Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto and I'm making no money from this story.
AN: I've been wanting to write this for a while, and I finally managed to get the first chapter to my liking. This follows the path of the manga up until after the Sasuke/Itachi fight, and contains spoilers for chapters up to and including 403, but after that it deviates wildly into AU. For those of you who are interested, the title means 'The Village Hidden in the Haze'. Anyway, this is my first multi-chaptered Naruto fic, and I hope you enjoy.
Then the perilous path was planted,
And a river and a spring
On every cliff and tomb,
And on the bleached bones
Red clay brought forth;
Till the villain left the paths of ease,
To walk in perilous paths, and drive
The just man into barren climes.
The sun was setting, dying the sky the colour of blood. Uzumaki Naruto stepped back from the training post he'd been practising at and wiped his brow on the back of his hand as he surveyed the damage he'd done to the previously smooth wood. Then he winced and pulled a splinter out of his knuckles.
The wound healed in a matter of seconds, leaving only smooth unmarked skin behind, and Naruto sighed.
The leaves of the trees surrounding the training ground rustled in a light breeze and Naruto shivered. He tilted his head back to look up at the sky and stretched. "Ichiraku's should still be open," he mused aloud. "Man, I'm starved."
He grabbed his jacket from the grass where he'd flung it hours ago and turned to leave only to find his path blocked by a familiar figure in a black cloak decorated with red clouds.
"Itachi," Naruto said, his good mood dissolving. "If you're here to do your routine 'kidnap the Kyuubi boy' thing then I'm not interested. I'm hungry, tired and in desperate need of a shower, and this is really getting old."
He could have sworn he actually saw an amused expression flicker over Itachi's face. It was brief but enough for Naruto to wonder if he was trapped in some kind of genjutsu.
"I am not here for that, Naruto-kun," Itachi said. His voice was faintly raspy, as if he wasn't used to using it, though Naruto supposed that if Itachi was anything like his brother then he wasn't one for talking much.
"Oh good," Naruto said, though his paranoia didn't fade in the slightest. "What do you want then?"
"Do you think you'll be able to save him?" Itachi asked.
Naruto was momentarily thrown. "Who?" he asked.
"Sasuke," Itachi replied. The name sounded odd coming from him, so did the faint hint of concern.
Naruto mentally chalked this up as his weirdest conversation ever.
"Yes," he said firmly. "I'll save him or die trying."
Itachi tilted his head to one side, slightly. "What if he is the one who needs to die?" he asked.
Naruto glared at him. "It won't come to that," he growled.
Itachi didn't press the issue. "The Akatsuki is run by a man called Uchiha Madara," he said. "He was my teacher, and he will seek Sasuke to replace me." Itachi paused to cough, and continued when he had recovered. "He wants to create an ultimate Jinchuuriki that will be loyal only to him; the Bijuu are stronger when they have hosts, after all. He knows something pertaining to the Bijuu that gives him confidence that it is possible to seal them all in one vessel."
"Why are you telling me this?" Naruto asked.
"Everything I have done has been for Konoha and my brother," Itachi said quietly. "Madara will go after Sasuke once I am dead, and he will come for you. You cannot allow him to get either Sasuke or the Kyuubi."
Itachi took a step forward, but Naruto found he couldn't move. He'd been frozen in place by the crazy talk of a renowned psychopath.
"You have to know more about the Bijuu you are defending before you can take on the rest of the Akatsuki," Itachi said. "You have to learn all you can before war breaks out."
"Then how do I do it?" Naruto asked.
"You must go to a place called Enmugakure," Itachi told him.
"But…hey, does this place even exist?" Naruto asked.
"Not any more," Itachi admitted. "But there is a survivor who can take you to the ruins. You will find what you need there."
"If you know so much then why can't you tell me about the Bijuu yourself?" Naruto demanded, but there was no reply. Itachi's body dissolved into a murder of crows, and Naruto found himself gagging as another crow forced its way out of his mouth to join its fellows in wheeling above the training ground.
"I have given you half of my power," Itachi's voice whispered, half drowned out by the rustling of the trees and the flapping of wings. "Use it well, Naruto-kun. Save Sasuke."
The crows vanished, and Naruto dropped to his knees. Instead of feeling stronger, he felt drained and shaky. "What the hell?" he wondered out loud.
He shook his head as if to clear it, and looked back up at the darkening sky. "I'd better tell grandma about this, I guess," he whispered into the breeze.
Tsunade's reaction, when the murder of crows soared through her window and melded themselves together to form Konoha's most infamous missing-nin, was to spit a mouthful of sake all over her paperwork.
Uchiha Itachi ignored the fine spray of alcohol that landed on his cloak, and stared down at her with expressionless black eyes. He hadn't activated his Sharingan, and that was the only thing that stopped Tsunade from beating the crap out of him then and there.
"What do you want?" she demanded.
"I have left a message with Naruto-kun," Itachi said tonelessly, and Tsunade's breath caught in her throat. "He is unharmed. I have given him a task that will ensure the fall of the Akatsuki, however, I know he must receive your sanction Hokage-sama before he completes it."
Tsunade leaned back in her chair and poured herself another cup of sake; one that she sipped carefully lest it end up soaking into her paperwork just like the last. "How do I know this isn't some sort of really bizarre trap?" she asked.
"Because if I were loyal to the Akatsuki, Naruto-kun would be dead," Itachi told her.
Tsunade sighed. "Right," she said. She rubbed her eyes tiredly and took another sip of her drink. "Why are you doing this?"
"The Akatsuki must not succeed," Itachi said. "And, perhaps, I wish to openly do something for Konoha one last time."
She looked at him closely. She knew she was looking at an illusion – she doubted Itachi could really tear his body apart to form a murder of crows – but she couldn't suppress the medic's instinct to examine a patient closely.
"Tuberculosis," Itachi said helpfully, and she nodded. He was dying then; slowly and painfully wasting away.
"Ignoring the fact that you're a member of Akatsuki, Konoha's best known missing-nin and a mass murderer who slaughtered his entire family for no apparent reason…can I trust you, Uchiha? Are you completely serious about this?"
She looked up at his blank face and realised that he was a man who never joked about anything. She didn't take back her question, however, and the words hung between them.
"You can trust me, Hokage-sama," he said eventually.
She nodded. "Then I'll give Naruto my sanction," she said. "Is there anything else I should know?"
Itachi nodded. "Naruto-kun will need a guide on this mission and there is only one option," he said. "When you hear the details from him, I suggest you do research. You will know who the guide must be. I only ask that you give him the same faith you have shown me, despite his actions."
She nodded. "It's a deal."
She thought she saw his lips twitch slightly, as if he were about to smile, before he dissolved back into the murder of crows and flew out of her window. A lone black feather drifted down onto her desk, and she glared at it. She was getting the impression that whatever task she'd agreed to set to Naruto was going to make her wish she had more sake in her office.
Mere seconds after Itachi had flown off, the door to her office slammed open and Naruto tore into the room. He came to a stop right in front of her desk, right where Itachi had been standing moments before, and doubled over with his hands on his knees, panting heavily.
In between gasps for breath, he began to talk and she listened, sipping her sake and wishing that she hadn't taken the job of Hokage after all.
"…and then one of his birds was in my mouth…" Naruto rambled.
Tsunade decided that she really didn't want to know. "Naruto, get to the point," she said, massaging her forehead.
Naruto took a deep breath and straightened up. "He says that I've got to go to Enmugakure to find out the secret of the Bijuu so that I can stop Uchiha Madara from creating an ultimate Jinchuuriki that contains all of the Bijuu," he said.
Tsunade bypassed her cup and reached for the sake bottle. "Enmugakure doesn't exist," she said.
"I know!" he said. "I said that! But he said that there was someone who knew where the ruins were, and that I'd find the answers there!" He paused for a moment. "I think he's crazy," he said.
Tsunade wondered if he was being deliberately dense. She sighed again and took another gulp of sake from the bottle.
"I'll research the place he wants you to go to," she said. "You go and get some rest. I have a feeling you're going to need it."
He nodded. "Whatever you say, grandma," he said. "Try not to drink too much, okay?"
She promised nothing.