After so long of no Hokage, being summoned to the Tower by the new Hokage felt a little odd. At the same time it felt good to have someone in that position once more. Things seemed a little more 'right'. It also amused Neji to some extent that his former sempai was now his Hokage. The fact he knew Asuma wouldn't be very keen about this promotion only added to it. As he placed the beaked mask over his face, he pushed away his mirth. Indeed, all emotion he left behind before even leaving the walls of headquarters and traversing the rooftop-path to the Tower. He was Falcon, summoned by his Hokage for reason yet to be revealed. Questioning his superior was not in his nature. A brief pause as the sentries guarding Hokage-sama paused to verify who he was, and then Falcon slipped inside the office the way only ANBU knew how.
Falcon had not been inside the Hokage's office since before the Godaime's death. The sight of papers everywhere needing attention was not new. The lack of little knickknacks collected by Tsunade-sama over the years was gone. But the same hat and robe hung on in the open closet to the side. He took that all in in a moment before crouching before the desk; one knee and one fist pressed to the ground, his head at an angle to where his mask made it appear he looked to the floor but in fact his eyes tracked the Hokage's every move.
"You sent for me, Hokage-sama?"
Asuma hadn't wanted to set foot in the office that had, for years gone past, been the place of power in Konoha, until all vestiges of the previous Hokage were gone. It wasn't that he didn't want any reminders of Tsunade around - farther from the truth that couldn't be - but rather that he felt like he was an invader while Tsunade still had a presence. It was hard even now, a week later, to think of the office as his; even if it wasn't Tsunade's any more, it would still forever be the Sandaime's, his father's, in some corner of his mind. Spending a fair share of his time growing up in here, for one reason or another, was probably the cause of that.
So, despite how much time he'd been spending in this office lately (and he had been spending quite a lot of time in here, the weathered old couch in the corner would tell you), it still didn't feel like his, and wouldn't feel like his to anyone else, either - there were no personal items, no pictures, no touch to make the office 'his' except, perhaps, the lingering scent of cigarette smoke. True enough, he didn't have anything to personalize with, but... still, felt wrong to do so, so soon after Tsunade being gone. Shizune might have assured him that everything of hers was gone, and Kakashi and Sakura and Hana-san as well, but it didn't feel that way yet.
Not that he was going to tell anyone that it still sometimes felt she was in here. Last thing he wanted to do was start spreading rumors he was crazy so soon after donning the hat.
There were open file folders spread over the old oak desk when Neji entered the room, and Asuma hardly lifted his head from them to note the ANBU's presence. His cigarette smoldered, forgotten, in an ashtray well away from the files, but even from his angle Neji would be able to see just how badly it needed to be emptied.
"I sent for Neji, not for an ANBU," Asuma said after a moment, brows furrowed as he followed a line of text with his finger and spoke at the same time. "Take off your mask and take a seat. All this bowing and Hokage-sama'ing is grating on my nerves."
The ANBU rose and didn't chuckle until the mask was pushed to the side of his head. The manji on his forehead was a dull green raised mark of scarring; Neji didn't utilize a headscarf to cover it when wearing the mask. "Sorry, sempai; it's become habit to don the uniform when summoned here," Neji replied, the bit of visible humor swiftly melting away to his usual seriousness. He sat in the chair, angling his body to accommodate the sword strapped to his back and triple pouches at his waist, while white eyes skimmed over everything a second time. A mental eyebrow lifted when he noticed the overfull ashtray kept away from the papers, but he declined from commenting.
He also refrained from commenting on the fact that Asuma would need to get used to all the bowing and Hokage-sama'ing; the village was going to latch onto the title he held like a lifeline. Asuma already knew that, and knowing that was probably a good chunk of why the man was chain-smoking more than usual. Asuma was a soldier, and Neji knew he would have only taken the job if no one else met his standards, or if the other prospects were inadequate. Not that Neji would ever call Kurenai-san "inadequate" (Asuma would kill him), but considering the other options, both Kakashi and Asuma were better for the job. Of those two, Neji would have to put his money on Asuma. Kakashi was strong, and he was a good leader, but that Sharingan eye absolutely killed his stamina. No, Asuma was the best choice.
A thought Neji strongly suspected he should keep to himself.
Asuma only grunted in reply, and closed the folder in front of him.
Damn, was he tired. The coffee was ever-flowing here, but caffeine didn't make up for good rest. And it just wasn't in him to sit and read for hours and hours on end. (... well, not while hunched over a desk and when reading personnel files, anyway.) His eyes hurt and his neck hurt and he was gonna get some serious waffle butt going on sitting at a desk all day for the rest of his life, but he wasn't going home until he got this last item taken care of. (He'd bring flowers to Kurenai as an apology.)
Sitting back in the chair, the old thing creaking as he tilted it back at an angle, Asuma sighed and lifted his eyes to the ANBU across from him.
"I can expect you to tell me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, no matter how much you expect I'll hate it, right?" he asked.
Neji wondered if he should comment on the new bits of gray showing up at the roots near Asuma's temples. ...Probably not.
"Of course," he replied. Not that anything had stopped Neji before from speaking his mind to Asuma (except the presence of others) when he felt like it.
That was good. Nothing less than what he expected, but it was good to hear the confirmation.
He sighed again, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the desk and retrieve his cigarette. A long tube of ash was tapped away before he put it to his lips for a fortifying breath.
"We lost half of ANBU from that attack," he started. It wasn't necessary to state which attack he was referring to. "The only reason why we kept as many alive as we did is because a full quarter were out of the village. Of the quarter in the village that survived, a third are still on leave from injuries. There's a good chance most of them won't be coming back - your captain of sentry, Kunomasu, has already turned in his resignation." Asuma tapped one of the many papers that surrounded him. "Two of ANBU's captains are dead, one is retiring, and I currently only have twenty activate ANBU in the village I can have doing things, four of whom have to be guarding my stupid ass at all hours of day and night, realistically leaving me only sixteen ANBU until more come back from their missions. Sixteen ANBU, out of one hundred and twenty. Is the situation really as shitty as it sounds, or am I making a mountain out of a mole hill?"
Neji nodded; he had already known the numbers for himself, but he still winced internally at hearing them spoken aloud. "Rock and Sound had geared their attack strategy specifically to taking out ANBU and jounin, the ranks able to deal the most damage back and also who the chuunin would look to in the event of a rout." That had been the primary reason behind the loss of so many leaders. (Though there was that one rumor about how Ibiki had been taken out by one of his own...) "Those in the field were ordered by Tsuda-taichou and Matsuo-taichou to continue with their missions, since right now we can use all the income we can get and nothing pays quite like S- and A-ranks. With certain exceptions, Haruno-san told me that those currently in recovery should make enough of a recovery to return to duty. If Fate is kind, we should add another ten or so to our active ranks within the next two months."
A shitty situation, but with possible improvements in the future. Asuma wasn't going to count on them, though; even if the ANBU in recovery were able to return to duty in a month or so, would they actually be completely mission ready? Always a question. And who knew when the others in the field might come back, as many of the missions were extremely long term. No, sixteen was what he had and what he was going to expect he'd keep. Better to expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised when something better happened.
"I'm hesitant to let any of these sixteen out of the village." Asuma took another drag with his cigarette, and put it out in the ashtray with one hand while stroking his beard with the other. "Training new ANBU is an absolute must, but I'm also uncertain as to whether we actually have the resources to do that right now. Worst of all, even with the ANBU training I've been doing over the last few years, I hardly know any of these people. There's not a single one on this list that I've worked with - not currently in the village anyway - and few of the ones I personally trained actually survived." Which didn't exactly reflect well on him, but all the ones who'd died had been too green to survive what they'd been forced to encounter.
"I need to appoint three more captains from a list of people I know nothing about." He lifted his eyes back to Neji. "This is where I need you. You know these people, you've worked with them. I know you're objective. Of the thirteen other, non-captain ANBU here in the village, who would you respect and follow as a captain? Any of the captains, I need one of each right now."
Now it was Neji's turn to lean back in his chair, his expression becoming thoughtfully blank as he ran through what he knew of the village's active ANBU. Approximately half were young and barely past the sixth-month milestone that separated rookie from regular, hence why they had been in the village in the first place. Rookie missions were the shorter ones; you wanted experienced ANBU to handle missions taking weeks or months. The older ones, the ones who had been in two years or more, were more likely prospects. Outside the Captains, at five years in Neji was one of the most senior ANBU and he showed no sign of leaving outside a bodybag. He briefly considered naming himself but pushed it aside; he worked better as a grunt and mission commander rather than an administrator. Not that he couldn't administrate; he certainly had been trained and groomed for it within the clan. He simply didn't want to. And since others had been ready and willing, he just kept on doing what he did best: hunting and killing.
"For Intel, were she ANBU I would recommend Kurenai-san, but as she isn't Isobe Sosa is a good choice. He has two years in, he's intelligent, he's very good at piecing information together into something usable, and for an outclan he has sharp eyes." A high compliment indeed. "He has a knack for figuring out people within a reasonably short time of meeting them, but I count that among the givens as he interned with T&I for two years before migrating to ANBU. He's lead missions before and is good at on-the-spot planning, but a whole division is much more involved than a three-man team. Still, I feel he could do a good job.
"Muso Shotaro, who's actually on duty outside the Tower here, has three-and-a-half years under his belt. He came in as a sentry, he's never wanted to be anything but a sentry, and he does a damn good job of protecting whoever he's been assigned to protect. The only reason he wasn't with Tsunade-sama was because he had been on an escort mission scheduled to end the day before the invasion. Even sprinting back he didn't return until a couple days after. The only word of caution would be that he takes her death personally, and is therefore eager to redeem himself for what he sees as his failure to protect the Hokage. Maybe a little too eager; he might need to be smacked around some so that he remembers that he's still only human.
"For a co-captain of Hunter, though..." He trailed off, brow furrowing just a little as he lifted a hand to place the knuckle of his index finger against his lower lip. "Given how long I've been in ANBU, if I haven't worked with them, I've had a hand in training them." He dropped his hand to rest on the chair's arm as he looked at Asuma. "Obviously, given the turnover in general, I do not believe you'd want anyone captaining the Hunters who hasn't been in for at least three years, which given the current availability of in-village ANBU eliminates everyone except for Sakai Isoshi and myself." He hadn't wanted to name himself, but Asuma asked for not just the truth but the whole truth. (Damn him.) "Isoshi's just a shade over three years into his career, but he's smart, he's quick, and unlike some people tends to come back from his missions relatively intact. He's a good commander and a good tactician, and I can easily see him in a captain's slot."
As Neji ran through the list of names, Asuma shuffled through the folders on his desk to find the profiles of the ANBU mentioned. He had no doubts as far as Neji's choices; while he planned on speaking with the captains currently in charge, and reading and pondering over the ANBU himself, he had full faith that the people Neji put his finger on would be able to do the job. The kid was too smart for his own good, and far too insightful - and, worst of all, had too much work ethic. It made him a perfect choice for deciding who should and shouldn't be doing certain tasks. (And took a load off Asuma's shoulders, too. It wasn't what you knew, after all, but who you knew.)
Scribbling quick, indecipherable (to all but him) notes on the sticky pad that had become his bestest friend in the last week, he reminded himself of what he wanted to do with each profile - talk to Kurenai about Sosa (if she didn't already know him, Asuma wanted her to know him soon, so she could tell him if Sosa really was suited to the job; she wasn't ANBU, and never had been, but no one knew more about Intel than she did as far as he was concerned); meet and speak with Shotaro himself (because if the man was going to be in charge of his personal guards, Asuma wanted to know him real well); and speak with the current captains about Isoshi. Only 3, he added under Isoshi's note, and underlined it. That would be the main deciding factor for him, Asuma felt.
"Good," he said, and put aside the pen to replace it with another cigarette. He lit it as he turned to face Neji again. "Now that that's cleared up, I have a proposition for you."
Neji arched an eyebrow at him. "Which is...?"
"I like your choices," Asuma said, exhaling a cloud of smoke politely to the side, "and I'll be strongly considering two of them. But I already know who I want to be my co-captain of Hunter." No need to let Neji know he was actually going to discuss this with the other captains, no matter what answer he received. That would make things less... fun. "So I'm going to offer you a choice. You be Hokage, and I'll take over the position of co-captain, or you became co-captain and I stay where I am."
That caused Neji to snap up to full attention in the chair, the claws of his gloves digging into the armrests. He masked the twitch of his head by making it look like he was only tilting his chin as if to consider Asuma from a different angle. Meanwhile, his mind was whirling with what Asuma said. He couldn't be---no, no he could be serious. While the man did have a rather wry and dry sense of humor, his voice took on a distinct timbre when he wasn't joking around. Like now, for instance. And yet--
"--Sir?" Neji finally managed. Because he felt that Asuma couldn't really be serious; this had to be a ploy to get Neji to accept the position. A position he didn't particularly want.
It wasn't easy
"Become my co-captain of the Hunters," he replied, laying it straight out, "or become the Rokudaime Hokage. Your choice."
Neji didn't splutter. Though he came rather close to it. "Sir, even if I wanted to be Hokage--which I don't--there's no way I could. I'm a Hyuuga, and branch family to boot. Besides, you asked my recommendation for the Hunter co-captain, and Isoshi is a good prospect." Hyuuga weren't named Hokage. Not everyone would be able to truthfully believe that loyalty to clan didn't come first, since that was how they were raised. Even for Neji, to an extent the clan did come first. Just not in every way.
"I know your recommendations are sound. But you can be whatever I want you to be," came the calm counter. "ANBU answer to their Hokage first, and everyone else second. Which means my orders come before clan orders. And if I say you're Hokage, you are, and if you're Hokage, then you're the one in charge of the clan, not the other way around." He tapped the ashes off his cigarette. "Come up with a better excuse."
"How about the fact Tsunade-sama chose Naruto to succeed her but the Council completely ignored it? There's nothing saying they'd ratify your decision," Neji pointed out, happy to oblige him. "Yes, I'm ANBU, which does mean the Hokage's orders come before all others. But I'm still also Hyuuga, and while the Uchiha are no longer around to squawk there are plenty of others--" Neji was sure about this "--who would shriek about the favor and preferential treatment the clan is receiving because of course I'm incapable of independent action from my blood relatives." He shook his head. "With all due respect, sir, I don't want the captaincy, and I certainly do not want to be Hokage. I'm a better soldier than a leader, and my skills are more suited to the field."
"Naruto isn't sitting in this chair right now because Tsunade-sama wasn't around to make sure he'd be sitting in this chair right now." Actually, that was really only half the issue; doubtless Tsunade had expected that Naruto would have a lot more time to mature - like, another ten years - before he'd be handed the hat, so it was really no surprise that he wasn't ready for it. Coz he sure wasn't. "And if I cared about making people happy, over making people safe, I'd be the Daimyo, not the Hokage."
Asuma leaned forward on his elbows, depositing his cigarette back in the ashtray and pinning Neji with an intense look of seriousness - one of the looks he only pulled out on rare occasions. "I don't want to be the Hokage either. But I'm here, because there's a job that needs to be done, and currently I'm the one best suited for that task, sad as the fact is. There's a job you need to do, too, but I'm giving you a choice about it. Be my soldier, and lead other ANBU in the field. Or be my Hokage, and I will lead your ANBU in the field. That's the only choice I'm giving you."
Crap, Neji thought at the same time as, You're such an ass, sempai. "You're really being serious about this," Neji said slowly. "About both. You would really make me the Hokage if I declined the captaincy."
The cigarette was put back to his lips. "Yes."
Solid white eyes narrowed at him. Neji hated not having any wiggle-room Well, he had some; it was just extremely limited. He didn't want the captaincy, but he didn't want to be the Nanadaime either (because no two people can have the same numeral ascribed to them). He could turn around and give the title to Naruto and thus make the blond the Hachidaime.
Except he knew that while Naruto had his heart in the right place, the guy was nowhere near the level of maturity necessary for running a village. Another decade or so, surely. But right now? Absolutely not. And Neji was too firmly ensconced in his sense of duty to the village to give the position to someone undeserving. Something Asuma was, no doubt, counting on. And thus Neji's choices were reduced to only one.
"In that case, sempai, I'll leave you do to handle the Council. At least by remaining in ANBU my own interactions with them will be few and far between." It was a small revenge for the no-win situation Asuma put Neji in, but the Hyuuga would take what he could get. "Does this mean you'll be moving into the Hokage apartments with Kurenai-san?"
On the one hand.... damnit, he didn't want the Hokage-cy... position thing. On the other hand... most excellent. Oh, if only poor Neji knew this was exactly what Asuma had wanted and expected (though it would have been nice if Neji wanted to be Hokage). He'd probably be pissed.
... then again, he'd probably think about it later and realize Asuma really did maneuver him right where he was wanted. Pity he wouldn't be around to see Neji's expression when the epiphany came.
So instead he gave a small grimace of disappointment (which wasn't really feigned) and made a dismissive gesture with one hand. "I'm not moving anywhere. It's closer than the Inuzuka compound, true, but if the whole damn Inuzuka clan can't guard me, then a few ANBU can't, either. I don't want to spend all my time here."
"Want has nothing to do with it, sempai. You're the Hokage now; that means you get to deal with the political ramifications as well as the leadership itself," Neji pointed out. "No one's expecting you to move in right away, but the longer you stay with the Inuzuka you know grumblings in some quarters will start about you showing them too much favor. Not only that, but the Hokage is pretty much supposed to be available to his or her shinobi at any hour of the day and night in case of an emergency. Getting to you in the Tower is relatively easy. Getting to you inside the Inuzuka compound is a little different. Not everyone knows exactly which building you and Kurenai-san are in, and I'm sure you've noticed how territorial that clan is. Even if they are hosting displaced people, I don't expect they'll take too kindly to random comings and goings without multiple people stopping them to inquire about their business. And then there's Kiba, who's very possessive in his protectiveness of his former sensei's well-being and privacy."
He semi-slouched back in his chair. "But that's for you to handle, Hokage-sama." Neji had his own details to take care of.
The first would be to explain to Hiashi-sama that he wouldn't be returning to the Hyuuga compound. Like the Hokage, Neji now needed to be as available to his co-captain and fellow ANBU as possible, and the clan was even more particular about unannounced visitors than the Inuzuka. So after Hiashi-sama, Neji would need to talk to Hinata. Since he would probably be too busy now to look after the branch family, he needed to be sure someone else he trusted would. Failing that, the leadership was based on blood purity. Neji was descended of main but Hinata was former main. True, she didn't exactly have the force of will or the personality for it, but he felt he should give her the chance to prove herself. She had the potential for it - he'd seen it back when she hadn't fled from their chuunin match-up. With
...Maybe he ought to speak to her before Hiashi, then. That way he could instate Hinata as family head before he essentially informed Hiashi that he was no longer clan.
And then after that he had a few other people to inform of this. Tenten, for one. Lee, Sakura, and Naruto also.
"I already told you I don't care about making people happy," he replied. Grumbled, really. It was all very true; he'd already had twenty different people (not an exaggeration) discuss this with him and he'd known it before any of them had opened their mouths, but that didn't mean he had to like it. Or do it right away. There was still a war going on outside, and Konoha didn't have the time, energy, resources, or spit to deal with talking around political bullshit. That could come later. And besides, the Hokage's apartments would probably need a second comb-over for traps and hidden recesses just like the office had. Let them take care of that first.
"I know you don't. There's still a difference between making people happy and applying a bit of common sense. And in my professional and personal opinion, Asuma-san, you need to be as accessible as is appropriate." Neji eyed Asuma speculatively. "How long do you think until you would transition to the Tower completely?"
Asuma returned to his cigarette. "When I don't need ANBU doing other things. Right now it's easier and more feasible to stay at the Inuzuka compound at night. That frees up four ANBU for night patrol, which is all I expect you'll be doing for the next few months. I don't want to waste resources guarding me when they could be put to use somewhere else."
That made sense. People would still bitch, not that Neji truthfully cared. Happily, an advantage of being an ANBU captain included the fact the only person he was answerable to was Asuma. He could grow to like that quite a bit. "Understood, sir. Is there anything else you specifically require of me?" ANBU was fairly self-sufficient; if nothing else the past three months had proven that. Meanwhile, he had to report to Tsuda-taichou and find out just what else he would need to do with his new rank.
...new rank might mean new hazing. The thought prompted him to narrow his eyes slightly at Asuma again and wonder if the man knew it. Maybe, maybe not. Neji still bet on that he probably did.
A shake of the head was his reply. Asuma hadn't needed anything more from Neji; the rest of what he needed to do was research. Which... would probably wait until tomorrow, honestly. He'd spent far too much time away from Kurenai this last week, and he needed to make it up to her. Not that she hadn't been keeping herself quite busy (he heard about that hammock in her office already), but...
"That's all." Asuma leaned back in his chair. "Take the rest of the day off, and talk to the other captains tomorrow. I'm sure you know better than me how much work they'll be putting you to, so. Might as well enjoy the rest of the day while you can."
"Because who knows when I'll get another day off," Neji agreed. And if he managed to speak to both Hinata and Hiashi today, he might actually have the evening to himself. Ample time to tell Tenten, at least. "When do you want me back on duty tomorrow?" Because the day could mean anything from sunrise to sunset, or until midnight, or until the next sunrise, or a full twenty-four hours.
The older man made a dismissive gesture with one hand. He wasn't the one to dictate an ANBU captain's regular schedule, so... "You three can figure it out. ANBU works fairly autonomously, I'm not going to get in the way of what you guys do. You know how to do it, so go do it. Just... don't do anything stupid or make me look worse than I already do."
"Understood, sir. Good luck," he added with a faint smile. He stood up and slid his mask back into place over his face before bowing to the Hokage. And then he was gone, his next destination his room in headquarters so he could change into civilian clothes and get a message to Hinata.