Chapter Seven: Changing Tactics

Author's Note: I'd just like to state right off that this fic is, indeed, firmly alternate universe. Yes, I have read the latest chapters of the manga (aren't they awesome?!), but I have only incorporated a select few elements of them. Please, don't complain that I haven't included this-and-this detail of back-story, or that "oh, this-and-this doesn't quite fit because of the first panel on page 12 in chapter 386!" Yes, I'm aware of Itachi's new back-story (or, at least, what has been revealed thus far as of chapter 401). I have discarded some of "canon", just as I did with Gaara (canon Gaara doesn't have Shukaku inside him anymore, right?), so it is already alternate universe. Not being identical to canon is what makes fanfiction fun to read and write. :)

I also ended up writing many of the Uchiha portions of this chapter several months ago (alongside the first and second chapters, in fact), and scarily enough, aspects of what I thought was an original and unexpected take on the Uchiha massacre… was canon. I really should have posted this chapter sooner, so I could prove my prophetic abilities.

All of those who correctly guessed the following references in the last chapter take a cookie!

Harry Potter Reference #1: Naruto feeding bacon to the messenger bird from Sand, like Harry does with Hedwig.

Harry Potter Reference #2: Iruka's Snape-like characterization in the second to last scene of my last chapter.

Howl's Moving Castle Reference: The line "The eighty-seven-year-old boy smiled back" is a reference to the title of one of the songs on the Howl's Moving Castle soundtrack (the movie by Hayao Miyazaki), entitled "90-sai no shoujo" (translated as "90 Year Old Young Girl"). Yeah... it was really, really obscure, and I probably shouldn't have mentioned it... D:

I seriously didn't think that I'd finish this before I left for France... Then, I wrote like 4,000 words in one day in a fit of inspiration. Surprise! :D I have also nearly finished my Fujiwara no Sai costume; there are photos in my profile! Anyone attending either the Japan Expo in Paris or Animethon 15 in Edmonton should feel free to come up and say "hi" if they see me!

Anyway, I hope that you enjoy this long-anticipated chapter!

Naruto couldn't believe that he hadn't remembered the Uchiha massacre sooner.

To be completely honest, all thoughts of Sasuke and Itachi and their family had slipped from Naruto's mind entirely. He had been understandably distracted by… other matters. Like instant ramen. And Iruka-sensei. And what pranks to play on the ANBU tomorrow.

But now that he was aware of it, the thought of the imminent Uchiha massacre weighed heavily on Naruto's mind. What could he possibly do to stop it? He may know that it was going to happen, but how would he go about preventing it? He would probably need backup, but who could he tell? Obviously, very few people would believe him, the accursed Kyuubi-brat. If he tried to go to the police, well, the vast majority of the officers were Uchiha, and they would be more concerned with the pressing question of just what was he doing meddling in clan business? He could, of course, go to the current Hokage, but then the old man would ask questions that he would be hard pressed to answer, such as: "How do you know that in the first place?"

He could try to stop Itachi himself, but even he couldn't kid himself into believing that he, at age eight, was a match for Uchiha Itachi. Even with his superior knowledge, gained through more than half a century of experience, the fact was that he simply didn't have the physical training just yet.

…He really shouldn't have slacked off so much in his training. He should have known that it would come back to bite him in the rear end.

Perhaps he could have a clone wander by on the exact date and sound the alarm before… but no, that wouldn't work. He couldn't even remember the day that the Uchiha had been killed. Naruto hadn't exactly been paying attention the first time around, and his memories of this time were just a little bit dulled by the passing of the years. Sure, there were some times of the year in which Sasuke grew more brooding, but with his overall less-than-cheerful demeanour, it was difficult to pick out "anniversary of my family's death" angst from the rest of it. Naruto supposed that he could just wait around the Uchiha district every night until Itachi started looking like he was about to go off and become murderous, but the more time he spent there would increase his risk of being spotted and captured by a clan famous for their eye techniques.

What could he do? He knew that the massacre would play an important role in what was to come, but in all honesty he didn't want to let dozens of people die just so he would know for sure the path the future would take. He would have to do something. That was what being Hokage was all about, after all: protecting the citizens of Konoha.

…Even if they were arrogant, egotistical bastards.

Gaara's father was beginning to become a problem.

Wait: that statement was misleading. His father had always been a problem. His defects as a leader were just being thrown into focus now, especially because Gaara now knew what to look for. Gaara had been immersed in the politics of Sunakagure for decades, and he hadn't stopped just because he was eighty-odd years in the past. He didn't have as much political clout, of course - none at all, in fact - but that didn't mean that he would ignore his surroundings. A detailed knowledge of the political climate of his village would only aid him in the years to come.

But back to the topic at hand: his father was, to put it plainly, a bad leader. The only thing he had going for him was that he was a half-decent ninja. Gaara had suspicions, though, that the only reason that a stronger shinobi hadn't overthrown the current Kazekage just yet was because any and all high-rising jounin seemed to mysteriously fail to come back from dangerous, S-class missions assigned to them especially by their leader.

That was just bad for business. Deliberately culling off strong ninja? The same ninja that provided the majority of the income for the entire village? No wonder Sunakagure's shinobi were considered inferior goods among the warlords of the Elemental Countries. Gaara hadn't been able to figure out why this was before, not having seen the "beginnings" of Suna's descent from respectability.

At the outset, Gaara wrote his father off as a lost cause. If Naruto were here, he would probably berate Gaara for giving up on the Kazekage so easily: everybody can change! You're proof of that! Gaara ignored this thought. The blond had never known the Yondaime Kazekage. He had never even met him in person, in fact. What would he know? Besides, Gaara hadn't had as much practice as Naruto had in the "changing people's outlooks on life" department. It really was much simpler to just get rid of the current Kazekage than to try to change him "for the better".

And so Gaara was waiting, patiently, for the moment to strike.

Naruto went through the motions of his day, still sorely distracted by the pressing problem of one Uchiha Itachi.

Perhaps… if he were to distract Itachi… Secure his loyalty for himself… Itachi had always been interested in power, right? What if he made him an offer…? But what could he possibly offer Itachi as an eight-year-old that the other couldn't get just as easily on his own? He'd probably just get laughed at and then killed for knowing too much.

Wait… did Itachi know of the Kyuubi sealed inside Naruto at this age? He certainly did after he joined the Akatsuki, but did he know beforehand or was he told later? He must have been very young at the time of the Yondaime's death… would he be old enough to know?

Would it even make a difference if he did?

Maybe it would. Itachi respected power, after all. Or at least Naruto thought that he did. And he was intelligent. So if Naruto offered him a better deal than the Akatsuki… Not that he knew what the Akatsuki were offering, but he was pretty sure that it was more than some pocket change, a few cups of ramen and the word of a demon-brat.

Of course, this was all assuming that Itachi was rational, and sane. For all Naruto knew, Itachi could be just psychopathic, plain and simple.

He had never found out the true reasons for Itachi's betrayal – Sasuke had killed him before he could be questioned about his motivations – but Naruto had his suspicions. Once he had ascended to the position of Hokage, he had become privy to some very interesting, classified documents. These papers had been buried and forgotten some time after the Uchiha massacre. Some of them pertained to the Uchiha clan: whispers of a conspiracy of the police force – completely run by Uchiha – to take control of the village by force. There were mentions of ANBU operatives spying within the family, and referrals to mission documents that no longer existed. It was all very mysterious. Perhaps he could dig up more information this time around, before it was shredded and made to disappear. Otherwise, he would be going into the situation blind.

And there was still the matter of how to gain Itachi's trust and loyalty.

He had no doubt that he would require the most infamous Uchiha to be on his side to prevent the massacre. Naruto fight the Uchiha genius head-on. At least, not physically. Verbally, perhaps…

But then again, Naruto did have one advantage (besides, well, foreknowledge of the event, to a certain extent): it is said that the only way to fight an Uchiha is with another Uchiha. It was rumoured that a bloodline descended from demons was the only thing that could combat a bloodline descended from demons. The cool thing was that Naruto had something better: an actual demon.

Of course, the Uchiha's famed bloodline was created to combat his demon... somehow... but Naruto was fairly certain that he could work around that little problem. He'd run across more difficult challenges before.

The Kyuubi rumbled its discontent wordlessly from the back of Naruto's mind. The nine-tailed beast never spoke to Naruto unless he went inside his mind, before its cage and forced it to speak. Quite frankly, Naruto didn't want to speak to his "tenant". Whenever the demon fox spoke, it was always about how many humans it had killed, how many mountains it had demolished, how many nations had crumbled before its mighty power, yada yada yada. Naruto could never get the Kyuubi to agree to anything he wanted unless it prevented Naruto's own death (and by proxy, extended the Kyuubi's existence). Oh, the nine-tails sometimes went along with Naruto's plans (feeding him from his stores of demonic chakra, and so forth), but even then 

the ex-Hokage had to be wary, as a compliant Kyuubi meant a scheming Kyuubi – the fox was probably trying to find a way to escape.

From what little he had spoken to Gaara on the topic, apparently Shukaku was even worse. Gaara's demon actively lied, schemed and yelled, disrupting the redhead's thoughts constantly. Naruto considered himself lucky, that the Yondaime Hokage had sprung for a very comprehensive seal. At least he didn't have to listen to the Kyuubi at all hours of the day and night... At least he could get it to shut up.

But as for providing information? The fox was next to useless. Considering that the Kyuubi was hundreds, if not thousands of years old, one would think that the nine-tailed beast would be a veritable wellspring of exposition. Unfortunately, this was not the case. When the Kyuubi deigned to answer any of Naruto's questions, it was usually in the form of cryptic references to people and events that he had never heard of, and usually topped off with a variation of "and when I escape I shall destroy you and your village and everyone you love and anything else I come across," usually with more references to blood, death, and consuming things.

The Kyuubi had a one-track mind.

For all that the demon fox was technically a sentient being, he was very much bestial in his thought processes.

Convincing the beast was going to be difficult.

After the sixteenth time that Uncle Yashamaru tried to kill him, Gaara almost snapped.


Gaara had developed very good self-control over the years, you see.

But it was so frustrating. He was trying to make a difference, to win his uncle over, and some days he almost thought that he might have gotten through to Yashamaru in some small way... And then Gaara would walk into the living room and almost be decapitated by some garrotte wire strung at his height across the doorframe, or he would go into the library to read a half-finished scroll to find it coated in contact poison, or find himself fending off a barrage of explosive tags in the hallway on his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night… It was all very trying. It was always worse, though, seeing his uncle after a failed assassination attempt – the look on the man's face, quickly and carefully covered up under a veil of false concern. Gaara could almost see the man thinking: next time… next time the demon that killed my sister will die.

Irrationally, he had begun avoiding rooftops.

The roofs of a shinobi village are always reinforced as they take the brunt of the foot traffic among ninjas. Gaara was no exception – short of sand teleportation, the fastest way to get around the village was by way of roof. However, what with... unpleasant memories... It was as if he could stave off his uncle's death by avoiding the place that had been the scene of it.

Naruto was much more likable. He probably would have succeeded in winning Yashamaru over by now, if he were in Gaara's place… No. He couldn't think that. That was a defeatist attitude. He was competing against Naruto. There was no way that he could concede defeat only months in. He could be patient… patient and determined.

Gaara focussed instead upon winning over civilians. They formed the majority, after all, even if they had less influence in village politics than shinobi did.

These children were as good a place to start as any. They were a similar group of children to the ones that he had run across playing ball, months ago. For all he knew, they may be the same ones. Gaara had difficulty recognizing the faces of those far below his notice. They were a bigger group than before, anyway; there were half a dozen or so of them, but they came and went during 

the course of the game in patterns that Gaara couldn't quite follow. Perhaps they had been declared "out", or were going to get snacks, or leaving because they were bored, or for some other reason that Gaara couldn't divine. Children were much more unpredictable than ninja were.

Gaara approached, slowly, as a group of children gathered in the courtyard. One of the kids noticed him as he got closer, and punched one of the other boys in the shoulder to get his attention. Then, they all turned to look at the demon in their midst.

"Hi." Gaara said, awkwardly.

"What do you want?" A kid with black hair asked as they all looked at the intruder with suspicion.

"Um, can I play with you?"

"My dad says that you're dangerous." The same kid declared. Other kids nodded in agreement, muttering 'yeah, yeah' amongst themselves.

"I won't hurt you."

"Yeah, but if you were really dangerous, you'd say that so you could get close to us and eat us all up."

"I don't eat people." The kids looked doubtful. "Really. I had a muffin this morning, though. With raisins."

"Eww..." Several of the kids pulled disgusted faces. "Raisins..." Gaara was hard pressed to tell which they thought more disgusting – the thought of eating people, or dehydrated grapes.

"So... can I play with you?"

The same black-haired kid – apparently their spokesperson – looked Gaara up and down. "We're playing ninja. You can be the monster we're fighting, if you want."

Gaara considered this. It was a foot in the door, at least. "Fine."

The kid smiled. "Cool. Now stand over there, and look scary." He pointed at a low wall. "Hiromi, you go stand behind him. You be the princess."

"Why do I have to be the princess?" The girl – apparently Hiromi – whined.

"Because I said so! And you're a girl. Go on! I promise we'll rescue you soon." Hiromi looked at the boy with suspicion. "Go on! Both of you! And remember to look scary, monster!"

Gaara didn't play a very good monster, at first. To be fair, he was trying not to hurt the children. "Playing ninja" essentially entailed having the majority of the children (the "ninjas", of course) run at him, the monster, to rescue the princess. Fairly straightforward. Of course, running at a jinchuuriki with a very jumpy demon was extremely dangerous. Gaara had to focus more on subduing the instinctive movements of his sand than he did on evading his "attackers".

"Rawr! Hand over the princess, demon!" One of the kids yelled, shaking a stick (though where he had acquired a tree branch in the middle of the desert, Gaara had no idea) in the pantomime of a weapon.

He handed Princes Hiromi over to her rescuers, with very little struggle, because they had asked. This apparently wasn't what the kids wanted. Several of the boys scowled in tandem, and even the Princess didn't look terribly pleased to be rescued.

"Oh, c'mon! You're a monster! Fight!"

Gaara shook his head. They definitely didn't know what they were asking for. There was no way he'd go full out on a group of children.

"C'mon, what use are you, then?" The kid with the stick yelled, running at him.

Fine, then. If it meant that he would remain in the game... With barely a thought, the sand beneath the kid's feet raised itself. It only moved a few inches upwards, but it was enough to trip the kid and cause him to fall, flat on his face with a smacking sound. A hush fell over the group 

as all of the other kids stopped their taunting to stare at this new development. The kid on the ground didn't move.

'...I must be careful.' Gaara reminded himself. 'Children are fragile.' He narrowed his eyes. 'But not that fragile. He can't be... dead.'

Sure enough, after a moment, the boy lying prone popped his head up to stare at Gaara, the demon of the Sand. He opened his mouth. Gaara braced himself, mentally, for the screams. "Wow! Cool! You can move the ground!"

That was... unexpected. "...Yes." Gaara stated, slowly. "I can move any sand." 'Doesn't everybody in the village know – and fear – that?'

The kid he had tripped grinned at that, jumping up. His clothes were streaked with dust and sand. "That's so cool! Do it again! When we're attacking!" The other kids joined in a chorus of "yeah!"s.

Gaara sighed, mentally, face inscrutable. Going from fearing death at his hands to not taking one of Suna's most dangerous jutsu seriously... it was an improvement (for him), at least.

"Fine. Give me back... the princess." Gaara deliberately made his voice gravelly, opening his eyes wider in a manner that he knew Naruto thought of as "creepy". He took a single step forward. The "ninja" took several steps back. Then, Gaara cleared his throat, and awkwardly stated: "Roar."

It was spoken like it was written, hardly "roar"-like at all, but it caused the spokesman child to grin. "Never, monster! You'll have to take her from us! Men, protect the princess! To the death!" He charged.

The edges of Gaara's mouth turned upwards just slightly, and the demon-brat of Suna tripped the kid with his sand. Several of the kid's "loyal ninja" laughed. Princess Hiromi shrieked with laughter as she was swept up by a gentle plume of sand to be placed behind the redhead.

"To the princess!" Another of the boys cried, undeterred by the shifting sand beneath his feet.

It wasn't until a few hours later, after he had successfully preventing the ninja from rescuing the princess without giving his attackers anything more than a few skinned knees... that Gaara realized that he was having fun.

Actually, convincing the Kyuubi to go along with Naruto's plan was surprisingly easy.

Naruto had slipped right into a meditative trance right after supper, and had followed the now-familiar route though his mind to the door of the Kyuubi's cage. Inside his own mind, he appeared much older and more grizzled. Naruto was pleased to note that his spiritual knees didn't twinge, despite the way the rest of him looked.

"What do you want, brat?" Of course, an elderly human was still infinitesimally young to a demon. Naruto got no respect from the beast. Ever. But that wasn't anything new.

Initially, he decided to go for the polite route, instead of the 'hey, do as I say, you damn fox' route. "I need your help with something."

This statement elicited a deep, barking laughter. "Why should I help you?"

So much for politeness. "I don't know, maybe because I can make sure that the Uchiha will never try to control you again?"

The Kyuubi growled lowly. "You cannot promise that, brat. If they can force their way into your mind, they can force their way into mine."

Interesting. The Kyuubi was being surprisingly coherent today. That had almost been a straightforward answer!

Naruto shrugged, feigning nonchalance as best he could while standing in front of one of the most powerful demons in existence. Despite his apparent age, he felt much less frail in this "form" than he would have had he been a seven-year-old standing here. "How about... you're overdue for your rent? I haven't been housing you out of the goodness of my heart, you know."

The Kyuubi's enormous eyes narrowed, and it stared down its muzzle at the human before its cage. Okay, it wasn't buying it.

"Look, all you have to do is lend me a little bit of your chakra, and then the Uchiha won't blast you to pieces or turn you pink or whatever it is that those Sharingan eye thingies do to subdue you."

Then, the Kyuubi chuckled. It was a gravelly, deep and inherently malevolent laughter, one that Naruto recognized all too well. He would, in all likelihood, not like what the beast had to say next. "You are going to try to defeat Uchiha Itachi, aren't you, brat?" The beast's mouth widened in a threatening grin full of fangs. Its eyes flashed a deeper red. Naruto didn't deny it. "You will try, and you will fail." It proclaimed, all malicious glee.

"I don't think so," Naruto stated, calmly, in reply. His grey hair took on red overtones in the strange light thrown off by the beast's chakra, and even his own friendly face, wrinkled by laugh lines, looked sinister.

"Fate dictates your actions." Several of its tails coiled and writhed in the darkness behind it, just out of sight but not out of hearing. "You believe that you are working against fate, that you can change things. Big things. But that is impossible. Your fate cannot be altered."

"Again, I don't think so." But a seed of doubt was planted in Naruto's mind. So far, he hadn't changed much. Certainly, things were different: he ate different foods, wore different things, talked to different people… but he hadn't changed anything major yet.

The beast's grin grew impossibly wide, as if it could feel Naruto's doubt. Some – most – of its teeth were taller than Naruto was. "It will be amusing to see you try."

"It will be amusing to prove you wrong." Naruto told his inner demon evenly.

The tailed beast growled again, low and deep in his throat. Naruto was used to such responses – the Kyuubi didn't often speak in words if it didn't have to, animalistic growls being just as good for simple concepts as anything else. This particular growl meant something along the lines of "I will go along with this stupid plan but only because I don't have anything better to do," but with more condescending overtones than human languages would allow.

Good. The former Hokage could handle a little bit of condescension. It practically rolled off of him like water, only it was less noticeable than that because while you could just ignore words, it is much more difficult to ignore wet clothing. Anyway, he could handle it if it meant that the Kyuubi was going to be providing him with chakra.

He'd gone over this with Neji once already: screw "fate."

The Uchiha wouldn't be killed on his watch.

After several months of attempting to "convert" members of his village to his cause (or at least get them to not run from him, screaming in fear), Gaara came to a realization. He had a grand total of zero allies within Suna who had any sort of political clout. He had very few allies, period. Thus far, he had only managed to secure the friendliness of a few shopkeepers and several dozen children; he wasn't entirely sure that even his siblings were all that enamoured with him at the moment. Sure, they weren't trying to kill him, but... There wasn't much point in thinking about his father or Yashamaru, either.

There wasn't much else that he could do. He would have to acquire allies.

That was how Gaara found himself knocking politely on the door to the grandmother of the most dangerous missing-nin Suna had ever produced: Chiyo.

Anti-climactically, nobody answered.

If Gaara had been in the habit of forming facial expressions, he would have pursed his lips at this blatant insult. So he wasn't even worth speaking to, was that it? Perhaps he would have drawn his eyebrows together and even frowned. As it was, the redhead looked just as blank as ever, and merely lifted his hand again to knock once more.

Once again, there was no answer.

Well, at least he had tried to be polite. He raised his hands and formed a single seal, placing a finger over his left eye. Some sand trickled from the gourd on his back and slid beneath the door, as if propelled by an invisible, but purposeful wind. Once on the other side, it solidified into a sand-coloured eye. With a twitch of his finger, Gaara had the eye turn around to examine the lock from the inside. It was a deadbolt – which was easily taken care of with a flick of sand – and a key lock. The lock he took care of by inserting a thin stream of sand into the keyhole. After that, it took him only a few moments to find the trip lever within the lock. It really was very simple when one can detect minute differences in pressure and texture in the metal.

The door opened with a click, and Gaara moved forward, into the house.

In all honestly, he would only be mollified if they were dead. They were being rude. He, the (soon-to-be) Kazekage wasn't in the habit of being ignored.

The siblings were old, but he knew that they hadn't died because they had lasted for nearly a decade longer than this in his time. Therefore, they were deliberately slighting him.

The house itself was relatively large, as befitting their grandiose reputation in Suna's history, but it was very barren. There were hardly any decorations anywhere. Sand coated the walls and covered the floors, a design feature that wasn't uncommon in the village hidden in Sand, where the most plentiful building supplies involved sand mixtures. Soon enough, Gaara came to the open atrium where the first famed Sand Siblings of Suna spent the majority of their time.

There were two people sitting at the edge of a pool – an expensive fixture to maintain in moisture-poor Suna. They were fishing, or pantomiming fishing.

One of the two was sitting suspiciously still. Shit. He hadn't meant it! He needed them alive!

He hopped up the stairs, all but blurring in his haste. "Chiyo-sama." He called out in a tone that was most unlike him; he had almost used an exclamation mark.

The ancient women started at the sound of his voice. She wasn't dead, then. "Keh! What are you doing, disturbing my beauty sleep? What do you want, brat?" It rankled, being called a "brat" by someone who was probably his equal in age.

Still, there was a time to be rude, and there was a time to be polite. Trying to obtain allies definitely fell under the latter situation. "Chiyo-sama, Ebizou-sama," Gaara began, bowing shortly to each. "I needed to speak with you.

Ebizou, Chiyo's brother, blinked slowly. "Oh! Sister! There is a boy, here!" He seemed to have just realized that someone else was in the room with him. Gaara snorted, internally, his face outwardly stoic. He hadn't gone senile at that age.

"Yes, and I am wondering what this boy wants." She pronounced the word 'boy' to rhyme with 'demon'.

Gaara bowed once again, despite the slight. "I wish to talk to you about my father."


"The Kazekage." Gaara elaborated, quietly.

"Eh? What number are we on, now? Four or five?"

"Four, Chiyo-sama. He is the Yondaime Kazekage."

"Ah, is that so? Keh." Chiyo made a noise of disinterest. "If you know our names, you should know that we don't enter into the world of politics anymore. We don't enter into the world at all."

Ebizou nodded ponderously in agreement with his sister. "The world belongs to the younger generations, now. You need to do things for yourselves."

Gaara stood before them, silently, for a few moments. He was painfully aware of how young he looked. Finally, in his usual blank tone, he said: "Sometimes, the 'younger generations' don't know what they are doing. They need help, and guidance, from their elders." 'Including me,' he thought.

The ancient siblings seemed to consider this. Gaara waited for their replies. Thirty seconds passed, then a minute. Then, Ebizou's chin began to nod towards his chest, the man's eyes closing. Momentarily, he began to snore.

Gaara really hoped that he never became senile. This was getting ridiculous.

Apparently, even Chiyo thought so as well. "Brother!" She called in her scratchy voice. "Brother! Wake up!" She turned to look back at the 'youngster' in their midst, with a leering grin on her face. "Continue. Just what do you want from me?"

"The Yondaime Kazekage is really bad for Suna. He is killing off loyal ninja to stay in power. Soon, sensing weakness, our enemies will be at our door. When the time comes, I would like you to... take up the mantle of Kazekage in his stead."

"Because you're too young yourself, is that it? Keh!" Gaara didn't deny it, but just met her eyes resolutely. "What about any of the council members? I'm sure that they are just itching for the job."

"The majority of the council are civilians and ninja older than you are. None of those shinobi have retained their strength the way that you have."

"Keh!" She grinned at the blatant compliment. "Fine! It'll be more interesting than fishing in a desert!" She grinned again. "I shall... take up the mantle."

"If the situation presents itself." Gaara clarified.

"If?" She cackled. She actually cackled. "Fine." She grinned cheekily, making the wrinkles of her face deepen almost grotesquely. "When the situation presents itself, I'll start wearing that Kazekage hat that you seem so fond of. Just don't expect me to die very quickly." She narrowed her eyes at him. "I can read your intentions like a book, brat."

Gaara nodded his head in acknowledgement. He didn't entirely care what she thought of him, so long as she did what he wanted her to. However, knowing her… unique personality, he had serious doubts that things would turn out as he expected them.

In any case, he had found a replacement for his father's post. The Yondaime Kazekage's days were numbered.

It was purely by chance that Naruto found Uchiha Shisui's corpse. He had been "patrolling" the riverside with Kage Bunshin for several weeks without much hope of running across any suspicious Uchiha-massacre related activities. He had half planned to dissipate any bunshin witnessing such activities to alert himself, who would then "casually" lead his ANBU observers to the "scene of the crime", as it were, but… Now that the situation was at hand, he knew that he couldn't do anything without at least trying to talk to Itachi himself. After all, he had gotten quite a reputation on the political scene for being able to convince even the most stubborn of people to change their ways. He had a lot of experience doing so, especially in his youth.

Naruto found Shisui of the Mirage floating, face-down in the Nakano River, caught in an eddy by a sandbank. Naruto had done a perfunctory vitals check as soon as he had dragged the body from the water. One touch to the man's cool skin was enough to confirm it: the (former) Uchiha was definitely and undeniably dead.

The body was fresh, though. Rigor mortis was only just beginning to set in, and the body didn't display any signs of bloating or rot. Naruto had seen enough dead bodies over the years to be able to estimate, roughly, the time of death. Shisui hadn't been dead for very long at all.

The Uchiha district wasn't all that far downstream, either.

That meant that his attacker – Uchiha Itachi – was likely still in the area. Naruto crouched lower over the body, glad for his shortness and the height of the reeds by the riverside, further lined by trees, allowing him – and the unfortunate Uchiha – to remain hidden from normal eyes. Unfortunately, Naruto was probably being watched by Sharingan eyes, which could see chakra and wouldn't be fooled by something as simple as a bed of reeds.

Naruto felt in his pockets quietly for anything that could be used as a weapon: a few bits of string, two paint brushes left over from a prank from yesterday, and his half-full Gama-chan purse. He could probably use Gama-chan as a bludgeoning instrument, but he seriously doubted he'd make a dent in Itachi's head with its padded cuteness. There were no weapons on Shisui either, which was unusual for a shinobi. Shisui really had trusted Itachi, to go to meet with him unarmed. Naruto swallowed the bile that appeared in the back of his throat, suddenly realizing that he wasn't alone.

Naruto stood up and turned to face Itachi from across the river. The most dangerous missing-nin that the Uchiha clan had ever produced was standing quite calmly on the opposite bank, twenty feet or so away from Naruto, dressed casually in what Naruto had come to think of as the Uchiha "casual uniform" – dark shirt, emblazoned with the Uchiha clan's crest, and lighter shorts.

The boy was suddenly painfully aware of the fact that he was standing above the corpse of the other shinobi's (former) best friend. Itachi would have no compunctions about killing a young child that he didn't even know. Naruto swallowed once again, feeling greatly unprepared in this situation. It felt like one of those dreams where you suddenly realize that you've walked into an exam that you haven't studied for, and have forgotten your clothing. Only this feeling was ten times more intense, because the worst thing that could happen in that situation is a failed exam and a feeling of eternal shame. Finding oneself standing, weaponless, in front of a murderer who had absolutely no problem with killing anything that stood in his way could result in permanent maiming or death.

But Naruto knew that it was far too late to pretend that he hadn't seen anything. He couldn't just walk away, not with Uchiha Itachi staring directly at him with blood-red eyes. His knees trembled, suddenly, with fear. 'I could die, here,' he thought, suddenly struck by the realization of his own mortality. 'I could die, and my body would just disappear, and nobody would come looking because it was just the demon brat anyway, and if he's gone then all the better for us...' Naruto's eyes suddenly hardened. 'Like Hell I will.'

"Good morning, Uchiha-san!" The jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi called out brazenly.

Well, he hadn't been known as the number one most surprising ninja for nothing. Naruto could feel the Uchiha's surprise. Good. Naruto had managed to unsettle the other ninja. Now the ball was in Itachi's court.

There was silence for a good ten seconds. The water of the river between them flowed on, oblivious to the tension in the air. Never before had the distance between the two banks seemed so dangerously close to Naruto.

At least Itachi hadn't killed him outright. There was that, at least… It wasn't much of a silver lining, but it was acceptable. Perhaps Itachi would be reasonable.

That thought was shattered to pieces only moments later when a kunai cut through the air where Naruto's throat had been only a split second before he had instinctively dodged. It thudded into the wood of the tree behind him, a heavy and menacing sound. And suddenly the Uchiha was far too close – when had he crossed the river? – and Naruto was scrambling to stay alive.

"Woah, woah- calm down!" Naruto cried, realizing as he spoke that he had never really sounded so young to his own ears. His only answer was another thrown kunai, followed swiftly by a pair of shuriken when Naruto proved agile enough to dodge the first weapon. "Hey, Uchiha-san!" Another shuriken whizzed by Naruto's cheek, nearly creating a fourth whisker there. This was getting ridiculous. "Hey! I need to speak with you!" He somersaulted forward to dodge an unexpected stab from a short sword –when had Itachi gotten behind him? How fast was he? – a blade which he vaguely recognized as being standard issue for ANBU members.

Naruto knew that he was displaying far too much agility for a supposed eight-year-old child (very few, if any, children could successfully dodge ANBU captains trained in assassination), but he would rather keep his head on his shoulders with a blown identity than being anonymous and dead.

"Wait, wait! Come on, just-" Naruto threw himself to the side to evade another handful of shuriken. "Stop, already!"

Miraculously, he did. Naruto, having taken cover behind a particularly large tree, realized that Itachi had probably just run out of kunai for the moment. Still, it was a good a break as he was going to get.

"Hey, I need to talk to you!" Naruto called out from his hiding place, trying to sound confident. He succeeded only marginally, drawing upon all of his experience with false bravado (usually used when caught red-handed setting up pranks; that, and when he was bluffing in front of particularly ornery politicians). Naruto slowly inched around the tree, following the movement of the ANBU-trained ninja, keeping the tree between them at all times.

"And why should I not kill you right now?"

Naruto slowly peered out from behind the trunk to look at Itachi, revealing only his eyes and his spiky hair to his opponent. "I doubt you'd be able to." Before the Uchiha could go for another blade to prove him wrong, Naruto elaborated. "You're not the first one who has tried to kill me. As soon as you make the fatal blow, I'll just be healed by the Kyuubi's chakra." This wasn't strictly true, but very few knew of the extent of his abilities. But a little white lie couldn't hurt him, and in fact it was probably actively saving his life at the moment.

Itachi's dangerous eyes narrowed. "Granted, I may not be able to kill you, but there are other ways of silencing a person." The Uchiha's sharingan eyes shifted fluidly into their Mangekyou form.

Naruto quickly averted his eyes, staring at a point in the centre of Itachi's chest, which was marginally less capable of sucking him into a genjutsu from which there was no escape. "If you do that, then you won't hear what I have to offer in return."

The future of the Uchiha clan was in that one, long, calculating look. Naruto tried not to fidget.

"You are just a child," The thirteen-year-old ANBU member finally said. Naruto didn't tell Itachi that to him, it was the Uchiha who looked like a child. "You may have the power of a demon, but you cannot use it. Why should I listen to you?"

Naruto hesitated for one long, weighty moment. "Because I know what will happen to you if you walk down that road."


Again, Naruto paused. What if it didn't work…? "You've already killed your best friend, to get the Mangekyou Sharingan. You're going to try to kill the Uchiha clan." Naruto didn't mention that he didn't know why Itachi was going to do so. It was probably enough that he knew about the forbidden Sharingan technique. All he had to do was appear as if he understood Itachi's reasoning. "You'll join the Akatsuki, an organization bent on destroying the world with the chakra of captured demons. They'll be stopped. But you – you won't even get to see the Akatsuki defeated. You'll be killed by your own little brother, who swore revenge the day you betrayed him and destroyed everything he cared about. Your death will be easier than he expected, because you had gone blind from using the Mangekyou too many times. You'll die, weak and blind, killed by someone who was never meant to catch up to you in power." The red-eyed ninja's eyes narrowed even further. Naruto inwardly cursed the inscrutableness of Itachi's facial expressions. "And besides, who said that I cannot use the Kyuubi's power?" Itachi's expression didn't change, but Naruto could almost feel the dark-haired boy's interest. Naruto's mouth slowly split into a grin, revealing a hint of fang, as the whisker marks on his cheeks grew bolder, and his own blue eyes turned red enough to match the Sharingan.

"You are the Kyuubi." Itachi stated, as if coming to a realization.

"Naww…" Naruto grinned more wildly, revealing more fang. "Something worse – a human mind who can use the Kyuubi's chakra. The Kyuubi is into mindless destruction more than anything; I can direct it. That's much more dangerous, don't you agree, Uchiha-san?" What was unspoken, but implied by the way that Naruto addressed Itachi was the subtle 'Your family can control the Kyuubi's mind, but you can't control mine.'

"Do not try to distract me, Jinchuuriki." Ah, there was that title... Itachi knew what he was. "How do you know of... my future? If what you have told me is indeed true."

Naruto smiled again. "I'm from the future." He said, flatly.

Itachi didn't react.

"Seriously." Naruto insisted.

Again, there was no reaction on behalf of the stoic Uchiha. Then, finally, he blinked, slowly. "Accepting, for the moment, that you are telling the truth, Jinchuuriki... If I am dead... what happened to you? Are you trying to prevent a war?"

Naruto laughed. "Kind of. Well, no. Not really. Well technically..." He considered, thinking of the myriad of small wars that had occurred during his reign. "No, none in particular. Not really. And to answer your first question... I'm the Hokage."

If Itachi's face wasn't so unreadable, Naruto would have identified that expression as a disbelieving look.

"Believe it." Naruto told him, seriously.

"What could you hope to gain from telling me all of this?"

"I want you to do the right thing. You don't really want to kill your family, do you?" Naruto was going out on a limb with this...

There was something in Itachi's expression that spoke of intransigence. "It is not so simple."

Something about the Uchiha's tone irked Naruto. Throughout this discussion, Naruto had been slowly inching out from behind the tree that he had been using as a shield. Momentarily forgetting that this was a much more dangerous Uchiha than Sasuke, whom he normally verbally sparred with, Naruto emerged completely from behind the tree and spat out: "Stop with the "lone warrior" crap! This isn't a game!" Naruto knew that these words sounded particularly strange, coming out of the mouth of a young child, but as long as his point came across, he wasn't terribly bothered by the incongruities. "Of course it's that simple! You have two choices: you either do the right thing, or you don't." It was a child's logic, but that didn't mean that it didn't ring true. "You need to do what's best for Konoha. It's what we're trained to do, isn't it? We're both Konoha ninja, after all."

Uchiha Itachi slowly nodded, although whether it was in agreement with his statement or just an acknowledgement that he understood what had been said, Naruto had no clue.

Naruto had said his piece. There wasn't much he could do otherwise. He could only hope that Uchiha Itachi would make the right decision.

Then, Naruto looked directly into Itachi's eyes. He knew the danger. But this incredibly simple action spoke of a great amount of trust: Naruto trusted that Itachi wouldn't place a genjutsu on him.

The tomoe in the sharingan eyes swirled once more, then faded to an almost normal looking black, but Naruto didn't feel the telltale prickling of genjutsu along his skin.

Itachi nodded, briefly, at him, in respect. Naruto allowed himself a small smile. He... he had gotten through to Itachi! He had done it! Naruto nodded back. In the split second that Naruto's gaze was averted, Itachi threw a shuriken at his neck.

It was a killing blow. Luckily for Naruto, he was never there in the first place.

Naruto blinked as the memories of his bunshin's encounter with Itachi flooded his brain. It was a good thing that he, in his original body, hadn't been doing anything more complicated than putting some water on to boil. He had just set down the pot on the stove; if he had still had it in his hands, he would have dropped it, distracted by all of the new memories integrating themselves in his psyche.

Turning the burner on to bring the water to a slow boil, Naruto reviewed his new knowledge.

Well, that encounter had gone as well as could be expected. In fact, he actually felt optimistic, even though Itachi had tried to kill him in the end. That final action was probably a test – to see if Naruto was indeed the ninja he said that he was. The Uchiha would definitely recognize Kage Bunshin, so unless Itachi came bursting through the window of his apartment in the next hour or so to do him in or otherwise "silence" him, Naruto assumed that he had gotten away scot-free. Perhaps he had even achieved a position of respect in Itachi's regard – if he was capable of an advanced jounin technique, after all, perhaps Itachi would believe him about the rest of the things he had said (i.e., being from the future and thus knowing the fate of the Uchiha clan).

It felt strange, feeling his bunshin's fear of death. Most of the time, his bunshin knew, intellectually, that they were bunshin, but because they were exact replicas of he, himself, all the way down to memories and emotions, they often forgot that they couldn't die. Anyway, it was a good thing that he hadn't left a bunshin with the ANBU today and hadn't gone himself...

Of course, now that he had gotten that Uchiha business out of the way – hopefully – he could now focus on other matters.

Like ramen. '...Well,' Naruto conceded to himself as he dropped his favourite noodles into the bubbling water to cook, 'Ramen, and winning over Iruka-sensei.'

It was difficult, sitting in class and seeing Iruka watch him cautiously out of the corner of his eye, not unlike how a civilian would keep an eye on a rabid dog. Still, even though it was... distressing... Naruto could handle it. He had quickly remembered how to ignore glares and furtive whispers. Depressingly, it was like riding a bike – he had never really forgotten how to do so.

Still, as long as he kept seeing his old teammates, Sakura and Sasuke, everyday, he could stand it. Even if they weren't friends with him just yet, they were young, happy and alive, and that was what counted.

That was why he was so horrified to walk into class one day, less than a week after he had spoken with Itachi, to see Sasuke absent. At first, he tried to tell himself that Sasuke had just taken a day off because he was sick or something. But Naruto couldn't remember Sasuke ever being absent – that wasn't how the Uchiha worked. Uchiha didn't become sick (they were too perfect for that), and even if they did become... indisposed, they worked through it and went about their duties anyway. Sasuke would have had these thoughts pounded into his head from a young age. He wouldn't skip school because of a head cold. Still, Naruto hoped that maybe today was an exception...

But then he saw the subdued look on Iruka-sensei's face, and the furtive, whispered conversations amongst the academy teachers, all the while glancing at the conspicuous empty place at the end of the row where Sasuke normally sat. A horrible feeling began to grow in Naruto's chest. His throat felt tight. It couldn't be...

Then, Iruka-sensei began the lesson with following sombre statement: "Class, last night, there was an attack in the Uchiha district..."

Naruto didn't need to hear the rest. Unfortunately, he had heard it all before. With the stealth that an academy student shouldn't possess, Naruto slipped quietly out of the classroom window, unnoticed by his classmates, who were still shocked at the news that they were being imparted with.

The Hokage monument was only a small portion of the cliff face itself. The initial sculptors had left room for the faces of future leaders of Konoha, and so there was actually quite a bit of uncarved rock towering above the village, along with the watchful gazes of former Hokage. Naruto wasn't sitting on any of the heads in particular, but on top of the lump of stone where his likeness would eventually be carved. He used to come up here to think. His face had once been one of the most tangible reminders of his rule. Now, it was only so much raw stone.

Naruto felt rage, and frustration… He shouldn't have trusted Itachi. How could he have felt so optimistic about that encounter? Looking back... Itachi had attempted to kill him! Many times! There was no... respect there! Only arrogance!

But more than anger, Naruto felt disappointed. Not only in Itachi, but in himself.

He had failed: as a leader, as a protector, as a ninja. How could he face anybody, especially Sasuke, knowing that he hadn't even been able to prevent a devastating event that he had known well in advance would happen?

He was an idiot. No question about it. He really did deserve the title of "dead last". It was more appropriate than any title he had received thus far. He was clueless, and useless.

He hadn't tried hard enough. He hadn't been strong enough. And a whole family had died because of it.

"Old man… can I talk with you for a minute?"

A harried looking Hokage barely glanced up from his massive pile of reports. Losing the majority of one's police force in one fell swoop was a contingency that Konoha had never prepared for, and people seemed to generate paperwork as a defense mechanism against not knowing how to deal with the situation. "I'm sorry, Naruto, but I'm really busy at the moment, and I'm expecting someone–"

"Please?" The older man sighed and was about to refuse until looked up and saw the expression on Naruto's face. He had seen such looks before, on battle hardened ninja, just about to snap and spiral into depression. There was a hollowness in Naruto's eyes that didn't belong on the face of an eight-year-old. The Hokage forced a small, welcoming smile and said, "Of course, Naruto. Come in. And shut the door behind you." Naruto did so. "Sit, sit." The old ninja gestured at the chair in front of his desk, both of which were covered in stray papers. "Just hand me that stack on that chair, won't you?" Mechanically, Naruto gave him the pile of paperwork, sitting stiffly on the chair.

The Hokage looked at him, considering. Just what was wrong? "Why don't you make yourself comfortable? Would you like some tea?"

The boy shook his head, slowly, at the Hokage's offer, but did draw his legs up onto the seat, wrapping his arms around them in a gesture that Sarutobi recognized as instinctively defensive. Something was definitely wrong. Had someone hurt him? "Naruto, are –"

"Old man?" The boy interrupted, shakily. "Am I a bad person?"

"Naruto, who – why would you think that?" 'Had someone told him about the Kyuubi...?' Sarutobi thought with a sinking suspicion.

"Only, I can't seem to do anything right, and –" Those were tears. Naruto was crying. The Hokage decided, then and there that 'Yes, heads would roll...'

"No, Naruto," The Hokage began, almost helplessly. "You're not a bad person. Why on earth would –"

"I just..." Naruto swiped one sleeve against his eyes. "It's just... I wanted to stop it, and..."

Sarutobi must have gotten a horrified look on his face, because the boy stopped speaking, mid-sentence. "Naruto, what happened? Did someone ... do something to you?"

"What?" Naruto's head popped up, dislodging a few more tears to join the ones that already ran in rivulets down his scarred cheeks. "No, I... I..." He looked back down, mumbling something. The Sandaime only caught one word: "Uchiha".

"Naruto, could you repeat that?"

Naruto sniffed again, avoiding the Hokage's gaze. "I... saw Uchiha Itachi. Right before he... he..."

"You... you saw Uchiha Itachi?" Sarutobi asked, in confirmation. 'Did Naruto even know Itachi well enough to recognize him by sight...?'

Naruto nodded slowly, still staring at the ground. "Yeah. With Uchiha Shisui. Shisui was dead."

"Naruto, why didn't you –"

"I tried talking to him!" Naruto cried out, almost hysterically. "I tried! I really did!" He sniffed, wiping at his runny nose with one increasingly damp sleeve.
"Why didn't he kill you?"

"I was a kage bunshin."

"Why didn't you tell anyone?" Naruto looked awkward, ashamed. He was resolutely avoiding the Sandaime's gaze. "Naruto..."

"He... threatened me." Naruto said, slowly, as if trying to convince both the Hokage and himself.

"Threatened you?"

"Yeah, um... he tried to kill me. But I was a bunshin, right? A kage bunshin? And I was going to say something to someone, but, then, all the Uchiha were killed before I... and... I really should have said something, shouldn't I?" The boy was crying again.

'So that's the crux of the matter.' Sarutobi got up and walked around the desk, kneeling before the boy in the chair. He took the blond's small shoulders in his calloused and wrinkled hands and forced the boy to meet his eyes. "Naruto, you can't feel responsible for the deaths of all of the Uchiha. You are a child. You didn't know that that was what Itachi was going to do. You couldn't have known." But Naruto just began crying harder, his shoulders shaking. Sarutobi sighed, knowing that his words just weren't reaching the boy, then gathered the trembling child into his arms in a strong hug. "It's all right. It's not your fault." Naruto just kept shaking.

The door to Sarutobi's office opened and the ninja who had just entered there paused, unsure. Sarutobi gestured for the shinobi there to go out and close the door. With hand signals, the Sandaime explained that he would handle their appointment momentarily when he was finished. With the slightest of hesitations, Umino Iruka backed out of the office and shut the door, as silent as his ninja training could make his actions.

'That was… unexpected.' Iruka thought as he quietly shut the office door, leaving the Hokage and… the boy together in the office. The academy teacher had had a scheduled meeting with the Hokage to discuss Uchiha Sasuke's mental health, and what he, as his teacher, was to do to help when the boy returned to the academy. Iruka was just about the only friendly authority figure left for Sasuke. However, Iruka hadn't expected to walk into the office and find it occupied by… Uzumaki Naruto. A crying Uzumaki Naruto. Iruka could still hear the quiet keening sounds and the Hokage's quiet murmuring, through the door. He hadn't even known that the brat was capable of crying.

Of course, it could just be a prank on the kid's behalf. Foxes were renowned for being tricksters, after all. 'But those don't sound like crocodile tears…'

Iruka made himself scarce, busying himself with some paperwork at the mission's desk, until he felt the source of demonic chakra leave the Hokage's office, over half an hour later. Only then did he return to the Hokage's office, being sure to knock on the door. The Sandaime immediately called for him to enter.

Sarutobi was back at his desk, surrounded by paperwork. Iruka felt almost guilty for having to add to that already teetering pile.

"Ah, Iruka-kun. I'm sorry that I had to postpone our meeting. It was… urgent."

"Urgent, sir?"

The Hokage sent him a distracted smile. "Naruto-kun… he feels his classmate's loss keenly. He feels bad that the boy is… like him, now. Alone."

Iruka had a feeling that this wasn't the whole story – if it was the story at all – but he couldn't exactly question the Hokage, so he just nodded. The Hokage was looking at him expectantly, though. "Yes, sir, I understand." He added, hoping to move on to less painful topics.

"Do you, Iruka-kun?" Again, there was that look.


"You were already orphaned at his age, right?"

Again, Iruka began to get a sinking feeling in his chest. All of his ninja training seemed to be on the alert – Danger! Danger! Retreat! – but he couldn't retreat from the Hokage's presence without being dismissed.

"You understand what Naruto-kun going through right now," The Hokage elaborated. "He is alone, without any adults to talk to… Besides me, of course, but I can't connect with him as well as someone closer to him in age would."

Iruka saw, with a growing feeling of horror, just where this conversation was going, but decorum specified that he couldn't interrupt.

"Besides, I have a myriad of duties that I must attend to, and I am certain that you would have more time to attend to him than I would." Now, it wasn't just about the Kyuubi brat, it was a matter of serving the Hokage, Iruka realized.

"Iruka-kun?" Iruka snapped out of his daze, realizing that he had been staring blankly at the Hokage's hat. Apparently now he was required to answer.


"You really are the best person for the job." Iruka noticed that the Sandaime specified 'person' and not 'ninja'.

"But he – he killed –"

"No, Iruka-kun." The Hokage interrupted, voice hard. "I think that you'll find that he didn't. He laughs, cries, and bleeds the same as we do. He isn't the beast."

Involuntarily, Iruka remembered the scene he had walked in on less than an hour before. The boy had looked very distraught… had it all been an act…? Could it have been?

"I... I can't just..."

"Iruka-kun… I'll make it a mission, shall I?" The Hokage's eyes were kind. "If it'll make you feel better about all of this business. I know how hard this is for you." That certainly was an understatement.

"What? A mission?" Iruka gave a weak chuckle. "'Umino Iruka, chuunin, hereby ordered to "be nice" to Uzumaki Naruto?'"

The wrinkles around the Hokage's eyes grew more pronounced as he hid a smile. "I am certain that I can find a more professional way to phrase it in the mission statement." Sarutobi said with a completely straight face.

Iruka gave a formal bow. "Well then, I accept the mission, Hokage-sama."

Next Chapter: Pulling Ahead in the Race