Title: He Who Shall Remain Dead
Warnings: Zombies! But not really. He's a pretty zombie though.
Beta: Done by the awesome Healiel, who was my first ever beta-reader. Seriously could not hope for a better first time working with a beta-reader. Thank you!
Disclaimer: The characters hereon belong to Masashi Kishimoto. No profit is being made from this work.
Author's Note: Written for Anubis' Daughter in the event ItaNaru Swap 2012! Hope you liked it!
The war is over.
The war is over and Konoha stands. It is hard to believe that a war of all nations scale had ever occurred, and this is understandable. The war didn't last very long; not very many people are expected to know it in detail. This is the case among the citizens and children, who were kept carefully away from the battles. Still, words reached them from beyond the frontline and a name was whispered with fear and admiration, disbelief and hatred, respect.
Til this day it's in the mind of every child and adolescence that Uzumaki Naruto is the hero, that he played an important role in the war, and that without him the war could possibly still rage on and Konoha might no longer be. He is the topic much discussed among children; who speak of him with stars in their eyes and hope blooming in their chest. It is not uncommon to hear 'I wanna be like Naruto!' wherever one may turn. The older generations no longer spend precious time trying to change the minds of the younger generation about Uzumaki. How can they when they themselves cannot even glance at the blond jinchuuriki without remembering whispering harsh words and delivering hateful glares? Uzumaki saved the village, countless times, and this is a fact that cannot be denied. Too many witnesses who fought alongside him in the war.
Uzumaki is a hero, admired and wanted. He is the man who grew up absorbing all the hatred the villagers directed at him, and using it to better himself. He is a hero. He is also a jinchuuriki and the older generation cannot find it in themselves to fully accept him. He would never be just a man to them. He was never even just a boy to begin with. He was always one thing and something else. Once upon a time he was the demon child with mischief in his eyes, and then he was the demon vessel with the Uchiha friend, later the guy with questionable power. He is never… just; just a boy, just a man… just human.
He is, however, a good person. Now he is a good person with the Sage mode, he is the good person with power. He can protect the village, actually he can protect many villages, and he is kind. It's for this simple fact that the older generation can bother to try and change what was in their heart just a little bit. It wasn't easy, and it certainly took its time, but opinions did change. Many more smiles are directed at Uzumaki when he passes them on the streets. Many more kind words can be exchanged. The villagers work hard to show the blond hero that they've accepted him, and that they will support him in everything he does. They want to show him that they're sorry, that being a jinchuuriki is no longer a curse to them.
If only Uzumaki cared enough for that.
What most people don't know –and they won't bother to find out- is that he really isn't a jinchuuriki anymore. He isn't the unwilling host to an unwilling prisoner. He does have red chakra in him, but that chakra is his. It is his to wield and control and use; his. He does have another conscience in there with him –one that is irritating and lazy and full of pride- but that conscience isn't an inmate. Uzumaki comes very close to calling this other entity a friend –does so behind his back with snickers of 'best friend for life,' and 'soul-brother.' He isn't a jinchuuriki, and he doesn't care about what the villagers think of the trust that his father had had in him to do this to him. He isn't a jinchuuriki because the seal on his stomach isn't a locked door. It's just a door. He and his close friend –the one with the tall silver hair- have modified it so that it provides the demon with room in Uzumaki's head. It is a door that opens both ways and it acts as a divider. He and the demon are roommates.
See? He's not a jinchuuriki anymore. With all the red chakra swimming in his system, it would be more suitable to call him a demi-demon. The demon is just another conscience in his head. And if this still makes him a jinchuuriki, then it shouldn't anymore, because Uzumaki has a plan for this other conscience. He has a plan; a plan to save a life.
It seemed ironic that the one who changed the least had to adjust the most to changes. Naruto wasn't complaining, he was just acknowledging the irony of it. Really, no complaints whatsoever. There was nothing to complain about anyway; these changes had been good ones. He didn't receive glares anymore when he waked out to get ramen. People waved at him and smiled and said hello –and it wasn't fair because he was just one man; he couldn't possibly wave and say hello back to everyone who did. Many times he thought about making clones walk with him so that they could help him to say hellos, but it just wouldn't be the same. He had a feeling that people only wanted hellos from him, not his clones. These things took getting used to. Still, every now and then it wold surprise him when a stranger said hello, because he had a distant memory of that person cursing at him when he was just a mere boy. These times always stung, and he would bitterly wave back and plaster on a cheerful smile. For them. Everything he did was for them.
On his way to his meeting spot with Sakura he passed a group of young teens. They were of the age he had been when everything in his life was thrown about; twelve, thirteen.
"Good morning, Hokage-kun!" One of the girls cheered, before giggling and turning back to her friends, who stared at him with wide eyes.
Naruto laughed softly and waved at them. When the staring continued he scratched at the back of his head, clueless. It didn't matter that he was now a young man of nineteen. Kids who thought he was a hero always made him clueless. He just didn't know how to proceed. What did they expect him to do? Tricks? Ninjutsu?
"Uzumaki Naruto, brought down to a bumbling mess by his fans. How amusing." He turned to his long-time friend with a cheeky grin. Sakura raised one amused eyebrow at him. "Well? Aren't you going to deny that? You're not Hokage yet, you know."
Naruto huffed. "It's only a matter of time now." And he didn't mind. That the kids would call him their Hokage-kun meant that they had faith in him.
His long-time friend hummed amusedly to herself, and then turned in the direction of the ramen stand. "So? Aren't you going to treat me to ramen?" And when Naruto opened his mouth to voice something witty, she quickly added, "In a none-dating way, you idiot."
It was something familiar, this light banter of theirs. Naruto had no delusion. He was never going to be romantic with his pink headed friend in any way. They've gone on one date and it ended with him receiving one light kiss on the cheek. It was as platonic as anything could get and Naruto felt so awkward afterwards because him and Sakura? Yeah, they're never going to be more than siblings in every way but blood. And it was all good too, because lately Sakura's been showing an unusual amount of interest in Rock Lee. She was giggling at times when she used to chuckle nervously, and blushing when she used to clench her fists and grit her teeth. Rock Lee was flirting in his gentlemanly way –polite and straight to the point- and Sakura was responding at a level that almost made Naruto sick to the stomach. His two friends were so sickeningly sweet… and they weren't even officially dating yet.
The smell of ramen hit them before the stand was actually in sight, and by the time they rounded the corner and could actually see the stand, Naruto was flooded with years and years of memories both good and heart-breaking. It happened every time, this smell of his life.
When they'd seated themselves and ordered, Sakura said, "What are you going to do for three days? Tell me you won't train til you pass out. I don't want to see you anywhere near the hospital, Naruto."
"Umm, actually I was thinking of spending some time in Old Lady Tsunade's library. She's got really cool stuff in there." It should unnerve him that he could now lie so easily to Sakura. Once upon a time he used to just blurt out the truth to her, whether she asked him to or not. Now his heart barely changed pace, but then again, the consequences of the truth were too much for him to even think about.
"Her library?" Sakura gasped, for once not punching him in the head for the disrespecting name he had for their Hokage. "Her private one?"
"Ah… I don't know. It's the one with a lot of books in it." He gave her a mocking grin.
The blonde threw back his head and laughed. "Relax, Sakura-chan. Why are you getting so riled up? It's just like any other library, but smaller… and dustier. And it has things living in there that I can't name."
Sakura gaped at him, then slammed her fist down on the counter –luckily without investing any chakra- and turned in her seat towards him. "If it's her private library, Naruto, then it's not just her library. It's the private library of all past Hokage's. Once upon a time that was your father's library! Forget about the dust, tell me what's in there!"
It was uncomfortably silent after she finished her passionate –and boy didn't that remind him of Rock Lee- rant. The other customers stared at them, no doubt a little more than interested. No one could blame them. Naruto and his friends have been known to provide excellent entertainment to anyone lucky enough to be nearby. Naruto, though finding much amusement in his friend's excitement, was more worried about her second last comment. That he was Namikaze Minato's only son was still a secret; one he didn't intend to reveal anytime soon. He looked carefully at the other waiting customers, and upon noticing the lack of shock or surprise, relaxed. Still, it had been an unnecessary risk, and he felt a slight irritation towards Sakura. Of course he knew she wouldn't reveal his secret on purpose, but she was unruly –ironic as that may sound- with her outbursts; almost just as unruly as he was.
"Sakura," he said with a tight smile.
She looked at him, confused for a moment, and then shrunk back in her seat with her fiery curiosity forgotten. Sakura opened her mouth, an apology on the tip of her tongue, but then remained silent because it was blaringly obvious that they still had an audience. Instead she smiled gently and touched his much larger hand, squeezed it and went on talking about something else, something less interesting but much safer. And just like that he forgave her, because he loved her and he knew she didn't mean any harm.
"What are you doing after lunch?" He asked her.
"I'm going back to the hospital," she said with a pout. "We have a twelve-member team coming back in. They've been on an extended mission or something, and we have to thoroughly examine them, make sure they didn't bring any diseases back with them."
"That's ridiculous," Naruto said. "No team ever comes back right on schedule. We never come back on schedule."
"That's true, but I still have to be there. Ino is part of the team meeting them at the gate. They have to walk from the gate to the hospital in a bubble or something like that, so they don't spread anything if they have it. Sometimes I think my job is mocking me."
Naruto smiled. It was probably wrong that he found comfort in Sakura's complaints. Sakura was one of the many aspects that made home. Her complaints, her floral scent, her intelligent eyes and iron fist. There were so many other aspects that completed his home, and he would be the happiest man alive if he could just reveal to her all his secrets; especially the secret he kept hidden in a forest colony far away from Konoha.
"Here you go, Naruto," said Teuchi, putting both their ramen bowls down and offering them his usual squint-eyed smile. Another aspect of home. "So, what have you two been up to lately? Anything worth mentioning?"
And Naruto wondered how it would sound if he said 'Well you know how I haven't been here as often as before? That's because I've been sneaking off to meet an ex-criminal who's slowly losing his mind because, yeah, he's supposed to be dead right now. By the way, I'm going there right after I finish eating.' It probably wouldn't sound too good, not with Sakura sitting right next to him and at least two other shinobi within hearing range. Instead he said, "I fell out of bed this morning and I'm pretty sure I broke my wrist, but it healed before I woke up properly."
Teuchi threw his head back and laughed a laugh that bubbled from deep within his stomach. Automatically Naruto smiled, because he could never resist Teuchi's laughs. It made everything in the world bright for that one moment. "Ah, boy, I hardly think anything can break you. You've grown so large… well; all that ramen had to go somewhere. I think you might even be bigger than all your friends!"
"Teuchi," Sakura warned kindly, because if there's one thing she couldn't stand, it was Naruto getting started on how he'd grown so much in the last few years, about how he was way taller than Sakura now. And the thing was, she was pretty sure he was still growing.
Naruto laughed around his chopsticks, swallowed and said, "You're just mad 'cause you practically have to jump to hit me!"
Teuchi laughed again, and behind his laughter the sound of Ayame's laughter rang. It was almost overwhelming, this good feeling, and Naruto almost didn't want to ever leave the ramen stand. He could just sit here all day, eating and talking to Teuchi and Ayame, and then his friends would walk by and chat with him one by one, or sometimes in groups. They would revolve around the stand, because the stand was in between the Hokage Tower and the hospital, between the training grounds and shinobi apartments. He could sit here and his life would revolve around him. He wanted to sit here but he couldn't, because while he wanted to sit here, every cell in his body was screaming for him to get out, head South-East, and then south, go towards the Tea Country border. Head towards salvation.
When they finish eating and Naruto paid for their meal –Naruto's filthy rich now, especially with the A and S-ranked missions he did on a regular basis- Naruto walked Sakura to the hospital. It was a comfortably silent walk and Naruto's canine-sensitive ears picked up Sakura humming a tune under her breath. It lifted some unknown weight off of his shoulders to see her like this, happy and content, even though he knew that just mentioning Sasuke's name could ruin all of that. It was rare, these days, to see Sakura anything but content and cheerful. It made him wonder if she was blocking everything that had to do with Sasuke from her mind. Was she purposely not thinking about him? Did she not want Sasuke home anymore?
No; that was crazy. He and Sakura had made a promise. She wouldn't forget about it, not even in order to be happy.
"I'll see you later, Naruto," Sakura said once they were at the gates of the hospital. "I'm going to have lunch with Ino and her guys tomorrow, are you coming?"
"Nope!" He said, grinning at her. "I'm gonna see what I can find in the library, then test it out in the Forest of Death. I haven't learnt any new jutsu lately."
"Well, you can spare a few minutes for lunch, can't you?"
No, he really couldn't.
So he brought out the big gun. "I'm going to be training in my Sage Mode," he said simply, sending her an apologetic look. He was lying again. It was necessary. He needed to be away and he needed for his friends to not look for him.
"Oh," Sakura breathed, her eyes suddenly gaining a glazed look. She had never really gotten comfortable with his Sage Mode. She knew that it was powerful and had saved his life countless times and that it was one of many reasons that Konoha was still standing, but she didn't trust it. She didn't like that it made Naruto appear less human every time he used it, and that it required him to be perfectly still for him to access it. She didn't like it, and that was just that. Now, whenever he mentioned doing anything with it, she tended to shy away, politely and subtly. "Well, I guess it's okay then."
"Yeah," he sighed. "Well, bye!"
And he was off.
Tsunade paused in her writing, glanced up at the massive blonde in front of her –who all too often reminded her of Jiraiya with his size- and then went back to writing. She repeated this sequence thrice more before Naruto huffed and sat himself down on a chair.
"What, what?" She mumbled softly without glancing up, this time not stopping in her writing.
"Why were you giving me that look? We've done this a hundred times before. Don't tell me you're choosing now of all times to start getting all suspicious on me." He crossed his right ankle and rested it on his left knee; a position much too casual to be in the presence of the Hokage. Then his dangling right foot started wriggling to a rhythm only in his head.
"I know, brat," the elder woman said calmly. "Can't really help it if I sometimes wonder where you go, who you see, what you do. Homura and Koharu are getting ridiculous." She frowned, pausing in her writing in her writing, and released a frustrated breath. Out the large window behind her, a crow flew by, surprisingly random. "They don't know what you're up to, not that I do either, but they're becoming more and more imaginative. Soon they're going to have every available ANBU trailing after you. Here." She finished and rolled up the tiny scroll, tied it up and tossed it towards Naruto.
"Thanks," he muttered, tucking it securely into his pouch. "I'm sorry I can't tell you more."
"Don't be sorry. You wouldn't do anything too outrageously stupid, but you have to remember that these two oldies have a very important say in who becomes the next Hokage. You've done everything right. You're Hokage in every way but by official status and these two are the only ones standing in your way. You'd best start sucking up to them." It was the glint from within her golden eyes that told him she was joking.
Naruto mocked a wince. "Eww! I'd never, 'Baa-chan! I'm going to convince them with my impressively large muscles and winning charm." He wriggled his brows at the Hokage and grinned.
"Right, 'cause that would work out so well."
"The Old Man Hokage trusted them to be by his side, trusted them to look after Konoha with him. That means they're good people. They don't like me, but if I prove myself to them, they might eventually see reason. They'll realise I'd do anything for this village."
"Right," the Hokage mumbled to herself.
After a stretch of silence, Naruto hesitantly said, "Umm, did anything come up?"
To which Tsunade replied with a sigh. "It's ridiculous that I'd understand what you mean just from that, and no, there isn't anything." She watched sadly as hurt and grief flickered across Naruto's blue eyes. Two years of constant lack of news and his reaction never changed. Inwardly she cursed at the Uchiha; cursed at him for being so bull-headed and so full of rage, cursed at him for not seeing that there were people here who loved him.
"Well, you'll tell me if there is, right?"
He took his leave without another word, and she muttered to herself, "Right."
The place he hid Itachi couldn't be called a village, or a town. It actually didn't have a name. It was just an establishment really. Thirteen simple houses were there, along with one large, empty hall. It was located twenty seven miles from the Tea-Fire Country border, on the Fire Country side. The establishment was set up some five years ago to protect a seal there. The Lords of Fire and Tea country had agreed to put a protective seal there, right on the ground, so that any shinobi entering into the four hundred kilometres circle would not be able to use their chakra to perform jutsu. This act was performed with the sole purpose of protecting the trees. Apparently the forest was a common battle ground for shinobi, and in the midst of it all, countless trees had been destroyed. And so a giant seal was conjured and drawn right onto the soil, and families were chosen to look out for it. Nobody actually worried about the seal being destroyed because nobody wanted it destroyed. Ninjas tend to destroy a boat-load of trees when they're fighting other ninjas. Naruto, the handsome war hero that he was, had done his share of tree destroying. The Rasen-Shuriken and the Summoning jutsu were on top of his list of 'most tree-destroying jutsus.'
When one stopped to think about it, it actually made sense. Trees take a long time to grow, and get destroyed within seconds. This seal thing? Pure genius… Except for when Naruto first took Itachi there and needed to do some major chakra work because Itachi had been a zombie with flesh slowly rotting away. It had been troublesome, but he could eventually draw up a counter-seal, one that allowed him and Itachi to use chakra and form jutsu, but only in a certain space like, say, the house he –his clones- built for Itachi. That house had been the thirteenth house.
This was where Naruto took Itachi to, two years ago, right after the War ended.
The path he travelled on now was a very familiar one. It hadn't changed in the last two years. The one difference was the time he took to travel through it. Two years ago it had taken him four days to get from Konoha to Itachi, but now it only took him three hours. It was this simple fact that allowed him to see the progress he'd made with himself. He said he'd work on his speed –because what was great, destructive power without speed? And he never would have noticed his progress if it wasn't for this little journey.
The forestry was average, occasionally bald, but the closer he got to Itachi and the seal, the thicker the greenery became. Naruto would take the time to admire the lush greenness if he wasn't travelling at the speed of near-light, and if he wasn't counting the seconds until he next saw Itachi. And thinking of Itachi, he quickly glanced down at himself. He was wearing the standard green vest of a jounin, and the usual black slacks. But where the rest of the jounin populace wore the usual long sleeved black shirt under the vest, Naruto wore a long sleeved dark-red shirt. The village thought it was his way of being unique –Naruto's own style!- but really, it was his way of honouring Kurama, thanking him for what he'd done for him and Itachi. When people complimented him on his shirt, Naruto laughed, because they were complimenting on the very same demon they once hated him for.
Before the first house was within his sight, Naruto stopped and took off his vest and forehead protector. It was a simple point of fact. With Itachi's current, slowly deteriorating mental state, anything could set him off. By setting off, it didn't mean that Itachi would suddenly snap and go on a rampage. With this Uchiha, setting off meant him retreating so far into his own head that it'd take four to five days just to get him to start talking. And with time and Itachi's mind wasting away, Naruto couldn't afford that. To make Itachi whole again Naruto had one act left to do, and today he would do just that.
After sealing his vest and forehead protector into a scroll for easy carriage, he continued on. He arrived and saw the first house. Five kids were playing with a ball in front of it; two boys and three girls. The ball was small and old and falling apart, but the game was fierce. From the laughter of the girls and the pout-scowl on the boys' faces, Naruto could guess that the boys were losing badly and the girls were reminding them if it every second. One girl in particular, with short spikey hair, reminded him of Anko. She danced around the boys, laughing at and mocking them more than she paid attention to the game. A smirk adorned her face.
He walked around their playground, marching straight to Itachi's house without further delay. He'd already lost half a day; couldn't afford to lose anymore.
Compared to the other houses, the one Itachi was in looked incredibly simple and small. It highly resembled the apartment Naruto had grown up in; four walls, a bed, a table and chairs, and a door. When Naruto and his clones had been building it, it never occurred to him that he was duplicating his own apartment. But when he was finished and stood to take a proper look at it, he thought 'No other place like home.' He'd watched Itachi's face as he presented him with this house, waiting to see disappointment or distaste, but til this very day, Naruto still didn't know how Itachi felt about the house. Itachi never gave him a reaction; just acceptance.
The house, now two years later, was just as it had been, but dustier. It was slowly falling apart, but that was okay. Naruto had never intended for it to last more than three years. It was temporary, built so that it would protect Itachi's body as he healed and was reanimated.
In the house he found Uchiha Itachi on the floor, cradling tiny, crystalline pieces of broken glass in his left palm.
"Hey," Naruto breathed out, a small, fragile smile coming on to his face. "What are you doing?"
"… Counting," was the reply.
"Okay. What are you counting?" It didn't particularly make him feel good talking to Itachi as if he was a child, but it was necessary. He wasn't entirely sure yet if Itachi was normal, or if he was in one of his moods again. If he was normal and Naruto talked to him like he would to a child, the most harm that would come would be him offending Itachi. That was almost nothing.
Itachi turned his head towards Naruto, and gave him a distasteful look.
"Right," Naruto declared. "You know what? Doesn't matter. Come here; give me that before you hurt yourself."
Itachi hesitated, and for a moment Naruto thought things would go his way for once, but then Itachi's hand twitched, the glass particles glistered, and he was lost to Naruto. "You wouldn't understand." And he lowered his eyes and went back to counting.
Cold, bitter defeat weighed at Naruto's heart, and he gritted his teeth and muttered, "Alright."
He moved towards Itachi to get the pieces of glass out of his hand, but Itachi already had both his hands cupping the broken glasses, his shoulders hunched protectively around it. Naruto convinced himself that Itachi wasn't doing anything dangerous, just staring at the glistering pieces in his palm. It was the only way he could let it go. If he put a stop to it now, Itachi would no doubt break another glass and recount whatever he was counting. Or worse, he would grind his teeth and retreat so far back into his own head Naruto would have to wait another month to get a real conversation out of him.
Instead, he took a hard look at Itachi's body and compared what it was now to what it was two years ago. Doing this always made him feel better. He loved seeing how much he had done for Itachi, who in turn had done so much for Konoha. And the difference, well, it was so obvious that even a blind person would somehow, in some way, notice.
For one, Itachi looked alive. Where his skin used to be grey and paper-like, it was now creamy and smooth, unbelievably so. It looked supple, doll-like. Maybe it looked so perfect because before that it was grey and paper-like, rotting and peeling off. Whatever, all Naruto cared about was that Itachi's skin was alive and it was healthy. Eighteen months of pumping Kurama's Yang chakra into one's body would do that to you. When he'd been at his lowest, when Itachi was slowly rotting away after the war, Naruto had begged Kurama to talk to him, say anything. How could he save Itachi? What could he do for the man who did everything for everyone else? How could he make Itachi whole and alive again?
The Demon fox had said, 'My Yang chakra, the one that was sealed into you, it's all about vitality. Use it, kid; use it to breathe life into him. And if that doesn't work, you'd best bury him.' He'd said it simply, unsympathetically. He didn't care about Itachi like Naruto did.
He hadn't taken Kurama's words seriously at first, but when he came up with nothing and Itachi was still dying again, he'd taken Kurama's words for what they were; serious and literal. He'd made a clone, then made a special seal to dump Kurama's Yang chakra into, and left the clone here with Itachi. The clone then spent a year and a half slowly, steadily pushing the chakra into Itachi's body. And it worked. After a year, Itachi's liveliness had become obvious. The dullness in his eyes that had come back with him from the dead disappeared, his flesh flushed and smoothed, and any and all marks disappeared. It was like he had been reborn; not a scar on him. Although, Naruto doubted that he had any in the first place. Someone would have to be pretty darn incredible to get close enough to scar Itachi. Anyway, nearly two years and Itachi's body was back, better than ever apparently, because he wasn't experiencing the disease that ate at him due to the Mangekyou Sharingan. He wasn't dying. He was here and he was going to stay.
That problem was solved… but two more arose.
While Itachi's body was back from the dead, his mind wasn't… not exactly. It seemed that while his body got healthier and healthier, his mind slowly crumbled away, piece by piece. Naruto hadn't noticed until a year ago. Itachi hadn't exactly been the type of person who let it be known when he was going insane. He was distracted, most days. When talking to Naruto his eyes would gradually wander off, over his shoulder, over his head, anywhere but on Naruto, never really focusing. And then sometimes he'd stop listening, as if any word spoken in the living world wasn't exciting enough. Then, he'd just get lost. Naruto once found him slumped against a tree, his hands limp by his sides and his eyes faraway. His head was slumped back against the tree and his eyes stared up, lost in the blueness of the sky. He sat there for three hours and Naruto sat beside him, watching over the body whose soul had wandered off, waiting for him to come back. Scared out of his wits.
When he did, Itachi said, 'I was playing with Sasuke. He was two and I was seven. That's not right, is it?' And Naruto got it. Itachi was losing it, and he knew it and he couldn't do anything about it. He'd said to Naruto while looking at him with big, dark eyes. 'What did I tell you, Naruto?'
That day, Naruto had gone to sleep with his mind clogged up with guilt and shame. He hadn't regret keeping Itachi here, but he did regret not thinking things through, not seeing this coming. One of the first things Itachi had warned him about, right after the war when he realised what Naruto had intended to do with him, was that he wasn't going to live if he couldn't keep his mind. Naruto hadn't listened. He had been too busy keeping Itachi alive.
Since then he'd wondered if this was what people meant when they said that when a person dies, everything ends. Even if his body had been brought back to life, Itachi's soul and mind knew he was meant to be dead.
And that was problem number two. This problem was the reason he was here today. He was going to solve it; him and Kurama both. Together they were going to make Itachi whole and then Itachi was going to be healthy and alive and happy. He's going to be happy! Naruto would make sure of it.
Presently, Naruto heaved. "Are you finished counting yet?" He asked the stilled form of Itachi.
Itachi's head inclined slightly to the side, and Naruto took that as a 'no.' Then, as if he realised that Naruto would be breathing down his neck until he finished counting, Itachi said, "There's food in the cupboard."
Naruto jumped up and hopped to the other side of the little rectangular room they called home. Upon doing this he realised he'd walked in with his sandals on. He balanced himself on the eating table with one hand, and slipped them off with the other. Then he left them there, beside the table, and searched for something to eat. It's occurred to him several times that he should be more polite and put his sandals away properly, but to do that it would feel wrong. He should be comfortable, this was his home too. His clone had lived here for nearly eighteen whole months. His clone…
… who had become problem number three.
Naruto hadn't been thinking too thoroughly when he had started this quest to make Itachi better. He'd never be able to say that enough times. He hadn't cared much about the consequences, just that he couldn't bear to let Itachi die again. Naruto would have been able to live his life contently knowing he had the chance to help Itachi, but hadn't. Itachi deserved better, deserved happiness. And then Naruto made the clone. A year and a half later he dispelled it. Naruto had expected it, but hadn't been prepared when a eighteen months' worth of memories and experiences and feelings flooded him into unconsciousness. Even the Great Nine-Tailed Fox had trouble sorting them out and preventing them from harming Naruto himself. Eventually, after nearly a month of living in his clone's shoes, the memories settled. That wasn't the end of the problem number three. This was where it started.
One day Naruto was just trying to give Itachi a second chance, and then the next he was so much closer to Itachi, all because his clone had been. While Naruto was almost afraid to touch Itachi in fear that he would fall apart, his clone had no trouble. The clone constantly touched Itachi; touching his hair, clapping him on the shoulders, trailing his fingers along his arms. He did it because he was curious.
'You had a tan, I remember. When you and Hoshigaki Kisame came to get me, when I was twelve, you remember? You had a tan. I wonder why that didn't come back.' Too deep in his own thoughts, Naruto the Clone touched the soft skin on Uchiha Itachi's cheek, and pinched it between his thumb and forefinger.
When the action caught up with him, he froze. Fear, terror, surprise, embarrassment, shame and everything associated with all those emotions flooded him. He'd crossed a line. There was a line there, and he'd stupidly crossed it.
He dared to look up, to look into the eyes –how stupid, to look into the eyes where the Sharingan had once been- of Uchiha Itachi. It seemed that he was right to feel the terror. Itachi glared down at him, his eyes cold and the muscles of his brand new body pulled taut. His face, however, did not have one hint of any expression on it. For a moment he was unpredictable. He could be friend or foe, and Naruto wasn't prepared for the latter.
'Don't do that,' Itachi said.
'Huh?' The sound escaped him softly, whimsically.
'I said, don't do that, Naruto.' The troughs under Itachi's eyes deepened, and his eyes tightened.
But despite his cautioning words, and his cold, harsh glare, Itachi did not physically stop Naruto. Did it mean Naruto could possibly get away with it if he did it again? After all, he had no intention of never ever touching Itachi again. This couldn't be the last time.
Itachi was his legacy. If Naruto should suddenly die in the near future before he had kids, then he would leave Itachi behind. Itachi was alive because of him; he was healthy and supple and brand new all because Naruto wanted him to be. In some way, Itachi was his, and his clone had realised this. It made sense, too, that Naruto would sometimes feel envious. The clone was able to touch, smell, and be near Itachi when Naruto was stuck running back and forth, trying to be Hokage and keep Itachi hidden and find Sasuke.
His clone, for one and a half years, had it all.
'Hey, is it weird when the real me and me are around?'
Itachi turned lazy eyes to him and Naruto did his best to ignore how distant they looked. 'Naruto, the way you phrase your questions confuse me.'
'But you understand what I wanna ask.'
'Yes, but it also irritates me.'
The clone scoffed. 'You're just obsessed with proper language and crap like that. On the battlefield it won't matter.'
'Yes, it would. No, it isn't.'
'What?' Naruto asked worriedly. Something's been going on with Itachi's head lately, subtle things, but the older man's never let it slip like this. 'What?' He asked again.
Itachi breathed out slowly, so slowly it was almost a soft sigh. 'It isn't weird, when there are two of you around. Why do you ask?' Oh.
'Well, I just… I mean, you never treat me differently when the real me is around…' He trailed off as his words became lost to him. There was a silence, and then he tried again. 'When there are two of us, you treat us the same… even though the real me has been around you only a third of the time I've been around you.' Fired up, he moved closer to Itachi, who sat calmly on his futon. 'Really, I'm closer to you than him, but I'm still him. Shouldn't it be weird to you? Doesn't it confuse you?'
Itachi stared at him. Up close, it became distractingly obvious just how attractive Itachi was. Long lashes, thicker than any male Naruto's ever met, surrounding big eyes. The eyes, big and shiny and bottomless, were spaced perfectly apart on either side of a small, straight nose, which was on top of soft-looking lips. These features were the ones that were very similar to Sasuke's, but Sasuke couldn't be called pretty. Sasuke was handsome, fierce looking, mean looking, hot. Itachi was all that too –except for the mean looking one- but he could also be called pretty. There was something setting these two brothers apart, one that set pretty apart from too-bastardy-to-be-pretty.
'You don't know what you're saying, Naruto.'
And Naruto had been so lost in his observation of Itachi's prettiness that he really didn't know what he was saying anymore. In fact, why was he even sitting so close to Itachi in the first place?
Even when the clone was dispelled and everything flooded back to Naruto, it still wasn't the same. In the end, it wasn't his hand that had touched Itachi, it wasn't him that had become close to Itachi.
Naruto was staring at Itachi. This wasn't an unusual start of a day. In fact, lately that's always how it started. Naruto woke up first, set up the scroll containing Kurama's Yang chakra, and soothingly pumped a fraction into Itachi as the older man slept. Then, when he was finished, he put the scroll away, packed up his futon, and sat and stared at Itachi.
That was how it went, and there hadn't been any desire in him to change the routine.
He stared, he looked. Didn't matter what he did. It wasn't enough. For it to be enough, he'd need to stare at Itachi for a million years. He was familiar with Itachi's body. From what he'd been created to do, he had to be, but it wasn't enough. He looked and looked and looked, because he knew that Itachi was human. At one point or another he was going to yawn, or smile, or sneeze and he was going to prove that he was the kind brother who loved his little brother, like Madara had said he was. Maybe this was why Naruto was waiting, never to look away and miss that moment. Maybe it was something else.
'I don't like that you do that. Is there any way you'd stop?'
"Heh, you talk as if you're my prisoner. Whatever you want, I'll give it to ya.'
Itachi gave him an unbelieving look, which Naruto thought he deserved. After all, the thing that Itachi had wanted the most a couple of months ago was a peaceful rest. He'd wanted death, which had been ripped from him when he was resurrected by Kabuto during the war. And Naruto had kept on denying him his eternal rest.
'Hey,' Naruto said. 'Come on, we've moved past this.' Or maybe it was just him that had moved on from that topic. Maybe it was just Naruto that was lying to himself, so he wouldn't feel guilty that he was denying Itachi the one thing he almost had. Gently he moved forward and wound his arms around Itachi, then helped him sit up.
Itachi's whole body tensed, and it hurt Naruto that he still thought he couldn't trust Naruto. Oh sure, trust Naruto to bring Sasuke back home, bring the guy back from the darkness, but don't trust him to help him sit up. 'Naruto, I'm strong enough to do this on my own.'
'Yeah but I like touching you.' This came out sounding unexpectedly perverted. 'I… No, I mean, I want to… wait, I'd better not say anything.'
Luckily, Itachi ignored him. As it had been mentioned, this was a morning g routine. Itachi was just as used to Naruto's spluttering as Naruto was used to embarrassing himself. Moving back, Naruto watched as Itachi gathered himself. The older man breathed slowly, rhythmic, and Naruto felt tired just from watching him. Even having slept the whole night, Itachi still woke up drowsy. But that didn't matter. He was getting better. His skin, at the very least, was no longer grey and paper-like. His nails, too, looked fresher and pinker. And his hair… his hair…
Before he knew it, Naruto's got a lock of long, dark hair twined in his fingers. Itachi, at this action, didn't even move, which led to Naruto's conclusion that the man was at least used to Naruto's staring and touching. Then, he only had a problem with being manhandled… which Naruto could totally understand. Nobody liked being manhandled. He made a small, wave-like motion with his fingers, and the healthy-looking strands slipped out of his fingers.
'Your hair is… it's long. I really like it.''
Problem number three was this: Naruto was pretty sure –almost definitely sure- that his clone had been in love with Itachi. He could easily know this for sure. All he had to do was delve himself into the muddled memories of the clone's. But til this day, that had been the one thing he had been too afraid to do. He didn't want to acknowledge the clone's feelings.
A rattling sound behind him caused him to jump.
"Hey!" He cheered. "You finished? Finally?"
"Yes, I'm finished. Did you eat?"
A little put out, Naruto said, "No." He stared longing at the still-closed cupboard door, shook his head, and turned fully around to face Itachi. "Have you taken a look at the seal? Is there a problem with it?"
The Uchiha looked blankly at Naruto for a second, before dumping the glass particles into a small bowl and washing his hands. "I've looked at it," he said. "It would work. I'm impressed. I had no idea you were so good with seals."
Naruto's heart suddenly fluttered, and his eyes widened, startled at the effects Itachi's words had on him. Before he dispelled his clone, this type of reaction would never have occurred. Doing his best to cover up his reaction –no matter how small, Itachi noticed- Naruto grinned. "Well, of course! Pervy Sage was my teacher, you know." His grin turned into a fond smile. That's one thing he and the clone had in common. They could never help the fond look when they're around Itachi. "So, are you ready? I think we should start immediately."
"Yes," Itachi said quietly. "You're going to make me new and healthy again, there's nothing I can do to stop you. Come, I found a place." The blond hero pointedly ignored his companion's slight input of a sarcastic tone. They were so over the point where Itachi continued to refuse to live this miserable life and Naruto forced him to anyway.
Naruto scrambled to slip his sandals back and keep up with the older man. Together they walked silently away from the colony, further into the forest. There was a breeze and it caressed Naruto's unusually exposed forehead. He rubbed at it, and then ruffled his wild hair. It was longer and wilder now, and he wasn't sure yet whether to make it short again or let it grow. He liked that he could look in the mirror and see both himself and his parents. Now that he's met both his parents in his head, Naruto could see who he resembled. Despite the colouring, he really looked more like his mother. He's got her nose and her grin, her cheekbones too. The hair and the eyes were his father's.
Eventually, as it usually happened with him, the awkwardness started bothering him. And unlike his silent companion, Naruto cracked under awkwardness.
Naruto started saying, "So…" at the same time that Itachi said, "Inara…"
"Oh! Heh, you go first." He smiled encouragingly at Itachi. It wasn't often that Itachi was the one to start the conversation, quite the opposite actually.
Itachi looked up at him –Oh dear, Naruto's even taller than Itachi!- through thick, dark lashes. Then he gave Naruto a fond, indulgent look at his eagerness… and Naruto got it. That was the look Naruto always directed at Itachi. They were wearing the same expression for each other and Naruto understood why his poor, clueless clone fell so hard for this guy. The moment he first summoned that clone, there was never really any doubt. He had made that clone spend every waking hour with Itachi, speaking to, looking at and sleeping in the same house. The clone had to fall in love –because Itachi was just that amazing a person- or it would have had to have gone crazy and stabbed himself. And he fell, hard, and now Naruto had no idea what to do with all the clone's feelings.
"Inara gave birth. We've all been celebrating since then."
"Yeah? When did she give birth?"
"Five days ago."
The blonde laughed. "Man, wish I'd have been here. Oh… you said 'we.' You've been celebrating too? Ha-ha, I can't imagine. So is the baby a boy or a girl?"
The forest around them was thick and green, untouched. Once again it drove some guilt into Naruto. All the forests in the fire nation would be this beautiful too, if they weren't being constantly destroyed.
"Kenji is possibly the happiest man on Earth."
Naruto grinned. Kenji… well, Kenji was a big softie, a family man. He doted on his son, and now he's got a daughter to dote on too. Sneaking a glance at Itachi out of the corner of his eyes, Naruto smiled to himself. Itachi wasn't an idiot that he would delude himself, but Naruto knew that he sometimes liked to indulge himself in this normalcy. It was a sad world, this world that Itachi lived in. A little normalcy could never hurt. Naruto had no idea what it was like to grow up in the Uchiha clan –could only imagine it- and he didn't even want to try and imagine the pain that Itachi must be in, to have done what he did.
Bitterly, Naruto remembered Kurama's words. 'How devastating… that power would be bestowed upon the one who desired it the least.'
He shook his head and quickly shied away from those thoughts. If there was one thing he knew not to do, it was to think about Itachi's pain. He would only drown in it.
Finally they stopped in a small clearing. The area was shaded and thin beams of sunlight made the place picturesque. The grass under their feet was so thick and green and lush that Naruto immediately took off his sandals and wriggled his toes in them. It was cool. The grass was cool and soft. Beside him Naruto observed silently as Itachi followed suit. Unlike him, Itachi managed to look cool and elegant while doing it. In the back of his mind Naruto thought about getting down on his knees and smelling the grass, but decided that that was a bit too much. Grass could only be so cool.
"This will do, won't it?" Itachi asked him. "It's far away enough that nobody would wander here, and it'll provide us with shelter."
"Yeah," Naruto breathed, eyes still wandering around the small but beautiful clearing. "Okay, did you bring the scroll?"
Itachi gave him a dry look. Right; of course he did. He brought the scroll out from within his sleeve and proceeded to set it up, using ink and herbs and blood among others. Naruto watched.
What they were doing… simply put, Naruto was temporarily relocating Kurama into Itachi.
Of course, this still wouldn't make Itachi a Jinchuuriki because Naruto has already taken all of Kurama's chakra during the merge, which happened during the war.
This act was designed to last for only a couple of weeks, and when the time was over, Kurama's conscience would slowly seep back into Naruto. By that time, the Fox would have already fixed up Itachi's mind; stabilised it, sorted it. It sounded risky, and it was. Naruto was counting heavily on Kurama to not turn on them and take over Itachi. Then again, there wouldn't be much point in doing that, the Fox told him. Itachi's new body was brand new and healthy, but it was also considerably weaker. The process of putting life back into Itachi had cleansed his chakra network. It wasn't tainted with the effects of the Sharingan anymore, which made him that little bit weaker. Kurama? Well, Kurama wasn't interested in anything other than the best, which often gave Naruto's ego quite a boost. After all, Kurama was only ever interested in him. Naruto just wished that a lot of the time the interest wasn't something to do with tearing his limbs apart, or eating him, or burning him… etc.
Concerning Itachi, Kurama's assurance came in short sentences. 'He's Uchiha blood. I'll be in there, fix up what I can, and then I'll leave. There's nothing there for me. He's not as fierce as his brother.'
Naruto, though, kept silent about Itachi. Never in any universe will Itachi be weak. Even without his Mangekyou Sharingan, Naruto was pretty sure Itachi could find a way to wipe the floor with him. He was just that awesome.
That thought leaned a little too close to Clone territory… and Clone territory he would not enter.
"Your hair is longer!" He blurted out "It's… ah, it's pretty." A tense moment… and Naruto threw his head back and looked up at the sky. 'I'm an idiot,' he cried silently.
In the middle of the clearing Itachi sat and took off his shirt, ready for Kurama's relocating. From behind, Naruto watched as Itachi's head inclined slightly to the side. It didn't make him feel better that he remembered –from his clone's memories- the clone convincing Itachi to not cut his hair. The clone liked Itachi with long hair… Naruto liked Itachi with long hair. It was Itachi's look; nice and gentle and soft, even when he might not have been those things.
'I need you to cut my hair, Naruto. My arms are not in the right condition to do it.'
'Why? It's fine the way it is.' The words were followed by a hand gently running through the dark strands. It was a familiar hand. 'Don't cut it yet, please? Leave it for a while.'
Clearing his throat loudly and taking deep breaths –because the Clone's memories were so easy to get lost in, always so pleasant- Naruto stepped over the circular seal mark and sat behind Itachi. His hands shook as he was presented with a bare back, smooth, pale skin and a long, elegant neck. Naruto had seen plenty of backs, but this one stole his breath. Damn that stupid clone for going and falling in love. What clone does that? That border-lined mutiny!
Itachi gathered his hair and tugged it forward and over his right shoulder. Welcome, more pale, bare back. Five tiny marks adorned his upper back, in between his shoulder blades. The marks did nothing to make Uchiha's back any less attractive. He could just hear the warning wailing in his head as he sat there. Warning! Warning! Clone territory! Hazardous! Direct your thoughts away now or risk dealing with love. Outwardly, Naruto grimaced. Itachi's exposed sexy back? No problem, because Naruto was too busy being disturbed by his own head. It didn't help that the warning rant was in the voice of one infamous Jiraiya.
"Oh, for the love of…" Naruto clutched at his chest. He'd heard somewhere that stress could shorten one's lifespan. Being with Itachi for half a day while trying to battle his clone's nearly overwhelming feelings probably meant Naruto's only got about twenty years left, if he didn't die heroically saving his people first.
"Naruto," Itachi's cool, collected voice spoke to him. It was a call, a reminder and a warning al in one. And why did he have to say it with such a polite tone and make Naruto feel like an idiot? Because he was an Uchiha, that's why.
A loud, awkward laugh escaped Naruto. "Right! I'm on it!"
He took a deep breath, let it out, and brought up his right palm. He summoned up his red chakra and channelled them onto his fingertips. Controlling the chakra was the easy part. The part that he had to grit his teeth against was the burning on his fingers. Using Kurama's –but now officially hi- chakra had never hurt, but this time it had to. He wasn't using it to fight; to make jutsu, to control fire. He was using it to do so much more. The equivalent of what he was going to do was as if he was digging his fingers into Itachi's spinal cord, and letting Kurama's conscience ooze into the older man. It sounded simple enough, but pulling it off was going to be a bitch.
And time wise, it was most likely they'd both wake up tomorrow morning.
Outwardly, Naruto placed his burning fingertips lightly on Itachi's back, in alignment with the five marks.
And as he fell, a concerned thought nipped at his mind.
What were you counting, Itachi? What do broken glasses remind you of?
It couldn't possibly have been anything good.