The last time Asuma saw Konohagakure it was in the late throes of summer and half empty, summer being the time active and even semi retired shinobi went off to help with the harvest. Some jōnin considered it their last bit of freedom before the new genin were assigned. Now it was barely spring and Konoha looked like the sleeping giant it was. It bristled with shinobi of every rank, each one visibly armed to the teeth, so much so the walls looked like they were being patrolled by angry porcupines more than anything, metal glinting in the light. They were not hiding how angry they were, weren't hiding how ready the were. As such, it was not much of a surprise when Asuma was stopped a solid twenty feet from the gate, which was sealed shut.
“State your name and business,” a chūnin with bandages across his nose demanded. He and his partner, another male chūnin, were tense as a wire trap ready to spring, distrust obvious across their faces. Of course, it had only been three days since the attack, but it was odd to be treated as a danger by people from his home town.
“Sarutobi Asuma,” he said, “jōnin and member of the Guardian Twelve. I've got a month's leave to help rebuild and to pay my respects.” He kept his voice even, no hint of his annoyance or grief, despite his exhaustion. He knew they had a good reason for this – but Konoha was betrayed from the inside, not one man walking down a muddy road.
His name, however, caused an immediate shift, some mixture of surprise, mild panic and even deeper suspicion. “Sarutobi,” Bandages muttered to his partner, barely within Asuma's hearing, “shit man.” His partner seemed calmer of the two or at least less visibly agitated. The surprise wasn't surprising – as far as Asuma knew there was only one Sarutobi left in Konoha.
“Sarutobi-san,” the calm one called down, “please wait here while we get someone who can verify your story.” He visibly paused before leaning down a bit more to be better heard, “and uh, did you want an umbrella or something?”
Despite everything, the fact he was almost asleep on his feet, despite the worry and the grief attempting to break through the wall around his emotions, Asuma grinned. “I don't think it will do much good,” he said. He was soaked to the bone already, after all. The rain had started about six hours after he left the capitol, and hadn't stopped in the day and a half since. He had, for the first little bit, been using a carefully placed fūton to keep dry but it hadn't really been worth the chakra expenditure or concentration.
Not-Bandages gave a nervous chuckle at the answer and disappeared without another word, leaving Bandages to peer nervously down at Asuma. It made the jōnin feel like a ticking time bomb, if bombs had feelings that was. Not-Bandages, whose apparent lack of appreciation for simple humour has earned him the name Chuckles, reappeared less than a full minute later with a familiar if very sodden silver-haired man next to him.
“A greeting from the Copy Nin himself,” Asuma said once they're within talking range, voice purposefully mild, “I've really gone up in the world it seemed.”
Kakashi's body shifted in a way that offered the suggestion of a grin beneath his mask, a real one not that stupid eye-thing he'd perfected over the years. “There just weren't any other bastards unlucky enough to recall your ugly mug, Asuma,” Kakashi said. From this close, ten feet or so, Asuma could feel the faint prickle of Kakashi's chakra. Which meant that if Asuma was tired, Kakashi was a few minutes from passing out. He'd always had stellar chakra control, if Asuma can feel him from that far he was not in a good place. He seemed genuinely pleased to see Asuma though, or as pleased as Kakashi ever was.
“Ha fucking ha,” Asuma said, stepping up closer. Chuckles shifted nervously, sagging in relief when Kakashi raised a hand in the standard friend motion.
“Yeah this is him,” he said – and now he does the eye thing. “And I'm sure he'll play nice while he's here.” Or else, was very clear in the unsaid bits of that statement.
“On my best behaviour,” Asuma said. When he'd left he'd been an angry punk with a lot of chakra, a talent that was rare in Fire Country and a chip on his shoulder. It had been nine fucking years though, he'd grown in a lot of ways, mostly for the better. “Now just take me to see my old man.”
Asuma left the Hokage's tower and hour later and wasn't surprised to see Kakashi no longer there – Tsuzumi was though, and Asuma offered a tired smile. Riichi, who'd always been Tsuzumi's closest confident, waved slightly, looking haggard and worn. Knowing he probably didn't look any better he opened his mouth to remark – only to be pulled into a hug by Tsuzumi. He shouldn't have been surprised – he'd been the youngest member of their genin team, attached after the death of his team mates and mentor. He'd always been more touchy feel-y than most shinobi.
“I knew you missed me,” Asuma said, offering his own awkward little hug back. Tsuzumi snorted and pulled away – Riichi had disappeared into the ether. Tsuzumi looked as tired as Kakashi and himself, and guilty, too. “Hey man,” he said, squeezing his former team mate's shoulder, “don't look at me like that.”
He didn't doubt for a moment Tsuzumi would offer a shoulder to cry on, or an ear to lend. Asuma didn't need a pity party though, and he didn't need to rehash his regrets. Not even over saké with friends. He wondered, privately, if he had come home or never left...if he'd been here and not in the capital, would anything be different? He was a good shinobi, a strong fighter. No, he was a damn fine shinobi and a well honed fighter – it was very possible.
Tsuzumi just sighed, cracking his neck. “Want to come with me?” he asked, taking the standard shinobi route of not talking about it for once in his life. Asuma frowned.
“Go where?” he asked, and Tsuzumi gave a sad grin.
“Kiyoshi's little brother is in hospital,” he said, “he kind of tipped us something was off – we're lucky he managed to drag himself to the hospital. If he hadn't chances are we would have been even more off guard than we already were, even if he was in no shape to talk at the time.”
Gekkō Kiyoshi was the third member of their very defunct genin team, a scary lady with a grasp on kenjutsu which would have had your average samurai drooling in envy. Her brother was, if he remembered correctly, twenty four now and likely just as deadly. “Hayate, right?” he asked, Tsuzumi nodded.
“Yup, we still don't know who exactly worked him over, though we can guess. He was found unconscious and more than half-dead outside the hospital by someone on her smoke break,” Tsuzumi started walking as he talked, heading toward nearby hospital. “He won't be happy when he wakes up.”
“The sort of guy to hate missing an invasion?” Asuma asked, Tsuzumi snorted again.
“Nah, Hayate probably won't be angry about that. One of his kids – he's a first time jōnin sensei – is critical after he got caught between nine Oto-nin.” Asuma blinked in shock, not entirely sure he'd heard correctly.
“A genin verses nine insurgents, and he's only critical, as opposed to dead?” Impressive, if terrifying. What was he doing against nine enemies, and how good was he that he wasn't ashes in the wind now?
Tsuzumi shrugged, “from what I know he'll be a chūnin if he wakes up,” he said, “showed a brilliant grasp on tactics in his exam, excellent risk and self assessment abilities in mid battle, and had a good head on his shoulders. Even ignoring that, though, well, those shinobi were jōnin.” Asuma almost choked on air.
“Sweet kami – who allowed that?” he asked, barely keeping his voice from a shout, “since when do we send a single genin against nine jōnin?” Tsuzumi lifted his hands in the universal surrender sign. Merciful Bodhisattva but that was a dumb move.
“We didn't,” Tsuzumi said, “the whole stadium was under a genjutsu – we hadn't even realized four of the genin had broken through until his father took note of his absence, and Kakashi realized some of the others were missing too.”
“His dad?” Asuma asked, mildly mystified, “and what does Kakashi have to do with genin?” Surely they wouldn't foist the other jōnin on any poor eleven year olds.
“Well two of his genin -” oh sweet fuck they did give the crazy bastard a team - “were gone too, along with one of Yūhi's genin. Shikaku was not pleased.”
It took Asuma a brief second to put the Jōnin Commander, Kakashi and Yūhi – Kurenai he assumed – in the same equation. “Shit – Shikaku's son was the genin?” even as he asked they step into the hospital which was brimming with people. Tsuzumi nodded grimly. Asuma vaguely remembered the kid from before he left, a quiet little toddler who hid behind his mother when company came calling. He couldn't recall his name other than the whole Shika-something business. “Do they think he'll recover?”
Tsuzumi sighed, “I hope so. Shikaku-sama can be frightening enough without a dead kid to add to the mix. I don't think he'd handle it well. Hayate and Yoshino-san definitely wouldn't – the whole team is close and he is her only son.”
Close his ass, Asuma thought. Ino-Shika-Chō were likely beyond close. They were probably raised together from diapers; their dads certainly were.
“Interesting thing though,” Tsuzumi said as they stepped into an elevator which was blessedly empty, “rumour has it those nine Oto-nin were taken down with a wind blade.” Asuma didn't see what was so interesting about that. Preliminary reports were saying Suna had been double crossed and decided to get out of Dodge the minute they realized they'd broken the alliance with Konoha for nothing.
“So – someone tried to escape and the nine jōnin were in their way,” he said, “it happens.” It wasn't likely a Nara had a fūton, as far as he could tell they weren't particularly prone to any nature jutsu. He'd never seen Shikaku, who was a damn fine shinobi, pull one out, anyway. Tsuzumi gave him the Look, the one that said I wouldn't say interesting if it weren't.
“Gekkō's wounds were caused by a wind blade,” he said, just as the elevator pinged. Asuma lets that sink in – well fuck.
“Someone got a kick in the conscience, you think?” he asked, and Tsuzumi made a noncommittal gesture with one hand as they make their way into the ICU, carefully keeping out of the way. Quietly they stepped into a shared room with several people already in it, probably more than there was supposed to be. Immediately he recognized Kiyoshi, seated next to the closest bed. She looked up at their entrance, a slightly dazed look on her face, and was silent for only a second before Asuma has an arm full of trembling former team mate.
“I'm so sorry Asuma,” she said, speaking into his shoulder. Her brother was white against his sheets and wrapped up so well you can barely see his pallor. Someone did a number on him. The person on the other bed was smaller, and two roughly equally sized bodies are carefully arranged around him, obscuring him from view. One was a chubby redhead, Akimichi then, and the other was a blonde girl who he guessedwas Inoichi's daughter. They were asleep, Akimichi snoring slightly, but Nara Yoshino was seated next to them, face drawn with worry. She didn't seem to even notice the other people in the room and Asuma looked away. It was not his business.
The only other person in the room was a woman Asuma didn't know with dark purple hair and sad eyes. She was staring at Hayate like her entire world rested on his shoulders, and Asuma looked away from the picture she made. Lost for words at the sheer desperation in the room Asuma gently clasped a hand on Kiyoshi's shoulder. Tsuzumi, always happy to help, signed a name to him. Yugao, with something roughly meaning girlfriend when he saw where Asuma's gaze had landed.
“How's he doing?” the chūnin asked, voice barely more than a whisper. To Asuma's surprise Kiyoshi smiled.
“He almost woke up this morning,” she said, “the nurses and the doctor think he'll regain consciousness some time in the next day,” she jerked her head toward the Nara boy. “And with luck both of them will be out of ICU by tomorrow.”
That was good at least, and though he'd like to stay and chat Asuma felt more like an interloper than anything. He'd been gone for just short of a decade, this was not really his circle. Not anymore.
“I'm glad,” he said, “really.” She smiled at him, lips trembling, and he turned to Tsuzumi, who was now talking to Yugao-san. “I'm going to find a place to crash, Tsu,” he said calling on the old nickname, “I haven't slept in almost three days.” They had gotten news of the attack on Konoha twelve hours after his father's death, he'd set out six hours later and been on the move since.
Tsuzumi nodded in understanding and Asuma offered one last hug to Kiyoshi before promising to stop by Kiyoshi's tomorrow evening for supper.
Stepping out back into Konoha, and the rain, he sighed. It was good to be back, despite how terribly wrong everything was at the moment. He hadn't realized he'd missed it until he'd seen the gates – hadn't realized how much it felt like home. Several of the jōnin on the street recognized him, waving or nodding as they passed, but not stopping to chat. Everyone was on duty or sleeping right now – there was no in between save for those making time to visit the hospital. Heading away from the tower in search of the visitor district Asuma took note of which faces were missing, which were noticeably older and which were new.
He felt uncomfortably like a stranger in a strange land. He didn't think he liked it all that much.
The storm had passed by the time Asuma woke, and the sun was high enough to signify to Asuma it was noon. With nothing to do and nowhere to be until Kiyoshi's – he'd have to make an appeal to the jōnin commander to get work – he took his time getting ready, partially so he could avoid the lunch time rush.
So, he was a little surprise to see two small figures seated at Ichiraku ramen when he finally made his way outside at quarter past one. One was taller and blond as the Yondaime had been, the other short enough to probably be several years the blond's junior. He came to a stop as he got close enough to cast a shadow when the blond turned to glare suspiciously at him.
Fuck dad , was Asuma's first thought, did you really think naming him Uzumaki was going to cover the fact he's Minato's twin in miniature ? Okay, there was some Kushina there, and they hadn't known he was going to be Minato 2.0, but it had never been a stellar plan anyway. The face he was making was all Kushina though, eyes narrowed in suspicion, mouth curved into a broad grimace.
“Hey!” he shouted, loudly too, as Asuma got even closer, “how come I haven't seen you before? Are you trying to invade Konoha?! Wait –,” he turned to his friend, “do you know this guy, Konohamaru? I don't know this guy.”
The name hit Asuma like a sledgehammer, as did the look on the boy's tiny little face. He was not crying, but he was close, and Asuma felt his mild annoyance with the Uzumaki's loudness disappear when his nephew said, “no, Naruto-nii.”
Asuma had left shortly after Konohamaru was born – well, ten months after actually, and they'd not met since. He'd been fresh to the twelve when his brother died shortly after Konohamaru's third birthday, and so he hadn't been able to attend the funeral, leaving Konohamaru with just his mother and grandfather as family. He hadn't seen him grow up outside pictures sent by first his brother then his father. They had never interacted aside from a few letters attached to his dad's over the years. He kept them both in a box under his bed, using them to gain information for the gifts he tried to remember to send for the kid's birthday each year. So far he'd only forgotten five times – so, score on that front.
He must have been staring at his...well nephew...too long because Naruto moved fast, abandoning his ramen to invade Asuma's personal space. It was funnier than anything else, the little blond trying to glare up at Asuma threateningly. Jinchuuriki or not, he didn't cut an intimidating figure compared to Asuma's six feet two inches of muscle.
“I asked your name,” he said, poking Asuma in the chest. He looked slightly startled by how firm it was, if the next two pokes were anything to go by and Asuma smothered a laugh. No need to make the kid even more defensive.
“I'm Sarutobi Asuma,” he said simply. The name, much like it had yesterday, had an immediate effect. Naruto made a strange confused sound and Konohamaru stood up off his stool so quickly he almost fell flat on his face.
“You're related to the Old Man?” Naruto asked, a waver in his voice, but Asuma didn't get to answer as, for lack of a better word, Konohamaru flew at him.
“Ojisan!” he cried, throwing himself into Asuma's chest. Out of instinct Asuma scooped the kid into a hug, more so he wouldn't crash into the ground than anything. Then Konohamaru started to cry.
Asuma wasn't too proud to admit it threw him, and obviously Naruto, for a loop as the little boy sobbed into Asuma's shoulder. Unsure of what to do, Asuma wasn't really a kid person, he just stood there. He was kind of hoping Teuchi would remember him and not cause a fuss over some stranger holding the Sandaime's grandkid, but had few thoughts other than that. After a second he felt a hand on one of his own, and he was surprised when Naruto forcefully directed him to rub Konohamaru's back. Oh, right.
Konohamaru was not heavy, but standing there with a bawling nephew wasn't very appealing, so Asuma migrated over back to the ramen stand, taking the last of the three stools. Naruto climbed back on to his, managing to look utterly serious while slurping ramen noodles.
“If you're his jisan how come I've never seen you around before?” Naruto asked once he'd finished off his ramen. Asuma opened his mouth to answer but Konohamaru, who had since stopped crying but not vacated his lap, took over.
“Ojisan is a really important ninja who works for the Daimyō and saves lots of people and creates links to the people,” he said, as if he'd heard it said several times. Naruto looked like a boy trying not to be impressed. Konohamaru wiggled down from Asuma's lap, thankfully, and clambered back up onto his own stool. “The Old Man says – said – he's an ambassador.”
Naruto wrinkles his nose. “Don't they sit around talking and being boring?” he asked, “that doesn't sound cool to me. It sounds like something Shikamaru or Iruka-sensei would do.”
Asuma snorted, ambassador his ass. “I'm not that sort of ambassador,” he said, “I more of a figurative one.” Konohamaru and Naruto both gave him blank looks at the word. “I mostly hit things.” That perked both boys up, and they easily fell into a pattern of asking too many questions at once for him to answer – and somewhere along the way he got conned into feeding two bottomless pits.
“So how long are you staying Asuma-ji?” Naruto asked. The uncle title startled Asuma momentarily. It seemed Naruto did not have a great grasp on propriety, but Asuma let the title slide. He liked the kid.
“Just until June,” he said, not liking the way both little faces fell. “I needed to say bye to the Old Man, and I want to help around here too.”
“Won't the Daimyō miss you?” Konohamaru asked. It had been revealed over the last few minutes Naruto didn't think much of the Daimyō, and even less of his wife, but liked his niece Naho. Asuma pretty much agreed on all fronts. The Daimyō wasn't a bad man but he was not very interesting or overly gifted in intelligence, and Mme. Shimiji was an acquired taste, one no one but the Daimyō had managed to actually acquire. Naho, who he'd only met once, was pretty sweet and polite, easy to like. Probably very easy to like if you were a boy her own age.
“Well he has eleven other guards,” he said. Naruto scoffed.
“Yeah but obviously you're the best,” he said, “'cause you're a Konoha jōnin.”
Asuma didn't bother telling him that a quarter of the numbers are jōnin from Konoha, the others being monks or members of the Capital Guard – Naruto didn't seem the type swayed by logic. “Whatever you say kid,” he said, checking the sun – he'd been here an hour. He was never going to catch Shikaku, who apparently hadn't stayed in one place longer than five minutes since the attack, at this rate. “Look I got to go find the jōnin commander,” he said, and was surprised when Naruto wilted like a badly neglected houseplant.
“Naruto-nii?” Konohamaru asked, sounding worried. Naruto just scowled.
“I wanna visit Shikamaru,” he pouted, “but I can't and I'm gonna leave tomorrow and I can't find his dad anywhere.”
“Shikaku-sama said you couldn’t visit?” Asuma asked, because he knew the kid was allowed visitors. Naruto gave him a Look that said no you idiot.
“Nah, the nurses don't like me but Shikaku-san's usually cool so he might let me if I can find him but I can't and I gotta go get Ero-sensei's friend so she can fix everyone.”
“Well,” Asuma considered the problem. Naruto had, over the last hour, proven to be a loud but kind boy, and it was possible they staff were worried he would wake the patients in the hall or disturb the other visitors, but it wasalso possible the issue they had was totally out of Naruto's control. “You're not tying to visit the nurses,” he said, “and besides, if Shikamaru is your friend other people shouldn't matter, right? It's not good to leave town without saying goodbye.”
He would know, it was one mistake he'd never really get over having made. Especially since the two biggest victims of that stunt were dead and gone.
Naruto slurped the last bit of his fourth bowl of ramen before he stood, slapping some money – not enough – down on the table. “You're right! I'm gonna go see him then Ero-sensei and me are gonna find the best healer ever and if Shikamaru's not better when I get back she'll fix him and Hayate-sensei and everyone else too!”
Briefly Asuma wondered if he'd not done something terrible as he watched Naruto race away, but Konohamaru was looking at him like he'd just gone and hung the fucking moon. It made him think maybe he didn't care.
Ero-sensei's “friend” turned out to be one Senju Tsunade, even if she'd not used her family name in years. Though Asuma, being technically on loan, wasn't privy to anything more secret than a C-rank, the mission to find her appeared to have been very exciting, if the half-dead Uchiha Sasuke and hush-hush nature of what happened to him were any indication.
He didn't see her, save for the hastily thrown together inauguration, until almost a week into her return to Konoha. She sent, of all things, a pig to go get him, and it was with deep trepidation and a mild amount of indignation – a pig that wasn't even a summons – that he made his way to her.
It was odd, he admitted, seeing someone in his father's chair. Oh, there was the brief period where Minato had ruled, but his father had still been alive and...Tsunade wasn't exactly Hokage material. Namely because she openly did not want to be Hokage, but when the other options were Danzō and basically no one else, you took what you could get.
Still, it was good to see her – his father's team had been assigned babysitting duty over Asuma and his brother many times, and though Jiraiya was ostensibly the best at it, he had fond memories of all three.
Even the traitor; which just went to show.
He bowed to Tsunade, though it felt strange to do so even after so many years in service to the Daimyō. Ninja weren't big on formalities, not really, or in being in positions that exposed their back and reduced line of sight, but it was a courtesy, to show he was not some petulant brat who was going to pout at his father's replacement. He was surprised when Tsunade laughed, tired and worn.
“Stand up Sarutobi,” she said, “and sit down – I've got a question for you.”
That was...odd. He'd been here three weeks, only slated for another three days before he headed back to the capital.
“Sure,” he said, sliding slowly into a chair. Tsunade's chin was perched on her hands as she pretty much scowled at him, a bottle of saké next to her. “Though I'm not sure how I can help you – I'm almost as much a stranger here as you, now.”
Her stance softened at that, though she took a chug straight from the bottle before speaking. “So, you will be returning to the capital next week?”
“Yes ma'am,” he said. She sighed.
“I don't suppose one Akimori Taizo has died in the past five years, has he?”
For a moment Asuma was silently stunned by the odd question; then he remembered.
Five years prior, Fire Country Capital, November 19th.
“Go. Fish,” Tou's voice was a silent hiss as she glared at Kazuma over her cards. The other Guardian barely twitched – though Asuma saw a slight shift of agitation as he reached for the cards and apparently didn't pull a Jack. It was the most cut throat game of Go Fish he'd ever been a part of, but it was also an important one. The loser, after all, has to talk to Taizo about his Problem.
Personally, Asuma thought it should be up to Chiriku or Kazuma, them being the official leaders of the group, but ninja hated talking about feelings only slightly less than they liked mental health professionals. When the most junior members, Asuma and Kitane, had dug in their heels, it had lead to this.
It was just the four of them anyway – the other five were out for the count with the weird flu Taizo and Ozuru accidentally unleashed on the capital. In fact, they'd already lost Ozuru to it in combination with his wounds, and the doctors and medic-nin alike weren't too confident in Honda Chikafusa's ability to pull through his own illness.
The loss of his friend on a stupid make-work mission had been hard on Taizo, enough so he'd taken to spending his off duty hours in gambling dens. So far his own abysmal poker abilities had been cancelled out by the world's unluckiest blonde, or so the story went, but that could only hold so long. As such, someone needed to intervene, but no one really wanted to be the one to get between a shinobi and their coping mechanism.
“Asuma,” Chiriku said, “do you have any tens?”
Asuma didn't even glance at his cards, smiling grimly. “Go fish.”
“I'm afraid not,” Asuma said, “though he is considering retirement.” Which was the diplomatic way of saying he was on the edge of being thrown out on his ass. The man had two months to get the feeling back in the two fingers on his left hand or he would be gone. Sent packing with a few thousand ryo and a special dispensation to not be arrested for leaving the service.
“Where to?” Tsunade asked, and Asuma shrugged.
“Wind country, maybe,” he said. Taizo's mother was a Suna shinobi, and together he and Asuma had been the fūton users of the 12. Taizo often talked of starting a ryoken along the Wind Country coast. Tsunade relaxed visibly.
“One down,” she said more to herself. Asuma just wondered how much she owed Taizo, exactly, and how many others were owed besides.
June came quickly, and the day Asuma left he was not at all shocked to find he was travelling in yet another rain storm. Such was his life. Konohamaru had spent the last few days bargaining with him, trying to get him to stay, but Asuma had responsibilities. Now his nephew, Naruto and Naruto's teacher Iruka were all there to see him off, though Asuma was mystified about the last one. He didn't even know the Uminos when they were alive.
Kiyoshi, Kakashi, and Tsuzumi had thrown him a small goodbye party the night before.Which mostly meant alcohol and not discussing any feelings. Still, all three were among the small crowd at the gates. All looking tired and like they needed a shower, but not too down.
“You'll come back, right ojisan?” Konohamaru asked and despite the fact he could very easily die before retirement became an option, Asuma nodded.
“Of course,” he said, “before you know it.”
It was not a fair promise – he may never come home at all, no matter how hard he tries – but he'd made it all the same. Now, he simply had to not make a liar of himself. Easier said than done, he had wracked up a large bounty during his drifter years, and had only added it whilst with the Twelve. Headhunters were always happy to see him.
That thought carried him through the gates, flashing one last smile to his well wishers before Konoha's gates clanged shut, everyone on high alert. Shaking his head, Asuma leaped into action, stretching and fervently wishing the rain would clear up sooner than later.
It was time to leave home once more, just for a while.