Disclaimer: The original manga Naruto is the work of Kishimoto Masashi. Settings and characters have been adapted without authorization or approval.
Naruto crouched in the shadow of a chimney pipe. Chimney shadows were the easiest illusions, 'cause they were basically dark and that was it. Once the patrols were out of sight again, he dropped to a ledge and raced toward the wall of the Uchiha compound.
Almost there. Just a little further...
"Any sign yet?"
Pressing against the wall, Naruto made another shadow illusion, just in time to see two chuunin walk into view below. One said to the other, "If the chasers don't catch him, the sweeps will. I heard they've cleared the perimeter."
They didn't usually bother with sweeps for him - only when he was in real trouble, which Naruto guessed this was. If he didn't move fast, they'd have guards up on the walls around the Uchiha houses, and he'd never get in without them seeing. He could hide from one or two people who didn't think he had any skills (since they couldn't look every way at once), but the sweep patrols'd have at least four people per group, and they'd leave guards behind 'em when they cleared an area. He'd never gotten past a sweep yet.
He made double sure he was breathing and focused as hard as he could on a rooftop two streets over. The clone that popped up there wasn't good - it flopped over like jelly, and he couldn't tell if it was even made right - but it was enough to make the ninjas below him look. Naruto threw his voice in the same direction, making the words, "Oh, crap!" echo back like his clone had said 'em (before it puffed out of view). If he was lucky, that'd be the break he needed.
The leap from the ledge to the Uchiha wall was the last problem, putting him out in the open for a whole second, but if he could make that-
"There he is! He's headed over the wall!"
Hissing under his breath, Naruto botched the landing and tumbled into the dirt. He barely had time to make another shadow disguise, blending into the darkness stretching off the base of the wall, before a squad appeared over his head. Shadows like that were great if you could find 'em. They let you inch along without anyone being able to see you move, and Naruto inched for all his life was worth.
"Two of you, check the wall and the surrounding trees. I want two more on guard here in case he doubles back. And you, you're with me. We know where he's headed."
No way he could inch fast enough to get away from that. The two ninjas checking the wall for illusions were fanning out from where he'd dropped, and the one headed his way would be on him in seconds. Ditching the shadow disguise as he bolted from the wall, Naruto leapt straight at the ninja's feet (the crappiest angle for catching people - he'd tested - and most of the time you could knock 'em off balance, too).
From a sprint, he rolled through a kid-sized hole in the tripwires Itachi-no-niichan had strung at the edge of the forest. Even if they were stupid enough to follow him, he could dodge these traps faster than they could, since he knew where they all were, and the ninja chasing him had no clue. He'd have more cover, too.
"Don't," the second ninja said, holding back the first. "The whole thing's probably booby-trapped. We have the wall guarded. Let's rendezvous with the others."
Naruto let out a sigh. He tried to make his heart stop hammering, but it didn't work. Sure, they'd said they wouldn't follow him in, but that didn't mean they'd keep out the whole way. He put on another shadow disguise to run along a rock ledge, keeping an eye and an ear out the whole time as he headed towards the houses.
The right one was easy to find, even in the dark and without Itachi-no-niichan or Sasuke to lead him. He followed the sound of water to the big lake, then Sasuke's house was right there - the one at the tip-top of the hill, with the light on, and no worn-out holes in the sliding doors like the ones that made the other houses look like ghosts. Sasuke's house was clean and shiny.
And the chuunin who'd been chasing him were standing on the stone wall across the street from it, the one separating the Uchiha from the rest of the village. They were probably watching for him to go in. He could stay in the forest, and maybe they wouldn't come after him. Maybe they wouldn't bother Sasuke if he never went in the house. But that wouldn't be any good, either. He could hear Sasuke in his head, calling him an idiot for staying out in the cold and wet and full-of-stuff-with-claws.
Naruto'd crept as close as he could in shadows, sticking to the edge of the forest. With the dark all around him, he made a new camouflage to match the grass and crawled belly-down on the ground. Once he was under Sasuke's back porch, he felt around for the trap door. The latch was on the inside, but he could reach it with his knife (Sasuke'd shown him the trick last weekend). Quietly, slowly, he pulled himself up inside the kitchen pantry, into the fake storage bin next to the rice, and locked the door underneath him.
"Try his apartment," Sasuke said to someone. "I haven't seen Naruto all night."
He'd been right. They came to the door the second he was inside. Somehow, they must have seen him even though he'd been doing his best to hide.
"We have reason to believe he's here, and our orders are to take him into custody. Now, step aside and let us-"
"If you came here on orders, where are your papers from the Hokage saying you can search our house? I won't let you in just because you came while my brother's not here. And he should be back any minute, by the way."
"Why, you brat! If-"
A deeper voice said, "That's enough. We have better things to do than rough up a pipsqueak. When we come back, kid, there won't be any excuses. If we find Naruto hiding inside, you and your brother are going to regret standing in our way."
"Is that so? I'll be sure to give Nii-san your message. Have a nice night."
The door slammed shut, but Naruto stayed curled in the darkness over the trap door, quiet as could be. He didn't know how to be sure the chasers were really gone, and that this time they really couldn't see him. He didn't want to get Sasuke in any more trouble. He didn't want to mess everything up at the last minute...
The trick top on the fake bin opened over his head, and Sasuke scowled down at him. "So what's this all about, moron?" his friend asked.
"They..." Naruto tried to be brave, and cool like Sasuke, and not to sob. But he didn't want to lose the only friend he'd ever had! "They said they didn't want me seeing you and Itachi-no-niichan anymore." Sasuke looked so far from impressed that Naruto couldn't help smiling. All the fear seemed stupid now. "Guess we showed 'em, huh?"
Sasuke scoffed, walking off toward the stove. "You know where stuff is. I don't know if they'll be back, so leave your shoes on the trap door."
Where he could get 'em if he had to run, and they wouldn't be out front for the chasers to see. Good thinking.
He left the clothes that'd gotten muddy in the laundry and pulled shorts and a t-shirt from Sasuke's stuff. When he washed all the dirt off himself, it didn't look like he was cut more than a few scrapes, so he didn't need a bandage anywhere. Maybe tonight wasn't so bad.
"You're hungry, right?"
Naruto sniffed the air as he walked back into the kitchen. It smelled like food, but he didn't know what Sasuke was on a chair, standing in front of a row of pots, dishing noodles into a bowl. Then he dropped in a boiled egg, then a big lump of miso and some steaming water. Sasuke stirred it with a pair of chopsticks, but it didn't look like it was mixing up so well.
His friend frowned at the bowl. "I don't think the noodles are quite done, and... I mean, it's not like we have pork chops..."
"Is that... ramen?"
"If you're not hungry, you don't have to eat."
"I'll eat it! I'll eat it!"
That made tonight the best ever! Nobody else got Sasuke Ramen! Nobody but him. Naruto peeked at the bowl his friend slid onto the table. There was even fishcake, and he hadn't known Itachi-no-niichan kept any in the pantry!
He grabbed the chopsticks Sasuke held out for him, but Sasuke didn't let go. His friend scowled at the front door again. "Everything's going to be fine. You're here, so... it's fine." He didn't look so angry when he turned to Naruto again. "If you want to stay, you can do the dishes."
Naruto wished he knew how to say that when he looked at Sasuke giving him a not-angry face like that, his chest swelled up til it hurt, but it was the best kind of hurt he'd ever felt. But he didn't know how to say it (especially not so Sasuke wouldn't laugh). So he murmured, "Thanks, Sasuke," and hoped it came through somehow.
Itachi took his bag of groceries from the clerk and counted how many ninja were still trailing him.
He'd taken care not to give any sign that he'd spotted them - not until he'd figured out why they were there. Today had been so ordinary, and his missions had gone cleanly. Why put him under surveillance now? Moreover, why send chuunin to tail him? It didn't make sense. If the Hokage wanted him watched, he'd send the strongest ninja in the village.
Two more chuunin ran over the roof. Something wasn't right.
Hiding his hand seals in the heft of his grocery bags where the ninja tracking him wouldn't see, he cast a surveillance jutsu. A black raven flew up - alighting from the other side of a roof, for all anyone looking would know - and followed the running ninja over the roofs. The image of them overlaid like a ghost world over his real sight showing him the road where he walked, and their conversation came to his ears as whispers.
"Did they find him?" one asked.
"C Team saw him going over the Uchiha's wall. How long has this been going on?!"
"You'd think the Hokage would be watching that bastard close enough to know he was trying to get a hold on the Kyuubi boy. Well, he'll know now, and that'll be that. Let's hurry."
Well. The school teachers had taken it upon themselves to hunt him down because they were afraid of Naruto? He'd hate to think he misjudged Iruka-san so far as that, but there was no question that these weren't troops with orders directly from the Hokage. Sandaime was anything but unaware that Naruto had been spending time with him and Sasuke.
The sooner this was settled, at the top, the better.
Itachi looked straight at the chuunin tailing him whom he'd identified as the squad leader and wove a one-handed hitsuji seal in plain view. Sensing their panic rise in an instant, he shrouded himself in illusion. They started counterjutsu, and a chase, but he was already gone.
If Naruto was already over the wall, he and Sasuke could handle themselves in the house. Even if these people were chasing Minato-san's boy, they'd be idiots to use violence against two children inside the city walls - against any citizen, without permission from the Hokage himself. And if they were idiots, Sasuke knew how to escape to somewhere safe. He could trust them to be all right.
His course over the rooftops went straight toward the Hokage's tower. Still invisible, he perched outside the window with the best view of the desk, where the Third Hokage was frowning at the Academy's principal, head teacher, and the head of the PTA.
The old man pulled his pipe out of his mouth. "You started a manhunt for one of your students and one of our active jouninbecause he came for a parent-teacher conference?"
Down on the ground, Iruka-san ran in the front door at top speed, with his shouts of, "Move! I need to see the Hokage!" loud enough that half the village could probably hear. Odd that he hadn't been on the front line of this particular attack, since it'd been his conference.
The three school officials lost all the blood in their faces under the Hokage's scrutiny. They seemed confused to hear censure instead of praise. The head teacher coughed. "Sir. When we realized what was going on, we thought you'd want-"
"And your first mistake, Kiritsu, was that you presumed to think you knew my will on it. While I'm Hokage, Konoha is not a village where we consider men criminals for being considerate toward children."
"But... Sir. That child... and that man..."
The Hokage silenced them with a squint, and blew a draw of smoke from his pipe as he wandered toward the window. He nodded at two guards by the wall. "Get word to all the squads on alert - this search is over. Leave the boy be." The guards walked for the door. The Third looked back out the window. "You overstepped your authority, and wasted village resources pursuing two of our own in doing so. There'll be consequences for that. But for the moment, why don't you start by explaining why exactly-"
"Hokage-sama!" Iruka-san yelled, bursting through the same door the guards had opened to exit. Two more chuunin from the hall were trying to hold him back, but it was clear the school teacher could fight his way past if he decided he had to. He'd nearly slipped them already. "Hokage-sama, please, you have to listen to me."
"Let him in." With a gravelly sigh, the Hokage set his pipe on his desk. "Well, Iruka. What have you got to add? I assume this is pertinent to the matter at hand."
The head teacher, the one named Kiritsu, nodded. "Iruka-kun is the one who-"
"I believe I asked Iruka to explain," the old man said.
There was silence as everyone looked at the man walking into the room. Iruka looked ready to be sick. When the Hokage made the hard, disappointed expression he was making now, that tended to happen to the delicate ones.
"Well... this afternoon, I... I talked... to Itachi-san."
"So I've been informed."
"About... Naruto. He wanted to know about Naruto."
"That does seem to be everyone's concern."
"I..." the teacher gulped, glancing sideways at his superiors, then back to the Hokage. "I respectfully disagree with the Head Teacher's assessment that this represents a danger to the village. Before you act on whatever information you've been given, please..." Iruka-san shut his eyes tight. "Please allow me to speak on Itachi-san's and Naruto's behalf!"
Itachi indulged in a silent chuckle. The teacher had some nerve. And maybe he'd been right after all, that this one wasn't so bad.
With a hint of a smile, the Hokage asked, "So. You don't believe Itachi's intention is to release the Nine-Tailed Fox on the village again?"
"No, sir. Not at all."
"Why don't you tell us all what your impression is?"
"Sir. He... Itachi-san, that is. He... seems like a good brother. I know he cares about Sasuke. I think, from the way Sasuke's attitude has changed since the beginning of the year, he's well looked-after. And... I don't want to speak more than is my place... but Itachi-san made it clear that he values family very much. It bothers him that Naruto doesn't have one. I honestly believe that's why he came to see me today. My instinct tells me that no one who considers Naruto to be simply a means to unleash the Nine-Tailed Fox could... could ever convince Naruto to open up to him. To be friendly. Goodness knows, I've tried, and he's still shy around me most of the time. But Itachi-san succeeded. I'm glad he did, for Naruto's sake. That's what I think."
Naive. Correct, in this case - sometimes Itachi even forgot that Naruto had the fox inside him at all - but that kind of assertion was still naive. As desperate as Naruto had seemed, someone with ill intentions and a cold heart could've easily suborned him with a little false kindness. It'd be nice to live in a world where they could all be as naive as this teacher.
The Hokage turned from Iruka-san to look at the window where Itachi was perched.
"Itachi. Care to add anything?"
He dropped his illusions. The school officials and Iruka-san all backed three steps away from the desk as Itachi jumped through the window. He smiled at them. The three older ones started to sweat. Iruka-san looked like he'd been wrung dry of nervous sweat for the day.
Turning to the Hokage, he said, "Sir. If I may assure you personally - I have no intention of destroying the village. Konoha is my home." Which should have gone without saying.
"I take it from today's excitement that your and Sasuke's association with Naruto has continued since we last discussed it?"
That comment had been meant for the school officials, Itachi had no doubt, and the mixture of shame and discomfort on their faces indicated that it'd struck home.
Itachi could follow that lead. "As you're aware, sir."
"Why, yes. I am aware." The Hokage looked at the school officials directly. "Naruto's assigned caretakers did see fit to inform me that he's taken to spending evenings at your home. Then he and Sasuke are getting along, I assume."
"I don't think I could keep them apart if I tried."
"Excellent. It's good for a kid to have friends. Kiritsu, would you care to explain why you still don't look satisfied?"
The head teacher shifted his gaze from the Hokage to Itachi, his features carefully set so as not to show any hint of his thoughts - and revealing his strain all the more for that. His actions had been taken on the belief, apparently, that Itachi had meant to destroy the village. With no evidence to support that gross failure of judgment, the Hokage would never be swayed, and Kiritsu had to know that. He'd try something else.
"Iruka-kun's... assessment... of Uchiha-san's compass is appreciated, of course, but Iruka-kun is a first year teacher. As a long-serving member of the faculty, I have more doubts about the... gentleman's... family situation. He's..."
Itachi dared him with a frown to say one word about his family. That conversation would not end well. Whether the head teacher understood that warning, or whether he was ruled by his own better sense, Kiritsu swallowed whatever he was thinking and tried a different tack.
"He's... among our village's most relied-upon jounin. Hokage-sama, sir... Uchiha-san is frequently away from the village for days at a time on assignment. It's village policy, which you yourself endorsed, to lay that kind of burden on ninja who either have no children, have children of responsible age, or who share guardianship with another adult. Up to now, I haven't contested his ability to be Sasuke-kun's guardian due to Sasuke-kun's excellent performance in class-"
Without moving a muscle, Itachi let the anger he'd been holding boil to the surface. The force of his will pushed like a wave through the air. Every ninja sensed it at once. Guards and teachers alike reached for weapons and snapped to defense. Only the Hokage didn't arm himself, although he shook his head with a sigh.
Into the silence, Itachi said, "My brother is not subject to negotiation." It wasn't a threat - although if the elders of Konoha went back on their promise to let Sasuke live safely, there would be blood. This was his perfect certainty that the promise was good.
"A-as I said, Sasuke-kun seems to be fine... But... But I cannot stand by and allow Uchiha-san, w-who has so many responsibilities to the village already, to take guardianship of a second child - especially a... a problem-child like Naruto. It's not in the best interests of Naruto-kun, of Sasuke-kun, of Uchiha-san himself, or of this village as a whole. Hokage-sama, I beg you to reconsider allowing this association to continue."
Taking his seat, the Hokage wore a thoughtful expression. "This may come as a surprise to you, Kiritsu, but as the Hokage I am quite familiar with the service Itachi has done and continues to do for Konoha. Perhaps more familiar with it than anyone in this room save Itachi himself. Even so, I'm not inclined to tell schoolchildren who their friends are allowed to be. As for Itachi becoming Naruto's legal guardian, no one's suggested it - and if he asks, I promise it'll be none of your damn business!"
Itachi mused aloud, "Could I be Naruto's legal guardian?"
He hadn't considered that possibility, but he wasn't impressed with the job Naruto's official caretakers had been doing.
While the school administrators looked ready to choke on their own indignation, the Third turned his frown in Itachi's direction. "I'll take it under advisement. You'll all hear from me once I decide what needs doing. Right now, I want everybody the hell out of my office."
Kiritsu and company left first, followed by Iruka-san, who ducked the opposite direction when he reached the hallway. The teacher's lounge would probably be tense for the next few weeks. Itachi, for his part, wasn't going to show his back to any of them. He stayed a few feet back. He took it as a point of pride that he would never start that fight.
A presence waited in the shadows outside the door.
"Commander," Itachi greeted Danzou in a murmur.
The aging officer stepped into view. "Itachi."
"How may I help you?"
"Do me a favor, Itachi. No more illusions when the caretakers check on Naruto. If Hiruzen is going to grant your little request, you'd best not be showing those boys you think Konoha's ninja are enemies to be fooled."
The caretakers themselves had shown no signs of noticing, but it befitted the leader of the ANBU to be more aware. It changed nothing, however.
"Is that worse than Konoha's ninja treating them as enemies to be feared? Six years ago, that was me. Children thrive on meeting expectations."
"I'll mind the attitudes of the caretakers who knock on your door. You mind being the role model those boys are watching. We're counting on you."
With a nod, his commander let him go. The walk home from the tower seemed longer than usual, and the lack of eyes on him (for now) felt like an old chain had dissolved into mist. If only there were a way to be sure Sasuke could grow up without that weight on his shoulders.
One victory at a time.
No guards around his house, Itachi saw with a trace of cheer, and the door hadn't been broken down. The outside street was free of signs of battle as far as he could see.
The smell of boiled noodles and miso hung thick when he got inside.
He caught the black-haired projectile that was his adorable little brother and swung Sasuke up onto his shoulders as he walked in. Naruto waited at the table, all smiles, and wearing one of Sasuke's blue t-shirts with the Uchiha fan. Itachi chuckled, wondering exactly how much the PTA would overreact if they ever saw that symbol on the blond boy's back.
"Were you two holding the line?"
"The guys chasing Naruto told me to tell you we'd be sorry."
"But Sasuke never let 'em in! I heard the whole thing!" The distinctive Uzumaki grin fell off his face. "And we saw them leave, so... so everything's all right, right?"
Itachi ruffled his hair. "Everything's fine. Your teacher and I talked to the Hokage, and the Hokage told those men they were stupid for trying to tell you who your friends could be."
Naruto jumped onto his chair, reaching both hands up (one of which Sasuke deigned to answer with a fistbump). Dropping his bag of groceries, Itachi pulled chopsticks out of a bowl of three-quarters-cooked ramen noodles with a clump of miso barely dissolved in the middle.
"And I see you already made dinner."
"Do you want some?" Sasuke asked. "I can get you a bowl!" He sounded so proud.
Chuckling, he said, "How could I say no?"
He'd teach Sasuke how to make proper miso broth some other day.