I came alive at the sound of an alarm clock I had broken years ago, and found myself gasping for breath in a bed that I had outgrown around the same time. My untrained eyes flicked this way and that, taking in what details of my room the predawn light allowed. I eventually settled on the clock, reaching out with a too short arm to hit the snooze and grunting with a too high voice when it went silent.
It took me a few minutes to reel my sanity back in as I stared up at my ceiling and struggled to breath.
"That old bastard was the real deal," I said, tone full of childish wonder. I held my hands up, inspecting the places where callouses and scars should be, and found smooth skin instead.
I laughed. It started as a high-pitched giggle that suited my current frame all too well, and then it gave way to hysterical peals while I clutched my head and came to terms with my answer to the old sage's offer.
"Alright!" I cried, propelling myself from my bed and hitting the floor at a dead run. I dashed the moisture from my eyes, a wild grin on my face. "Time to save the world!"
With my eyes, I can clearly see... Asura's chakra clinging tightly to you.
A quick bit of hygiene and a glance at the calendar later, followed by a much more prolonged tour of the village, I found myself approaching the Academy gates. I nibbled at a sweet bun and waved to a passing sensei, who gave me a suspicious look before continuing on his way.
Ah well. They'd come around.
"Been a while since I've pranked this place," I murmured to myself, walking down empty hallways on the way to what I vaguely remembered to be my class. "I'll have to fix that before I graduate."
Blind luck led me to the correct door a couple minutes later, and I slide it open before the excited fluttering in my chest could make me think twice.
The class turned to face me as one, and I stared right back at them, drinking in the sight of all the people that had graduated with me so long ago. People that were precious to me beyond words. People that I had let hurt, that I had let die.
Then I locked eyes with the person that I had let leave, and I found myself unable to move. God, I had almost forgotten what she looked like before-
Unlike the previous predecessors, you've got this strange bit of foolishness to you... And that has given birth to this different possibility.
"Naruto," Iruka said, and I blinked, looking up at another person I had failed.
"Hey sensei," I greeted, mustering up a grin and grabbing another bit of food from the bag I'd bought. "Sweet roll?"
A few people snickered. Iruka was unamused. "You're late," he said flatly.
He shook his head. "Just sit down, and don't make a mess."
I saluted with my sweet bun and then stuffed it in my mouth, surveying the room for empty seats. To my simultaneous horror and elation, there was only one open spot, and the girl sitting beside it was still staring at me. Challenging me to sit next to her, probably. My lips twitched.
Now that wouldn't do.
I leapt from the doorway to the row of desks three levels down, pivoting so as to avoid crushing Choji's bag of chips, and then hopped over Shikamaru's sleeping head to the table on the other side of the stairs. A graceful leapfrog over an indignant Kiba later, and I fell into my seat with a noisy thud. I ducked my head just in time to avoid Iruka's thrown eraser, and plopped my bag of goodies down on the table in front of my entirely unimpressed classmate- friend- lov- friend.
She raised an eyebrow, midnight black eyes as piercing as they ever were. I put on my best Uzumaki grin and gestured at the bag.
Naruto, what do you want to do? After this battle is over, what would you seek? I want to hear what you think, honestly and sincerely.
Morning classes came and went, and soon enough it was time for lunch. Iruka called me down for a lecture on punctuality and the upcoming Genin Exams at the end of the week, which brought back so many fond memories I didn't even mind handing him his sweet bun when he finished chewing me out.
"Don't worry, Iruka-sensei!" I boasted while he cautiously inspected the morsel. "I'll crush this test no problem!"
He smiled wryly and ruffled my hair. "I really do hope so."
A moment later I was dashing out to the Academy yard, eying the scattered groups of shinobi-to-be. Every familiar face tugged at me, urging me to run over and say hi, how are you, I'm so glad you're safe, I love you all so much holy shit. Alas, the girl absent from the yard called to me above all others.
Sakura caught sight of me as I ran over to her group of friends and cringed in preparation for my usual advances, only to blink in surprise as I breezed on past them. My first thought was the projectile grounds. From what I remembered, Sasuke was absolutely obsessed with perfecting all her fancy Uchiha kunai techniques while we were in the Academy.
No luck. I crossed my arms, considering the empty training ground.
"Another challenge, eh, Sasuke?" I mused. Well, no. She was probably just eating lunch somewhere else. Even so! That didn't make me any less up to the task of finding her.
I had gotten pretty good at that over the years.
I found her on the roof, looking up at the Hokage Mountain with a rice ball held loosely in her hand. I sat myself down beside her, and found myself put under her scrutiny once more. I smiled.
She blinked, looked away. "Hello."
"Hiding from your admirers again?"
She smirked, and I found myself drawn to the curve of her lips in spite of myself. "Not exactly."
"What's on your mind?" I asked, looking up at the Hokage Mountain as well- but no, I hadn't defiled it today.
Now didn't that bring back memories. I snorted, leaning back on my hands. "Whatever, bastard."
We fell silent, Sasuke ignoring me like she ignored everyone back then. Well, I'd fix that soon enough, I vowed in between furtive glances at her lashes and lips and those damned beautiful eyes-
I exhaled slowly.
This... wasn't my Sasuke, I reminded myself. Not wholly. There were parts of her that made my teeth grind and my heart pound in equal measure that had been lost in the migration, and those parts of her were never coming back if I had anything to say about it.
The life that had shaped the girl that I swore never to forgive for beating me into the ground every time we sparred into the woman that I couldn't stop myself from loving wasn't worth the pain that it would cause her. Her, and everyone else that I cared about. So now I was going to have to put my money where my mouth was and fulfill my end of the bargain with the old sage. I was going to have to fix things, and change the love of my life in the process.
I chanced another glance at her out of the corner of my eye. She was beautiful, even now, but she was still a child. And no matter what I might like to fool myself into believing, I had years on her. Years of memories and feelings that I couldn't just force on her now.
It wouldn't be fair. Not to either of us, in the end.
It hurt. God, it hurt so much to finally, finally have her back, sitting right next to me, with no way to tell her. It hurt worse than the lightning she had punched through my chest the day she left, and then some.
All of the sudden, I found myself snapped from my internal conflict by my own rumbling stomach. Seems my late breakfast hadn't been enough. Should have stopped by that beef stall after all.
I blinked, looking down at the untouched rice ball the subject of my struggle had shoved under my nose. Huh.
"You sure?" I asked. She nodded, and my eyes squinted with the force of my grin. "Thanks!"
She shrugged, going back to ignoring me in the next moment. Still, the silence that sat between us while I munched on her lunch and she contemplated the mountains wasn't as tense as it could have been. And for now, that was enough.
She wasn't the woman I loved anymore, and it terrified me to think that she never would be again. But at the end of the day, I had made a choice, not just for her, but for everyone that had been hurt by my mistakes. I was going to fix this mess before it could happen, no matter what, because I'd made a promise. To my friends, to the sage, and to myself.
And Uzumaki Naruto never went back on his word.
I see... Is that your answer, then?
Why couldn't I just talk to him?
I stared fixedly at the Hokage Mountain, a monument to a village that I would have gladly drowned in seas of pitch black fire up until very, very recently. I stared with eyes that could no longer truly see, relative to the otherworldly clarity that I had grown accustomed to over the years. I balanced myself on the roof with legs that had been stripped of their definition and, a traitorous part of me worried, their appeal.
Sitting a scant two feet from me, and munching on the lunch I had thrown together in a haze earlier that morning, was an obnoxious boy with wild eyes and a smile that tore the breath from my throat every time I saw it. Such as now. Why couldn't I just talk to him?
Sasuke... What is it you want to do? What do you hope to gain through this fight?
There was too much to lose. Too much to let ride on a careless insult between myself and the man that had taken up his solitary residence in my heart. Not when he knew so little about me now, knew so little about what comments meant to sting and what comments meant to bite.
Then again, this was Naruto. I found myself smirking. Since when had he allowed a little negativity to keep him down?
"What's so funny?" He asked, and if there was one thing I hoped never changed about him, it was that little challenging glint in his eye when he said it. I've been provoked into a lot of stupid things by those eyes. Some more world threatening than others.
I didn't miss a beat. "Your grades," I said, familiar words rolling off my tongue. He bristled, thrusting a finger in my face.
"Watch it, bastard!" He snapped, jamming the rest of my rice ball into his mouth and swallowing it without chewing in his indignation. "Or I'll kick your ass! In front of all the instructors! On exam day."
I ignored his blustering, staring at the finger he had yet to remove from the tip of my nose. A memory burned into my mind by my past eyes rose to the forefront of my thoughts, despite my best efforts. A similar finger, pointed at a similar nose. A similar tongue, licking similar lips. Similarly hot breath ghosting across similarly tanned skin.
You're about to lose that finger... idiot.
And then the digit was gone as quick as it had come, and Naruto was looking away from me, coughing violently. Probably choking on the clump of rice that he'd tried to swallow whole. I rolled my eyes.
In a way, it was a sobering reminder. This wasn't my Naruto anymore, not wholly. The Naruto I knew made me want to beat his stupid, cocky face in while also jamming my tongue down his throat, but he had been lost to the migration. The Naruto that I remembered from the Academy mostly just made me want to beat him.
Getting back my Naruto would be difficult if I wanted to stay away from the actions that had caused so many problems the first time around. Impossible, some might say. The path he had walked as a result of my actions was something that I had no plans of replicating, which left me here, with this boy that still had no idea as to the difference between the kunai in his weapon pouch and the kunai in his pants.
I couldn't have my cake and eat it, too. We'd both be unsatisfied if I tried to pick things up here where we'd left them off there.
I cocked my head at the sound of a bell ringing somewhere in the Academy below us. That would be the end of lunch. I took one last look at the Hokage Mountain, and the hauntingly familiar visage of the Yondaime Hokage, and made my decision.
I was going to just talk to him.
"Naruto," I said. He paused in brushing off the bits of rice he'd gotten all over himself, giving me his full attention. My fingers twitched, aching to wrap themselves around his throat and shake him back and forth, aching to bunch themselves in his shirt and pull him close, aching to fist themselves in his hair and pull him closer still-
"Still hungry?" I asked, tone only somewhat strained. He pursed his lips, eyes going cloudy for a long beat.
"I could eat, yeah."
I stood up in a fluid motion, tilting my head towards the market district off in the distance. "Then hurry up."
"What? Hey! We've still got class!" Naruto called, but I was already leaping through the trees towards the afternoon food stalls. "Wait, why do I care we still have class?" He muttered to himself, taking off after me.
A strange sound danced its way up my throat and past my lips, light and breathy. Not a giggle, because Uchiha Sasuke did not giggle, but not quite laughter either. It had been a long, long time since I'd had anything to laugh about. Still...
It felt good.
I want to hear what it is you honestly think.
I led him to a familiar street corner and, when he just so happened to catch sight of his favorite ramen shack and drag me inside, I relented with as much good humor as could be expected. We sat ourselves down in the middle two seats, and I pointedly ignored the middle-aged woman giving my teammate- lover- frien- lover a distasteful glare.
"Oi, Teuchi!" Naruto called. "Fire up the extra burners- It's time for me to catch up!"
Laughter drifted out from the back room. "What do you mean catch up? You were here last night!" A moment later an attractive young woman with chestnut brown hair and a bubbly smile emerged with a notepad and a pen. Naruto's face lit up as soon as he saw her.
"What can I do for you, Naruto-kun?" she asked.
"Two of my usual to start, and a small order of miso while I wait. And tell the old man not to skimp on the fishcakes this time!"
"I never skimp on the fishcakes, you punk!" said old man hollered from the back. The waitress giggled, scrawling down his order and turning expectantly to me.
"Medium shrimp," I said curtly. She nodded and made a quick note on her pad, disappearing into the back.
"Thanks Ayame!" Naruto called after her, a silly little grin on his face. My eyes narrowed.
I never liked Ayame.
My shrimp ramen and Naruto's miso arrived about the same time, and then around a quarter of the way through my bowl his first "usual" arrived. No matter how many times I saw it happen, I always found myself staring incredulously at the massive bowl with "Uzumaki" printed in blood red kanji around the base. Naruto, of course, tore into it with gusto.
"Ahh! Perfect!" He threw down his chopsticks into his second empty bowl triumphantly, and I shook my head, lifting my own bowl up to drink down the rest of the broth. When I set it back down, I found him eying me.
I cocked an eyebrow. "Yes?"
"Nothing- it's just, uh." He scratched the back of his neck, and suddenly I remembered how much I had missed that bashful gesture. "I thought you didn't like ramen."
"You didn't give me much of a choice," I pointed out, though it had been my own horribly deceitful plan from the start.
He winced. "Right, yeah. Sorry, that wasn't good of me, was it?" Before I could dismiss his concern, he did it for me, an idea lighting up his face. "I know! I'll take you out to lunch tomorrow, your choice!"
I folded my fingers in front of my face, hiding my smile. "Who says I want to eat with you two days in a row?"
Rather than take the bait, he jammed a thumb to his chest. "Uzumaki Naruto says!" I blinked, dazzled for just a moment by his exuberance, and then turned away.
He wasn't the man that I loved against every bit of my own will anymore, and it terrified me somewhere deep inside the empty little heart he'd forced his way into that he never would be again. But at the end of the day, I had made a choice. I'd come back to this village with all its painful memories, because I wanted to right the one wrong that I well and truly regretted.
And fuck space and time, I was going to have my cake and I was going to devour it, too. He wasn't the man I loved now, but god damn him, I would make him the man I loved. One way or another.
An Uchiha's pride would accept nothing less.
So that is your answer. I understand.
Creation began with a tree.
Upon the precipice of creation, as the dusk of nothing ebbed and the dawn of everything flowed, a single seed was planted. From this seed grew life, chakra, and conscious existence in all of nature. From this seed grew a Tree.
The Tree's roots spanned endlessly, burrowing and drawing forth life with which it nourished itself, and by extension, creation. Life sprung from its roots beneath the surface of existence, and in doing so created an element for the Tree's roots to burrow into in the first place. Earth.
The Tree drew yet more life from its roots, and in doing so created the second element. Water. Its leaves basked above the surface of creation, drawing yet more energy in order to create life above, and in doing so created an element for the leaves to bask in. Fire. Its seeds drifted far, far away, spreading life to every corner of existence, and in doing so created an element for the seeds to drift upon. Wind.
Having set the stage of existence, the Tree was left with one final task. It spurred all of the life it had created into motion with one searing jolt, and in doing so created an element for the hearts of nature to beat upon. Lightning.
Once created, life in all forms expanded from the Tree. Birds took flight in search of different nests, fruit and pollen of lesser trees drifted away in the grip of the elements, and above all, things moved away in search of room to exist. Without exception, life came from the Tree, and life went from the Tree.
Until one day, a fool returned.
When the speck of life stepped back to its beginning, rather than forward to its end, the Tree did not know how to react. So it did not. The fool saw the Tree, and felt the connection between themselves and all of creation, but they did not know why. Helpless, the fool asked the Tree what the reason behind its existence was.
Now the Tree knew how to react, and to the fool it conveyed the path to their answer: A journey for experience.
A journey for answers that would begin and end with the fool's existence, and would branch off into different answers along the way. For only once the fool understood themselves could they understand the Tree. Sensing this, and lacking any alternative path, the speck of existence that had for the first time returned to its creation once again departed in search of themselves.
In the beginning, there was the Fool.