When Naruto was six, he found Ichiraku Ramen. It was nothing special: a humble stand, lights glowing against the darkening twilight.
There were three men seated on the stools, nudging each other and joking. Naruto could easily recognize them as shinobi. Old Man Hokage told him stories, sometimes, about shinobi and the cool things they did. Whenever the Old Man would tell a story like that, Naruto would jump up and proclaim that he would be the best shinobi there ever was, and all the hidden villages would ask him for his service….
The men's conversation was a warm buzz that filled Naruto with longing. More than anything, he wanted to have friends to joke with. He already knew this. It was a part of him, this longing, as much as his right arm.
Naruto crept closer to the light. In his hand he clutched his week's allowance. Maybe these shinobi would be nicer to him than civilians.
Maybe they wouldn't look at him with those cold, cold eyes.
Naruto, impulsive even in his youth, ran to the last open stool and slapped his money on the counter. "One miso ramen, old man!" He peeked at the shinobi from the corner of his eye.
The nearest to Naruto, a shinobi with peculiar eye tattoos, laughed. "You tell 'im, kid!" He slapped the counter as if Naruto's actions were hilarious. Naruto could smell alcohol on his breath.
"Don't mind our teammate," said the one on the end, a thin man with black hair and black pupils. He turned to look fully at Naruto.
"Is -- are you – "
The third shinobi looked at his black-haired teammate with consternation. "What's got your panties in a twist?" That was when he looked at the boy at the end of the row. His eyes widened and he stood up with a screech of his stool.
"We're done here," he said sharply to his inebriated teammate.
"But I gotta fin'sh my ramen," the man with the tattoos whined.
"Do you know who that is?" the third shinobi hissed, grabbing him by the collar and appearing to actually drag him away. Naruto stood up on top of his stool.
"Hey!" he shouted. The third shinobi froze. He looked at Naruto and didn't say anything. The shinobi with black eyes spoke for him.
"What?" His voice was cold. It seemed there was no helping it; these shinobi would be just as frigid as the civilians. Instead of slumping Naruto's shoulders, however, this knowledge only straightened his spine.
"I'm gonna be a shinobi someday," he shouted at them. Especially the third one. "Better than you. I'm gonna be better than everybody!"
The black-eyed man's voice sounded like it could freeze fire. "You will never amount to anything," he said. "If you ever do become a genin, gods forbid, you will last no longer than your first skirmish." His eyes bored into Naruto's. "And Konoha will be better for it."
"You're wrong!" Naruto shouted. "I'm never gonna die. I'm gonna get so strong that I'll be --" he floundered, then upped the ante -- "I'll be Hokage!"
The black-eyed man made no answer. Instead, he said, "Come, Hitari," to the third shinobi, and spun on his heel. Naruto stood on his stool a long time after they had vanished into the darkness.
Finally he sat back down, his tiny torso slumping over the wooden counter -- but not in defeat. No, Naruto's eyes were burning and his fists were clenched. How could they say that? Just for those remarks, he would be Hokage. He would show them all -- shinobi and civilians alike -- that he could be the best ever. Better than the Old Man, even.
And anyone who thought otherwise -- anyone who tried to put him down or grind him into the dirt -- well, Naruto would ignore them. They didn't want to be friends with him? Fine. He didn't want to be friends with anybody who thought he couldn't be Hokage anyway.
A bowl of miso ramen slid onto the counter under Naruto's nose. His head shot up and he glared into the eyes of the stand's owner.
"I'm going to be Hokage someday," he said challengingly.
The other man smiled at him. "I don't doubt it," he said.
Naruto's glare vanished and his mouth dropped open. "Really?" he said breathlessly.
"Really." Ichiraku handed him a pair of chopsticks. "Now eat your ramen."
"I'm going to be Hokage," Naruto shouted at Iruka, pointing at him other the heads of twenty other genin hopefuls. "And when I'm Hokage, you'll regret you gave me eraser duty!"
Iruka rubbed his forehead and clung to the last of his patience. Under the cover of his hand, he glanced at the clock. Forty minutes of class to go. "I know, Naruto," he said evenly. "But you'll never get to be Hokage without the replacement technique."
At Iruka's words, Naruto dropped back into his seat and closed his mouth with a snap. One more person was acknowledging his dream!
Iruka never figured out why Naruto didn't speak for the rest of the forty minutes.
"Old Man! Old Man! Guess what? I'm going to take your hat someday!"
Wrinkles deepened around wise eyes as the Sandaime smiled at his ward. "Is that so?"
"Yeah! And I'm going to know all the super-cool moves and stuff!" Naruto mimed karate-chopping an opponent. A hand settled on his head, stopping his actions.
"If you are to be Hokage, then I suggest you return to your studies," Sarutobi told him. This time he sighed heavily as Naruto disappeared around the corner.
"Why do you like him? I'm going to be Hokage! He's just an ugly Uchiha!"
"Naruto!" Sakura screeched. "Can't you see you're annoying Sasuke-kun?!"
"…I'm even going to be Hokage someday!"
Konohamaru stared at the older boy. Then he frowned. "No you're not!"
Naruto paused, arms still raised triumphantly in the air. He had thought Konohamaru to be a potential friend. "I'm not?"
"No!" Konohamaru crossed his arms and stomped his foot. "Because I'm going to be Hokage! I guess," he added slyly before Naruto could disabuse him of that notion, "we'll just have to fight for the title!"
Naruto stared at the kid before grinning wildly. Another person who believed in him! He bopped Konohamaru over the head.
"Yeah, right, brat. You just wait…"
"Naruto, you're late again!"
"Kakashi-sensei's not here yet either, Sakura-chan!" Cue puppy-dog eyes.
"Who're you calling Dobe, chicken butt?! I'm going to be Hokage!"
"Don't talk to Sasuke-kun like that, Naruto!"
"This is the team you got me? A couple o' wet-nosed brats who couldn't hold their liquor?" The man burped, not-so discreetly.
"Hey! Watch it, old man! I'm going to be Hokage someday!"
"This time I'm gonna kick your ass, Sasuke!"
"You can forget about ever beating me, Dobe."
"Yeah right! I'm going to be Hokage someday!"
"Hey! I'm Naruto Uzumaki and I'm going to be Hokage! So the rest of you better watch out! I'm gonna rock these exams!"
"I am Jiraiya the Gallant, Toad Sage and Pervert Extraordinaire, loved by women and envied by men!
"Oh yeah? Well I'm Naruto Uzumaki, and I'm going to be Hokage someday!"
"Hey! Don't hurt Sakura-chan!"
Gaara's only response was to growl menacingly. "Get out of my way. Why do you defend her?"
"Because I'm going to be Hokage!"
"Don't insult the Hokage, old lady! Some washout like you would never understand the way the Hokage has to serve the village!"
"Who the hell is this brat, Jiraiya? I didn't come here to hear a pipsqueak shout in my ear. If you're not going to gamble, get out."
"I can speak for myself! My name is Naruto Uzumaki, and I'm going to be Hokage someday!"
"Give up, Naruto. You'll never be anything other than dead-last."
"I'll never give up, Sasuke! This is more than just a dream! You just watch, I'm going to be Hokage!"
"You'll bring Sasuke-kun back, won't you Naruto? You're the only one who can do it."
"Of course I will, Sakura-chan. After all, Sasuke can't defeat the future Hokage."
"What is it, Sakura-chan?"
"I believe in you."
"Thank -- thank you, Sakura-chan."
"Now, don't cry, Naruto."
Naruto was sixteen and was on his way back to Konoha from a mission when he sensed something about half a mile away: an explosion of chakra. Changing direction instantly, he veered toward the source of the explosion.
When he arrived on the scene, it was to find a well-known figure battling two masked Konoha ANBU. Another ANBU lay in the shadow of a boulder. Naruto dashed to the fallen soldier and crouched beside her.
"What's going on?" he asked the injured but still conscious ANBU. The soldier had torn off her mask and was ripping strips off her uniform with her teeth to use as a tourniquet.
"We were coming back from a mission when we saw the traitor," she ground out. Naruto's heart gave a familiar but still painful clench when he heard Sasuke being referred to as a traitor. "We engaged because of the KOS status of the traitor." Naruto's heart was also familiar with the Kill On Sight order all shinobi were issued regarding Sasuke.
"He got me with a Chidori to the arm," the ANBU continued, jerking her chin toward the bloody pulp of her forearm. "I managed to dodge but it still nicked me."
"Will you be all right?" Naruto asked.
The ANBU nodded. "I've gotten worse than this, boy. Go."
Naruto, as he was wont to do, jumped into the fight without trying to find a strategic moment or hatch a plan. All he knew was that Sasuke was out there and he had to do something. Fight him. Plead with him.
Naruto went with fight' when Sasuke's stream of fire nearly singed his eyebrows off. He sent a powerful gust of wind back, knowing it would irk Sasuke to think that Naruto wasn't taking this seriously. He was right.
"Naruto!" Sasuke snarled. "If you're going to face me, then take me seriously!" Sasuke had generally progressed past the taunting stage. He knew now that Naruto did hold power, and could wield it with powerful results.
"You know I can't fight you seriously," Naruto said. He'd meant for it to come out all cool and collected, but a growl escaped as he bent to avoid a punch. The ANBU were watching, regaining their breath while Naruto wore their opponent down. They knew of the history between the two, and of the volatile battles that resulted from it.
"You will!" Sasuke demanded. "Do you think I am not strong enough to take it? Do you think I am a worse fighter than you, Dobe?" He stressed the old nickname, hoping to bait Naruto.
But Naruto was tired. He was tired of chasing Sasuke when Sasuke didn't want to be chased. He was tired of explaining to everyone that Sasuke was his brother, or the closest thing to one, when obviously Sasuke didn't want a brother. Didn't need a brother, the way Naruto needed one.
"Go home, Dobe," Sasuke jeered when Naruto was silent.
Naruto caught Sasuke's fist the next time it swung at him, and stepped close, demanding Sasuke's attention. "If you haven't figured it out by now," he said, staring into Sasuke's red eyes, "then I guess I should."
Then he let go, and turned to walk away.
Sasuke voice came from behind him, still taunting. "That's right, Dobe. Go back to Sakura-chan," he made the suffix seem lewd, "and go be Hokage, and forget about ever beating me."
And turned around.
He looked at Sasuke, standing there in the middle of the battlefield, looking the way he always did when he had won an argument. That same annoying sneer, that same eyebrow raised in that same infuriating manner.
"You remember," he said slowly.
Sasuke sniffed. "Of course I do," he said. "It was all you ever talked about when we were kids."
Naruto thought back to all the times he and Sasuke had fought before his abandonment. He thought of all the punches, the taunts, the disdainful looks. Then he realized they had never left. Perhaps Sasuke had left the village, but he was still offering what Naruto had been looking for all along.
Naruto's mouth turned up a little bit at the corners. "Then I guess we're still kids, huh?" Because I still want to be Hokage.
Sasuke looked away imperiously. "I suppose so." Because I still believe in you.
Then Sasuke blasted him away with a mud-wall technique, and even though Naruto could have defended himself, he let himself slide head-over-heels so Sasuke could make his escape. When he looked up, Sasuke and all three ANBU were gone. Naruto stood for a while in the empty clearing, then raised a hand to wave goodbye to the red-eyes figure watching him from the trees. And made his way back home.
"And he didn't want to come back?"
"No." Naruto paused. "At least, not yet. You know him, Sakura-chan. When he's good and ready he'll come home to us."
"But -- Naruto, if he comes back, he'll be killed on sight."
"Not if there's no KOS on him."
"Do you know something I don't? How could the KOS be taken off Sasuke-kun? Only the Hokage could do that, and Tsunade's too deep in politics on that point."
"But don't you know, Sakura-chan? I'm going to be Hokage someday."