Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, go figure.

Story Title: Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin.

Teaser: Spirited away from Konoha at an early age, Naruto finds a new family amid the strife of a battlefield as old as the shinobi nations. But what will he do when his new allies' ambition is to change the world through a baptism by fire? Never give up, of course.

A/N: Welcome to my first Naruto fiction. I'm excited to write this story and was driven to do so mostly because of how terrible most of the fiction out there is for Naruto – especially the types of stories I'm interested in reading.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I like using song names to title my work and chapters. It's easier and more fun than trying to think up something on my own.

Important: If you want to read this story and not be confused and/or spoiled, I suggest you stay up to date on the Japanese manga release. This story is not for people who watch subbed or dubbed anime or simply follow the English release of the manga. I wouldn't want to be responsible for dumping an endless supply of spoilers on you. So, I suggest you catch up in the manga and stay caught up if you intend to read this story. Otherwise, you will be incredibly confused.

This story is my take on the Adopted!Naruto coupled with Akatsuki!Naruto genres. I have never read a fiction with a good plot that involved Akatsuki!Naruto, yet I've always wondered what a non-goody-two-shoes Naruto would be like. This will not be a Dark!Evil!Naruto fic, as I don't believe that being on the "bad guy" side necessitates a character being a twisted bastard. I also don't consider this a Super!Naruto fic, especially considering that in manga canon Naruto looks like he will have achieved the title of "Strongest Ninja Ever" before he reaches his seventeenth birthday. Having said that, Naruto will be much stronger much earlier on, but don't expect him to be killing S-class criminals at the tender age of thirteen like we see in so many Super! fics. Considering that Naruto didn't have any legitimate training until he graduated from the academy in canon, this doesn't seem too outrageous to me.

I am not planning on Naruto obtaining any super bloodline limits or crossover powers or the like. He's going to be strong enough on his own without spoiling everything by giving him lazer eyes or something equally stupid.

Having said that, this story will not be an AU and will stick very closely to the canon plotline for the first half of the story at least. It will obviously be written from a different perspective. Since the manga is still being written I will most likely incorporate any plot twists or possible powers gained by Naruto and other characters down the line so long as I am able.

Pairings: I do have an idea of who Naruto will be paired with, and it will be a female. I don't enjoy reading, writing, talking, or thinking about slash fiction. Ever. Not to mention it's completely out of character for Naruto. However, there will be very little romance in this story, and the pairing won't happen for a very, very long time.

Finally, for those of you worried about a parade of OC characters with God-mode powers, don't worry. I intend to do my best with what Kishimoto has given me (which is quite a lot actually). There will be some OCs early and later on in the story, but they won't play major parts throughout.

Naruto will spend a large amount of time in Konoha and we will have interactions with other rookies and such, so don't worry. Naruto will be going to the Chuunin Exams. Look forward to it.

This story's rating will be M for violence and language. I don't intend to make either too over the top, but it's just too much of a bother trying to censor myself while writing.

As always, any compliments and constructive criticisms will be much appreciated.

Chapter Title: Beat It by Michael Jackson.

She met the next passing group with a small smile and a nod. Another small caravan of merchants leaving the village on their way to places unknown. By the low piles on the carts and the distinctive rattling of metal on metal she could guess that they were steel weapons, most likely on their way to Suna. While the country of Wind had plenty of raw materials to make such items, they lacked the fuel to power the multitude of forges needed to sustain a shinobi village without foreign trade. The vast forests along this road, however, provided all the fuel necessary to make such weapons here.

Looking ahead, the road seemed to be empty for a decent stretch. She loved the peace and quiet that she found wandering leisurely along the forested lane. Her schedule was fairly lax today and she took advantage of the extra time to soak up the atmosphere. The rustling of leaves as they were gently buffeted by the wind provided a semblance of peace to her always alert and often weary mind.

Most of all, she loved the sun shining down on her over the tops of the trees and through the leaves of the dense forest. The simple joy of sunlight never ceased to lighten her heavy, battle-wearied soul.

She smiled to herself, and for the first time in a long time it was a true smile; one that reached even to her dulled eyes -- eyes that showed pain and sadness beyond her years.

This was almost like a vacation for her. Almost.

Her moment of emotional indulgence ended as she pulled her face back into a neutral mask.

She was nearing the village now and the traffic began to pick up. All kinds of civilian caravans and small groups of shinobi, often accompanying the civilians, passed on their way out of the village. These people were barely afforded a cursory glance and a nod of acknowledgement as she continued on. Ahead she could make out others moving towards the village. Apparently even a leisurely stroll for her was faster than these travelers were willing to go.

No matter. She still had an hour or two before her meeting with… an associate. It really wouldn't do to be late though. Businessmen were even more obsessive over time than shinobi, on occasion.

Finally the monolithic wooden gates came into view as she rounded a bend that turned to the straightaway leading up to the village. Frankly, they and the great wall from which they opened amused her. Konoha was the only ninja village that bothered with such an ineffective defense. A wall that pitiful would only hinder civilians or young ninjas-in-training. Any ninja ranked chuunin or higher could scale it in moments. Even the rocky shield wall that surrounded Suna and defended it from the harsh desert winds could be overcome by trained ninja, and the pittance of a defense before her now was only a small fraction the size of that geological monstrosity.

Then again, she hadn't sensed any patrols outside the village since crossing the border into Fire Country. And she would have, if they were there.

Waiting in line to have her status checked by the two buffoons at the gate, she began to regret not moving faster in an effort to arrive earlier and therefore avoid the late morning rush to enter the village. She had begun paying closer attention to the people and conversations surrounding her, and what she found was disturbing to her cautious mind.

These people did not act like any people she had ever seen in a ninja village. They were far too carefree. Far too ignorant of the dangers of the world. The ninjas entering and leaving the village and those at the gates were the worst of all. The Raikage himself could have walked calmly through the gates in full regalia and she doubted they would be any the wiser. Bitterness and anger rose up from someplace in her stomach and her mind began to rage. Didn't these people have any idea what the real world was like? This was a ninja village, wasn't it? Hadn't they barely escaped complete destruction at the hands of the monster Kyuubi not five years ago? The Third Great Secret World War had only come to a conclusion a year ago with a Cease-Fire agreement between Konoha and Kumo, hadn't it?

And these stupid people were talking and laughing when they should be focused on security!

This was the reason why the wars didn't stop. This was the reason why again and again families were torn to pieces and lives were destroyed. Because no one could see beyond dinner that evening. Because no one thought beyond catching up at the bar that night with their war buddies. What did these ignorant fools know about war, about sacrifice, about pain?

Not enough. Not nearly enough if they had so quickly reverted to this state of malaise, of indifference. This was the greatest of the shinobi villages? The unbreakable Konoha? How had it survived with such an easy outlook on the world? Everything was unstable and war would come again, yet these people acted as though their troubles were over for good. How foolish.

She reigned in her anger as her turn at the gate finally came. As she walked up to the two men seated at the covered table just inside the wall she was addressed for the first time since entering Fire Country.

"Papers?" the man asked in a bored tone without looking up from his notes. He wore a forest green flak jacket and dark blue shinobi pants and shirt. Standard Konoha attire. A chuunin. A nobody.

"I'm sorry sir, but I'm not ninja trained, nor am I a merchant," she replied calmly. This was a lie. She had plenty of training, but no papers, as she had never been registered with any village. Dressed as she was in civilian sandals, baggy light brown pants that reached to her calves, and a loose, light blue long-sleeved shirt, she appeared the perfect picture of civilian innocence. Even the sturdy backpack she wore was a bulky civilian model not designed for the rigors of the ninja lifestyle.

The man finally looked up and started slightly. "I'm very sorry miss. It's the standard opening question. They make me ask it, you see," he replied in what he most certainly thought was a charming way.

She thought it repulsive.

"A civilian then." He received a nod. "May I ask your business in Konoha today, miss?"

Ignoring the stupid grin on his face, she quickly replied. "I'm visiting my uncle and his family. They're merchants here in town."

"Ah, family business then. Well, that's all we need to know. Enjoy Konoha."

And that's how she infiltrated the great Village Hidden in the Leaves. Ignoring the other townspeople in the crowded streets she quickly made her way into the heart of the city where the commotion would draw attention away from her actions. Ducking into an empty alleyway she set to work. It was time to see what beautiful, sunny Konoha had to offer besides idiot chuunin guards.

Then she moved on to her meeting. If all went well she would be done in a few hours' time and have the rest of the day to enjoy herself around town.

She emerged from her meeting angry once again. Not for any reason dealing with the meeting itself. It had gone perfectly. So long as her people were available to pick up the deliveries - and they would be, she would see to that - their operation would continue without a hitch for the foreseeable future. At least in that one aspect.

She was angry because while in the meeting she had had an epiphany. An epiphany as to why the people in this village could get away with their happy-go-lucky attitudes in a ninja society and still survive, even flourish. The answer was sacrifice, and the sacrifice was their heroes. Heroes that had given themselves entirely to this village, this village that disrespected their sacrifices by becoming complacent time and again. They carved their faces on a mountainside and then forgot about them. Forgot how they shed blood and tears for this place. Forgot how they gave their time, their health, their sanity, and their very lives so that the Village Hidden in the Leaves could go on bumbling from one crisis to another leaving nothing but the corpses of its heroes in its wake.

Shaking herself from her thoughts, she set out to visit one of the smaller market areas that she had discovered earlier. Despite the fact that she found the attitude of the villagers to be unbecoming of citizens of a ninja village, they were rather pleasant to talk to and be around. If she were a civilian she knew that she would have liked this place. But she was not. She never would be.

Wandering around the village she had picked out plenty of ninjas patrolling over the rooftops and simply running from place to place, but none had approached her or even spared her a second glance, aside from a few men whose gaze lingered a bit longer than was necessary. That was certainly not a serious cause for concern. Still, being that she was alone in a potentially hostile environment she was careful to keep her guard up.

It surprised her to find two… no, three ninja camouflaged on rooftops overlooking the market. They were surprisingly well hidden, despite the fact that they were in broad daylight overlooking a busy street. These must have been the Hokage's ANBU. Only specially trained ninjas such as they would take on a reconnaissance mission in the middle of the village at this time of day. Thanks to her unique abilities they were no more hidden from her than the rest of the populace going about their business in the street, but still she needed to be careful. These three were a danger, even to her, especially if they raised an alarm.

She was sure that they had been in their positions before she had arrived, however, so either they were waiting for her and she was already compromised or they were observing someone else. The positioning of the three was also rather odd. The first two were much closer to the roadway than the third and a bit more conspicuous, as though their detection would not compromise them. That or they didn't think their target capable of detecting them. The third was well back from the road and much more effectively concealed. An over watch for the group? He was positioned in such a way that the first two would be hard pressed to detect him in any way, almost if he was hiding from them as well.

Deciding that being caught unaware would be irrefutably foolish she decided to check her surroundings to ensure her safety. Concentrating on her surroundings while pretending to examine a piece of fruit at a street vendor, she concluded that there were no other ANBU forces around for a few blocks in every direction. They must have been watching someone else.

A crash coupled with loud shouting brought her out of her musing as she turned away from the fruit stand. The sound seemed to be coming from a shop next to the fruit stand and, she quickly realized, directly across from the first two hidden ANBU. As the commotion approached the front of the shop she began to make out words being screamed by what sounded like an older man.

"What'd I tell you about coming in here you little cockroach! You're not allowed! Get the hell out. Out!"

She winced as a small body came hurtling out of the storefront and landed unceremoniously in the road, causing every head to turn to see the action. She was intrigued when the startled looks of passersby twisted into looks of glee, as though they had just stumbled on a free show.

The body, which she could now tell belonged to a blond haired boy decked out in worn and dirty shorts and a T-shirt, quickly tried to get up but was sent back to the dirt when a large, middle-aged man stormed out of the store and jabbed him in the stomach with the end of a broom handle.

"If I catch you in my store again, I'm gonna to break every damn finger you got! Damn monster!"

She watched as the child, who couldn't have been much older than three or four, once again scampered to his feet and, turning around as quickly as he could while clutching his abused stomach, ran directly into her leg. For a moment, as he tried to regain his balance and bearings, he looked up and his eyes met hers. Tears pooled in the deep blue, almost unnatural eyes that seemed to stare into her soul and beg for something incomprehensible. What she saw in them was pain. Pain and hurt the likes of which she had lived through for years. How had a child so young come to have such sad eyes?

Before she could respond he had brushed past her and run down the street as fast as his legs could carry him. She was brought back to her senses by the shifting of the ANBU on the rooftop. They hadn't attempted to move, but it seemed to her as though their eyes were following the boy as he ran up the road a bit to a small restaurant stand.

Were they there to observe the boy, a child not yet old enough to enter the ninja academy?

She was brought back from her musings by the dull murmur that began building around her from the market-goers. Words such as "menace," "monster," and "demon" were common among the ramblings, which almost to the last carried suggestions of varying degrees of physical violence to subject the child to. Suddenly, the situation became much clearer. In the past few years she had made a point to familiarize herself with the tailed beasts, their characteristics, and the methods of containing them. She even knew every jinchuuriki in the world by location. And name. All seven. After wracking her brain a name surfaced: Uzumaki Naruto, jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi. The age of the child she had seen was about right. The Kyuubi had been defeated by the Fourth Hokage around four and a half years prior, which put her previous estimation of the child's age a bit on the low side. It was still entirely feasible though. She recalled that the boy was clan-less, of parentage unknown. An orphan. Just like her.

She scowled and turned her attention back to the small restaurant he had entered. Noticing that a good portion of the shopping crowd was wandering in that direction continuing their disturbed mutterings, she decided to take a closer look to confirm her suspicions. A few members of the infant mob had already entered the restaurant after the boy, which seemed to elicit more angry words from inside. Moments later those who had entered pushed back into the street followed by a fuming man dressed in a white chef's apron and hat waving a ladle a bit madly.

"You have no right to treat him like this!" The irate chef seemed to be turning his fury onto the assembling crowd as a whole. "The poor boy's done nothing to you in your damn lives. Now if you're not going to order some ramen then get out of here. You should all be ashamed of yourselves!"

Personally, she couldn't agree more.

The crowd, however, seemed intent on getting around the man in order to find the small boy and returned the chef's chastisement with its own screaming. Things seemed about to get physical when two raven-haired ninjas jumped down from a nearby roof into the middle of the crowd. They sported generally non-descript black clothing, the only defining feature of which was an interesting white and red symbol on the back. Uchiha. She thought for a moment about what she knew of the clan, which, when she thought about it, was more than everyone in the world bar about five or so. The Uchiha clan acted as the Konoha military police force, first and foremost. It was their job to keep the peace in the Konoha city proper among both civilians and ninjas. It seemed the standoff outside of the ramen shop was about to be resolved.

While one of the newly arrived officers began addressing the crowd and the chef, the other quickly scanned the crowd and rooftops for potential hazards. As the man's eyes paused on the two ANBU still concealed on the rooftop, she could see the distinct red tint of the Uchiha bloodline limit in action. The Uchiha in question turned and muttered something to his partner, most likely alerting him to the ANBU presence in the area. Together, the two policemen worked to disperse the crowd despite the many grumbles that came from the spiteful men and women. They then turned and had a short conversation with the chef, which elicited an angry frown from the man, this time directed at the policemen. A curt dismissal from the officers and the chef returned to his stand while the Uchiha took to the rooftops, resuming their patrol.

Continuing to watch from across the road - discreetly now that the crowd had dispersed - she could make out through the curtains that marked the entrance to the ramen stand that the boy had come back out from where he had been hiding behind the counter to speak briefly with the chef before slipping back out into the street to make his way to wherever his next destination was. After a moment, movement on the rooftop showed that the ANBU were making to follow the boy, continuing their surveillance.

The woman freely admitted to herself that the experience had disturbed her. Her own memories of her childhood as an orphan were forced back to the surface and she found herself subconsciously comparing their two lives. In some ways she was far luckier than him. She had two trustworthy and loyal friends that always helped keep her spirits up, even in the worst of times. The boy, on the other hand, was treated like a leper in a village that should be treating him as a savior, a hero. She fumed at that. Hadn't she just decided that this village, the most famous in the shinobi world, treated all of its heroes as sacrifices? If that is the case, she revised, then this sort of behavior towards him was to be expected. The true tragedy was that he was a sacrifice, not of his own free will, but of the will of Konoha. As much as she knew and respected the legend of the Fourth Hokage, the most feared ninja of the Third Great War, she couldn't help the feelings of contempt she held of him for sacrificing an innocent boy for these idiot people. As great as he was he should have known that they would spit on his memory at the first opportunity. Despicable.

The boy, at least, had food, clothing, and what she could only surmise was a trio of guardian angels who were to protect him from trouble, though their actions earlier, or lack thereof, caused her to wonder at what point they would have felt compelled to come to the boy's aid. Before or after those dogs got started on the poor kid? As a child she had always been plagued by uncertainty. Would she be able to eat today? Would she be able to find shelter for the night from the thrice-damned rain? Would she be killed by roving ninjas before the sun came up? Would she be killed after? She knew that she had only survived with body and mind intact thanks to the companionship of her friends. What would life have been like without them? She found that she didn't want to know.

Was it better to get by in life with no companions to share it with or to be constantly wondering with good friends by your side? She knew which she would choose.

The attitude shown the boy was nothing unique among those shown towards the vessels of the tailed beasts. She knew what sort of hardships they suffered, at least intellectually. Still, watching the boy – Naruto, she prompted herself - treated so callously by practically everyone tore a hole in her already battered heart. Like so many things involved in ninja life, it just wasn't right. Things had to change. She decided then and there that she had to speak to young Uzumaki Naruto at least once before she left the Village Hidden in the Leaves.

After leaving the small market district she had headed towards the nearest city limit, which happened to be on the way to the shinobi training grounds. There she sat down in the shade of a tree and relaxed as she listened to the wind rustling through the leaves above her. Everything was so incredibly peaceful here with nothing around except for the trees and small animals. And no damned rain. She used her time to clear her mind and prepare to enact her hastily drawn together plan. There wasn't really all that much to it actually, and it almost certainly guaranteed a confrontation with the local shinobi considering the three ANBU tails the boy dragged about. It really was a very stupid plan. She sighed resignedly to herself and reached into her shirtsleeve to retrieve a piece of paper hidden within. A drop of blood later and she was reading one of her old sensei's less popular books. She blinked stupidly as it occurred to her that the main character's name was also Naruto. Now that was interesting.

Nearly an hour later she heard the sounds of a child's raucous approach. Taking a good look at him without all of the commotion surrounding him, she felt that he appeared strangely familiar somehow. Most noticeable was his golden head of unruly hair. It was a truly unusual color to find in the shinobi nations. Looking closer, she noticed his face was rather remarkable as well. Along with the stunning blue eyes that she had noticed in the market, she picked out for the first time six thin birth marks on his face that resembled whiskers like those you'd find on a cat. Or a fox. Now she remembered that all jinchuuriki have at least one defining mark about their person that indicates their status as a container for a tailed beast. There could be no doubt now, this was the Kyuubi's prison.

Naruto was jumping around and giggling as he playfully chased a small group of large white butterflies towards her position. She remained seated, however, as she was unsure of how the boy would react to stumbling across someone in such a remote place. If what she'd seen was any indication, he may just pack up and run.

The boy finally noticed her when he was only around twenty feet from her resting place. Upon glimpsing her, he immediately froze and, throwing one last look at the dancing butterflies, turned on his heel and started away.

"You don't need to be afraid, you know. I don't bite." Naruto cautiously turned around to look back at her. "It's a beautiful day out today, don't you think? I'm not from around here so I don't often get to just lay around and enjoy myself in a place as beautiful as this." She gave him a small smile and motioned for him to come closer.

Naruto hesitated for a moment then took a few tentative steps towards the strange woman who simply continued smiling at him and patted the ground in front of her. She had said that she wasn't from Konoha, and from his experience that meant that she would be less likely to try to hit or yell at him. The old man at the ramen stand had once told him that he was from a different place too. He had walked up the spot on the soft ground that she had indicated and she still showed no signs of attacking or screaming, so he decided he could sit down and perhaps talk to her for a bit. "Hi." He grinned nervously at her. "Um, I've lived here all my life so I guess I'm used to the forest."

He spoke a bit guardedly for her taste so she decided it would be best to try to open him up a bit. "So, what brings you out here all by yourself? Were you meeting a friend here?

Naruto looked down at the mention of a friend. "No, I was just following some butterflies I saw in town. They flew out here so I came."

"They're very pretty aren't they?"

Naruto met her eyes again and a smile slid back onto his face. "Yeah! I've never seen butterflies like those around here before. I was hoping I could catch one to look at it closer, but they always got away."

Apparently it didn't take too much prodding to get the boy talking. That was good. "Sometimes seeing a thing for what it really is just makes it ordinary, though," she replied cryptically. She smiled at him again. "So, what's your name young man?"

"Uzumaki Naruto!" the boy replied proudly, all trace of his former caution gone. It just showed how attention starved he truly was that his attitude could change so rapidly in the presence of a little companionship.

"And how old are you Uzumaki Naruto?" she replied with a giggle that surprised even her. She couldn't remember the last time she'd done that.

"I'm four and a half." Here he held up four fingers to emphasize his point. At least they hadn't completely neglected his education.

"And what do you like to do, Naruto?"

"I like to eat ramen at Ichiraku Ramen and talk to the old man when he can spend time with me, but in a little while I'm going to join the ninja academy and train to be a great ninja!" She didn't know who the old man was but that was beside the point. The kid actually wanted to be a ninja.

Now it was time to ask the important questions. "Oh? And why do you want to be a ninja, Naruto?"

At this, the boy's face took on an oddly serious countenance that was a bit unnerving to see on a child so young. "All of the ninjas are respected by the villagers and the villagers do what they say. If I become a great ninja then all the people in Konoha will have to stop being so mean all the time. That's why I want to be the Hokage like the old man. Then everyone will have to look up to me!"

Now they had hit upon the real issues and the argument had taken on a decidedly dangerous leaning. If she intended to go any further, she couldn't afford to be overheard.

The boy turned his head at the sound of leaves rustling and a muffled thump from the forest just out of sight. "Did you hear that?"

"Hm, probably just some animals playing up in the trees." It was time to see what the boy really thought about his situation. "Naruto, you said that the people in the village are mean to you. Do you know why?" She was sure that he didn't. The Third had enacted a rather ineffective law after the Kyuubi attack that the boy's status was not to be discussed in front of those who didn't already know the truth. This, however, was hardly followed and as a result every ninja village in the shinobi world had a file on one Uzumaki Naruto. She supposed the Third, or old man as Naruto called him, did it for the sake of the boy, but in the end it was a token gesture at best. Surely Naruto had picked up on the villagers' rants over the years, though he wouldn't understand them just yet.

Naruto's eyes went back to the ground. "I don't know why, really. I always thought that maybe I did something really bad since that's what they all say, but I can't remember what it was. I would apologize to them if I could just remember what I did, but I can't. Once I get stronger though I can show them that I'm really sorry by protecting them and the village."

She cocked her head a bit to look at him. "Do you really think that will work?"

"I..." Naruto paused as his face regained a troubled expression. "I don't really know. I want to get strong to show them I'm not bad but I can't yet. I don't know how. I have to start at the academy before I can start learning to be a ninja."

"And once you get into the academy, what then? Do you think they'll teach you to be a ninja?" Naruto met her eyes with a confused expression on his face. "Do you think they'll want to?"

The look of confusion slowly morphed to one of panic. "But the old man said I would! He said I could be a ninja when I was old enough! He wouldn't lie to me, he wouldn't."

His indignant response was met by a sad smile. "I don't think the Hokage was lying. I think he would let you be a ninja." The smile faded and a hint of steel was in her voice now. "But a ninja's life isn't a game. Without proper training a ninja is as good as dead. Do you think the instructors will train you to be a good ninja if they don't like you? The Hokage can't be there to help you all the time. It will be a long time before you can graduate and even longer before you're seen as a strong ninja. If you aren't taught properly then you probably won't even live that long. Weak ninjas are all killed early on. If you're not taught properly then you'll just die and never be able to achieve anything." The distressed look on the boy's face wrenched her heart, but she knew this was necessary.

"Then what can I do? I don't want to die." His voice fell and she detected a slight tremor to it. "I don't want to be alone anymore."

"You could always leave the village."

Naruto looked at her incredulously, as though the thought had never crossed his mind. "But then I'll never become a ninja. I'll never gain their respect."

"What are you talking about? This isn't the only place that trains ninjas you know. In another village people wouldn't hate you just for who you are. You'd have a fresh start to make a real name for yourself. You'd have a place where you wouldn't have to be alone. A place where you could be strong."

"But if I leave then I can never be the Hokage like the old man. I could never be the strongest." His statement was met with a small spell of light laughter.

"Naruto, the Hokage is the strongest ninja in the Fire Country. He's not necessarily the strongest ninja in the world. I happen to know ninjas much stronger than the Hokage." Naruto looked at her in no small amount of awe. "If… you were to come with me, I could introduce you. They could even help teach you if you promise to try your very hardest."

Naruto looked floored by the revelation, but the look slowly shifted to skepticism. "You really know ninjas stronger than the old man? How? Are you a ninja?"

She paused for a moment, then spoke. "I am."

"Would you help teach me then?"

"If you come with me, I will help you as much as I can."

Naruto took in her words and sat quietly for a moment. "If I leave, then I won't be able to see the old man again, or eat at Ichiraku anymore."

"No one is telling you that you can never come back some day. Ninja travel around all the time."

Naruto took this in and continued his pondering. She found it quite cute on his not yet five-year-old face. What caught her interest the most though was how thoroughly such a young child was thinking through his decision. Perhaps he truly understood the importance of this choice? "If I go with you I won't be able to be Hokage though, like my hero. He gave his live to protect the village, you know? He defeated an evil monster that no one else could. Would he be mad that someone like me just left the village like that?"

So the boy's hero was Namikaze himself. How ironic that the man who cursed the child on the day of his birth was the one who that same child looked up to more than any other. She had never met the man who was the Fourth Hokage, but in the shinobi world his legend preceded him. The fact that they had shared masters simply made him more of a topic of interest for her. She idly wondered what had possessed the man to seal a horrible monster into this child over the rest. How the charming and carefree yet incomparably deadly man had brought himself to curse the life of an innocent child, she didn't know. Everything about the man was incomprehensible. He'd been nicknamed in the Third War for something as un-sinister as the golden color of his hair despite being the most deadly ninja of the war. She found herself stuck on his hair for a moment for no reason she could understand. Turning her attention back to the boy who seemed to be waiting for an answer from her, it hit. Naruto had the same golden hair as Namikaze. The same unruly hair. Naruto. The name from her perverted teacher's book. It dawned on her slowly, because the idea was so completely ridiculous that it took a moment to sink in. Namikaze hadn't used an orphan to seal the Kyuubi. He'd used his son.

It was a silly thought, but she reached up her left sleeve with her right arm and removed another sheet of paper from its recesses. Naruto seemed to be following her actions with interest as she sliced her left thumb open along the end of her right sleeve and dripped a bit of blood on the oddly decorated sheet of paper. In a puff of smoke a small, battered black book appeared and she quickly began leafing through it, without even seeming to touch the pages, to stop on one she had been looking for. The action elicited a small gasp from the child but he remained silent, content with watching her work. Narrowing her eyes she scrutinized it carefully before looking back up to the small boy before her. Definitely the same golden locks. The same lightly tanned skin. The same cerulean eyes. Naruto was a miniature copy of Namikaze Minato, the greatest ninja ever to be produced by the most illustrious of the hidden villages. Now she knew that she had to take the boy with her. This was too much to pass up. The potential in this child was truly unmatched. He was the vessel of the strongest of the tailed beasts and the son of one of the most brilliant ninja minds of all time. Now just to convince him to come along. He was so close to choosing to leave of his own will that she just needed to give him a small nudge.

Thinking back to his last question, she finally responded. "I don't think that the Fourth Hokage would want anything more than for you to be happy." And this was true, now that she thought about it. It must have been the hardest thing the poor man had ever done to leave his newborn son an orphan on top of the burden he had to carry.

Naruto seemed to recover from his bewilderment at her spontaneous unsealing at the mention of the Fourth Hokage. "You know about the Fourth? Can you tell me about him?"

Now she was becoming anxious. They had spent a good deal of time talking and she didn't know how long before the boy or his minders would be missed. It was time for them to go. "I can answer any questions you have while we are going back to my home."

Naruto's enthusiasm died a little as a second wave of indecision hit him. "I'm still not sure this is a good plan… Are you sure we won't be in trouble?"

"No more trouble than the villagers who came after you earlier should be in." Naruto's eyes widened again asking a silent question. "Yes, I have been watching you for a while today Naruto. They have no right to do that to you, you know."

"They're not that bad."

Enough stalling, it was time to go. "Naruto. I know why they hate you, and believe me when I say that fools like those would not change their preconceptions so easily."

Naruto sat in shock for a moment. "You know why? Why? Tell me! Why do they hate me?"

"If you come with me I will explain everything to you in due time, but we must leave now if we are to go. I promise you that everything I have told you so far is true, but if they know you are leaving then they will try to stop you."

"Isn't it wrong to leave then?"

"No, Naruto, it isn't. The reason they will try to stop you is the same reason why the people here treat you badly. There is no law though that prevents you from moving out of the village. The people here would break their own laws to make you unhappy. Do you understand?"

Naruto seemed a bit overwhelmed, but recovered quickly. Nodding to himself he turned back to the woman he had only just met. "If you promise to help me become a great ninja, then I will go with you."

"I promise, Naruto."

"What's your name?"

"I will tell you when we reach our destination, Naruto. For now you can call me Blue."

Sarutobi Hiruzen sat in his high-backed office chair working through a stack of reports detailing the enrollments in the ninja academy for the new semester. While many dreaded the thought of being stuck with the administrative side of being Hokage, Sarutobi found it strangely comforting. Even though he was still considered one of the greatest ninjas alive, he had never lusted in the thrill of battle as many shinobi of note had. Sarutobi had taken the Hokage seat at the unprecedented age of nineteen with a promise to love and protect all of Konoha as though they were his own family, and it was this aspect of the job that he loved most. Never one to hesitate on the battlefield, he nevertheless found solace in the simple running of the village. Keeping all of his children safe and happy was his greatest aspiration. The simple fact that he was able to spend his time ensuring the village functioned smoothly in peacetime was often the only reward he received from the otherwise thankless job. He supposed that it was enough even as he frowned down at the list of new enrollment.

There were so many names there that he did not recognize – civilian names. While he was always happy to welcome new ninjas into the service of the village, it disturbed him that so many children would be thrust into the dangerous shinobi lifestyle without truly understanding what it would mean for them. While the old ninja clans instilled very early in their children the hardships and expectations of life in service of the village, the civilian children often came to the academy with nothing more than vague notions of what "the life" required of them and big dreams of earning glory on the field of battle. It troubled Sarutobi that it would ultimately be his duty to disillusion these children of their false expectations.

It was also worrisome that their parents had so readily sent their children to enter into ninja service. During the ninja wars, civilians generally stopped enrolling their children because academy students were often deployed at a much earlier age - sometimes not more than four years old - to be tested in a trial by fire. The children of shinobi clans were expected to fulfill this role, despite the high fatality rate and ensuing psychological damage witnessing death at such an age could cause.

And yet the civilians had begun enrolling their children so soon after the close of fighting. The Third Great Ninja War had only finally ended a little over a year before with the cease-fire signed between Konoha and Kumo. Even that had taken the sacrifice of Hyuuga Hizashi to cement.

The old Hokage sighed. Things would have been so much easier if Minato were still around. He would never have stood by and allowed Kumo's outrageous demands to be met. The ninjas of Kumo feared him more than they feared the Shinigami himself. Sarutobi chuckled sadly at that thought. Minato hadn't feared the Shinigami at all.

Most people didn't understand how tragic the Fourth's death had been. Granted, he had stopped the single greatest threat to Konoha's existence since its founding over sixty years ago. Despite the horrors of that day, casualties had been very low – deaths were in the dozens instead of the hundreds or thousands that would have been slain without Minato's heroism. Still, the greatest hope for Konoha's future had disappeared that day along with the monster Kyuubi.

Minato was undoubtedly the most talented Konoha ninja in its history. He was also the most talented ninja to be born into the world in two generations, so far a Sarutobi knew. Sarutobi remembered it as an unexpected surprise when Jiraiya came to him and asked if he could take the boy on as an apprentice after his team had passed the Chuunin Exams. At first the old man had been skeptical. The notes on Minato from the academy said that he had been easygoing and popular among the other students but had never shown any exceptional talent in the ninja arts. Apparently his commission as a genin had lit a fire within the boy.

In their first chuunin exam - held in Rain of all places - Jiraiya's squad had won the team battle tournament that took the place of the one-on-one third stage of the Konoha exam. All three members of the squad had been promoted to chuunin and had returned to Konoha to much aplomb, where Jiraiya, being who he was, had instantly opted out of the jounin instructor role that Sarutobi had forced on him. Team Jiraiya was reassigned and young Minato was taken on as an apprentice to the wayward Toad Hermit, who immediately spirited him away from the city for a period of three years to "experiment" and "research." The old man had a guess as to which of these took up the majority his perverted student's time.

He was even more surprised, however, to find that Minato had most assuredly leaned more towards the "experiment" department. After witnessing the most complex spatial manipulation ninjutsu he had ever laid eyes on, Sarutobi had assigned Minato to the northwestern border outpost under the command of the famous Hatake Sakumo to complete a tour of duty protecting the border between Fire and Grass countries.

And then the Third Great War broke out. Naturally Iwa was the first to attack, straight through Grass country and onto Hatake's outpost. Preliminary reports from the border included urgent calls for reinforcements and the distinct possibility of the position being overrun by the enemy. Only hours later another report confirmed that they were set upon by the Iwa Fourth Heavy Attack Division. Comprising mostly of powerful earth-element jounins this division was deployed to break any and all enemy entrenchments and otherwise crush the opposition. It was the spear-tip of the Tsuchikage's army. Hatake's defenders were barely holding on even with nearby patrols coming to reinforce his men against the onslaught. Knowing that this marked the start of a major offensive into Fire Country, Sarutobi called up his men with the intention of leading a force against the invading Iwa shinobi himself.

The next day as he was preparing to set out through the great gates with his forces allayed about him he received a short missive from the front by carrier hawk.

Iwa advanced forces neutralized. Scouts report halt in hostile advances. Request further instruction.

Hatake S.

Sarutobi was more alarmed by this missive than any before. What had caused the sudden turn in the tide of the battle? How were the Iwa forces so quickly neutralized? Had the note been faked somehow? His response was equally curt - Hold position and await the Hokage's reinforcements. He pushed his men to reach the border by the next morning and could only sigh in relief with what he had found.

One of Hatake's captains had met the Hokage a mile away from the fort and escorted his force in. The small encampment was in ruins, the fighting having spread out through the woods as Hatake's men abandoned the stationary position and moved to sting at the flanks of the enemy formation. Still, the Hokage was relieved to hear that Hatake's unconventional tactics had saved over half his men despite being completely outnumbered and pinned down. Sarutobi was right in putting him here in the field where his experience would be most useful.

That was only the first surprise though, and only a small one. As his men spread out to begin setting up positions, he surveyed the surrounding area and was drawn to the tallest hill in the area, just a mile north of the encampment, toward the Iwa lines. On the hill was a massive pyre of flame burning brightly in the early hours of the day. Turning a questioning look towards Hatake, he was quietly told that they were the bodies of the Iwa ninjas. All eighty of them.

Hatake had no more than fifty men of his own at the best of times. Thirty-one today.

Sarutobi found Minato sitting in front of the massive pyre, simply staring out at the Iwa formations in their encampments. The young man was rarely this subdued and the Hokage didn't want to disturb him quite yet, so he approached quietly from behind while taking in the scene with a sad expression. Another ninja war. Slowly he began steeling himself for what he knew would come. He'd lived through two great wars already and was ready, if reluctant, to fight a third.

"I completed a new jutsu yesterday, sensei." He had been sure that he wasn't heard as he approached, but Minato had clearly detected him somehow. Sarutobi gave a small smile to the man – no, boy. He wasn't even yet eighteen – at the usage of his pet name for him. Minato had always insisted that since Jiraiya wasn't dignified enough for the title that he might as well use it for the Hokage. "Will there really be another ninja war now?"

"I'm afraid so, Minato." Sarutobi had had a myriad of questions for the young man, but fought down the urge to interrogate him right then. The boy had needed reassurances, not to relive the veritable slaughter that he must have brought down upon these men and women.

"I never want to do that again," Minato had finally turned from his place on the ground to look the older ninja in the eyes, "but I will for the sake of Konoha. I don't want to see any more of our comrades die."

Sarutobi was silent for a moment before helping the blond to his feet. "Come Minato, we all have much work to do if we truly want to protect them."

But Sarutobi had been wrong. It wasn't clear if it had been the death pyre put proudly on display or the arrival of the Hokage's army, but later that very day the Iwa forces had begun a full withdrawal from Fire Country and all the way back to Iwa. Minato had been relieved of his tour of duty early to return to Konoha, where he was promoted to jounin and took on his own team of chuunin to lead in medium ranked missions for the village. Only now did Sarutobi appreciate that Hatake Sakumo's newly orphaned son had been placed with Minato. Without the kind-hearted man as a role model, the poor boy would have certainly not survived the mental torment intact. As it was, it was a very near thing.

Three years later, when Minato was twenty, Iwa had invaded once again and war had broken out in earnest. Minato's squad was sent to the front where Minato won fame and the second SS rank in the Bingo Book in history alongside the infamous Hanzou of Rain. And then he had become the Hokage at the tender age of twenty-two.

Sarutobi never regretted his decision. He was fifty-three when he stepped down – still in good form for a ninja of his talent – but the transition had been easy and the choice obvious. Minato was born to be the Hokage. In Minato, Sarutobi saw the ideals of his senseis and the future of Konoha – of the entire shinobi world. Though the war with Kumo was still dragging on, with Minato at the head of the village its outcome was obvious. No one would fight Minato. No one could fight Minato. And more than that, his genius never wavered and his penchant for playing with new techniques had not either. At twenty-two he was the most dangerous ninja in the world, and was getting stronger. Minato was the harbinger of a peaceful future for decades to come in the ninja world. He had the power, the will, and the support to accomplish a lasting peace and prosperity never before seen in the elemental nations.

The Kyuubi had put an end to all that. Now Sarutobi was back in his desk filling out what would eventually be the sanctioned death orders of so many young people. At times this job - this profession - disgusted him. He was nearing his sixtieth birthday and knew he could not do this for much longer. He needed to find another candidate for his position, and soon.

But there were not many options. His wayward students had cut ties with the village over the past decade and of the younger jounins none showed the kind of exceptional skill or spirit to lead the village into the future. So for now he would wait in the hope that another rose up to take the reigns. Another Minato.

But Sarutobi was not so foolish as to believe that would happen.

The old Hokage's reminiscing was broken by a disturbance outside the doors of his office. He looked up in mild concern as the doors were thrown open and an old man stormed in followed by a chuunin secretary who was frantically trying to waylay the irate man. The Hokage rose as he waved the chuunin off and moved to address Danzou.

"We have a problem Sarutobi." The man would be almost pitiable if he wasn't such an ass. His entire right side had been burned to charcoal in the Second War, losing the man an arm and an eye. He looked like half a mummy in Sarutobi's opinion.

It was an opinion he kept to himself.

"What's happened now Danzou?"

"One of my men has failed to report in from his reconnaissance, which should have been done nearly an hour ago now."

This was apparently supposed to mean something extraordinary to the Hokage. He let Danzou have his own little special operations group because it kept the man occupied and sometimes bore some fruit. As far as Sarutobi knew, however, most of Danzou's men operated outside of the village as spies and saboteurs. "You'll have to be more specific, Danzou. What was this man tasked with?"

The bandaged man seemed to take offense to the Hokage's calm demeanor. "He was assigned to follow the two fools you keep on the Uzumaki boy."

The Hokage raised his eyebrow at this. He had not been informed that Danzou had a man watching the boy nor had his own ANBU informed him of a tail. Both were troubling. "Perhaps we should discuss the permissible range of assignments your men can be tasked. I'll start by saying that spying on children within the city limits is not one of them."

"Don't give me that garbage Sarutobi. Your men are damn sloppy on that detail and you know it. Besides…"

He was interrupted by the appearance of a dog-masked ninja with striking white hair in the office beside the Hokage's desk. The intruding ninja rose from his kneeling position and quickly began speaking. "Lord Hokage, two of our operatives were found dead in the forest south of training area twelve, along with one other masked ninja." The ANBU spared a look towards Danzou at the mention of the third ninja in the forest.

Danzou cursed. The Hokage, on the other hand, took it upon himself to ask the pertinent questions. "These were the two men assigned to follow Uzumaki Naruto, yes?"

The masked man gave a nod. "Yes, Lord Hokage."

"Where is the boy now?" Danzou seemed disinclined to be left out of the conversation.

"He was not found anywhere near the deceased. Our operatives are scouring the outlying area for any signs of the attackers or the boy."

Danzou cursed again. "Damn it Sarutobi, I told you we needed to take more steps towards keeping him safe! Towards training him! He's Namikaze's greatest weapon and you squander his potential in the hopes that he'll have something resembling a childhood? We both knew it was a fool's errand."

"Naruto is not a weapon, Danzou, nor do I intend to let him be seen or used as one."

"He's all that's left of the Fourth, all that he left for Konoha's future," Danzou hissed. "What you intend is completely irrelevant now, Sarutobi. The boy is gone." The bandaged man shook his head then snapped it up towards the Hokage's soldier. "ANBU! How were our men killed?"

"Their throats were slit. All three. No signs of a struggle or that they had any forewarning."

"Wonderful, Sarutobi. Ninjas that can do that to experienced ANBU will have the boy halfway to the border by now. It's obvious that this was put together by one of the other villages. Now they have our jinchuuriki, the Fourth's son!"

At this Sarutobi frowned and Danzou tensed before turning to the ANBU still waiting for orders. "I already knew that, sir. My sensei's son and all."

Danzou seemed to relax a bit before regaining an angry scowl. "I'll have my men keep their ears to the ground, Sarutobi, but I hope you appreciate the fact that this is the mother of all fuck-ups. We need that brat here if we want to compete with the other countries in years to come!"

Sarutobi looked thoughtful for the moment, then clasped his hands behind his back before turning to gaze out of the wall-to-wall window in his office overlooking Konoha. The setting sun painted the entire sky in a wash of stunning orange that extended down to the streets and buildings, giving the whole city the appearance of being licked by flames. "Danzou. What, in your opinion, is the best case scenario in this situation?"

"Obviously that the boy is found and returned to us. Aside from that, the best scenario is that he is killed and the Kyuubi destroyed."

"And the worst?"

"That he was taken by our enemies and is turned against us."

Sarutobi nodded, still facing the cityscape. "Kakashi, form patrols and perform a search pattern over the thirty miles surrounding Konoha. If he's already beyond that distance then the chances of finding him aren't worth contemplating. Instruct the military police to look within the city limits for Naruto."

The masked ANBU nodded and departed in a cloud of smoke. Danzou turned to leave in a huff but stopped as Sarutobi spoke once again.

"It was said that only Uchiha Madara had the power to control the great Fox Kyuubi," he turned and looked Danzou in his one good eye, "but anyone can control a small, lonely boy. I only pray that Konoha can survive this mistake of mine."

Danzou shook his head and left the office quietly. The old Hokage stayed standing and absently reached into his desk drawer to retrieve his pipe. He stood there for an hour and watched the sunset, the paperwork completely forgotten.