Steal My Thunder God
Chapter VIII - The Calm Before the Storm
Special Super-Size Uchiha Edition
He was not the first dead shinobi whom Naruto had met in the past, nor would he be the last, but Uchiha Itachi was still a special case. He was a symbol of a conflict that had been buried in the murky past, but once again loomed in the future.
Only Orochimaru came close to matching Itachi in that respect, and though the Sannin had been a short-term surprise, Naruto could easily guess at what drove the man forward: the very same need for knowledge and power that would cause him to be declared a missing-nin not too long down the line. Itachi, on the other hand, was a complete mystery, with many of his actions left unexplained in the wake of his early death.
Even though Tobi, Obito, had his hands buried deep inside the Uchiha Massacre and what led up to it, Itachi was still the one who had actually carried it out. He had killed, or would kill, every single Uchiha alive, save for his little brother. Sasuke. Naruto's best friend - in another time. Right now, that person was no more than a baby, much like his other self.
And yet - Itachi was a child as well, perhaps only five years old. Naruto knew all too well that the boy would grow up to become one of the most dangerous and capable Missing-Nin that Konoha had ever produced. Regardless of that, though, he would not commit the Uchiha Massacre out of vengeance or spite, but out of some warped sense of duty. Naruto had only the vaguest idea of why the boy would do such a gruesome thing, but the very thought sent shivers down his spine.
Naruto had never had a family, not really - but even he could not imagine turning a blade on those close to him. What kind of situation would demand such a choice? Was there really no other way?
Now, that complicated mystery was looking him right in the eyes. Not with the blood-red, powerful doujutsu of the Uchiha clan, but the dark eyes of a child that was far too smart for his age. There were a thousand questions hiding in their depths, a brilliant mind working out matters that were out of the reach of many experienced adults. And yet, Naruto saw nothing like hate or contempt. If anything - there was relief, or hope.
Naruto blinked a few times to focus his own wavering gaze. He couldn't shake the impression that the Itachi he'd known, that unassailable genius, was already present before him in some form. He smiled knowingly as he tapped the boy on his shoulder, and it came out much like when he was finishing his father's last words for Kakashi.
"Does -" Naruto rummaged his mind for the name, finding it on the tip of his tongue after only a moment. "Mikoto know that you snuck out?"
Itachi lightly shook his head, frowning slightly as he kept a surprisingly strong grip on Naruto's arm, keeping him from crumbling to the ground.
"I see," he answered in a whisper. Trying to regain his footing was a daunting task, considering his exhausting exercise in the Hospital, but he wouldn't have been Naruto if he had let such a thing as exhaustion keep him from getting his way. His muscles protested, but they obeyed, and the coolness of the night soothed his aches. Even though his injuries would certainly be aggravated by walking around, he could ignore that for the moment. He'd dealt with pain often enough.
Clenching his teeth in a short moment of tension, he let his eyes wander around, realizing only then that there were many other people present in the little alcove. Indeed, there was a crowd, and dozens of fearful eyes briefly met his own, some of them confused and scared. Surprisingly enough, Itachi wasn't the only child - there were a couple hiding at their parents sides, two or three looking from afar, their faces smudgy and tear-streaked. Most of them had to be civilians, he realised - and then it clicked. Of course.
After the Kyuubi's attack, which had destroyed a large swathe of the village, temporary shelter had been set up right next to the hospital for easy access to Medical-nin. The explosions up above would certainly have caused these people to flee their flimsy home to find a new place, fearful that their haven would come crashing down on them. It didn't explain Itachi's presence - but it made sense of the rest.
"Thank you for your help," he said at last, a little louder than before, still keeping one of his hands on Itachi's shoulder even as he shifted most of his weight back onto his own tortured legs.
"I didn't do it," spoke a little voice by his side, and he paused, glancing down at the little Uchiha.
"I didn't sneak out." Itachi remained watchful, his inquisitive eyes travelling to the bloodstained bandages, poorly hidden under his flame-tipped cloak. "...Hokage-sama."
For a briefest moment, Naruto felt as if he was under interrogation of the Third, just from that piercing gaze that met his own, and a flicker of worry made its way through him as he irrationally wondered if Itachi had seen through his deception. It was ridiculous to think that the presence of this child was already so potent. Of course, Naruto mused to himself, it might just be his own knowledge about Itachi's future that was fueling this illusion.
"Hokage-sama!" another person repeated, his exclamation falling somewhere between relieved and reverent. Naruto didn't know who he was - a civilian, perhaps - but the words he spoke brought a strange sense of relief to the crowd, as if the confirmation of his identity, or at least the one he'd taken on, put people at ease. Shock and fear gave way to a wave of subdued hope, even a little cheer.
Naruto realised distantly that they saw someone else in his stead, just as he saw someone else in Itachi. He imagined the future of that boy, when he saw those dark eyes, and these people saw the Fourth when they looked at him. He could not help but shiver under Itachi's piercing gaze, and they could not help but react to their leader's return.
The whispers started mere moments after. He's alive! Did you see how… What do you think... and the ever-present Yondaime-sama. The specifics quickly blurred together, but he didn't need to guess what they were all thinking. Jiraiya had told him all he needed to know. He needed to say something - to put minds at ease. He wasn't very experienced in speeches, but he certainly knew how to talk.
"I apologize, everyone," Naruto said heavily as he inclined his head a bit. His voice reached the villagers even as it wavered, and they snapped to attention, a hushed silence falling instantly over the group. He coughed, and gulped down the feeling of nausea. Now was not a good time to make a fool of himself.
"Hokage-sama?" one of the few shinobi inquired nervously.
"Give me a moment," he motioned briefly, shivering. "...It pains me to see Konoha in this state, and I apologize for my part in it," he continued, as if the cough hadn't left a foul taste in his mouth.
His eyes purposefully moved across the crowd, watching the reaction of the people, trying to discern what they were thinking. He'd never been very good at social cues, but Granny Tsunade had been adamant he learn how to deal with people without screaming in their faces, especially if he were ever to take the hat. Reluctantly, he'd adapted.
The memories that his clones left him helped, at least: there had been one Iwa-nin he'd missed in the attack, but Orochimaru thankfully wasn't quite the bastard that he'd become in the future, and had taken that one out. His immediate fears placated, he allowed himself a reserved smile as he continued to face the curious crowd.
"You see - it pains me to admit that this skirmish was aimed to hurt me and mine. It was a rather brazen assassination attempt, I'm afraid."
There were murmurs of understanding from the shinobi in the crowd, as if they realised only now that his moment of weakness was an ideal time for the enemy to strike. At least, Naruto thought with relief, none of them seemed to be blaming him for the mess.
"I know that you have questions, but I cannot give you simple answers as of yet. Things are still too delicate," he continued slowly. "Know that the threat has been dealt with, however. The attack failed."
He paused, letting the words sink - and he was glad to see relief on people's faces. He didn't know if that was because his father inspired hope, or if it was just the fact that he was taking a second to smooth over their immediate worries. Maybe a mixture of both.
"I understand that some of you are confused, and angry, especially so closely after the Kyuubi's attack - but you should sleep in peace this night. The aftermath of all this has left the shinobi another mess to clean up - but it won't interfere with anyone's rest. And as soon as this all is over and done with, I will see Konoha rebuilt." He nodded strongly. "I trust that you will all be careful."
Oh, how he wished for this voice to ring stronger and better, but his unsteady state since his desperate gamble against Iwa's explosive tags was quickly deteriorating into outright weakness. He needed to find a place to sleep. The sooner, the better.
"It was Iwa, wasn't it?" Someone voiced the question that hung on everyone's lips. The man had his fists balled, and his thinly-veiled rage was hard to miss. A few besides him, scarcely calmer, nodded shortly.
"Yes, it was." Naruto sighed. "Yet - perhaps it wasn't."
He noticed a few Uchiha closing in then, their fan-marked vests clearly visible. At the very front was the man his clone had spoken to just the other night, the Captain of the Military Police. Fugaku. Naruto noted Itachi standing up straighter at the edge of his vision, though the boy's unaffected expression didn't change a bit.
"How can it be both yes and no, Hokage-sama?"
Naruto shrugged minutely. "I have reason to believe either way. We shouldn't lower ourselves to meaningless accusations before we have all the facts. It would not be the first time that someone infiltrates a village under false pretenses, and reprisals would be less than helpful at this time - let the ANBU fulfill their duties."
Fugaku skid to a halt right next to Naruto, moving faster than any civilian could. To the crowd's eyes, he appeared out of thin air, and since he made no sound, to an inattentive observer it might have looked that he had been there all along. The man offered but a small nod, allowing Naruto to continue without any pause.
"I must implore you all to temper yourselves. This is not the time for guesswork and accusations, but rather a moment of contemplation and rest. Let the shinobi tend to their matters, as you tend to yours." Naruto half turned to the tense man on his right. "I'm sure the Konoha Police can handle the rest. Vigilantism, as ever, remains illegal."
"Of course. My men will take care of everyone's safety, Hokage-sama" Uchiha Fugaku declared as he gestured to his subordinates. "I have to ask all civilians to vacate the premises for the moment. We need the clear streets for our night patrols, especially after what happened."
There was a moment of hesitation and grumbling as the crowd didn't look too enthusiastic about dispersing, but after Naruto nodded to Fugaku with a short smile, they finally complied. How much authority a simple gesture could have, if given by the right person.
The whispers were loud and ubiquitous as Naruto waited alongside Fugaku until the people dispersed. Everyone was eager to figure everything out by themselves, and his words would doubtlessly be spread far and wide by night's end. There was nothing to do about that.
Inwardly, Naruto was a little disappointed with himself. Not only did he pour even more fuel onto the fire, but he had given the civilians another sighting of his father. And this time, there wouldn't be a way to keep the lie from spiraling out of control. The cat was out of the bag, as they said. He was going to have to keep up the charade for a while, at least.
In the end, only Naruto and Fugaku remained behind - and little Itachi.
"That was considerably harder than I expected," he said at last, giving Fugaku the better part of his attention. He knew the man was Itachi's and Sasuke's father, and he could see that same tense suspicion in his eyes that his old friend so often had. Suddenly he wasn't too sure of himself anymore under that judgmental gaze. "Fugaku-san. I'm sure you can handle it from - "
A sudden coughing fit caught Naruto unaware, and he had to cover his mouth and stop talking for a few frantic moments in which he couldn't breathe. He felt dizzy, and when he regained his faculties, his palm was bloody.
"-here," he finished awkwardly, eerily aware of the way the Uchiha's eyes had narrowed, turning into the distinct red of the Sharingan at the same time. Naruto's hand almost involuntary reached to rub at the back of his head, and he gave off a weak smile. "I'll live," he pointed out.
Fugaku did not respond, and Itachi kept pretending he wasn't there nor important. It was a little infuriating.
"I'm not a clone," Naruto said lamely, wiping his hand on his cloak. "Not this time, anyway."
"I know," the Uchiha clan head replied, his eyes returning to their usual colour with a small frown. Perhaps the man hadn't intended to activate the bloodline at all. It was a stressful time for everyone - Naruto honestly wouldn't be surprised. "Hokage-sama, would you like some assistance moving to a safer location? ANBU forces are tied up with reinforcing the walls, and they may take some time yet. You seem - tired."
Naruto fidgeted at the implications of the man's words, but he couldn't deny that he'd overdone it, again. He desperately needed to lie down and rest for a spell, but he wasn't sure how much he wanted to rely on the Uchiha Clan. There were important things to take care off, and... Naruto paused as his thoughts skid to a halt.
The Uchiha. Well, there's an idea!
"I'd appreciate your assistance," Naruto finally replied, taking a step forward and cursing his body for giving out on him again, so shortly after he'd left the hospital. No way was he going back in there, even if his room were in proper shape. As far as he knew, he left a lot of holes when his stampede sought for the quickest way outside, some of them blasting through the wall with Rasengan to get there. He almost winced when he imagined just how much damage that tactic had caused, and what punishments Tsunade would have piled on him for a stunt like that. At least the place wasn't a crater.
"But where can I go…?" he murmured. "The Hokage Residence is thrashed. The hospital is too, now..." He looked to Fugaku, raising an eyebrow. "Any suggestions, Fugaku-san?"
The Uchiha blinked in slight surprise, and then the very edge of his lips twitched upwards. It might have been Naruto's fatigue, though - smiling Uchiha were a rarity in his experience. "I understand," the man said simply, his expression surprisingly mild. "Please, follow."
Naruto had the eerie feeling that he'd missed something in the exchange, some unspoken signal, but he doubted it was anything substantial. The man turned on his heel and started a hearty stroll forward, and Naruto followed in silence at a more sedate pace.
Fugaku motioned with his hand after a short distance, and before Naruto could realise just what the gesture meant, Itachi caught up with them, falling in lockstep with his father. "Don't think I forgot about you," the elder Uchiha noted in a quiet, yet slightly condescending tone. "We'll talk about all this when we're home."
Itachi nodded, but remained silent. Even his steps remained perfectly soundless. His presence was like that of a shadow, even at this young age, and the stories about his sheer genius seemed a lot more plausible than when Naruto had first heard them. He was five years old.
"If it wasn't for Itachi-kun, you would have found me passed out on the floor," Naruto said after a moment, and smiled at the brief slowing of Fugaku's steps. "That wouldn't have left a good impression on anyone, would it?"
"No, I don't believe it would have," Fugaku agreed dryly after a short pause, nodding sharply at his son. "You did well, Itachi. As expected from my son."
"Thank you, father," Itachi replied, bowing his head slightly, and his eyes slipped momentarily to meet Naruto's before he stared ahead again. Naruto would have laughed at the stiffness of the scene if he didn't suspect laughter would probably hurt. A lot.
"What were you doing out there, Itachi?" he asked after a moment, raising his eyebrows. "I don't remember hearing an explanation about that."
Itachi glanced at his father, who nodded. The whole interaction was so short he barely caught it, and it said a lot about their relationship.
"It is simple," the boy began. "All Academy students were drafted for deliveries of food and other necessities to the civilian quarters. I was just finished with my duties when I saw your collapse, Hokage-sama. I could not stand idly by."
"Hmm. You were delivering supplies at night?" Naruto inquired incredulously. He had certainly never done anything like that as an Academy student - and that was in peacetime!
"It was deemed an appropriate stealth and navigation exercise," Itachi explained mildly, looking away from him. "Especially since most of the teachers were otherwise occupied."
Naruto covered his face with his palm, and let out a long sigh. "I'm knocked out for a week, and this happens?" he muttered. "We have academy students running around in the village's most vulnerable time, right when Iwa comes knocking? Gah! I -" He took a deep breath. "Does Jiraiya know about this?"
As if on cue, and probably in response to his words, the white-haired Sannin turned the corner ahead of them, a handful of ANBU following him closely on both sides. Fugaku didn't react in the slightest to their appearance; probably because they were approaching the entrance to the Uchiha district, his home terrain. Jiraiya caught up at the walls that separated the Uchiha Clan from the rest of Konoha.
"Sensei," Naruto called with some artificial cheer. "You're looking - slightly ruffled. Is everything under control?" He gestured vaguely behind him. "Orochimaru and some of my clones are staking out the hospital, but the danger seems to have passed."
Jiraiya nodded sharply. "The ANBU haven't found any signs of other intruders, so it seems like this was it." The man seemed somewhat stiff in his movements, narrowing his eyes slightly. "You left me with all the clean up, brat, I won't forget that. We had to scrape my guy from the walls, you know!"
Fugaku gave Jiraiya an expression that was halfway between disgust and disappointment. Naruto was inclined to do the same.
"I'm sure it was terrible," Naruto said dryly, shaking his head. He glanced to the ANBU. "I have a few things that need to be done before we're through, though - and I'd like you to handle it."
"Oh?" Jiraiya raised an eyebrow. "What do you need, Hokage-sama?"
The question Jiraiya wanted to ask was 'What are you doing here?', and both of them knew it. Right now, though, Naruto didn't have the energy for another protracted debate over what he was up to, especially since Jiraiya was the person that had pressured him into this charade in the first place. The Sannin could stew for a while. It was hard enough to keep up a false image of himself without having to talk to someone who saw right through it.
"There's been a few lapses of judgment in my absence," Naruto said, shaking his head. "I need someone to make sure that no Academy student got caught up in the skirmish, and there should always be someone to oversee their activities in the coming weeks, just in case anyone else is feeling lucky." He followed the statement with a few gestures for the present ANBU. "I want you to find which teacher came up with the brilliantly idiotic idea of night training."
"Academy students, huh?" Jiraiya muttered. "That doesn't seem like my area of expertise."
"True. But I trust you," Naruto said clearly. "When it comes to the new generation, I can't work with half measures." He thought of his own younger self, who was now in the capable hands of his clones. "I don't think this teacher meant to cause harm, but since the student's weren't recalled in time, he'll have to explain himself. I'm sure you can find out everything without wasting time."
Jiraiya sighed forlornly. "Alright. I'll do it."
"In the meantime, Hokage-sama can rest in our guestroom," Fugaku said curtly, and he turned to his son. "Itachi, go and see if your mother is home. Tell her we are having an important guest. Quickly now."
"You are staying here?" Jiraiya asked softly, glancing to him with slight confusion. Naruto didn't respond in any way, his expression as calm as he could keep it. The Sannin knew far too much already - he knew enough about the Massacre to make the connection. Doubtlessly, he would wonder why someone who knew the Uchiha would rebel would willingly enjoy their hospitality.
"I do not care for your tone, Jiraiya-san," Fugaku spoke sharply. "Hokage-sama will be perfectly safe in my - "
The Uchiha clan head had begun his tirade sharply, perceiving Jiraiya's hesitance as something rather more insulting, but he was interrupted by Naruto's coughs. This time, the coughing fit was all his own doing, through it sounded convincing enough. At least, it served its purpose, as Fugaku trailed off.
"I do apologize," Naruto said mildly. "I understand that there are things that both of you wish to talk about, and I'm sure they are all fairly important." He paused just for a second. "But all I want to do right now is to sleep for a few years. Or at least until morning. Can we agree to leave this troublesome conversation behind?"
Jiraiya sent a glare his way - he had no doubt that the man knew he'd been pretending, and Fugaku probably noticed it too. He met both their eyes briefly, unflinching, and then sighed, raising the hem of his cloak and uncovering his bloodied bandages. It didn't matter if they saw through him - he was their Hokage, now. If he wanted to break up their disagreement like that, who would stop him?
"The worst of the bleeding has stopped, and the stitches will hold," he explained easily, glad to note that his recuperation, finally, was effectively complete, but for his exhausted state, both physically and chakra-wise. "I can't rest somewhere I'd risk running into untrustworthy people, though. Right now, a clan house seems like the ideal solution - and let's not forget that the Uchiha clan was one of those that founded this village." He smiled. "I will arrange for another place at a later date."
"What about your conversation with the Third?" Jiraiya asked cautiously, glancing to Fugaku, who looked rather pleased at Naruto's words. Stroking the egos of the Uchiha clan - Naruto felt a little disturbed.
"You'll have to ask him about that. I'm sure that the clones at the hospital will be a lot more chatty than me anyway," Naruto pointed out wearily, his eyelids drooping. "And since none of them dispelled yet, I'm sure everything is under control there. 'Sides, I'm feeling a bit weak." He turned to the Uchiha, and the word spun dangerously. "Fugaku-san - where did you say I could...?"
No more words were spoken after that, and though Naruto tried to pay attention to his surroundings, he couldn't remember just how he had ended up on a soft futon, or covered in a rather garish blanket decorated with a large red-and-white fan. It was comfortable though, and his eyes fluttered closed as he sank into the softness.
For a long moment, he wondered if his clones would really be okay, tending to the little version of himself. But they were him, and he had every confidence that they would be careful. Besides, the Third would certainly…
He was asleep before he finished that thought.
The clone was caught in the midst of a panic attack. Whatever short life he was gifted had been a blast up to this very moment - quite literally at that. Now, however, there was something incomparably worse than life-threatening explosions to the face. He was utterly, irrevocably doomed.
Little Naruto was crying.
The clone had no idea what to do, and his three counterparts wouldn't help, either - they had volunteered to look after all the other kids, who were a lot more compliant. He had won the intense rock-paper-scissors match, but was now disheartened by that very victory. Who knew it'd be such a mess?
Calming down some random children was difficult, but there was a degree of distance involved there, detachment. Taking care of the younger version of the Boss was another thing on earth did the little brat want? And was he technically calling himself a brat?
"I suppose you won't calm down on your own?" The clone finally asked, and frantically rubbed the back of his head. "Or, is it, I won't calm down on my own?" he added, quieter to himself. "Bah, it's just like Boss and us, it's completely confusing..."
The toddler had stopped wailing - instead, he was focusing on the voice of the clone, and watching his long yellow hair with great interest. The clone's current hairstyle still looked like Minato's, who wore his hair longer than Naruto was used to. He sighed contently at the momentary silence, until the child let out another loud sob.
"Wait, wait, don't do that," the clone urged hurriedly. "I'll keep talking, alright? How about I talk about - ramen toppings, or something like that? Does it matter what I talk about? Where's Sakura-chan when you need her?"
The yammering helped, but only a bit. The little Naruto kept reaching for the clone, trying to touch the blond hair - even if it was mightily out of reach of his tiny hands. He sighed and reached out to take the little child up into his arms.
"I get it. You think I'm your dad, eh?" He laughed a short guffaw. "Figures you'd be the same as all the others. Gotta be something in the water, everyone can only look skin-deep..." He paused, grimacing. "I'm sorry I couldn't save your real father," he said softly as he cradled the bundle closer. "But that doesn't mean that you'll have to live alone."
Little Naruto giggled as he again tried to grab onto the blond hair that hung just out of reach, so very much like his own.
"Don't tell boss, but this might not be so bad. I always wanted someone to talk to when I was little, and I guess you'll have me..." He smiled thinly. "Even if I am lying to myself to do it, in more ways than one."
"Quiet you," another clone snapped at him in a whisper. "Your talking's making the others restless. They just won't calm down!"
"I'll try to be quieter." The clone rocked little Naruto for a bit, and brought him up close. "Don't you worry, little me. Everything is going to work out in the end," he whispered, careful to temper his voice. "We're going to keep you safe until Boss comes back."
The momentary silence was interrupted by the opening door, and behind it stood none other than Orochimaru, his eyes gleaming. There was a long moment while the most dangerous of the Sannin looked over the four clones of Naruto with thinly veiled curiosity.
"No, I don't know why he's here," the clone whispered to the mini-Boss. "Even if he smells odd, I'm sure that he hasn't come to wreak havoc, today." The soothing voice seemed to have helped keep the little Naruto calm and still. "There we go."
One of the other clones stepped forward in his place, the picture of formality. "Orochimaru-san," he said easily. "I understand that you've dealt with the last intruder?"
"Yes, he has been disposed of," Orochimaru announced after a short pause. "I see that their target is safe and sound, too." His eyes glittered with something of a hunger, which set Naruto's teeth on edge. Then the man looked away again, seemingly bored. "It appears that Iwa achieved neither of its objectives."
"Yes. We were lucky," the clone offered. "They came far too close, though. This might have gone much worse, had they arrived but a day earlier."
Orochimaru licked his lips with a forked tongue. "Still, the danger has passed," he said, looking at the clone who was coddling baby Naruto. "I sense no Iwa shinobi nearby, and ANBU are already setting up a perimeter."
None of the clones relaxed.
"Maybe," one offered at last, "we should move this conversation away from the children. Some of the medics I've sent for will certainly arrive soon to take over from me, and I'd rather avoid further trouble."
"Hm…" The Sannin glanced over little Naruto. "He has the same scars. You already mentioned the curious after-effect of the Kyuubi's chakra on yourself. Does this mean…" He motioned towards the little Naruto. "I see that you achieved the intended result of your sealing without too many complications, then?"
The clone stiffened. "You will not speak of that matter. To anyone. Do you understand, Orochimaru?"
"My, how touchy," the serpentine man drawled. "Anyone could draw that conclusion. Certainly the physical resemblance is not a coincidence, is it?" He smiled dangerously.
"Think what you wish. But I don't like your tone." The clone took a step towards the door, carefully cradling the little Boss. "We can talk outside, or you can get to your point. Either way, I have far too much to worry about to deal with this right now."
"I suppose the whole affair does have you rattled," Orochimaru observed coolly. "That was a rather uninspired repartee." The Sannin cast a last glance across the room. "Very well, then."
After the clone put his charge back in his little bed, the door slipped closed behind him and the Sannin. The three remaining clones released a breath of relief.
"He's just as creepy as before," one commented, shuddering. "It's only the second time he's spoken to us - and I already hate his guts."
"Some things never change."
Something was tickling him.
It was an annoying tingling touch of something soft, brushing just under the nose.
Naruto scrunched his nose. It didn't do much or rather, anything at all, and he grunted, shifting to push his face deeper into the pillow. The tickling sensation faded for the shortest of moments, but then renewed with a double intensity. This time, it was both his nose and the whole back that was acting up.
He wiggled for a bit, all the while waking up more and more. Neither movement nor his increasing amount of consciousness helped in the slightest and finally, fed up with it all, Naruto let out a long sigh, drawing his arms closer, pushing them at the soft material underneath him.
"Good evening, Minato," a calm woman's voice sounded just next to him as something cool touched onto his back. It was that very same tingly touch that had woken him, yet more pronounced, and Naruto couldn't help but feel his skin sprouting goosebumps.
Wait - it was evening?
He moved weight onto his hands, bracing, and his eyes opened to reveal the pillow he had buried his face into, marked with the Uchiha fan. He was just starting to push himself up when a hand touched his back.
"Don't jump up too fast," the woman cautioned, as Naruto mumbled something incoherent. "You might feel dizzy if you don't allow yourself some time to wake up. You were... Very tired."
"What do you mean?" Naruto asked rather eloquently. "How long has it been?"
"It only just got dark," the reply was swift, and her hand moved along his back, spreading the cool substance in a swirling pattern. "Don't worry - the village is intact."
As Naruto finally turned his head sideways, he took note of the room. Submerged in a state of twilight, it was lit by a couple flickering candles. A woman was leaning just over him her expression half-hidden by the shadows playing on her face, her nimble yet strong fingers running across his back in a calming massage.
He barely recognised her, but it couldn't have been anyone else but Uchiha Mikoto.
"Did I sleep through the whole day?" he said, his breathing calmer. "I need to -"
She tapped twice on his shoulder, stopping him mid sentence. "Everything is fine, Minato. You didn't miss anything important."
Naruto frantically dove into his memories. Had something happened with either of his clones? At least two of those must have been around, still, for the only thing he had gotten from the other two was a short exchange with Orochimaru, and standing guard at the little-Boss.
"Turn over onto your back," Mikoto urged, interfering with his train of thought. "I still have some salve left over." She tapped his side and leaned back.
Naruto, finally free to move, pushed himself upwards. The movement came with remarkable ease, and he took careful consideration of his physical state. There were no longer any bandages covering his body, and the pain was more of a leftover ache than that of a gaping wound. As for his chakra - and he felt around carefully, noting the warmth of his inner energy - it was still rather lacking, but nothing a few moments spent in meditation could not fix.
He completed the turn, lowering himself back onto the pillow. The movement flowed easily, letting him relax into a comfortable position. Yet, as Mikoto poured some cool substance on his belly, he couldn't help but wince. It was all for the half-unexpected coolness of her medicine, but she noticed his flinch.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Does it still hurt?"
"Ah… No," he muttered awkwardly. "Just the opposite. But it tickles," he admitted reluctantly, and saw a short smile hiding in the gloom of the room. Unlike with Fugaku, it was easy to imagine his current caretaker smiling, but that might have been because of the familiar setting. It was as if the darkened room had allowed her to behave outside of the strict clan rules.
And it did tickle, at that - the cooling solution numbed whatever he could feel, and her touch made the skin feel refreshed and alive, yet it just wouldn't stop with the insatiable tickling sensation. "It's working wonders," he added in a content whisper. "Thank you."
Mikoto nodded, moving on to spread the salve around his chest wound. "It seems you've already healed up nicely in the hospital," she noted mildly, smiling. "I can't take much credit for your recovery."
"Still," Naruto said. "I'm grateful." Trying to take his mind off the tickling sensation, he moved on to examine the woman before him curiously. She carried her hair long, their dark strands merging seamlessly into the shadows; appearing only as they swayed into the candle light. Her face was calm, and her all too recognisable smile made him feel like a welcome guest.
He had no memories of her from before, but still she carried something in her bearing that reminded him of both Sasuke and Itachi. It wasn't as clear-cut as her husband, where he could directly point out which son had carried on which feature, but in the shadows on her face he noticed glimpses of them both at the same time.
Despite that, he had no clue how to talk to her.
Really, it was as if she had stepped right through the barriers of his supposed status as a Hokage, and was instead treating him as a friend of the family, or as a husband of her close friend. Yet, at the very same time, Naruto had to consider that it might be a ruse, that she just wanted him to think so. She implied a certain perspective by choosing this way of approaching him, but he could not be certain that it was honest, given what would eventually happen to the Uchiha.
Had she woken him up on purpose, then?Everything shinobi did had some purpose or another, especially those of significant power. Maybe she wanted a chance to examine his seal?Naruto couldn't help but glance down with a measure of anxiousness as she made yet another swirl on his chest. He needn't have worried, because the remnants of the seal that marred his stomach were perfectly invisible. Unless, of course, he infused them with his chakra, and that wasn't going to happen without his knowledge.
"The Third came by to see you this morning," Mikoto noted, just as he was preparing to go further down the line of paranoia, and he snapped to attention with a little guilt. She sighed, following his gaze with her eyes. "Don't worry, I said there wasn't anything important to tell you," she chided. And yet, there was something in her voice that echoed discontent.
"I should…" Naruto started, but he was pushed back down before he could rise up.
"Rest, please, Minato." She sighed. "Some things can wait. Sarutobi-sama will by tomorrow as well. He's just trying to make sure you are safe, I'm certain." She paused at his inquisitive expression. "Ah, he didn't stay long, nor was his conversation with my husband very enlightening, but he did convey his intentions. Even when he's retired, he still likes to keep an eye on the acting Hokage, it seems."
Although Mikoto said nothing untoward, Naruto could practically smell that he was missing something - it reeked of an argument that he had missed. Or, at least, a tense stand-off that should not have happened. He swallowed his annoyance at what he could only imagine the Third had said, and didn't comment, simply choosing to relax once more. One problem at a time, Naruto. "Did anyone else come by?" he asked.
Mikoto smiled strangely. "Nearly every shinobi in the village knows where you are, Minato, so we had to increase the guards, and the ANBU have set a perimeter around the compound." She said it with a careless shrug, but her tone indicated that she didn't think much of the ANBU's overprotectiveness. "Not everyone is patient about it, including some Clan members, but there have been no incidents as of yet."
"That's good," Naruto murmured. "Now's not a time for conflict."
Mikoto glanced outside through the window, as if checking if her words were still true, but the village seemed to be sleeping in peace, even if Naruto wasn't. "I agree. My husband has also passed on his gratitude for your choice of resting place, and we assure you that nothing will interfere with your rest, unless you yourself permit it."
"I should be the thankful one," Naruto replied, and shuffled to sit up in a more comfortable position, glad to note that this time she let him. The tingling had yet to fade, but he was at least partially successful in ignoring the salve's side effects as he pulled the edge of the blanket to cover his stomach. "Thank you for your hospitality - you, your husband, your clan."
She nodded at him with a warm smile, and moved to put her little wooden bowl away. "You are free to stay for as long as you wish, of course."
Naruto's thoughts lingered on his choice the day before, even as he distantly thanked Mikoto again. His current caretaker was not someone from the Hospital staff, nor a simple medical-nin, but none other than Sasuke's mother, the wife of the Uchiha Clan-head. Partner to the would-be leader of the Uchiha rebellion, in due time.
Naruto was deep in the inner sanctum of the Uchiha Clan, now, inside the house of the clan head - the safest and most protected place in the district. His knowledge of their future coup attempt was both a reason for his current predicament and a worrying thought beating at the back of his head. What if, his mind kept echoing, what if he had made a mistake, and was exposing himself to threats here he didn't even anticipate? What if the treason was already running deep within the clan as it had been on the day of Uchiha massacre?
What if Mikoto was trying to lull him into a false sense of security?
Something must have shown on his face, for Sasuke's mother frowned.
"Minato," she called him with his father's name. "How do you feel, really?"
"The salve is doing wonders," he replied absentmindedly as he tried to calm himself down. There was no need for panic, nor for doubt. He should not become even more paranoid when it came to the dealings with the Uchiha, when that same paranoid treatment was the whole new reason for their discontent in the first place. Naruto shook his head. He was being stupid. The bloody Uchiha Massacre was in due in eight years - much could change. There was absolutely no reason to believe that the clan had traitors in its midst already.
Naruto came to a decision. No more doubts.
He would keep a measure of awareness, clearing his mind of any and all preconceptions, and then deal with what came. The only way to deal with his predicament was to take everything head on, and react to anything that would be thrown his way, no matter how little he remembered of it.
"I wasn't asking about the wounds," Mikoto whispered and Naruto almost jumped at her words. That simple whisper had brought out his father's last words for the Uchiha matriarch. His and Sasuke's mothers had been friends, and this strange sense of familiarity - both close and far away - now made even more sense, completing the picture with something so obvious that he hadn't fully considered it. Mikoto was taking care of him, because he was supposed to be her friend's husband. But that very link which supposedly joined them was gone, dead and destroyed. Right?
Naruto's parents had died long ago, so he had years to get used to their absence, and their momentary reacquaintance didn't really change that. But for Mikoto, it had been only a little while. She wasn't just inconsolably sad about it - she was still mourning. Her question was her way of showing that she felt for him, sympathized. Indirectly showing her concern - it was such an Uchiha thing to do. If Naruto hadn't been forced to deal with Sasuke all the time, he wouldn't even have guessed at the implications. He'd never been that good at subtlety.
Naruto took a deep breath. "I-" he stuttered, trying to decide just how much he should reveal, how much he could tell." I'm not sure I know how I feel..." he finally said, flat out telling her the truth.
The whole time-travelling business had thrown his emotions rather off-course. How did he feel? Was this sense of emptiness brought out by tasting defeat, when he couldn't save his parents even when given the opportunity? Was it quite the opposite - loss numbed by the satisfaction of getting to know his father better than ever before? Was he secretly happy to hear Jiraiya laugh his boisterous laughter once more, and only pretending to be hurt by losing his parents, since he really didn't know how it felt to have any? To top it off, there was a drop of emotion and pain that his father had gifted him, making the whole thing an emotional nightmare. He needed to find balance within himself before he could feel properly again, about anything.
Mikoto nodded, but didn't reply. She was measuring his reply in some way, Naruto realised, hoping to find her own answers in his words, or on his face. Shinobi faced death very frequently, often enough to learn to live with this sense of loss and for each to cope in their own way. Perhaps she was trying to judge how much he'd been hurt by what he did - or didn't do. And maybe, Naruto thought, she saw what she feared. Numbness.
"Do you want me to talk about her?" He asked at last, his expression darkening a shade as he contemplated his mother's tearful eyes. It seemed that if he would start pouring his heart, in this room of dwindling lights, it would be like tearing his wounds open - ones that he'd had for a long time. Naruto had enough of dark, enclosed rooms, and conversations filled with inner reflections. He needed to get out, and stretch his legs.
"I can see that you're…" Mikoto began, hesitating. "I'm sorry." She saw something in his eyes, or else sensed a measure of distance emanating from him, and she crawled back. "It's okay. I won't be far away if you change your mind." She started to get up slowly. "I'm sure she was strong to her last…"
"Oh, believe me, she was."
Mikoto dropped into a slight bow of respect. "I will… take my leave. Do you need anything else, Minato-san?"
"Hm, I want to go outside," he admitted after a long moment. "I want to see the village again. To walk under the sky, away from the buildings and sickbeds. It's been too long since I breathed fresh air..."
She nodded and was about to turn, when Naruto's stomach growled loud enough to wake the dead.
Naruto managed an embarrassed smile. "Though… I wouldn't mind a meal, first." He glanced to the side, coloring. "I didn't even think it's been that long since my last meal..."
"Don't worry about it," she jumped to reassure him, and the heavy atmosphere seemed to lighten a little. "Is there anything you'd like..?"
"...Ramen," Naruto murmured, naming the first meal that was always on his tongue, even though he realised that it probably wasn't the best choice for Minato, who he suspected hadn't much cared for the stuff. Still, he couldn't think of anything else he'd rather have at this time, and if he had to step into his father's shoes, there still needed to be at least something of his, or he'd go mad. "If it isn't too inconvenient," he added carefully.
"Of course… I understand," Mikoto said, closing her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them, she smiled warmly. "I'll try to make it like she preferred it, alright?"
"Y-yes. Thank you." Naruto rubbed at the back of his head, taking another look at his surroundings. "Are my clothes anywhere nearby?" he asked. "I'd rather not wander into the main rooms in my underclothes…"
"Right. I'm assuming you don't want to eat here," she pointed out, taking a step towards the doors. "I'll have Itachi bring you some of our robes, since your own were damaged. It'll be but a minute."
She slid open the door, never taking her gaze of him. "Hokage-sama," she offered with a deep bow as she stood there, as if she'd only just remembered he wasn't just a friend of the family, nor even a member of the clan. The door slid closed.
"Of course, I would be pleased if you used our backyard for your warm-up," Fugaku suggested stiffly as Naruto was finishing off his third bowl of ramen. "I'm sure it will prove sufficient for your purposes."
Naruto licked his lips, nodding. He was conflicted on whether to ask for a fourth bowl, wondering if it would be too suspicious. Deciding on the latter, he sighed reluctantly and left the bowl empty. The late evening supper with the Uchiha had been rather stiff affair, all told, and he didn't want to make it even more awkward.
After all, mentioning the need for training to judge the extent of his recovery had already made Fugaku tense noticeably, and had caused Itachi to glance at him with curiosity. It was clear that the Uchiha were very - private. His father had likely never suggested half as much.
"I'm very grateful," Naruto replied as he pushed his bowl further away. "And I must commend your wife's remarkable cooking. I have not tasted ramen this good since…" He paused for a long moment, thinking back to the first time Iruka had taken him out to Teuchi's ramen shop, and he swallowed thickly.
It seemed that his double seconds had delayed the family's plans for the night, but no one had complained, and Naruto was not very surprised by that. Mikoto had already moved on to clearing out the table as Fugaku and Itachi stayed with Naruto. Likely they had other duties to perform, but the Hokage came before those - perhaps even more so than any other house guest would. Itachi was looking at his father expectantly, and Fugaku seemed to catch on to what his son wanted.
"I'll arrange for Shisui to watch over your evening training," he murmured at last, glancing between the boy and Naruto for an instant. Itachi didn't look very happy as he nodded, looking away.
"I'm sorry," Naruto blurted out. "Am I interrupting something?"
Itachi glanced at his father uncertainly as the man cocked his head to the side the slightest bit, his eyes narrowing as he studied his supposed Hokage. "Itachi trains with Uchiha Shisui every other evening, Hokage-sama," Fugaku explained, and Itachi nodded in agreement. "Tonight, I planned on reviewing his progress. Needless to say, we will do so at a later date, since I do not believe you would appreciate us getting in the way of your personal training regime."
Naruto was instantly wary, glancing between the two Uchiha. His first instinct was to offer overseeing Itachi or sharing the training area, or even delaying his own exercises by a couple of hours, but wasn't that exactly what Fugaku wanted? To have a chance of evaluating both his son and the strength of the recuperating Hokage would perhaps be a bit too accommodating. Then again, the Uchiha clan head could still arrange to observe his training anyway, thus rendering the whole debate pointless. He had, after all, voluntarily entered the Uchiha grounds…
"Hm, I wouldn't mind your presence," Naruto said calmly, startling Itachi a bit. It was probably because Naruto was not looking at Fugaku, but at the youngest Uchiha at their table, with a gaze that was somewhere between curious and confident. "Or rather, if you'd like, I could use a sparring partner for a bit. Especially since I owe you one for taking over your field."
The would-be Hokage turned to Fugaku, and shrugged. "Of course, I can wait until after you test his progress," he added. "It's been some time since I last trained an academy student, especially one this young, but I believe a little light sparring would be useful for both of us."
Naruto still fondly remembered the few times Konohamaru had brought his brats to visit his training, and even though he wasn't sure how much that helped them, the kids seemed to be happy for the attention, if exhausted. And they asked for more when the training sessions ended...
"I'll accept your offer." Fugaku agreed, rubbing his chin. "If you agree to let me count your spar as an evaluation for Itachi's progress, it should work out perfectly. After all, there's not too much time in the day left, and I will have to check on the night patrols as well."
Inwardly, Naruto patted himself on the back for guessing what Fugaku would propose, and outwardly he gave the Uchiha household a warm smile. "That sounds excellent. Let's get going, then."
Itachi darted to get his gear, apparently rather excited by the turn of events, giving out a rather pronounced sense of childishness that took Naruto unawares. Perhaps the little genius still carried a piece of innocent child within himself after all. Naruto just couldn't reconcile the young Uchiha with what he knew of the future Itachi. Maybe he was overthinking things and the boy simply wished to not keep his father and the supposed Hokage waiting.
Uchiha Fugaku led Naruto outside, walking down to a mostly enclosed backyard, hidden from any and all prying eyes by the towering Uchiha Clan House. Only a small wooden path through the lush foliage led further. He could see a glimpse of a square pond with a wooden pier though the growing brushes, still hidden deeply within the clan grounds, and the backyard itself was something of a training ground. Well cared for, it still carried some signs of intense sparring, and the walls had been repaired dozens of times over the years. The majestic building that towered over them had escaped damage from the Kyuubi's attack, and Naruto couldn't help but feel slightly impressed.
He took a deep breath, remembering the way other parts of Konoha looked. Damaged, broken, wounded. Rudderless.
"You'd think that there wasn't a Kyuubi attack, with the way Uchiha had evaded the brunt of the damage," Naruto noted flatly, and Fugaku's expression grew ever blanker and stiffer, even as Naruto tried to convey his affront to the idea. "That's not true at all, is it?" he added softly. "The clan is too large - the monster could not have left you unharmed. It left none of us unharmed."
"That is true," Fugaku spoke, lighting a couple of candle lanterns, slowly wrestling the backyard from the darkness. "We are not unhurt - not in the slightest. Dozens of our family died in the attack, and a whole district was demolished in the blaze. Yet, there are many who believe otherwise. There are even some who believe we lit those fires."
"Too many, I take it," Naruto said, and took a few steps forward, placing his hands in his signature seal. "Even when everyone has lost something in the attack, we keep looking at those who have supposedly lost less. It's not a surprising attitude, but it is a disappointing one. I'd hoped people were less short-sighted."
There was no reply as Fugaku kept a vigilant watch over his actions. With a quick push of chakra, Naruto called forth a couple of Kage Bunshin, far fewer than his usual armies, and they saluted as they appeared. He had already formulated an idea in his head, and the clones were there to execute it. One of his clones walked to the Uchiha clan head, another went to the nearest unlit lantern to scrounge for a candle. Naruto himself broke into a series of quick exercises.
The clone joining Fugaku in observation offered a short sly smile which the man didn't quite return. "Would you wish for me to focus on anything in particular?" the clone asked in a careless tone. "We wouldn't want to let the kid get bored, would we?"
When Fugaku shook his head, the clone grinned. "Good. I'll improvise then."
Itachi arrived very soon thereafter and the clone next to Fugaku motioned the Academy student closer. "Here's what I have in mind," he announced as he took in the set of kunai and a short sword that Itachi had brought. The boy seemed eager, if wary, and though his earlier show of emotion had faded, Naruto couldn't help but recall every other time he had met Itachi face to face. This emotionless facade would one day become second-nature to the boy. Perhaps even more than that.
"Your task today, is to guard a candle," the clone announced. Naruto had developed this game with Konohamaru, and they had only ever tried it once before. "If in half an hour that candle is burning, you win." His sibling clone placed a small candle in the middle of the courtyard, dropping a few drops of liquid wax on a small stone and planting it firmly in place. "If you manage to pop my clone before the half-hour ends, it will count as a win for you as well. You'll have to see which one of those is more practical."
"You can use whatever techniques you wish, but you cannot move the candle from its place. I will use taijutsu only, and won't start any ninjutsu whatsoever." The clone paused and pointed at the boss and the other clone, who were still making sure that the candle stood straight. "Only those two are your opponents. I will not participate, only observe. Also, we won't be leaving the backyard for the duration of this exercise. Any questions?"
Itachi looked around at the three Naruto's and took note of the candle with narrowed eyes. Even if it was lit and burning strong, it would still be far too easy to extinguish it. The candle was rather pathetic in size, too.
The boy's eyes narrowed, but he shook his head. "I understand the rules."
"Excellent," the clone said, and he whistled. "Are you guys ready?"
The real Naruto had been running through a simple set of physical exercises, feeling the eyes of Fugaku constantly on his back. The Konoha Police chief had barely paid any attention to the clone's instructions to Itachi, choosing rather to concentrate on what the real Naruto was doing at the time.
"Let us begin!" the real Naruto declared, but he didn't dart for the candle, rather choosing to circle around Itachi, and his clone mirrored the movements of the original, surrounding the boy. There was a long pause when nothing happened, as either side had yet to make a move.
Naruto smiled as he suddenly felt a touch of illusionary presence in the air around him. It seemed that Itachi knew at least one genjutsu technique already. "Impressive," the clone commented quietly to Fugaku. "I wouldn't have expected a five year old to manage any genjutsu."
Fugaku coughed. "Itachi is six , Minato-sama," he announced as if a year would make much difference.
"Ah. Does he know any fire jutsu, too?" the clone whispered curiously, but Fugaku only showed him a tiny smirk. "Well, I guess we'll have to find out, then..."
Meanwhile, the real Naruto had broken through the genjutsu, and wagged his finger reprovingly. "You really should have kept that a last-minute surprise, not led with it."
Itachi did not reply, his face blank, and Naruto moved closer to the boy, readying an attack, telegraphed as it was. As he struck, Itachi drew his sword and fended off the onslaught with a lightning-quick movement, focusing on the hits and blocking them almost before Naruto had started them - it was quite remarkable . The clone had yet to step in, and both of Itachi's opponents chose to ignore the candle completely.
Itachi was very good, but even though he was on the better side of what a genin fresh out of the academy could be, Naruto had to pace himself to give Itachi a fitting challenge. It wouldn't do to overwhelm the kid too soon.
"You're focusing on the Academy style?" Fugaku asked curiously, as the fight dragged on for a couple of minutes, with Naruto letting Itachi fall into a safe rhythm of defense and offense, never making a movement that was too sudden to be predicted.
"I've found that with a few additions, the Academy style is more useful than most give it credit for," Naruto's clone replied mildly, glancing to his neighbour. "Can you tell me how restless everyone has been, while I was out for the count?"
"As expected, everyone is eager to see you, but only Sarutobi-sama seems determined to reach you even here. He has promised to be here in the morning, to counsel you." Fugaku's nearly unreadable expression hid the tiniest sliver of smugness.
"I left him a pair of clones, you know," Naruto murmured. "Instead of interrogating them about my status, you know what he did to them?"
Fugaku turned away from the fight to look at the clone with curiosity.
"He made them do paperwork," Naruto said in exasperation, tapping his chin and chuckling. Jiraiya had been included in that punishment as well, to assist and help with the heavy lifting. Sometimes that was actually literal, considering the number of issues that had popped up since Obito's attack. The pervert had complained endlessly.
The upside of that particular punishment, giving the clones access to the list of the current shinobi forces let Naruto pick up at least some of the names he was expected to know, which would doubtlessly come in handy. Even though the Third had been angry with both of them, he let Jiraiya's plan unfold as it would, knowing that it was too late to put the genie back in the bottle.
"I can't say I didn't deserve that, but…" Naruto shrugged. "Of course, now that those two popped from the lack of chakra, he surely wants to counsel me. Or perhaps he just wants to punish me for foolish heroics again."
Fugaku raised an eyebrow. "The Third did not mention just what he wanted to discuss, but I imagine he won't wait for another day." He paused, hesitating. "...I hadn't known he could have asked your clone," he added with distaste. "I could have advised him to simply do that, and not have this..."
"He's busy looking into the Nine-Tails attack," the clone revealed, frowning. "I'm sure there's more to that than comparing notes. He probably just wants my perspective while he's looking into it." And perhaps he wants to keep me away from the Uchiha, too. The latter thought, of course,remained unsaid.
"Why didn't he..." Fugaku trailed off and he scowled. "Ah. He is deliberately withholding information."
There was a loud thump as the log Itachi had substituted himself with fell to the ground, but neither Fugaku nor his companion were paying much attention to the sparring match that was slowly heating up as Itachi was forced to use more and more of his rather impressive repertoire.
"He's quite within his rights to keep matters secret while looking into them, lest he compromise his investigation," Naruto's clone said. "Not so much in this case, I admit. I'm going to have to call for a meeting of clan heads and set the record straight, given the rumours that are going around." He paused. "When do you think that would be convenient?"
Fugaku thought about it, glancing to his son's match distractedly. "I shall have to ask some of the other clans," he offered finally. "Still, we'd all like to hear more about recent events, preferably as soon as possible. Perhaps tomorrow night?"
"That works. I was thinking of sending an ANBU, but if you wish, you can take care of i-" The clone stopped mid-word as he took a step to the side, evading a deflected kunai. "Boss!" he shouted indignantly as the real Naruto laughed. The clone sighed and turned back to Fugaku. "I leave it in your capable hands, then," he finished.
"Thank you," Fugaku said, noticeably content with such a turn of events. "Perhaps we should focus back on your test?" he asked shortly after, the ghost of what could be a smile appearing on his face for the briefest of moments. "After all, that is the reason for my presence."
The clone that had been watching the fight turned to Fugaku, jogging over easily - he had yet to join the fight. "I'd say Itachi has good basics, and is pretty well-rounded in general," he noted. "Itachi's clearly been training heavily to reach the level of finesse he's achieved, which nearly makes up for his younger age. He also seems to be trained with the prospect of growing up in mind, which is fairly surprising, knowing the Academy's standards. Even though Itachi's style suffers for his current lack of size, it will be a boon for him as he gets older,"
The clone next to the Uchiha scoffed. "Boss has to fix his own stance, too. He's straining too much when defending from lower left. I'm not sure we ever practiced fighting with nagging stomach injuries..."
"Smartass!" came a loud comment from the real Naruto as he jumped over Itachi's sword in a smooth movement as it was swung at his lower left. "There's always one of you in every batch."
"You should fix it soon," the clone shouted back, rolling his eyes. "If you haven't noticed, the kid's been trying to make use of it for the last minute or so, and he's not letting up."
"Yes, yes, now shut up," Naruto whined, and continued his dodging as Itachi's assault became more persistent. Inwardly, he was glad that the boy was proving more attentive than Konohamaru's brats. If only his attentiveness would carry to the exercise itself...
As if on cue, Itachi glanced back at the candle. Lit with a dancing flame, it was nearly completely burned out, and it had been only twenty minutes since they started the test.
A quick attack from Naruto sent Itachi's sword flying, and the smartass clone caught it, and gave it a few test swings. "Good steel," he said to Fugaku, just as Itachi went through a couple of seals. The next event had startled Naruto more than he would care to admit.
"Shunshin no Jutsu," Itachi announced, and became a torrent of wind as he dashed for the lit candle. He stopped on the other side in a crouch, and his passing had extinguished it in seconds.
"He knows the Shunshin?" Naruto exclaimed incredulously. "What are you teaching him, Fugaku-san?"
The Uchiha patriarch smiled the first completely genuine smile since Naruto had met him, and it was every bit as bizarre as seeing Sasuke grinning. "I'm afraid that the credit for this particular technique should go to Shunshin no Shisui," he said, and pride rang in the man's voice.
Itachi breathed heavily as he recovered, and it looked like the move was hard for him to pull off. Naruto took the opportunity to once again start circling around the boy's position. Then, Itachi's eyes widened in surprise and he turned back to candle. The second clone had snuck back onto the field, and relit the flame with a larger candle he'd taken from one of the lanterns that lined the training field.
"And they said I can't be sneaky," Naruto's clone murmured in amusement.
Itachi threw a kunai, forcing the clone to retreat from his position, and once more the rippling wake of the weapon doused the flame.
"My my, Itachi-kun," Naruto said, smiling tightly. "I thought you wanted the candle to stay lit? Maybe you didn't understand the rules?"
"You said that I win if the candle is lit when time runs out." Itachi replied calmly, narrowing his eyes. "Yet, that is impossible to achieve if the candle burns for the entire allocated time."
Naruto nodded. "So, why are you not keeping him from lighting it again, then?"
Itachi turned to glance back at the candle, where Naruto's impetuous clone was yet again creeping closer with his second candle in hand. Itachi jumped to the offensive, and the clone had to guard himself from an onslaught of kicks and punches that were aimed mercilessly at his most vulnerable parts.
Naruto grinned and walked to the nearest lit lantern, lighting a candle of his own. "Now, we play," he announced.
During the next few minutes, Itachi was a whirlwind, never staying for more than an instant in one place. He circled the candle, dousing it every other second as Naruto or his clone would then light it anew. Since Naruto wouldn't use jutsu, lighting the candle while moving was nearly impossible, since it was a task that required all of his concentration. This was a challenge for Itachi, but also for himself. Itachi was pressured from both sides, constantly having to block blows and move around the candle as his two opponents got behind him time and time again.
Slowly, very slowly, the candle burned down, until the time had just about ran out and the candle was almost gone, though unlit.
Naruto jumped back from his little game, and so did his clone.
Itachi paused, taking deep, hard breaths as he stared at his two opponents warily.
"Good," Naruto praised. "You nearly made it to the end. By my count, there's half a minute left... Alas, the candle isn't burning."
Itachi glanced to the nearest fire source, but only a single lantern in the backyard had remained lit though their exercise, meaning that his only chance was to fight through both his opponents to reach it.
There was a sudden loud puff of smoke and the stone that held the candle turned back into yet another copy of Naruto. "Am I too early?" he asked dubiously, grabbing the remains of the candle from his hair.
"Just in time," Naruto shouted as the wax-covered clone glanced at Itachi. "What are you going to do now, Itachi? You have only a few more seconds..."
Itachi's expression hardened, and he started a brand new set of seals. Ones that Naruto recognized all too well.
"No," his clone whispered, and Fugaku's smug smile returned for the second time that night. "He's too young to know that one, isn't he?" he asked the Uchiha. "Right?"
Itachi brought his hand to his mouth, and exhaled. "Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!" A great fireball descended onto the final clone as it scrambled for cover, but without using any ninjutsu he didn't have anywhere to retreat to. At the last moment, he threw his candle to the Boss, before he was washed away in flames.
"Ouch," Naruto winced as the memories of the burned clone came back to him, along with a tiny lump of wax.
Itachi turned to him, swayed for a couple of seconds and then finally fell onto his knees, utterly exhausted.
Naruto could only smile as he dispelled his clones. "You win," he announced softly, and Itachi flopped onto his back, breathing deeply as he calmed down on the grass, facing the sky with his eyes closed.
In this word, there exist kids younger than you... Naruto thought of the words that his sensei had said once, ages before, or years in the future. ...Who are stronger than me.
Wasn't it Itachi he had been speaking of?
"You know," Naruto said as he walked over to Fugaku, "I planned to have this serve as a lesson about the unpredictability of your opponent's goals, and to remind Itachi that sometimes there's another way to achieve the intended goal, but it turns out that I've been the one who needed a lesson on underestimating my opponents."
Fugaku nodded slowly. "It was an interesting exercise…"
"It won't be as easy as I'd like it to be, eh?" Naruto asked to no one in particular, frowning. "Even if I have way more skill when I was a little squirt, there's always someone or something out there that could throw me for a loop. If a six-year old can do this..."
"Hokage-sama?" Fugaku inquired.
"Ah, don't mind me. Just lost in my thoughts," Naruto replied mildly, and then he laughed. "Man, I can't believe little Itachi just beat a test that an experienced genin team failed miserably at. I can't wait to tell K-" He froze mid-word, shivering.
It was if a shadow ran across his face, and most of the cheer had evaporated. He couldn't tell Konohamaru, he realized darkly. Not anymore. On top of that, he almost had made a mistake, just when he had started to relax, to stop second-guessing everything he did. How did Jiraiya believe that I could pull it off, again?
Fugaku was looking at him expectantly.
"That's it for tonight," Naruto said in a flat tone, turning away. "I think I have to clear my head. If you'll need me..." He pointed at the direction of the nearby pond. "I'll be over there, thinking."
He walked away without another word, leaving father and son to converse in peace - the boy looked after him with obvious curiosity. Perhaps the older man would have followed him, but there wasn't much time left until Fugaku had to go for his patrols, and Fugaku's compliments would doubtlessly be more welcome to Itachi's ears than his own.
Not for the first time, he missed his friends.
Morning found Naruto seated in the exact middle of a lightly rippling pond , his legs crossed beneath him. It was a calm place, surrounded by a line of trees, and perfectly square, with a wooden pier stretching perhaps a third of the way into it. The surrounding grass was short, and the banks had wooden planks along the edges, aligned with meticulous precision that was exactly as he'd expected it from the Uchiha.
Having spent a few hours of the night there, alone with his thoughts, Naruto had returned after only a short nap, with the goal of brushing up on his chakra manipulation. It was a perfect place to practice, too, situated just a long flight of stairs below the main Uchiha house, hidden from the rest of the village. It was a place every bit as private as he could wish for.
His chakra was soothing the little waves, trying to calm the water ever more. The lightly blowing wind was fighting against him in a battle of patience, but he wasn't going to give up. The pond was already smoother than it should be, but not even close to the absolutely even surface Naruto was hoping to achieve. A smile slowly crept onto his face as he increased the onslaught against the unrelenting waters.
There was a quiet splash as a tiny wave crashed into his knee, nearly forcing a shiver. The morning had been chilly, and the coolness of the water was rejuvenating on top of that. Before, when a shadow of the Uchiha head house had covered him completely, it had been positively cold. Now, the morning sun already shining onto his side and the shadow receding, it was just the right weather for the start of a long day.
His breaths were even, and throughout the exercise he was maintaining perfectly still. Naruto had chosen to balance at the very edge of Sage Mode, drawing in the natural energy and using whatever he got nearly instantly, circulating the chakra at a furious rate.
Any Uchiha who would have taken a longer observation of him could have noted the weird, swirling patterns in his chakra or in the water, but actually pinpointing the use of Senjutsu would have required a leap in logic and probably a genius intellect. Thankfully, Itachi was inside.
The exercise he was performing wasn't even that chakra intensive, and even though with the natural energy at his fingertips he could continue nearly indefinitely, no one would be suspicious about him spending a couple of hours in the meditative trance. Even if someone would get curious, Naruto mused to himself, he should get away with a simple and true explanation - he was attempting to learn to use the natural energy. Never mind that he knew more on the practical side of things than Jiraiya did, there always was something to be improved, and it apparently was quite like Minato to throw yourself into dangerous or exhausting training after returning from a deadly mission.
A taste of foreign chakra in the air drew his attention.
Naruto ran a quick body count with the natural chakra he'd been gathering. Four Uchiha guards were stationed at the corners of the pond, hidden behind the trees, and another two were posed at the edge of the main Uchiha house. One ANBU was standing guard at the base of the stairs, and another set of local guards were on the outside perimeter. The rest of the ANBU squad were somewhere at the very edge of the Uchiha District, more than close enough to arrive within seconds. Uchiha Mikoto was preparing a late breakfast, and her two sons were with her. Itachi had just gotten up, as yesterday's training had left the kid as exhausted as it was possible.
Another presence, though, was the source of the unexpected chakra in the air. No, Naruto realised belatedly, not in the air, exactly, but rather seeping through the morning shadows. Had he not been stretching his senses to the very edge, he might have missed the miniscule amount that was infused into the shadows of the place. This was something Shikamaru would do unconsciously, bleeding a drop of chakra into every single shadow he passed. In turn, on a moments notice the shadows would become a deadly weapon in his service.
Naruto was just on the sharpest edge of the largest shadow, with no immediate way of escaping. Doubtlessly, the new arrival had approached that way consciously, aware of his advantage.
Still, Naruto didn't move a muscle. His guest wasn't the Third as he had expected, but someone else. Given the shadows, Naruto knew he could trust the new arrival to be reserved and calm, at the very least. He didn't know the exact relationship between Nara and Uchiha clans, though. How exactly did the clan focused on stealing techniques and the clan whose techniques just wouldn't get stolen get along?
Could it have been Jiraiya who had suggested Nara Shikaku as an emissary of sorts? Or, had the spat between the Third and Fugaku been a tad more heated than he suspected, and had the Old geezer delegated the unpleasant responsibility of coming here to the Nara?
Regardless, this was without a sliver of doubt another test. Try to fool a Nara, Sarutobi seemed to be saying with this choice, see if there's hope for Jiraiya's reckless plan.
Soon after Naruto came to that realization, Shikaku passed the scrutiny of the Uchiha guard detail, and only a moment later he was descending the stairs, curiously gazing at the results of Naruto's exercise. With his mind focused as much as it was, the pond's surface was crystal clear and perfectly still. Finally. Naruto smiled pleasantly as Nara walked up the pier and bowed lazily in a show of respect.
"It is good to see you in a better shape, Minato-sama," Shikaku started in slow, measured drawl.
Naruto opened his eyes, and two concentric ripples started from his position, rushing through the length of the pond, smoothing out before they even reached the bank.
"Good morning, Shikaku-san," he replied after a short pause, and saw something like curiosity in the man's eyes.
"It is certainly a pleasant morning," Shikaku agreed. "The wind is slow and the clouds are sparse in the sky. The walk here was almost worth waking up early for," he pointed out jokingly. "But, the day is not yet done, and I can't help but fear I'll be tired and regretful in the evening."
"There is much work to be done," Naruto said mildly.
"That is true," Shikaku agreed, sitting down on the edge of the long wooden footbridge, looking down at the still water.
They kept silent for a while.
Shikaku retreated more into the shadows, slouching in a weird, if more comfortable position, and closed his eyes. "For what words are worth," he started after another pause, never once looking up as he talked. "I'd like to apologize for our inability to prevent nor predict both of the attacks on the village."
His eyes tore open and his fierce gaze met Naruto's. "I'm sorry it fell onto your shoulders to bear the weight of many, further and better than most will doubtlessly ever appreciate."
Naruto nodded slowly. "Hokage is a meaningless title if I never do anything for my people," Naruto said calmly. "You do not need to thank me for performing my duties."
There was a third, longer pause.
"The Third is... puzzled by something," Shikaku began, finally. "I admit to being curious myself, though I'm not sure what he knows that I do not. Sarutobi-sama is very sparing with his information."
Naruto sighed. "He's just thinking about the same thing we all are, I'm sure. Wondering where we go from here. How we move forward."
"Why don't you give me the answer?" Naruto asked lightly, and he smirked. Of course, Shikaku wanted to slowly approach the problem and analyze everything that could be analyzed. There still remained an open question as to why the Third Hokage had chosen to send the man, but that very same question was probably plaguing the Nara. There were but a couple of guesses Naruto could think of. "You are, after all, one of the best strategists in the village. Who else would foresee the future of this village?"
Naruto knew that he needed to put some pressure on this man, his Jounin-Commander, even if it was a double-edged sword. All Nara worked very well under pressure, but he needed to give his companion something to think about, else the bored Shikaku would start looking for anything to analyze and could notice something amiss. Especially since Naruto had yet to talk to Jiraiya on the current state of the Konoha's shinobi clans. While his clones had learned most of the names he needed to know by combing through a literal mountain of paperwork, he had not yet figured out all the relations between shinobi. Going into this conversation both half-blind and following Shikaku's lead would prove...
"Troublesome..." Shikaku muttered, and he sighed. "As well as highly inaccurate, I might add. I only assist with war strategy, tactics and intelligence."
"Isn't that what the villagers want? War?" Naruto pushed, as if letting his interlocutor know that the prospect of looming hostility had played for a while in his mind. He grabbed onto one of his most recent worries and pointed them at the resident genius. The only lie was that he didn't quite rank that problem as the most pressing.
Whenever there had been a problem he would obsess with, he usually went to some friend to ask their opinion about it. Sometimes that friend would be Shikamaru. The young Nara claimed he hated it, but couldn't help but consider the issue as Naruto would pour out his concerns. Naruto kept a high hope that his friend's father would be as susceptible to this type of steering a conversation.
"Hm. Why wouldn't they want a war in response to Iwa's attack? Isn't that what the other Kage will be planning, when they realize just how much of an easy prize we are?" Naruto wondered. "You deny setting the path for Konoha, yet it is your mind and knowledge, Jounin-Commander, which can and will shape the choices Konoha makes. What would you do, had you to decide? If it is a war we need, tell me."
There was a pause as Shikaku rubbed at one of his scars.
"You wish for my advice on our manpower, then?" He replied slowly, as if measuring the troops and capabilities. It wasn't the angle Shikamaru would have gotten from Naruto's question, but it seemed like the Commander part of the man's title had just kicked into action. "Konoha, even in our current state, is still in a position to win in a war against Iwa, given your own presence. But there are absolutely no guarantees about surviving the aftermath."
The Jounin paused.
"That wasn't what you really asked, was it? You want to ask me what would I do in your place. Would I wantto go to war with Iwa?" He narrowed his eyes, and Naruto was certain Shikamaru would've taken his tell-tale thinking pose. "Should you capitalize on the attempt that was 'aimed at you and yours' or should you just place another scroll in the library and forget about the whole incident?"
Shikaku moved slightly, staring into the sky. "Are you asking what I think as one of the clan heads of Konoha?" he continued. "Or do you wish to hear my opinion as one of your Jounin? Would you like to know if a decision to wage war would be cheered on by your own troops, or would we cry screams of anguish as the Hokage's quest for revenge takes its toll on our families?" He shook his head. "I do not wish to answer this question," he said finally. "And that is the answer I can give you. You do not have to make a black and white choice, since both crying for open war or ignoring the issue are solutions that you should or would never choose."
"You are right. There won't be a war, with Iwa or anyone else," Naruto announced. "Not if I am in a position to do something about it."
There was an aura of discontent seeping from the former Jinchuuriki, and the pond broke in a miniature storm as he stood up, and winds started to spin around as he walked towards the footbridge.
"Still, those who think there won't be any consequences for these hostilities against Konoha, will find themselves very much disappointed." This was it, Naruto realised. There was a certain theory that had surfaced after the Kyuubi's attack, one that he had just barely recalled. The rumor about Konoha's enemies. About Uchiha Madara, or at least his family.
Shikaku froze as he took in Naruto's expression, and he focused. Perhaps he had felt the realization within Naruto, or had connected his heated boast against his enemies with their location. After all, the Kyuubi could be controlled by the Sharingan, as the rumours said. This little tidbit of information must have been why Shikaku had come to the Uchiha district to see what the supposed Hokage was doing there. After all, this deduction must have been a collaborative effort between him and the Third. Perhaps even Danzou. The latter would be quick to point out that their Hokage rests among possible traitors.
Originally this investigation must have included Jiraiya, but Naruto wasn't sure if he left the Sannin enough time to chase the origins of the Kyuubi attack. After all, he knew for certain that Jiraiya spent the whole of the previous day battling the very same battle with paperwork that Hiruzen had loaded on them for starting his crazy impersonation plan.
Coupled with Naruto's clone's games of stealth through Konoha and the general need to divert as much attention as possible to Naruto's mere presence, it meant Jiraiya barely had time for anything else. Maybe in this time, the investigation was influenced even more by Danzou, leading to more decisive arguments and cautions against Uchiha.
That would be troublesome, as Shikaku would doubtlessly agree.
"The Third would not have come here to discuss war, and it isn't the topic you wanted to trade words with me on," Naruto said as he stood at the edge of the footbridge, towering above the sitting Shikaku, his hands crossed. The robe that the Uchiha had gifted him was billowing in the torrent of the wind, the fans upon it standing out starkly. He couldn't leave the issue unaddressed, he knew. He stopped pouring chakra into his surroundings, enjoying the slowing touch of the winds he had stirred when raising up.
"There is one piece of intelligence that I must share with you. One that I have known since before I was gravely wounded, which we will have to share with all of Konoha's clans when opportunity permits. The Third has chosen you to come here, because you already know about the rumors that are roaming around, and you'd be the perfect one to question me about it. Even though he'd discourage me from discussing this in Uchiha clan territory, I will tell you only one thing. The culprit is no longer here."
The winds died down completely, and Naruto took a step onto the footbridge just as Shikaku sighed and stood up as well. "Well, that is..." the Nara began, pausing.
"Yes," Naruto interrupted. "The search will prove troublesome indeed."
"Understood, Hokage-sama." Shikaku offered a small smile. "I hope to hear everything that you can share, once there's a full gathering of clans." He half turned to glance at the main Uchiha house. "I will clear out my schedule for this evening, as Fugaku has relayed."
"Right. What about breakfast?" Naruto asked, and Shikaku only raised an eyebrow. "I meant, did you already have breakfast? It is really not my place to offer, but if there's anything else you'd wish to discuss, I'm sure Mikoto wouldn't mind. I'm not sure if Fugaku even plans to return from his nightly patrol in time, so there should be enough for both of us…."
A shadow ran across Shikaku's face, and then, he smiled. "Alas, I already ate with my family. But don't let me keep you from your meal." He inclined his head. "Your predecessor has asked you to meet up with him as soon as you can. Should I..?"
"Yes, I'll find him as soon as I finish here," Naruto said, nodding. "Also, tell Jiraiya to meet me afterwards, if you happen to run into him."
Shikaku all but groaned, and Naruto couldn't help but remember each and every time when anything was asked of Shikamaru.
"Oh, and if you could ask Inoichi to spend some time with our guest from Iwa, that would be perfect. I think I'll need to speak to Kurome myself, but whatever Inoichi can find out about their information source could prove of great value."
"If this is what early risers get for their hard work..." Shikaku mumbled under his breath. "Of course, Hokage-sama," he offered louder, sighing. "Anything else?"
"That will be all. Thank you."
Both men would have gone their separate ways, if not for a small commotion. A new ANBU arrival tried to get past the Uchiha guards at the top of the stairs, and both Naruto and Shikaku observed what proved a quick and heated conversation between three Uchiha shinobi and the ANBU. A couple of muffled profanities reached them, and right when Naruto decided he'd interfere, the Uchiha finally let Rat pass through their perimeter.
"Hokage-sama," Sarutobi Junichi said, and he bowed as soon as he reached them, after dashing down the stairs as quick as humanly possible. He procured a simple scroll from one of the pockets, unremarkable but for one bright symbol. The sigil of the Land of Lightning. "A missive from the Raikage, for you."
Yes, this was an update.
No, the story isn't dead.
Yes, Roarian is still awesome.
Probably, but I'll try to keep the chapters slightly shorter.
Oh yes, there are going to be more updates.
Well, I guess we will have to see when exactly.
Also, I'm ignoring most of the latest Naruto manga revelations for this story. I've started outlining and writing when four Edo Tensei Hokages were just being introduced, and am looking at the new stuff like guidelines at best. Just to put that out there.