Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. This was written for entertainment purposes only.
Description: Canon-divergent story. Takes place five years post Kyuubi.
A/N: Currently doing a massive re-edit of this story. Please excuse any inconsistencies between revised and unrevised portions.
The sun blazed bright gold through the open windows of the Hokage's office. Summer warmth threaded its way even into the deep ravines of Sarutobi's wrinkled hands, easing the aches of worn joints and the onset of arthritis. Though he was faced with a mountain of paperwork three hours high, the Sandaime Hokage of Konohagakure spared a moment for the joy of a summer afternoon. He breathed in the scent of heated earth and leaves, a faint tinge of wood smoke, a whiff of compost. Even the sounds of his village floated up on the gentle breeze: a laugh here, the clatter of a cart there. A light rap on his office door. "Come in," he called out, straightening the official hat where it lay, abandoned, on his desk.
A tall man slid into the room, moving as if neither gravity's decree nor the limitations of joints and bones applied to him. The handle of a sword protruded from behind one shoulder, but he cradled a little boy against the other, soft arms wrapped tightly around his neck.
"Naruto!" Sarutobi exclaimed, rising to his feet and hurrying around the desk. "What happened?" he demanded of the ANBU.
The ninja knelt and placed the child on his feet. His bright yellow hair was dulled with dirt as he turned a tear-stained face towards the one adult who always had a smile for him. But he didn't run to bury his face in the white robes and receive a comforting hug. Instead his arms wrapped firmly around a black-clad leg and he tucked his cheek into the curve of the man's knee. The ninja patted his back with one gloved hand and turned the beaked mask covering his face up to the man who stood above him. "Sasaki locked him out of the house. Again. He wanted to come see you."
Sarutobi braced a hand against the desk. "I thought the physical attempts had ended with that last group." He rubbed at the ache beginning to grow inside his skull. The heat suddenly felt oppressive.
"Most decent adults can't stand violence against a child. It was children this time. I don't know if Sasaki was afraid to open the door, or just didn't care."
"What age?" Sarutobi bent down to put a hand on Naruto's shoulder, but the boy twitched away towards the crouched figure next to him.
The ANBU slid an arm around Naruto's thin shoulders. "Maybe eight or nine? Still in Academy; no forehead protectors. I drove them off as soon as I could, but he's kind of shaken up."
Sarutobi nodded in comprehension. "Hey, Naruto. You want to take a look in the bottom drawer of my desk? There might be something there for you."
The whiskered face lifted from the dark fabric of the ANBU's leg. "Ramen?" he piped. Sarutobi grinned, and Naruto let go completely.
The ANBU watched as Naruto hurried over to the drawer and pulled it open. Though he had been anticipating a bowl of steaming ramen, the chocolate candy stashed in the left corner was almost as appreciated. Naruto chomped into the sweet nugget, and a grin slowly returned to his smudged face. "Hokage-sama," the ANBU began quietly. "I think he's old enough now that he could live at—"
"No." Anger flashed a spark in the Hokage's tired eyes. "I thought I made my decision on that clear already. ANBU is no place for a child to grow up."
"Neither is where he is now." The intensity in the ninja's voice growled deep in the bass registers of his voice. "His only friends shouldn't be a ninja who can't show him his face and the leader of his village. We're not enough for him."
"And how would ANBU fix that? A hundred ninja who can't show him their faces? No, Falcon-san. ANBU will guard him. That is all."
"Yes, Hokage-sama. I apologize."
Sarutobi sighed heavily. "I understand your concern, Falcon-san. But ANBU is not the solution. I will see if Maeda-san can make room for him to stay with her for now."
"Yes, Hokage-sama." Briefly, behind his mask, the ANBU closed his eyes. Maeda would be no different.
Four days later, the glory of summer sun had degenerated into summer thunderstorms. Rain dripped from Falcon's scruffy brown hair and rolled off his slate-grey cloak as he knocked again at the Hokage's office door. The cloak was supposed to be waterproof. It was only shedding water now because the saturated cloth could not absorb any more.
Focused on his goal, Falcon seemed not to notice the wet. Chakra roiled under his skin, dark and angry. "Hokage-sama," he grated out as he stepped into the office.
From where he stood at the shelves of books and scrolls along one wall, Sarutobi met his anger with a chakra-presence of his own. "Falcon-san."
With a palpable effort, the ANBU reined in his emotion, realizing his challenge to the Hokage who watched him guardedly from across the room. "You are needed at the hospital, Hokage-sama."
"Falcon-san, I'm quite busy," Sarutobi said calmly. He softened his chakra warning now that the ANBU had settled. "Would you care to explain why?"
Sarutobi's chakra flared, and Falcon flinched. The old man shoved a volume back into its place on the shelves and swept towards the door, his pale robes swirling around him in elegant counterpoint to the black rage drenching the air.
The Hokage reined in his aura when he reached the little hospital room. Smoothing his features by force of will, Sarutobi almost wished he still had his own porcelain mask to hide behind. The ANBU followed his lead and dampened his chakra.
But the Hokage's tight control nearly slipped when Falcon slid the door open. Naruto lay like a doll between the starched white sheets, his tiny body dwarfed by the hospital bed. His blue eyes were open, staring silently at the ceiling. He turned his head as Sarutobi faltered in the doorway. The Hokage recollected himself quickly and stepped confidently inside. "Hello, Naruto."
The boy smiled brightly at him. "Hey, old man." But then as Sarutobi shed his rain cloak and sat down on the edge of Naruto's bed, tears bubbled up in his wide eyes. Sarutobi let him sob into his shoulder, looping his arms around him. He tipped his head sideways and laid his cheek on Naruto's soft spikes of hair.
The ANBU stood quietly by the door, resting a hand casually on his kunai holster. Sounds in the hall kept catching at his attention; he was ill at ease. ANBU trained its agents to eliminate the problem and get the job done at any cost. Now the problem was Konoha's citizens, and nothing he knew how to do applied. Naruto was crying, tears but no sound, the suppressed grief of someone much older. And after a few minutes, he scrubbed the moisture from his cheeks and pecked a kiss on Sarutobi's cheek. His split lip had reopened when he tried to smile, and red blood smudged on the old man's skin.
When Sarutobi finally stood, saying a few last reassuring words to Naruto, he curved a finger at the ANBU. Falcon followed him out. "And where were you?" Sarutobi barked out in the hall. The sliding door shut Naruto out of the conversation, and Sarutobi let the anger back into his eyes. "Your job is to prevent things like this, is it not, ANBU-san?"
Falcon's red and white mask remained in its perpetual porcelain scowl. "It is, Hokage-sama."
"Then what were you doing?"
"Checking Maeda's house."
"You didn't send a bunshin to do it? Or to stay with him?"
Falcon's shoulders stiffened. "My bunshin don't have that sort of range, Hokage-sama," he said, clipping the words off sharply. It was a sore point with him.
Sarutobi changed the subject instead of continuing to second-guess the ninja's judgment, even though Falcon would never argue the subject with his Hokage. There were more important issues at hand. "Was it the same children as last time?"
"No." Behind his mask, Falcon's lips drew off his teeth. "They're not going to bother him again." The Hokage's eyes sharpened and his mouth turned down at the tone in the ANBU's voice. But Falcon was still speaking. "It was the same situation, though, Hokage-sama. The children emulate what they see the adults doing. Most of the adults don't see Naruto as a person, so he loses that status in the eyes of the younger generation. If he's not human, they can do whatever they want to him. And none of them see him any other way. So no matter how many individuals I stop from bullying him, hurting him, there will always be more."
The Hokage raised an eyebrow. "That's some heavy psychoanalysis, ANBU-san."
Falcon heard the implied and how are you qualified to make those assumptions? "I spoke to a friend about this a while back."
"Ah, yes. He's more than familiar with the workings of the human mind. So you're saying that until Naruto proves himself as a person to everyone in the village, this will never end?"
"Not entirely, no."
"I am well aware of the villagers' opinions and actions against Naruto, Falcon-san. I had hoped that it might get better for him if we gave it time." Falcon's studious silence told Sarutobi just how naïve the ninja thought depending on the goodness of humanity was. "What makes you think it will be any different in ANBU?"
Barely visible through the thin slits in the bird face, Falcon's eyes widened. Hokage himself was bringing that possibility up. "It couldn't be worse." The Hokage frowned at the lip, and Falcon hurried on, willing himself not to lose this chance. "ANBU is structured. We obey rules. And we understand duty more than the average civilian, Hokage-sama." He drew half a breath, pausing. "Also, my captain said once that the Yondaime wanted the village to treat Naruto as a hero. Maybe that's impossible, but I know at least some people at ANBU will see him as a person, not a cage. And that's what he needs most of all."
Sarutobi gave the ANBU a long, assessing look. "The arrangement with Maeda and Sasaki is not working. We can both see that." He shot a pained glance at the bedroom at their backs. "So Naruto can stay for a month at the ANBU headquarters. In that time, I will find a better family for him to stay with. When I do so, he will return to them. Is that clear?"
"And Falcon-san. Civilians have hurt him, but do not forget that one ANBU could kill him. If he comes to harm, I will hold you personally responsible."
After Sarutobi left, Falcon ran a hand over his short hair, realizing too late that he was still soaking wet. He shook his hand. Drops of water sprayed into the air. Behind the hooked beak, Falcon grinned. Naruto finally had a second chance. Not a new start, because he would always carry the curse of his history, but an opportunity for that not to be all that mattered.
A face flashed in front of his eyes—his older sister, kneeling in the dirt of her garden, a curl of brown hair falling into her eyes as she tipped her head back to laugh. His chest tightened. She was five years in the grave, her infant son buried beside her. The Kyuubi couldn't ever not matter; even Naruto being its jailor couldn't ever not matter. But as quickly as her face had come, he thought of bright yellow hair and a grin as wide as Fire country. Jinchuuriki should come second to Naruto.
They all had their own losses; even in ANBU, no one had escaped that disaster unscathed. But the pain was half a decade old, time enough for scars to fade and rents in the heart to begin to knit over. Blond hair and whiskers might touch the old wounds, but they were no longer raw. ANBU would accept him. Perhaps too many years of war and destruction had twisted his perception, but despite the Sandaime's reluctance, Falcon believed that if Naruto had to grow up soaked in blood, it was better that it not be his own.