Life Without Kurama @axleboost
Chapter 3

3 - This Game We Play

On a breezy, sunlit day in The Hidden Leaf Village, Minato Namikaze strode along the quiet street that led to the Hyuuga Clan Manor. He smiled down at his much shorter, more excitable companion. The blond boy hummed a happy tune and swung his short arms with each stride. His pastel-orange kimono's sleeves flapped along with the breeze. Minato chuckled at his son's carefree attitude. Naruto looked up at him and grinned, then adopted a more serious expression and stiff gait, imitating his father's movements.

"Now, now, son," Minato said, "Make sure you behave yourself today. Otherwise I'll send you back home to your mother, got it? Daddy's very busy and needs to focus."

"Right, right," the child's small voice agreed. Naruto poked out his lower lip, shouting back, "Hokage business!"

"Yeah." Minato smiled. "Hokage business. We're guests in the Hyuugas' home, so don't misbehave."

"But dad," Naruto said, staring up at him as they walked, "don't you own the whole village? Why do we have to do what they say if you make all the rules?"

Minato quelled Naruto's argument with a firm shake of his head. "Don't say things like that, Naruto. It's not about who owns what. When you are a guest in someone else's house, you treat them with respect."

Naruto pondered the statement for a few seconds, then nodded. "Respect."

The distant figure of Hiashi Hyuuga approaching from further down the path stole away Minato's attention. The man's long, flowing white robes made him impossible to miss. A handful of other clan members walked woodenly on either side of him, dressed in similar fashion. His guards, no doubt.

The two leaders met in the middle of the street, their encounter silent at first. Someone on Hiashi's side of the standstill cleared his throat, but no one else moved an inch for the first ten seconds or so. Save for Naruto, who was looking at the faces of each person present, his eyes enlarged with naive curiosity.

"Welcome, Lord Hokage," Lord Hiashi said, joining his hands and giving Minato a formal bow. Everyone behind him mirrored the gesture, but with their hands down at their sides. "The Hyuuga Clan welcomes you."

"Please, Hiashi," Minato said, laughing, "I told you there's no need for these pleasantries. A handshake will suffice, and you can just call me Minato, or Fourth."

"Nonsense," Hiashi rebuffed. "The way of the Hyuuga has always been to treat every Hokage-"

"With the utmost respect," Minato finished for him. "I remember. But honestly, don't treat me as if I'm so much better than someone who was my peer not too long ago." Not wanting things to get awkward, he moved on. "Oh, one more thing before we start! I'd like you to officially meet my son, Naruto."

Naruto looked back with uncertainty, checking for his father's approval. Minato squatted low to the ground and placed a gentle hand on his young son's back.

"Go on," Minato whispered. "You can do this. Just like we practiced."

Reassured, Naruto stepped forward and looked up at the stern-faced man, examining Lord Hiashi's long dark hair and pale eyes. Resisting the urge to scrunch his face up in confusion, Naruto lifted his tiny hand to meet Hiashi's larger one. The man knelt so that he was almost eye level with Naruto and accepted the handshake with a nod.

"It is my pleasure to meet you, son of the Fourth Hokage." Hiashi cleared his throat and stood up, pausing when he felt a tug at his robes.

Lurking just behind Hiashi's leg was a small human, similar in size and stature to Naruto. Interested, Naruto leaned to the side, trying to get a peek around at whoever was there. He couldn't help but crack a smile at the sight of someone his age to play with!

"Enough of that," Hiashi stated gruffly, his brow furrowed. Catching himself, he turned back toward Minato to do damage control. "My apologies, Lord Hokage. Please forgive my daughter. She insisted on coming out here to greet you, but as you may recall, she is rather shy."

"No," Minato said, raising a hand. "That's okay. I'd like our children to get acquainted." He waved at the short-haired girl hiding behind Hiashi's leg, laughing when she stuck her body halfway out from behind cover. "Hello there. Remember me, Hinata?" She gave a meek nod, returning to the folds of Hiashi's clothes. "Would you like to be friends with my son?"

Naruto looked back again, and Minato flicked his chin toward the girl. The boy stepped forward and waited for Hinata to peek at him again. When she did, he smiled and extended a hand.

"Hi there, I'm Naruto Uzumaki!"

She tip-toed back into view, walked toward Naruto, and reached out with a limp hand, completing the handshake after a long delay. "Hinata Hyuuga."

"Alright then," Hiashi said, looking to Minato. "Shall we head inside?"

"Sure." Minato glanced down at Naruto and Hinata and gasped.

"Let's go," Hiashi said to Hinata without looking back. "You have forms to practice."

"Actually," Minato said, rubbing the back of his head, "Hiashi, I just had an idea. Why don't we let the kids spend some time together while we're meeting?"


Hiashi paused, taken aback. He stared hard at Minato, as if the concept of what his guest proposed was foreign to him. Minato watched him go from astonishment, to aversion, and back to his typical stone-faced demeanor all in the span of a few seconds.

"If it is the Hokage's wish," Hiashi said with a bow, "then we would be happy to oblige." He turned toward Hinata, much less respectful than when he addressed Minato. "Be nice to our guest," he spat as if it were an order, not a simple reminder. She hung her head and whispered her agreement. With that, her father and his guards were gone. Minato walked beside Hiashi, and the kids followed at their fathers' heels.

Minato was wearing down.

Two meetings this morning, back-to-back, one with Shikaku Nara, the other with Hiashi Hyuuga, and now this. He hadn't brought Naruto today because he saw the writing on the wall: today's topic was going to be a heavy one.

Minato scanned the meeting room, noting who was present. The entire Leaf Village Elder Council and a couple of assistants were the only attendees. He'd learned very quickly in his short time as The Fourth Hokage that the smaller the meeting size, the more serious the topic. Judging by Danzo's hard stare that Minato swore was an attempt to bore into him from across the room, they were here to discuss the Uchiha Clan again.

"Let's begin," Minato announced. One of the elders, Homura Mitokado, gestured to the assistants, who hurried out of the room and shut the door.

The first few agenda items brought forth by the other council members - the Hidden Cloud's not-so-subtle tax hikes on imports and exports to and from the Hidden Leaf, a wing of The Leaf's Ninja Academy in need of repairs, and word of unrest in the Hidden Rain and its potential impact on the Land of Fire, to name a few - were for the most part benign concerns. Thus, these issues were either glossed over or delegated by Minato for others to address. However, the final item seemed of greater importance, because everyone present ceased any side conversations. This erased any doubt in Minato's mind that they were all on the same page about the true focus of the meeting.

"I believe you have something not on the agenda to share with us, Homura?" Minato said, settling into a more casual position to show the floor was open.

"Yes," Homura agreed. "Something's been brought to my attention that I would like us to address."

Homura's gaze flitted to Danzo, whose subtle nod didn't go unnoticed. Minato made a mental note of this while formulating a strategy. He'd been right all along! Danzo was trying to manipulate the rest of the council to side against him.

"Please, go ahead," Minato offered, gesturing to Homura.

Homura cleared his throat. Danzo, Hiruzen, and a couple of others in the corner of Minato's vision stiffened in anticipation of the topic. "Regarding the Uchiha Clan, information has been received that there are plans to stage a coup d'état." He let the statement hang. Murmurs rippled across the room. "Clearly, the breakdown of relations with the Uchiha has escalated. We need to act quickly, Lord Hokage."

In her usual condescending fashion, Koharu Utatane jumped in, building on the tension Homura stoked. "Fugaku has grown increasingly bolder in his talks on disapproval of the village's leadership." She craned her neck to look around the table at Minato. "Fourth, how will you respond?"

Minato stood tall, brushing off the elders' attempt to undermine him. "We've discussed the Uchiha once before, and I hold the same stance that I did last time. I'm young, and I'm still learning how to be a great Hokage, but if there's one thing I do know, as a ninja, it's that conflict is usually born from poor communication, and that leads to clan infighting, disputes at borders, and of course, wars." He swept the room, making eye contact with each elder. "We're just off of the heels of the Third Great Ninja War. If we bite back against the Uchiha, with whom the village has a long history of ups and downs, things could get messy on both sides and we may be thrown back into another era of killing and chaos."

"But Lord Fourth," Homura cut in, "don't you realize that we-"

"I'd like to lead with negotiations first, if possible," Minato continued undeterred. "I believe that even though we disagree on several things, Fugaku is a rational man. His people have legitimate reasons for feeling how they do about The Leaf - about me. So I would much rather speak to him face to face. Show him I understand the hurt he and the rest of the Uchiha feel. I don't want to become a Hokage who silences others through unnecessary force."

Minato didn't have to look to know Danzo was glaring at him, nor was he surprised to hear the man speak up.

"But it is necessary," Danzo said just a bit louder than was appropriate, smacking a hand onto the table and drawing the attention of the others in the room. "This kind of leniency is what allows our enemies to grow in strength, Minato!"

"Danzo," Hiruzen interrupted before the situation could get out of hand, "you're speaking to the Fourth Hokage, are you not? Mind your tone."

Minato returned Danzo's mild hostility with a stern gaze. "Thank you, Lord Third. Danzo, I understand you want me to cut this problem off before it gets worse, but action without forethought is dangerous. Your opinion on this issue is no secret to anyone here. Let me be clear. I'll consider your input. However, The Third is right: the decision on how to proceed is ultimately mine."

Silence claimed the room. Danzo, who was halfway out of his seat in protest, grudgingly backed down.

"I understand," he said. He and Homura once again exchanged a glance that they thought Minato didn't notice.

Homura moved the conversation along. "Word of this coup comes to us by way of Itachi Uchiha. As tensions have risen in the Uchiha Clan, he's begun to work with us, providing intel."

"Yes, I'm aware," Minato said. He steepled his fingers, reflecting on the young man whose mother was an old friend of Kushina's. According to Kakashi, who once worked alongside Itachi in the ANBU Black Ops, he was cold and calculating on missions, and his skill, with or without use of the Sharingan, was a sight to behold. "Maybe I should speak with Itachi as well. It's cruel to put him in the middle of a situation like this, but it might work to the advantage of the Leaf if we can find a resolution. He's Fugaku's son, after all."

"Itachi understands the gravity of tensions between his clan and the Leaf," Hiruzen announced. All eyes refocused onto him. "That is why he has come forward regarding news of the coup."

"Good," Minato said with a nod. "Danzo, I assume you're keeping tabs on Itachi's status?"

"I am. He is awaiting further instruction. Are you planning to meet with him today?"

Minato rested his chin against his hand, thinking the matter over. "No. If it's not too much trouble, set up a meeting between us tomorrow morning."

Danzo grunted his understanding. "I'll see that it's done."

Now that the most controversial matter was out of the way, Minato moved on to another concern that still weighed on his mind, even several years after the fact. He would never feel at ease so long as this threat lingered.

"I would like to add one last thing before we adjourn." All heads turned his way. "It's about the attack from seven years ago. You're all aware that I believe the attacker to be Madara Uchiha. Lord Jiraiya has been on the move, trying to gather intel. I received a note not too long ago by messenger hawk. He's narrowed down the number of possible hideouts where the masked man could be located, but there's still more he needs to look into."

Pausing to breathe, Minato scanned the room, watching everyone digest his words. The pure terror at the mere mention of Madara's name was plain to see. He hated being in such a position of uselessness, unable to protect his village.

Taking advantage of the lull, Homura inserted himself into the discussion. "Citizens are still fearful in light of the Nine Tails' attack, and the loss of The Leaf's tailed beast. From their perspective, the village has a target on its back."

Koharu was quick to jump on Homura's comment. "They're right. We would do well to show that actions are being taken to keep everyone safe."

Ever the mediator, Hiruzen added, "Minato, perhaps it would be wise to share some news with the public, however brief it might be, to combat the unrest."

Minato was appreciative of Hiruzen's strategic move to divert the conversation away from fear mongering and toward finding a solution. If he wanted to keep the council's, and by extension the village's trust, he would need to exude confidence. He made sure to speak without wavering. "Of course, Lord Third. I'll put something together once I hear back from Master Jiraiya, but I don't want to make any promises. Not until we know more."

"How soon can we expect to know more?" Danzo asked, careful to curb the edge in his voice. "I'd like to mobilize a team as soon as possible."

"On that we can agree, Danzo. The moment I get new evidence from Lord Jiraiya, I'll pass it along for inspection by our analysis team. Then they'll reach out to you so the ANBU can follow up."

Glad to see that the vibe in the room was much less charged than before, Minato rose and stretched. The council looked pleased with the discussion, or at least as satisfied as they were going to get for the time being.

"If no one has anything else," Minato said, gesturing around the room, "then I'll end the meeting now. I'd like to get home to my family."

The light was still on when Minato walked through the front door and entered the living room, his Hokage cloak neatly folded under one arm. Thankful to have made it back before Kushina went to bed, he was delighted by the sight of her hurrying from the kitchen to greet him. She leapt into his embrace, wrapped both arms around his neck, and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, brimming with joy. His wife wore a stained green apron from time spent preparing dinner. He seemed to have caught her in the middle of cleanup, if the supplies in the corner were any indication.

"Welcome home," Kushina breathed into his ear. She stepped back, reached for his Hokage coat, and hung it up for him. She did the same with his Jonin vest as she called out, "I left the light at the front door on for you."

"I noticed that," the weary Hokage said. "Thank you, Kushina. It's so good to be home!" He half-yawned the last sentence, earning a giggle from his wife as she returned to the living room.

"How was your day? You seem worn out."

"Yeah," Minato admitted, making his way to the kitchen to prepare tea. "So many meetings." He paused, noticing the distinct lack of a certain boisterous third member of the household. "Where's Naruto?"

"He's taking a bath," Kushina said. "He should be out in a bit." Gasping as she turned to Minato, she rushed into the kitchen, placed her hands over his, and with gentle but firm urgency, guided him away from the counter. "No, no, no! Please, let me do that for you. You've had a long day, ya know."

"Kushina - I can - really, it's no troub…" Minato tried to protest, but it was useless. Kushina had him resting on the couch with his legs on a padded footstool before he could string together a coherent response. "Well, alright," he acquiesced, sinking into the fabric.

Minato had to admit this was quite nice. He hadn't taken personal time to slow down and let himself recover from his non-stop schedule in so long, he'd forgotten how it felt.

"There," the love of his life said in a soothing tone from across the room, "that's better."

He closed his eyes, trying to put the day's worries aside, and before long, the aroma of a fresh cup of tea greeted him. Its rich, herbal scent yanked Minato back from the edge of unconsciousness. He sat up and grabbed the teacup from Kushina's hand. Thanking her, he took a careful test sip before sitting it down on the table nearby to cool.

Now apron-less and in more casual clothes, Kushina settled into the seat across from him. "So, how did everything go? Did you speak with Shikaku and the other clan heads?"

Minato rubbed his temples and sighed. "Yeah, but everyone's very unsettled. They still worry about the motivations of the Uchiha, and the attack from seven years ago isn't helping any. Even if I'm correct and it was Madara Uchiha I fought, it seems like the council will still hold that against the Uchiha living in the village. I perfectly understand Fugaku's position. I just wish I'd been able to resolve this before they were all pushed into a separate compound."

"I know you do," Kushina said. She walked up to him and placed her hand on top of his again, long red hair draped over her shoulders as she looked into his eyes. "But Minato, you did everything you could, ya know. You always have. Don't blame yourself for issues that have been around longer than either one of us."

"Thank you. I guess you're right."

"I know I am. I trust the man I married."

Minato delivered a warm smile, but before he could reply, a rambunctious blond bundle of energy no taller than his waist came bounding down the hall and into the room, jumping into his lap like an excited dog. "Dad!" shouted the boy, burying his face in Minato's chest. He and Kushina hugged Naruto from either side. Then Kushina stepped back to give the father and son time together.

"Hello son," Minato said, laughing as some of Naruto's hair got into his mouth. "You're energetic today."

"Yeah!" Naruto looked up with stars in his eyes. "I'm gonna go to the park with Hinata tomorrow! Maybe I'll get to race her, or ride the big slide!"

An uneasy laugh escaped Kushina when Minato threw her a raised-eyebrow stare. "After you brought him along to the Hyuuga Manor last year, he and Hinata became fast friends, ya know! But they haven't seen each other since your last talk with Hiashi, and she's all he's been able to talk about. So I spoke to her parents and set up a play date."

"I see."

Naruto's smile was brighter than the sun, melting away Minato's fatigue. The proud father lifted the boy up onto his shoulders and stood tall.

"Then I guess we'd better get you ready for that race, huh Naruto?"

"Mm hm!"

Kushina laughed as Minato counted down from three, then charged around the house making woosh noises with his mouth. Naruto let off a playful cackle the entire time.

"Run faster, Dad! Faster!"

"Okay," Minato said, "but just a warning. This could get crazy."

"I'm ready, believe it!" the little tike declared, raising a chubby fist into the air. Both of his parents shared a shocked glance. This was the third time in a week he'd said that. He seemed to have picked up more than Kushina's strong spirit: he was starting to develop a verbal tic of his own.

"Here goes!" Minato announced before zipping around the house. This time, he was little more than a blur, but the fact Kushina could see him at all was his way of promising her he wouldn't crash their son into a wall, or bump into her.

When the two reappeared, a very dazed Naruto with a lazy grin on his face fell onto his father's blond hair like it was a soft pillow. Kushina walked over and took Naruto into her arms so Minato could relax.

"Now, are my two strong men ready for dinner?" she asked, gesturing toward the spread of food she'd laid out while they were having their fun.

"Yeahhhhhhhh!" Naruto agreed with renewed vigor.

"Good. Now come on, help Mom set the table."

Their dinner was a nice reprieve from the far more uncomfortable roundtables that had claimed most of Minato's day. He discussed his attempts to develop other uses for his teleportation jutsu, his recent trip to Mount Myoboku to work on mastering Sage Mode, and he also brought up The Council's plans to renovate a section of the academy in a few weeks. Most of this flew over Naruto's head. He checked out halfway into his parents' conversation and used his chopsticks like blades, crossing them together and making noises until Kushina took them and fed him herself. She ignored his grunts and pleas, her attention split between him and his father.

Kushina talked about books she'd read, her perilous trek through the grocery store shopping for herbs to use in a recipe Mikoto had shared with her, and her plans to work with Hiruzen on erecting stronger sealing barriers around key areas of the village. The latter was borne of her personal desire to continue helping The Leaf, even though she was no longer its Jinchuuriki. Minato was glad Kushina had found some way to stay busy that didn't involve going out on missions again, but he had a feeling she'd be raring to do just that once Naruto was old enough to look after himself.

"Of course The Third doesn't think we need to be as cautious about something like this as I am," she went on, "but after what happened to The Land of Eddies, I don't want to take any chances."

"What are you two talkin' about?" Naruto's small voice asked.

"Just that your mom's gonna protect us from the bad guys," Minato said.

"I sure am, ya know!" Kushina flexed an arm, making a feigned determined expression that got a chuckle out of her husband and a gasp of awe from her son.

"Cool," Naruto whispered. He paused and gave his mom a thoughtful frown. "Mom, what's an 'eddy?'"

The dinner went on this way for its remainder, with Naruto's parents trading off on explaining what they were talking about every few minutes until his young mind's voracious appetite was sated. While this was a little inconvenient, Minato had to say it was nice to see his son so inquisitive at so young an age. That curiosity would lend itself to him learning and growing at an alarming rate once he became a ninja. However, he didn't want to enroll Naruto into the academy quite yet, an opinion Kushina also held. Maybe it was just parental worry, or maybe it was because of the attack on the village, but something in the back of the happy couple's minds made them scared for their son. Was it such a crime that they wanted to shield him from whatever dangers might await him in life for just a year or two more?

When dinner was over, Naruto rubbed his eyes, hopping down from his seat and going to his room to play, only to totter back and forth from exhaustion halfway down the hall. He was too drowsy to resist when his mother scooped him up and rocked him to sleep on the way to his bedroom. Minato stood in the doorway, watching the two people he loved most in silence.

"I'll put him down," Kushina whispered over her shoulder, smiling at the tiny Uzumaki.

Minato left her to tuck Naruto in and went into his room to change.

When Kushina emerged from Naruto's room, Minato was in the kitchen in his pajamas cleaning up the mess left by their family meal. Given he was using his speed to do so, it was over almost as soon as it started.

"That's just like you to try and show me up, ya know," she remarked, gazing at the spotless floor, kitchen countertop, and table left in her husband's wake.

"I thought I'd return the favor for you doting on me earlier."

"A great Hokage needs a great wife, doesn't he?"

"That's for sure." Minato rifled through mail left on the kitchen counter, mumbling to himself as he read the labels.

Kushina rummaged through a low cabinet, then walked over to the leaning plant on the far wall and watered its soil. She frowned, knowing the pleasant vibe of the past couple of hours would not last. Naruto had interrupted her and Minato's serious conversation earlier, and it must have still plagued her husband.

On cue, he said, "Kushina. The's still a possibility. The council wants me to act."

She didn't answer right away, busying herself with tending to the plant. Deep down, she was sure they both knew it was an attempt at delaying the inevitable. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm thinking about working out some kind of compromise, but first, I've asked Danzo to arrange a meeting with Fugaku's oldest son."

Kushina gasped. "Itachi? When?"

"Tomorrow. I wouldn't be surprised if Danzo showed up too, even though that wasn't part of my request."

She deflated at his words. The night was already shaping up to be a depressing one. "Danzo's still speaking out against you?"

"He is. Today he backed down, but he made it clear I don't have his support. If The Third wasn't there to keep him from exploding, I might have ended up dismissing him from the meeting."

"It got that serious?"

Minato gave her a look that said it all.

"Anyway," he continued, stepping away from the counter and moving toward her, "Kushina, listen. A lot is going to happen in the next few days. According to the rumors, the coup is set for some time in the next two weeks. Please, please, stay away from the Uchiha District when you're traveling around the village. I don't want you in the crossfire if anything goes south."

Kushina's thoughts immediately shifted to Mikoto. She and Mikoto didn't see each other as often these days, but she was the truest friend - not counting Minato - that Kushina had managed to make ever since moving to the Village Hidden in the Leaves. Danger or not, it seemed wrong to ignore the Uchiha District and its people and just wait to see where the chips fell. Not to mention Kushina didn't want to abandon her friend Mikoto and her family to suffer a potentially terrible fate.

"Minato," she interrupted, desperate for a solution, "you have to do something, ya know! Fugaku is a decent man, even if he is a little rough. I know you two have had your differences, but I think it's worth trying to talk with him."

"I will," Minato said with a nod, "but that's why I asked to speak with Itachi first. He's our man on the inside. I don't like it, I'll admit that much, but who better to make Fugaku more receptive than his oldest child?"

Her misgivings aside, Kushina couldn't argue. The logic was solid. Still…

"Good luck tomorrow," she said, eyes averted.

Countering her sadness, Minato gave her a charming grin and asked, "Why don't we turn in for now? We can think about this more in the morning."

Caught up in a haze of her own thoughts, Kushina let her husband lead her by the hand. Even in such a state, years of routine had conditioned her to dim the living room lights as they headed for their bedroom. She couldn't shake her deep sense of unease over how everything was unfolding, and it was clear Minato was going through a similar struggle. However, all they could do for now was lean on one another for support. All she could do as his wife was trust his judgment and believe in him. She hoped that would be enough.

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