For Naruto Uzumaki, being alone was as normal as breathing. Granted, breathing didn't usually hurt when he watched the people around him laughing and joking and playing with each other, but then, it had almost gotten to the point where he didn't even feel the loneliness anymore either. At a whopping five years old, he had already inured himself to the fact that nobody wanted him, and only some people would even acknowledge him.
Still, he watched the parents come pick up his classmates from the Civilian Academy at the end of each school day; hiding behind the large bushes near the front doors so that they couldn't pretend not to see him as his heart ached for the same kind of love and attention that the other kids got. But then, who'd love the demon kid?
Naruto drank in the sight of such casual affection hungrily, barely even noticing when a dark figure dropped into place beside him.
"Hokage-sama requests your presence, Naruto-kun." The voice that spoke was slightly garbled by the mask the figure wore, but Naruto recognized it anyways.
"Five more minutes, Duck? Please?"
The pleading tone was the same as it was every week, and, just like every other week before this, Duck nodded silently and folded his long legs underneath him to crouch beside the boy, watching as parents and children alike streamed out of the Academy gates and back to their daily lives.
Eventually Naruto sighed and stood up, brushing dead leaves and dirt off of his backside as he turned to Duck.
"'Kay, I'm ready."
Duck tilted his head to one side, observing the blond before him for a moment, before turning around and gesturing towards his back.
Eyes as big as saucers, Naruto did as he was told, and a scream of utter delight rang through the early evening air as Duck launched the two of them into the air and onto the roof.
Normally Duck would simply take his hand and shunshin them both to the tower in a blur that made Naruto feel mildly sick. But this, this was amazing! Naruto's whoops of glee echoed across the village as Duck roof hopped toward the Hokage tower, and even though a ceramic mask covered the ANBU's face an aura of smug satisfaction radiated from him.
With one final leap, Duck launched the two of them toward the brick wall of the tower, Naruto screaming in one ear as he clung to his only lifeline. Foot met brick, and with hardly a pause Duck was running up the side of the tower, dodging around windows until he got to the top window and swung both of them in, depositing Naruto on the floor in front of the desk with a small flourish.
Hiruzen Sarutobi winced, then smiled as the shriek of terror turned into a scream of pure joy, getting louder as the source approached his window, then becoming deafening as a black and orange blur swept into the room and came to a halt in front of his desk.
The scream turned into ecstatic laughter as Naruto jumped around, unable to keep still in the wake of such an adrenaline rush.
"That was amazing!" the boy cried, bouncing around the composed ANBU member, "Can we do that again? How did you stick to the wall? Please can we do that again!"
"Naruto." Sarutobi tried, knowing before the first syllable left his mouth that it was a hopeless case.
"Can you do that on anything? Can you teach me? I wanna learn how to walk on walls too! And then how you just swooped in the window! I thought we were gonna crash, but you just went like swish! And then we didn't! That was so cool!"
"Naruto!" the Hokage tried again, and this time Duck physically picked the chattering blond up and set him down again in front of the desk, standing behind him with his hands on his shoulders so that he couldn't keep bouncing.
Sarutobi sent Duck a grateful look. "Hello Naruto."
Naruto's enthusiasm bubbled on.
"Hiya Jiji! Did you see that? Did you see us? Duck is so cool! He just ran here, all the way from the school, and we went on the roofs and everything, and I wonder if anyone saw us! And then he went up the wall and it was scary, but I wasn't scared, and he just ran up the wall. Can you teach me to do that? I wanna learn how to do that, an' then me and Duck'll have a race! Right Duck?"
The blond twisted against the firm hold Duck had on his shoulders to peer up at the masked face of the ANBU, waiting eagerly for some sort of confirmation as the mask tilted down to look at him.
Beaming happily, Naruto turned back just in time to see Sarutobi smothering a smile behind one of the wide sleeves of his robe.
"Wall walking is a little to advanced for you right now, Naruto-kun," The old man said, raising one eyebrow at the pout that threatened to consume the child's face. "Now, don't do that, how are you doing with the letters I showed you last week?"
The pout disappeared as Naruto puffed up his chest. "I can do 'em all now!"
"Really?" The old man looked suitably impressed, "Why don't you come over here and show me?"
Grinning happily, Naruto bounded over to Sarutobi and climbed into his lap, wriggling to get comfortable as the old man pulled over a fresh sheet of paper and a pencil.
Methodically, Naruto began to write out each of the letters of the alphabet, saying each one as he did and pausing occasionally to survey his handiwork.
"Z!" he cried happily, tossing the pencil down onto the desk and leaning back to allow the Hokage to survey his handiwork.
Sure enough, all twenty-six letters were written on the page in varying states of wiggly pencil lines. They were all, however legible, and Sarutobi smiled down at the boy in his lap.
"Very good Naruto!"
Carefully he lifted the boy out of his lap and onto the floor, standing in the process.
"Ramen?" The blond chirped curiously, watching as the Hokage settled the hat more comfortably onto his head.
Sarutobi nodded, "Just like I promised, you learned the letters, so we'll get ramen."
"Hooray!" A sudden burst of energy sent Naruto bouncing around the office in paroxysms of joy before he was back at his jiji's side and tugging on his hand, doing his best to pull to old man through the door and out of the tower.
"Naruto slow down!" Sarutobi laughed as he gently disengaged his hand from the boy's and turned to move some of the more sensitive paperwork on his desk into a drawer that could only be opened with the proper application of blood and chakra. "I promise you, the ramen isn't going anywhere."
Naruto pouted again and folded his arms across his chest in such an exaggerated manner that it looked like the boy was trying to give himself a hug.
"There." The Hokage said, turning away from his desk with a satisfied air, "Let's go kiddo."
Naruto chattered happily all the way to Ichiraku's, alternately bouncing in circles around the Hokage and swinging from his hand as he told Sarutobi about anything and everything that popped into his head, from the latest dream he'd had, to how he'd been wandering around the village and found a great new star watching spot, to asking what was wrong with a certain kunoichi that he'd seen walking around in just a mesh shirt, and if he was sure that those were really supposed to be there?
That last comment made the Hokage groan into his beard and assure the boy that yes, those were supposed to be there, and could he please not bring them up again, since they were usually a sensitive topic with most women.
Thankfully, they arrived at Ichiraku's before Sarutobi had to answer that particular question, and the scent of ramen completely distracted the boy from that borderline dangerous line of questioning.
The Birds and the Bees talk was not one the old man was planning on having with a five year old, orphan or not, budding ninja notwithstanding.
As usual, Teuchi made friendly small talk with the two of them as the broth simmered, and as the old man and his surrogate grandson ate the three of them laughed and joked together. The two adults paid closer attention to the young boy than he ever realised as they both silently reaffirmed their status as protector and father figure to the child, and comrades in metaphorical arms to each other.
That evening, after walking Naruto home and making sure that the boy was safely tucked into bed and asleep Sarutobi Hiruzen made his way back to the Hokage Tower, puffing pensively on his pipe. He knew that Naruto wanted to become a ninja, and eventually the next Hokage. However, Sarutobi himself was getting far too old to properly maintain the position. A successor would have to be found soon, but unfortunately there were only two people he would trust with the position. One of them was currently running a vital spy network (whenever he wasn't conducting 'research' for his books), and the other was gambling her life away and attempting to drink herself into an early grave.
He sighed, absently returning the greeting of his receptionist as he walked into his office and settled with only the bare traces of weariness into the comfortable chair behind the heavy desk that was currently overflowing with paperwork.
The fact that retiring would make all the daily paperwork someone else's problem could only be a bonus.
Hiding his surprise, (he'd been so deep in thought he hadn't sensed anyone enter his office), Sarutobi looked up and relaxed.
"Dog, welcome back. How did the mission go?"
Dog's clothes were travel-stained, but there was no sign of weariness in the ANBU's demeanour as he stood in front of his leader's desk.
"All in all, it went well. The target was panicking, so there was a clear trail to follow..."
Dog continued with his debriefing, and the Hokage listened intently until the man was done.
"Well," He said, settling back in his chair, "That was well done. Thank you Dog."
Dog nodded silently, and Sarutobi sighed internally. It'd been five years, and still the man in front of him hadn't recovered. Hopefully he would before Naruto became a genin. Teaching the son of his own teacher might help the man heal.
Or it would make him worse. Still, Sarutobi hoped it would be the former and not the latter. Konoha couldn't afford to lose such a talented ninja.
Although... Sarutobi smirked as a sudden thought occurred to him, and he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk.
"Dog, this was your fifteenth mission in a row outside the village, correct?"
Slowly Dog nodded, trying to ignore the vague feeling of unease that had begun to play with the back of his mind.
"Well then." The old man continued, "I think it's high time you took some time off. As of now, you're officially unavailable for any missions outside the village."
Dog started, distress plainly obvious even without being able to see his face.
"But Hokage-sama, the ANBU-"
"Will be fine without you for a few weeks." Sarutobi interrupted firmly. "In the meantime, you can either take a vacation or take one of two light guard duty missions."
Dog was silent for a moment, then, his voice resigned said, "I'll take one of the guard duties."
Sarutobi smirked. Dog had taken the bait hook, line and sinker. "Good. Then starting tomorrow you will be taking over Otter's shifts when guarding one Uzumaki Naruto."
Dog stiffened, but didn't argue, and when Sarutobi dismissed him he disappeared in a mass of swirling leaves.