[Comedic Disclaimer] Insert comedic disclaimer here [/Comedic Disclaimer]
The cover image is the first visual art made for this story, made by Adeshark, and set further in the story than I've actually written. You can't see the full details even if you click on the picture here, so I suggest you go to the url I put on my profile.
"Happy families are all alike; Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Thanks to Fenix Maelstrom for Beta-ing.
Happy Families Are All Alike
In the Spider's Web
The Anbu that led Naruto was not, the blond decided, one that he had seen before. Which was a surprise—he visited the Hokage so often that he was certain that he'd seen nearly every Anbu in the village. Naruto didn't know what animal the single horizontal line across the mask was supposed to represent, but the Anbu moved with all the lethal grace that Naruto had come to expect from the protectors of Konoha.
"Stop." The words came quietly, absent of emotion. "The Hokage has summoned you, as I said."
"Huh?" Naruto looked at the older ninja beside him. "But this is the way to the Tower! I've come here a hundred times!" Naruto felt annoyance rise up in him. He had never needed to be escorted to the Hokage's Tower before! He still didn't know why the Anbu had stopped him on the way home from the Academy to take him to Jiji. He had tried to ask, but the masked shinobi had been silent. He wasn't a child anymore! He was eight, he could walk around the village by himself!
The Anbu nodded. "Indeed it is. However, Hokage-sama did not order for you to be brought to the Tower. We will be going to the Sarutobi household."
"B-but Jiji is supposed to be working today, right? I've only ever gone to his house when he's got a resting day." A frown flitted across Naruto's face before disappearing, as frowns were wont to do for the young boy. "That's great! Have you ever been there, Anbu-san? There's an entire park back there, with a swing and a slide, and this thing with ropes that makes everyone worry when I start to play with it, and this funny little boy with a scarf that tried to throw paint at this old lady, and—"
The Anbu suddenly stopped walking, causing Naruto to walk into him. He fell to the ground, scraping his hand. But Naruto was used to pain—the small scratch disappeared almost instantly. All that remained was a small bloody smear on his palm.
Naruto looked up to see the ninja looming over him. "We're here," he announced, his voice as monotone as any Aburame's.
Naruto chuckled nervously as he stood up. The Anbu made no move to help him—something he had long gotten used to, but Anbu tended to be more helpful than most other people were. Naruto desperately tried to find something to say, to break the uncomfortable silence. "A-Anbu-san? Why didn't we use that thing, where you make us go someplace really fast, with the swirling leaves? That would have got us here sooner, right?"
The Anbu stared at him, his eyes seeming like two pits of black under his mask. "Correct. However, that would mean I would have had to touch you." The Anbu turned away from the child. "Go. The Hokage is expecting you." Leaves spun, and the Anbu disappeared, leaving a hurt and dejected child to trudge into the mansion of the Sarutobi.
It never mattered what mood Naruto was in once he entered Jiji's house. The moment he crossed the threshold into their home, he was happy. Naruto was always happy to be around people who didn't hate him, and there wasn't a soul in the huge building that wasn't at least accepting of him—Sarutobi Hiruzen made sure of that.
There was no one around as he entered the building, but that was not unusual—the Sarutobi mansion was both one of the largest buildings in Konohagakure and one of the most sparsely populated, with only six of the Sarutobi clan still alive. There were servants, of course, but they were constantly busy maintaining the house.
This was fine with Naruto. He enjoyed the long walk to get to the occupied rooms; it gave him time to see the new growth.
Naruto hadn't entirely understood when the old man had explained it to him, but the Sarutobi used to be close to some tree-growing people who were involved in making Konoha, and because of that they grew a lot of plants.
He personally didn't think that made sense, but he was glad that the old people who formed the village did. The Sarutobi clan home was covered in plants, both the inside and outside. Even the unused rooms had at least half a dozen flowers or other green growing things; the rooms people stayed in had many more.
Some were set in pots; others had been planted on the floor in special nooks made solely to hold the plant. In some places, such as the dining hall, they even grew on the walls, or upon the ceiling. Tendrils of ivy crossed many walls in the house, and sometimes one might notice that the pillar supporting the ceiling was not a carved column of wood, but the trunk of a living tree.
Naruto stopped by the hallway that led to the clan head's rooms—those of the Hokage—to touch his absolute favorite. One day, the Sandaime had told him that he had planted the little bonsai the day Naruto had been born, and had tended to it every day. Some few inches off the soil it was planted in, the branches had been carefully cultured and shaped into a spiral—like his name.
Naruto began his own garden that day, hidden in forest.
'Maybe I can get a bonsai of my own, too. And get a new one for every time something good happens, like making a friend, or becoming a shinobi, or… or… or… or going to Ichiraku's! Maybe Jiji could teach me how to take care of one.'
No sooner had that thought in mind than Naruto rushed down the hall to the suite that housed the Hokage, eager to tell his closest confidante and friend his newest idea.
He burst into the living room. "Jiji, can I have a…" Naruto's voice died off as he saw the room was empty, save for its sparse furnishings. Naruto's head tilted to the side in confusion. This had never happened before. Sarutobi was always in here—every time he'd ever come to visit. Unless… maybe it was a game?
"If you just wanted to play a game you could have waited until I came by later today Jiji! Come on, it's boring to play hide and seek in here. We should go outside! It's a lot more fun out there." said Naruto as he began to search through the room. He looked behind couches and in closets, under pillows and beneath the couch cushions, but the Hokage was not to be found.
Naruto was beginning to weary of the game when he heard a weak yet harsh cough. His brow furrowed as he turned towards the bedroom door—someplace he had never been into. He approached the door with some apprehension. He didn't know why, but for some reason that cough made him uneasy.
The door creaked as he pushed it open, revealing the Hokage lying in bed. "Hello Naruto-kun." His voice hardly carried at all in the small room. It was no louder than a whisper. "I'm sorry for not meeting you earlier, but I didn't think it would take so long. How are-" Whatever Sarutobi was going to say was interrupted by a long and harsh fit of coughing.
Naruto stood frozen by the door. He hadn't expected to see this, to see the man he held in utmost admiration lie pale on a bed. Heroes don't get sick, not like this. He did, sometimes, when it was cold and wet and the landlord wouldn't let him into the apartment. But he wasn't the Hokage yet. Jiji was, and Naruto had never seen him ill or sick or forced into bed for any reason.
He didn't move for a long moment, until the older man began to wheeze.
"J-Jiji, where are Kumiko-san and Shinjiri?" Naruto's voice was shaky as he went to Sarutobi's side. "You—you need help. Why aren't you in the hospital?"
Sarutobi uttered a soft chuckle. "I've sent all the servants away for a time. They'll be back soon enough, but I needed to speak to you privately." The hand that waved Naruto to a seat was thin, almost clawlike. "You see, Naruto-kun, I have already been to the hospital, and I know what is wrong with me. It's nothing the medics can help with."
Sarutobi Hiruzen, the Sandaime Hokage of Konohagakure no Sato, the man called the God of Shinobi, spoke with a whisper.
"I am dying."
A raindrop fell, and Naruto awoke.
The weather bordered on freezing, and the rain felt like ice, but Naruto much preferred the stinging rain to the dreams.
He felt relieved that he had woken up then. Remembering was painful, but the dreams always got worse after that part—when they turned into nightmares.
Tanzaku wasn't as loud as most cities its size were. Naruto always thought that the mornings here were quieter than they had been back in Konoha. It was something he enjoyed—when it was soft and silent and the light fog that covered the city in the morning made everything dull and muted, sometimes he could just pretend the past few years had never happened. It felt comforting.
But today wasn't such a day. It was clear, save for the rain, and the visit of the Daimyo to the city had resulted in the whole place bustling more than it normally would when the sun had hardly peeked over the horizon.
Naruto dug around in his pockets to find any ryo he could use to buy some food at the grocers. The pants he wore had once been blue and orange, the most vibrant and eye-catching colors he could find. But after only wearing these for so long, all one could see was brown. He felt lucky he had bought these back in Konoha—clothes in ninja villages were far more durable than the stuff he had found here, even if they were too small for him.
"Blondie! I 'aven't seen ya 'round 'ere for awhile. Come ta' sell me sumthin' again?" The laughter that followed was louder and heartier than anything Naruto had ever managed. "I ain't been a lookin' forward ta' tha shite 'dem otha rats been a bringin' in. Ya' always get some good stuff, yah?
The accent on the voice was heavy enough that the words were hardly recognizable, but Naruto couldn't help but be glad to hear the voice, low on money as he was. He didn't know the shopkeeper's name, but she ran a pawn shop, selling virtually anything. The old lady was from some place up north, with a name he couldn't pronounce, but she was something of a godsend to the boy.
The wide smile Naruto wore so often fell slightly as he went under the awning to her shop. "Not so good this time, baa-san. I found a lot, but I don't think much of the stuff could be salvageable enough to sell." There weren't many ways to get money in Tanzaku, unless you already had some. The shopowner would buy the stuff the poor people in the sector scrounged up, repair it so it at least looked usable, and then pawn it off to her customers. She didn't cheat Naruto as badly as she could have, either.
She frowned at Naruto's words. The wrinkles on her face looked like a fish net when she did that. "Well, show me tha stuff, boy. I ain't got much longa' till I'z open, and I ain't a keepin' tha customas waitin, not fuh' a li'l rat like ya' be. But I won' pay much for it, iffen it ain't good."
It took Naruto a moment to figure out what she was saying—even after having gone to her for a long time, he still found it difficult to tell what she was saying through that truly agonizing brogue. But once he did, he bolted off.
Naruto stashed everything he owned in an old abandoned building several blocks down. It was just a small house, and the roof was missing, but it served well enough as a place to stay. He didn't know why it hadn't been torn down, or why no one else had decided to sleep in there like he had—it had a bed, if a rather tattered one, and it was at least a house of some sort—but apparently no one had even gone inside but him for years.
The front door was broken, and Naruto had been afraid that if he tried to open it the bottom half that remained would fall apart. The floor groaned under his feet as he vaulted over the entryway, but apart from that his landing made only the slightest sound. Even so, he flinched at the complaints of the wood beneath his feet. Noise seemed out of place here, in the empty and broken place.
The cabinets didn't creak as he opened them—they were probably the only part of the house that wouldn't. Inside were four bags—very nearly the sum of Uzumaki Naruto's worldly belongings.
A fair portion of what Naruto found when scavenging were too large to be put in the bags, which meant that most of what he would sell to the old shopkeeper were piled up in the living room, beside a wheelbarrow. But in the bags he kept some of the smaller, more valuable items. The small locket made of brass that was thrown away because of a crack. The pitted, rusted, and dented shuriken and kunai that would never be combat worthy, but could still be sold as a curio for the many shinobi enthusiasts in Tanzaku. A wedding ring, the gem plucked out. A small, elaborate snuffbox with a bloodstain on the corner, and a dozen other such small treasures.
He took these from the bag to carry them out to the wheelbarrow. These were followed by the larger items—a somewhat torn blanket that could be sown up and a chair with a broken leg. Naruto felt worried as he looked at what he had to sell. It was less than he usually brought her, and he didn't know if it would be enough to get money for food for the next week.
After tossing a cover over the wheelbarrow to protect it from the rain, he pushed his small cart into the street.
'What's with all the people this morning?' Naruto thought to himself. He knew that the Daimyo was coming, and it had been more active earlier, but the roads were almost as full as they would normally be later in the day.
Throughout his life in Konohagakure, Naruto had come to be supremely skilled at ignoring the speech of others—whenever he had passed by, a great many of the comments he heard were about him, and they were never worth listening too. It was a skill he had not lost after leaving his home.
"Have you heard?" the whispers said, as people spoke on the streets and in the stores and in the houses. "The Godaime Hokage is coming to here!"
"Danzō-sama is coming Tanzaku!"
While it was true that Naruto was no longer in the Academy, his desire to become a shinobi had only grown after the dying Hokage had told him about his family. While he might not have a teacher to show him how to perform jutsu, or how to improve his chakra control, or teach him taijutsu, or… well, teach him how to do most of what a ninja ought to do, Naruto refused to let that get in his way.
Panting, Naruto sunk to his knees in the forest clearing he had chosen for his training. The thick tree trunk before him showed the abuse of the past few years of Naruto's 'sparring' against it, and the blood covering his knuckles and the tree's remaining bark proved that the tree hadn't taken it's beating quietly.
Naruto looked away from his hands as the split knuckles slowly closed themselves. He hated to watch it—to see that damned fox touching his body. He didn't care that it was helping him. Everything was its fault! Leaving Konoha, Jiji's death, being stuck in a filthy abandoned house, the—
Naruto shook his head, hard enough that his hair stung his face. He knew that it liked it when he got angry at it. It had told him so, in the dreams.
Naruto fell to his side as his stomach began to ache—that faint burning feeling enough for him to tell that it was the Kyuubi's reminder and reprimand, rather than his empty belly. The feeling passed quickly enough—it must not have been angry, but the pain had been enough to leave an acrid taste in the back of Naruto's mouth from barely restrained bile.
If Naruto's knees were shaking from the fox's reminder of its existence, they had stopped by the time the boy dragged himself to his feet. He winced from the ache that covered his body.
'Maybe I should skip the rest of the physical stuff,' he thought as he rubbed his shoulders. Maybe he had twisted something when he fell? It didn't matter if he had, for something so small would be fixed shortly. Even so, he didn't think pushing harder would help now. 'Which would mean… ugh, chakra training.'
Naruto stood on his toes to reach the lowest branches of the nearest tree. Even though they were much smaller than those of Konoha, he was still in Hi no Kuni, and there was no such thing as a tiny tree in that country. But the branches were laden with fruit (nasty, dry, and poisonous. He had only tried those once.), and it was easy enough to pull one of the triangular leaves free.
Naruto sat down in the dirt and placed the leaf on his forehead. He leaned his head back—he was certain if he was like that cute pink-headed girl a couples years ahead of him in school, something-or-other Sakura, he wouldn't have to take this awkward pose to keep it on his head, but he needed it to sit for a moment until he could grab it with chakra.
Naruto's legs were crossed, and his hands rested upon his knees in a pose he was certain he had seen Jiji in a few times, when he had been meditating. Naruto still didn't see the point of staying still for hours at a time like the Hokage could, but he thought it made him look very cool and wise when he sat like that.
His eyes were closed as he reached within himself, reaching out for his chakra. Naruto had figured out that if he tried to reach for his chakra fast, he could get it easily, but it was harder if he slowly tried to grab it and draw it forth. Being Naruto, he of course tried the harder path. He figured it was like some types of exercises, which were much harder to do slowly, but also gave more improvement.
The odd, slightly pleasurable tingling sensation in his body heralded the chakras coming. Naruto gasped as the leaf on Naruto's head began to shake. 'Shit! That's too much.' His brow furrowed as he focused on reducing the amount of chakra, incidentally making his work more difficult by reducing the area that the leaf could cling to.
Even so, it took only a moment until the leaf was firmly stuck to Naruto's forehead. He sighed at how easy it was becoming.
Naruto knew that it was important to have good control, but the only chakra control exercise he knew was leaf-floating exercise he had learned in the Academy. Oh, it had been hard for him—he hadn't managed to do it with any regularity for a long time—but once he had figured it out it wasn't very difficult at all to do it every time. Maybe his chakra surged sometimes, like it did today, but he was learning to manage that fairly well.
However, with only that training technique there was no way his control would get any better! The leaf was still stuck to Naruto's hand has he punched the tree, splitting his knuckles again. 'This is so slow! I hardly get better at all, doing just this exercise over and over and over and… Stupid leaves! Stupid, stupid leaves! I'll be old before I'm as good as a shinobi. Like, twenty, or something.' Still trying to vent his anger on the poor, abused tree, he pulled back his arm to punch the tree again—teach it a good lesson, he would, about how it shouldn't be near angry venting demon hosts—when he noticed something.
His hand wouldn't let go of the tree. Naruto was so shocked at this that the almost offhand concentration he was using to attach the leaf to his head vanished—and his fist left the tree's trunk as the small flit of green fell to the ground.
Naruto stared at the tree as though it were a holy blessing. This-this was it! This is what he would do for training!
The revelation that he could actually make himself stick to objects completely overshadowed the idea that he could make things that weren't leaves attach to himself, but the thought was there (both of these discoveries were things that almost every other shinobi his age—or younger—had figured out rather shortly. How he had missed the ability to stick to walls when Umino Iruka had introduced himself to the class while standing on the ceiling is a mystery). After so very long, he had finally discovered a new way to train his chakra.
"YES!" Naruto leapt into the air as he screamed out his joy. "I did it! I know what to do now, oh yes." Naruto laughed as he pointed to the tree, his pose challenging and cocky. "I'm going to become a ninja, and there's no way a tree like you will get in the way!"
His asinine challenge proclaimed, he charged at the great wooden pillar, his chakra gathering in his feet as he jumped at the flimsy bit of kindling that thought it could block the success of Uzumaki Naruto. Naruto spun in the air, placing his feet before him as he touched the tree—
And fell on his ass.
The tree stood tall, the victor at last, as Naruto moaned on the ground.
Twilight was just beginning to arrive as Naruto approached at the eastern gates to the city. He was more thankful than ever that the Sandaime had given him a scroll full of what he had thought Naruto would need before the disaster. If he had been seen with kunai and shuriken here, with all the business about the Daimyo, he probably would have been thrown in prison!
Naruto's eyes narrowed as he glared at the other people lined up to enter the city. With that thought in mind, he couldn't help but wonder if that old silver-haired man with one eye over there was actually an assassin, come to kill the daimyo. Or was the pretty blond lady with the lazy-looking fellow actually a missing-nin, come to kill everyone in their sleep? Or maybe that big fat guy was going to poison the city so he could eat all their food? Naruto thought the last was likely. He didn't like the way the chubby guy was eating those chips.
Although… Naruto glanced around as he looked at all the people. He hadn't noticed this before, but there were never this many people waiting to go in the city, not so close to nightfall. Standing in line was something he hadn't had to do in ages. He turned to a stupid-looking teen with a dog, just a few steps behind him.
"Hey, dog-breath! What's with all the people?" Naruto asked, as polite as only he could be.
The older boy's eye twitched as he looked down on the short blond. "Wanna' say that again, runt?" Naruto couldn't help but step back as he saw that the wild-looking dog-owner's eyes were slitted, and couldn't help but notice the abnormally sharp teeth in the boy's mouth.
Naruto felt a touch of panic as he looked into the curiously familiar face. 'I-is this guy even human? Is he another demon container or something? He looks less like a human that I do!' Naruto's mind raced as he stared at the other, and his breath came shorter and harsher as the older boy sneered at him. The crowd started to back away from them, not eager to be caught in any sort of conflict.
"Shut it, Kiba!" A loud voice cried out from about ten feet down the line. "Give the kid a break already. He looks half-starved." The blond lady he noticed earlier stalked back up the line, dragging the sleepy teen with her. Once she got up to him, she raised her hand and slapped the dog-boy—Kiba—upside the head. Naruto flinched at the hand, and couldn't help but be relieved that he wasn't the one getting slapped. It had happened enough times, after all.
She turned to him and smiled. "Sorry about him. He's always been an idiot."
The rapid beating of Naruto's heart didn't stop. These people—he recognized them, he knew he did. But from where? "M-maybe he needs a leash?" Naruto ventured, no longer interested in why there was a line. He just wanted to find a way to get the conversation to end, and quickly. They made him nervous.
The blond girl's laughter overrode Kiba's growl. The lazy boy sighed and muttered something under his breath before addressing Naruto. "Look kid—Ino, stop laughing, you'll annoy Kiba even more." He slid his hands through his hair as he looked up at the sky. "He's troublesome enough as it is. Last thing we need is for it to be even worse."
He ignored the outraged shouts of the two louder teens as he continued speaking to Naruto. "Will you go away if I tell you? No offense kid, but Kiba'll only get madder if you stay around, and Ino seems to like you, which probably means you'll be as bad as she is."
Naruto couldn't help but frown at that. He was never annoying! He hadn't ever been, ever, even when he was begging the Hokage to do his homework for him. But still… Naruto nodded.
Another sigh slipped from the lean-faced guy. "Well, it's like this—with everything involving the Daimyo visiting, there'd be more people coming anyway. However—" Naruto couldn't help but be amazed at how utterly uninterested and dull the boy's voice was as he explained what was happening. It sounded like he was sighing and speaking and sleeping, all at the same time.
He started to doze off as the guy spoke, but a piece of a sentence caught his attention.
"—so with the Hokage coming as well—"
When Naruto thought of the Hokage, he remembered the calming smell of the Sandaime's pipe, the feel of flower petals against his palm, and the warmth of being wrapped up in blankets, sleeping in the office while Jiji hummed and stamped papers. As such, it took him a moment to remember what the realities of the situation were.
"Th-the Godaime is coming here?!" Naruto shouted. They had gotten closer to the front of the line by then, and were again surrounded by people. It was late, and most of them were in no mood for shouting. Annoyed mutters passed through the line, but Naruto paid them no heed.
'Danzō… he can't be here. He can't! I left! Danzō's the Hokage—Daimyo go to the Kage, not the other way around. He shouldn't be here!" Naruto felt panic well up in him, harder and stronger than before, but he squelched it.
He wanted to run away from here, to get back to the abandoned house and hide and pretend the world didn't exist. But he knew he couldn't run, not now. He had recognized them—or at least the dog boy. The boy was an Inuzuka, he knew it. He might not be wearing a hitai-ate, but all of the Inuzuka trained to be ninja. Every last one.
And Naruto knew, where there was one ninja, there were more. The people he was talking to were probably shinobi as well. He might have even seen them at school. 'If I run, they'll get suspicious, I know it! Damn it… I don't want to be here. Not if they're from Konoha.' He couldn't wait until they got to the end of the line.
"Yeah. I didn't catch it all, but it's something involving trade agreements, and a meeting with some of the lesser village leaders."
Naruto nodded, remembering that he had promised to leave once the lazy boy had finished. A wide, cheerful smile crossed Naruto's face as he grinned at the three. He was always good at making himself smile when he had to. "I'll have to remember that when I get back home. I bet Baa-san will want to hear about that, if there's going to be more customers. Thank you for explaining that, uh—."
Naruto nodded. "Yeah, Shimakaru." Shikamaru shook his head at the misspelling, muttering about troublesome children under his breath.
Naruto noticed that they were only steps away from entering Tanzaku, and had to hide his sigh of relief. "Well, I have to go now. It looks like the line ended, so I got to get home"
If Naruto was walking away a bit faster than normal, it would probably be blamed on an eagerness to get home.
But they weren't quite done with him yet.
"Hey, kid!" Ino called out, waving her hand to get his attention as he started leaving. "We're new here, so could you help us out?"
Naruto was glad his face was turned away from them, because he couldn't hide the grimace that crossed his face. Just when he was about to get away…
He didn't know what they wanted, but it would only take a moment, then they would leave. He spun on his foot, and jogged to the group, which had gotten a few more additions, raising their number to six—a cute brunette and a guy in a trenchcoat we're standing there as well, and the fat guy had joined them.
"We're looking for a friend of ours. He's just a few years younger than us, and he's never been very tall." Naruto couldn't help but have feeling of foreboding as she spoke, a shiver running down his spine as she continued.
"He's got messy blond hair, and blue eyes. He managed to convince someone to give him some tattoos that look like whiskers just last year, and he's always very loud." Ino was about to continue, but turned and nudged the shy-looking girl with funny eyes—a Hyūga, Naruto thought. "Hey, Hinata, what was his name again? It's been so long since we've seen him, I can hardly remember it."
"W-w-w-well, I-Ino, you shouldn't f-forget things like that. I-i-it's important to remember p-people's names, e-especially friends. I d-don't think h-he would like to know you d-don't remember him, and—"
Naruto didn't listen to the rest of the stuttering Hyūga's words. He was too busy panicking and holding back cold shivers as they described him.
'Wh-what? I don't remember them—I have to run! Damn it, they're shinobi! Full fledged ninja, I'm going to die! I'm—wait. How didn't they notice me?'
Naruto had never known that he displayed the patience and self-control he displayed at that moment. Rather than running and screaming, like he dearly wanted to, he managed—through what must have been a miracle—to keep his face relatively calm as he tried to think about how they didn't recognize him. He was lucky that they thought he was trying to remember who the person they were describing was, or they might have suspected the movement on his face for what it was.
He couldn't figure it out, which worried him. He would spend many days trying to figure out why they couldn't tell it was him, and never once did he consider that he had completely forgotten to remove the Henge he was practicing with when he decided to go back to the city.
A small cough from the dark-haired Hyūga girl reminded him that they were waiting on his response. But he didn't know what to say. They were looking for him, and it's not like he could—
Naruto had to restrain the smirk that threatened to show itself. He was going to leave town now anyways, so why not tell the truth?
"Do you mean Uzumaki Naruto? Who lives in that creepy house?" It hadn't escaped his notice that they had not actually mentioned the name they were looking for, even when Hinata was pretending to scold Ino for not remembering.
Naruto was surprised by how quickly Ino was in front of him, leaning down to give him that perky smile. "You mean you know him? Honestly, I thought we'd have to look around forever, and that would be so boring, don't you think?" She reached out to put a hand on Naruto's shoulder, but stopped as he shied away from the touch.
"It's just a bruise. But yeah, if you didn't know where he goes it would be impossible to find him for an ordinary person." Naruto forced himself to chuckle, something not particularly hard for him. He had done it all the time at the Academy, while the classes laughed. "He spends a lot of time digging through people's junk, and he pawns it off at this old lady's shop a bit behind the market area, where it's always shady."
Naruto paused. "Do you need directions to get there?" When the Konoha shinobi shook their heads, he continued. "I heard that he keeps getting in fights with some of the gangs that hang out back there. It's… well, it's not a nice place." He looked down as he said this. Naruto had got in some fights with them, and it the result had not been as fun for him as he had thought it would. He had felt his lack of a teacher keenly the first time he had tried to fight one of the gang members—connected to some guy named Gato, or something like that. It had hurt. A lot.
But he did better in the fights after that. Maybe he didn't have anyone to learn taijutsu from, but at least he could get stronger at fighting from that experience.
Naruto looked up at Ino. "I-I'm sorry. I shouldn't have kept you so long."
Her hair blew from side to side as she shook her head. "You weren't keeping us from anything. We were going to go to a hotel tonight, but I suppose we ought to go check Naruto-kun out first. Cheeky brat… he shouldn't be doing anything dangerous like that."
Naruto was impressed. She had a concerned look in her eyes, and with the worry in her voice he might have even thought she knew him. She must have done very well at the Academy. "Thank you for the help, bōzu. Do you need us to help you get home? It's a bit late for you to go home by yourself, don't you think?"
Naruto could see the false concern in her eyes change slightly into something more real. He was touched that she was worried about him, but he had more trouble keeping himself from laughing. He remembered Iruka-sensei had said there was a word to describe situations like this. Something involving metal. Coppery? Tin-y? No, irony, that was it.
"I live really close." Naruto pointed, truthfully, towards where the house he stayed at was. "Just over there."
Extricating himself from the group was not, as it turned out, so easy as giving an excuse. As it turned out, he had to give a round of farewells to everyone in the group, even those he hadn't talked to, and a set of introductions got passed around (he made up his own, of course. Although he didn't know why they flinched when he called himself 'Gaara').
But eventually he did manage to pull himself free of the disguised Konoha shinobi. As soon as they were out of sight, he began to run as fast as he could towards the northern gate, his Henge slipping as he left. He had his scroll—that had everything that was truly important. He was disappointed that he had to leave the rest of it—some money would be nice, and there was a half a bag of stale bread back home that he hadn't eaten yet. But he couldn't stay. Not here, when Danzō was coming. That had been the last warning Sarutobi had given him—to stay away from Root at all costs. It had been why the Hokage had told him about the secret escape route hidden in the Hokage monument.
Naruto had always been good at being sneaking. Even when he was back in Konoha, he could hide from some of the ninjas—the games of hide and seek with the Hokage doubtlessly helped with that. Living where he did, in one of the worse parts of Tanzaku, one of the worst cities in the country, meant that those skills hadn't degraded very much at all. The guard at the gate didn't even notice him slip away.
But a man hidden in the shadows above the gate did. Adjusting his white mask, he darted away—in a different direction than Naruto. No, he left to retrieve the others who were looking over the other gates, waiting for this moment.
For Danzō was already in Tanzaku, waiting for the fly to escape his web.
They were so close. Naruto didn't know if he'd be able to escape them this time.
The blond demon host ducked behind a brush, kneeling to rest for a moment. The Anbu—or perhaps Root, he didn't know—had started chasing him all too soon after he had left the city. Perhaps he had some advantages in the run—he knew the area, and had better senses at night than they did, but they were the elite of Konohagakure.
One does not simply outrun the Anbu. But Naruto couldn't afford not to.
When he had stopped his legs had felt like molten lead and his chest had been heaving for lack of air, but only a couple minutes of rest were enough for him to get his wind back. Naruto wasn't easily exhausted, and when he was he came back as quick as his demon could make him. He could run at full speed longer than the Anbu could—they had to pace themselves. It was the only reason they hadn't caught him yet.
He pushed himself to his feet and dashed forwards. Naruto didn't know where he was going. He didn't think he was going north anymore, but he knew he was still headed away from Tanzaku. The trees were starting to thin out—he knew Tanzaku was fairly close to the border, but he didn't think a single night's run would be enough to get him so close to leaving the country.
Naruto had no illusions that he would be safe by leaving—under the militant Danzō, the borders were often pushed, and he had heard that the other villages had been considering retaliation. They'd just cross the border and drag him back if he did that.
Naruto his legs begin to burn again, but he refused to rest so soon after taking a break. Even he couldn't run all night like this without repercussions. He had no idea how the Anbu were keeping up—he supposed they might be taking soldier pills, but he didn't know they would let them run for so long. Maybe they had a healer with them.
A low-lying tree branch nearly felled him, but Naruto rolled under it, receiving whip-like slash marks across his face for the effort. The springy trees here made running painful, but he far preferred them to the larger trees one found elsewhere, at least in this case. The Anbu would be able to go much faster if they could run in the trees, and he wasn't skilled enough at tree running to outpace them.
Disaster struck as the land began to turn rugged and rocky, and not from the many stones Naruto had taken care to avoid.
He felt it—the ripping sensation of torn muscles in his leg briefly before the limb stopped supporting his weight. Had he succeeded in losing his pursuers, his hoarse scream would have drawn them—it was long, and pained, and full of despair.
The Anbu arrived to find Naruto trying to pull himself towards a nearby spring. A streak of blood drew a path from where Naruto fell to his prone form, where his skin had torn on the rocks. Had he known how to put chakra into his limbs, he might have outrun them—alas, all he had was the fox's improvements to his body.
One of the shinobi stepped forwards. "Enough, Uzumaki. You cannot escape now. Lie still; you're capture is assured, and further struggle will only result in pain." Naruto ignored her in favor of dragging himself closer to the water's edge, blood staining the ground about him. The Anbu supposed he must have cut something important on the rocks, but it hardly mattered. He'd get better.
The Anbu continued to speak, although she signaled one of her companions to retrieve the boy. "Hokage-sama has ordered you to be captured by any means necessary, and we knew your ability to heal will ensure your survival." She shook her head. "You have dodged your service to your village and people far too long, Uzumaki. Your time in Root is about to commence."
She turned to another of her team, shorter than the others. "Return to Tanzaku, and inform Hokage-sama that we have successfully retrieved our target. We will require means of containing him upon our arrival."
As the smaller Anbu disappeared into the night, the woman—apparently the leader—turned to the injured form of Naruto. The Anbu had bound him in rope, to make him easier to transport. "Well done, Nezumi. Now, I will place the suppressant seal on it, and we will immediately return to—damn!"
The Anbu swore as Naruto rolled himself into the spring. "Pull it out! Bound like that, it'll drown. Probably what the treacherous little monster wants."
However, the water was perfectly clear and absent of Naruto—too clear, in fact, although neither ninja knew enough about water to know that. Had they possessed more demonic power than they had, they would have seen more.
They would have seen themselves reflected, as perfectly and clearly as a mirror, even while simultaneously being able to see the bottom of the spring as though the water wasn't even there. As it was, they could not see this, nor could they see the dancing images under the water's surface, showing images of places they had never seen.
Images and pictures flickered throughout the spring, impairing vision not in the least. They showed pictures of places throughout their world—of villages nestled in high mountain peaks, hidden in eternal desert winds, buried away within the mountains. But it showed so much more than that.
For the images that floated throughout these most perfect of waters were not limited only to the world inhabited by the shinobi. The images showed the homes of demons, in a world that had never seen a human step foot upon it. They showed a world, full of wonders and horrors, known to some as the Mundus Magicus.
And they showed images of another world. In this world was a school. There were a great many things in this school—students and teachers, mages and warriors, humans and others—but what stuck out the most in this school would be its tree, the World Tree.
The World Tree was a wondrous being. It had lived far longer than any other tree that had a physical existence, and it was one of the largest living beings to exist in any of the infinite realms of what exists, and what does not. It was one of the most concentrated forces of magical power in all the world, and it stood upon a nexus of the planet's ley lines. Indeed, it was even sentient, in the manner of trees, uncaring about individuals and the passing of eons as it watched life.
But at that moment in time, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the tree would be the boy now hidden away in a small pool of water in its boughs.
Uzumaki Naruto had come to Earth.
Thank you so much for reading!
(Thanks to Evangeline for having such a great, title-worthy quote! And to Leo Tolstoy for writing Anna Karenina in the first place. Also, have you seen the new compiled translations for Negima (the Negima Omnibus)? They messed up the word order for this quote in it.)