It's all about family. (Naruto/Neji established, occurs in the same world as The Risk)
"Choumaru," Makoto grinned at the boy who opened the door. "Good morning. Is Chouji-oji-chan home?" The chubby eight-year-old nodded. "Yeah. Hi Makoto, Akemi." Grinning in return he wandered back inside, leaving the door open for Makoto and his sister to enter.
Makoto tugged self-consciously at the forehead protector that adorned his brow. Still very new, he was undeniably proud of it, but he wasn't quite used to it being there. Akemi didn't seemed to have any problems with hers, he thought, a little enviously. She wore it as if she always had. Like his, it was in the standard forehead-covering spot, holding back the few stray wisps of brown hair that weren't caught up in the topknot at the back of her head. His own darker brown bangs flopped over his, partially obscuring the leaf symbol. A hallway mirror offered him the chance to flick a few errant bits to the side. The bright blue bandana and shiny metal still looked as odd to him as it felt.
"Akemi-chan! Makoto-kun!" Chouji's voice preceded his bulk down the hall, and the siblings were soon caught up in a fond embrace. "Every inch the genin." Their 'uncle' proclaimed. He called over his shoulder, "Maya! Are there any more of those dumplings?"
"Fresh plate is on the table!" Chouji's wife replied. The co-owner of one of Konoha's better restaurants, Maya was an even better cook than Chouji.
"Come, eat." Chouji led them to the dining room. Choumaru already had two handfuls of dumplings, cheeks bulging from the one he was chewing. He managed a muffled "Later!" around the food, and headed off.
"Now, are you two here for anything in particular?" Chouji popped a dumpling into his mouth.
"Well..." Makoto hedged, and nibbled on a dumpling of his own, unsure how to go about this. Akemi rolled her eyes slightly at her brother's reticence.
"You just did the tattoos for Mayako-chan." she began, black eyes intent. Chouji nodded. His one-year-old daughter had been given the Akimichi family cheek tattoos a week before. "Well..." she trailed off herself, uncharacteristically uncertain, gaze flicking to the spiral marks on Chouji's cheeks. Makoto gently nudged her arm, and she nodded to him.
"We want tattoos too." Makoto said, simply. Chouji raised his eyebrows, but didn't say anything.
Akemi flattened her hands on the tabletop. "I know... Tou-chan only adopted us, and he's not blood, but-" She broke off, looking frustrated, and Makoto continued.
"He is our real family. In the ways that anyone we know cares about. In the ways that we care about. We gotta show him. We want to." Makoto went on. "The.. um... the legacy," Makoto pulled out a word he'd heard Iruka-sensei use the other day, "is... big... it's not all good, but it's his and it's ours."
Chouji was listening carefully.
Akemi went on. "We are his family. We want the legacy. It's part of us, anyway, because of him. And we want to show him. We are Uzumaki."
Chouji looked at the two serious-faced genins sitting across the table from him. Eleven years ago the village had been astonished and rather horrified when twenty-three-year-old Uzumaki Naruto had returned from a mission to the Sand with two infant children in tow. An Anbu platoon, including the squad of Nara Shikamaru, Naruto and Hyuuga Neji, had been dispatched there after a request for aid in the defense of one of Wind Country's borders from a ragtag army headed by a missing-nin. Refugees from the ordeal had been freed from entire villages that had been held by the so-called army for months, even years in the case of the most isolated places. Shikamaru's team, on a final sweep of one of the formerly-captive villages, had found two babies in an empty house, filthy and dehydrated, crawling around the remains of two women who had been viciously murdered.
When they restored the children to the small group of refugees, they discovered that the women had not been murdered by the occupying bandits, but by the villagers themselves. They had been 'bandit whores,' the Anbu team was told. No one cared to take in 'those children.'
Anyone who knew Naruto could predict his reaction to that.
As that story had spread around Konoha, most everyone had been sure that the whole idea had just been a fit of righteous, well-meaning, but ultimately ill-advised compassion on Naruto's part. Surely Naruto would quickly tire of a couple of one-year-olds, and pass on the children to the authorities, where they could be placed in a real home.
That never happened.
It hadn't been easy, or without trouble, but Naruto had, by trial and error, idealism and stubbornness and honest love, raised his children, at first alone and then eventually in partnership with his former teammate Neji, who'd long before become willingly estranged from his own family.
Now those two children were strong, good-hearted genin. Makoto was gentle, earnest and quite shy. Akemi was rambunctious, loud and generous to a fault. Both were intensely loyal to their adopted fathers and their friends, not to mention rather more skilled at the academy than Naruto had been at their age, though equally competitive.
"What marks did you have in mind?" Chouji asked slowly, already guessing at their reply. The two genins exchanged a mutually encouraging look, and then Akemi used her forefingers to trace three lines across each cheek. Chouji nodded slowly. "And... might I assume that you didn't tell him before coming to see me?" Naruto had left on a mission the night before, just days after the genins' graduation.
"Er... yes." Makoto admitted. "We wanted it to be a surprise."
"Tou-chan always keeps up his attitude of being proud." Akemi added, "He's even proud of the Kyuubi, sort of. It's what most people know about him, after all." She tapped her cheek, thinking for a moment. "He gets power from it, and even if people did hate him because of it when he was a kid, he proved he was a good person and a good ninja." Her usually mischievous gaze was solemnly gauging his reaction. "He's a strong ninja because he has the Kyuubi power to add to his training, and he's a strong person because of all the bad things that happened to him, that he went through and survived. Bad things that he didn't let change him."
Chouji nodded, staying quiet as Akemi reached the final stages of her and her brother's reasoning.
"Everyone knew who he was because of the marks." Akemi touched her cheek. "We want everyone to know who we are too. Kyuubi made the marks on Tou-chan, but now the marks are his... and ours." Akemi finished. Makoto had been nodding his agreement as she spoke.
"We were talking about this together for a long time, Chouji-oji-chan, with each other and with Papa too. He liked the idea too... a lot." Makoto said. "We always wanted to do it after we graduated."
"I understand." Chouji replied.
There was never anything quite like seeing the rooftops of Konoha after a time away. The familiar shapes of the buildings and lines of the streets, overlooked by the stone faces of the Hokages, seemed to welcome him back every time.
Departing the office of the Fifth after the requisite de-brief, he took a breath of the cool spring air. It was midday now, people were out and about. He leapt easily from roof to roof, heading for home.
Makoto and Akemi would probably be on some "thrilling" genin missions today. Makoto had been teamed with Sarutobi Kimiko, an aggressive, though well-meaning, girl, as well as Ichiraku Hiromichi, a serious young man, a first-generation ninja in his family of restaurant owners. The team was assigned to Akimichi Moegi.
Akemi was teamed up with Rock Haru, who had gotten her mother's pink hair and her father's "youthful vigor," and Hyuuga Hizashi, whose white eyes and pale skin may have been from his mother, but whose brash personality was entirely from the Kiba side of the equation. Their teacher was Aburame Hiroshi, a cousin of Hinata and Kiba's former teammate Shino, and, from what Naruto gathered, about as talkative.
He chuckled to himself. He'd known about the team organization early, thanks to Iruka-sensei. And, if he recalled correctly, his old teacher didn't have classes this day. Perhaps he was free, Naruto thought, they hadn't gone for ramen in a while.
As he headed homeward, he became aware of a noise carrying on the breeze, the clamour of a small crowd somewhere up ahead.
A flash of movement off to his right, and he stopped for a moment as Konohamaru headed for him. "Naruto-nii-san!" He greeted. "Welcome back." The younger jounin cast an eye towards the noise. "You haven't seen yet..?"
"No." Naruto replied, suddenly suspicious. He narrowed his eyes. "What's going on?" Konohamaru was looking downright smug. He adjusted his vest slightly and strolled a few lazy steps to the edge of the roof they were on.
"I think you'll want to see this." He leapt towards the next building, Naruto in curious pursuit. His suspicion mounted as he realized the noise really was coming from his house. Right in front to be exact.
A small crowd, including all the newest genin as well as many younger students, was milling outside. He picked out Makoto and Akemi's various teammates, and their teachers standing on the edge of the crowd. He spotted Lee and Sakura's younger son Gai, as well as Choumaru, Shikaichi, and Inoko. Kiba and Hinata's younger twins, Hige (and Akamaru-chan) and Hazuki were talking to Iruka-sensei, who was there apparently trying to wrangle the younger ones back to class. Chouji was in the thick of things, apparently the subject of intense interrogation by the youngsters near him.
"What's going on?" Naruto asked again. He wasn't worried, exactly, clearly nothing bad was happening. The crowd felt excited, as if they awaited something. Konohamaru chuckled.
Quiet sounds of landing signaled the arrival of others on the roof. Naruto's confusion mounted as he saw who was here. Neji. Sasuke. Shikamaru. Partner and friends. Slight annoyance began to set in as the aura of "I know something you don't know" began to filter through in earnest. Neji sank into a comfortable crouch next to him, and the other jounin lined up past him along the roof edge.
"Are you all just going to sit here too?" Naruto asked. Sasuke smirked at him, even Shikamaru looked more anticipatory than bored just now, and Neji dropped a hand onto Naruto's head and physically directed his gaze downward.
The front door opened and Naruto grinned involuntarily as he made out the silhouettes of the children inside.
"Take'em off!" came a shout from the crowd of children. "Yeah, yeah! Show us already!" others chimed in. As Makoto and Akemi emerged through the doorway, Naruto's eyes narrowed, fixed on the bandages taped to both their faces. Neji's hand closed on his arm as he began to lunge forward.
"Wait." Neji's voice was gentle, expectant.
The two Uzumaki children were smiling fit to burst, which eased Naruto's initial surge of protective worry, and he did as Neji told him, crouching on the roof ledge. With a flair for the dramatic that Naruto was sure his daughter had planned, Makoto and Akemi raised their hand to their faces, and in a swift move ripped the bandages clean off.
The cheers and claps rose to a crescendo as Naruto went rigid in shock, fingers digging painfully at the cement he was crouched on.
Below Mako-kun's bright brown eyes, below Akemi-chan's twinkling black ones, standing out in sharp relief against their tanned skin, three thin black lines marked each cheek.
Naruto felt the marks on his own face, phantom lines of heat, and his mouth gaped. Distantly he felt warm hands come to rest on his right arm, his left shoulder. His throat suddenly closed as a muddle of emotion rushed over him in a wave. Shock, alarm, disbelief, elation... he felt as though he were falling forward.
"Naruto-nii-san..?" Konohamaru's voice filtered in. The grip on his right arm shook at him slightly, and he gently pushed it off. He did the same with Neji's hand on his shoulder, vaguely returning the gentle squeeze Neji gave before releasing him.
Naruto dropped from the roof to the street, and it was the genin at the edge of the group that noticed him first, pulling their neighbors around and out of the way, as Naruto strode slowly forward. The young ninjas and students parted raggedly as he made his way through them. He spared a distracted glance up to where Chouji now stood next to Iruka. The smiles on their faces were joyful, but Naruto had eyes only for the two who stood on the doorstep.
Both children stared at him, faces split wide with grins at first, that faded to more tentative smiles as he approached silently. When he finally stood before them, they exchanged a brief look of worry.
"Tou-chan..?" Akemi asked hesitantly, and Makoto's swallow was audible.
Naruto could hear his heart pounding fast in his ears. He cupped a hand on each child's jaw, running his thumbs gently over the twinned sets of newly tattooed whisker-marks. It felt as though the world was shifting, as though a huge weight had struck him and knocked away his breath. The first time he'd felt like this was when Iruka-sensei had given him his forehead protector. The last time he'd felt like this was when he'd first known the two small children he'd hauled back from the Wind Country in a fit of self-righteous rage and potentially misguided compassion were really truly his.
And that was it.
The realization crashed over him. He had taken these children as his own. They were taking him as their own, and suddenly his accidental, successful little attempt at a family felt as though it was rooted deeper than he had ever known.
Makoto's face was tear streaked, now, and Akemi's eyes were liquid-bright.
"Tou-chan..?" She asked again, voice quavering, one hand coming up to grip his wrist in a request for reassurance. "Why are you crying?"
He sucked in a shuddering breath as he noticed for the first time the heat in his face, the wetness on his own demon-marked cheeks.
He pulled both of them into a tight hug, his shoulders shaking as he bent over their heads. Mako's hands curled between them, fisting against him as the boy buried his face in his father's chest. Akemi's outside arm clung around him, hand catching an unbreakable grip in the back of his vest.
It seemed like hours before he released them. Makoto scrubbed at his face with his hand, and hiccupped a little. Akemi took some deep breaths, and nervously adjusted her forehead protector. Both met his eyes a little tentatively
Naruto stared at them both a second time, taking in the change all over again. "When did you..? Who did it? Neji..?"
"Just after you went on your mission." Makoto said softly, "We asked Chouji-oji-chan if he could do it."
"Do... do you like it?" Akemi asked. Naruto took a breath, and let it out. He didn't know the words for the kind of joy he felt. The honor he felt they had suddenly accorded him, the deep, unshakeable gratitude and love he felt for them.
"Yes." He breathed. A certain tension eased from both their frames. He stared at them. He felt like he could never stop looking at them. Strong, smart, healthy. His children. He shook himself slightly. "Yes. I do... Thank you." He whispered.
The waiting crowd of genin and students converged on them then, having waited to see the new marks up close, and Naruto let himself be shunted quietly to the side as his children were poked, examined, complimented and questioned by their classmates.
Sasuke was next to him suddenly, eyes slightly hooded, and features set, as they always were at times like this, against the old pain. Naruto glanced up at his former teammate.
"They look very strong." Sasuke said quietly. "It suits them."
Shikamaru was there too. "They're already a handful." He sighed. "They're going to be even worse after this." Naruto's grin threatened to split his face in two.
Neji came to stand next to Naruto, his expression joyous, in his dignified way, and proud as well. He turned his head and shared a rare open smile with Naruto.
"Every time... I'm always surprised." Naruto heaved a great sigh of disbelieving contentment. "I love them." He said softly. "So much, and still... there's always more." He looked over at Neji, who nodded in agreement, pale eyes on Naruto.
"Yes." Neji replied, and brushed the back of his hand against Naruto. Taking the hint gladly, Naruto made up the slack in Neji's characteristically inhibited public display of affection, and slid his fingers through those of his partner.
After a while, Sasuke headed off to prepare for his next mission, Shikamaru drifted over to chat with Chouji, and at last Iruka-sensei truly put his foot down, gathering up the grumbling Academy student, and various genin instructors had showed up to collect their students. Moegi-sensei and Hiroshi-sensei dragged their respective teams off as well, Makoto and Akemi grinning brightly, the lines on their face still astonishing to Naruto as he and Neji watched them go.
"See you later, Tou-chaaaaan, Papa!" Akemi bellowed, and Makoto waved silently in a more reserved, if no less significant manner. The Uzumaki children had missions to complete.