Deus Ex Machina

Author: Kraken's Ghost

Email: On profile.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. If I did, I'd roll in platinum leaf bills with my own face on them every night before I went to sleep.

OoXoO

Days in. Days out.

How long had he been fighting? Years, that he knew for sure. Decades, most likely. How long had it been since he'd last seen a calendar? Before the troubles began, of that he was certain, but he had no real idea how far back. He couldn't tell time from looking at his own reflection. His face had remained almost the same ever since his nineteenth birthday.

Sweet nineteen. The first and last one he could ever remember having a party for.

Days in.

The lines on his comrades' faces did little to help his faulty grasp of time. Anymore, even the children had wrinkles. Teens barely into adulthood and they had graying hair and frown lines on their foreheads and around their mouths.

A memory of a smooth, pale forehead beneath soft, gentle bangs started to appear in his mind, an instant before he ruthlessly crushed it back down.

Days out.

How long had he waited for this chance? How long since he'd learned of the plan? It had been so long since he'd last felt real hope that when he was first briefed by the elders, the resurrection of that long dead emotion felt like a branding iron had been embedded between his lungs.

When they'd explained their plans, the emotion hadn't died.

When they'd told him the maddening difficulty involved in the mission, it still hadn't faded.

When they'd told him that the odds of success were almost impossible even for him, he'd actually felt glad for the fresh challenge.

When they'd told him that the end result of the mission would be…

Days in.

How long had he been hiding here in this tree, watching and waiting? How many ANBU had literally come within arm's reach of him since he'd arrived? How many times had he not been spotted? How many times had he restrained himself from deliberately blowing his cover and teaching these careless fools a lesson?

A lesson of life's hard reality. A lesson in learning to love what one had right in front of them. A lesson in savoring peace, but refusing to grow weak from it. A lesson in vigilance, in actually trying to protect that which is most precious.

A lesson in losing everything that ever mattered until all that was left was a barren, ashy existence.

Days out.

Time is so fucking funny, yet it's the most bitter joke in the universe. The years since his nineteenth and last birthday that mattered had felt like centuries, with every day a lifetime of dying slowly from some terminal disease, and yet now they're over and gone. The months since the operation was first proposed to him to the actual start of the mission had felt far worse, like he'd been living the lives of a hundred people for every day of his own. And now, he'd arrived and was hiding. And he waited.

Every second was the death of a civilization. Every minute was the erosion of a mountain. Every hour was a continent being devoured by its own planet. And the past day…

It was to be expected that their results wouldn't be perfect, for no less than a thousand reasons. Arriving a day early was an error, but an acceptable one. Had he arrived a day late, the mission would be unsalvageable.

This past day though. The wait. The endless wait. All this time and energy waiting for this one, simple, tiny moment when he would spring from his hiding spot. All hope resting on this one moment. All focus at one moment that was taking eons to arrive. The rise and fall of stars and worlds.

He wondered if this was how God felt. Then he wondered how God kept from going mad waiting for this little tiny insignificant breed of apes to wake up and take their proper place in the order of universe.

Throw off their chains of ignorance. Become enlightened. Zen in every tree and bush and every fucking little ant that had the balls to call themselves a man and that decided that the rest of the ants weren't perfect and that they needed changing and that if God wasn't going to do it then this little superior ant sure as hell would and while God was absent why not take the throne for himself and name himself God in His or Her stead and His first act would be changing those miserable little ants that call themselves men and maybe it would take one or two or maybe a thousand tries before it worked out right but no worries because even if and when they died it was just because they were too ignorant to accept the changes and not willing to expel their flaws and become perfect and even if they died He'd still love them and they'd be redeemed in His little fucking ant-god eyes.

Days go by.

His eyes blinked for the first time in either an hour or an extinction event. He really wasn't sure which.

He'd blanked out again. His mind was riddled with painful fogs and waking dreams that sometimes overwhelmed his senses. A result of eating too much death, and life, in his existence.

Had he been out too long? His unblinking eyes hadn't picked up the flash of color he'd been watching for, so it must not have been too long. And it really didn't matter if he started swimming in the memories, because his body would surely act, even if by instinct alone.

But no, that wouldn't do, because if he was distracted when the moment arrived he might be a half a moment too late. That wouldn't do at all.

How he wanted this moment to come. How he needed it to arrive. His whole life, his whole miserable, long and useless life had been building to this moment.

But he dreaded it. Like a candy that's gone all too soon, like waiting for a punishment, like a few minutes of blissful fun with a friend, like death itself. Though the instant would be forever in coming, it would all too soon be here and then suddenly it'd be over with only a memory to mark that it had ever existed.

As regular as the erosion of rock formations, an ANBU landed on a branch just a few feet in front of where he was crouched. He was hidden, but not in the shade. Splotches of dappled sunlight shown on his skin. Only an amateur needed the shadows to hide from anyone, even a skilled enemy, and he hadn't been an amateur since dragons swam in the seas and roamed over the lands.

Or perhaps since he'd been a child without wrinkles.

Did it even matter if there was a difference anymore?

His eyes, glazed from time and sharpened by will, watched the street across from the small grove he was in. His gaze was, and had been since he arrived, centered on one exact spot just a couple feet in front of a shoddy storefront, but his eyes missed nothing within the range of his peripheral vision. He saw every detail of the tree branches and insects around him, of the useless people on the street, of the fibrous veins in the wings of a nearby fluttering cicada, of the idiot ninjas wandering about, of the texture of the bark of the large branch to his left, of Ms. Fancy ANBU Pants and the way her shifted weight indicated an old war wound on the inside of her right thigh and the tension in her gloved hands that meant she was thinking about something or someone other than her duty and the possible external threat sitting not five feet behind her.

From where he sat, he couldn't touch her with his bare hand without moving his body, but he could've slashed her hamstring apart with the broken branch hanging by a thread of bark right next to him. He could if he wanted to, which he did, but since it theoretically could jeopardize the mission, he'd restrain himself unless by some miracle she managed to spot him, in which case he'd kill her in as silent and brutal a manner as possible.

For the first time in a long time, he wondered if it made him a bad person to consider the death of another human being so casually. It probably did, but that was old news by now. He hadn't been a person that could be even loosely classified as good since the fall of the desert kings and their towering crypts.

Or perhaps a year or so after his last birthday.

Sweet nineteen. Or is it sixteen that's supposed to be sweet? Doesn't matter. It was the only one that mattered to him, the only one that he'd ever celebrated, the only time he'd had real friends who'd noticed, so that alone made it sweet.

The ANBU muttered something under her breath and took a step forward to a more comfortable spot on a different branch. Her movement was so dull, like the evolution of fungus, that his mind started to wander again. But wait…

Something moved on the street, emerging from between two heavyset tourists and their squalling larva.

A flash of color, like sunshine on a field of magnolias with a dark blue stream and puffy white dandelions growing on the banks and a single dark ruby growing up from the center of the deep brook.

A meteor smashing into a planet and wiping out all the little ants who called themselves gods and men.

A burning ember that would one day be called a god, though he thought himself lower than an ant.

A fire that couldn't die completely, no matter how many wrinkles it deserved.

A tiny, infinitely small sliver of God that He and She left behind when He and She left the ants to their own devices.

A terrible pain.

Hope.

Here. In this moment.

He moved. A surge of muscle and chakra pushed him off the branch he crouched on and he blurred through the air. Past Ms. ANBU, out of the trees, over the trinket cart, across the street, and there to his hope, his past, present and future and his entire focus and his entire reason for existing.

Eternity is over. The days End and Change begins now.

OoXoO

A boy, blonde and young, snickered as he dashed past a couple fat-ass losers and their spoiled brat. He paused after a few feet and glanced back up the street he'd come from.

Yep, he'd lost Iruka-sensei alright. Kami, and the man called himself a ninja. Then again, it helped that Iruka-sensei didn't know he could do Henge yet, so it was pretty easy to disguise himself as a piece of junk on a passing garbage cart to escape his teacher's wrath.

Easy as pie. At this rate, he'd pass the genin exam coming up in a few months with no sweat.

Uzumaki Naruto, eleven years old and full of more life and mischief than any kitsune of legend, grinned wickedly as he turned to keep walking up the street. He was already plotting out his next prank as, after all, what better way to make sure he passed the exam then by practicing his 'skills' as much as possible?

It was then the young ninja-in-the-making noticed the fierce glares coming from the store keeper across the road, next to one of the thousands of pockets of trees in Konohagakure. For an instant, he felt the old pain that had accompanied him since his earliest memories, but then it was swept aside by his natural stubborn annoyance. It looked like he'd found his next prank victim.

Naruto was in the process of making a face and forming a rather nasty hand gesture when a boulder broadsided him.

For several terrible moments, all the young boy saw was flashes of swirling colors and a bright white burning orb that could only be the sun, though why it was moving all over the place was beyond him. A sense of vertigo gripped him and he had no idea which way was up or down.

Then the sudden movement stopped and he looked around quickly to get his bearings. Strange. Why did all the people he could see seem so small and-

An icy wave of fear hit the normally unshakable boy as he realized he was looking down at an unfamiliar street from a height of almost thirty feet.

The fear also had something to do with the fact that he was dangling in midair, with no visible sign of anything supporting him.

Something tugged sharply on the back of his belt and Naruto was suddenly pulled upwards a foot in the air and let go. He felt an instant of terrible weightlessness before he was spun around 180 degrees and his fall halted, again by his belt, but this time from the front.

The motion made him see a blur of color and it took him a second to realize just what he was staring at and then he realized it was oh all the Kamis in the universe a person in front of him and then he looked up at the face of the man who could stand horizontally off the side of a fucking four-story building and hold an eighty pound kid at arms length like he weighed nothing and then he saw the face and then he saw the eyes and-

Naruto forgot fear.

Every bad thing in his life up until that instance had been the corniest spook in a funhouse compared to the terrible things he saw in the depths of those eyes. He would never be truly afraid again. Nothing could scare him more than this, not Iruka, not the Third, not those pale-eyed freaks from that one uptight family, not that arrogant bastard Saku or Sasuki or whatever his name is, and not any of those creepy older ninjas that stared at him with haunted (haunted, right!) eyes.

Naruto saw Hell and every circle was in the rings of this man's eyes.

Eyes that didn't blink; eyes that gleamed with dark cunning and something that a normal eleven year-old child of a peaceful village couldn't possibly understand, but this one did because this wasn't a normal child at all and he'd seen eyes like that in a mirror and a face like that in a mirror and oh Kami he was looking into a mirror, he had to be and he had no idea what it was that he was looking at but he'd felt it coiling inside him before and it scared him.

Burning, cold eyes hidden behind slightly droopy eyelids.

Electric-blue eyes.

Tousled, untamable hair covered in God only knows how many months or even years of filth.

Blonde, spiky hair.

A face that anyone would have to admit was handsome, despite the hollowed cheeks and pale skin.

Three black scar lines on each cheek.

Naruto didn't even bother to feel embarrassed as his bladder let out.

The man, the mirror, the terrifying thing that held him at arms length without even a muscle twitching in protest at the bad angle while sticking to the side of a four-story building didn't blink even as the young boy he held aloft soaked his own pants in terror.

Despite everything, Naruto felt the irrational urge to apologize to this…man for his incontinence, but he didn't get the chance to say a word.

"Hello, Naruto." The man said in a raspy, near monotone voice. He didn't sound like he communicated a lot.

Not with words anyways.

Despite being terrified to the point of passing out, Naruto managed to choke out, "Who…Who a-are…"

"An ally." Came the same quiet, cold voice.

The man had yet to blink throughout this entire encounter.

After several seconds of silence, Naruto had to ask, "W-why're…Why…Why're you…"

The man continued to burn him with those soul shaking eyes identical to his own for several moments more. Naruto found himself unable to speak as what little courage he had dwindled.

"It's time to change." The man finally said.

This caught Naruto's attention. Despite his fear, he managed to ask, "Ch-Change what?"

The man's mouth slowly raised up at the corner. Somehow this hint of a smile was worse than the blank face that'd been present before. For the longest moment Naruto was sure the man was going to do something, whether it was to speak or to widen that creepy smile into a creepier grin or even to let him go so he'd fall to the street below.

Then Naruto was lifted up and tucked underneath the man's arm and he felt the steel-like muscles in his captor's side tense a fraction and then the world turned into a cylinder made of colorful melting clays as all their surroundings blurred and his guts turned to water and then everything came back into focus and they were near the academy, over four blocks away from where they'd been an instant ago and then the world blurred again and they were in the market sector and then they were past his apartment and then they were in a poor area near the village wall and then they were on top on the wall and then they were surrounded by green and then his world began to mercifully turn dark, though he could have sworn he heard the man quietly say something before he passed out.

Everything.

OoXoO

Naruto was slammed into consciousness by an icy impact on his face and upper body. His body shot bolt upright at the contact with the freezing water. He spluttered indignantly at the rude treatment for several moments, before his memory clicked in. The child's blonde head swept back and forth, looking for him.

"I'm right here." Came the cold voice. It sounded faintly amused at Naruto's confusion.

Naruto looked into the darkness the man's voice seemed to have come from. Though his eyes were slowly adjusting to the low light, he didn't see his captor until the man seemed to melt right out of the shadows in front of him.

A shaft of moonlight slowly filtered in from a square above Naruto's head and onto the dusty floor in between him and his kidnapper. Though it didn't touch the man, some of the light was reflected off his electric-blue eyes, illuminating them in the dark.

Eyes that refused to break contact from him.

Naruto shivered, though it had little to do with the freezing water soaking his jumpsuit. He found himself unable to look away from the man, in fear of what he might do the instant his face was turned. Slowly, he drew himself up into a sitting position. When the other blonde didn't retaliate for this minor action, Naruto allowed himself the chance to take in his surroundings.

The moonlight gave his still adapting eyes enough light to make out his prison, what little of it there was. It appeared to be the inside of a small, shabby tool shed that had been converted into a cabin-like shack at some point. The wooden walls were weather-beaten and bare, with the exception of a miscellaneous tool mounted here and there. The only furniture in the room was a small cot lying to the back and left of the man in front of him. Naruto himself was leaning against the far wall and was underneath the shack's only window. The only door to the place was to his right, which his captor made no effort to guard.

Then again, Naruto figured he had about as much odds of making it to the door and beyond as he did of having a stranger off the street smile at him.

Not going to happen.

"Your survival instincts are as good as I remember." The man spoke up, startling Naruto and causing the boy's vision to immediately sweep back to him. The larger blonde continued with a slight smile, "You're checking out your immediate surroundings, but keeping me in your peripheral vision at all times. Pity I forgot that trick after I hit Genin till I joined the Freak Squads."

Naruto blinked, then loudly demanded, "How the hell do you know me?"

The man's expression (or lack thereof) didn't change, but Naruto suddenly had the very strong feeling that he was displeased with the loud display. It was a far more powerful feeling than any of Iruka's disappointed glares and he had to restrain the urge to push himself back into the wall to become a smaller target.

The blonde man stepped forward into the shaft of moonlight and squatted down in front of Naruto. The young child visibly flinched at the move and braced himself for a blow, though he defiantly refused to turn his face away.

"None of that." His kidnapper calmly stated. Though it wasn't an order, Naruto got the distinct impression it would be wise to obey and looked up into the man's gleaming eyes. The other blonde said, "You are no coward, so don't act like one."

"…Ho…How do you know that?" Naruto said, hiding a wince at his catching voice. He mentally cursed just about every divine force he could think of for this embarrassing situation.

"Let me make some things clear." The lean man said. His voice was losing a little of its raspy quality as he talked, but it remained as cool as ever. "You will not be the fool we both know you aren't. You may ask questions, though I will only tell you what you need to know, not what you think you want to hear. You will speak at a reasonable level. You will not shrink away from me as if I am one of those hypocritical wastes of flesh from Konohagakure. I will not harm you. You are far more important than you have ever dared dreamed and I will die to ensure your life."

Naruto had listened intently, but at the last part he couldn't help but loudly declare, "Of course I'm important! Someday I'm going to be Hokage! Just you wai-"

"You won't make it higher than Special Jounin." The familiar stranger cut him off. Naruto stared at him in dumb shock.

"B-But…How do you know…" The child stuttered.

"You won't ever become Hokage." The man informed with a clinical tone, as though he were reciting shinobi mottos learned from the academy's textbooks. "Your highest official rank will be Special Jounin with a small team of other Special Jounin and Chuunin under your command. The highest black ops rank you will ever achieve is ANBU Vice-Captain, though for a three month period you will act as though you have full Captain rank after your squad's Captain is killed in action and before a new Captain is appointed to your team. In a decade and a half you'll be the unofficial field commander of Konoha's military forces, but the Fire Council will still have all the legal and official authority and you will still concede to their orders."

Naruto stared at the man with his mouth hanging wide open. He would've been less shocked had ramen started to rain from the sky. His dream of becoming Hokage…wouldn't ever happen? Bull. No way some stranger could know the future. Just because the guy looked just like him and talked really weird doesn't mean he's a prophet.

"Right now your mind is coming up with a half dozen different excuses to discredit what I just said." The man calmly said. As Naruto blinked again in shock, the other blonde continued, "Let me guess: this stupid bastard doesn't know what he's talking about just 'cause he looks like me! I don't care what anyone says, I'll become Hokage and everybody will respect me!"

Naruto stared as the man did a perfect mimicry of his normal voice and attitude. That did sound exactly like something he would say, but…

"I, uh, was actually just thinking that I ain't gonna listen to some strange freako that kidnapped me." Naruto slowly answered.

The man stared at him for a moment, then let out a short, painful rasping sound. It took Naruto a moment to realize that it had been a laugh. A brief laugh, but still a laugh.

"Well…My memory isn't what it used to be." The blonde man neutrally admitted. He continued, "I spoke the truth. You won't ever become Hokage, but if it comes as any consolation, by the time you're my age you won't care."

"Nuh-uh! Why wouldn't I care about being Hokage!?" Naruto demanded, angered by the casual dismissal of his dream.

"Because you will eventually learn that Hokage is just a title. You'll effectively achieve loyalty and admiration symbolized by it on your own and therefore the title itself will have no real meaning to you." His captor calmly replied.

"Bullshit! Hokage is the most respected ninja in the village!" Naruto declared as he leaned forward, half ready to respond to the statement with violence. At the man's withering look, he quickly realized his error and lowered both his tone and his body.

"Better, but still too loud." The man commented. After a moment's pause, he said, "You don't understand this yet, but this is one of the things you need to know, so I'll tell you. You believe that if you become Hokage, everyone will automatically respect you, correct?"

Naruto shifted uncomfortably. Well when he put it like that…

The other blonde, needing no confirmation to his question, continued, "If you were to become Hokage tomorrow, you would still be reviled and despised by virtually everyone in the village."

"But the Hokage is respected by everyone." Naruto insisted.

"And how do you think one becomes Hokage?" The man asked. His question brought the blonde child up short.

"…Easy, 'cause he's the best." Naruto answered after a moment. He didn't sound as sure of himself anymore, though.

"No. That's only half the battle. To become Hokage, you must inspire unparalleled levels of loyalty, respect, and morale in Konoha's forces, both shinobi and civilian alike. Only then are you awarded the title of Fire Shadow of Konohagakure." The larger blonde explained. At Naruto's continuing blank stare, he sighed soundlessly and tried simplifying matters with, "Acknowledgment isn't the reward of becoming Hokage. Hokage is the reward of acknowledgment."

"WHAT?!" Naruto roared. He ignored the crawling sensation of disapproval the other blonde emanated. "Then how the hell am I supposed to get any acknowledgment at all?!"

"By being yourself." Was the calm reply. Naruto could not have been more shocked than if the man had hit him in the face with a board. He almost missed the explanation of, "You're a surprisingly inspirational individual, Naruto. You possess a incredibly rare gift to inspire hope in everyone you encounter, including your enemies. And you will be astounded at what people will do for hope, and more importantly, for the one who gives it to them."

Naruto stared at his captor with his mouth hanging open. His sheer awe was almost like an aura filling the moonlit hovel to the brim. Never in his life. Never ever…

No one -no one- had ever told him he was special. Not even Old Man Hokage.

Oh he knew he was unique. It wasn't hard even for a child, even a thickheaded one like him, to quickly understand that he was the odd one out in the entire village. But being unique wasn't the same as being special.

"So…I can be Hokage, if I just be myself?" He asked, hopeful and skeptical at the same time.

The man didn't reply for several moments of silence, during which Naruto slowly began to grow more and more uncomfortable. The tension was becoming unbearable when the man let out another inaudible sigh and gave a small shake of the head. He quietly said, "No. As I said before, you won't ever become Hokage. Or should I say, there is so much stacked against you, that by the time you get the offer, you'll have lost all interest in it. Consider it a game where all the players hate you and it's been rigged since the day you were born. In theory you could win, but it will take ridiculous luck and an even more ridiculous amount of time. But as I said, it won't matter whether you'll become Hokage or not. You'll gain all the respect and acknowledgment you'll ever need eventually in your own way."

Naruto understood what he was saying, kind of, but he still wasn't prepared to accept what the man said about him failing to become Hokage. Still…He spoke so certainly, as though he'd seen this all with his own eyes. Either he was nuts, he knew what he was talking about, or both. As much as the child hated option two, the first and the last were equally disquieting. Who the hell wants to be kidnapped by a crazy person? But that would mean he was speaking the truth…and this guy did seem to know a hell of a lot about Hokages…

"You may or may not understand what I'm speaking about and you are certainly unnerved by my 'borrowing' of you from the village. I can assure with utmost honesty that my actions are all absolutely necessary." The blonde spoke again. He leaned back on his haunches and seemed to relax subtly, which was strange considering the uncomfortable pose he sat in. The man face was less shadowed in this pose and Naruto could easily see the dark scars on the other blonde's cheeks. His captor continued, "I chose to come to you on this day because you're at a turning point. A fork in the road of your life. If I had waited another minute, you would have encountered a Chuunin carrying a grudge as you started yelling at a shopkeeper for staring at you. In the encounter, he calls you a useless fool and you reply that you'll become Hokage. Of course, he'll see it for the foolish claim it is and ridicule you for your boast, but you'll get the idea firmly entrenched in your mind. You'll become obsessed to the point of a sociopath and refuse to surrender the dream of being Hokage no matter what it costs you.

"Since you've never been trained properly or had any form of meaningful discipline, you don't know how to apply yourself to your chosen goal and, desperate to prove yourself, you rush blindly into every situation. Of course, you fail…repeatedly. You use your idiot mask to hide behind your repeated failures and it quickly becomes so ingrained that within a year you won't be able to tell where you end and the mask begins. All this holds you back for years, until someone close to you finally recognizes your behavior as a symptom of a menagerie of untreated, long-term mental disorders. It takes a month of constant badgering by close friends for you to begin to accept even the possibility that you might have mental issues. It takes a further sixth months and the death of a comrade before you accept treatment. It takes a following year and a half of constant therapy before the Hokage accepts that you're mentally sound enough for regular active duty. By that time, it is almost too late for your presence on our forces to make much of a difference."

Naruto stared at the man whom he was quickly coming to call Prophet in his mind, as a way of snubbing him, as he coolly informed his charge of his future.

"…I'm…crazy?" The young boy asked in a hesitant voice.

"Mentally unbalanced." Prophet corrected with a slightly softer than neutral look in his eyes. "You're not insane; just unhinged. Believe me, within two years you'll encounter enough genuine psychopaths to really know the difference between having an 'alternative' view on reality and being just plain bat-shit crazy. You do have serious mental problems though. How could you not, given the way you grew up? Fortunately, by making you aware of them at this point, I hope to cut them off and prevent them from progressing further. Eventually, you should speak to a woman named Shizune about treatment, but for now your own self-awareness and willpower will suffice."

"So why now?" Naruto angrily asked. This talk had touched some deep wounds and he found himself suddenly fighting back tears for the first time in years. Heedless of his captor's previous orders, he loudly demanded, "Why the hell did you come now and not earlier?! So it's alright for me to have some problems but not too many?! That's bullshit! You're full of shit! If you'd die for me then why...Why didn't you…Why did I have to…"

Naruto refused to allow himself to cry in front of this man, but he still found himself unable to keep speaking. Several uncomfortable minutes of silence spread out between them.

"…You meant to ask, why didn't I come sooner? Why did I allow you to grow up in a village that hates you for a reason you don't understand? Why didn't I take you away from it, to place you with a family that would care for you or even to raise you myself?" The blonde man's quiet voice broke the silence. Naruto tried to glare at him, but the stark truth of the statement took the anger out him and left only an old pain behind.

Prophet leaned forward until his face was only couple feet from Naruto's and firmly said with barely restrained emotion, "Because you would be weak."

With that, he leaned back into his previous position and schooled his face back into its normal impassive appearance.

"…Oh." Naruto managed to say after several moments of stunned silence.

"What you don't understand is how much more durable you are over others your generation." Prophet continued. "It's true that I could have come to you earlier. That was within our power. However, for the same reason I chose not to wait longer, I also chose not to act sooner."

Naruto stared at him blankly. This man got stranger and stranger. He did realize he was only eleven years old, right? Half this talk went straight over the child's fuzzy head.

The man kept speaking as though Naruto was following every word perfectly.

"Your entire life has been hell. Everyone you meet hates or ignores you. You don't know why. It's been that way for as long as you can remember. The only person you can remember ever smiling at you is the Sandaime. Even the few kids that will talk to you don't ever truly smile. This absolute ostracizing is the source of your mental imbalance, but it is also the source of great strength." Prophet calmly stated. "Few, if any, of the other children of your generation can come even close to understanding what you've gone through. When they finally experience true hardship, they'll be ill prepared for it. You, on the other hand, can take any form of punishment and not quit. You've been conditioned and hardwired to survive more than anyone else in this village, short of the veterans of the Great Wars. Do you understand now? You don't need to be Hokage to be special. You already are, if for no other reason than your sheer tenacity."

"…What's that mean?" Naruto quietly asked after a couple moments. At the man's cocked head, he repeated, "What's that mean? That word. Tenacity."

Prophet let a corner of his mouth raise just a hair and answered, "It means you won't bow your head to anyone or anything. When you become a ninja, a lot of people are going to want you dead. Big deal. People have wanted you dead for over a decade. Nothing new there. You'll see them as no different than the villagers and realize that no matter how high and mighty they make themselves out to be, they're no different from anyone else. Stronger maybe, but still no different. Your enemies will assume this utter lack of fear and respect is your idiocy, when it couldn't be further from the truth. You will understand that no matter what words they throw at you, they are not better than you, so why should you bow down and die? It'll take your classmates years to get to the same level of understanding that you have by default."

"Oh…" Naruto quietly said. He slowly wrapped his arms around his knees and rested his chin on them. His face was both thoughtful and pensive.

After almost five minutes of silence, Prophet asked in his still raspy voice, "What troubles you?"

"It's just… I've never been… Nobody's ever said anything nice about me before. Not even old man Sandaime." Naruto replied in a quiet, unsure voice. He truly didn't know what to make of the situation. All his life the only thing he really wanted from life was a little kindness and now it's offered to him by a total weirdo stranger that had kidnapped him.

"I'm not being nice. I'm merely speaking the truth. Don't misunderstand when I describe your strengths. You have many faults as well, but it's a little redundant to point them out when you hear Iruka-sensei rail on you everyday about most of them." The man pointed out. His voice changed pitch as he said Iruka's name and his already cold eyes dimmed even further. It made him seem older than he appeared, though Naruto couldn't really tell what emotion was behind it.

But that came secondary priority to the tidbit of info this man had let slip.

Iruka-sensei?

"…Who the hell are you?"

Prophet looked vaguely amused by the question. "You're only asking that now?"

"Hey, shut up! I got distracted!" Naruto snapped in embarrassment. He pointed a finger at the impassive man's face and demanded, "You called Iruka-sensei Sensei, and no one calls Sensei a sensei unless they're in our class and you're way too old to be calling my sensei a sensei! So who the hell are you!?"

Prophet stared at the boy for a moment and let out a rattling sigh while grumbling, "I must be crazier than I thought if that sentence made sense to me."

The man ignored his captive's outraged squawk as he thought about how to answer that question.

In a normal world, you can never actually meet and touch and speak with your reflection, but this isn't a normal world and hadn't been since whales took to the seas, so now his reflection asked him, "Who are you?" and he truly was not sure how to answer without his words forming a ball of steel to shatter the precious reflection that must survive beyond all others at any cost no matter-

"Hey! Prophet Guy! Snap out of it!" Naruto yelled. His loud voice caused the man to jerk and look at him with a slightly bewildered look.

"How…How long did I…?" The man tried to ask. His voice was far raspier now than it had ever been.

"I dunno. A minute, maybe?" Naruto replied. A look of curious confusion settled over his face as he watched his captor.

"I see…" Prophet said with a powerful tone of relief in his voice. He looked away from Naruto to the moon shining in through the window and muttered, "I've wasted too much time. I can't risk fogging here. Change has to be completed, now."

"Change? What are you yammering about?" Naruto asked, his face squinting into a fox-like expression of puzzlement. "And hey, you never answered my question! Who the hell are you?"

The man suddenly stood and moved over to kneel right in front of Naruto. It was uncomfortable, not the least reason being Prophet's body odor, but the truly unnerving part to the child was the look of apology in the man's piercing eyes.

"A mirror."

With that he grabbed Naruto by the collar and lifted him with that unnatural strength over to the cot on the other side of the room. He sat the boy on one end and himself on the other.

"I'm a broken mirror and I reflect your future should your life continue on its current path." Prophet rasped as he reached into a small side pouch on his hip and withdrew a cloth bundle that he laid across his lap.

"Future…?" Naruto whispered. His blue eyes widened as his brain started to reach the appropriate conclusions.

"A future that's as dark and twisted as a broken reflection." Prophet continued as he hadn't heard a word.

Perhaps he hadn't.

Naruto watched as the man unfolded part of the bundle revealing a worn, but clean field medic kit, complete with sutures, scalpels, dressing poultices, and…and an enormous hypodermic needle that Prophet was sliding out of its pouch and was spending far too much time examining.

"A broken reflection that should never exist."

Naruto was breathing hard and getting really worried as Prophet gently closed the cloth flap over the kit, but left the needle out and resting on top of it.

"A dark world than should never and can never be."

The only thing that kept the blonde boy from running for the door was the surefire knowledge that he'd never even make it off the cot. That didn't keep him from nearly suffering a heart attack though.

"Naruto."

The boy looked away from the suddenly terrifying object into the eyes of the suddenly terrifying man and froze at the look in his eyes.

"There are three things I must give you. I wish they could be mentorship, family, and love like you desire with all your being, but I can't. I shouldn't be here in first place. I'm breaking too many rules, defying too many forces by even breathing the same air as you for me to remain much longer." Prophet quietly said as he turned away to stare down at his hands and the medic kit.

Naruto felt his fear fade at the true regret in the man's voice and was reminded by the other blonde's promise to not harm him.

Something occurred to him then and before he could stop himself, he blurted out, "Wait, you're leaving?!"

Prophet turned and actually managed a small, mischievous smile as he asked, "Why? Gonna miss me?"

Naruto saw the smirk, the way it reduced the blue eyes to slits, the way the dark scars on the cheek twisted, and knew without a doubt who this man was. And just as certainly as he knew that, he also knew that-

"Yeah, I will." At the older man's widened eyes, Naruto shrugged a bit self-consciously and said, "What? You got a problem with that?"

The Prophet turned and stared at his hands again. His shoulders shuddered a bit. His fingers twitched and his breath hitched.

It came as a shock to Naruto when he realized the sheen on those blue eyes was no longer glazed madness, but unshed moisture.

"We…We have to hurry." The man said in a slightly choked voice and not acknowledging the break in his icy exterior. Naruto found himself nodding in agreement without even realizing why. He was actually not very surprised to realize he was no longer afraid of this man or what he would do in the slightest.

In a blur of movement, the older man reached a hand into his shirt and pulled out a small gleam of green. It took Naruto a second to realize he was looking at a gemstone of some sort.

"This, is a piece of the Leviathan's Blood Stone. It was created thousands of years ago in a land of old gods far from here." Prophet said as he held the small gem aloft in the moonlight shining into the room. In the shaft of silver, it took on an eerie, indescribable blue-green color that made Naruto think of ancient seas and the monsters that traversed their depths. It was a horrible beauty, one that set his teeth on edge and sent chills up his spine even as it held him utterly enthralled.

"Though the original was destroyed centuries ago by the Isonade along with much of its power, this fragment still holds subtle, yet great powers of its own. This is the second thing you must have." Prophet continued.

Naruto started to reach for the necklace of his own accord, but stopped when the older man closed his fist around the gem and brought in close to his face.

Prophet frowned for several moments, seemingly in concentration. His fist clenched tighter, to the point of the tendons in his wrist jutting out, then his other hand began to blur.

He was fifteen seconds into whatever jutsu he was performing before Naruto realized that his off hand was forming seals. Not just any seals, but half-seals, something he'd only heard Iruka-sensei mention once in passing. And Prophet was performing them so fast he couldn't keep count of how many seals there were.

Another fact regarding hand seals floated into his mind as the twenty second mark passed. The number of seals in a jutsu had no relation to its power, only its complexity. Iruka had hammered that into their heads incessantly. A single seal jutsu can be destructive enough to blow a hole through a wall while a twelve seal jutsu could do nothing more than form a brilliant butterfly from water vapors and dust. The difference in the volume of seals is variables: how many are present and how they interact with each other.

Almost a solid minute after he'd begun, Prophet finished the last seal and Naruto began to wonder if he'd just witnessed the most complex jutsu in history. The older man's hands began to crackle with arcing silver threads of light. He cupped his clenched fist with his other hand and gathered more threads around it. He only paused when the air around his hands began to resemble a whirlwind of gleaming metal ribbons.

Then he leaned straight into the mess and rested his forehead against his hands.

Naruto almost jumped out of his skin as the threads seemed to attack the man's head. They seemed to worm their way under the skin of his temples, face, and scalp. Naruto jumped up into a crouch on the bed and started to do…something, anything, but before he could make a move towards Prophet, the threads retreated from his head and through his hands, out of sight.

"That…was considerably more difficult than Yamanaka-san led me to believe." Prophet gasped as he sagged back against the wall the cot was pressed against. Though his skin was pale and sweat had gathered at his temples, the man forced himself upright almost immediately. He turned to the younger blonde and held out a shaking hand, from which the gem dangled.

"It's glowing." Naruto stated blankly as he stared at the formerly silver-blue-green stone. Indeed it was. A dark inner light of an indefinable color emanated from within the ancient piece of jewelry.

Prophet nodded tiredly and said, "That's the third thing I must give you."

"What is it?" Naruto couldn't help but ask. It didn't escape his notice that the stone was steaming slightly or that there was a piece of burned skin tissue stuck to its surface. The Prophet seemed immune, or at least indifferent, to the pain, so he decided not to bring it up. It still made his already high wariness of the gemstone increase even further.

"Mentorship, in a sense, that I dug out of my memories." Prophet replied. In the dark room, his blue eyes glimmered silver as they reflected the gem.

"Memories? Like…You becoming me or me becoming you or something?!" Naruto demanded as he recoiled a bit. Not that he wanted the bizarre man to go, but he didn't want his brain overwritten either.

"No, no. Nothing like that." Prophet replied without hesitation. He was panting now and sweat was staining the collar of his shirt. He forced himself to continue, "It contains information, warnings, jutsu, omens, training, advice; those sorts of things. I dredged them from my own psyche and embedded them within this stone. It can act as a guide to you, but there are great limits on how much it can pass on. To be honest, I'm not entirely certain what I put in and what was skipped. Warnings may be no more than whispers. Omens mere glimpses. Jutsu training may leave a critical stage out. But still, it will help you avoid the future as I know it and that's what matters."

"What's so bad about this future you keep mentioning?" Naruto asked as he leaned back towards the gem. His reluctance to be anywhere near the thing was now warring with his innate desire to get stronger and learn more. He glanced at the other blonde, "What's so bad that you went through all this trouble?"

Prophet closed his eyes for a moment and when he opened them again, it was with the strangest expression Naruto had ever seen. It was like he had too much to say, didn't know how to say it or where to begin, and was equally afraid of the results of saying anything or nothing at all.

"You'll see." He finally said while staring into the gem's glowing core. "Of that I managed to make certain."

There was a brief minute of quiet as they sat and stared at the dangling bit of shiny stone, in which Naruto could think of nothing to say and Prophet had too much to say to know where to start.

Finally, Naruto swallowed his unease and said, "Guess there's no better time to begin."

He reached for the stone. A large hand gently laid across his and stopped him.

"You can't touch it." Prophet whispered without looking at him.

"Huh?" Naruto replied. His started to frown in annoyance and demanded, "What the hell do mean I can't touch it?! Then how am I supposed to learn wha-"

"You can't touch it or take it, lest it destroy you. It's believed to be cursed, you see. And it is, in a sense." Prophet continued in his quiet, raspy voice. He stared off into space, his eyes slightly unfocused.

Naruto would have happily withdrawn his hand right then and there and to hell with the jutsu treasure trove, but the other blonde kept it right where it was. His hand was like soft steel; the grip didn't bite nor bruise, but it didn't give in the slightest either.

"This stone takes the lives of those who wear it without being worthy." Prophet elaborated. "The greater you are, the longer it will allow you to wear it, but it will still inevitably strike you down without warning."

Naruto stopped trying to remove his hand from the grip of his addle-minded captor and instead asked, "Okay. So how can I be worthy?"

Prophet slowly turned to look the boy in the eye. His dark gaze was full of challenge, yet some regret too.

"You have to earn it. As I did. Trial by wind, in my case. Trial by fire, in yours." He answered.

With that he let the necklace hang free again and reached down to the hypodermic needle in his lap.

"The darkness of the future has many causes and faces, but in the end it boils down to this: there's a virus. It's nigh unstoppable. It spreads by contact and the infected are inexorably changed as their symptoms develop." Prophet said as he depressed the plunger all the way. He raised the needle in the air and held it aloft next to his head. "Depending on the particular strain, within as fast as minutes or no more than a few hours, the infected individuals become something less and more than human and have no other desire than to either spread their infection to any living organism in range or consume it so that it may fuel their freakish forms. In this genetic holocaust, humans are now an endangered species. There is no serum nor jutsu that can stop the process once an individual is infected. There has never been a single organism, living or dead, that has successfully resisted the virus."

Prophet paused, then in one switch movement sunk the needle into one of the arteries in his own neck. He carefully, but quickly drew a load of about three ounces of blood from himself, then removed the needle. The bleeding hole in his neck was gone almost before Naruto could blink. The man stared at the tube full of crimson swirls for a moment, then looked over at his young charge.

"Except one."

Naruto stared at the needle, then back into eyes that were exact mirrors of his own.

"Except you."

"Except me." Prophet nodded. "I survived thanks to the burden you and I share. As a result, I have the most valuable antibodies on the planet. And now-"

In the time it took Naruto to register the word 'antibodies,' his still captive hand had been turned over, his sleeve slid up his arm, and the needle pressed into his inner arm.

"-so do you." Prophet said as he gently depressed the plunger.

It was over before Naruto could react. The other blonde only emptied about half the vial into his arm before he removed the needle and allowed the boy to pull away.

"Thankfully, we're genetically identical, so your body should make templates of my immunities before I…before it's too late." Prophet said as he carefully cleaned the syringe with a glowing hand and replaced it into his pack. Beads of sweat fell onto the cloth and darkened the fabric. The man shuddered as a spasm of some sort passed through him.

"Wha…What is…What's happ…" Naruto tried to say, but couldn't get out the words as his voice slurred. Liquid fire coursed from his inner arm, down to his finger tips, and back up into the rest of his body.

"I'm passing my immunity onto you. When I was first stricken with Redeemer, it took months for me to recover. By then, the only medic in the world who could've made an immunization from my blood for others was dying from the long term effects of her own jutsu." Prophet rasped out. He managed to set his kit to one side as he slumped back against the wall. This time he couldn't pull himself upright. "You have a head start on the war now. It may take a good day or two for the fever to pass from you. I'm sorry the transfer couldn't be smoother, but you should be alright in no more than 48 hours. The charge in the gemstone should stay long enough for you to recover and put it on."

With a great effort, Prophet reached up and grasped the glowing stone hanging from his neck and tore it off in a jerky motion. He reached out and set it right next to his rapidly convalescing captive. His task done, his hand retreated and his body sagged back. He sincerely doubted he would be able to get it to move again, no matter what the cause.

"The antibodies are the first thing you must have." Prophet said as a fever induced sweat broke out on Naruto's face. The older man paused as a thought occurred to him and gave a sharp grunt which might've been intended to be a laugh. "Funny. Family, love, and mentorship. I wanted to give you those so much and in a way I did. Blood that can only be shared by family. A stone as a symbol of fraternal love. Knowledge in the form of mentorship. Half-assed versions of what you truly want, but there nonetheless."

"Ka…mi…don' you…ever shu' up…" Naruto managed to mutter through the growing burning pain and delirium spreading throughout his entire system.

"I'll have you know…I've talked more this night than I have in the past five…maybe six years…" Prophet managed to hiss out as cold pain lanced through him. "You…have that effect on people, I guess…"

"I…mus' be a bad in…influz…influence on muhself…" Naruto groaned out. He was sweating half to death, but he couldn't keep his arms from wrapping around himself. The sudden wave of nausea in his gut made him grateful he hadn't eaten in over twelve hours.

Prophet gave his dry, raspy laugh, then bit back a curse of pain as his heart nearly stopped beating.

"Naruto… I can't… I won't be here…when you wake up…" He managed to get out. "'m almost outta…chakra. Jutsu that's keeping…keeping me here is… falling apart. Getting harder… Future must…Must already be changing. Good… Don't want… Never should've…existed…"

Naruto forced himself to stay awake long enough to stare up at his…his something, and look the other man in the electric-blue eye.

"You're already…Brave. Already strong… Can't ask more…from you there." Prophet whispered. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth in pain, but still managed to hiss out, "Become great. Become…happy. And please…don't…"

The man, the dark mirror, swallowed and forced himself to look into his reflection.

"…Please don't become me."

Naruto could see the blackness seeping in on all edges of his vision, but he still felt he had to say something, anything, to the man who was about to…die? Vanish? Stop existing? This man just ripped his world apart, but could he honestly say that was a bad thing?

No. Annoying or not, bastard kidnapper or not, talks way too much or not, pumped him full of his own noxious blood or not, he couldn't say he would have rather they'd never met.

"Said it before…'ll say it…again. I'll miss you… Can't stop me… Dumb Prophet…" Naruto managed to say before he sank into deep, deaf darkness.

And a man who hadn't felt joy since he was a child without wrinkles, couldn't fight his first genuine smile in over a decade as tears he'd been holding back for an eon ran down his scarred cheeks.

He refused to stop smiling, even as his body began to dissolve and his mind fell apart, until all that was left in the cabin was a fever ridden child and a small glimmering stone that shined with inner echoes of a future that, Kami willing, would die before it ever was born.

OoXoO

He fell and fell…

Infinite darkness stretched for an eternity in all directions.

His eyes were half closed. He was so tired… But he couldn't shut them completely.

The dark held no temperature, warm or cold. It was simply…nothing.

He fell and fell…

His arms drifted in front of him, utterly weightless.

No air, no substance, no resistance to hold them against his sides.

No sound, even as he watched his left arm drift all the way out, then slowly return by natural tension as his tendons exceeded their limit.

He fell and fell…

Absolute silence.

The bright orange fabric of his sleeve tugged and billowed in time with the movements of his arm.

Not even quiet. Just silence.

He fell and fell…

Nothing at all. Just black.

Except…Below him…Far off in the distance…

Blackness that wasn't quite as dark as the rest…

He fell…

Dark as pitch, but not as dark as the void, so it must have some sort of substance to it.

The closer he came, the more it took up his vision, until it spread out for eternity in front of him.

And he was closer now. Close enough to see it wasn't black at all.

It was scarlet.

He fell...

Through the darkness, closer and closer.

The sea of dark red rose to meet him.

He couldn't move, he couldn't blink.

He couldn't breath.

He fell right into the sea.

Heat engulfed him. He slid through the crimson swirls with a plume of accompanying darkness.

And suddenly he could move. He convulsed and thrashed his arms, trying to gain purchase in a fluid barely thick enough to keep him afloat. He kicked and felt himself drift off and sink slightly.

He was surrounded by absolute red in every direction. The crimson mire was overwhelming, but he could still see through it. It was as though a thick red film was covering his eyes. It wasn't like being in paint…

It was as though he was submerged in blood.

He felt the need to draw air, finally, in response to the pressure the liquid was exerting on him from all sides. He was almost disturbed, in a detached way, that he needed to either breathe in blood or pass out from lack of air. He held it as long as he could, but finally explosively drew in breathe.

It even tasted like blood. But, it didn't choke him like he expected. He found that he could breath, albeit with much difficulty. Every breath was a conscious, tiring effort and within a minute he was worried that the exertion would cause him to pass out anyways.

He struggled for a time, then stopped, as there seemed to be no point. Where did he have to go, after all? He calmed himself, using less energy and therefore needing to draw air less forcefully.

…Until he noticed a dark streak hurtle by him on the edge of his vision.

He whipped his head around and stared as the black emptiness that'd accompanied his entry into the blood sea twisted, turning from bubbles and swirls of pitch into tendrils that lanced out violently. They lashed all around, agitating the crimson into a frothing tempest. He watched, growing more and more fearful as they changed further, from void black to oily, scaly membrane covered things that coiled and bound themselves together, forming a large mass of whipping tentacles.

He stared wide-eyed as the tentacles started forming into bizarre structures right before his eyes.

One turned into a red muscled appendage with a primitive spike on the end.

Another sprouted poles of bone in a fan formation, with a membranous skin surging up to coat it moments before it all dissolved away.

Thousands of splits in its skin turning into eyes, ears, and other pore-like structures, but all sealed themselves almost immediately.

He saw hands, blades, limbs, fins, suckers, and a hundred other structures he had absolutely no name for emerge and disappear back into the main structure, all within a handful of moments. Most disturbing to him was the split second when insect-like gossamer wings shot forth from its skin in such numbers that it looked for an instant like a milky-gold forest had covered its mass entirely. Though gone almost immediately, he was left with a deep sense of wrongness, as though what he had seen was a deliberate mockery of nature itself.

The froth from its movements was starting to reach him and with it came a sweltering heat and pressure that struck him almost like an actual blow. The crush forced his eyes shut almost immediately. Painfully, he forced them open again, though just that act alone drained him of much of his strength..

As terrifying as looking at the thing was, not looking at it was even worse.

It was slowing now, which filled him with greater dread than before. Whatever it was doing, whatever alchemical processes it was inflicting on itself, it seemed to be almost done.

It seemed to be getting ready.

Its bubbling form stabilized, giving one final thrash as it oriented itself. He got a glimpse of bone-like fins and a slimy skin before it lashed out its lower body and shot off into the depths with a speed that filled him with a terror normally found only in nightmares.

And he knew, just knew, that if he stayed where he was, he would die.

He thrashed and kicked for a few moments, before he forced himself to act as though he wasn't in a blind panic, and began to swim. Though he'd never been taught how to swim, it came as naturally as it would to any wild animal, and soon he was paddling at a reasonable clip away from where he'd seen the thing disappear.

With no orientation of up or down, all he knew was he had to get away. Get away.

He knew though, that he was too slow, that it could come out of the shadows of the blood sea and devour him at any moment.

Still he tried, because no matter how outclassed he is, it's just not his nature to give in and surrender. It never once occurs to him to lay down and die.

He swims and somewhere behind him, far off, but still too close for comfort, he hears something. The hollow, ripping, fluidic torrent of a monstrously powerful slashing tail cleaving through liquid.

Adrenaline burns like cold fire to him as he forces himself to move even faster, knowing it was coming for him.

Swim, swim, swim. The pressure was overwhelming, crushing him, slowing his movements. The heat was oppressive, disorienting him further, making his mind muddled and foggy. And still, he nearly exhausts himself just trying to draw breathe.

If only there was somewhere he could hide, somewhere safe.

A squirmy sound like oily bubbles turning into eels echoed behind him. Still at a distance, but much closer than before.

Somewhere. There had to be something in this endless sea.

Sluicing, cutting through the ocean of blood. Hunting. Closing in on its prey.

Anywhere!

He would've screamed if he could as he slammed into something hard and metallic. He looked up and barely got a glimpse of a huge bar of what vaguely looked like steel before a bellowing, chambered roar blasted into him from behind. Instinct told him not to look back, just go. He slid around the bar, into a large gap between it and what appeared to be another such steel pole, only to slide right out of the crimson and into shockingly cold, open air.

He fell and fell, then slammed into solid floor barely illuminated by the murky red haze. He lay still, stunned, but snapped to awareness as he heard a booming, resonating clang of calcite on iron from somewhere above him. He forced himself to sit up and raised his head to see...

Bars, hundreds of them, surrounded him. They stretched out in all directions, as far as his eyes could see. In the barest distance of the black gloom, he could barely make out their gradual curve. It seemed as though he was in a…cage. Gigantic beyond all measure. From his place on the floor, and despite the red light filtering into the gloom, he couldn't even begin to see the ceiling or even the end of the bars that stretched upwards away from him. And though there were huge gaps between each bar, the red sea beyond them was held at bay as though invisible glass had been placed between each piece of steel. He stared in amazement at the near infinite ocean just beyond the monstrous structure he found himself in.

Another booming clang rattled his teeth in their sockets.

There, high above him, he could see flickers of something black and terrible, gnashing against a bar with a maw larger than his one-room apartment and filled with spire-like teeth that were each thrice his height. It's thrashing agitated the red murk into nearly pink-colored foam, nearly totally obscuring the creature from his view. Teeth reached into the cage and wrapped around one of the bars. They ground against the metal as the thing jerked back and forth trying to dislodge the barrier in its way.

It didn't seem capable of passing between the bars itself, but that gave him no comfort. How long would it take before it went into that strange metamorphosis again and adapted into a form that could move through the barrier?

Pain suddenly rippled through his being. He grasped his head in his hands as it shot all throughout him. Wincing, he forced himself to fight it and concentrate on the monster above, but the stabbing lances of pain perforating his brain would not be denied.

As darkness started to overwhelm his vision, he looked up, only to stare in mute shock at the sight of two enormous red orbs hovering far above him. He realized with a fear only mutely suppressed by his agony, that not only were both spheres eyes, but each was staring right at him.

And each alone was larger than the size of the thing that was even now attempting to mutate to pursue him.

The pain, the fatigue, and the fact that escaping into the cage meant he'd jumped from the frying pan into the bonfire combined to overwhelm him. Unconsciousness soon followed.

Had he been in less a panicked state, he would have realized that the eyes weren't looking at him in hunger or rage, but more in a manner of idle curiosity and mild annoyance. They stared at his unconscious form for a few moments, then turned to look up at the external threat even now begin to ooze and squirm between the bars of the prison. The observer watched as the black mass landed on the floor and quickly morphed so that it developed limbs. It lashed and crawled and rapidly made its way to the silent, still form of the small boy.

The observer pondered and thought in a process both older and beyond human thought and history. Just as the creature made a dive for the boy, it came to a decision.

The gigantic red eyes narrowed and burned as the observer lunged forward.

OoXoO

He didn't remember waking up.

He didn't remember the dry mouth or the bladder cramps.

He didn't remember the dried sweat and blood coating his skin.

He didn't remember picking up the still faintly glowing gem and placing it around his own neck.

He didn't remember the burning tingle it made as it bonded to him as its new master.

He didn't remember climbing off the cot and staring through the window at the sunset for almost an hour.

He didn't remember looking over and seeing a beaten, but well-maintained medical satchel sitting on the cot next to where he'd lain for the past day or so.

He didn't remember picking it up and strapping it on in a natural, familiar movement that wasn't his own.

He did vaguely remember standing in an unfamiliar house, throwing food and sheets into a traveler's backpack that wasn't his.

He kinda had the feeling that he'd skirted Konohagakure by a wide margin, as he had some strange feeling he was on the wrong side of the village from where he needed to be.

But his first real, clear memory after he'd blacked out next to his future incarnation was standing on a dusty dirt road in the middle of a still dark forest looking through a beautiful gemstone at the dawn sun rising in between path's gap in the trees. He suddenly came to, mentally, and realized he was aware and perfectly alert. Not only that, but he felt great! Eager even.

Ready to have an adventure.

Whispers echoed into his mind. Words in a voice that was both his and not his.

'Tsunade. Legendary Sucker. Legendary medic. Princess of the Sannin. East. She always roams east, away from Konohagakure and Stone Country. Away from the past. Find her. You and she are the most important players in the upcoming war. Find her. When your stone sings, she's close.'

Naruto held the green-blue gem in his hand until the message faded away, then tucked it safely under his shirt. Not that he was particularly worried about damage or theft, seeing as how it took a legendary Bijuu to shatter the original Leviathan Stone and its curse was great enough to kill two Hokages, but he'd rather not advertise a gem valuable enough to buy a mountain to any brigands he might meet on the road. It would be an unnecessary and risky hassle to have to deal with.

At least, not until he was ready.

Already, he was planning on training exercises. Places to go and practice. People to challenge. Teachers to barter with. But that would have to wait, for now.

Now he had a task to do: find this Legendary Sucker of a princess and convince her that she needed to help him stop on upcoming plague apocalypse that he'd never actually seen with his own eyes.

'Easy as a bean-paste dumpling,' The confident eleven year old thought as he shifted the weight of his stolen pack and walked down the dusty merchant road headed towards Tea Country.

For Uzumaki Naruto nothing is impossible. Nothing. He had a dream to fight for, one even greater than his old one.

Becoming Hokage seemed so silly now, when it's up to him to save everyone.

He would stop this nightmare plague, he would become great, he would become happy, and he would save the world. And he would become the greatest man in it in the process. He knew he could.

He'd done it before, after all.

He had no fear. Only absolute confidence. Nothing can stop Uzumaki Naruto.

Not even time itself.

OoXoO

Author's Notes:

6.11.07 - Updated this chapter. I wasn't entirely satisfied with it. Changed around a couple scenes, added a new one, and cleaned up a lot of errors. Errors should now be 95 to 98 percent cleared.

In response to multiple questions from people who didn't bother to check my blog for the answer and for those who forgot that complete stories are now in the fic description on this site, this story is NOT complete. This is only the first chapter. Odds are it will be a small epic, of sorts. The story should progress fairly quickly and end sometime around the time period of would've originally been the Find Tsunade Arc. Just FYI.

And thanks again to those who helped me with the plagiarizer. If anyone finds evidence of plagiarizing going on with this or any other story, please contact me or the site Admins as soon as you can. I greatly appreciate it.

Thanks again for reading. This fic has started roughly 1500 more popular than Foxhound did. Sounds promising. :)

-Kraken