Naruto is the property of Kishimoto.
Worth- Part 1
Naruto was used to whispers. Whispers had always followed him- adults whispering behind their hands when he was a child. Children whispering behind his back at school. Whispering, and pointed looks, and barely hidden disgust. That was why it was so refreshing to have someone tell it to him straight.
Uzumaki Naruto! I am going to KILL YOU! You ugly, fuzzy headed, ignorant, foolish, no-brained, idiot!!
He was sure he had never seen Sakura so angry. There had been moments, when a mad sort of glint had flickered in her usually calm green eyes and he did fear for his life, but this was on an entirely different level.
You led thirteen DEFENCELESS children into THAT forest?! On your OWN, without informing me, or Kakashi-san or ANYONE!
Naruto was willing to admit that it hadn't been his most stunning plan, but they hadn't gone far, and everyone had come back in one piece.
CHILDREN NARUTO. CHILDREN.
Behind him, Konoha's finest- 12 chubby, grimy six year olds- tittered nervously. It wasn't good for them when Naruto-sensei got in trouble. And Sakura-sensei was /scary/.
Err, well yes. I just wanted to show them this tree, you know. . .
Sakura wasn't buying it.
We have PLENTY of trees in the training grounds and the village!
Naruto frowned, scuffed his toe in the dust, then suddenly, sharply, spun on his 12 giggling charges. They quivered, staring up at their teacher and tried very hard to look innocent. Sakura had fallen silent, but Naruto could still feel her glare.
Alright. Why don't you go home!
His mock glare had melted into a wide grin, as he waved enthusiastically at his charges.
Don't forget what I taught you!
He called after them as they scarpered off, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.
Unfortunately he hadn't distracted Sakura. She was one moment away from spitting fire.
I tell you what.
He said, resignedly, roughly scratching his nest of blonde hair.
Come with me while I get some ramen, and I'll let you shout at me as much as you want.
When Sakura had finished, and his bowl was empty, Naruto gave a satisfied sort of sigh, and swung back on his stool. Sakura's expression had melted from outrage, and she was now gazing at him with a sort of good natured weariness.
Will you ever grow up?
She asked, making a little face as he tilted the bowl up to get the dregs.
For a moment, as he grinned, there was a wicked glint in his eyes that didn't bode very well, but it faded back to that quiet, slightly sad expression that Sakura had got used to over the years.
Naruto /had/ grown up, really. He had lost some of his impulsiveness and ambition- but retained the constant energy and irrational mood swings. He fidgeted through meetings and swung between happiness and anger, but there was a steadier sort of vein to his character now, a steel rod running right through him.
Sakura had seen him disciplining one of his pupils, and when he was angry he became someone else, someone with a presence that seemed to burst out and shred the leaves on the trees.
Sakura said softly, and she saw his fist clench at her tone. He knew what she was going to ask.
He shrugged loosely, and rubbed the back of his neck. Sakura picked out the silver glint of the chain against his skin but it was soon hidden by his hair.
Not tonight. I'm tired.
Sakura just watched him stand up and straighten, all loose-limbed, and deceptively strong, like a cat. Nobody knew what they could say to Naruto anymore. Breach certain subjects, and depending on how much he cared about you, you received tight-lipped silence, or blood red fury.
Sakura knew her limits. His appearance was one of them. You told Naruto he looked thin- he wouldn't talk to you for a week. You mentioned his hair was getting pretty long, he stared at you in silence as if you were mad. You dared to suggest that he looked maybe just a little bit like- well kiss your friendship goodbye.
And then there was the question of what he was doing. Naruto was teaching. But unlike the other jounin, Sakura included, he was teaching the young children, wandering around the village with them trailed behind him, pointing out this and that and rambling on about trees and fish and people he sort of knew. He took missions. A class ones, solo - usually coming back as unscathed as if he had never gone at all. But.
His ambition was missing. Sakura knew that Naruto had the potential to be the greatest Hokage Konoha had ever known. He was fair, and thoughtful, and powerful - so powerful sometimes that Sakura felt she might be sucked up into him and never be set down. She didn't know whether she was truly afraid of that or not. The subject of who would become the sixth Hokage had arisen once, and all eyes had turned to Naruto. He had said no- just once, but no-one had ever asked again.
Sometimes Sakura looked at Naruto and wondered where the bratty, obnoxious little boy had gone- the one who had repeated confidently, brashly, that he would be the next Hokage. Sure, Naruto was still obnoxious, and difficult, and surprisingly clumsy. He was still deceptive, and confusing, and Sakura never knew whether she hated him or loved him.
Are you just gonna stare at me? Or are you gonna pay?
Sakura scowled, and paid.
Naruto was hungry and it was only mid morning. He rubbed one hand over his stomach absent mindedly, and listened to it grumble. The kids were trying to build a raft, struggling to lift logs and strap them together. They hadn't thought of using their budding chakra yet, and Naruto had decided to simply watch and let them learn from their mistakes.
Unfortunately, lying in the sun, stretched across the grass just above the river bank made him sleepy. And hungry.
The sky was endless and blue, the clouds so high and distant that they were barely wisps. Naruto felt peaceful, and easy, and slow and-
A chubby, pale little face invaded his vision, serious grey eyes and a childish pout obscuring the clouds above. Arakawa Miho was half a year younger than her classmates, an odd thoughtful little child who seldom took part in their games.
Miho-chan- why aren't you helping the team?
Naruto chanced a glance down to the river where two of the kids seemed to be drowning while the others tried to fish them out with sticks and ropes. Naruto watched silently as the two were hauled ashore, wet and grinning. Beside him Miho made a disgusted sort of snort.
They aren't doing it right.
She said sniffing.
They need to use chakra to lift the logs. It isn't hard.
She rubbed at her mop of black hair disdainfully, and Naruto smirked, amused.
Why don't you tell them that then?
He offered, sitting up and tugging her t-shirt straight. She scowled at him.
Why should I?
She said defiantly, chin jutting out. Naruto felt a tiny squeeze on his heart. Why was that so familiar? Miho was clever, and from all appearances unusually talented. And she knew it. Somehow though, she lacked something- like the genius kids often did- that thing that made children want to gang together, to work as a team.
Naruto remembered how badly things could go when kids like these grew up. Strength and isolation seemed to go hand in hand, and those kids- those high fliers- they were always the ones that came the closest to turning bad. What could he do, right now- to show Miho what a team was?
I don't know.
Naruto said softly.
Do you want to ride on the raft?
The little girl shook her head and rolled her eyes.
I don't want to ride on the stupid raft. My daddy said I could only read his scrolls once I had read everything in his library- I think reading is much better than playing out here all day!
Naruto pretended to think about it, rubbing his chin pensively.
Mm, I suppose so.
Miho looked surprised, but pleased that her teacher agreed. Naruto pursed his lips, a frown fixed on his face.
But- hey do you know what are in those scrolls?
Miho grinned, a question she no doubt knew the answer to.
The jutsu! Abilities to make me a strong ninja. Just like my father!
Naruto nodded, picking at a blade of grass.
And those jutsu just came out of nowhere? I mean, who invented them and stuff?
That question made Miho think a little harder. Down on the shore the children were trying to make a makeshift crane from an overhanging tree.
Well. . . other ninjas? Great ninjas like Hokage-sama!
She watched Naruto twirl the blade of grass between his fingers intently, as if he too was going to make some great magic with it.
I see! So ninjas invented the different jutsu? But why? I mean if we had some jutsu already, why invent more?
Because they needed to, stupid!
Naruto tilted his head, feigning confusion.
Heh- but, when would you need a jutsu? I mean what are jutsu for anyway?
This gained a tremendous snort from the girl as she stamped her foot in frustration.
Jutsu make you a strong ninja!
She was practically shouting.
All of Naruto's teasing stopped as he dropped the blade of grass and stared Miho straight in the eye.
Jutsu do not make you strong. They are tools. If I fought you, and you had a kunai, when I had none- would that make you stronger, or greater than me?
The little girl froze, eyes flickering as she thought about it.
She said eventually, voice thoughtful.
We need jutsu, not just for fighting and killing, but to outwit, or confuse our enemy- sometimes maybe just to get out of a tricky situation. Or to do something useful. If we had a building-a-raft-no jutsu, wouldn't that be useful right now?
He gestured to the struggling youngsters knee-deep in the river. Miho followed his gaze and for a moment her expression was one of longing.
Naruto said softly in her ear.
These great ninjas who invented those jutsu, didn't do it in a library, from reading books. They went outside and discovered problems and battles, and found themselves in situations where they needed to think quick. They made discoveries by shaping their chakra, and combining jutsu, and the jutsu didn't make them great, or give them the title of jounin or even Hokage. It saved their lives and the lives of their team mates.
Miho nodded slowly, and turned back to Naruto. She was biting her lip a little, expression shy.
I- I'm sorry I called you stupid Naruto-sensei.
Naruto grinned wickedly and ruffled her hair.
Don't worry bout it- I've been called much worse! Now let me tell you a little secret- and you can share it with the rest of your team down there. This task is too difficult for them if they just splash around like that unorganised. You've got to go down there and tell them to work as a team ok?
Miho nodded sharply, the beginnings of a smile on her pale little face, and in a split second turned and rushed down to the river, waving her arms wildly. Naruto stretched back on the grass and focusing once again on the sky returned to being hungry.
He wasn't sure if he dozed off or not, but he remembered the lazy feeling, lying there in the sun- the sound of the river and the children's laughter in his ears. He remembered the peaceful heat that sunk into his skin, and the tickle of the grass against his cheeks.
And he remembered pain.
He felt a sudden and enormous surge of energy, adrenaline- as if he was fighting, and losing, and pulling on that strength he wasn't fond of touching. On its heels he felt anger, rage- loneliness so strong it made him dig his fingernails -his claws- into the sandy earth. And then he felt the pain, so sudden and harsh- burning a tattoo into his skin that started around his navel and burst along every limb, like every vein in his body was bursting with liquid fire.
And just like that it passed, taking the energy and the anger with it. Naruto sat up slowly and stiffly, the brush of his t-shirt against the raw skin of his stomach making him wince.
Down by the river, Miho had directed her team into constructing a sturdy looking raft. It bobbed happily on the river, all twelve children balanced on board- waving and laughing. Naruto sighed and smiled weakly, before stumbling to his feet.
Alright! Nice one! You want me to teach you how to steer that thing now?
He scrambled down to the bank as the children cheered, and tried very hard not to think about the pain, or even worse - the sudden loss of control.
Really it's nothing!
Naruto protested weakly. Sakura simply glared at him from her seat until he sat down. She hadn't expect Naruto to start shaking when she handed him the mission brief, or for his eyes to roll back in his skull and the paper to burst into flame between his shivering fingers. Nothing indeed.
You've been out of sort for weeks now. Late for every single one of your lessons, passing out in the street and /destroying/ one of the classrooms!?
Naruto winced. Thank god there had been no children for that outbreak. The wooden desks had blistered and charred, the blackboard melted down the wall. And the windows - bulging in and out with the pressure before shattering over him. A thousand tiny cuts that healed as soon as they formed, skin searing with the speed of his chakra.
That was just a little accident, I just-
Sakura looked as if she was torn between anger and worry. And perhaps a little fear.
Naruto. Are you having problems with your seal?
The answer was just a little too quick, and a little too vehement. Sakura shifted and turned her face away from him, swallowing once, twice, three times. After that short pause she turned back, determination setting her jaw. Sakura had never been a pretty girl, and she hadn't grown to be a beautiful woman- but she had a certain something that glinted behind her eyes and sparked along her confident posture. When she looked like that Naruto was reminded of a time years before.
Do you need Tsunade-sama's help?
Naruto looked at his hands.
I don't think she can, really.
He said eventually, one finger pressing his stomach slightly. His skin was still raw and sore underneath, the tattoo as painful as if it had been freshly branded onto his skin.
What on earth do you mean?
Outside Naruto could hear the children laughing as they ran across the square. He had set them a task while he was on his mission, and he could hear Miho's clear little voice directing them. A natural leader.
Naruto began wearily.
The seal seems to have a time limit it on it. Apparently.
Sakura blinked. When she spoke her voice was caustic.
Yes /apparently/ Naruto- but /apparently/ that limit is 5000 years, so it can't be that.
Naruto winced. He shouldn't have expected Sakura to just leave it at that. He scratched his hair nervously, burying his fingers down by the back of his neck. He ached.
Well maybe something happened to it a few years back that cut that time limit. . somewhat.
Sakura's reaction was electric. In a flash she was on her feet, one hand fisted in the neck of his t-shirt a kunai balanced, deadly, in the other.
So shall I just kill you now then?
Sakura didn't flicker, even though she wasn't sure she could, even had she wanted to.
What could possibly justify you failing to mention this? Go on tell me? I could do with a LAUGH.
Naruto just looked at her sadly, then parted his lips in that odd way he had, when Sakura was sure he wanted to do something strange and exciting, like kiss her.
I thought I had time. Anyway, there is only one person who can fix the seal. The same person who broke it.
Sakura began, kunai dropping a little.
Naruto said, and winced. Sakura had tugged him sharply forward and his sensitive stomach was pressed against the edge of her desk. She noticed and swiftly released him, instead reaching down to tug his shirt up.
Naruto hissed. It hadn't looked that bad a few hour ago. The seal was practically pulsing with malevolent chakra, the surrounding skin inflamed and red. Inside the lines of the tattoo his skin was cracked and black.
Sakura said gently, moving round her desk to kneel in front of him. Her fingers were cool and almost soothing against his blistered skin.
You stupid idiot.
Naruto was willing to concede that, yes he was a stupid idiot. But it dying was better than the alternative.
Who was it then?
Sakura asked, her breath cool against his stomach. Naruto considered lying but she was far too close to delicate areas for that.
Sakura let out a long, knowing sigh. Her head dropped and her hands slid from his hips to her lap, a limp limbed weariness sinking into her.
Can he fix it?
Naruto tugged his t-shirt down and placed one hand gently on the crown of her head. Sakura had never grown her hair again, and in fact it had been hacked even shorter, the rough spikes almost shorter than his own. It suited her grim, steady face.
I would imagine so.
His tone was light. The Uchiha prodigy was another one of those forbidden subjects. Sakura didn't have to persuade herself not to mention it though, she didn't want to bring it up either.
Suddenly businesslike Sakura stood and swallowed the bile rising at the back of her throat.
We had better find him.
Naruto shrugged, tilting his head, as if to say he didn't care. He had already turned to go to the door.
And then you'll kill him, right?
He stopped , shoulders briefly filling the doorway. Sakura felt so- so much all at once for him, because for a minute she felt a little bit like this was her brother, and he was going out to die. But Naruto wasn't quite her brother, and he wasn't dead yet. Sasuke however-
Naruto nodded gravely and gave a strange and painful grin.