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The Wall

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It's rare, for an Akimichi to be the last survivor of a trio.

They always tended to suffer heavy losses, the Akimichi; in all the Great Ninja Wars in which the clan had been an active participant, the percentage always leaned into the thirties, sometimes the forties. Of the fourteen Clan Patriarchs who had come before Choza, thirteen had died in battle.

So the Akimichi died, and and those who survived had children- many children. Even in the time of peace which had begat Naruto Uzumaki's generation, there were always babies. As fifteenth head of his clan, Choza wasn't willing to take a chance.

He wasn't the smartest man in Konoha, nor was he the most powerful, but it was said by those who knew him that maybe he was the most wise.

War came, and the Akimichi bore it on their backs.

This was inevitable. The Akimichi were Konoha's Wall, and had been since the second Chouji had died defending Hashirama Senju. With their great size and strength, they led the direct charges, their huge bodies a shield for the soldiers who ran behind them. In the fourth Ninja War- which was unlike any of the wars before it- this remained the same.

Akimichi were crushed beneath debris, defending squad mates regardless of their hidden village.

Akimichi were discovered as shriveled, emaciated skeletons, having used up all their chakra.

Akimichi were pincushions, dotted with kunai and shuriken, having barreled across the battlefield to cover for their comrades.

They were burned alive, suffocated, torn to pieces. Death was never kind to the Akimichi. It was a point of pride for them that it not be.

When the large (and sometimes small, far too small) bodies were laid out, Choza didn't need the official numbers to know how many orphans were at home in their family compound.

He was the picture of a Clan Patriarch, guiding the mednin in what to do with the corpses. Beside him Chouji was exemplary, grim-faced and solid. He hadn't expected to survive.

To be honest, neither had Choza.

Which made the irony that much worse, really.

In the heat of battle one couldn't afford to waste time on despair. No ninja was unfeeling (although many were very good at faking it) but giving in to sorrow, to the sight of the blood of your brother or sister, friend or lover, was tantamount to dying yourself.

The will of the dead lives on in those that fight. This was another quiet truth the Akimichi held behind their gentle smiles. No matter how many fell, the others would climb over them. That is what it meant to be a Wall.

Choza's wall was not where it should have been.

Choza knew this was pointless thinking. He had been where he needed to be; on the field of battle, storming headlong into the fray, growing larger and more deadly with every step he took. It had been imperative to victory that he do as he was ordered, and be sure his people did as they were ordered.

Every ninja lost someone they loved. Choza told himself this, because it was true, but it made him feel no better.

Shikamaru and Ino had lost their parents, the clans Yamanaka and Nara lost their patriarchs.

Choza had lost his friends.

He lost nights at the bathhouse. He lost missions both successful and failed. He lost hours of stargazing and hours more of mind-numbingly boring lectures on flower arrangement. Choza lost the meals he cooked, the rants he listened to, the hands on his shoulders as his entire body shook, trying its hardest to pull chakra from fat that just wasn't there anymore.

A butterfly without a pig and a deer. A shikaless, inoless cho.

Against a weapon of that size, not even a full strength baika would have made a difference and Choza knew this, he knew it because Shikaku knew it, because Shikaku was smart, so very smart and so was Inoichi, in a more devious manner; both of them far smarter than he.

The war was won, and the Akimichi recovered, as they did; bounced back because they had to, because they were the large and happy clan, and Konoha needed them. Konoha needed their smiles and their offers of food and company. Konoha needed to forget how many of them died in every war.

When the rubble was moved, the markers raised, Choza went to the Tri-Clan monument and he stood.

He stood for a long time, and didn't return home until the entire sky was a wash of Shikaku's stars.

The world was changing, slowly. It was waking up and taking a deep breath, a caterpillar who had finally split from its cocoon. All around him, the fifteenth head of the Akimichi clan could sense change upon the warm green wind.

Change bought in blood, yes, but change for the better.

Perhaps, Choza thought to himself, in this new world, the Akimichi would thrive simply to thrive. Perhaps Konoha would no longer need a Wall.

Perhaps another Cho would not stand where he did, and wonder if only, if only, if only.

The new world was all well and good, and Choza was happy to embrace it. He was happy to attend the weddings, the meetings, the memorials. He was happy to hold his granddaughter's tiny hands, letting her trace the streaks on his cheeks.

Choza was happy to babysit Inojin and Shikadai, happy to tell Shikamaru's pretty and ferocious wife all the stories Shikaku would have demanded he keep secret. He was happy to regurgitate, in what he felt was a perfect imitation, all of Inoichi's flower-arrangement lectures to Ino's quiet young husband, who didn't look like he understood a word and yet understood all too well.

Choza was happy with the new world.

Happy enough that, most of the time, he could forget a simple truth.

He was the Wall. And he should have gone first.