Are You Man or Ghost?
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto and am not making money off it.
AN: originally it's own story, this is where I'm now putting a collection of my non-pairing one-shots. I'll properly indicate if I ever continue this 'verse.
In the tired days and hurried dusks after the attack of the Nine Tails, the forces of Konohagakure were stretched like catgut, taut and tight; like a sharp tug in just the right direction could tear something open.
Everyone was sleep-deprived and among them were the ANBU called upon to care for That Newborn. These ANBU were the newly un-injured, or rather, the somewhat less injured; just mobile enough to care for an infant, but not well enough for normal missions. The Sandaime always made sure to talk to them about seals beforehand, about how kunai sealed into scrolls do not make the scrolls themselves sharp, and the ANBU listened but remembered the rumors coming from Suna and treated the baby like an explosive tag found in the field that did not belong to them.
It was either fortune or instinct that Naruto, even as a baby, liked attention, and cried whenever he wasn't held. It was fortuitous that the nin were tired, and inclined to do whatever it took to keep the fucking noise down. (Naruto was, and will always be, loud and does not resemble an explosive tag for long.)
It was an unspoken rule that ANBU do not speak unnecessarily on-duty; the masks encourage this, as do their extensive hand signal vocabulary. What not even the Hokage knows, to say nothing of the nin themselves, is that every single one of Naruto's watchers during roughly his first two years of life had broken this rule, eventually.
Boar held the record (not that any record was kept) of the longest to resist talking. He was gruff and stern and loyal, and it took three months and a mission from hell and an entire team that did not return. He was alone, with a bum leg, a wound that kept seeping, and a four month old on his lap. He felt like a spool of ninja wire, wrung back wrong, too tense and too lax and innards all twisted up and he mentally went over that inital ambush yet again, wondered where it all went sideways, goes over it again, and yet again, and somewhere during the third or fourth time he realizes that his mouth is moving.
He is ANBU, so his words are not loud and do not carry, but he looks down to see blue, blue eyes looking up at him. There is no pity there, nor blame, nor any sort of request for information, but that is no surprise because the tiny blond is just a baby and understands nothing and Boar laughs at himself for worrying. And Boar tells him of the ambush and the counter-attack, of feints and retreats and deadly jutsu. Boar tells him of blood and of horror, like a bedtime story, and the kid eventually falls asleep. Boar eventually realizes that he feels better.
"Thanks, kid," he chuckles.
(Boar stopped telling bedtime stories when Naruto was almost two. Which is not Boar's fault, really, nor anyone else's. These things happen.
Naruto does not remember him, or the stories, not consciously. He remembers the sensation of someone...missing. He remembers looking and looking but the person who was Boar-shaped was no longer around, and a new Boar was there instead and it was strange. And he could not ask where Boar went. He'd learned early on not to speak, because whenever he did the animal-people stopped talking and rarely restarted.
Naruto found his words again, in the orphanages, because the squeaky wheel gets fed.)
Panther was actually the first to look after the Jinchuuriki, volunteered whenever she could, actually, but it took her a week to speak without choking. She made sure he was listening and spun the child tales of a strong-hearted not-a-lady, fiery, loud, annoying, and the best friend she didn't have. She told him of a sun-touched man everyone loved or was in love with, the strongest of shinobi, the most brilliant amongst them, his quiet cheerful strangeness and his smiles. By law, she cannot say this is your mother or that is your father; but the law did not say she could not talk about her best friend. And law cannot ban people from speaking of the Yondaime.
Panther tried to make sure the child knows what love is, tries to tell him of these people to look up to, to be. She tried, as much as being busy with missions and kept behind a mask allowed one to do, to be a parent for Naruto.
But despite being carefully quiet while with the baby, she mused a touch too loudly among a few too many people of perhaps setting down her mask.
Her peers watched as she was given increasingly harder solo missions. Listening underneath the underneath they heard she is compromised.
(No one is surprised that one day she did not return. Naruto was ten months old.
Naruto does not know that a part of him remembers this love and these stories.
Naruto thinks he knows of the Yondaime from Blackbird, and he is half right.
Naruto does not know that Blackbird had a friend, and it is safer for Blackbird that he does not know who this friend was. It is probably safer for Blackbird not to know who Blackbird's friend was. Blackbird does what she could, but she only knew the Yondaime. She tries to be careful and to hold herself aloof and she succeeds.
Because when she dies, when Naruto was four and a half, during a mission, knifed in the throat, it is due to natural causes.
So to speak.)
Of all of Naruto's caretakers, Wolf broke the fastest. It took four point six hours, eleven messes spread across two rooms, and one bright smile, sleepystickygross, curled into his neck. He breathed, frustrated, and it felt like he took a breath of cold air and the air smelled of memorial stone (rancid and full of duty, and loyalty, and not being enough) and out of habit he found himself telling his sensei about the stupid failed day he just had and the small ball of piss and puke that some call a child, and Obito tells him to be grateful and he mutters 'shut up', and through it all Wolf's lips barely move and the only sound that comes from him is what amounts to a low rumble. Naruto sighed, and curled closer.
Wolf tried to pull Jinchuuriki duty as little as possible, it was awkward and confusing and his least favorite thing. Too bad he kept getting injured and stuck with the brat.
Wolf was irritated because he hated hospitals and everyone in charge was very concerned that one of their top operatives has a death wish.
(Wolf is very good at lying. The trick is to tell the truth. He is, in fact, so good at lying because he lies to himself for practice.
Naruto remembers Wolf less because of content than because of constancy. He does not remember Wolf's voice because he'd never really heard it and their interactions before age two, to Naruto's half-there memories, mostly involved him wanting to do something and Wolf refusing. Subconsciously there's the sense of a warm rumble, and a heartbeat.
When Naruto was two he was given over to the orphanages and the ANBU's caretaker duties devolved mostly into watch detail.
Of those who watched him, because they cycled often, Wolf returned the most, and returned the longest, and Naruto would catch glimpses of him, a movement like shadows and ghosts and air.
Then one day when he was six, Wolf, too, left.)
The Sandaime's hands are tied. He tries to protect the Yondaime's child as best he can, which is not nearly enough, and to watch over him as much as he could. But he, even with the seeing crystal, couldn't really watch, because he was being watched as well. He hopes that the child was given enough care to not grow up...off. He knows the boy's parents were kind and caring and loyal, but he does not know if it will breed true.
He assigns the child ANBU, and hopes that will be enough. Only time would tell.
AN: So I was bunnied by Nature v. Nurture. Plus a dash of child brain/emotional development theory. I may or may not continue this fic, in which case there will be no pairings in the main fic. The main fic will be gen, and the pairing will be a sidestory.