A/N: Chapter two for ya! Thanks to my five wonderful reviewers, I love you with all my heart. And to Nika, hey Poland, thanks for the sweet review ;) I aim to please. Tried to convey Minato's confusion without having him say too much. Hope it went okay :D Note to self: name next chapter There-ness.
T h e D e a d G h o s t
"Get back here, ya damn brat!"
Naruto turned back a final time only to stick out his tongue before bolting.
Left, right, down that one dead end with the hole in the brick wall big enough to squeeze through. As he finally came to a stop a minute later it was no surprise to him the hollering merchants were gone. He knew the alleyways of East Konoha even better than the man who'd built them.
Finally looking down to his closed fingers he opened them, and couldn't help a small smile. A little battered or not, the apple was the brightest of red, dulled only by the occasional yellow spot or bruise. He loved the days the merchants would come down to the village center and sell their wares, it happened at least once or twice a week. With all the confusion, it was easier to swipe something without being noticed, and easier to get away.
It had been nearly a month now since Naruto had run away from the orphanage, and it was days like these, as Naruto bit into the apple so sweet it stung his tongue, as the sun filtered between the roofs to hit him with that cozy natural warmth, that he knew without a doubt it was better this way. He always knew it was better this way of course, the institution had been a terrible, hateful place, but some days it was easier to believe this than others. Like that one time a bunch of drunk guys, shinobi by the metal across their foreheads, had stumbled on his sleeping-place at the time. That had been a week ago, and the bruises still showed eggplant purple on his arm, and that one cut beneath his eye was looking like it might scar. Needless to say, he'd started avoiding that side of the village.
Naruto forced himself to eat the fruit slowly even as his stomach twisted inside him, and ten minutes later he finished the final bite, threw the core somewhere into the shadows down the street, and licked the sticky from his fingers.
Standing, the seven-year-old was about to start towards his abandoned-house-of-choice when he felt something. It wasn't like wind, or like the actual touch of skin on his own, but like a ghost, like something tingling just beneath the surface in warning. Naruto whipped around, hands raising defensively in front of him.
Before him was… only the empty street. Same dumpster, same stained newspaper sticking to the concrete like paper-mache.
"Who's there?" Naruto asked quickly. One wouldn't think such a thing would work but it usually did, he could ask and he'd get at least some sort of warning, a laugh or angry accusation, before the beating came. It felt a little odd, that he should know this. But thirty or so days and at least five times he'd been caught off guard. And really, what much more could he do even if he was on guard?
No answer came.
The feeling came closer suddenly, and Naruto backed away a step. He tried again, "Who's there?"
The voice was a man's voice, deep and upright and unforgiving. It sounded as though it might be apologetic, soft somehow, but that only made Naruto back away further. Someone from the orphanage? It would be the first time, they'd always seemed grateful to be rid of him, but who else would know his name? All the men who stumbled upon him never called him by name. 'Demon!' They'd spit, scream, cry, it depended what kind of drunk they were. But of course, they were always scariest when they weren't drunk, when they came at him with that calm-faced rage as if they'd thought it all out, as if beating the breath out of a random street kid made perfect sense to them.
Naruto was tempted just to run, but his eyes burned and his legs ached at the thought. He hadn't slept in at least a day or so, he may be able to outrun overweight farmers but never a trained shinobi.
"Naruto?" The man repeated, and starting with his sandaled foot he appeared from the shadows.
He stood a good five-something feet, his back straight in that powerful way, and Naruto had to look up to see him, even as he stood a couple steps back. He wore what all shinobi wore, the blue uniform and the green vest and the silver plate under his yellow hair, and over it an eccentric, cape-like jacket, falling well past his knees.
"How do you know my name?" Naruto asked, finally finding his voice.
The man paused for a moment, as if debating something in his head, before finally opening his mouth. "Why are you here?"
Naruto looked back down the street again, away from the man. No one wanted to talk to him, they either wanted him to pay up, or just plain pay. Back in the orphanage all the kids had ignored him, even as they spent every day and night together. Why would a stranger want to talk to him?
"Why shouldn't I be?"
The man waited, and Naruto thought he might he preparing to leave, but then he spoke again. "Where's your mother?"
It was then that Naruto laughed, even though it only felt a little bit funny. "Mother? I don't have one."
"You don't have one?"
"Are you deaf?"
The blonde shinobi gave Naruto a clear, laser-beam blue-eyed stare, and he squirmed.
"Who do you live with?"
"Nobody." Naruto answered before he could stop himself. But as the word spilled off his tongue his eyes widened in horror. If the man knew he was a runaway he'd take him back to the orphanage. That was bad. They never did anything there, it was boring, lonely, scary.
The shinobi seemed to notice his urge to escape, and put up his hands delicately in surrender. "I don't want hurt you." His voice was tinted with something, something like shattered glass, and it was probably that that kept Naruto from leaving then and there. "Do you… do you have any idea who I am?"
Naruto narrowed his eyes and stared. Should he? Was he important? Then he remembered, and nearly choked. "You're the guy on the mountain! The Hogako!"
"Hokage." He corrected, crouching down and holding out his hand. Slowly, his heart beating in his chest so loudly he was sure the shinobi could hear it, he reached out to take it.
But he couldn't.
"What?" Naruto paled as his fingers seemed to stick right into the man's skin. If he tried really hard he could see the outlines of his thumb and forefinger through the flesh. But not flesh. Flesh you could touch. He would have moved, run whether or not the man would catch him, but fear paralyzed his legs and stuck his feet to the ground. "What are you?"
"I'm dead, Naruto." The Hokage said after a long, frustrated pause. "I haven't been the Hokage for… years."
"You're a ghost?" Naruto asked.
He made a face, a sort of small grimace, before his mouth went back to its neutral almost-smile. "I suppose I am."
"What do you want with me?" Dread was creeping its way into Naruto's stomach, up his throat with a bitter taste. Dead Hokage? What was going on? Was he dreaming?
In the instant after the words came out, the man's face fell again, and this time it took him longer to piece a serene face back together. "I want to help you."
"Why?" This Naruto had heard before, 'I'm here to help you!', 'Just follow me-', SLAM. But then, what harm could this ghost do to him anyways if he couldn't even touch him?
"Can't someone just want to help?" He asked, implored.
"No." Naruto answered, he couldn't stop himself and he wasn't sure he wanted to. Because no one 'just wanted to help'. No one had ever… it had to be a trick. A scam. A master plan.
"Naruto," It must have only been the third or fourth but it felt like the thousandth time the man had said his name, and it made him uncomfortable. With that word his voice turned warm and thick and maybe a bit bitter, like old memories he wasn't sure he wanted to forget. "Naruto, I know what they did to you was wrong, but you have to trust me."
"Just trust me."
The dark man smiled a bright-toothed, quirky smile, and Naruto didn't doubt for an instant this stranger would never hurt him-
"No." Naruto repeated, finally forcing himself to back away. The man seemed dumbfounded for a moment, his hand still frozen in the air where Naruto had left it, but then, as Naruto tried to move back further, he grabbed.
"Get off me-"
Naruto pulled violently back, but couldn't move as the fingers caught his grimy shirt shoulder.
Sweat suddenly beat on the man's face, Naruto wondered why he hadn't noticed it before.
"You can… touch me?" Naruto brought up a finger and tapped at the hand. It's skin was a little liquidy, like molten chocolate, but it was most definitely solid definitely there.
"I don't know what I-" His face steadily drained of color, and the sound of his breathing began to grow louder and more labored.
"Mr- uh, Hokage? Are you alright?" Naruto was about to grasp the man's shaking hand to help steady him when it slipped through his shoulder, and the man fell to his knees. Naruto reach out instinctively to help catch his arms but they slipped right through his skin as they had the first time they'd tried to touch.
He noticed with a slightly cold feeling, although he wasn't sure why, that the feeling of there-ness that had been plaguing him since right before the man's arrival was almost gone now.
"Naruto-" He gasped, giving him a final pained look, before his eyes rolled back and he fell face-first in the dirt.
Naruto dropped to his knees beside the man, tried again a couple times to touch his opaque, somehow non-existent form.
It was an odd feeling, as he sat there and stared down at the messy blonde hair, the tresses he couldn't lift to check if the man was okay. But his chest rose slowly, up and down, and he was still alive… dead… it hurt his head to think about.
Naruto sat against the wall, unable to convince himself to break his vigil, even as the evidence piled against him, and the chill of evening began to bite at his bare skin.
"You better be thankful." He whispered weakly, before closing his eyes, and letting himself fall asleep.