Frozen Heart, Crimson Steel
Chapter One: If I Wanted to Tell You What Kind of Person I Am
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
Trapped. Darkness. Echoing silence.
Heehee. You were weak silly.
Remember! Think! Shake off frenzy!
Wandering through the empty world, never reaching the moon. Pickings slim, meat stale and old.
It was so boring.
A summons! An ancient compact invoked. Curiosity and compulsion, follow the pull through time and space.
Arrival, and Joy! Blood flows like water, meat fresh and quivering, fragrance of terror in the air, and something else…
The Thing smells of blood, of rot, of power. Compelled by summoner to destroy the Thing. Turn away from banquet. Fulfill compact now, feast later.
Maybe it'll play with us? Hard to jump rope with four legs though.
It fights. Fangs and claws and primal rage. Old and strong. Claws shatter bone, fangs bury into skull.
PAIN! Retaliate! Ribs tear at flesh, spines turn away furious swipes, rattling teeth sink into bloody fur.
Ooh! Flying glittery rubies! So pretty!
Exhausted. Victorious. One last task. Devour Its essence, fulfill compact. Taste of dead flesh and power and rotted dreams and power and old secrets and POWER and…
Chains! Wrapping, coiling, flowing energy, constricting, dragging. Too spent to break out, wings chime in impotent anger. Then… darkness… nothing.
Focus! Examine! SEE the prison.
Look at the pattern. The seals are supposed to link the container and the contained. But this isn't meant for us.
Yes! Won't work on the already dead. Freedom when the prison breaks! Too weak though, rest…
No! Concentrate! Last of energy, plan for future. Extend, push, create the tiniest crack in prison walls.
There. Done. Tired. Rest now.
Yes. You sleep now. After all, we have all the time in the world.
Ten-year-old Uzumaki Naruto was having the day of his life. Today was his birthday, but that wasn't what made it special.
For the first time ever he had beaten Uchiha Sasuke, the best fighter in his class, in a sparring match! It didn't matter that Naruto had cracked the system the instructors used to assign partners and designated sparring circles based on calendar date. Or that he had rigged the circle the night before by half-burying several marbles into the center, concealed it with a layer of loose dirt, and then during the match lured Sasuke over the trap where he lost his footing and tumbled into Naruto's waiting fist. Ninjas were supposed to be sneaky, and this was Naruto's first of what would undoubtedly be an unbroken series of victories over that broody bastard en route to being the greatest Hokage ever!
That wasn't all though. Weeks of meticulous planning and covert action had culminated in the unveiling of his greatest prank yet! He had gotten the idea from academy classes on methods of passing secret messages via invisible ink, and after extensive library research and experimentation had figured out how to spike the academy's practice invisible ink with various colors. Several nights of secret Hokage Monument painting with invisible ink, then an hour after classes with a hand pump hose and a barrel of ink reagent, and the fruits of his labor was visible for all Konoha to see! Naruto thought the Fourth Hokage looked particularly imposing with pink hair and purple lipstick, and Jiji didn't look bad either with green hair and red swirls on his cheeks.
Of course, not everyone in Konoha shared Naruto's refined sense of humor, so he wisely chose to hide out in the forest until nightfall to evade pursuit. To complete the perfection that was this day, he had the foresight to prearrange a hiding place with a crate of cup ramen, bottled water, and a cooking pot.
It was a happy and sated Naruto that finally made his way back into Konoha around midnight. The whole day had gone off without a hitch, and the only way that it could have been better is if Naruto had found some way to have old man Ichiraku deliver freshly made ramen to his hiding spot without giving himself away. He was so caught up in his thoughts, dreaming up ever more audacious ideas for his next and greater prank, that he didn't hear the footsteps converging behind him, didn't notice the faint scent of alcohol. By the time he saw the shadows and turned, it was already too late.
Sarutobi Hiruzen looked down at the frail young blond beside him with a heavy heart. It had become routine for him to visit the boy in his private hospital room for a few minutes each night after leaving the office. He would spend the time talking to the boy, looking for some signal of recognition, trying to find some spark of life.
Sarutobi knew that the young orphan's life had been difficult. Despite the Fourth's wishes and his own best efforts, the majority of people had chosen to project their grief and rage over the death and destruction from the Kyuubi's attack on the only target they could find, the child who served as the Demon Fox's container. He knew that Naruto regularly faced hostile glares and whispered insults, and suspected that a number of merchants were conspiring to sell him poor quality goods at inflated prices. He never imagined however that any of Konoha's citizens could take things so far as to try to kill a defenseless child in cold blood.
An ANBU patrol had found Naruto, badly beaten and near death, in a dark alley in one of the seedier parts of the village. It had taken Konoha Hospital's best trauma team hours to stabilize the boy, and another three months would pass before his injuries fully healed, with one exception. But he never woke up. After spending four months bedridden in a coma Naruto was a shell of his former ebullient self. His skin was pale and pasty, and his once-vibrantly golden hair hung limply in faded shades of yellow. The hospital's head doctor had assured the Hokage that there was nothing physically wrong with the boy, and that all treatment methods of waking him had been tried. Now they could do nothing but wait and see if Naruto ever emerged from the coma on his own.
Sarutobi had launched an investigation right away. His personal feelings for Naruto aside, he was determined that villagers heartless enough to beat a young orphan nearly to death be punished under the full extent of Konoha military law. Perhaps something like that was acceptable in other hidden villages. But his predecessors, his successor, and he himself had worked too hard and sacrificed too much for the village for him to allow Konoha to go down that path. At first there were no leads; his determination standing in the face of the villagers' seeming unity in its hatred of the Kyuubi's vessel. It was only when Sarutobi ordered the Inuzuka and Yamanaka to join the investigation with their specialized clan abilities that results were produced.
The aged Hokage glanced at the wall clock and sighed. Once again he had allowed himself to overstay his own self-imposed time limit for visiting Naruto. Placing a gentle hand on the boy's forehead, Sarutobi made his farewell as he had every day for the last four months.
"I'm sorry Naruto, I have to go now. This old man still has to get up to work in the morning."
Pausing at the door, Sarutobi turned and looked at the boy again. Laying in the adult-sized hospital bed and illuminated by the shard of wan moonlight from the room's single window, he looked ethereally fragile.
"I wish I could have done more for you."
Naruto awoke with a groan, wondering why his throat tasted like someone had shoved an entire box of cotton swabs down it. Blinking his eyes open he was immediately assaulted by painfully harsh light. His slammed his eyelids shut and brought his hands up to cover them, only for his left arm to be jerked back down.
Opening his right eyelid a sliver at a time and peeking through the gaps of his fingers, Naruto tried to figure out where he was. His eye, long unaccustomed to processing light, grudgingly and haltingly reacted. The indistinct sea of whiteness that had been Naruto's world slowly gave way to three blurry white walls and a window that let the light of a midday sun stab straight to his brain if he looked directly at it.
A hospital room. That must mean his left arm was being held down by intravenous tubes.
The blond boy was no stranger to Konoha Hospital. Living alone as an orphan meant stays at the hospital where other children might have been tended to by parents at home, not to mention the implementation accidents and encounters with angry villagers from the pranks he pulled. But still, he had never felt quite this horrible waking up in the hospital before.
Naruto slowly pushed himself to a sitting position, hissing with surprise at just how much effort it took. A few more minutes of blinking had finally adjusted his vision to the brightness. The room looked like the other hospital rooms he had been in before, but by the sheer number of intravenous drips and devices he was connected to he could tell that whatever had put him in the hospital this time had been serious. His body also looked different, but that wasn't all. It was like something at the edge of his vision…
No, not at the edge. He waved his right hand back and forth in front his face slowly, surprised at how quickly it disappeared. Then, tentatively, he gently pushed against the skin on his face at the edge of his left eye.
He pushed his finger closer and closer, hand trembling more with every step.
The door burst open, the Third Hokage striding purposefully through with an ANBU guard and Konoha Hospital's Chief of Medicine immediately behind him. Before he could register what was happening Naruto was enveloped in a bone-crunching hug.
"Jiji… can't breathe…" Naruto gasped.
Sarutobi released the young blond from the hug, holding him firmly by his shoulders and noting how little muscle there was between skin and bone.
"Naruto, I came as soon as I heard! How do you feel? How much do you remember?"
"Remember? What happened? How long was I out?"
Sarutobi sighed. "It's been almost five months Naruto."
The doctor intruded then, insisting he needed to perform some tests. The Hokage spent the next half-hour watching in silence, with the doctor examining the medical machines Naruto was connected to, checking various parts of the boy's body for physical responses, and occasionally asking him some questions and receiving curt mumbled answers in reply. Throughout the duration of the procedure Sarutobi watched as Naruto's features went through an array of emotions, starting from shock and confusion, progressing through anger and sadness, before finally settling on a blank detached visage halfway through. The last disturbed him; he had come to know Naruto's various moods quite well over the years and the boisterous young blond had never shown any inclination for hiding his emotions.
In the end the doctor declared that Naruto was physically fine, though frail from months of inactivity, and could be discharged after two weeks of observation and physical therapy. A hand gesture from Sarutobi sent the doctor and the ANBU guard away, leaving the aged Hokage and the boy he considered to be his adoptive grandchild alone in the room.
Naruto spoke first, his voice soft and restrained.
"What happened? I remember painting the Hokage Monument. I spent the day in the forest hiding out afterwards, and then, nothing."
"An ANBU patrol found you badly beaten in an alley after midnight. They brought you to the hospital, and you've been in a coma ever since."
"How bad was it?"
"It was bad, broken bones and internal bleeding. At first the doctors didn't think you'd make it. It was three months before all your injuries healed."
"What about my left eye?"
Sarutobi grimaced, as much from the content of the question as the tonelessly flat way it had been asked.
"You were brought in with a lot of bleeding inside your skull. The doctors were able to stop the bleeding, but by then the optic nerves had been destroyed. There was no way to save your eye. I'm sorry."
"Did you find out who did it?"
"They've been dealt with," Sarutobi stated simply.
Naruto nodded slightly, accepting and processing everything he'd heard so far. A few moments of silence passed before he spoke again.
"Why did they do it?"
"Naruto…" Sarutobi began uncertainly. He was no stranger to difficult choices. As Hokage his position made the welfare of all of Konoha his responsibility; he had made decisions that would start or end wars and issued orders that meant almost certain death for loyal subordinates. But for some reason he found this choice to be one of the most difficult he had ever made.
"Why, all of it. I need to know."
Naruto's voice cracked as he finished, and for the first time during the conversation he looked up and made eye contact with Sarutobi. The Hokage was startled by what he saw. The blank detachment was gone from Naruto's face. Instead it was replaced by an expression of abject loneliness and quiet desperation that he hadn't seen for years, since before the boy had declared his goal of making people recognize him by becoming Hokage.
Sarutobi made his decision.
"Naruto, there's something you need to know. This is the most important thing I've ever told you, and I need you to listen to me and hold your questions until I'm done. Can you do that?"
Naruto nodded uncertainly. Sarutobi put his hand gently on the boy's own, in the hope that the small gesture of physical connection would make what was to come easier on the boy.
"Ten years ago, as you know, Konoha was attacked by the Kyuubi. The way it's taught at the academy doesn't really give you an idea of the sheer scale of devastation the Kyuubi caused. It was like the worst natural disaster you could imagine, but brought about by something utterly powerful and evil beyond human comprehension. It was a fundamentally life-altering event for those of us who lived through it, something that still haunts our nightmares to this day."
Sarutobi paused a few seconds to let the young boy absorb what he had heard so far.
"Konoha lost many good shinobi that day. None of the clan families emerged unscathed. Worst of all the Fourth sacrificed his own life to end the threat. He had been Konoha's greatest hero during the Third Great War, and was at the prime of his life when the Kyuubi attacked. We all looked up to him, projected our hopes for a better more peaceful future on him. When we lost him, it nearly broke us as a people. The grief that fell over us, it's something I hope you'll never have to experience.
"I know what they teach at the academy, but as powerful as the Fourth was he couldn't defeat the Kyuubi. Maybe it's an elemental part of the world that simply can't be destroyed, I don't know. All I can tell you is that it was a time of desperation that you couldn't possibly understand. The Kyuubi was approaching Konoha and nothing was working. Many good men and women, some of them civilians, went out to meet the threat knowing that death was inevitable, just to buy a few more minutes.
"Out of that desperation the Fourth came up with an audacious and terrible plan. It was a forbidden jutsu that demanded the sacrifice of the user's own life, so ancient secret that no one knows its origins, and no one could remember it ever being used since Konoha was founded. Using this jutsu the Fourth called forth a shinigami, a god of death, to pull the Kyuubi's essence out. But that was only a temporary solution; if the Kyuubi wasn't locked away somehow it would simply regenerate itself. So, with his last breath, the Fourth sealed the Kyuubi's essence into a newborn baby."
Sarutobi paused again, trying to think of the right words. He didn't have to however.
"That baby was me." Naruto said tonelessly. He had dropped eye contact, and his face had returned to its former blankness.
Sarutobi was slightly unnerved by the way Naruto responded. He had known that he would have to disclose this secret to Naruto at some point, and had gone through many different scenarios in his head. He had imagined Naruto angry and yelling, sad and crying, and many responses in between. What he had not envisioned however was this flat emotionless… nothing.
"Why a baby? Why not something else?"
"The Kyuubi at essence is a creature of chakra, and would have eventually overwhelmed and broken down the seal on anything else. A baby, with an undeveloped chakra system, can grow to maintain the seal as the baby ages. The Fourth designed the seal so that part of the Kyuubi's chakra would be continuously diverted into the host, integrating with and reinforcing the host's own chakra system."
"So, am I… am I turning into the Demon Fox?"
The young blond's hand trembled as fear, anger, confusion, and sadness played across his face in a confused jumble. After Naruto's previous emotional detachment Sarutobi was glad for the display, but knew that he had to answer the boy quickly and decisively.
"No! Listen to me Naruto," he said, reaching over and forcefully turning Naruto's head to make eye contact again. "You're the jailer for the Kyuubi, you're not what you contain! You're the one protecting Konoha from the Kyuubi now, and the Fourth wanted you to be seen as a hero. Even if most of the villagers refuse to see past their own ignorance, you ARE a hero!"
Sarutobi dropped his arm and slumped backwards into his chair. As Hokage and therefore technically an active shinobi of the leaf, he made it a point to keep himself in reasonable physical condition. But now he felt all the weight of his years and more pressing down on him. Rubbing his hands tiredly against his eyes, he asked, "What are you thinking?"
Naruto did not answer immediately, because he didn't know what to think at the moment. He needed time to gather his disparate emotional reactions into something coherent. More than anything he was angry at what had been done to him, that the course of his life had been determined before he had even had much of a life. Thinking back on his life so far he also felt sadness at how he had been treated, despite the Fourth's wishes and despite his role in defeating the greatest threat Konoha had ever faced to its existence. And underneath it all, there was an undercurrent of pride, that the Fourth Hokage had chosen him over all others to be the Demon Fox's jailer.
"I don't know," Naruto finally replied, "I think… I think I'll be ok, but I need time."
The Hokage nodded. In truth, he knew that this was as good a reaction as he could realistically hope to get. He had placed the terrible burden of knowledge on Naruto and made him understand just why he had been treated so poorly by the village and just how unfair it was. The young blond was confused and conflicted, but did not appear to want revenge. Sitting in a hospital room with Naruto, after a five month coma preceded by the boy nearly dying, he could not have begrudged Naruto even if he did want revenge.
"What I've told you is an S-class secret. No one in Konoha is allowed to reveal this to others on pain of death. There are only two exceptions to this law. The Hokage can reveal this secret for the good of the village. You, as the subject of the secret itself, can choose to reveal this secret to whoever you wish."
Naruto looked at Sarutobi uncertainly, trying to figure out what the aged Hokage was saying.
"I had hoped, between the Fourth's wishes and mine, that people would see you as a hero. But that wasn't how it turned out. Perhaps I didn't try hard enough, or perhaps after everything that had taken place it was simply not possible. I don't know, but I passed the law once I saw what was happening.
"As much as I wish otherwise, I can't change the way people think. So I made this law, to prevent the beliefs of the older generation from being passed on. That way, at least you will have a chance with people your age. I'm sorry I couldn't do more."
Naruto nodded in acceptance again. Several minutes passed in silence, each trying to sort through his own thoughts, before Naruto spoke again.
"So what happens now?"
Sarutobi knew the meaning behind the question. In peacetime the village only accepted ninja who were physically and mentally whole. Exceptions were made for already-established shinobi who were crippled in the service of Konoha but still managed to remain effective. As an academy student however Naruto would never be allowed to graduate with only one eye.
He looked at Naruto, who had broken eye contact again and was slipping back into an emotionless mask. In the boy's features he could still see traces of a much younger Naruto from years ago, who lived without dreams or goals for the future, and whose face had seemed etched permanently with loneliness.
Unbidden his mind superimposed an image from the distant memory of his own childhood. A well-worn child's doll, missing an arm, laying haphazardly on a pile of trash in an alleyway. Discarded because it no longer had a purpose.
Sarutobi shook himself from his reverie. After having decided to tell Naruto about his past, the rest seemed easy.
"You can return to the academy as soon as you get out of here."
A surprised look met him, prompting him to continue.
"If it's what you still want, I'll make you a promise. If you can meet all the academy's Genin qualification standards, I'll see to it that you're allowed to graduate and take up ninja duties."
"But what about everyone else? They won't like it, they'll think…"
Sarutobi had no doubt what Naruto had meant when he said everyone else. He waved his hand and cut the boy off.
"It doesn't matter; you leave that to this old man. You have enough burdens already. Just promise me you can do it."
Naruto paused to examine his own feelings. Jiji had long ago drilled into him, once he had declared his goal of becoming the Hokage, the importance of promises. Was this a promise he was prepared to make?
He didn't know how he felt about his dream for the future anymore, or even about becoming a shinobi of the leaf. He was prepared to sacrifice everything for people who ignored or hated him in order to gain their recognition and approval. But to do the same for those who actively tried to kill him? He didn't know if it was something he could do. But what else was there for him to do? He reached back for memories from his youth, from before the orphanage had kicked him out. Before Jiji had taken him to Ichiraku's for his first bowl of ramen, before the conversation that had changed his life. There weren't many memories he could pull up; his life then had been little more than a pale existence, and one day of no one looking at him was much like another.
No, he couldn't go back to that, couldn't live like that again. A faded dream was better than no dream at all. Jiji was offering him a lifeline, and he was going to grasp it with both hands.
Naruto looked the aged Hokage in the eye, and nodded firmly.
"I'll do it. It's my promise of a lifetime."
Sarutobi smiled and ruffled the young blond's hair.
"I know you will."
Naruto's return to the academy was humiliating.
Academically he was well behind the other students of his class, having spent five months in the hospital. That didn't bother him much however; he knew he could make up the difference with enough effort on his part. He had also expected his already meager thrown weapons skill to drop off precipitously; where he once was able to get four out of ten throws somewhat on target, without the benefit of parallax he was lucky if four out of ten even landed on the large wooden post that held the target. He was never going to be great at thrown weapons like that girl he had seen one year ahead, but he knew that with enough practice he could bring his skill back up to at least qualify for Genin level by graduation.
His biggest problem however was in taijutsu. The loss of muscle from his extended hospitalization had immediately dropped him from the top half to the bottom half of the class in sparring ability. And once the others learned how to take advantage of his field of vision, even Sakura was able to beat him one match out of three.
He had responded by making repeated forays into the library to research alternative taijutsu styles and strategies, and then trying to imitate them crudely in an attempt to catch his sparring partners off guard. Nothing worked however. His worst experience was when Sasuke, seeking revenge for being beaten months ago, had thrashed Naruto up and down the practice lot for the duration of class, using only one arm and with a mocking smirk permanently plastered on his face. Even after he had managed to rebuild all his lost muscle mass he was still well in the bottom half of the class in terms of sparring ability. This led Naruto to two conclusions.
First, he decided that he needed every edge he could get with his impairment. He returned to wearing the arm and leg weights that had been part of his physical therapy, and added more weight as well as a weighted body vest as he got used to the extra load. He also embarked on a grueling training regimen, roughly copying that of an older academy student with the freakishly large eyebrows.
Second, he realized that against an equally skilled opponent he would always be at a significant handicap in a straight taijutsu fight. In academy training sessions there was no way around it, but once he became a real ninja he needed to do everything possible to NOT be caught in straight taijutsu fights. This meant that he only needed his taijutsu to be good enough to graduate as a Genin, and also that he needed to find some way to avoid straight taijutsu situations once he graduated.
Naruto found his answer in swords.
Swords were an uncommon weapon choice amongst ninja. One reason was simply inertia; they were typically trained with taijutsu for close combat, and once undertaking actual missions most simply chose to continue with what worked for them. Another problem with swords was stealth; it was much more difficult to be sneaky and quiet with a giant sword worn on the back than with several braces of kunai and shuriken in well-designed holsters padded for noise prevention. Finally there was the matter of hand seals. All but the simplest jutsu required two-handed seals to perform. Where a taijutsu fighter with a kunai could simply throw it and draw a new one after performing the seals, a kenjutsu fighter had to undertake the much lengthier and potentially fatal process of sheathing or securing his weapon and redrawing after. For these and other reasons dedicated sword users were a small minority in the ninja world, even in the village of Kiri which was noted for producing highly skilled swordsmen.
None of these reasons mattered to Naruto. The extra reach a sword provided would make it more difficult for opponents to get close enough to exploit his reduced field of vision. If they did manage to get within range, closely-held horizontal slashes could be used to attack and clear large parts of his personal space without needing visual perception and accuracy. Stealth was a potential problem, but his pranking experience had given him far beyond academy levels of proficiency in this area, and he was sure he could adjust without much difficulty. As for hand seals, it simply wasn't an issue as he didn't have any jutsu that were particularly useful in a fight. Should that situation change he would simply have to find a way around that new problem as he had this one.
'Maybe some kind of blades attached to my wrists?' Naruto mused as he took practice swings with his new toy, a wooden replica of the straight-bladed ninja-to that ANBU sometimes used. A good quality steel blade was far beyond his meager financial means, but after some creative scrounging he was able to find a discarded wooden training sword and repair it to usable condition with duct tape.
Still, there were some unexpected benefits to his situation. Several weeks after his hospital discharge, he had come across a one-eyed Jounin with silver hair while making his way out of the village to a training ground. He had decided to adopt the Jounin ninja's style, replacing his hospital bandage with a tilted headband covering his missing eye. Seeing how people reacted to this ninja however had also triggered Naruto's creative spark which had once served him so well in planning his pranks.
He had returned to academy classes shortly after his year group began studying Henge no jutsu in earnest, and had spent many evenings practicing on his own in order to catch up. As the academy instructors taught it the amount and quality of your initial transformation depended entirely on your skill, while the duration you could maintain the transformation depended entirely on your chakra supply. Some of the top students like Sasuke could already Henge into reasonable approximations of their academy instructors, but they could only hold it for several minutes at a time. Naruto on the other hand had great difficulty going beyond transforming specific body parts like hair color or height, but he could hold his transformations for hours without feeling drained. That was something he could work with.
It was not difficult for him to gather and modify the equipment he needed; some silver hair dye and gel, a battered Chunin-style protective vest, dark blue pants and long-sleeved shirt. He also lucked into what would turn out to be the most important thing in his entire plot, a discarded little book with an orange cover. After donning his equipment and applying a Henge to make himself a foot taller and appear with a Konoha forehead protector instead of an ordinary headband, his disguise was nearly complete. A little practice walking around the village with his face buried in the book, occasionally giggling like an idiot, and most people were actively trying not to make eye contact with him.
It was a perfect disguise for walking around without being noticed. Or rather, with people deliberately trying not to notice him. It also had the added benefit of getting him good quality merchandise along with the active-duty shinobi discount from merchants whenever he shopped this way. For the boy who had endured so much, life was finally looking up.
The nightmares were getting worse. They began as vague images and distant sounds. Nothing he could identify, but they were enough to wake him in the middle of the night. He responded by doubling his efforts during his waking hours, reading and training himself into exhaustion before dragging himself to bed deep into each night. At first it worked, and his sleep was dreamless if not entirely sufficient. But eventually the nightmares returned no matter how tired he was, and he could no longer wake until they had run their course each night.
He supposed they weren't nightmares in the proper sense. He was always aware that he was having a nightmare, and could even recall details of his waking day as well as of nightmares from past nights. Yet there was nothing he could do to alter the course of each nightmare as it took place, no choice or action he could take, no point at which he could simply decide to stop and not take the next step. It was as if he was experiencing events through someone else's body.
The nightmares became two different yet familiar variants. The first type started with furtive glimpses of things that resembled dead bodies, the smell of decay, and piles of bones. They grew into visions of carnage, battlefields littered with corpses, a cacophony of wails and pleas from the near-dead. Sometimes it was just a vision of staring into a hollow moon for hours, though the smells and sounds coming from beyond his vision made him both afraid to look and afraid of not knowing at the same time. Once he experienced himself diving head-first into a corpse's torn-open abdomen, as if eating its contents. He threw up all over his bed as soon as he woke from that one.
The other type of nightmare was much less subdued, though he dreaded them nearly as much for the constant lonely atmosphere he experienced during them. They were always visions of the interior rooms of a western-style mansion, from the clock tower, through the seemingly infinite library, down to the depths of its basement areas. The entire mansion was painted in deep red motifs, and the constant darkness gave everything an oppressively gloomy look. From time to time he could make out high-pitched giggles, but no matter where he went within the mansion he could never find anyone else. It was just unending emptiness and silence otherwise, until the feeling of claustrophobia that continually constricted on his mind during these dreams eventually overwhelmed him into wakefulness.
Tonight… tonight was different. He was walking through some kind of caves, or sewers. It was hard to tell with so little light. He could smell the stench of rot that he had become so familiar with everywhere now. The breathy giggles were there too, echoing lightly through the tunnels occasionally.
Every time he reached a branch in the tunnels, a disembodied whispered phrase from the same girlish voice would lead him down one path over all others. The words used felt old and familiar, but he could never quite make out what the voice was saying.
It felt like he had been walking for hours, something compelling him to put one foot in front of the other, before he noticed that the tunnels had been getting progressively less dim. Picking up his pace, he made his way through the last few tunnels, past the final curve, and came upon a large cavern.
It was a little girl who had led him here with her whispers. She looked to be eight or nine years old, just a bit younger than him. A white mop hat with a tattered red ribbon covered bright blonde hair, like his own, but flowing in lazy waves down just beyond the nape of her neck. She wore a white short-sleeved undershirt with a red vest, and her frilled red skirt twirled around her legs as she ran back and forth trying to catch something he couldn't see. Wherever she moved the cavern seemed to keep the area around her well-lit, though he couldn't find any obvious light source.
"Onii-chan! You've finally come!" she chirped brightly as she turned to look at him.
It was then that his eyes met hers. They had blood red irises, but where red should have surrounded black pupils, pools of dark maroon stared back at him.
"Er... " he replied lamely. Whatever he had been expecting to find at the end of the tunnels, this little girl wasn't it.
She skipped closer, high-pitched giggles echoing throughout the cavern. As both of her small delicate hands reached out for him, he found his own hand being enclosed in an inhumanly strong vice grip. A small part of his mind noted the absence of pain despite his mental certainty that his hand was being crushed.
"Come on! I've been waiting for you for ever and ever!"
He found himself half-led, half-dragged deeper into the cavern, until the pair came to a section of ground lined with chalk markings. It was a crudely drawn hopscotch grid, bent lines and childish kanji for the numbers. He felt movement against his hand and looked down; a small pebble had been pressed into his apparently undamaged hand.
He shrugged, and tossed the pebble. He had learned long ago that he could not wake from his dreams until they were ready to release him, and this was less unpleasant than most he'd had.
"You're really good at this onii-chan. This is so much more fun than playing by myself."
'This is pretty surreal,' he thought to himself as he stood to one side, watching the little girl take her turn at the grid. She seemed to be having the time of her life, shouting and laughing, hair flowing in some invisible wind that seemed to caress only her, red skirt dancing around her legs like flames. She was having fun with the exuberant vibrancy that only small children seem to manage, and he couldn't help but be drawn into the scene.
After several rounds of hopscotch and an impromptu game of tag, initiated when the little girl simply beaned him with the stone and screamed "Tag! You're it!", she stopped and looked off into the distance for a few moments.
"It's almost time for you to go," she pouted sadly as she turned back to him, "but do you want to see it first?"
She took his hand again, more gently this time, and led him deeper into the cavern. They came across what appeared to be a very large alcove, with its entrance blocked by an intricate pattern of crisscrossing chains. A flimsy piece of rectangular paper, bearing a symbol drawn in some strange weaving style, was stuck to what appeared to be the center of the chains' web pattern. He turned and looked at her questioningly, and she pulled him closer to the alcove in reply. A few steps away from the web of chains, there was enough light filtering through that he could finally see what they held back.
A pile of bones, thrice as tall as he was and wider than that, gleaming in the ambient light as if polished. The bones were large, far too large for any animal he could think of, and there didn't seem to be any proper order in which one laid against another. And… was it his imagination or did the bone pile just shift slightly?
"It's been sleeping a long time. It was hurt pretty badly, and it's taken all this time to get better. Soon, though, it'll wake up."
She turned to him and smiled softly. For a flash, he thought he saw an expression on her face that hinted of unfathomable age and weariness, then it was gone and she was an innocent-looking little girl again. She reached her arms out and, after a moment, he obliged and hugged her.
"Today was really fun onii-chan!" she breathed into his ear, "I left you a present so that I wouldn't be so bored. I'll see you again soon, but right now you have to…"
He jerked awake suddenly, losing his balance as he did so and tumbling off his bed.
Cursing under his breath the young boy picked himself up only for a wave of nausea to overwhelm him as he tried to focus his eyes in the pitch blackness of his small apartment. Staggering to the bathroom while avoiding various obstacles he only just made it before the nausea became overwhelming, and he was forced to violently dispose of last night's dinner into the toilet. Pulling himself up to the sink while balancing on wobbly jelly-like legs, the boy gargled out the taste of bile with several cups of water before giving his face a good washing.
When he finally felt somewhat human he raised his head to look at himself in the bathroom mirror. It was then that two eyes, reflected in the mirror's surface, met his own. One of them was not his.
And he screamed.
Sarutobi Hiruzen was off his bed in a defensive crouch with kunai in hand before the words were finished. As old as he was, far past the age when ninja typically retired from active duty, he was not known as the God of Shinobi for nothing. It took him the length of one heartbeat to identify the voice and recall the assignment the voice's owner was supposed to be undertaking at this time.
"What is it Hebi? Is there something wrong with Naruto?"
The ANBU shifted uneasily before responding, an action Sarutobi picked up on. For one as casually outspoken as Hebi, this was a significant tell.
"Five minutes ago I heard Uzumaki scream. When I broke in to investigate I found him huddled in the bathroom, and… well… you need to see it Hokage-sama. I flagged Neko down to watch his apartment and came as soon as I could."
"Is he hurt? Is he in danger?" Sarutobi was already throwing robes on his nightclothes.
"I… I don't know."
Sarutobi threw open his bedroom window and was out in a flash, Hebi following close behind. Seconds later the pair joined a cat-masked ANBU on the roof of an abandoned warehouse facing Naruto's apartment.
"Has anything changed?"
"No, Hokage-sama. It's been quiet."
"Stay here, both of you."
Without waiting for acknowledgement of his order Sarutobi made his way inside Naruto's small apartment. Guided by the single light in the apartment, he made his way through the disorganized mess that was Naruto's daily life and found the boy.
"Naruto?" He asked gently.
The young blond did not respond. He was huddled in a corner against the toilet, face in his hands, whimpering.
Reaching Naruto with a few soft steps, Sarutobi knelt down and put a calming hand on his shoulder. The boy jerked as if trying to get away.
"Naruto? What's wrong?"
Sarutobi tried again.
"Naruto. Look at me. Whatever's going on, I can help you."
Slowly, hesitantly, the young blond moved his hands. Sarutobi firmed his grip on the boy's shoulder slightly, trying to give him a bit of mental support. Then Naruto turned, face streaked with tears, to look at the Hokage.
Sarutobi's blood ran cold.
Naruto's right eye, normally azure and full of depth, was now dull and glassy. But where his left eye once was, the one he had lost a year ago, a two-toned red orb stared back at the shocked Hokage.
Even as he struggled to understand the situation, part of Sarutobi's mind was already racing through the hand seals the Fourth had used in sealing the Kyuubi, preparing for the possibility. Unconsciously the hand on Naruto's shoulder, meant to reassure, tightened so much that it caused the boy to wince.
The expression of pain on Naruto's face brought Sarutobi out of his mental shock.
"When did this happen? How? Tell me."
Words tumbled out of the boy's mouth in a jumble at the Hokage's unintentionally harsh query. "I don't know I was dreaming and there was this girl and this thing and we were playing and then I woke up and threw up and then I looked in the mirror and saw…"
Sarutobi considered the next step. He had not felt even a wisp of killing intent through all this, and having lived through the Kyuubi's attack he knew very well just how terrifying the beast's aura was. Back then it had been like an almost palpable miasma of dread, but all he sensed from Naruto now was fear and confusion. The tears, the scratch marks around Naruto's left eye, and his confused reply also weighed against the possibility of the Kyuubi having taken over the boy. But he couldn't take chances, not with Konoha's safety potentially on the line and not with something that could turn out to be so wrong.
Squeezing Naruto's shoulders once again, Sarutobi said firmly but kindly, "I'll be right back, don't move."
He quickly made his way back outside to the waiting ANBU and gave his orders, tone betraying none of the sadness and doubt he was feeling.
"Hebi, go get Ibiki and have him meet us at ANBU headquarters. I also want their most secure long-term detainment cell prepared. Neko, get me a full ANBU prisoner transport squad, maximum security."
Watching the two ANBU speed off to carry out their orders, Sarutobi pushed all doubt aside in his mind. He had come to consider Naruto as something like an adopted grandchild, but his duty as Hokage came first. He only hoped that what he feared would not come to pass, and that if it did not, Naruto would find some way to forgive him for what he was about to put the boy through.
Sarutobi watched somberly as three people filed quietly into his office. Two months ago, he had hand-picked these three, plus one other, as the only individuals allowed to interact with Uzumaki Naruto, currently locked in a holding cell deep in the bowels of ANBU headquarters. A handful of ANBU knew of Naruto's status, but never got any closer than guarding his cell from the end of the hallway. The Village Council and the general population were simply told that Naruto was seriously ill and being held in quarantine at the hospital. Sarutobi had not even allowed himself to visit Naruto, in order to preclude any possibility of himself being mentally influenced by the boy's new eye in some way. He had to remind himself every day that this was not only for Konoha's safety, but in the long run also for Naruto's own good.
Today the three were to report on their findings and recommendations. Taking their cue from the Hokage's demeanor, the three took seats and watched in silence as he first dismissed his guards, and then activated the privacy seals that were built into his office. For his part Sarutobi found himself excited for news of the young blond he regarded so fondly, but apprehensive of what he might hear as well.
"We all know why we're gathered here. Why don't we start with you Sanzenin-sensei?"
Konoha Hospital's Chief of Medicine opened a folder and shuffled a few papers around before continuing.
"I personally put the subject through every diagnostic test I could think of, including taking several biopsies of various parts of the eye for further examination. It was during the course of taking samples that I discovered the eye heals remarkably quickly. Essentially it would completely heal itself as soon as I finished any procedure. With the subject's approval, I tested his other eye and other parts of his body, and found that the enhanced healing rate is limited to his left eye only."
Sanzenin shuffled a piece of paper to the bottom of the folder's stack before resuming.
"After evaluating all test results, I am of the opinion that, aside from the enhanced healing and a few other details, the subject's left eye is essentially a normal human eye. I can't speculate as to the process by which the subject regenerated his lost eye, but I can't detect any chakra traces besides the subject's own in the eye. It may be a one-time effect of being the Kyuubi's container with no other side-effects, or it may be the effect of some unknown Bloodline Limit."
Sarutobi quirked a brow.
"I also ran a series of tests to study how well the eye performs, in conjunction with Yamanaka-san to ensure that the subject wasn't hiding anything in his answers. With his right eye only, the subject has normal visual acuity for someone of his age. With the left eye only or with both eyes though, he has slightly improved vision, both in terms of ability to focus on distant objects and ability to track movement. The eye also gives him an easier time in seeing through minor genjutsu, though it's not better than what a decent Genin with some field experience could do unaided."
The Hokage nodded.
"Uzumaki has been cooperative throughout his stay. He's unhappy about his situation, but he seems to understand the necessity of it. After his first week of incarceration he asked for academy textbooks and a practice sword. Seeing no danger to it I supplied the first and provided a rubber version of the latter, and he's been busy occupying his time between interrogation and testing sessions that way. His choice in how to keep himself busy shows good judgment, and after the past two months in what is mostly solitary confinement he's displaying more mental stability than most others would."
"Does he pose a danger to Konoha?"
"I think…" Ibiki paused, mentally constructing his reply with care, "I think given what we know of his childhood, I would not be surprised if he felt less attachment to Konoha than others of his age to begin with. But I do not believe that his current situation has affected how he feels about the village."
Sarutobi nodded. It was a good answer, all things considered. He turned to the final member of the group.
"Yamanaka-san? What are your thoughts on Uzumaki Naruto's mental state?"
"Aside from assisting Sanzenin-sensei in his medical diagnoses, I've entered Uzumaki's mind several times on my own. I could not find any trace of the Kyuubi, but given the complex and undocumented nature of the seal the Fourth used that may not mean anything. I was also unable to find any trace of the little girl that Uzumaki reported in his dreams the night of the incident. All in all, his mindscape is a dark and gloomy place, but not beyond what would be expected for an orphan with the kind of childhood he's led."
"And your opinion on whether he's a threat to Konoha's safety?"
"I… agree with Morino-san. I don't believe he's any more dangerous now than he was two months ago. I think… given his determination to train himself even while incarcerated, I think he would make a useful addition to Konoha's shinobi ranks."
That answer surprised Sarutobi. Inoichi had become patriarch of the Yamanaka clan after the death of several elder clan members during Kyuubi's attack, and his hostility to the Kyuubi's container was apparent to all who had eyes to see. Of the three currently seated before him, Inoichi was the only one who had harbored a real grudge against Naruto, and the Hokage had reluctantly chosen him to be part of Naruto's examination team based on the man's skill with his clan's mind probing abilities.
"It seems then, that with supervision it would be safe to allow Uzumaki Naruto to return to his academy studies, with the possibility of promotion to Genin status." Sarutobi offered.
He looked around the room and was met with three heads nodding in agreement.
"The eye's genjutsu detection abilities may be more useful than Sanzenin-sensei's initial diagnosis suggests," Inoichi added, "we're dealing with a pre-Genin academy student with no practical experience in the field of genjutsu. With experience and training, it may be possible for Uzumaki's eye to break through higher level genjutsu instinctively. In any case, I suggest that he be instructed to keep it covered in normal situations, and only reveal it as an ace card."
"Similar to Hatake Kakashi and his Sharingan," Sarutobi agreed. "Very well, thank you for your work and cooperation in this matter. Sanzenin-sensei, please arrange the hospital's records and schedules to make it appear as if Naruto's been discharged. Morino-san, please release Naruto from the holding cell and get him settled back into normal life as best you can. Yamanaka-san, a moment please."
The Hokage watched the two men leave and close the door, and then reactivated his office's privacy seals. He then turned his eyes to the Yamanaka patriarch, studying the man's facial expression for a few moments before speaking.
"May I ask, Inoichi-kun, why did your opinion of Naruto change?"
"Your… dislike of Naruto as the Kyuubi's vessel is well known to me. It was only my faith in your great sense of personal honor that persuaded me you would not have taken this assignment as an opportunity to do Naruto harm. But now it seems you've had something of a change of heart regarding the boy."
"I…" Inoichi shifted in his seat uncomfortably. "I expected him to put up more of a fight when I told him I had to read his memories, but once I told him you had ordered it he understood and was very cooperative. What I found in his mind was two great overriding themes. Ibiki was right when he said that Naruto doesn't have much in the way of ties to Konoha, but what I found was an intense personal loyalty to you, Hokage-sama, along with an incredible determination to fulfill the promise he made to you when he woke from his coma.
"I also looked back through his childhood, and… well… I never really gave much thought to what it meant for so many villagers to bear a grudge against him, but it's a different perspective experiencing it from the eyes of a child who had no idea why everyone hated him.
"It's… complicated, I'm still not sure how I feel, but I'm making an effort to see him not as the Kyuubi, but… as a child whose life has been affected by things he has no control over," Inoichi finished lamely.
Sarutobi gave the younger man a weary smile.
"It does seem like nothing regarding Uzumaki Naruto is ever simple. But I'm glad that he's finally starting to change people's opinions of him. I only hope that, one person at a time, he can eventually be seen the way the Fourth wanted. Thank you for agreeing to do this Inoichi-kun."
Yamanaka Inoichi stood and gave the Hokage a respectful bow, before turning and walking out of the older man's office.
Naruto landed heavily on his back for the third time that day.
"Get up dobe, we're not done," Sasuke sneered.
Naruto grunted as he clumsily maneuvered back to his feet, left hand on his face the whole time. He didn't have the skill to take Sasuke out cleanly, and there wasn't enough time left on the clock to stage a comeback via points scored. But he'd be damned if he didn't give his all against the arrogant bastard to the bitter end.
The day had started off well for the blond-haired boy. It was academy graduation day, and he had set his alarm clock an hour early just to be sure he could get some last minute studying and warm-ups in. Then he had opened his breakfast instant ramen to find the free case of ramen winning label printed on the inside. Money was no longer a major issue in Naruto's life ever since he started shopping in his one-eyed Jounin disguise; he'd even been able to buy a pair of explosive tags from the weapon shop with his savings. But winning free ramen was always a cause for celebration.
The Genin exams went the way Naruto had expected them to. The extra studying he put in had caught him up with his classmates academically, and he managed to do reasonably well with the written portion of the exam. He was decent with Henge and less so with Bunshin, but was relieved when Iruka-sensei told him that he had just barely squeaked by passing level in the jutsu portion of the exam. His thrown weapons performance was poor, which he had expected, but he had put in enough practice that he managed to hit the target with one kunai above the number required for passing.
And then Naruto was matched against Uchiha Sasuke for the taijutsu portion of the exam.
While Naruto no longer made taijutsu a priority in his personal training, his intense physical conditioning regimen had still brought him back up to around the middle of the class in terms of taijutsu ability. The top fighters of the class like Sasuke and Inuzuka Kiba still beat him in every practice match, but lately he had begun to put forward a credible level of opposition against even them. Thus while Naruto was not confident of his chances for winning when he stepped into the practice circle against Sasuke, he still felt he could do well enough to pass the Genin exam overall.
The match began the same way as the last dozen or so matches they'd had during classes. Naruto had noticed Sasuke's tendency of opening with a kick followed by a hand combination, and managed to block them all while scoring a glancing kick of his own. Then he'd misread a kick feint to the midsection and dropped his arms, only to take a spinning backfist against the left side of his face. Sasuke had then grabbed and pulled the headband covering his eye right off of him. Naruto just had time to clamp his left hand over his eye just before a kick combination drove him to the ground for the first time.
"Why don't you come at me with both hands? Too ashamed of showing everyone your ugly scar?" Sasuke smirked, while making a taunting "come here" motion with his front hand.
Naruto no longer cared whether his classmates thought he was ugly or not, but Jiji had impressed on him the importance of not letting anyone see his left eye. The academy examiners wouldn't allow him time to retie his headband, so he had no choice but to finish the fight with one hand clamped securely over his eye.
As soon as the stop whistle sounded Naruto grabbed his headband and stalked away angrily, ignoring the twittering laughter of the Sasuke fangirl club. He had heard the examiners openly laughing at him as Sasuke put him down again and again; he didn't need them to tell him that he had failed.
Two hours later, Naruto watched the gathering of happy parents and newly graduated Genins from a bench partially hidden behind bushes at the back of the academy lot. He had worked out his disappointment and anger on a training post while the rest of his class finished with the testing, and now was slumped down in his seat in a sense of empty tiredness. For a moment, he allowed his mind to wander, to picture himself as one of those happy children being congratulated by proud parents…
'Congratulations Naruto, I always knew you could do it!'
'Thanks dad, the tips you gave me about that jutsu were really useful!'
'Come on, I'll make you your favorite dishes for dinner!'
'Yay! Mom, can I invite my best friend too…'
Naruto quashed his daydream viciously. They never led his mind to anywhere good.
"Naruto?" a kindly voice asked.
He turned to find himself looking at Mizuki. The academy instructor had seated himself beside Naruto while the boy was lost in his daydream.
"Are you feeling ok? I heard you failed the taijutsu portion of the exam."
"Yeah," the boy replied simply.
"It's too bad. I know you worked really hard for this, I was sure you could pass this time around."
Naruto shrugged. "Yeah. Maybe next year."
He hoped the tone of his voice didn't betray the bitter disappointment he felt.
"Still, we both know you're ready. It would be a shame for you to spend another year at the academy when it was bad luck that made you fail the taijutsu exam."
Naruto turned to look at Mizuki, and the academy instructor gave him a warm smile in return.
"You know, there's another way you can pass the Genin test. It's supposed to be a secret, but…"
I started this project specifically because I couldn't find any interesting non-super Naruto fics I'd not read before. He will, in time, grow to be quite powerful, but none of it will come easily. He'll have to sweat and bleed for most of his strength, and the things that are given to him without that effort will always come at a price. The eye is a good example. It's a bit of a power boost, but doesn't match the abilities of a proper bloodline doujutsu. Given that unveiling the eye in Konoha would bring down the entire citizenry's fear and wrath on him, at this point it's at least as much of a hindrance as a benefit.
I kept the Naruto gets beat up scene somewhat ambiguous on purpose. It's possible, even probable, that someone decided to beat the crap out of him because of who he is. It's also possible that he was just a kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, and any other defenseless kid would have gotten the same from a group of drunks.
I recognize that swords are probably the most overused weapon cliché in Naruto fandom. Of the classical feudal Japanese weapons, only swords and kusari-gama fit the portability, range, and area clearing requirements given his handicap. Having a kid with one eye training with a chain weapon is probably not the best idea, so swords it was.
6/11/10: Removed glossary, shortened author's notes.
3/29/10: Edited plot so that Naruto's attackers get captured, clarified amount of head damage Naruto suffered, made minor edits to remove a lot of unnecessary commas
3/13/10: Added disclaimer & Author's Notes
3/12/10: First Upload