Early morning of May 4, Yondaime Year 5
Minato landed on the red-tiled seal in the corded-off corner of the hospital lobby, staggered, and dropped to one knee. Someone grabbed for his shoulder. He shrugged the hand off. “When I’m facedown, you can grab me,” he said sharply. “Not before then.”
“Sorry, Hokage-sama,” the woman behind him muttered. Her voice was thick with exhaustion, too. Fukui Ayane, he dredged up. ANBU Ferret. Rookie on Fukeda Hajime’s team, currently one-half of what was left of ANBU Team Three.
Hajime himself lay on a stretcher on the floor with his face bare of his Squirrel mask and a mess of charred meat where his left hip had been. They’d sedated him for the nightmare jerk between realities from Hikouto to Konoha, like the others too badly injured for Hikouto’s medics to heal. He’d brought back eight in total—four unconscious, one walking, Team Three’s rookie, one medic, and the Sandaime’s son.
And three bodies, two ANBU and the brave, foolish Intel agent who’d triggered the traitors’ trap for them.
Minato hauled himself to his feet. The lobby was nearly empty at this early hour, only a few patients and family members waiting to be seen, but all the faces he saw were paling as fear overwhelmed surprise. A nurse came out behind the admitting desk, hurrying. “Hokage-sama!”
“Five wounded and in need of stretcher-bearers,” Minato said tightly. “Hyuuga-sensei can give the details. Send someone for Nohara Rin-sensei and her team, if they’re not already on call. Now.”
The young man dashed for his desk and the intercom there. Minato turned back. “How are they?”
Hyuuga Iori was standing in the center of the carefully overlapping array of unconscious bodies, white eyes wide and the chakra-laden veins of the Byakugan bulging in her temples. “Holding on,” she reported. “They’d be doing better if we’d been able to keep them on IVs and blood replacement—”
“I can’t move four medical stands and make sure they come through right,” Minato said wearily. Chakra-rich living bodies—even unconscious ones—could maintain their own integrity as Minato pulled them between dimensions with Hiraishin, but the corpses had been hard enough, even with the living touching them. Exhausted as he was, he’d nearly lost his grip on one of them. A tangle of cords and stands and delicate medical equipment could have pushed him that tiny step too far.
Well, the injured would get medical attention quickly enough, and far better than the over-strained resources in the capital could provide. Hikouto’s doctors were good, but they weren’t Konoha medic-nin.
He looked back to Sarutobi Asuma, who was standing very straight and still at the back of the group, between the two corpses he’d held onto for the length of the howling journey between dimensions. Sarutobi still carried his splinted arm a little tenderly; Hyuuga had set but not healed it, not with so many other wounded who’d need her chakra and her time. Sticking him in the hospital would at least solve the problem of what to do with him for a time. “Stay here,” Minato told him. “Get someone to look at that arm, when they’re free. Should I tell your sister you’re here?”
Sarutobi hesitated, dark eyes dropping. Then he dipped his chin in a reluctant nod.
Minato nodded back and pulled himself around again to face the deluge of medics spilling out of the elevator banks at the back of the lobby. Faces and questions swirled around him, and gloved hands flashed through the seals for diagnostic jutsu. He caught sight of Rin, across two white-capped heads; she spared a quick glance and a tight smile for him, but she was distracted, her eyes already flickering down to her patients. He’d find her again on the other side.
No more need for him here. Hyuuga was directing a rapid triage, as medics plucked up stretchers and hurried away with them again. The three corpses went down a different hall, towards the morgue. Minato watched them go, threaded three lines of a funeral speech through his mind, and shook them out of his head. Later. That, too, would wait.
Sarutobi had taken himself off to a waiting bench. The last injured man, a chuunin who’d arrived in Hikouto four days ago as part of the secondary wave of reinforcements, was borne silently away. Hyuuga followed on the stretcher-bearers’ heels, leaving Minato alone with Ferret.
Who was staring down the hall where her captain had vanished, shoulders straining like a hound against the leash.
“Get some rest,” Minato said. “He’ll pull through. Rin took him.”
“Yes, Hokage-sama,” Ferret said dutifully, but she didn’t move.
Minato sighed. “Or go sleep on a bench outside the operating room. Report to Sagara when your captain’s out of surgery.”
The cheerfully painted mask tipped up at him, then away. “Hokage-sama,” Ferret said, and saluted. Then she was gone, fleeting toward the stairs. He shook his head and began his own slow limp toward the door.
Hiraishin would have been quicker, but at the moment the prospect of opening the universe even once more seemed insurmountable. He still had the chakra, boosted by soldier pills in lieu of sleep, but his pathways ached and every muscle dragged at the bone. He couldn’t remember feeling this tired since the Fox. Maybe Danzou was right, and he should be spending more time running missions. Even sparring with Kakashi or Sagara and his guards wasn’t quite enough training for five days in the field and only snatches of sleep in between. He was getting soft.
Konoha murmured around him in dawnlight. A couple of genin on their way to morning practice came up, overawed and egging each other on. “Just bow!” he heard one of them hiss. “You don’t even haveta say anything, scaredy-cat…”
He ducked his head at them. “I like your coat, Hokage-sama!” the braver one yelled after he’d passed.
His coat was torn, scorched, spotted with blood—a little of his own, a great deal of Bobcat’s. Munenori Rokurou, a second-year lieutenant. Not a brilliant strategist or a genius with jutsu, but solidly competent, the sort of quick, efficient shinobi who formed ANBU’s backbone. He’d be hard to replace.
Munenori Rokurou. Akimichi Yuudai, second-year veteran. Miyake Kei, Intel.
They were running out of room on the Heroes’ Stone.
The doors to the Hokage’s Palace were closed, unusual in peace-time; but he’d left the village on S-level security, he recalled, and evidently Sagara hadn’t de-escalated it yet. He’d have to talk to her. And Oita. Shibata had arrived in Hikouto with reinforcements and a contingent of Uchiha Military Police on the second day after the coup and had quietly and efficiently taken over interrogation of the survivors they’d found. He’d been sending reports back to Konoha, Minato assumed. Minato himself had heard only a few of those reports before the intelligence they conveyed had sent him and ANBU Team Three out to hunt traitors.
And be hunted in turn, eventually.
But the governor of Taishin province, Lord Nobunori, had learned to his bloody cost just how dangerous Konoha could be. Minato had left a few of his vassals alive, though they probably wouldn’t be when Shibata finished with them. They’d spill whatever they knew first. Nobunori would have been the prize to interrogate, but… Minato hadn’t restrained himself very well, with Bobcat’s blood on his coat. The Rasengan didn’t leave much of a man’s chest.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so hard on Kakashi for killing that rogue in the ANBU Trials.
He acknowledged the ANBU guards’ salutes at the head of the stairs on the third floor. “Where’s Sagara?”
“In your office, Hokage-sama,” Lynx reported. He left his post on the stairs to accompany Minato down the long hall. “There’ve been no significant disturbances in your absence. The Council tried to raise a fuss, I understand, but Sagara-sama dismissed them.”
“Hah, did she?” Minato wished he’d seen that. “I hope we have tapes of that meeting.”
“I’ll arrange for them to be delivered to your office,” Lynx promised. He nodded to Boar, on guard at the big office doors. Boar saluted, rapped cursorily on one door, and opened it before the echoes had faded.
Sagara was already out of her seat and halfway around the massive desk. “Hokage-sama,” she said, relief rough in her voice. “We didn’t expect you back yet.”
“We had injured. I had to hurry.” Minato shrugged out of his ruined coat at last; Lynx caught it before it hit the floor. “What’s the situation here?”
“Quiet,” Sagara said, her mouth twisting. “Not a whisper out of Iwa or Kumo, though I’ve no doubt our agents just haven’t picked up on it yet.”
“We’ll hear when they shout,” Minato said. “The snake?”
She shook her head. “None of Shibata’s information has linked anything to him yet. This doesn’t seem like his style, anyway — trying to ambush ANBU candidates for jutsu, sure, but suborning the Guardian Twelve to overthrow the Daimyou?”
“To overthrow me, first,” Minato said wryly. “Orochimaru thought he might be Fourth, once. But I tend to agree with Shibata. Nothing in Hikouto or Taishin to make me suspect any different, at any rate.” He crossed to the desk, cast a tired eye over the stacks of paperwork, and utterly failed to muffle a yawn. “I expect Shibata to relay new information about the rebellion’s other backers any day now. Have we recalled the rest of the ANBU teams?”
“Team Six came back the day before yesterday. That was the last of them.” Sagara indicated a truly massive stack of paperwork. “I’m not sure I’d have believed their report if they hadn’t brought back evidence of it. Namiashi reports—”
“Later,” Minato said, blinking hard against the sand in his eyes. He leaned a fist on the edge of the desk. “I’ll read a briefing tomorrow. Two pages, no longer. Is there anything I need to know now?”
Sagara hesitated, then shook her head. “Nothing that won’t wait until you’ve rested.”
“Good.” He unzipped his flak vest. “I need a message sent to Sarutobi Reiko: her brother’s home and in the hospital. And death notices for Munenori Rokurou, Akimichi Yuudai, and Miyake Kei. The hospital will handle the rest of the injury notifications. But Fukeda Hajime’ll be out until they rebuild his hip—which Hyuuga assures me they can do, and I’ve seen Rin work wonders—”
“Yondaime-sama,” Sagara said, “I can take it from here. Go see your son.”
There was more he needed to tell her. Nobunori, the injured in Konoha’s hospital, traitors across Fire Country waiting for ANBU to strike them down—
But he’d left Naruto sleeping, five days ago. It was still early; maybe he’d be in time for breakfast.
“Talk to Shibata,” he said. “Let me know as soon as there’s news. I’ll write condolence letters to the families, but make sure the notices get out first. And the death benefits, we need to get Payroll moving…”
Sagara took three deliberate steps forward, settled a hand on each of his shoulders, and looked him squarely in the eye. She was a good eight inches shorter than him; she made it not matter. “Hokage-sama,” she said, “with the greatest respect, go home.”
Minato huffed a breath caught halfway between annoyance and amusement. But she was right; she knew what needed to be done as well as he did, and she’d handle what she could and save for him what she couldn’t. “Thanks,” he said. “Remind me to give you a commendation when I wake up, Commander.”
“Save it,” she said, dropping her hands from his shoulders. “You can give me a weekend off.”
“It’s yours,” he said. “Until the next crisis.”
Sagara didn’t smile much, at least not in uniform. But her eyes warmed a little, before she turned back to his chair. He left her to her paperwork, collected Lynx with a nod, and headed for his private quarters.
The palace had served as a combination of diplomatic halls, Hokage’s office and workspace, village council meeting space, and extensive archive for the village’s library of jutsu, both permitted and forbidden, since the first Hokage had founded Konoha over eighty years ago. Most of it had built along grand lines, with tall ceilings, polished wooden appointments, painted paper screens, and a sense of carefully constructed finery. It was the place Konoha brought foreign dignitaries and diplomats to be impressed.
The first thing Minato saw in his hallway was a scattered sea of colorful blocks, spelling ninja.
“I’m home,” he whispered, and kicked his sandals off.
He shed his flak vest into Lynx’s waiting hands; Lynx hung it on a peg and slipped out the door again. Minato reeled down the hall past the kitchen, which was quiet and beginning to brighten with a sliver of light from the rising sun. Saya hadn’t yet arrived to make breakfast; perhaps he’d come back earlier than he’d thought. There was a soft noise in the living room, though. He peered in, and saw a shock of silver hair on the arm of the sofa, a long body stretched out still in muddy training gear, and a familiar orange-covered book resting open on the lean chest, lifting faintly with every breath.
The TV was on at its lowest murmur, tuned to the weather channel.
And Kakashi was back safe from his first ANBU mission. A little weight lifted from Minato’s shoulders.
He went back down the hall, past his own bedroom and the guest bedroom where Kakashi should have been sleeping, and into Naruto’s room. The curtains were still drawn; the room was dim, dreaming. Naruto lay in an untidy sprawl with the blanket kicked to the floor and a field of toy caltrops scattered around the bed. He had several sheets of paper tucked under his head, bright with scribbles. Minato picked his way through the caltrop-field and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Naruto was as sound a sleeper as Kushina had been. He didn’t stir, even when Minato drew the wrinkled papers out from beneath his head. Several months’ experience with Naruto’s drawings still gave him no clue what the multi-colored scribbles might be, but Kakashi’s horrible handwriting provided almost equally indecipherable labels across the bottom of each one:
Dad beating up all the bad guys.
Tattoos like Tousaki-san’s!
Kakashi and I are pretty pretty princesses.
Kakashi had drawn an angry little henohenomoheji next to that one.
Minato imagined them at the kitchen table, or sprawled on their stomachs on Naruto’s floor, Naruto with his crayons narrating everything to Kakashi as he drew, and his throat tightened. He put the pictures down, safely at the very head of the bed, and then pulled his hitai’ate off and eased himself down in a loose curl around his son.
Naruto was soft and warm, and he made a grunting little sound in the back of his throat and cuddled closer against Minato’s chest. He smelled—like he needed a bath, honestly; but so did Minato. He was safe, Kakashi was safe, the village was safe.
And so, finally, was Minato.