DISCLAIMER: I do not own Naruto or its franchise.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: This chapter was a pain to write. I had to go over and changed it six times. I hope it's worth it.


"Here you go, customer-san." Teuchi, otherwise known as the owner and master chef of Ichiraku Ramen, served the steaming bowl with great flourish, as was his style. "One miso soup with extra pork toppings and our special chicken broth mixed in with a secret sauce, as requested. Quite unusual but very delicious just the same, if I may say so." And so it was, after all his best customer had been very vocal about proclaiming it.

The thought of the hyper-active blond cast a pall on the old man's face. It has been three years since he last saw the boy and his absence had hit him and his daughter hard. More than being just a steady patron of his humble restaurant, he was genuinely fond of the kid; his antics had brought much needed zest in their otherwise ordinary lives. When he apparently went missing, he and his daughter Ayame were very sad; for weeks they went on their business as though in mourning, only forcing a tight smile on the faces for the benefit of their customers.

Cheerless was an apt description for them. Cheerless, too, was something that could describe the whole village. During the three years a sense of stillness and quiet had descended upon Konoha and its residents. A kind of peace one might yearn for but might in the end prove both dull and boring. And everyone knew this was due to the mysterious absence of one Uzumaki Naruto, the self-proclaimed prince of pranks, in their midst. Not that anyone would ever admit it out loud save a few.

As time went by, Teuchi noticed the sharp increase of first time customers that seemed to randomly turn up in his shop, many of which he would never see again. He never really questioned it since business was business, but what intrigued him the most was the apparent knowledge they possess about the restaurant's fare and ordering very precise portions that reminded him every time of a blond-haired kid sitting restlessly in front of this very counter. And this was one of those instances. When the stranger ordered earlier, he spoke in a rich and clear voice that somehow seemed very familiar to him though he couldn't place it.

Teuchi took a closer look at the man seated in front of him but did it a discreet manner as not to be rude. He was young, perhaps in his early teens but seemingly tall and well-built. He was wearing a marooned-colored jacket with an over-sized hood that covered his head and a part of his face. Under it was a white shirt with an orange lining at the collar, and over his shoulder was a red cloak draped over his shoulders. Living in a ninja village, it wasn't uncommon to see people covering parts of their faces to hide their identity but sometimes their masks are so distinguishable that they can be identified by it. But the stranger didn't have anything on him that would betray his identity, nor did his obscured face allow the old man to see if he had seen him before.

His daughter Ayame came out from the kitchens at that moment and sought out her father. "Dad, who ordered that last one? I mean, that was his special combo, its not even on the menu!"

Teuchi just sighed. He knew how much protective his daughter about the kid she considered as a younger brother, even going so far as trying to disallow anybody to sit on the boy's favorite stool. The last three years had been hard on her. "I was about to ask the young fellow over there," he replied sotte voce. "I was curious too, since only Naruto ever ordered it that way."

"Do you think— well, maybe he came across him?" asked Ayame unable to hide her hope. He father just shrugged and went towards where the customer was seated.

"Ah, excuse me, young sir," Teuchi said trying to make light conversation, "Are you from this parts? I'm just wondering how you came across this particular combination when it's not even on the menu."

He looked at the stranger expectantly while Ayame was surreptitiously eavesdropping at their conversation, but he remained silent. The old man was about to turn and leave the customer in peace when he replied. "It was highly recommended."

"Oh? It that so?" It always gladdened him whenever his customers pass on their seal of approval to others. "May I ask who it was? I'd like to thank them if I could."

"I'm sure you'll meet him one of these days." The young man stood gracefully and deliberately, having finished his meal. He put some money on the counter and turned towards the door. But before he left, he paused and turned his head back fractionally towards Teuchi and Ayame. He spoke then in a voice that raised the hairs on the back of their necks. "See you around, old man, nee-chan."

Teuchi raced towards the door to catch the stranger but there was a sudden gust of wind laden with dust that stung his eyes. The moment he blinked, the hooded stranger was gone. He looked at Ayame who was looking back at him with wide eyes. Can it be?

Ragged clouds were racing overhead, dark and low, casting cheerless shadows in the early evening. It was a cold gray day, as autumn had began to wrap in earnest the hidden village famous for its verdant lushness within its withering embrace. The north wind was streaming through the branches of trees that for the most part had shed their green vestures in exchanged for the more gaudy and vibrant regalia that the season clothed them with before winter strips them bare. In the dark pines, amongst the orchards of plums, and groves of bamboo, as though annoyed that they would dare stand up to its might, the wind was seething and churning.

On the far side of Konoha stood the Hokage Mountain like an earthen wall, strong and immovable. The side that faced the village was sheer and bare of vegetation save a few thrawn trees that clung upon precarious ledges and in narrow crevices. On the same side was carved the heads of all the Hokage to date. Giants they seemed, vast gray effigies silent and watchful. They were shaped and fashioned by the craft and skill of shinobi, preserving through the passing years the mighty likenesses in which they have been hewn. Great power and majesty they still wore, silent guardians of the village they have bled and fought for.

High above the monument, if a sharp-eyed person should chanced to look up, stood the hooded stranger on a platform in the shape of a cube seemingly floating in mid-air. In the gathering darkness he stood tall and unmoving, his cloak fluttering in the cold wind like a sail. His head was bowed, staring intently at panorama his perch afforded him. Below him was Konoha as a bird would see it, spread out like a giant canvas with dots of lights twinkling, in rivalry with the stars the had now appeared on the sky, as the villagers readied to greet the darkness of the night.

"Three years has come and gone." Those who knew him would immediately recognized that voice as belonging to one Uzumaki Naruto, albeit older, more mature, and certainly a lot calmer than the one they would recall.

Three years of hell, literal and figurative hell. Though it certainly felt much longer than that to him. But he loved every minute of it.

It was three years to the day since he 'disappeared', his existence all but erased. He remembered quite clearly making his way back to the apartment warily, all the while gathering what news he could from the snippets of conversations he could hear. It would seemed the old man Hokage brought his foot down and the village had felt his iron hand. He didn't really paid much attention then as he quickly gathered all what he needed— not that he own many possessions —and ran back out to the hidden Uzumaki shrine, while trying to evade search parties that he knew was looking for him. There were a couple of close calls but he hadn't earned the title the prankster prince for being easily caught.

He immediately jumped into a very strict training regimen after he squared all the necessary essentials for his new lifestyle. Thanks to his newly transferred memories he was able to transition with little difficulty. With the aid of Tomo's memories and the resources he left behind, Naruto was able to set up a whole schedule for learning the shinobi arts. From the very basic to the more advanced techniques, his vaunted stamina was put to the test.

Tomohisa's gift was truly a great boon for him. He was able to accomplish tasks that would take months if not years to complete within days. All the previous Uzumaki doshu went to great lengths to ensure the legacy of their clan and the effort they expended to that end was truly amazing. Naruto felt both humbled and honored to be the legitimate successor, and it totally changed his outlook in life. Tomo was there to guide him along the way, for the most part, and he proved to be a harsh taskmaster. Yet Naruto willingly suffered all of it, including the more ridiculous forms of exercise he had to perform, knowing full well that the path to mastery is paved with blood, sweat, and tears. He pushed himself beyond his limits to become as powerful as he could, being entrusted a great responsibility by his parents and his predecessors.

After months and months of arduous training, and then some, using ancient techniques developed by the Uzumaki for chakra control, he was able to increase his already formidable chakra at levels that most ninja could never hope to attain in their lifetime, and harness it in ways never before seen. Taijutsu, Ninjutsu, even Genjutsu which he initially found extremely difficult to learn— not least because he had no one to practice on. But he was drawn to the arts of Fuuinjutsu and Kekkaijutsu, as these felt the most natural to him. Because of he already possessed the knowledge, including much of the theory, application of techniques came easier for him as he had a visual template to follow inside his head.

But he didn't stop there. He dabbled in other disciplines that may prove crucial for a shinobi: weapons, poisons, healing, and field craft. He need to at least familiarize himself with them if he was to become a well-rounded shinobi. At Tomo's urging and his reluctant agreement, he took up reading, especially subjects that would help him in his career: history, geography, politics, warfare, economics, and many more. The memories he have, while expansive, was out of date by two decades at least.

When he felt confident about his skill level, he began to sneak his way back into the village, mainly as part of his stealth and infiltration training but also to keep abreast with the goings-on of the village. Using his shadow clones and subtle but effective henge techniques he was able to blend among the villagers without arousing suspicion. Impersonating various people, he was able to gain access to the shinobi library including the restricted section unimpeded. From the market and the various shops he was able to purchase victuals and necessities without having to endure glares and insults, or being turned out; since living in the temple he ate what he could get from fishing and hunting in the forest, gathering wild fruits and herbs, growing his own vegetables, all which he treated as part of his survival training. He was even able to play little pranks now and again, for old times' sake. But most importantly, he was able to gain an in depth view of the Konoha's strengths and weaknesses.

What Naruto discovered truly troubled him. Here was a village that claimed to be the strongest of the Five Elemental Countries but it was hubris, nothing more. True, despite the Kyuubi attack and its aftermath, Konoha retained many top-class shinobi and powerful clans in its ranks. Most of them profess to uphold the Will of Fire, the Shodaime Hokage's philosophy, and yet their attitudes and conduct hardly bore this out. The various clans remained parochial, fractious, and shortsighted; individual shinobi, supposedly trained to see underneath the underneath, often couldn't see anything beyond their noses that which did not interest them; and the civilians had it worst: petty, decadent, vainglorious, basking in the glory that they themselves had no hand in obtaining nor did anything to maintain it. It boiled down to arrogance, an almost institutionalized form of arrogance that permeates the village from the very top down to its lowest echelons. It is one thing to take pride in one's accomplishments; to luxuriate in the achievement of others, to claim to be favored by the gods by virtue of the work and sacrifice of others, that is foolish arrogance.

And arrogance leads to complacency, which in turn could easily lead to disaster if history is anything to go by. The village is peaceful and prosperous now, but it was not always so and would not always be. For Nature possess an annoying habit of throwing random wrenches that will derail even the most well-oiled machinery, often at the most inopportune moment. A peaceful and prosperous village is a prime target, a fat cow that has to be defended at all times. Konoha has many enemies, some obvious, many less so. Other villages look at it in both envy and disdain, and out of their own arrogance will not tolerate such a rival. And there are those who, like parasites, would destroy Konoha and what it stands for from the inside out. It is these factions that would have to be rooted out first. He smiled to himself.

Naruto focused his attention once more on the vista before him. He could faintly hear the noise of the villagers as they head to their homes after a day's work, wives and mothers preparing for the family evening ritual, dogs barking to welcome their owners. Shinobi rushing to and fro as they prepare to lock down the village for the night; Konoha was a ninja village after all. It was like watching the internal mechanism of a clock: straightforward, rhytmic, predictable, simple movements combined to power a highly complex operation with each part doing its assigned role no matter how small to maintain the whole. Remove even the tiniest piece and everything grinds into the halt. A rusted part here, a misaligned part there, and the clock would not be right as it should. He looked up towards the northern sky and saw the distinctive form of a group of stars.

"So clear the sound that it reached the Big Dipper- trivial deeds of men. *"

The words seemed to came out on their own volition, unbidden, uttered so softly it was almost lost to the evening breeze. Autumn had always had a sway over him, able to put him under a spell of reflective melancholia. He pushed those thoughts away as he had an important plan tonight, it wouldn't do to lose focus.

After making a clapping motion four figures in his own likeness appeared surrounding him. They too stood on kekkai platforms and they waited stoically for the instructions their creator would give. But Naruto simply gave a sharp nod and the four disappeared into blurs, each heading towards the four cardinal directions at speeds no normal eyes can follow.

"Now then, I guess it's time to pay the old man a visit." With a smile on his face he was about to jumped off his perch when he espied something. "Oh, what do we have here? Looks fun." Then he was off.

"Mizuki, what the hell are you doing?" Umino Iruka was simple livid. To find out that a trusted colleague and childhood friend would betray their village was really something you would not expect. "To actually steal the Scroll of Seals, this is treason!"

"What does it look like, Iruka?" Toji Mizuki sneered, though inside he was cursing his luck for having been found out. His original plan was to use somebody else, preferably one of his Academy students, to steal the scroll then make his escape while ensuring the nobody would figure out the heist. He even had to accelerate his plans by a year in order to avoid arousing more suspicion but everything went down the drain when Iruka found him. "I am taking the forbidden scroll with me. Once I have learned all the jutsu in it, I will be more powerful than you could possibly imagine. Nobody will be able to stop me and I will then give it to my master." Then he added, "Unfortunately, my friend, now that you know my secret I will have to kill you."

Iruka knew it was his duty as shinobi of Konoha to stop the traitor and his plans, whether he was his friend or not. They immediately engaged in a fierce battle. It was evenly matched at first but clearly Mizuki had the advantage as Iruka was now bleeding from several wounds.

"Oh, are sure you should be an instructor, Iruka? You can hardly even keep up with me." Mizuki pressed his advantage as he threw a large windmill shuriken at his embattled opponent.

Iruka couldn't move in time because of his wounds, he simply lain there awaiting his end. But before the shuriken could hit, it stopped in mid-flight, encased in a strange blue cube of energy, with part of the blades still protruding from it.

Unbeknownst to the two fighting shinobi, Naruto was watching right above them. He had recognized Iruka as the academy instructor that had always been fair to him. And the Scroll of Seals the was lying on the ground. When he had heard enough to sussed out the details of what was happening he decided to intervene. He silently appeared between the two, much to their surprise.

"Who the hell are you? What do you want?" Mizuki yelled.

Naruto didn't reply, instead holding up his middle and fore fingers in a manner similar to Tairitsu no In [Seal of Confrontation] then flicked quickly. "Metsu! [Destroy]"

Both Iruka and Mizuki were dumbfounded to see that the part of the shuriken that was encased was totally destroyed as the cube collapsed into itself, the pieces that were left simply fell to the ground. For the first time the hooded Naruto spoke, his voice amiable as though this was only a meeting between friends. "Sorry about that, you shouldn't really play with sharp things. You could get hurt, you know."

"Now I believe you asked me a couple of questions?" Mizuki simply glared at the mysterious intruder. "Well, you need not know my name. As traitor such as you doesn't deserve such courtesy. As for what I want, your death, preferably, but I will settle for imprisonment. And the scroll, of course."

"What did you say?" Mizuki snarled back. While he felt fear after seeing this guy's strange technique, he hated being looked down the most. Nevertheless he was unnerved by the fact that this mysterious man could easily destroy his weapon with nary an effort. He had to escape somehow. "You think you're going to stop me? I'm simply going to kill you as well as Iruka."

Naruto simply sighed in pity. "You know, for an academy instructor, you surely aren't that bright. Remember what I did earlier? What's stopping me from doing something similar to your head, hmm?" This brought out the desired reaction from Mizuki as he realized too late the predicament he is in. "Caught on have you? I'm surprised you've manage to get that scroll with brains like yours. Well, I guess we've reached the end of this little show." He materialized a smaller cube just beside Mizuki's head.

"Your aim is piss-poor, brat," mocked Mizuki but before could spout of more words the kekkai extended sideways at such great speed and force that it knock him out cold and he fell onto the grass in an undignified heap. Naruto put a seal on Mizuki's palms and then turned to the bleeding Iruka.

"Are you alright, Iruka-san?" he asked, a bit perturbed at the slightly awed look his one time sensei was giving him.

"Yes, except for this wound here, nothing serious," he said weakly.

"That's not good, you've already lost quite a lot of blood judging by the paleness of your face." Then an idea hit him, this was a golden opportunity to test out of his techniques. "Well, I'm pants at medical ninjutsu but I do know a way to get you back into shape in a jiffy."

Iruka just nodded his assent since honestly he was at the stranger's mercy. He was a bit nervous when a yellow-colored translucent kekkai surrounded his body. His hooded savior just knelt down beside him and had the palm of his hand facing Iruka. "Just bear with it, it may feel a little weird. Kekkaijutsu: Jigyakkou! [Barrier Technique: Time Retrogression]."

The chuunin was rendered speechless as slowly his wounds disappeared, as though simply erased. Unknown to him he just became the first witness to Naruto's Jigyakkou technique, a very advanced jutsu that allows him to manipulate time in small pockets. In essence, he reverted Iruka's body back to their original unwounded state.

After a few minutes the barrier dissipated and Iruka could hardly believed it as he stood. He felt very refreshed, his wounds gone, and his chakra levels are nearly at its peak. "Thank you, you really save my life. What happen to Mizuki?"

"Oh, he'll live. Unconscious, and I placed a restriction seal on his body with a chakra suppressor added into the mix. He won't be able to lift a finger and the moment he tries to use chakra he'll feel pain the likes of which he had never imagined. Anyway, its nothing."

"Thank you, all the same. By the way, what you're name? I don't think I've ever seen you before."

At this Naruto chuckled. "I'm just a concerned citizen with too much free time and I'm very sure you have seen me around. I was rather hard to miss."

Iruka let it go, as he knew he really wouldn't get a straight answer if the man didn't want to divulge his personal details. It is not an uncommon practice, being in a ninja village, where identities are often highly guarded secrets.

"I'll have to report back to the Hokage about this. Want to come along? I'm sure the Hokage wants to talk to you."

"Sure, why not. I was headed there before I stumbled on to your fight. I need to see the old man anyway. And, if this scroll is what I think it is, I personally know its rightful owner." With that they walked back to the Hokage office with the unconscious Mizuki hoisted on Iruka's shoulder and Naruto carrying the scroll.

The said old man was lounging on his favorite chair inside the Hokage office. The day was winding down and he felt rewarding himself a small break, rank has its privileges after all, not to mention age.

After calling for tea and lighting his pipe, he turned to contemplation as was his wont. The past three years have brought blessings he was truly grateful for and curses he could have done without.

The first, of course, was the disappearance of Uzumaki Naruto, his surrogate grandson. He consider it his greatest failure for letting the Yondaime's legacy be trampled in such a manner. In a fit of melancholy and anger he ordered the worst offenders publicly executed by the ANBU, including several prominent citizens and clan members. There was a predictable uproar at this but Sarutobi Hiruzen reminded why he was Hokage when he put his foot down. The village eventually settled down but with a sense of unease, forcefully reminded that while the kind old Hokage they knew had often been lax in his governance where the civilians were concerned he is not above enforcing harsh and brutal punishment if he really wants to. The villagers began to mind their behavior, and some even regretted their past actions toward the blond-haired boy.

When he sobered down from his rage, the Hokage ordered a discreet but continuous search for the boy, hoping that he was not too late and the boy didn't perish somewhere in the wilderness or worse end up at the hands of a foreign village. Even after reading the note Naruto had left for him wasn't much of a comfort.

The second major crisis that hit the village was the Uchiha Massacre, coming at the heels of the loss of their jinchuriki. It was truly a horrible thing that such a clan would be reduced next to nothing simply because of pride and a skewed sense of entitlement. The Uchiha were understandably proud of their heritage, but they were also conceited and looked down upon everybody else. But they have lost much of their clout and prestige, so much so they've planned to usurp the village leadership by force. Sarutobi, ever the man of peace, wanted to negotiate if only to spare the village from a civil war but he was overruled, or rather outmaneuvered, by his own councillors. And so they opted for extermination of the clan which, thanks to Uchiha Itachi, was all but complete. The last survivor, Uchiha Sasuke, was now the ward of the state and the object of much adoration amongst the villagers much to Sarutobi's dismay.

On the opposite side of the equation, the village economy had never been this good. Harvest had been bountiful for the last few seasons as the weather was mild. Trade had been quite steady, even increasing in some areas, despite the fluid security situation especially at the borders. Shinobi missions were plentiful especially after the daimyo of Kaze no Kuni [Wind Country] had shifted most of his taskings over to Konoha instead of their own hidden village Suna. The alliances that were made between Konoha and other countries have also paid dividends and deterred rival countries from interfering much in the affairs of the village. The Uchiha business has eventually fizzled out and a sense of normality had returned to the village.

The only blot in his otherwise contented view was the continued disappearance of Naruto. If only he could at least see him, to know that he's alright. But even his best trackers could find neither hide nor hair of the boy. Sarutobi sighed.

And now this attempted theft by one Toji Mizuki. It was only thanks to Iruka and the unnamed man that the whole thing was foiled. There was no telling what damage could have happen if that particular scroll ended up in the wrong hands; the fact that Mizuki was able to get it right inside his offices smacks too much of careful planning and perhaps inside help. That is truly worrying. He would have to review the security plans while assessing if he should augment the guards in other sensitive areas.

After Iruka gave his oral report of what transpired, he asked his companion to stay behind to which he received just a shrug in reply. Admittedly the old man was very intrigued about this stranger, as there was a familiar air about him. He saw everything of course through the scrying ball and the jutsu this young man used were truly remarkable.

"I appreciate the service you've rendered our village today, young man. But I must insist on knowing who you are." The Hokage spoke kindly but seriously.

"Well, in return I must ask for the courtesy of privacy from you," the boy replied politely. "Otherwise, it's a no deal."

The Hokage frowned at that. He was really curious as who this boy really is, and if he wants to know he'll have to take the risk. Not that it was a big one; he wasn't Hokage just for show and his ANBU guards wouldn't really be far away. He snapped his fingers and his guard detail disappeared.

"Now then, tell me you really are."

But instead of answering the boy merely made a shushing gesture with a mischievous smirk. He shook his head and walked towards the nearby window. He appeared to be simply admiring the view when he suddenly flicked his middle and fore fingers and murmured, "Shibireyubi! [Numbing Finger]" that resulted in a small flash. He then extended his hand and with a scratching motion in the air he intoned "Noren Mekuri" [Curtain Stripping] which revealed another masked shinobi as he fell to the ground incapacitated.

The commotion immediately summoned back the ANBU who as one they surrounded the the hooded young man with their tanto drawn and ready to strike. The Hokage too was readying himself while appearing to be calm on the outside. However, the boy seemed rather unconcerned to all the tension he had caused, or that four different blades were now ready to strike his neck, heart, back, and abdomen.

"Do not move, or you will die." One of the masked shinobi warned unnecessarily. The hooded figure just laughed.

"I do not know who you are, but I fail to see what is amusing in this situation," said the Hokage sternly. "What is the meaning of this?"

"Beats me, he wasn't supposed to be here, right?"

One of the ANBU turned the fallen man around and it was revealed that he too wore a mask similar to their own but it was plain white. "He's not in my detail, Hokage-sama."

The Hokage was quite incensed at this revelation. He immediately recognized the lack of markings on the mask and its implications. "Very well secure that man and send him to Ibiki. I want every last drop of information squeezed out of him, no matter what it takes. As for you, no more games."

"Aww, c'mon, we haven't seen each other for three years, and this is how you greet me, old man," the stranger said in what he thought was a jaunty, winning voice. A voice that was immediately recognized by the Sandaime. His tired old eyes widened in shock, his pipe dropped to the floor and his body tensed but the young man clucked his tongue and shook his head in mock disappointment. "That's not the way to treat your favorite knucklehead now, is it, ji-ji?"

"Na— Naruto?" the old man stammered, unsure whether this is truly real. "Is that really you? How—"

"Do you really want to know?" he asked in return with a slightly sarcastic tone as he tilted his head indicating the ANBU that haven't moved an inch although they too were shocked at what was happening. A thief captured, a spy exposed in this very office, all done by someone who is supposed to be missing.

Sarutobi cleared his throat, picked up his pipe then nodded to the ANBU in the room. They slowly withdrew from the pair before disappearing altogether from view. Both knew, though, that they were still there ready to intervene should something happens again. "Yes, I'm afraid they were simply doing their job. Such rash behavior inside this office is not conducive to your health; you know this, if you truly are Uzumaki Naruto."

"What's life without a few risks?" he asked rhetorically while shrugging. Then he gave off a snicker. "Besides I wanted to see your reaction. Don't worry that jutsu will be good for the next hour, he won't be able to use his muscles for the time being," Naruto added helpfully as two ANBU dragged the captured spy to the interrogation unit.

The figure claiming to be Naruto threw back his hood. It revealed a head crowned with blond hair in the same shade to that of Naruto and Minato. But it wasn't in the style that the Hokage remembered: it was a lot longer and a lot less spiky, with the back part reaching down the nape while the bangs framed his cheeks, giving it a messy windswept look. Just behind his right ear was a braided lock of hair in deep crimson color that reminded the old man of Uzumaki Kushina and Uzumaki Mito. Dangling from his left ear was a black earing with a pendant shaped like a magatama.

Naruto's face was less rounded, leaner and more defined, taking in more of Namikaze Minato's features. His most prominent feature, namely the whisker-like birthmarks on his cheeks, was even more striking in their absence. One needs to look very closely to see what's left of them. But the thing that caught the Sandaime's attention was the eyes of the boy: they are as blue as the sky in the summer, bright and keen, yet deep and profound as though touched by the frost of time. His whole bearing was at first glance easy-going and relax, yet he exudes restrained power and an air of nobility around him.

The old man had so many questions he was at a lost where to begin. "Where have you been, Naruto? We were so worried."

"Oh, here and there," a small teasing grin graced his face.

"Naruto," said Sarutobi began warningly. In face he was conflicted as to what he feels as this moment. Relief, shock, anger, happiness, surprise, annoyance, even dread warred inside himself.

"Fine. I guess I do owe you an explanation," Naruto cut him off, almost pouting, "There is only so much I could tell you, but even so I would prefer it to be a little more, ah, private."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, we do a lot to discuss, you and I," said Naruto with an air of someone explaining the weather. "For one, my father and mother, Namikaze Minato and Uzumaki Kushina, have left an important message. And my, ah, tenant, we need to discuss that too."

For the Hokage's part it felt as though his heart was about to give up on him at this revelations. These were S-Rank village secrets. Who could have told the child? He could even feel the ANBU that were left tensing at these information that they weren't even privy to, at least officially. Naruto simply looked at him with a sly smile that promised mischief on his part. Sarutobi felt as old as his age, his countenance marred by sadness and regret. "I'm very sorry, Naruto. I made those secret hoping to protect you and give you a measure of normality. But I've failed miserably. I've failed you and your parents. I hope you can forgive me."

"Well, being sorry is a start," said Naruto with a bite of snark in his voice. Then his demeanor abruptly changed, his face set and eyes colder than ice. "They were secrets pertaining to me but was kept from me. I revealed them openly for if there's anyone with the right to do it, its me and I care not what others may think or do about it. But now our conversation must be private and I will brook no more delays."

With that Naruto, with his hand outstretch on his sides, unleashed his chakra. The Hokage was positively alarmed as the room was blanketed by chakra so strong it felt smothering, almost a physical weight bearing down on him. He saw his ANBU struggling to breathe, sprawled on the floor, at least one vomited another already uncouncious. The office had started shaking but before further damage could happen, it stopped. Sarutobi looked up an saw he and Naruto was standing inside a bubble that shimmered with the colors of the rainbow. There were glowing seal arrays slowly moving on the surface of the bubble.

The boy turned back to the Hokage. "Sorry about that, this technique requires a lot of chakra to activate and maintain."

"What did you do?" asked the old man, still catching his breath. That was some serious amount of chakra, certainly on a level of a kage at least. Yet Naruto looked as though it was nothing. Does that mean he has more to spare?

"Just a space-time bubble, a barrier and seal combination, to give us a much needed privacy." Kaikyou Kotei [Realm Bounday Fixation] was a technique combining fuuinjutsu and jikukan [space-time] ninjutsu. It allows to caster to envelope anything in a barrier that resist the flow of time-stream, essentially making time stand still within that pocket of space. "Now lets talk, shall we?"

Sarutobi Hiruzen, Sandaime Hokage of Konohagakure, had never felt as old and helpless as he did right now. For the last two hours inside the space-time barrier, Naruto recounted everything that had happened since the day he disappeared. His head was literally spinning with all the information.

While he was a witness to the actual sealing of the Kyuubi into Naruto, much of what has happen leading to the Nine-Tail's release was never known and only speculated on. But thanks to Minato and Kushina's foresight, they now have a better picture of what had transpired. To finally learned how the greatest disaster that had almost brought Konoha to its knees, it was oddly satisfying and foreboding at the same time.

But it also brought a lot of questions. Who was the masked man who decimated a whole platoon of experienced ANBU, killed his wife Biwako, and fought the Yondaime into an impasse? A man who apparently can control something as powerful as the Kyuubi to do his bidding. If he could do that to the Kyuubi, can he do that to other bijuu as well? And the thought that since the man was still at large then he could do it all over again, sent shivers of fear down his old spine. It really is a worrisome thought and something that has a high chance of happening in the future.

Another thing he closely observed was the changes that happened to Naruto and how seemingly he embodies contradiction. He certainly has grown up, and not just physically. Gone was the fidgety, hyperactive boy with the attention span of a toddler. Here before him was a serious young man whose maturity transcends his age. The gaze he held was fearless and resolute and his manner screamed of hidden strength. He sat there seemingly relaxed and at ease but Sarutobi know well enough the power he was reining in. Still there were hints of the young boy he knew, especially that mischievous smirk and that glint in his eyes that he always had whenever pranking somebody.

Whereas the old Naruto he knew was loud, brash, and somewhat rude, this one was thoughtful, calm, and cordial. Yet the old man could easily detect the steely quality underneath the patina of politeness that is often only heard from seasoned warriors. He held himself with a bearing of a prince, confident of his place in the world, but without that arrogance that came along with it. The Hokage found him intelligent, sharp, and minced not his words, sometimes brutally so, not caring a jot if it was the Sandaime Hokage he was talking to.

The boy was now fully aware of his ancestry and what it entails. It wasn't a bad thing, but it surely will complicate matters especially with the village council as Naruto was now the sole remnant of the Uzumaki clan in Konoha and apparently the incumbent doshu. Sarutobi knew enough of the Uzumaki to recognize that title, having met one in his lifetime; to find out that Naruto had been somehow chosen was truly astonishing. Add to the fact that he is the son and heir of the Yondaime Hokage who, while a clanless orphan, remains a revered figure of Konoha, Naruto could very well be a political force to be reckon with. In due time he would have to be appraised of his responsibilities as clan head.

Then there's his status as jinchuriki. The old man saw that it didn't really affected him; it was more of the fact that it was kept from him yet almost every adult knew what he held. Instead of helping him with his burden, he was abused and ostracized by those who owe their very existence to him and his family. That is something that must rectified as soon as possible and the Hokage will see to it.

He knew he wasn't being told everything though he could detect no obvious lie. While Naruto skillfully dissembled details that he did not wish to share, the Hokage was an experienced enough conversationalist to easily spot the fact that lot of things were omitted. He tried to probe more about it but Naruto artfully sidestepped his questions, focusing instead on what what Minato and Kushina had conveyed. Sarutobi sighed inwardly; that's another thing that's weighing down on him. Minato had expressed his disappointment and Kushina her outrage, in a way he was glad he didn't get to meet them instead; he would have been dead a thousand times over by Kushina's hand alone.

The old man could have pressed on but he didn't want to antagonize the lad; if the subtle barbs were any indication, it really wouldn't go well for him. He could already feel the simmering anger just below the surface. The boy's trust in him have taken a great hit as one could expect, how much he didn't know yet; maybe in time he will regain that trust and Naruto would tell him. As long as it doesn't affect the village security, he'll let it be. For now there are more pressing matters to be addressed.

"So, in essence the attack was deliberate and orchestrated. But to actually control the Kyuubi, who could have that kind of power? And what was his motive?" mused the old man.

"Most likely an Uchiha," was Naruto's answer. "Only they have the motive and the means to do it."

"What?" Sarutobi was both intrigued and worried. "What makes you say that?"

"Remember what I said. Who was the last known person to control the Kyuubi without being a jinchuuriki?"

"Uchiha Madara, who used the bijuu to battle the Shodaime," the old Hokage gasped in realization. While they did suspect the Uchiha to have a hand in the mess, they never did have any evidence. And nobody would have thought that any living member of the clan was capable of controlling the powerful tailed beast. "According to Tobirama-sensei, the Nidaime, only someone with a Sharingan could control a bijuu in such a way."

"Correct. To be more precise, only someone with an evolved form of the Sharingan, the Mangekyou Sharingan, can affect the Kyuubi by using its genjutsu-based powers. Not to mention that the said assailant used a form of space-time ninjutsu that appeared to be centered around his right eye, which points to a eye-based technique. Dad actually reached the same conclusion, even so far as thinking it was indeed Uchiha Madara who had returned to exact his revenge on the village."

"But that's impossible," objected the Sandaime. "He would be more than a hundred years old by then. While its not unheard of for the Uzumaki, its totally unheard of from the Uchiha."

"Oh, you don't know how some people go to great lengths to postpone the inevitable," said Naruto thinking of Tomohisa and all that he did; Sarutobi meanwhile was forcefully reminded of his wayward student. "In any case, we know that it was an Uchiha with a Mangekyou Sharingan that caused the Kyuubi to be released. He uses space-time techniques able to penetrate barriers and seals with ease. The threat he represents is very real and something we must prepare for. By his own words, he will come again."

There was a brief lull in their conversation as Naruto rummaged for something inside his pocket. It turned out to be a scroll which he gave to the Hokage who looked at him with questioning eyes. "I made my own investigations, poking around the village, made some unsettling discoveries. On the top of the list was the fact that a secret militia is operating right under your nose, old man. You don't need anymore evidence do you, seeing they've even managed to infiltrate your very office? One wonders what else are they up to, and to whom do they answer?"

Sarutobi fell silent. He knew very well Naruto was referring about ROOT, the shadowy branch of the ANBU that was once controlled by Shimura Danzou, his erstwhile rival. He had ordered it disbanded many years ago, and the Yondaime had enforced that decision, but it would seem his warlike colleague was up to his old tricks once more. He was supposed to be the Kage and yet his so-called advisers have been running circles around him and he did little to curb their abuse of power. He wondered what exactly had they've been doing behind his back.

Naruto was simply shaking his head in disappointment at the man he used to greatly respect. He might have been a powerful leader once, respectable and worthy of his title, but it seem his spirit have been withered away by the passage of time. To be fair, its not an easy job and it takes a special sort of person fill the shoes of a Kage, but it was his job and no one else's.

"What you do with that information is up to you. But do try to do the right thing this time, will you? I hate to think that the village my distant relatives and my kinsmen have helped build, the village my father and mother sacrificed the lives for, the one I still allow to exist, fall into the hands of a few misguided, power-hungry fools through the negligence of its leader."

The old man took a double take at the venom of Naruto's voice. While he knew he made a lot of mistakes lately, some of them so great he couldn't begin to think of a way to rectify them, for it to be slapped into his face by the boy who he considered as his own grandson was something he could hardly bear. He looked at Naruto's cold, steely glare.

"I'm truly sorry, Naruto. I wish I could have done things differently, but my faith in the village and its people have blinded me from reality. I hope I could make it better— "

"Then start acting like the goddamned Hokage you're supposed to be!" Naruto all but spat, unable to control all his pent-up frustration and anger any longer. He took a deep breath before continuing. "Why you announced my status as jinchuriki to the whole village is beyond me. Oh, sure you made some stupid law that was hardly enforced anyway. Then you kept not only the existence of the bijuu from me but also the information about my parents. I've asked you so many times! All that for what? A misguided attempt to protect me? Did it? Did you do that your own children? Hell, even I knew about your grandson. You could claim senility but you and I both know it wouldn't wash. Or was you're intention to have me beaten and downtrodden all along?"

"Of course not!" Sarutobi was indignant and hurt at the accusation even as he felt like a child being scolded for something he knew he did wrong. And he knew any excuse he can offer was feeble at best. "How can you say that, Naruto? I care for your as a grandson, and I wish I could have done more to ensure you're welfare." He looked away and sighed. "I was a fool who believed his own lies, a deluded and tired old fool who refused to see what was happening."

"That much is clear," Naruto said but with less venom. He decided to cut the old man some slack, but only a small one. "I can forgive you, old man, if only out of gratitude for what you did for me, inadequate though it was. But my forgiveness does not extend to the villagers. They will have to earned it the hard way.

"I am my father's son, and as such I will defend this village and what it stands for; however, I am the heir of the Uzumaki legacy, I will exact justice from those who will wrong me and mine and I will not be denied. I do not want them kissing up my ass, but neither will I take their attitude towards me lying down whoever they may be. Make sure that they understand that, otherwise you might just need to buy a lot of body bags."

The old man could only nod grimly as he knew the boy wasn't bluffing. When Naruto had said 'The one I still allow to exist' in reference to the village, Sarutobi's old knees almost failed him. He knew at that moment that Naruto was through taking crap from the villagers, and he himself had better deliver or Naruto will do it of him. Young though he was, the jinchuriki knew the power he possessed and apparently had the knowledge to use it. The Sandaime also knew that as clan leader Naruto had the right to uproot and seek a new home somewhere else, like a rival village— which will cause problems of a different sort for Konoha given who he is and what he have inside him. Sarutobi was more than happy that Naruto seemed willing to give the village a second chance, and he wasn't about to squander it even if it means heads will have to roll. He will make sure of it this time, perhaps a stronger reminder would get the message across.

"As for the Uzumaki clan status," continued Naruto in a more business-like mien, "As I'm rightfully the doshu, I have the right to reinstate the original provisions of the agreement made by the Shodaime and Nidaime in exchange for the continued alliance of my clan to Konoha. Additionally I have the best claim for the headship of the clan, as my mother was descended from a clan head and never officially rescinded her family name."

"Are you planning to reestablish the clan?" Sarutobi asked.

"In due time, yes. I know there are Uzumaki who survived the destruction of the village out there. I will have to find them and try to convince them to relocate here. Which reminds me, I know my parents' house was largely destroyed but what happen to their assets?"

"Very little were saved, I'm afraid. The house and everything in it was obliterated in the attack. However, the land does belong to you as their heir and the savings they have had was put into a trust account for your future use. I will have both transferred to you as soon as possible."

"Hmm, yes I could use the land and perhaps build the new clan house there. My present accommodation is not the most ideal at the moment. And the money would be of great use." Naruto didn't reveal that what money his parents had left for him would be a drop in the ocean compared to the enormous wealth Tomohisa had accumulated and stashed away in the shrine. At that Naruto got up. "I need to release the barrier soon, any longer and it will collapse taking both of us in it."

"I just want to say, Naruto, that I'm proud of you and I'm glad you are back with us." Sarutobi gave him a warm, sincere smile. "Thank you for giving this old fool another chance."

"Don't thank me yet, old man." Naruto wore an impish grin and, with a single hand seal, dispelled the barrier in a flash of color. They found themselves back inside the Hokage's office with the ANBU still sprawled on the floor. Sarutobi noticed that the clock hardly moved since they left, which he estimated was at least two hours ago.

"By the way, Naruto, what about your education. You were supposed to be part of this year's graduating class. I can tell you are strong and skilled, but you do need to be in a genin team," explained the Hokage.

"I don't mind, though it's complete waste of time for me. I'm already familiar with all the Academy's instruction materials, quite basic stuff many of which are useless in the battlefield. Perhaps I'll use it as a chance to reconnect with my peers." Naruto shrugged.

"Very well," Sarutobi agreed inwardly as anyone who can use the jutsu he did was certainly beyond any academy student. "But I hope you would agree to have your skills tested? That way we could have baseline for your files."

"And you're just curious," snorted Naruto while Sarutobi coughed to hide his embarrassment at being so caught easily. "Fine, I'll show you some of what I can do."

"I'm sure you will surprise me. OK, two days from now I want you to be at Training Ground 44 in three in the afternoon. Where will you be staying for the mean time?"

Naruto nodded his assent, he knew that place well enough. "I think I'll check out my old apartment, if not, I'll managed. Well, I'm sure you have a lot to do so I won't take any more of your time. Nighty-night!"

With a comical wave, Naruto vanished from the office leaving the pensive Hokage to his thoughts and the tasks that lay ahead of him.


1.) So clear the sound that it reached the Big Dipper- trivial deeds of men. - This is my personal (repeat: personal) interpretation/rephrasing of a haiku of Matsu Basho (1644-1694). It is by no means an authoritative translation or interpretation; nor does it follow the haiku meter. If you're interested the haiku reads, as translated by Makoto Ueda, as:

so clear the sound
echoes to the Big Dipper
the fulling block

The 'fulling block' refers to a wooden mallet that was used to beat the cloth to help dry and soften it.

- Whew! That's it for this chapter -