normally had a wide grin on his face instead of a scowl. “You’re ordered to bed rest for the next week. At least. We can’t fully heal your injuries until you’ve regained enough of your own chakra or we’d risk poisoning your chakra. So, eat three square meals a day, drink a gallon of water, and don’t. Do. Anything.”

Tobirama tried to keep his face even and neutral, but something must’ve shown through because his niece glared death at him.

“I swear to Kami-sama, if I hear you doing anything other than lounging in bed, I’m going to set your lab on fire. And you.”

Kagami was almost to window, nearly having managed to escape by crawling slowly and silently while Tsunade picked Tobirama apart. His former student and supposed-hero of the First Great Shinobi War squawked and did the Uchiha Flail before falling on his face. Tobirama snorted and buried his face in Naruto’s hair, trying to muffle his laughter. He’d forgotten what a Dramatic Uchiha acted like.

“T-Tsuna-chan, hey! Wow, you’ve really grown up. You don’t look a day over 20!” The Uchiha jumped to his feet and flashed that bright charismatic smile. In the past, Tobirama had seen his student use that very same smile to swindle noble’s out of their money and soothe frightened children. Here, he assumed Kagami was smiling to beg for mercy on his life.

Tsunade, the strong and sharp kunoichi Tobirama was proud to call his niece, didn’t react or take note of the flattery whatsoever. “Listen here, you damp campfire. You’re in charge of him, got it?” Kagami nodded quickly. “If I find out he disobeyed my orders, it’s your ass on the line.”

Naruto giggled and Tobirama clicked his tongue. “Language.” He had to keep from complaining about his grand-niece making the executive decision that Tobirama essentially needed a babysitter. The dark look he got from his first comment warned of a blistering scolding to come if he spoke any further.

Tsunade huffed, satisfied at how cowed Kagami looked. “Good. Uncle, after three days, see about gathering some nature chakra. Don’t push yourself, but we’re going to try to see if we can’t return your body’s equilibrium as soon as possible. Any questions?” Kagami shook his head while Tobirama dropped his head back onto his pillow, weary. “Good. I’ll check up on you tomorrow.”

Naruto peaked his head above the blanket after the door opened and closed once more. “She seems scary.”

Kagami sagged where he stood, groaning lowly. “She used to be so cute. Brightest little girl that would ask all sorts of questions and want stories about missions. Now my hands are shaking…”

He waited until he sensed Tsunade turn down another hallway before sitting up. It was slow going and he needed to use his arms to leverage himself upright, but he managed. Naruto squeaked and curled up tighter to preserve warmth. “Ji-chan?”

Tobirama controlled his breathing as he swung one leg over the side of the bed and eased his wrapped leg to join it. “It’s alright,” he assured his nephew, cradling his broken left hand to his chest.

Kagami groaned and flapped his hands. “Wait, wait, wait, no, no, no, nooooooo,” he whined. “Sensei! She literally just threatened to pretty much kill us if you didn’t take it easy!”

He smirked. “She never said which bed I should ‘lounge’ in. I think I’d rest much better at home. What do you say, sprout? Want to go home?”

Tobirama expected Naruto to be excited at the suggestion, to groan and moan about how boring the hospital was, or to express relief. He was taken aback when the boy looked him up and down with a critical eye, no doubt trying to gauge how hurt he was. The Senju would admit that he didn’t look his best at the moment: with bandages wrapped around his head and throat, tightly binding his chest and right leg, his wrist and left hand completely encased in bulky plaster, and the lumps of gauze and bandages on his stomach and lower back. Not to mention the trademark red seals on his face were gone, leaving him looking paler and wrong-er than usual. With no nature chakra for his seals to store, his seals would remain invisible to the naked eye.

“I don’t think you should be moving, Uncle,” Naruto eventually decided. Tobirama didn’t realize he was expecting the child’s favorite phrase until it wasn’t voiced. He frowned subtly. Naruto had been quiet and withdrawn since Tobirama had first started waking up. Trauma had a way of stifling even the brightest and most vibrant of lights, but Tobirama was already of a mind to help ease his nephew’s burdens. Starting with returning home to safety and normality.

Kagami barked a short laugh and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Finally. A male of the Senju clan who has some common sense.” Tobirama sent him an incredulous look, to which the man scoffed at. “Oh please, sensei. You’re absolutely one of the smartest and most cunning shinobi to ever live, not-die, and come back from not-dying, but when it comes to your own health, you’re a fuuuu…fricking idiot.”

The Senju blinked rapidly. “Where did my respectful student go?” he demanded.

The glare he got from Kagami actually stalled him in his thoughts. “He returned home without his beloved and honorable sensei,” he spat, voice dripping with venom and grief.

Tobirama grimaced, but bowed his head to his former student. He should’ve known not to push Kagami. He had already admitted how full of rage he was. “I owe you a proper apology for abandoning you, Kagami,” he murmured, conceding the point to the other. “I’ve done you a great disservice.”

Once more, the other man scoffed. “I don’t want your apology.” Tobirama lifted his head and frowned in confusion. The sour, biting feel of grief and aggravation faded from Kagami’s chakra for a moment, the tension in his shoulders easing to be replaced with weariness. “I want you to take care of yourself. You know, actually let yourself heal and give a darn for whether you live or die. Or at least give a darn about the people you would leave behind.”

Ah. So that was what it was about. “I did care,” Tobirama told Kagami softly and the flinty glint returned to those dark eyes. “It wasn’t a decision I made lightly. If there was any way I could’ve returned with you, I would’ve. As is, this scenario was the best I could do, and even then, it came too late.” He took a deep breath, ignoring the twinges of pain in his ribs. “I failed you and the others. I wasn’t strong enough, or fast enough. I knew that when I ordered the rest of you ahead, but I hoped I might get lucky.”

Kagami glanced away, crossing his arms over his chest. “Luck is a fool’s gamble,” he quoted.

Tobirama huffed. “Perhaps anija’s bad habits did brush off on me, then.”

The other man gave a wave, sad smile before sighing. “Don’t get me wrong, sensei. I’m glad you’re back and I’m not even mad you. Mad at myself? Maybe. I’m a mess right now. Sorry for taking it out on you.”

Tobirama felt Naruto finally relax and ease at his side. “Ah. Sorry, sprout. I didn’t mean to have an argument in front of you. And before you say it, no, it’s not okay.”

His nephew wrinkled his nose and stuck out his tongue. “It is okay, believe it,” Naruto argued. “You two didn’t even yell or nothing. And you both said sorry and all that, so it’s okay.”

The older man hummed and lifted his hand to brush his fingers through blond hair. “Any arguments should be peaceful if they must be had. Adults talk and debate, not fight and scream.” Naruto nodded in understanding while Tobirama faced Kagami once more. “Apology accepted even if you have the right to be angry with me.”

Kagami sniffed. “I’ll place my blame where I want, thanks, and you can’t have any.” He stuck his tongue out. Like a child.

Naruto laughed and Tobirama rolled his eyes. “As you wish. Now, help me home.”

Sensei.”

“I don’t like repeating myself. I can rest better in my own home in my own bed. If you won’t help me then I’ll go myself.” Tobirama lifted a challenging eyebrow and his right arm, waiting.

Kagami steamed for a moment, before groaning and slapping a hand to his forehead. “How could I forget how stubborn Senju could be?”

Said Senju smirked as the man came over to his side, easing the arm over his shoulders. Naruto crawled away in order to give him space to so do. “How could I forget how dramatic Uchiha could be?”

“Must be your old age.” Tobirama growled in an exaggerated manner, making Kagami chuckle. “Grouchy old man. Little tyke, grab your fur and make like a monkey.”

Tobirama tested his chakra as Naruto scrambled onto Kagami’s back, clinging tightly. “I have a seal just outside the Senju compound. I can get us there.”

The hand holding his arm across a shorter smaller set of shoulder tightened. “Oh, no you don’t. Moving around and getting you home is one thing. Using chakra? Nope. Big no.”

He side-eyed his former student. “Then how do you suggest getting us out of this place. Are you planning to carry my sprout and I?”

Kagami smiled and it wasn’t his usual smile. No, this was his battle smile, sharp and warning of imminent danger. “Sensei, Mito-hime was teaching me seals after you were gone. How do you think we’re getting out of here?”

Tobirama’s eyes widened. “You—”

To his dulled senses, it was nearly too quick to follow. Kagami’s lightning chakra crawled over him in a thin veil, tightening, flashed—

Bile rose up in his throat as the chakra faded from his sense. So that was what it was like to be carried in Hiraishin. Terrible. He’d need to fix that.

“Uncle?”

Tobirama swallowed thickly and tried to keep his head from teetering. “Just a moment,” he requested. The pair thankfully let him be for a minute. When he felt well enough, he straightened the small bit he’d slumped and took in his surroundings. Indeed, Kagami had brought them to the entrance of the Senju compound. “Let’s go.”

The going was slow. Tobirama was embarrassed to say he was getting tired from the short limping walk from the gates to the main house. He couldn’t even hide it what with the way his muscles trembled and how he needed to deepen and measure his breathing against the pain and strain. His heartbeat was muffling his hearing once more when they finally reached the main house doors. He vaguely heard Kagami say something and Naruto chirp back in return before vanishing into the house. His focus remained on carefully hop-stepping from the genkan into the house proper.

“Easy, easy,” Kagami coached him as he helped him down the hall. Tobirama made a sound of confusion when they turned away from the stairs and went to the main sitting room instead. “We’re not going to try the stairs yet.”

Naruto entered the room behind them. “Here we go!” The child dragged Tobirama’s futon with him, pulling it and its blanket over by the kotatsu before laying it flat.

It was an odd idea to Tobirama, who would never think to purposely sleep or nap in the main room like he encouraged the kids to do, but his bed was close now and that meant he could rest. Tobirama bit his bottom lip harshly as he tried lowering himself down on his good leg, but even with Kagami’s help his muscles and injuries protested sharply to all of this. A cold sweat had broken over him as he finally laid on his back, wincing and breathing harshly through his nose when he momentarily put too much weight on his lower back.

“Uncle?” Naruto mumbled, gently touching his shoulder as he shifted off of his injuries and started relaxing his body in controlled movements. Tobirama cursed the shaky, scared tone in his sprout’s voice. “Are you okay?”

Tobirama waited another moment, carefully guiding the strain and pain from himself so that when he answered it would be truthful. “Yes.” He glanced down as Kagami carefully lifted his shirt, checking his bandages for spotting. “I’m sorry for worrying you. This old man wasn’t quite ready for that trip.”

Naruto pouted down at him. “Kagami-san is right. You need to take better care of yourself, believe it.”

Tobirama felt his lips quirk up. “Maybe this is something you can teach me, hm?” He took his good hand and trailed a finger down Naruto’s nose, making him wrinkle it again. Cute. “Welcome home, sprout.”

The smile that earned him, trembling, honest, bright, and relieved, made so much weight lift from Tobirama’s heart. “I’m home.” But then the look was gone as if it had never been and it was replaced with jagged grief and guilt.

Tobirama gently touched a finger under the boy’s chin, encouraging him to look at him. “Sprout?” Absently, he felt Kagami tug his shirt back down and murmur something about tea before exiting the room. He barely even noticed, fixated on the pooling tears in normally bright, blue eyes. “Oh, sprout, what’s wrong?” A ragged, broken sob ripped out of his nephew, the sound too big and sudden for that tiny body. Tobirama carefully sat up once more, hissing at the pain in his stomach from using his abdomen to do so, but he wasn’t going to let go of Naruto right now. He shushed the child, purring loudly as he encouraged the crying boy to come closer. Tobirama chinned blond hair and rubbed his hand up and down Naruto’s back, waiting out his cry.

It took quite some time, but Naruto managed to choke back his sobs enough to speak. “I-I hurt you. I hurt you, ji-chan. Af-t-ter everything y-you’ve done f’r m-m…me, I…I hurt you.”

Tobirama closed his eyes, breathing deep. “Don’t blame yourself for that, Naruto. Please don’t. Not for that.”

“But I hurt you! L-Look at you. You’re s-so…so…You’re hurt so bad!!” Naruto leaned back and tipped his chin up. Tobirama would rather face ten more Kinkaku Squad’s than see this twisted distorted expression of guilt and anger on his nephew’s face again. “Y-You were trying to save me and I c-couldn’t…I didn’t know who you were. I was tricked! I let him trick me! I…I let him…”

“No, no, no,” Tobirama denied as Naruto dissolved into heaving sobs once more. “No, sprout, none of that was your fault. You didn’t let him do anything. Danzo…Can you listen to me for a moment? Naruto?” The boy sniffled hard and nodded weakly. “Danzo had taken Kagami’s eye years ago, he had Kagami’s very, very strong sharingan and sharingan are very good at casting genjutsu. Genjutsus are illusions, remember?” Naruto sniffed again, blinking quickly and calming ever so slightly as he followed his every word. “What many people didn’t know, myself included, is that Kagami’s sharingan have the rare ability to cast kotoamatsukami. It’s an incredibly strong genjutsu. So subtle and so strong that it’s the one genjutsu in the world that cannot be undone.” Naruto froze and Tobirama nodded. “Sprout, I thought I’d lost you,” he whispered. “There’s no undoing kotoamatsukami. Even Kagami wouldn’t have been unable to undo it and it was his stolen eye that cast it. When I realized what Danzo had done…” Tobirama looked away and flexed his jaw. In his mind he could recall flashes of blood, blood curdling screams, and a terrified dark eye. “I thought I’d lost you. I could save you, bring you home, but it wouldn’t matter. Danzo had ripped away everything we had.”

He swallowed roughly and wasn’t quick enough to blink away a tear. “So when you looked at me and you called for me, I…Naruto, you did the impossible. You came back to me and I couldn’t be more thankful.” Tobirama gave up on any pretenses and touched his forehead to his nephew’s, more tears following the first as the true magnitude of his relief finally sank in. “Thank you for being strong enough to do the impossible. Thank you for coming back to me.”

Naruto keened a short scream and even though it hurt, Tobirama welcomed the desperate arms that looped around his neck. The man didn’t think he’d ever forget seeing his nephew looking at him in terror, screaming and begging for a false uncle, but he knew he could hug his nephew every day and remind himself that it was a fate they’d blessedly avoided.

“It wasn’t me.” Tobirama tipped his head to rest against Naruto’s, humming. “It wasn’t me that broke that kotoamas…the genjutsu.”

The Senju frowned. “Did Kagami do it?”

He felt Naruto shake his head. “I…Promise you won’t get mad?”

“Of course. I swear.” Tobirama didn’t think he could ever really get mad at his nephew for anything short of willingly endangering himself.

The boy shifted uneasily. “It…The Kyuubi helped me.”

It took a moment for Tobirama to process those words. His hand patted Naruto’s back gently. “The Kyuubi helped you?” Naruto nodded, his head still buried in Tobirama’s neck. It took the man only a moment to decide how he wanted to reply to that. “Then I must thank the Kyuubi.” His nephew stilled before pulling back slowly, staring at him with wide eyes. Tobirama exhaled through his nose and tilted his head. “You are my most precious treasure, sprout. If the Kyuubi helped break kotoamatsukami so that we could be together again, then I owe the Kyuubi a life debt.” He brushed the back of his fingers over fattening, whiskered cheeks. Finally, the baby fat was looking plump and healthy on the boy.

“He,” Naruto choked, his eyes visibly going in and out of focus, “He says…” Pink lips pushed out into a pout. “Mean. He says your human life is too short and p…pit-i-ful to be worth anything. Butthead.”

Tobirama couldn’t help the loud snort that left him and the wheezing laughter that soon followed. The words spoken and the way they were delivered…it was just too contradictory and too funny.

Naruto giggled and tried to smother his mouth with two hands. “He s-says stop l-laughing, he’s serious, b-believe it!”

If anything, that made Tobirama laugh harder and Naruto joined him in his hysterics. Kagami walked in with a tray of tea and a pile of snacks to Tobirama clutching his chest, audibly wheezing his chuckles while Naruto was hiccupping and sniffling his own laughter. He squinted at the pair. “What…?”

Tobirama rubbed his chest against the pain. “I owe the Ky-yubi my life and…and he w-wants nothing to do with it!” Naruto tipped over and off of Tobirama’s lap as he laughed harder.

Kagami looked alarmed and confused. “Isn’t that a good thing?!”

He never did get an answer.

Naruto eventually told them he’d been talking—annoying, the Kyuubi corrected—to his companion for quite some time now and he hadn’t said anything because he was afraid people would get mad. The village hated him for just having the Fox inside of him, he reasoned, what would happen if people found out that Naruto actually talked to him?

Tobirama was quick to set him straight on the not-unreasonable assumption with promises that nothing had changed and no he wasn’t in trouble.

He laid out on his futon again sometime later after drinking a cup of tea and letting his nephew feed him crackers. He’d “mistakenly” nibbled on Naruto’s fingers once or twice in retaliation. He’d have to get back at Kagami’s cooing later when he was fit enough to chase and pin the man down. Or maybe he’d have Naruto experiment with seals on the Uchiha. That could work too.

Naruto doodled nonsensical shapes on his bandaged hand, curled once more into Tobirama’s side. His sprout’s chakra felt lighter now, unburdened. It happily flared and relaxed when he smoothed his own diminished chakra over it.

“Don’t hurt yourself,” his nephew chided and he snorted in humor.

“It’s never going to hurt me to hold you, sprout. I’m not letting go.”

“Good.”

Tobirama eased back into sleep feeling Naruto’s hand flatten and press completely over his heart.

Chapter Text

“Ji-chan.”

Tobirama inhaled softly at the call and eased open heavy eyes. He felt warm and comfortable, in no real rush to wake up—again. His slowly returning chakra fluttered and stretched in a strange hitching manner that made him squint, but after a moment his chakra sense came back clear and strong.

“You awake?”

The hand buried in his hair flexed and tightened for a moment, drawing a disgruntled grunt to his lips. It relaxed in the next moment, freeing the strands, only to have nimble hands tug and pull on his locks. If Tobirama hadn’t been laying on his good arm he would’ve smacked the hand away. Instead, he shook his head to try to dislodge the annoyance. A chuckle sounded over him as the man finally focused on his immediate surroundings.

Tsunade was kneeling in front of him, watching him closely as he roused from his nap. She smiled and straightened. “Good. Guests will be arriving soon. I thought you might want to make yourself presentable.”

The leg Tobirama had been laying on moved and shook as its owner shifted and brought life back into his body. He took that as his cue to leverage himself upright once more, stretching his own still-functional limbs. “I wouldn’t have to do that if you didn’t drug me,” he grumbled. Kagami snickered at his side.

Tsunade rolled her eyes before rising to her feet again. “It was your medicine. I didn’t drug you.”

“You put it in my tea. My tea.” He’d known it was there, having reflexively checked for poisons and drugs, but the dark and challenging look his niece had leveled at him made him drink it anyway.

“It was a pain killer. Kami forbid I care if you’re comfortable or not.” The woman propped a hand on her waist. “And what makes you think I was the one who drugged you?”

Tobirama was about to capitalize on the fact that she did agree that he was drugged, but the nature of the question drew his gaze to where Shizune was doing some last-minute cleaning and straightening in the sitting room. Sensing their attention, Tsunade’s apprentice turned to face them. The smile she gave them was suddenly suspicious and duplicitous. Tobirama deadpanned to himself.

Right. Of course. She was Tsuna-chan’s apprentice.

“I have lunch almost done,” Shizune reported. “I’ll start the drinks soon once guests start arriving.”

Tobirama nodded in gratitude. With watchful and stubborn eyes on him, he hadn’t been able to make clones or do anything around the house. He’d only been allowed to summon Mari and Airi once and that was only after he argued that they were family and would be concerned for their health and wellbeing. His litter mother and sister had yet to let him or Naruto leave the house proper.

This meant Shizune was a blessing in how she easily stepped into his household even as Tsunade dove into the village to wrestle with politics after everything that had happened. Tobirama had pretty much been bed-bound for the past week, regaining his strength and health with an irate Tsunade’s help. It ruffled his sense of independence and pride to be coddled so and have his attempts at being sufficient sabotaged by drugged tea and good food, but he reluctantly appreciated their care.

As it was, Tobirama had to learn secondhand of all the fallout to occur after he, Kakashi, and Tenzo had raided Root headquarters.

Choza, Shikaku, and Inoichi had taken a grip of the Hidden Leaf Village with the Uchiha at their backs. From the way Tsunade had spoken, it had been ridiculously easy. Token resistance had come from Saru’s guards as well as Koharu and Homura, but it seemed as if any active shinobi had faltered and obeyed when incensed Akimichi, Yamanaka, Nara, or Uchiha shinobi confronted them and commanded them to halt their activities in the name of their clan heads.

For two entire days, the village had its gates shut and operations ground to a halt. Approved clan shinobi patrolled the rooftops and walls of the village, keeping everyone indoors or outside the village entirely.

According to Kakashi, the other clans had thrown their lot in with the rebelling four once envoys had been sent to their clan heads explaining what was going on. The Aburame especially had joined the coup with zeal. Tenzo had explained that a good number of Aburame children had been released from Root and the noble clan was more animated than usual.

Kakashi and Tenzo were still debating which was more frightening: a Nara or Aburame out for blood.

With the iron grip on the village and the clans moving in concert to set things right, things moved very quickly. Tsunade had only just returned back to the clan compound for a whole night’s rest after five days of rushing around the village. His niece told him that Inoichi personally oversaw Hiruzen’s, Koharu’s, and Homura’s stay in T&I while Shikaku disappeared into his own shadows to run the village like a puppeteer commanded his puppets. Choza and his clan were the face of the rebellion, meeting with the other approved shinobi, running food and supplies to the civilians, and quartering any of their shinobi that were trying to return from missions only to be met with closed gates.

It had been determined that Hiruzen, Koharu, and Homura were innocent of Danzo’s attack on the village, so they escaped charges of treason and the immediate death sentencing. Tobirama had breathed a small sigh of relief when Tsunade’s slug summons had informed him of such. Still, it was an opportunity to see his plan through, and he formally brought Naruto’s case to Fugaku with the request to press charges.

The trial had been all but a show.

Tobirama had been thorough in his work these past few months. His shadows clones had been snooping in repositories and archives and offices almost that entire time, gathering evidence taller than he stood. Even though it was the Civilian Council’s responsibility to oversee the trial and determine their guilt or innocence, there was no remaining unbiased. Not with Tobirama’s name stamped on those damning papers and not with Fugaku personally overseeing each and every meeting.

Koharu and Homura had been found guilty with conspiracy against the village.

It made Tobirama’s stomach turn to know that this charge was only given because the Civilian Council still saw Naruto as a weapon and tool to the village; hence the pair’s mistreatment of the child being slapped with a charge that was only one step down from blatant treason. Their sentencing was to be carried out in the Konoha prison and their names struck from every record in Konoha. They were to be forgotten, their smear on Konoha’s past and present to be cleared and swept under the rug.

Saru had been found guilty of gross child abuse, child abandonment, child neglect, and accessory to conspiracy against the village.

Tobirama wonders if Saru would’ve also been charged with conspiracy against the village if the Civilian Council hadn’t decided that being Hokage and leader of the village meant that it was, by definition, impossible to directly and knowingly do malicious work against the village. He personally disagrees with that: he’d been faced with leadership and developmental direction that conflicted with the original purpose and intent of the village, but perhaps from a civilian point of view Hiruzen hadn’t done that. Tobirama wasn’t sure. But the Civilian Council couldn’t disagree that Hiruzen had failed Naruto, he was the only adult in the village permitted to visit and interact with Naruto, a directive that the man himself had signed.

Fugaku had mused once in the middle of the night when he’d visited to tell Tobirama the verdict of the trial, that Hiruzen had seemed at peace during the Civilian Council’s examination of him. Even when his punishment was to never again leave the village, to never enter any administrative building, to never interact or attempt to interact with anyone from outside the village, and, for the next five years, not leave the Sarutobi clan compound.

It was also during this portion of the trial that the emergency Clan Council meeting that had been held in Tobirama’s own home had come to show its results.

The Sarutobi clan had lost its seat on the Clan Council for these next five years and could attempt to petition the Clan Council to have their seat restored after that time had passed. There had been a law made during Hiruzen’s time that if both the Civilian and Clan Councils agreed on the revocation of a civilian or shinobi clan seat, it was to be done. Tobirama didn’t want to punish an entire clan for Hiruzen’s mistakes and doings and he’d said as much during the meeting. The time limit on the Sarutobi clan’s seat revocation had resulted from his protest. Only then had he put his agreement in with the other clan heads.

It bothered him slightly that the completion and fruition of his plans to remove his former students from power had occurred without him being present. He’d imagined he’d have to be present in the courtroom to argue for Naruto’s case and show the Civilian Council that his former students were guilty and should be punished, but instead his allies and the other clan heads had done the work for him and Naruto. Tobirama’s work had been taken out of his hands swiftly and decisively. It was a novel experience.

“Time to come back, sensei.”

Tobirama grunted, unwilling to exit his thoughts. He hadn’t been able to do anything for over a week now. Unable to leave his clan compound to ensure he wasn’t being deceived or to see with his own eyes that the village was recovering without his help. It felt wrong for him not to be buried in the work of restoring and protecting the village.

“Sensei.”

But from what the others had told him, life and commerce had started up once more, the forceful change beginning to settle into the bones of the village.

Kagami’s whining, jaw-cracking yawn finally drew his attention. “Did you nap as well?” he asked, slightly incredulous.

“Oh, so that’s what it takes, hm?” The Uchiha rubbed sleepily at his eyes. “You looked so comfortable and how was I supposed to move with you laying on me like that?”

Tobirama tsked. “You were the one to insist after you ‘cleaned up’ my futon.”

The smirk he got was entirely unrepentant and self-aware. “I couldn’t let my crippled and hurting sensei try to hop up the stairs or sleep on unforgiving tatami,” he explained with false innocence. As if he didn’t have ulterior motives. Tobirama narrowed his eyes. Kagami’s lips twitched. “What if my dear sensei got hurt even more? I could never live with myself.” He squinted harder. Kagami smiled wider.

“What’s going on?” The pair of men turned to see Naruto trotting into the room, his hair wet with the bath he’d apparently just taken and Tobirama’s fur mantle clutched tight in his arms. Airi dogged his heels, tilting her head up in order to reach the boy’s hair. Naruto didn’t flinch or seem to acknowledge that the snow leopard was grooming him.

The pair had been inseparable since Tobirama had summoned them. His litter sister had soothed his sprout’s cries and begging for forgiveness upon catching sight of the silver fur on her shoulder. She was fully healed and recovered, but Airi’s fur showed where she’d taken a wound. The Senju had ached at the sight of his litter sister and sprout coming together in tears and exclamations, but Mari had sat beside him in silence, grounding him in his spot so the younger pair could have their time. Seeing them cry and calm down and eventually cling to one another, Tobirama wondered if they day would come when Airi would offer Naruto her clan summoning scroll. Airi wasn’t a mother or mentor to Naruto in the same way Mari was to Tobirama, but the bond was still there.

Tsunade snorted as she made to leave the room. “They’re being an old married couple. Don’t worry about it, sprout.”

Naruto frowned, looking baffled. His hand lifted distractedly, pushing Airi’s insistent tongue away. “Married? Ji-chan, you’re married?!” Kagami and Airi burst out laughing and even Shizune’s shoulders were shaking. Tobirama hated everyone.

He was just managing to calm Naruto down from his hysterics over not being invited to Tobirama’s wedding when Tenzo and Kakashi slipped into the house behind Mari. The pair of teens had spent the night in an unoccupied Senju home, one that Tenzo was beginning to stay at with more frequency.

Mari purred in greeting as she padded over to him, trailing her eyes and nose from his head to his toes. He tolerated the brusque lick she gave to the side of his head before settling in her spot at his back. Kakashi, upon hearing the partial conversation, cocked his head to the side. “If Senju-sama and Uchiha-san are married, does that mean Uchiha-san is actually Senju-san?” he mused out loud and Tenzo smacked a hand to the back of his head, making the cub whine like a child.

The pair of ex-Root shinobi had taken to hunkering down in the Senju compound after the raid. From an objective point of view, it made sense. They were there in an unsanctioned attack on the village and had their hands in personally fighting their supposed comrades and freeing kidnapped children. The targets on their backs had grown substantially in size and the barrier around the Senju compound offered a large sense of security and safety. At first, in between Tobirama’s many naps, it had felt like the pair were hiding out in the clan house Tenzo was slowly but surely laying claim to, but with each day they ventured into Tobirama’s home and gardens with growing frequency. He’d found Kakashi half-buried under the kotatsu on numerous occasions now and had felt Tenzo lingering around the Ancestor Tree.

He wondered if Tenzo would accept his or Tsunade’s offer to claim him in the name of the Senju clan so his branch may grow. Or if the half-grown sprout would fully move into the clan compound. Sometimes Tobirama wanted to push and talk about it, but he had restrained himself thus far. He wouldn’t make his cousin uncomfortable for the sake of making himself comfortable.

His eye was twitching by the time his sprout asked questions about family names and traditional marriage procedures and what would happen if he and Kagami were married. The boy eventually fell into a contemplative silence, arms crossed over his tiny chest and his face screwed up in concentration. He hadn’t expected his morning to go like this: to wake up, have breakfast, pray at his family shrine, fall into a drugged nap, and wake up to being absolutely harassed.

Such is life apparently.

The Senju sensed Tsunade guiding the first of his guests into the compound and set about making sure everything was ready. The kotatsu as pushed into the corner of the room and a large assortment of pillows were scattered in a perfect circle. Trays with waiting cups were placed in front of each cluster of pillows.

In accordance to his stated informality in his invitations, Tobirama had opted for a loosely belted bright blue kimono shirt over a mesh shirt and gray hakama. His nephew had insisted he wear a pale yellow long-sleeved haori, which was the closest thing to orange Tobirama would ever allow in his wardrobe. He wore it draped over his shoulders instead of properly putting his arms through the garment. As it was, he’d only put his casted left arm through his mesh shirt and tucked the limb to his chest.

He’d debated undoing his bandages, but decided not to. He was in his own home with his returned sprout at his side. Bearing the signs of his injuries would be a source of pride instead of shame.

The only thing he was missing was…

Tobirama raised an eyebrow as he watched Naruto adjust his fur mantle on his own shoulders. “Sprout?” The child lifted his head and looked at him with wide and guileless blue eyes. Tobirama smiled slightly, recognizing the familiar feeling of his heart softening. “Am I going to wear my fur today?”

The open expression turned into a watery-eyed pout in half a second, making him chuckle. It didn’t surprise him. His nephew was being very clingy when it came to his fur mantle lately. Tobirama couldn’t blame the child. That fur was something of a security blanket for him as well, though one he hadn’t held onto for dear life in quite some time. It was simply his, a part of his identity.

“No?” Naruto answered in a high-pitched uncertain tone. His hands held the fur tighter.

Airi, catching on, put her chin on Naruto’s shoulder and gave Tobirama equally pleading eyes. “The kitten needs fur, bocchan.”

Mari chuckled lowly, her tail rising and flicking in amusement. “It is important to keep a kitten warm.”

Harassed. He was being ganged up on and harassed. Still. The man would never have it in his heart to truly deny his boy. “As you wish.” Naruto sagged in relief, sighing loudly. “But maybe we should look into getting you a fur for yourself.”

He stiffened again. “I can’t have this one?” he asked plaintively.

Tobirama hummed, trying to figure out the best words to let his sprout down with. “I am willing to share,” he started, “but I would like it back eventually. It was a gift from my mother, you see. Angora rabbit fur from the Land of Snow.”

Naruto’s eyes blew wide open. “Oooh. That’s really far, believe it.”

He nodded in agreeance. “Indeed, it is. But my mother went to the trouble of getting it as a present to celebrate my colors.”

Blond eyebrows furrowed. “’Cause your clan didn’t like how you looked?”

“Yes. My mother wanted me to have something to make a statement; to show that I was proud of my appearance. That fur is very dear to me.”

Naruto shrunk in place and pet the fur carefully. “Sorry I ruined it.”

Tobirama huffed and shook his head. The small tears in the fur from where his nephew had clung to it even as he was pulled from Tobirama’s unresponsive body was barely anything. Hardly even the worst damage. There was the time Izuna had burned a good portion of it and Tobirama had painstakingly woven new fur into the snipped and sheered strands to preserve its volume and thickness. After that incident, he’d carefully stitched preservation and strengthening seals into the underside of the mantle. It was a testament to Naruto’s panicked strength that he’d even managed to damage the fur mantle in the first place. “You are not the first to damage it, sprout. That fur has been cleaned and repaired many times over the years. I wear it even in battle and on missions after all.”

“And you’re sure I can wear it?” The fur was a large piece to begin with. On Tobirama’s adult body it made his shoulders look wider and gave the illusion that he had a ruff that could bristle. On Naruto’s tiny body, it looked like a half-cape he was happily drowning in. Tobirama had to fix a new clip to the front of the mantle so it would remain on small shoulders.

“Of course. We’ll discuss furs later, however.” The door to his home was sliding open, Tenzo greeting the first of his guests.

Kagami shifted where he was seated on Tobirama’s left, sitting where Tobirama’s sleeves laid empty due to his injured arm and hand. The Senju wondered if his former student was aware that he was shielding him. “You should feel lucky, kid. Sensei never let any of us wear his mantle. Looks like he’s gotten soft in his old age.” The Uchiha laid a hand on Mari’s head and scratched behind her ear, making his litter mother purr.

Tobirama looked at him sideways. “You’re almost as old as me now, Kagami. I wouldn’t speak so quickly.” He turned his eyes to the entrance of the sitting room as his guests arrived. “Hyuga-sama, welcome to my home.”

Hiashi Hyuga bowed his head while his daughter and nephew bowed from the waist. “Thank you for the gracious invitation, Niidaime-sama. Uchiha-san, Uzumaki-san, hello.”

Kagami waved and mumbled a greeting while Naruto bowed from the waist too, chirping a greeting to Hinata and Neji. “Please be at ease in my home. You’re the first to arrive.” He waved to the arrangement of sitting pillows before finally turning his gaze to the younger children. Neji was very pointedly still and quiet, visibly not giving anything away even as his chakra swirled tightly with anxiety. Hinata, however, was glancing from where she was tugging fretfully at her fingertips and then back to him. “Hinata-chan, Neji-kun, come. Let me see you.” It was a breach in protocol, one he could sense the Hiashi didn’t approve of, but the looks of relief and concern on the little Hyugas’ faces didn’t let Tobirama care all too much.

“T-To…Senju-sama,” Hinata stuttered, glancing over her shoulder to her father with a wince. “Are y-you okay?” Her hands reached out and up to him, before halting and returning to their nervous tugging at her chest. Neji was silent at her side, but he could see the hidden tinge of fear and worry on his face.

That wouldn’t do. “This is an informal lunch, you two,” he reminded them. “I will take no offense to you using my given name. And yes, I’m okay. My niece and her apprentice have been looking after me and ensuring I’m healing.”

Tension eased out of their shoulder’s and tiny bodies as they spoke. “That’s good to hear,” Neji murmured.

Hinata turned to Naruto. “And you, N-Naruto-kun? You’re okay?”

His nephew beamed, bouncing where he sat on Tobirama’s right side. “Yeah! Ji-chan and I are doing good. Just been lazy around the house, believe it. I’ve missed you and the others!”

Tobirama wanted to give the children a chance to speak to one another and thus deliberately turned back to Hiashi and engaged him in conversation, asking after his clan and wife. Kagami joined in, seeking updates on the village in this current time.

The next family to arrive were the Uchihas. Fugaku nodded to Hiashi genially, which was returned with equal aplomb while Sasuke and Itachi moved to greet Tobirama and the other children. Tobirama wondered if the rivalry between the two dojutsu clans was still present today as he watched to two clan heads interact. Itachi’s chakra had immediately reached for his own upon seeing him, burrowing into his cold-water chakra with confidence and relief that shined in his dark eyes.

“Shisui says he’s sorry he can’t come,” Itachi informed him, glancing between Tobirama and Kagami, who twitched ever-so-slightly in guilt. “but he volunteered to watch the new children and they’re rather attached to him.”

“He is always welcome here whenever he has time. I’m aware that you and he might have other demands on your time,” Tobirama excused easily.

Fugaku zeroed in on Kagami. “Kagami-san, the elders have been asking after you.”

Tobirama felt his eye twitch again as he sensed more than saw the change in his former student. The smile on Kagami’s face was sharp. “It’s nice to see you too, Fugaku-kun.” Tobirama had no way to jab at him with his elbow, so he settled for spiking a concentration of his chakra at Kagami and hissing lowly. Kagami grimaced and looked away, clearing his throat. “I mean, I appreciate you telling me, Fugaku-sama. I apologize for any inconvenience my absence has caused you and the clan.”

The rising irritation in Fugaku smoothed back out into placid alertness. “Apology accepted. I’d also like to inform you that you are exempt from any clan duties until I say otherwise.” Kagami glanced back at the man who was his current clan head. “Should you have questions or concerns about your place in village or clan, I would expect you to seek me out. My home is open to you.” Tobirama withheld the reflex to tilt his head and scrutinize Fugaku. To the more formal clans, that was about as understanding and forgiving as one in their position could be around one another, if not more so than was permitted. Fugaku had just openly given one of his clansmen a free pass and forgiveness for ignoring the Uchiha clan and hiding out in the Senju compound.

Hiashi and Tobirama shared a look before collectively starting a conversation about taijutsu, giving the Uchiha men the illusion of privacy to save face.

Kagami was frozen for a moment before placing both hands on his thighs and bowing deeply. “You’re too kind, Fugaku-sama. I’ll endeavor to honor your kindness and our clan.”

Fugaku nodded tightly. “See that you do.” From the corner of his eye, Tobirama saw the clan head relax ever-so-slightly. “Welcome home, Kagami-san. You’ve been dearly missed.”

The conversation and atmosphere carried on smoothly for a few minutes after that. Even when Shizune kicked Kakashi out of the kitchen and the cub flopped onto his own cushion, who tried to stir trouble in the room only for Itachi to meet him word for word with grace, diplomacy, and amusement.

But then the door to his house was audibly slammed open and a young voice howled, “I’M HOME!”

An older woman barked, “Brat! You can’t just do that it’s not—”

Tobirama huffed and called back, “Welcome home!” Kiba’s laugh carried down the hall and so did his running footsteps, which he growled at. “Kiba!” he snapped and those footsteps slowed. The Inuzuka boy peeked sheepishly around the door frame and the man glared mildly at the boy. “One of these days you will remember my rules, pup.”

Kiba smiled and galloped over, his eyes glittering happily as he threw his arms around Tobirama’s ducked shoulders. “Sorry, ji-chan! I was just really excited to see you again. Ma said you were really hurt and that you blew up the village!”

The child’s mother stepped into view, her lips curled into a snarl. At her side was a young girl. She was about Itachi’s age if Tobirama had to guess. Her chakra reserves were what he would expect of a genin, though, as compared to Itachi’s near-jonin levels. At their heels were four dogs, one full grown ninken that stood on the Inuzuka matriarch’s right with poise and strength. This was also the same dog who often tailed Kiba when the boy came to visit Tobirama. The other three were puppies that shied and wiggled behind the younger girl. “Kiba,” the mother bit out, but Tobirama waved a staying hand.

“Strange,” Tobirama as he straightened once Kiba let him go from his hug. “How can we still be in the village if I, as you say, blew it up.”

The dog kin wrinkled his nose. “You know what I mean. Hey, Naruto! I heard you got kidnapped!”

Tobirama scoffed at the utter lack of tact and pointedly ignored his nephew finally breaking protocol to tackle Kiba to the ground. The Inuzuka matriarch had very solidly face-palmed at her son’s words. She looked at him with stressed eyes. “Niidaime-sama, I’m sorry I’m still trying to teach him.”

“There’s no need to apologize, I’m familiar with your son. Forgive me for not rising. I’m Tobirama Senju. Behind me is my litter mother, Mari. It’s a pleasure to finally meet Kiba’s mother.”

The woman smirked. “You’re a polite one. It’s a wonder you have sent my kid packing yet. Call me Tsume. This is my partner Korumaru.” The ninken who must have had a recent wolf ancestor nodded, his lone remaining golden eye meeting his before deferring to Mari.

“Well met,” the canine stated quietly. Tobirama waited a moment, looking down and to his side to Mari, who was watching the ninken closely. Airi chirped softly to her mother, wondering if these canines were okay in their summoners home, but she was ignored.

Mari eventually closed her eyes once more. “Well met indeed,” she agreed. Tobirama wasn’t completely aware of what that interaction had entailed, but Kuromaru smiled and wagged his tail, relaxing.

Tsume, who had also waited with him to see how their companions would welcome each other, nodded decisively. “Good. Seems like you and me will get along better than some of my kin do with Uchiha’s and their cats.”

The young girl at her side wrinkled her nose and nodded in agreement before glancing over her shoulder to the Uchihas in question. “At least I got a good Uchiha.” She faced him once more and Tobirama noticed she had a calmer and more placid appearance and chakra than her mother and brother. “I’m Hana. I’m Kiba’s older sister and heir to the Inuzuka clan. These are my companions, Ginmaru, Kemurimaru, and Hamaru. They are the Haimaru brothers.” The small puppies crowded together behind their human’s feet, nervous but curious.

Ah, Inuzuka casualness. There were many things wrong with an heir introducing themselves when their clan head was with them, but he was familiar with how the Inuzuka generally acted. It never failed to make Tobirama switch mental gears. “You may call me Tobirama. This is my heir and nephew, Naruto Uzumaki.” He nodded to where Kiba and Naruto were still wrestling across the floor, cheered on by Airi. He and Hana sighed in exasperation while Tsume facepalmed. “As for your son,” he glanced back to Tsume just as Kiba put Naruto in a head lock and bit his yowling nephew’s ear, “I can appreciate his spirit and energy.”

Tsume laughed and grinned widely. “You are really are the politic type. Thanks for looking after him. It’s nice to have him out of my hair.” Tobirama blinked and tilted his head, examining the woman closer. She caught on and frowned at him. “What? There something on my face?”

“Not at all. I apologize.” Tobirama blinked before swallowing. “You simply remind me of my cousin, Touka Senju.”

The man expected to have to explain who is cousin was and what attributes he saw in another clanwoman. He expected to have to summarize his legend of a cousin with a few paltry words. He didn’t expect recognition and joy to flash in sharp eyes and a laugh to erupt from Tsume. “I don’t think I’ve ever been given a kinder compliment!”

It was only an entire lifetime of keeping an even expression that kept Tobirama from spluttering in surprise. Instead, he raised an eyebrow. “You know of my cousin?”

Tsume smirked and crossed her arms. “Any kunoichi worth their blade knows who Touka Senju was. She’s our ideal here in Konoha, who we look to for aspiration. It’s who I’m teaching my daughter to be like.” Hana smiled up at her mother as she ran her nails through her ponytail. “What a kunoichi. One day I’d like to go out with a blade in my hand…”

“…and my enemy’s blood on my lips.” An honest and heartfelt smile spread across Tobirama’s face as Touka’s favorite saying was spoken of decades after her passing. “I had no idea she is honored today,” he admitted quietly.

Kagami’s hand came to rest on his shoulder, squeezing tightly. His beloved cousin had passed not too long before Hashirama had. Privately, Tobirama had thought that Touka’s death defending their border’s from Kumo shinobi had been the real kicker in Hashirama’s final spiral into depression and into giving up the will to live. With Madara dead, war looming, Hashirama had been under so much pressure. No matter what Tobirama had tried, he hadn’t been able to help or save his brother during the very first battle of the First Shinobi War.

Touka had been a spitfire of a woman, Tobirama’s older sister in all but blood. When the Senju clan would’ve had her set back to a more gendered role, she’d taken up her father’s naginata and hunted down her mother’s murderers. When she was faced with the infamous Uchiha sharingan, she’d turned right around and made herself a genjutsu specialist. She’d been so good at genjutsu she’d earned herself the name of “The Sharingan-less Uchiha”. With her skill in blade and genjutsu, she’d once been looked upon with the same fear and terror that Tobirama had been subject to his whole life. It had only drawn them closer together over the years.

When she’d died, dying with her blade in hand and blood on her lips, Tobirama had felt it clear across the Land of Fire and he’d grieved. Touka had been his sister, strong like the earth under their feet and full of life like the forest they lived in. She was never one to be quiet and demur. He knew, that if Touka could know that kunoichi of present day aspired to be like her, she’d be so smug and proud.

Tsume, unknowing of his somber thoughts, beamed. “Us kunoichi are pretty close-knit and tight-lipped in the village. We don’t like to let men try to dictate us.” Tsunade raised her cup and the women shared a look. “We teach each other skills and talents unique to us. Touka Senju is an icon and legend to us among some others.”

Tobirama felt a purr tickle and push up his throat. Tsume looked startled when his words came out muffled and garbled by the sound, but he physically could not keep himself from purring. “I’m so happy to hear this. Touka would be proud to have influenced and helped so many other women break the mold and find their blades as kunoichi. You yourself remind me so much of her, so I know she lives on.”

A bright flush bloomed under the red clan marks on the woman’s cheeks. A roguish smile only emphasized that fact. “Careful, Tobirama. Flattery gets you nowhere, but you’re getting somewhere.” This time it was easy to drop his smile and make his face blank. His slow blink and raised eyebrow conveyed just how little he valued what she’d said. The Inuzuka woman laughed and, of all things, looked to Kagami. “You keep an eye on this one. I don’t think he knows what’s up.”

His student heaved a sigh and took his hand back from Tobirama’s shoulder. “He never has,” he grumbled, which only confused Tobirama further.

“Sounds like that’s something you need to fix. Hiashi, you bastard! What have you been up to?” And with that, the force of nature that is Tsume turned and stalked away. Hana rolled her eyes at her mother and brother but broke away, heading towards Itachi.

Tobirama frowned at Kagami. The man rolled his eyes and reached up to run his hand through his curls. “Don’t worry, sensei. I’ve got your back.”

Yes, he knew that, but in what exactly did Kagami have his back for?

The sigh that left the Hyuuga was large and long. The sigh that left the Hyuga was the most expression he’d seen from the man yet. “Tsume, you haven’t changed.”

Fugaku and Hiashi called their children back to them, disapproving of the brawl going on. Tsume was resigned and embarrassed as she scruffed her son and carried him over to the trio of pillows she’d selected to Hiashi’s left. Tobirama was amused by it all as he helped Naruto readjust his clothes.

His next guests quietly arrived as Naruto was retying his belt, grumping at Kiba for ruining the knot he’d tied. “Welcome,” Tobirama greeted the hooded trio. “Aburame-sama, may you and yours be at home in my home. If it is too bright, please let me know. I can close the doors and fetch candles.”

The Aburame clan head gave a barely perceptible nod, the afternoon light from the open garden doors glinting off his dark glasses. “We accept your welcome. Why? Because you seem familiar with our clan.”

Tobirama gestured to his own face. “The light and sun can get to me as well,” he admitted. “If I may introduce my clan. You’ve already met my niece, Tsunade Senju, and my cousin, Tenzo. This is my heir, Naruto Uzumaki,” his nephew waved a hand and smiled cheerily, “And you may call me Tobirama for this meeting.”

The Aburame man tilted his head. “This is logical as it was stated in your invitation that this was an informal meeting.” He nodded. “In return, you may call me Shibi, though I would request the -san suffix from you and -sama from your heir.” Pale fingers peaked out from the ends of his long sleeves, gesturing to the two children at his side. The youngest and shortest was addressed first. “Meet my son and heir, Shino, and my cousin and ward, Torune.” Finally, Shibi bowed his head as conventional protocol dictated. “The Aburame are welcomed by the Senju.”

Tsume scoffed from where she sat cross-legged. “You’re as long-winded as ever, Shibi. I’m surprised you even came.”

Shibi turned towards the woman. “I did come. Why? I was invited.”

Hiashi waved a hand. “You could’ve still turned down the invitation. She means why you accepted the invitation.”

The heavily coated man made to cross the room, heading for Hiashi’s right side. “Ah. Curiosity.” Tsume chortled while Hiashi held up a hand to Shibi, which the Aburame took and squeezed in welcome.

Tobirama watched this from the corner of his eyes. His gaze was instead focused on the pair of Aburame children that stood a few feet away from him, watching him silently behind thick dark lenses. He was patient enough to wait them out, but he did greet them. “Aburame-san,” to Shino. “Aburame-kun,” to Torune. The Aburame clan were notoriously formal, like the Hyuga and Uchiha, but with their own rules and procedures. Tobirama would be the first to admit he wasn’t terribly familiar with the clan other than their capabilities on the battle field and in reconnaissance, but he knew and respected them enough to err on the side of caution rather than risk offending the future clan head and the older cousin he still held the hand of.

The pair of children chorused a quiet, “Senju-sama,” before going quiet and watchful once more.

Naruto shifted uneasily as the staring contest dragged on. The Senju was banking on his sprout’s impatience and curiosity to start this conversation. Naruto didn’t disappoint. “Hey, it’s rude to stare, believe it,” he finally drawled, his eyes narrowed and his tone rude. Were he to address Shibi in such a way, Tobirama would’ve corrected him and apologized, but since he was speaking to his agemates, Tobirama let him be. “If you’re gonna say something, say it.” Tobirama ignored the pointed looks he was getting from the other clan heads.

The smaller one, Shino, who seemed to be closer to Naruto in terms of age, lifted a hand to the high collar that obscured the lower half of his face. “I chose not to speak. Why? I wasn’t sure how Senju-sama would receive me.”

Tobirama raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t been around many Aburame children, so he didn’t know if being well-spoken and deliberate was the usual for them.

Torune rolled his shoulders in a shrug. He wasn’t wearing a hood like the father and son duo. Instead, he wore a coiled scarf over the top of his long-sleeved coat as well as a goggled-cowl. “Shino hadn’t spoken, so I stayed quiet.” Tobirama wondered silently if that was an inner-clan rule: that one couldn’t speak until their superior did.

Naruto huffed. “Ne, you don’t need to be so stuffy. Ji-chan said this is just supis…su-pos-st to be a lunch. Casual ‘n all that. ‘Sides, don’t worry ‘bout makin’ Ji-chan mad. He’s cool.”

Kagami snickered beside him before leaning over. “You hear that?” he whispered. “You’re a ‘cool’ old man.”

He tilted his head so he could speak just as quietly back. “You’re only a few years younger than me.” Kagami rolled his eyes, but seemed pleased and amused with himself.

Tobirama turned his eyes back to the Aburame children as Shino nodded decisively. “If what you say is true then,” Shino tilted his head so he could look directly as Tobirama, “Thank you for returning my brother to me.”

Well, he hadn’t been expecting that. “You’re welcome,” he replied. “Though I’m afraid I don’t deserve your gratitude.” He glanced to Torune. “I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting you before.”

It was with the most bland and flat voice that Torune informed him, “Danzo had taken me into Root.” All conversation around the room silenced as the hot topic of the time was spoken of. “I was there the night you stormed the headquarters. Tenzo-senpai came for me and the other initiates and protected us from the cave-in.”

Tobirama winced and tucked his chin down. “I apologize for putting you in danger like that.”

Torune shrugged. “Appreciated, but I don’t really care. Why? I’m back with my clan now and with Shino.”

He could see the way Shino’s hand tightened around Torune’s. “So I thank you. Why? Because Danzo took Torune-nii-san from me and you killed Danzo.”

So that’s why Shino had thought he might offend him. He’d killed Danzo, his former student, and judging by the way the Aburame heir’s chakra was unconsciously clinging and leaning towards Torune, he knew the value of a bond, and a bond that had been severed. The child had the desperate edge—a fear—of losing something he loved. It was something Shino and Naruto had in common. “You need not fear my censure,” he assured the small child. “My former student had committed a great many wrongs and it was past time someone ensured he paid for them. As his sensei, I had a duty to see to that.” He smiled softly, looking between the pair. “If by seeing that justice was done, that I set something right, then I am happy. I hope you two grow well together.” Shino didn’t give any visible sign and Torune only hummed, but both of their chakra’s lightened and flared in satisfaction. “Perhaps after lunch, Naruto and the others can show you to the gardens. So long as you don’t take all of the population, you may help yourselves to whatever insects you find.”

Shino tellingly brightened at this and thanked him verbally. With that, the pair of children returned to Shibi’s side.

The last of his guests arrived together as was their usual.

Choji lead the charge, running straight from the gate to the Senju compound, to the front door, and into the sitting room. The boy’s eyes found Naruto and didn’t waver until he’d tackled the blond to the ground. Naruto squawked in surprise, but readily clung back.

“You’re okay,” Choji sniffled and Naruto’s chakra popped in distress and sadness. He squeaked as Choji squeezed him tighter. “I’m so happy you’re okay.”

Tobirama watched as Naruto strained to move in order to tuck his chin into Choji’s shoulder. “I missed you, believe it,” Naruto rasped. “We’re okay. We’re okay, I promise.”

He’d gotten the story from Naruto not too long ago: of how Danzo had taken him. Apparently there had been a knock at Torifu’s door while Mina and Toichi had been on a larder run for a last-minute dessert. Shikamaru, who had inexplicably invited himself to their sleepover, Choji, and Naruto had been doing a puzzle in the living room of Torifu’s house while the old man had gone to answer the door. Naruto remembered there being a loud bad word from Torifu before he shouted at someone to leave. And then there’d been a loud crashing sound and someone yelling in pain and then Naruto had smelled blood, a lot of blood.

Masked figures had stormed the house and into the living room where the children were. Naruto had admitted that things were blurry after that. He remembered Shikamaru raising his voice and yanking him and Choji into a corner, Danzo coming through the door, and Choji trying to attack Danzo, to protect them. But then Danzo had tapped his forehead with a finger, making the Akimichi boy collapse. After that, Danzo had pulled the bandages from his eye and forced Naruto to look at his stolen sharingan.

So Tobirama could understand Choji’s desperation to see and hold Naruto. They hadn’t seen each other since that night almost a week ago.

He sighed quietly, mourning their trauma, when he saw Hinata bolt forward, ignoring her father’s hissed call. Pale eyes were shining with tears as she touched shaky hands to Choji’s and Naruto’s shoulders. The pair turned towards her, took in her slowly crumbling face, and dragged the girl into their hug too. Kiba whined from across the room, curling in on himself, and Tobirama was about to encourage him to come closer, when Tsume put her hand on her son’s back, and pushed him. He needed no other encouragement, rushing to join the hug.

Three of their friends had been attacked and one taken. It was little wonder they needed to hold onto one another. Some, however, were more restrained. Neji sat trembling by Hiashi, refusing to acknowledge his uncle glancing at him. Sasuke was squeezing his hands tightly, tugged to Itachi’s side. The older brother had tilted his head to rest his cheek on his little brother’s head. His chakra was tight and moving slowly, weighed by grief and fear.

Tobirama carefully and slowly reached to envelope the three children in his chakra. Itachi’s eyes slid shut as he overtook their shared chakra to hold him and Neji’s shaking slowly eased, the tension melting slightly from his body. Fugaku and Hiashi startled, being close enough to the children to sense what he was doing, but he only met their gazes evenly and refused to take back his chakra. He wouldn’t be cowed or shamed out of comforting children.

The huddle of four children was beginning to relax when the rest of Choji’s entourage finally reached them, followed by Tsunade and Tenzo. Choza sighed when he caught sight of his son and nodded in greeting to Tobirama. Without another word he went to the three sets of pillows between Kakashi and Fugaku, dropping heavily.

When Tobirama caught sight of Shikaku, he felt a tiny bit of humor return to him. “Nara-sama, it appears you’ve picked up a parasite,” he jested.

Naras always looked weary and exhausted, but the clan head looked as if he’d discovered sleep and rest was troublesome and was doing everything he could to avoid it. Tobirama felt tired just looking at the man. Unlike the rest of the clan heads, he had arrived in his jonin gear, with an extra attachment to his vest.

Shikamaru was clinging tightly to his father’s chest—of his own strength because Shikaku wasn’t holding him—and glaring mightily up at his father, never wavering for a moment. It was hilarious to see.

Shikaku blinked slowly, but smiled quicker. He looked down at his irate son with amusement. “It appears I have. He’s too troublesome to remove.”

Kiba burst out laughing. “What the hell, Shika! What did your dad do?”

The answer came in a raised and viciously angry voice. One that should’ve been impossible to come from such a tiny person, let alone a tiny Nara. “He won’t sleep!” Shikamaru spat and Shikaku grimaced, lifting a hand to scratch the back of his head.

“Eh. I’ve been busy.”

You need to sleep!

Ino trotted past her father and uncle, totting two other children by their hands. She scowled up at her agemate. “You’re so loud, Shikamaru!”

Sleeeeeep!” the tiny Nara hissed.

Tenten and Lee shot past Ino, diving for the hug pile with incoherent shouts. Tobirama had to lean to the side in order to avoid flailing arms and legs possibly hitting his healing ribs and back. Mari shifted her head and shoulders enough to brace him. Tobirama murmured his thanks. He heard Kakashi chuckle from the other side of Kagami. “Those are all his kids,” the cub gleefully told Kagami. “They follow him around everywhere. He’s practically adopted them.”

Tobirama whipped his head around and glared at Kakashi, who was still laughing as Ino ran and jumped on the pile with a happy screech. “I have not.”

“You’re a lying liar who lies.”

Kagami heaved a great big sigh. “Looks like Torifu and I have been replaced.” Tobirama gave him a deadpanned look, catching his meaning. Once upon a time Kagami had dogged his heals, dragging Saru into it, and eventually the other four as well. Now it was the current generation’s children that were constantly under foot.

But he currently wasn’t in the mood to argue about his supposed adoption of clan children. Didn’t they understand that he was trying to keep peace in the village, not start a civil war?

The Senju tsked before turning his attention to where Shikaku was carefully settling onto his pillow without disturbing his clingy, furious son. “Shikamaru,” he called and got no response, so he tried again. “Shikamaru, I might be able to help you.”

Reddened narrowed eyes finally moved from his father and settled on him. “How?”

Tobirama privately thought that he should try to put Shikamaru down for a nap. It was very obvious that he needed one, but he had a suspicion that Shikamaru would only nap when his father did. Instead of answering out loud, he lifted his good hand and beckoned the boy to come closer.

Amidst the adults greeting each other and the children catching up, Shikamaru reluctantly relaxed his grip on his father and set his feet on the ground. He then marched over to Tobirama and glared at him expectantly. He had to bite his tongue against teasing the boy and instead leaned down to whisper in his ear. After a moment, Shikamaru nodded and trotted down the hall to the kitchen. Shikaku gave him a curious look, but shrugged.

Tobirama traded pleasantries with the various children and adults for a few minutes, allowing time for Shizune and Shikamaru to finish in the kitchen. When he sensed them both exit the room, he cleared his throat to draw attention. “I’d like to thank everyone for taking the time to accept my invitation to have lunch with me,” he started, looking the various clan head in the eyes. “I’m aware of how precious all of your time is in the wake of recent events. You do me a service and honor by being here on such short notice.” All the clan heads showed varying degrees of stress and exhaustion, Choza, Shikaku, and Inoichi most of all. They’d been at the center of the unrest right along side him, if not more so given that he’d been recovering the past few days while they continued to wrestle with the village. He gestured his good hand to the sitting room entrance as Shizune and a half-dozen of her clones entered bearing trays laden with fresh food. “My niece’s dedicated apprentice, Shizune Kato, has put together a feast for all of you. Please enjoy and leave behind your worries and concerns for the time being.”

Various thanks and pleased exclamations went up around the room from clan heads and children alike.

He motioned Lee and Tenten to sit beside him for lunch and murmured thanks to one of Shizune’s clones as she set a tray in front of him. The original Shizune personally served her master first and foremost.

Shikamaru carefully set his father’s tray of tea in front of him, sat on his heels, and stared expectantly—challengingly—up at the man. Shikaku had a wry smile on his face as he slowly and deliberately sat back and waved at the tea. His son’s face twisted in a look of displeasure before he reached for the tea kettle and poured a cup of tea as well as a second one when Shikaku pushed a cup in his direction. The boy’s jerky and stiff motions would make any trained maiko or geisha wince. Just seeing it made the classically-trained Senju clan heir and clan head in Tobirama want to take Shikamaru’s hands to guide him through the correct movements, but he had to remind himself that this wasn’t the Nara heir’s event to host nor was this a true tea ceremony.

He accepted the tea Kagami poured for him and pretended to not see Shikaku’s pointed look as he breathed in the aroma of chamomile and lemon balm, which nearly overwrote the more bitter smell of magnolia bark. Only Shikaku’s and now Shikamaru’s tea smelled as such: everyone else’s were traditional matcha green tea. If the pair of Naras were still awake by the time this lunch was over the Senju would be very impressed, that was his own personal blend to force himself to sleep during a consuming, obsessive research bender.

Tobirama sipped his green tea before carefully nudging Naruto’s hand, murmuring a reminder to slow down his eating. Naruto paused before smiling sheepishly. When he turned back to his food it was with obvious slowness and care.

As lunch progressed, Tobirama couldn’t help but feel his sense of pride and satisfaction surge and rise. In his very home he now had all shinobi clan heads and their heirs, his own heir, niece, and cousin. And the atmosphere was relaxed and easy. Some of the most powerful and influential people currently in Konoha were readily discussing missions of past and present, training techniques, troubles from running a clan and their own personal estates, and so on and so forth. Clans were speaking and engaging with one another that at one point in his life, would rather exchange weapons and lives than words. Hinata and Sasuke were quietly discussing something, gesturing to their eyes. Kakashi was trading barbs with Tsume. Shino and Kiba were having what looked to be a heated and passionate argument if Kiba’s flailing arms and Shino’s shifting hands were anything to go by.

This peace, this accord, was not his own doing. Tobirama wouldn’t dare to even think to claim that honor. No, this was the work of decades of concessions and forgiveness. Years of shedding blood in the defense of each other and trusting one another to watch their backs.

Tobirama didn’t physically look back at the family shrine behind him, but the image of his brother and Madara came to mind. He looked upon the Uchiha clan head and his sons having lunch in the Senju clan head home, to the Ino-Shika-Cho families at ease and receptive to other clans, to the Hyuga clan listening to the words and opinions of others.

During his time as Hokage or as brother to the Hokage, Tobirama hadn’t been able to really see it. He’s been so buried in work and so busy addressing metaphorical—and sometimes literal—fires around the budding village. It was only now that he was out of office, constrained to his home by his injuries, surrounded by clans he’d once thought of tenuous allies who would turn against him at first chance that he finally, finally began to understand.

This peace his brother had been desperately reaching for.

Tobirama took a deep breath and let it out slowly, sitting back and observing the room.

Naruto tugged on his sleeve, demanding he side with him in an argument he was having with Ino and a bemused Inoichi. His chest felt too tight as his little sprout, his amazing, bright, warm little sprout so easily and casually reached for him. His most precious treasure who was gaining weight and color and health and friends and love.

The present and future sat before him and he wasn’t the one orchestrating them for the sake of his brother’s dream. He was a part of them.

For the longest time, peace was something he’d work to achieve and make for other people, the people of his village, his family. Never for himself. It never occurred to him that he could have peace as well.

If this was his peace; then he owed all his gratitude to his anija and Madara. To Naruto. To the people around him who helped and supported the very same dream of peace a young pair of boys used to hope and laugh about on the banks of a tiny river.

If this was his peace, then it was the greatest gift he’d ever been given.