A/N: Hello everyone! Welcome to Rise of the Uchiha, a semi-dark and bittersweet epic tracing out the consequences of a single decision. Lives change, nations crumble, and loyalties are tested and forged in fire. If you're only finding this story now, be warned: I do not hesitate to change elements from the manga. In particular, my Madara is not a crazy bastard whose identity changes with the wind and whose only desire is to capture the man in the moon (or whatever). My Madara is a power-hungry, complex villain who despite his lust for power operates according to a set of ideals. Similarly, most characters will be different from canon in certain ways, though I hope that they stay true to their cores and are still familiar and engaging.
Many thanks to the betas who worked on this chapter, DigitalTart and CalebKing. I'm in the process of revising the remainder of the story, so if you're re-reading, be aware that there may be some significant changes in chapters that you've already read. Enjoy!
Sasuke's voice rang out clearly in the crisp spring air. His cheerful shout was followed by a jet of flame that shot out with surprising force, considering that its source was an eight-year old boy. The fire jutsu tore across the length of the field, leaving a trail of charred grass in its wake, and even reached the screen of trees on the far side of the clearing nearly twenty yards away. But the fire's intended target was already gone, having spun away split seconds after the flames materialized.
"Too slow," Itachi said, his voice devoid of inflection. The older Uchiha disappeared, only to materialize in front of Sasuke with kunai outstretched. Sasuke turned the blade aside with his own kunai, sliding back a few feet from the force of the blow. Itachi pressed the attack, and it was all Sasuke could do to keep the sharp metal from getting past his guard.
Though they were only training, Itachi never pulled his blows unless they were likely to impair Sasuke's movement. Sasuke already had more than a few scrapes and scars from today's training as reminders not to drop his guard.
After a flurry of desperate parries Sasuke began to feel his body adjusting to the greater speed. He jumped back, throwing a brace of shuriken to pin down his brother long enough to start his own attack. It would have had the intended effect, if Itachi hadn't winked out of existence like a popped soap bubble.
Damn! Sasuke thought. He caught me with his genjutsu again! He started to whirl around, but came to a halt when he felt the sharp sting of a kunai against his neck.
"You need to improve, Sasuke. You're still struggling with basic genjutsu." To most observers Itachi's voice would have sounded flat and emotionless, but after years of familiarity Sasuke's ears could detect the slight tone of annoyance.
Sasuke scowled. He was more than used to being beaten by Itachi, but the constant sense that he was failing to meet Itachi's expectations was beginning to rankle. Ever since fleeing Konoha over a year ago, his brother had begun training him with a vengeance. At first Sasuke had been overjoyed at such intense training with his idol, but in time, he began to think that Itachi was acting more and more like his father: that is to say, impossible to satisfy and displeased by everything Sasuke did.
"But I got the Burning Whirlwind jutsu to work today!" Sasuke said plaintively. I am NOT whining! He thought to himself. Just… -debating. "If we were back home, I'd be considered a full member of the Uchiha clan."
Itachi put his kunai away and faced his little brother, his eyes filling with the strange mixture of pain, anger and regret that always seemed to surface when Sasuke mentioned their clan. The topic was taboo, and Sasuke had still not managed to learn why they had been forced to flee. He thought it must have been something horrible to make his brother refuse to speak of it, but Sasuke couldn't help bringing up memories of the life he had been so abruptly forced to leave behind.
"We are no longer part of the Uchiha clan," Itachi reminded Sasuke sternly. It was an oft-repeated statement, as Sasuke was reluctant to give up his sense of belonging to what he had always known was a very important clan.
"And while your fire jutsu today was impressive- " Sasuke grinned at this admission, "you are nowhere near the level you need to be." Sasuke's grin withered faster than blades of grass before his newly acquired fire technique. "Your genjutsu recognition is almost non-existent, and you have yet to awaken your sharingan."
Sasuke was speechless for a moment, shocked at how unreasonable his brother was being. Itachi only looked at him, impassive. "But…" Sasuke stammered, "you're the only Uchiha who activated his sharingan this young! And I'm not you! Father made sure I knew that…" He regarded his shoes with the frustration that he didn't dare direct at his brother.
Itachi stretched out a hand and took hold of Sasuke's chin gently, lifting his face upward. "I know I'm asking a lot of you. But you must not fail. We are wanted men, on the run from Konoha and every hired blade the village can throw at us. I can't protect you forever, and I don't even know if I can protect you now. You must become stronger, and look out for yourself."
Sasuke jerked his head to the side to throw off his brother's hand, but his frustration dissipated, leaving only curiosity in its wake.
"But why are we on the run?" he asked Itachi plaintively. "It's been over a year, and you still haven't told me why we had to leave!"
Itachi looked away until he mastered the emotions racing across his face. When he turned back to Sasuke, his face was its normal expressionless mask.
"You are too young, still. I will tell you when you awaken your sharingan. For now, just know that we were betrayed, and thrown out by our clan. And since our sparring seems to be over for the day, I will leave you with this one lesson: do not place your trust in anyone besides yourself. There is no one who will not betray you."
Sasuke shook his head violently in denial. "No! You would never betray me, brother!"
Itachi's head turned slightly to the side, as if he was genuinely curious. "And why is that?"
"Because you love me!" Sasuke declared confidently.
Itachi reached out and ruffled Sasuke's dark hair with one hand. A smile stretched up the corners of his mouth, but his red eyes filled with a sorrow that made him seem older than his years.
"I love you more than anyone in the world, Sasuke, and that will never change. But it's best you learn this now, and never forget it. Sometimes it is easiest to betray those we love."
Sasuke knew from his experience that there were many things Itachi didn't tell him, and when Itachi clammed up it was best to ignore it and control one's curiosity. But later that night, after setting camp and eating a meager meal, Sasuke stared into the dwindling flames of the campfire, wondering who it was that his brother had betrayed.
Itachi listened to the soft flutter of Sasuke's breath in the silence. The sound reassured him, as it always did. Here at least was one life he'd managed to save.
But, though Sasuke was deep in sleep's embrace, Itachi was wide awake, and would likely stay that way for most of the night. When he was asleep he had no barriers against his guilt, no way to stop from reliving his memories over and over.
Not that staying conscious was truly that effective against the past.
The Naka river burbled peacefully through the field, oblivious to the charged scene unfolding by its bank. Itachi stood as still as a stone, the three tomoe of his sharingan activating automatically. Facing him silently was the man who had flipped his world up-side-down, challenging everything he thought he had known. Itachi stared at the blood-red eye peering out from the single hole in the mask. The pupil was an intricate circle of black, inter-locking lines. They swirled rapidly, hinting at power long hidden from the world. Power that could be Itachi's.
"It's funny," Madara declared in a deep, sinister voice. "Your ancestors cast me out. They called me tyrant. But now, they welcome me with open arms, and beg for my leadership. It took seventy years, but I suppose I should be grateful that the grandchildren proved to be wiser than their forefathers. Finally, the world will know the power of the Uchiha!"
Madara let out a laugh that turned the blood in Itachi's veins to ice.
"You can be part of that, Itachi. You are the strongest of the Uchiha, and can be stronger still. I will make you my right hand, and honor you above all others. You know what you have to do. Give up your weakness, and take your place in history!"
Yes, Itachi knew what he had to do. He looked down sadly, taking in the sight of his best friend slumped unconscious at Madara's feet. Uchiha Shisui's eyes were open wide, staring vacantly at a nightmare that existed only in his mind. This was the power Madara was promising him. All he had to do was kill his friend.
He was tempted. Oh, how he was tempted. Not to throw in with Madara, of course. He would sooner die. But the Mangekyou sharingan would give him the power to protect his beloved Konoha, from a threat greater than any it had faced since the attack on the village by the Kyuubi seven years ago.
Itachi knew what would follow a coup d'état. It could mean war, on a scale not seen since the Third Shinobi War. Countless lives lost, of villagers whose only crime was living too close to shinobi who had abandoned their ideals for power. It was in Itachi's power to stop it. But at what cost? The death toll would have to start here, with his comrade-in-arms.
No. Not like this.
Perhaps he would come to regret this decision. Perhaps it would doom Konoha and thousands of innocents to death and slavery. But if he went down this road his soul would be damned forever.
"Katon: Hosenka no Jutsu!" Itachi sent a volley of small fireballs shooting at Madara, knowing already that it was useless. Madara simply dissolved into thin air.
"Fool…" his menacing whisper lingered in the air.
A year later, Madara's voice was as clear in Itachi's mind as it had been that day by the Nara river. "Fool…"
Itachi had been a fool. A fool not to do everything in his power to protect his village, no matter the cost. A fool not to anticipate how quickly Madara would act. And more than anything else, a fool to think he could trust anyone in his clan.
Itachi's dark thoughts threatened to overwhelm him, but he didn't make a sound. Sasuke was sleeping.
Konoha was the very picture of a peaceful, bustling little village in the bright afternoon light. The soft breeze carried the scents of roasting meat wafting through the streets, and everywhere children played amidst the stalls and shops lining the curbs. Here and there the throng parted respectfully for figures wearing the striking uniforms designating Konoha Military Policeman.
On the roof of Ichiraku's ramen shop, a trio of pigeons roosted peacefully. The largest of the three birds watched the scene through lidded eyes, and burbled contentedly. Suddenly, an excited shout rang through the air. The birds shot away from the roof in an explosion of feathers, just in time to avoid getting squashed by the heedless feet of a blond youth hurtling across the rooftops.
In the shop underneath the nest of the unfortunate pigeons, Old Man Teuchi turned to his daughter with a grin.
"Sounds like the fox child is giving them Uchiha some exercise. Good for him, I say!"
Ayame only spat on the polished wooden floor in response.
"May they all trip and break their damn necks!"
Teuchi eyed his daughter, understanding creasing his lined features. The Military Police of Konoha were almost universally despised by the villagers, albeit silently.
"Come now, dear. The young boy has been in here a few times, and he's not like the rest of those brutes. He's just a lonely little tyke."
Ayame's eyes flashed. "A lonely tyke who happens to be a demon! And the adopted child of the Usurper, to boot!"
Teuchi made hushing motions at the sound of the title that, if overheard by the wrong ears, could send his daughter straight to prison, or worse.
"He's no more a demon than you or I!" Teuchi said, his tone gaining more warmth than was customary for the good-spirited restaurant owner. "The Fourth, rest his soul, sealed the demon into Naruto when he was a baby, and it's only thanks to him that the Kyuubi isn't out and about as we speak, finishing what it started. And you can bet our new Hokage only adopted Naruto because of the power that little boy contains. That's a sad, loveless life for a boy to lead and no mistake."
Ayame snorted in exasperation at her father's soft heart, but chose not to continue the argument. She went to the back room, to see if the next batch of noodles was done drying.
Many blocks away Naruto jumped from rooftop to rooftop recklessly, oblivious to the fact that he was the subject of heated discussion. Two buckets of paint swung by his sides, slopping drips of red and blue at an alarming rate, but there was no longer any need to exercise care with his burden since his self-appointed mission was accomplished.
Naruto grinned with pride at the memory of his masterpiece. In the great square a statue of the town's ruler, Uchiha Madara, stood tall and imposing, measuring over a hundred feet in height. And at the very top was the mysterious Hokage's blank orange mask carved with exquisite detail, right down to the sharingan lurking in shadow behind the eyehole that was the only break in the mask's uniformity. Or it had been, until Naruto used his paint to create a blue mustache and goatee, and a red monocle around the eyehole with a chain draping off to the side.
In the months following his adoption by the imposing Madara, Naruto wouldn't have dared to do anything so disrespectful. But as time went by, and Naruto became more comfortable around his adoptive father, his boisterous nature resurfaced.
Father. Something everyone had, that most people took for granted. And all his life, Naruto had taken it for granted that he had no father, no mother, no family or friends of any kind. But then, miraculously, he had found someone not only willing to acknowledge him when no one else would, but who also was willing to take him into his family, who called Naruto "my son." And if Madara was distant at times, and unable to be together with Naruto very often, that was just the price you had to pay when your father was the Hokage. Naruto would have cheerfully jumped in front of a kunai for Madara, and would go to any lengths not to disappoint him.
Naruto treasured his memory of the day Madara had found him. Sometimes he found himself unable to believe where he was, and how his life had changed. Often he had to replay the memory, just to be sure it wasn't all a dream.
In a playground next to the Konoha Ninja Academy, Naruto sat by himself on the swings. Far off on the other side of the yard, his classmates were gathered in a circle. From where Naruto sat, he could just hear their laughing voices and the sounds of fighting.
He couldn't go over there. When he tried to join their sparring, the other students shoved him away and called him names. He couldn't ask the teachers why; the looks they gave him were full of even more hatred than he encountered from his classmates. Naruto swung without purpose, staring listlessly ahead.
"Hello there, young one." A deep voice cut across his sad reverie. Naruto looked up, wondering how someone had gotten so close without alerting him. He saw a tall man in a black cloak, whose face was entirely covered by an orange mask with a single hole over the right eye.
"Hello," Naruto said politely. Why wasn't this man ignoring him like all the rest?
"I see that none of the other children want to play with you," the man said shrewdly. "Are you lonely?"
Naruto nodded once, hesitantly.
"I also know what it means to be lonely, Naruto. How painful it is to be all on your own. But I want to be your friend. Come with me, and I can teach you things beyond your wildest dreams." He extended a gloved hand to the blond child.
Naruto looked at the children sparring, and then back at the masked man. Without a word he put his small hand in the larger glove, and hopped off of the swing. They walked together away from the Academy, and Naruto didn't look back.
Of course, his new life wasn't perfect. Since Madara was such an important person, he was rarely able to spend time with Naruto. So Naruto started his own games, with the unfortunate Konoha Military Police as his unwilling playmates.
The first time he had left some graffiti on the outer walls and been dragged back to Madara's Tower, he had been ashamed to meet Madara's gaze. But the Hokage only laughed, commenting that it was only proper to test the vigilance of the guards, lest they grow too lax in fulfilling their duties. Naruto still treasured the memory of his captors blanching, when they realized that the expected discipline wouldn't be occurring.
With that tacit nod of approval from Naruto's sole source of acknowledged authority, a never-ending round of pranks and practical jokes ensued. In the powerful and well-regulated police state that Konoha had become since Madara had taken control, eight-year old Naruto was perhaps the only real thorn in the side of the Military Police. The self-appointed prankster relished his notoriety, no matter the cause.
With his peripheral vision, Naruto noticed two blurs keeping pace on the rooftops to either side. He grinned with anticipation. They'd managed to catch up to him, and now the fun could begin. If this team followed the normal strategy, then these two would be herding him toward…
Naruto scanned the area ahead of him. There was one rooftop directly ahead that rose slightly higher than the others, probably the home of an influential merchant, since the lack of defensive structures made it unlikely to house shinobi. That must be where they were setting up their trap.
Naruto charged straight for the tiled roof, controlling a nod of satisfaction when a young man in the uniform of the Military Police appeared in front of him. He whirled around as if to run away, displaying exaggerated shock and dismay when he saw the other two members of the squad closing in on him. He was trapped in the center of a rapidly shrinking triangle formation.
3…2…1… now! Naruto used a substitution jutsu, transporting his body with a puff of smoke. He looked up at the rooftop from the street, where a split second ago he had dropped his buckets of paint. Far above his head the three guards collided in an explosion of red and blue, falling to the roof in a sprawling tangle.
Amateurs! Naruto thought with satisfaction. They should know better than to send the rookies after me by now! He took off in a new direction, making it far out of sight before the unfortunate guardsmen regained their feet once again.
Twenty minutes later, still out of sight of his pursuers, he came across a strange scene. A large hole had been blasted through the side of a large two-story building, broken beams and chunks of stone littering the street. A trio of Military Policemen lay motionless in the debris, covered in what looked to be some kind of slime.
Whatever had happened, it promised to be far more interesting than running from the rookies currently chasing him. Naruto kept his distance from the scene, looking for any signs of activity, while waiting for his tail to catch up with him. It seemed that whoever had done this was gone, since there was no movement around or inside the building.
"Damn it, Naruto!" came a harried cry several rooftops away.
Naruto looked up, noting with satisfaction that his three hapless pursuers were covered in splotches of red and blue paint. He lifted a hand and waved cheekily, then pointed at the devastation down on street-level.
The three policemen, all possessing the red-and-black sharingan eyes that were the signature of the Uchiha clan, came to a stop in a tight ring around Naruto.
"Don't think you can get away from us n- " the leader's eyes widened as he took in the destruction. "What the hell happened here?"
"Only one way to find out, captain!" Naruto said in a sing-song voice. He evaded the shortest guard's attempt to put a restraining hand on his shoulder, and jumped down to the street. He approached the three bodies slowly, not sure if they were dead or merely unconscious. It turned out to be the latter, as they began to stir and make small groans of pain. Naruto kept his distance and held his nose to ward off the rancid odor coming from the thick coating of slime on the victims.
Naruto's erstwhile pursuers reached him a moment later, doing their best to look as imposing and official as possible, which probably only worked because the three in front of them were too traumatized to notice the paint. The slime-covered guardsmen managed to reach their feet, although one had to double over immediately after in order to vomit. Naruto wondered why they were reacting so strongly; after all, it was just slime. Maybe it was mildly poisonous.
"What happened here?" The paint-spattered leader asked in an officious tone. Naruto belatedly recognized him as Uchiha Tanaki, a pompous bastard newly promoted to the rank of captain.
The man in the center of the slime-pool, whose uniform indicated that he was also a captain, looked around to take in the destruction.
"Holy shit, holy shit…" he muttered to himself over and over.
"I asked you a question, officer!" Tanaki snapped sharply. The man whirled around, brought out of his reverie by the military tone. He snapped to attention.
"We were attacked, sir! It was, well…" his salute wavered and his shoulders slumped, "it was a toad…"
Naruto couldn't hold in his laughter, and Tanaki looked as though he was ready to chew nails.
"Are you telling me," he said, spacing his words deliberately, "that all of this damage was caused by a toad?"
The slimed officer made an effort to stand tall, and looked Tanaki straight in the eye.
"Yes, sir! We were guarding this facility when a small toad came hopping down the street."
Naruto gave another snort, but he was ignored.
"We were unprepared, and it caught us with some kind of water jutsu that left us immobilized by this slime. We must have been knocked unconscious right after, because I don't remember how all… this… happened." His left arm swept to indicate the gaping hole in the wall behind him.
Tanaki's anger started to abate, and he eyed the ruins with speculation.
"The toad must have been a summoning, though only a strong shinobi would have been able to make contact with an animal capable of such a powerful jutsu."
Naruto cocked his head to the side, listening intently. What was a summoning, and what did it have to do with toads?
Tanaki continued his interrogation of the three guards.
"What was the purpose of the attack?" But before the guards could answer, realization crossed Tanaki's face. "Wait… -is this where…"
The other captain nodded miserably. "We were in charge of security for the clan heirs. Whoever it was escaped with all six children."
Tanaki's jaw dropped. "This is a disaster! The Hokage will be most displeased."
Even the captain appeared to lose courage at this pronouncement. The man who had vomited decided it was a good time for a repeat performance, and the third man sat down in the puddle of toad slime and began shivering violently.
Tanaki gestured his men forward, toward the hole in the building.
"Search the area. We'll have to assemble a full report for The Hokage."
The guardsmen picked their way through the debris, with Naruto close behind. He wasn't about to be left behind just when things were getting interesting. Though they searched the building from top to bottom, they found nothing except for doors lying awry on broken hinges. The bleak rooms they had formerly guarded looked more like prison cells than anything to Naruto, but then, from what he had gathered of the earlier conversation, that's what they had been meant for.
After a thorough search, Tanaki's squad managed to get the three guards moving, though it was with great reluctance that they prodded the slimy uniforms. In a half an hour they were gathered outside of Madara's Tower.
"Urgent news for the Hokage!" Tanaki called out loudly. The door swung open silently after a moment. Six guardsmen and one young boy entered the tower, and were ushered up several sets of winding stairs by a silent shinobi wearing the uniform of the Hokage's personal guard.
Soon they reached the top floor, where Madara's study was located. As the strange assortment of people filed into the room, Naruto was struck with vivid memories of the past. He remembered this room –he'd been in it before. There had been a nice old man called the Hokage, who told Naruto that his job was protecting everyone in the village. That was when Naruto decided he would one day become the Hokage, so that everyone would acknowledge him.
That was a few years ago, and the memory of the old man's face was a little hazy. Naruto figured that Madara was the Hokage now. That struck Naruto as a little bit sad, somehow. That old man had been nicer to him than anyone he could remember, other than Madara.
The study was much altered from Naruto's memories. He had a vague impression of green and blue walls, and large stacks of papers on the big desk in front of the window. The stacks of papers were gone, and the walls were covered with red and black wallpaper featuring strange shapes and leaping flames. At the far end of the study, above the window, the crest of the Uchiha clan stood out in stark relief. And underneath that crest, sitting in an enormous, elaborately carved chair that looked more like a throne, was the man who had wrought these changes.
"Well, well," Madara's deep voice sounded through his mask, sounding more than a little amused. "I see you've been up to your old tricks, my son. Paint, and… -is that slime?"
Naruto looked down at his feet, though he was sure Madara wouldn't miss his unrepentant grin.
"Only the paint is my fault, f -father." Even after more than a year, Naruto's tongue still stumbled over the unfamiliar word.
"Just the paint, eh? What do you have to say for yourself, Tanaki?"
Tanaki drew himself up to his full height, and saluted rigidly.
"Sir! We were in pursuit of Naruto for defacing your monument," Tanaki paused and shot a dark look at the culprit, who was nodding enthusiastically at the mention of his crime.
Madara laughed, emitting a deep, booming sound that seemed to scare the six officers.
"We caught up to him in the downtown area, by a building that was very thoroughly torn up. We found Captain Hagane and his squad unconscious."
Tanaki bowed low, and gestured respectfully to see if the Hokage would prefer to hear the rest of the tale. Madara nodded wordless approval.
Nice dodge, thought Naruto with some measure of scorn. As young as he was, Naruto knew what had happened at the building was not going to make Madara happy. Tanaki was just trying to cover his ass.
Hagane stepped forward, and saluted as well. Naruto wasn't sure when one was supposed to salute or bow in front of Madara, having never been required to do either. He guessed it was something he would figure out with time.
"Sir. My squad was on rotation guarding the heirs to the main shinobi clans. We were caught unawares by a powerful Summoning Jutsu and incapacitated. We regained consciousness when Captain Tanaki arrived with his team, and searched the compound, but whoever it was managed to get away safely with all seven children. Our deepest apologies for our failure!"
The men sank to their knees and bowed, keeping their heads pressed to the floor. Naruto was looking with mild amusement as the slime dripped from their clothes to pool on the carpet, when a sharp crack made him swing his head back towards Madara. The Hokage had slammed his fist down on the desk, haphazardly scattering brushes and the few scrolls on its surface. His mask, as always, hid his expression, but Naruto could sense the anger radiating off Madara in waves.
"What was the nature of this Summoning Jutsu?" His tone was all the more threatening for remaining perfectly calm.
"It… -It was a toad, Sir."
Madara arm trembled with suppressed rage, but after a moment he sighed, and the tension seemed to recede.
"I thought as much. Oh, get up," he said disgustedly, "you are warriors of the Uchiha clan, not rabbits. The enemy you faced was much too powerful for me to expect you to defeat him. Though mark me well," his single uncovered eye held each of the three in thrall for a short moment. "If you fail again, I will not be so lenient. You are dismissed. When you leave, Captain Tanaki, be sure to send General Fugaku in to see me. And Naruto," he added, his tone softening as he turned to look at the boy, "try to restrict your artistic efforts to a more… appropriate venue."
Naruto nodded and gave Madara an impish grin before turning to follow the six older shinobi, who looked more than a little green with relief at their Hokage's mercy.
At the top of the stairs, Tanaki sent his men down to fetch General Fugaku. Naruto had never heard of the man and wanted to follow, but Tanaki caught him by the collar.
"I won't be letting you out of my sight until we get back to barracks, you scamp. Just wait until His Majesty puts you through Military Police training. You'll be too tired to even think about pulling pranks."
Naruto stuck out his tongue, but, aside from that small gesture of defiance, followed compliantly. It had been a full day of mischief, and he was ready to get back to the barracks. He was sure he could interest some of the youngest Uchihas in the story of his flight through the city (suitably edited to include his heroic fight against the giant building-destroying slime monster, of course).
A few flights down, Naruto heard a slight rhythmic, metallic sound, which grew increasingly louder. Eventually the source of the sound rounded the corner ahead of them, and Naruto got his first look at the man who had to be General Fugaku.
He had shoulder-length brown hair framing hard, cold eyes. The impression of harshness was accentuated by the grim lines around his mouth and the uncompromising set of his jaw. He wasn't that old, not far from middle age, but something about his eyes made him seem far older. His sharingan was not activated, which was yet another strange thing. Most of the Military Policemen Naruto knew kept their sharingan activated pretty much all the time, since keeping it on didn't drain much chakra.
As interesting as Fugaku's face was for Naruto, it paled in comparison with the lower half of his body. His left pant leg ended at the knee, replaced by a peg leg attached with some kind of brace. Fugaku also carried a cane topped with a metal cap; that was the source of the metallic thumping. Naruto wanted to ask Fugaku how he lost his leg, but couldn't bring himself to speak out before this dangerous-looking man. Tanaki came to a stop and saluted as Fugaku walked by, and after a short pause, Naruto did the same.
Fugaku said nothing, though he gave Naruto an appraising look before continuing his upward climb. As soon as the man was gone, Naruto let himself shiver. Looking straight into Fugaku's eyes had made him feel colder, somehow. Like those black rings were pulling in the warmth of the sun, or sucking his energy right out of him. Creepy.
Naruto and Tanaki reached the base of the tower with no further excitement. When Tanaki took his hand off Naruto's shoulder, the young boy bolted.
"Narutooo!" The outraged cry echoed out behind him, but Naruto didn't look back. He would make it back to barracks before curfew, but first there was a really great ramen restaurant around here that he wanted to visit again…
On the top floor of Madara's Tower, the door to the ruler's study opened without a sound.
"Ah, come in Fugaku." Madara invited. "We have an issue of no small importance to discuss. Has word reached you yet of the disaster downtown?"
After a sharp salute, Fugaku stumped across the floor, and took a seat in the chair reserved only for the privileged few who spent time in the Hokage's private study.
"No, I have not heard anything, Hokage-sama."
"The Toad-Sage Jiraiya infiltrated the city earlier today, and broke out six of the young shinobi we were keeping under guard. As expected, the only Sannin with remaining ties to Konoha has shown his hand… -although not in a way that's likely to benefit him."
Fugaku's face registered polite disagreement, an expression which few could get away with in the presence of Uchiha Madara.
"Forgive me, Hokage-sama, but how is this not a grievous loss? If I remember correctly, the only children we were keeping under active guard were the heirs of the main shinobi clans, and the daughter of Konoha's wealthiest and most influential merchant. So six children are missing, and five of them are heirs to powerful clans in the village. That could be a valuable bargaining chip, once Jiraiya gets them to another village."
Madara nodded briefly.
"I thought of that, but the actual value of those children is very small. What chance is there that they will be able to take up a position as heads of their clans? None anymore, especially now that I can declare them rogue shinobi, and redistribute their titles to shinobi of my choosing. And whatever loyalty their clan members may still hold to the children of their former leaders, it matters not while we retain control over their Caged Bird seals. We can command absolute obedience from all of the shinobi left within Konoha, so the idea of an uprising centered on restoring the escaped heirs just isn't plausible. And I doubt Jiraiya will find a village willing to run so high a risk for such an uncertain reward. No, my friend, I think this time the senile old fool just miscalculated, due to a sentimental faith in the next generation. And the fact that he didn't simply come straight to my tower and challenge me tells me he knows he does not possess the power to defeat me."
Madara paused, seemingly struck by a thought.
"And our losses aren't even that grievous," he said as an afterthought. "The young Hyuuga heir is still under our control, safely constrained by the Caged Bird Seal, along with all the rest of her arrogant relatives. To think that some people believe our clan is descended from those weaklings. It's insulting, honestly."
"Shall I set prices on the heads of the children, and alert our assets in the other villages?" Fugaku asked respectfully, gently steering Madara back to the matter at hand.
"Please do, although I expect Jiraiya will keep them out of sight for a while. From what I've heard, he always was one to play the long game. Maybe he'll try to train them all himself, for some grand attempt to take back Konoha years down the road, when he thinks we've forgotten about him. I wish I could see him now! The old man running a little nursery full of brats; really, I wish him all possible joy of his prize."
Madara gestured at the door in clear dismissal, and Fugaku stood to leave. But he hesitated, and the look on his face was one he would never have dreamed of revealing before anyone else: fear.
"Speak," Madara said.
"I apologize, but I've noticed that my vision has been growing… weaker, of late. It hasn't decreased my effectiveness, but it's definitely noticeable. Does it have to do with the Mangekyou sharingan?"
"Yes," Madara stated baldly. "Your vision will continue to deteriorate, until you go completely blind. It is the price we pay for such power. Do not despair," he added when Fugaku couldn't hide his dismay, "the process is reversible."
Madara pointed at the hole in his mask, where his eye glinted amidst shadow.
"I am living proof of that. And the process will grant you even more power, more than you have ever dreamed possible. But I require more proof that you deserve such a great gift. Bring me the two traitors who were once your sons, so that they may kneel before me and beg forgiveness for betraying their clan. Then I will give you the secret of the eternal Mangekyou."
Fugaku's eyes burned with an all-devouring hunger. He gave a reverent bow. "It will be as you command, Hokage-sama."
I'm not cut out for parenting! Jiraiya thought with dismay as he looked at the six young children arranged around the smokeless fire. If I'd wanted a family, I would have married and settled down like everybody else!
Six pairs of eyes looked back at him, all glowing with an uncompromising trust disturbing in its intensity.
"Where are you taking us, Jiraiya-sama?" the young Inuzuka child asked eagerly. "Are you going to train us, so we can go back and kill the men who locked us up?"
A chubby boy who must have been an Akimichi raised his hand. "Jiraiya-sama…" he stammered, "will you take us back to our families?"
Jiraiya blanched, not wanting to be the one to tell these young children the heart-breaking truth. But as it turned out, he didn't have to. A boy with dark sunglasses and his jacket pulled up to cover his mouth turned to the chubby boy.
"It is logical to assume that our parents were killed. We were being kept under guard because we are all, with the exception of Sakura, the heirs of Konoha's powerful clans. Our families were most likely killed by the Uchihas during the uprising, and replaced by new leaders."
Hearing the calm, expressionless monotone coming from an eight-year-old boy was jarring for Jiraiya. But then, he imagined that a year of captivity would have any number of disastrous effects on such young children. At least this young one had figured out the truth, and come to grips with it.
From the faces around the fire, it was clear that not everyone had come to the same conclusion. Choji's eyes were wide as saucers and rapidly filling with tears, and the Inuzuka boy was crying, too. Jiraiya noted with distant pride that they both stuffed their fists into their mouths to keep from making too much noise.
Not everyone was taken by surprise, though. A dark-haired boy with his hair pulled back in a spiky ponytail had only nodded confirmation when Shino broke the news to Choji. And from the grim look of shared understanding between the other two girls in the group, they had come to the same realization long ago. Jiraiya nodded internally, telling himself once again that what he was planning was the right course. They were tough enough to survive. Tough enough to push themselves beyond any limits they might once have allowed to stop them. And the gods knew they had the motivation.
Jiraiya leaned forward slightly, instantly capturing the attention of even the crying children.
"I couldn't save your parents," he told them, not having to feign the shame and self-loathing in his voice. "But I promise you I will avenge them. Until then I'll take you somewhere where you will be safe. Somewhere where you can grow stronger. It won't be easy. You're puny little squirts, and it will be years, if ever, before you're strong enough to fight against the Uchiha. But if you work hard enough, together we can ensure that the people responsible pay for their crimes. What do you say?"
At first there was silence. Then the girl with pink hair that marked her as a Haruno spoke up. "Will you be coming with us?"
"I can only take you to the village where you will live from now on. Then I will leave, to continue to fight for Konoha. There might be others I can free, and at the very least I will make life a living hell for the bastards who killed your family, and my friends. But I promise you, when you are ready I will stand with you."
Sakura nodded, reassured. Jiraiya looked around at the other young faces, grieving at the childhood that was already behind them, their innocence buried in the earth alongside their loved ones. But there was still hope, and sat right in front of him.
They are young, thought Jiraiya grimly. But they will have to be strong, to carry the future of an entire village on their shoulders.
Six pairs of eyes met his across the fire, and gleamed with the reflected light of the dancing flames. The promise of vengeance hung in the air, intangible yet unshakable as the surrounding darkness.