Prologue: That bastard
Konoha, early evening
The village was settling in for the night, shops closing their doors and bars welcoming the first rush of customers. The academy was empty and quiet, the children having long since gone home. The training grounds were still in use, some of them noisy with thunks of weapons, ninjutsu practise, or Maito Gai.
Shinobi could occasionally be seen hopping over rooftops, on messenger duty if not returning or leaving for a mission. Those with more covert assignments weren't seen at all, of course, but they were also there. Konoha was always and ever bustling, over and under the surface.
Exactly three minutes before ten, the deceptive image of peace and quiet was shattered by a series of loud explosions.
Curiously, this did not arouse alarm so much as groans and various complaints in the general line of "not again!", "third time this week!" and "if I ever get my hands on that bastard, I'll-"
Several members of the Konoha Military Police were running towards the source of the commotion, eyes spinning crimson and weapons at hand. On surface, they seemed determined. Yet, their resigned expressions and the black bags under their eyes told a different story.
In his office, the third Hokage, a man respected everywhere as one of the most powerful shinobi of all time, put down his pipe and smacked his forehead on his desk.
So much for finishing his paperwork for once. He'd probably be sorting this out until early morning and go home to the first trill of birdsong. Sarutobi Hiruzen let out a long-suffering sigh and reached for his hat.
The door to his office was slammed open and a harried looking chuunin slid to a halt, staying upright only by managing to grab the door frame. There were dark circles under his eyes, too, and his hair stuck up in a way that looked less like a natural inclination and more like he had been running his fingers through it periodically. It had been a familiar look around the tower recently.
"Hokage-sama! Someone appears to have set off a series of coordinated fireworks from the Academy rooftop! We're assuming it was that bastard again."
"Just fireworks? Seems oddly... uninspired from what we've seen of that man."
The chuunin squirmed, scratching at his temple self-consciously. "Well, about that... You may want to look, Hokage-sama, I don't think I can... do it justice."
Hiruzen raised an eyebrow and walked to the window, peering outside. His eyes widened. There were several messages still lit on the darkening sky, persisting through the normally short lifespan of fireworks.
Most of them seemed to ramble on about Ichiraku ramen. Several seemed to attempt some sort of poetry, only to derail into laments about the writer's poor memory. Some were not messages at all, but indistinct squiggles that spiralled into themselves.
Hiruzen sighed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose.
The culprit, known as 'Asura', had kept the entire village running around in circles for weeks and he saw no hope of the situation changing any time soon. If only Hiruzen could go back in time and strangle his teacher for inventing that bloody Shadow Clone technique; the bastard troublemaker had disappeared in smoke each and every time someone had managed to land a hit.
Insult to injury, he apparently had enough chakra to drown Konoha in shadow clones and generally stuck out like a sore thumb, yet he was never found if he didn't want to be. And he really should have been, in a village famed for its doujutsu and several clans exceptionally well suited for tracking.
That he hadn't been, well, that was frightening.
Hiruzen was old, now, but he had not lived this long by luck. He had forgotten more than most ever learned and kept his village together and running through those days of despair when the buildings still burned in embers beneath rubble and the rotten stench of death and despair were thick enough to choke on. The fourth Hokage may have sacrificed himself to save their village from destruction, but it was the third who patched it up and buried their dead.
More than anything, the third disliked working in the dark. It was true that 'Asura' had yet to hurt anyone and had once even helped them out, accidentally or not, but a ninja village could not afford to count on the good will of a potential enemy. There was always the possibility he was lulling them all into a false sense of security, even if his methods for it were... less than conventional.
But they had no leads. The man had no profile in any bingo book out there, was most certainly not a Konoha resident and only ever seemed to use the Shadow Clone technique - which was decidedly Konohan. Nothing to tie him to another village or organisation.
And yet, red hair and incredible chakra. If that village hadn't been destroyed... but it was worth investigating. Perhaps Jiraiya could be roped into looking in this mystery.
Loud, boisterous laughter rang out, clearly audible over the background noise of barked orders and general chatter, cutting his train of thought short. Hiruzen leaped out of the window in a blur of speed, gesturing for his ANBU to follow.
Even from far away, they saw a familiar silhouette on the roof of the academy, going through equally familiar clumsy dance steps. His hair was a stream of crimson that flowed in his wake, glowing like an ember in the waning light. As always, he held a brass shakujo, which he seemingly only ever used for dramatic gestures and posturing.
Seeing the crowd he had gathered, the man struck a pose and beamed.
"Good evening, Konoha! I hope you enjoyed today's show! Now, the reason I have gathered you all here tonight is to introduce you to someone very important!"
He pressed a hand to his heart, face earnest and open. Long red hair somehow managed to billow dramatically in a wind that should have had trouble rustling leaves.
"Until now I have been running the show on my own, but tonight, I have the very great pleasure to introduce you to my brother! You may call him 'Kurama'!"
He beamed harder at the words, throwing his hands wide open. The shakujo chimed gently, glittering in the last rays of light.
Then, his chakra surged and, so quickly it was frightening, cheery, dramatic Asura... wasn't. All of his impossible radiance was gone, replaced by a heavy, irritated gloom, bright blue eyes dull and bored. He yawned, jaw stretching too far, showing too many sharp teeth.
For the first time, he seemed dangerous. This was a person who had killed, often, every shinobi in the audience realised with that gut instinct that sees underneath the underneath clearer and faster than conscious mind. They tensed, ready to intercept and incapacitate at the slightest threatening motion.
Asura (or possibly Kurama, now) seemed unruffled and uninterested.
"Keh! I did not expect this to be his idea of... Well, better than sleeping all the damn time, I suppose," he all but snarled, then stretched his body in odd, jerky motions, as if unused to movement, yanking his shoulders in a circle and letting his neck crack ominously.
With one last slow lurch, Kurama straightened and yawned again. Unlike his previous persona, he did not appear lively at all, eyes half open and very much resembling some dangerous predator that spent most of its time sleeping and ignoring the prey.
"Oi, idiots of Konoha. I'll also be bothering you from now on. Let's, keh, get along. I like, hm, my father and Asura, I suppose. I hate a lot of things, the Uchiha in particular. My hobbies include insulting Asura and sleeping. In the future I intend to... well. You don't need to know about that."
Hiruzen had never wished he had the means to capture this man more than he did at that moment.
Konoha's orphanage, slightly after sunrise (several months earlier)
The caretakers of Konoha's orphanage never physically abused little Uzumaki Naruto; they knew better than that. He was fed as well as the others, his clothes were no worse for the wear and no one ever struck him in anger. This did not mean it was a happy life, his misfortune simply took a different and subtler form.
Konoha was first and foremost a military society. Most of the money went into supporting their forces on a good day, not to mention during times of war or recovery. The orphanage was not a cheery place to grow up; resources were thin and there was hardly any time for individual attention for any of children.
None of the overworked caretakers wanted to deal with Naruto, so he was shuffled from one person to another at first, and then ignored entirely, when everyone began to assume someone else was responsible for him and no one thought or cared to ask who.
However, that also meant that when he woke up one morning and spent several minutes hysterically chanting "Kai! Kai!" and stabbing himself with one of the wooden toy kunai, no one realised anything was amiss.
This was just as well, because three years old little Naruto had only moments ago been sixteen and fighting for the freedom of the entire world, his opponents a giant mutant tree and two mentally unstable Uchiha.
Had someone taken notice and made him see a Yamanaka, the future might have been very different. But that is not what happened, and eventually little Naruto took a deep breath and stared into distance. Then he went back to his bed, sat down in a meditative pose he should not have known, should not have had patience for, and was lost to the world.
Naruto's subconscious, flow of time not applicable
While Naruto would admit he was not the brightest bulb in the box, that was not the only reason he appeared as dumb as he did. Especially during his early years, thinking too hard or too long would always lead to that painful place where he felt keenly how much he was an unwanted person.
Walking with his head in clouds of dreams larger than he was and muffling the sound of his thoughts with his own loud obnoxious voice was, at times, the only way he could keep himself from drowning in despair. Sometimes, underneath the underneath was a cold and lonely place where thoughts had teeth.
(And whatever you said about cursed legacy, that was probably the real reason Sasuke had lost himself in the darkness while Naruto had not, having never been able to tear away from the blood and fear and hate in his mind.)
Yet, as it always goes in life, Naruto's road also took its toll. Even now, years after the pain of thinking started to ease; Naruto's subconscious remained a sewer. A place for the unwanted, unneeded and forgotten things, flushed away and left to rot.
Somewhere in that sewer, a giant fox reclined behind bars that should no longer have been there. Outwardly, he gave off an aura of calm, unlike the owner of the mind who sat in the ankle-deep water and trembled, eyes large and anxious. Eventually the fox sighed and spoke, swishing his many tails in a decisive manner. His voice sounded like it should have hurt to speak, a heavy, harsh growl with sharp edges.
"...If there was a genjutsu, I would have already dispelled it. If I was also genjutsu and the real me unable to break through, this would be the Infinite Tsukuyomi. If so, we would dream of that 'perfect world' and think of nothing."
Naruto jerked forward, before he managed to reign in his impulse to move. He was still in that state of mind that exists during battles too large and important to lose and needed a target for the agitated energy. Somewhere out there, people were fighting for their lives and he was not there.
"So, what? What does it mean? What are we going to do?"
"Hm. We cannot return if we cannot even tell how we came to be here. For now at least, we must think this as reality and act on the assumption that we have been stranded in the past. About thirteen or fourteen years ago, based on your physical body."
Naruto's energy seemed to leak out in one slow rush, leaving him empty and tired.
"Past? How... how could something like this even happen? And are we... are we alone? There were a bunch of people there, someone else must have come too, right?"
Kurama snorted, the current strong enough to blow Naruto's fair hair flat against his head.
"Don't ask me. Look, the half face was trying something with his eye; I could feel that man use chakra somewhere out of sight; the white haired asshole and your father were just about to... teleport, I think; the old monkey did something behind us that involved fire; the idiot Hokage's wood was growing everywhere; the Shinju was on a rampage and my chakra was spread about the battlefield. Any and all of those things could have contributed to this, or none of them. My point being, it was a mess. Not very good for making educated guesses on the mechanisms behind time travel. But I am the only one who could possibly have enough chakra to protect you during such a trip. We are alone."
Naruto groaned, face falling against his knees. He had already stumbled all over the communal bedroom in his earlier panic and likely bruised himself, unused to the new (old) dimensions. He didn't even want to think about how frustrating it would be to learn how to move again, never mind actually train his muscles.
"I need to know what happened. I don't remember. I only have this blurry feeling like we were pushed against a current. And the weird old man with Rinnegan, but that was probably a hallucination since he also had like a weird, red third eye thing on his forehead and horns. I don't even want to kno-"
"What?!" Kurama's voice boomed. He sat up, looking more alert than Naruto had, well, ever seen him. Naruto blinked and reeled backwards on reflex.
"Like I said, it was probably an illusion. I mean, I didn't understand half of what he said. Called himself Hagoromomomo-something. Said stuff about time flow and rainbow running in a circle and that I'm someone called Asura and then I think he apologised for pruning my face. Didn't seem to make a lot of sense."
Kurama looked like he wanted to plant his face against something. "That old man, Naruto, was my father. As in, the Sage of Six Paths."
Naruto's jaw dropped. "W-what? So all that stuff about 'Rabbit Goddess' and Byakugan and the 'successors' was..."
Kurama nodded wearily and settled down again. "From what you remember, it seems he thinks you're the reincarnation of his younger son, the so-called 'useless Asura'. He was a lot like you. He did make all sorts of people follow him and believe that love and cooperation were the answer to peace."
Naruto breathed out, eyes wide, looking a little lost. "I was the son of the Sage? And the first Hokage too? I - I don't know... " Then, something steeled in his eyes.
"But it doesn't really matter, does it? That guy had the right idea. Itachi tried to do everything on his own and look how that worked out. I'm not even going to talk about Obito and Madara. Whether or not I am Asura, I've got to finish what he tried to do."
Kurama felt the corner of his mouth turn in a reluctant smile. However, Naruto sighed, deflated and hid his face in his knees.
"Well, that was some short-lived motivation," Kurama drawled, raising an eyebrow.
The truth was, Naruto felt weary - a tiredness that had nothing to do with his body and everything with the war that had seemed to go on and on, no end in sight. But it had still been the endgame. A conclusion that had been stolen from him, by whatever that had stranded him and Kurama in the past like they were the only two survivors escaping a sunken ship.
"It's just... It was almost over. All the villages were fighting together and kinda getting along and, and, I spent my entire life scraping and striving for every little bit of power I could and all of that, all that effort, it's all gone. And now I have to convince everyone I can find peace, all over again. I don't... Of all my life, I have nothing left!"
There was a heavy silence. Naruto gazed at his feet with unseeing eyes, hands still and spread open in a useless, helpless gesture. Kurama narrowed his eyes and hissed.
"Me. You have me. You may need to train your pathetic body again, you may once more need to fight for the approval of undeserving idiots, you may have to try reason with my siblings, but I am still here! I have always been here! And I'll help you out this time, so stop snivelling!"
Naruto smiled, some of the heavy gloom evaporating. Being a jinchuuriki had always been the heaviest burden in his life, the knowledge that he was never alone in his body and the other occupant was both malicious and powerful.
"Thanks. It's just... I'll admit I'm an idiot, but I'm still sixteen. I did mature a little bit. How am I supposed to keep in character?"
(A part of that dread he had sometimes known lingered stubbornly, something close to what he'd felt when everything had seemed to go wrong at once, when Sasuke-bastard had done the stupid thing and was about to cause a war if he didn't destroy himself first.)
"...You're three years old. As far as the world is concerned, you don't have a character. And if you are a little different, well, it's not like anyone pays any attention to you," Kurama said, raising his eyebrow.
And oh, shit, wasn't that an entirely wrong thing to say. Naruto's face fell.
"Yeah, I guess you're right," he said in a small, defeated voice.
The brat looked like a kicked puppy. Kurama ignored a traitorous twinge of guilt.
Still, it was probably best to try for some... emotional support? The brat was currently dealing with a major life change, to put it lightly. It was the kind of thing comrades and... friends did for each other, right?
Only thing was, Kurama might have decided to give up hating indiscriminately but that did not make him a master of navigating emotions. Trying for 'understanding and kind' was probably a lost cause, so he went for 'prickly but offhandedly supportive'.
"Brat, I will only say this once and only because you annoy me. One word, you'll feel better."
Naruto tilted his head, mildly interested. Kurama leaned in, staring into Naruto's eyes.
Autor's notes: Clearly, when RL issues prevent you from writing another chapter in an ongoing story, the solution is to start a new story. Which is also incomplete. I'm sorry, everyone.