The Windmill Turns Both Ways
Rated T for ninja violence/language; Time travel fic; Gen-fic (no pairings); COMPLETE. This fic starts off with canon timelines but becomes AU once changes start happening.
Posted v1: [9/21/13] v2: [9/21/16]
1: Introduction Arc: Part I
One hundred thousand organic clones made from the cells of Senju Hashirama grew in the vast cavern, rustling and shifting beneath the unsuspecting earth. Kabuto looked down at them from the water's surface and cracked a sly smile.
After being accepted as an ally in the upcoming war, he was brought to this cavern and shown the army Tobi was growing. It was a show of good faith that they were all on the same side now. But Kabuto had gone through some changes lately, and he wasn't as interested in their alliance anymore. That was why he was in this room alone, in secret, for the sake of his own ambitions.
Well, not entirely alone. He knelt down on the water to get a better look at what lurked below. The silence defied the sheer amount of life in this cave. Itachi and Nagato were standing behind him, still and silent as everything else, mindless puppets with blank eyes and vacant expressions. The one presence that Kabuto didn't take into account, however, was the one that watched him with suspicion.
Zetsu the original didn't trust Kabuto. Neither did Tobi, for that matter, which was why Zetsu was now keeping an eye on their new partner. His head was poking out of the wall high up in the dark heights of the cavern, watching Kabuto carefully as he looked down at Zetsu's thousands of weaker siblings.
"What an incredible source of life energy. Hashirama was a really remarkable man," Kabuto murmured.
The command was unspoken, but no less compelling. Kabuto inclined his head toward the stem of the great plant, and Nagato walked forward and laid his hands on it.
And what does he plan to do with that? Zetsu wondered.
Nagato was absorbing chakra from the plant. His silver hair turned blood-red, and Kabuto grinned to himself again. He stuck his hand under the water and shot a stream of snakes down toward the mob. The Zetsu clones didn't react, not even when the snakes wrapped themselves around a single one and tore it away from its brothers. It was dragged up to the surface and smuggled into Kabuto's voluminous cloak by the time Nagato came walking back to his side.
"Let's go," Kabuto said, Body Flickering away. Itachi and Nagato followed behind him.
The Time-Spanning Incarnation Jutsu. When Kabuto first discovered the thin research notebook in a hidden room of Orochimaru's lair, he never expected the incomplete jutsu would become an obsession for him. Since the moment he discovered it and started piecing its missing elements together, it gradually wormed into his thoughts until he forgot everything else. The war, Edo Tensei—all of it.
At the time, he didn't question why. The idea was just so intoxicating to him. Why should he limit himself to stealing the fixed powers of shinobi that were dead and gone, if it were possible to take living ones—still malleable, still changing? To take them from a younger age, while their potential was still being realized? All it required was the summoning formula, the right power, and a compatible vessel.
It was harder than it sounded. If his theory was correct, this jutsu had the potential to utterly destroy the user. Time travel was a crime against the natural order of things, after all. As a rule, the past was meant to stay pressed and preserved between the pages of time and never opened again.
That was why the idea to make one of his Edo Tensei puppets perform it was nothing less than sheer genius. With the energy that he'd made Nagato absorb, and the fact that the undead couldn't die even if the jutsu backfired, it had to work.
And he'd chosen the perfect medium for the summoning. A Zetsu clone was a body with amazing powers of adaptability; one that would maintain its underlying properties even after superimposing another will upon it. It had the capacity to imitate living tissue almost flawlessly, yet it wasn't bound by the same rules. Kabuto scanned over his work with satisfaction.
The stolen Zetsu clone was laid out on the stone floor of one of Orochimaru's old hideouts. At its feet was an unrolled scroll: a copy of the summoning formula. Kabuto didn't understand every nuance of the formula, but he didn't need to in order to copy it down and use it. There was no danger to himself, after all.
And if it endangered the one he intended to drag out of the past, what of it?
"Oi, Naruto. Can you make a delivery for me, since you're done with that?"
Naruto peered at Teuchi over the edge of his ramen bowl, slurping down the last of the broth. He set the bowl down with a loud, contented sigh and rubbed the back of his head.
"I'd like to, gramps, but I'm supposed to be meeting Iruka-sensei here. He's running late, but…"
"Come on," Teuchi insisted, putting the delivery box on the counter. "I'll tell him where you are. That bowl you just had as an appetizer will be on me."
"Awright!" Naruto snatched the box and bill slip. "I'll be right back!"
Naruto jogged lightly through the village, feeling very content with the world. It always felt good to see home again after a mission, but this last one had not only been crazy dangerous—even Orochimaru showed up at one point—but it was also more important than any before. After all the pain, terror, and uncertainly left in the village in the wake of the disastrous chuunin exams and the Sandaime Hokage's death, the village had a strong pillar to rebuild on again. He had brought them a Hokage, and all the security and hope that came with the title.
Ero-Sennin had been there too, of course; it's not like he could take all the credit. Jiraiya had taken care of most of the whole fighting-super-dangerous-missing-nin part. Facing two Akatsuki members and Orochimaru within the span of a single journey would have been a bit too much for Naruto to handle alone.
Still, it seemed like most people didn't even realize that Naruto had gone on the mission to find Tsunade, much less be grateful for his help. It was disappointing not to get the recognition his heroic efforts deserved. Naruto couldn't be upset at a time like this, though. Not when it felt like the great oppressive blanket of fear and mourning had finally been lifted off the village.
"Delivery!" Naruto chirped, stepping into the Yamanaka flower shop.
"Naruto?" Ino stood up from where she had been sitting behind the counter.
"Oh, good," a tall, vaguely recognizable man with a long blond ponytail came walking in from the back. "Since kaa-chan is out today, I thought we'd have lunch in the shop, Ino. Fast service! Thanks for bringing that, Naruto-kun."
Ino pointed at Naruto accusingly, other hand on her hip. "But why are you the one bringing it? Is there even anything left in that box?"
"Pfft, why would I need your ramen? Iruka-sensei's back there waiting to treat me! Later!" after raising his hand in a brief wave, he turned to run out.
"Wait—Naruto!" Ino called after him, and he turned back around. "Sasuke-kun…has there been any…"
Naruto looked at her hopeful, anxious face and broke into a wide grin.
"I finally dragged Tsunade-baachan down to the hospital a few hours ago," he said, giving the sparkling thumbs-up he'd learned from Lee. "She used her medical ninjutsu on Sasuke and he woke up right away. He's going to be alright!"
Ino covered her mouth, tears welling up in her eyes. "Thank goodness."
"You can go to the hospital after we eat," Inoichi said gently. "I'll look after things here."
Smiling, Naruto turned and dashed out. That warm feeling was expanding in his chest, making his heart float like a balloon.
No—right now, it didn't matter. It was enough to know that he'd had a part in something significant for the village… and his friends. It was worth it to see Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei open their eyes again, and Sakura's smile.
Naruto went back the way he came, dodging civilians pushing wheelbarrows and carrying timber, repairing the damage from Orochimaru's attack. Everyone was working cheerfully, banded together and confident in the village's strength. They no longer had the anxious air of a leaderless people that might be attacked by a foreign power at any moment.
As expected, Iruka was there when he got back. He looked up when Naruto came in, slurping the noodles that were hanging halfway out of his mouth.
"Iruka-sensei!" Naruto cried indignantly. "You couldn't wait until I got back?"
"Hm," he snorted as Naruto slid into the seat beside him and Teuchi quickly put a fresh bowl of ramen in front of the boy. "You started it. You didn't wait until I got here—Teuchi-san told me."
"But," Naruto frowned. "I was hungry and it was boring just sitting around here waiting. What made you so late, anyway? Tsunade-baachan reminded me I was meeting you, and I ran here all the way from the hospital, but you ended up way later than me. If I'd have known, I could have stuck around to see what she thought of Bushy—I mean Lee's injuries."
"Right, sorry," Iruka said. "I was in a meeting and it ran over a bit. Everyone is overworked. Academy classes have been disrupted so often lately that we're trying to negotiate a way to cover one another's classes, if someone has to leave suddenly or is needed for a mission."
"Mhm," Naruto mumbled through a mouthful of ramen.
Iruka watched him out of the corner of his eye with a small smile. "I heard that your trip ended up being pretty interesting. It's not every day you get to see all three Sannin in action at once. I bet the landscape didn't fare too well."
"It was incredible!" Naruto said eagerly. "And I won this from Baachan because she bet I couldn't learn my new jutsu in a week," he pulled the First Hokage's necklace from under his shirt. "Wait 'till you see my new jutsu! It's just as good as Sasuke's Chidori. He got ahead of me in the Exams, but I figure we're on equal ground now."
"You really have grown quickly, Naruto. It seems like just yesterday you wanted to borrow my headband."
"Right, right?" Naruto said gleefully. "Even someone like Ero-sennin acknowledged me and taught me the Rasengan. It's clear that I'm naturally awesome!"
"Now now, you have a long way to go yet," Iruka said with mock sternness, waving his chopsticks. "The village is going to need that strength in a time like this. Get ready to work even harder!"
Yes, they were getting back on their feet. The non-stop chaos since the start of the Exams gradually faded into the past. In three days, a new Hokage would be inaugurated, and everything would be alright. That was the mantra everyone from the civilians to the elites repeated to themselves.
"Isn't Tsunade-sama amazing?" Sakura said, her eyes shining with awe as she and Naruto looked up at the Hokage Tower from below. "It's strange seeing her in the Hokage hat after seeing an old man wear it for so long."
"Pfft," Naruto said, hands linked behind his head casually. "She's pretty old too, y'know. She just uses some technique to look young. But, yeah, she's still pretty cool."
"Just by her presence, you can tell she's a powerful shinobi. Just like Jiraiya-sama," Sakura said. "And Orochimaru was also like that, in the Forest of Death, even though that was more terrifying than anything. It makes you realize what it means to be Kage-level." She smiled cheekily, and Naruto grumbled.
"Whatever. I wouldn't want it to be too easy, or it wouldn't be worth going for," he said. "We can only go up from here, Sakura-chan."
"Mhm," Sakura absently touched the ends of her newly shortened hair. "I know I don't have a chance of being promoted to chuunin this time, since I didn't pass the preliminaries, but maybe you or Sasuke-kun will. After everything that happened, it's really made me realize that I have to become strong enough to handle things on my own in a situation. It can't all go one way; if we're a team, we protect one another." Her eyes drifted to where Sasuke and Kakashi were standing behind everyone else.
"You're right, but I'm not going to get knocked out and make you have to defend me ever again," Naruto crossed his arms. "That was just embarrassing."
Sakura's eyes flashed. "Oh, so it's embarrassing to be defended by me? You're welcome!"
Naruto winced. "No, I didn't mean it like that, Sakura-chan! I just meant… I should have been there to help, but I wasn't. And we had to rely on other teams until Sasuke took out those Sound guys. I still don't even really know what happened with all of that."
"Oi," Kiba butted in. Team 8 had been beside them since the start of the inauguration. "Do either of you know when they're supposed to tell us who made chuunin?"
"Whoever made it would probably know by now," Shino intoned. "Why? Because Kurenai-sensei said the Godaime would follow the choice the Sandaime already made."
"That's probably true, but she's bound to have been busy with other things besides the chuunin selection. Not to mention that there are some other people who also get a say in it," Sakura said.
"I haven't seen anyone promoted yet," Kiba said. "God, it would be so annoying if they just called it off and no one gets it."
"No way, the other countries wouldn't stand for that," Sakura said dismissively, waving a hand. "If no one makes it, it'll be because no one was good enough. Why do you care, anyway? You lost in the preliminaries like I did."
"Well, Naruto beat me that time, but if he beat me to chuunin too, I'd have to seriously consider quitting as a ninja—" he dodged Naruto's punch with a cackle and hid behind Hinata, who spluttered at being brought into the middle of it. Akamaru barked excitedly from on top of Kiba's hood.
"Bastard!" Naruto fumed as Sakura held him back. "I'll take you on any time! And quit hiding behind Hinata!"
"He didn't mean it, Naruto-kun, he was just trying to provoke you—" Hinata started. Her words were drowned out by the sound of applause. They had missed the end of Tsunade's address, and now it was over. Guiltily, they broke apart and joined the applause.
Tsunade, Jiraiya, and the Elders left the roof of the tower and the crowd was gradually dispersing. A lot of people had duties and missions to get back to already, but those that didn't lingered around. Most of the stores and restaurants were staying open late tonight, and it was sort of like a miniature holiday, as most of the nonessential shinobi and civilian workers had the day off.
"How do you feel, Sasuke-kun?" Sakura asked as she and Naruto drifted back to the rest of their team.
"Tired," he said, not bothering to elaborate. He looked tired. There were bags under his eyes even though he'd spent so much time sleeping recently.
"Eh, you just need to go home and rest," Naruto said gruffly. "You're still better off than you were yesterday, so I'm sure you'll be at full strength tomorrow."
"Maybe… maybe we should ask if our team can wait a little longer before we go on any missions?" Sakura glanced from Sasuke to Kakashi.
"No," Sasuke said, his voice sharpening. "I'm not so weak I can't handle whatever stupid little D or C-ranked mission they decide to send us on next. It's better than sitting around here doing nothing."
"Well…" Kakashi said, and he eye-smiled when they all turned to look at him. "Just so you all know, I think you will have to do this next one on your own. I have a solo mission starting, but you three will be sent out once you are ready, whether I am back or not. Perhaps it will be more of a challenge than you think."
Sasuke just gave a 'hn' in response, which rolled off of Kakashi, as usual.
"I have to be up very early, unfortunately, so I will see you all later," Kakashi said. He casually withdrew his Icha Icha Paradise and walked off with his nose buried in it.
"Early? That sounds suspicious to me," Naruto said.
"A mission on our own…" Sakura bit her lower lip.
"Don't worry, Sakura-chan. After all, it can't be worse than the Forest of Death, and we did that on our own," Naruto said confidently. "And Sasuke has his Chidori once he gets better, and I just got a super-awesome new jutsu that I didn't have back then, either." He hinted the last part heavily while looking at Sasuke, but the other boy didn't take the bait. He just stood there with his hands in his pockets and a dispassionate expression.
"I guess I'm going home," Sasuke said. "Don't bother me tonight unless it's about a mission or making chuunin."
"I'm going home, too," Sakura said quickly. "I'll walk with you part of the way." Sasuke didn't answer, but she started after him anyway when he didn't say no.
"B-but Sakura-chan, I thought we could…" Naruto started, but the other two were walking away and had stopped listening. Naruto sighed and scratched his head. Now what?
Evening was gathering in the edges of the sky, and he hadn't eaten since the morning. It'd be boring to go somewhere alone, but he was reluctant to leave the celebratory atmosphere downtown. Naruto settled for people-watching on a wall while he slowly finished off some dango.
I wonder how Gaara's doing, he thought.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky and he was just thinking about going home, Jiraiya found Naruto and told him that he was leaving Konoha tonight.
"What?" Naruto jumped down from the wall he'd been sitting on. "But why? You just got back to the village! And Tsunade-baachan is your old teammate, right? Why don't you want to stay around a little longer? I'm not sure if Shizune-neechan can keep her in line alone."
"I was invited to the party, of course, but me being there wouldn't help at all," Jiraiya said, shaking his head. "Besides, it's going to be a more diplomatic affair than Tsunade's really wanting anyway. The whole Council and the Clan Heads are going to be there, so it's all very aboveboard."
"In other words, you're trying to escape the politics," Naruto guessed.
Jiraiya grimaced. "Hey now, I really have some things to do. I help Konoha maintain its ties in other lands, after all! That's especially important now that we have a new Hokage. A long-time teammate has the best insight into her personality and policies."
"You mean Konoha's ties in other lands' bathhouses," Naruto muttered.
Jiraiya just smiled and ruffled Naruto's hair. "You'll see me again really soon. I've just got a few important things to check on, and depending on that, I'll need to come back here for an important mission."
"What's that?" Naruto asked quickly.
"If it concerns you then you'll know then; if not, then you don't have to worry about it. Later, kid." He waved with a smirk and walked off through the thinning crowd, heading in the direction of the village gate.
Naruto huffed mildly and stretched. Everyone was packing up now, so he decided to finally go on home, too.
Walking lazily through the streets, Naruto's thoughts drifted back to the inauguration. He imagined himself standing in front of a large crowd wearing the Hokage hat and looking out over everyone with his arms crossed in a cool pose (looking older, and stronger, and ravishingly handsome, of course). His teammates behind him, and his village before him, he'd say something impossibly badass, but also very profound and inspirational. And he would invite Tsunade to his party and let her drink and gamble as much as she wanted. The thought made him grin widely to himself.
When Naruto got into his pajamas and crawled into bed minutes after arriving home, he was still so absorbed in fantasizing about the future that he would wonder later whether everything that came after was just the by-product of his overactive imagination.
There was one problem with that theory: none of his visions of the future included war.
Naruto grumbled in a half-conscious protest against the sun filtering through his eyelids. He rolled over and made to pull the covers over his head, but couldn't find them. Frowning slightly, he moved his hand around to try to find his blanket, but he still couldn't feel it. Annoyed, he opened his eyes—and blinked in confusion.
Naruto sat up hesitantly, looking around. He was in the forest, at the base of a very large tree. The light looked like early morning, and the air was slightly chilly. He was wearing the same thing he went to bed in: a pair of orange shorts and a black shirt with a spiral on it.
"What the hell?" Pause. Naruto shook his head and slapped the sides of his face, but nothing changed. It didn't feel like a dream. Was it genjutsu?
He stood up and looked around uneasily. They were taught to search for anything strange, to tip of the presence of an illusion. Naruto squinted toward the edge of the trees, where the sun shone brighter, and thought he could see a few wooden buildings in the distance.
"If this is an illusion, I'm probably supposed to go there, and then it's a trap," he murmured, scratching his head. Oh, well. Facing it directly was way better than sitting around waiting. He turned and ran up the side of the tree he'd been laying under… and only made it up a couple of meters before his feet detached. It was so unexpected that Naruto fell backwards with an undignified cry and landed hard enough to knock the wind out of him.
"Ow!" A few leaves fluttered down and landed on his hair and face. He stood up and shook them off. "What was that?"
Naruto held up his hand in a half-ram seal and concentrated on his chakra. To his surprise, it was almost completely depleted. He could feel a small trickle that was steadily replenishing his reserves, but it felt… odd. Slippery to control.
And the fox's energy, too. He could sense it—that was good at least—but barely. If his own lack of chakra was worrying, that was downright alarming.
"Man, this is bad." Naruto opened his eyes. He wished that he'd gotten Sakura to teach him how to dispel genjutsu so he'd at least be able to tell whether all this was real or not. But (as far as he knew) even the most skilled users couldn't keep a genjutsu going forever, so that question would soon resolve itself one way or another.
Deciding to act rather than trying to guess at the details, Naruto walked carefully toward the distant buildings. If he wanted to figure out where he was, or find the person casting this illusion on him, that was surely the place to go… trap or not.
It was a small village he didn't recognize; just a collection of farm houses here and there, with fields stretching all around. A few people were in the fields already, tending to the crops. Naruto could see a few chickens pecking on the side of the road near a dusty building. He squared his shoulders and started to walk, keeping an eye out all around him. At least this place still looked like the Land of Fire. Maybe there was a small glimmer of hope?
As he approached, a boy about his age that was hoeing near the edge of the road stopped in his work to stare at him.
This was it. Naruto took a deep breath and put on a friendly look. "Uh, hey! I was wondering if—"
"DAD! KITO! THERE'S A WEIRD GUY HERE!" the boy yelled toward what looked like a work shed nearby, cupping his hands around his mouth for volume.
"No, wait!" Naruto said, waving his hands. "I'm not anyone suspicious, I just—"
"What're you yelling about, Shinji?" a middle aged-looking man and a younger man came out of the shed. They were wearing thick gloves and belts with wood-working tools in them.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle anyone!" Naruto said. "I'm just lost, and I was hoping you could give me some directions."
"He came out of the woods!" Shinji said, holding the tool like he wanted to run Naruto through with it. "He might be a bandit!"
"What the hell makes you think I'm a bandit, bastard?" Naruto finally lost his cool and shrieked at the other boy. "Do you have dirt clods for eyes?"
"I like this kid," the young man, Kito, laughed.
"Calm down, Shinji," the older man sighed. "Please forgive my son," he added to Naruto. "The shinobi that was posted here on watch had to be called back to Konoha recently, so we're all a little on edge. We've heard that criminals have been taking advantage of places where the shortage is leaving them undefended."
"Oh, so that's it." Naruto was still confused, but at least he was in his own country. Though, he'd never considered that the shortage would affect ordinary citizens like this. Iruka hadn't been kidding about how serious things were.
"I'm actually on my way to Konoha right now," Naruto said. "Can you tell me how to get there from here?"
"It's not far," Kito said, "But…" his eyes traveled over Naruto's odd appearance, from his bright clothes to his shoeless feet."You should probably rethink going there right now. The village is still recovering from the attack, and Hokage-sama isn't letting visitors come in for the most part, except for aid workers. Most of our people went to help build in order to feel a little protected within the walls, since Tsugi-san had to be called back into duty. It's a mess over there."
Naruto frowned. Were things really that bad? "Well, that's alright, I'm not a visitor. I may not look it right now, but I'm actually a Konoha shinobi. Uzumaki Naruto, nice to meet you!" he added brightly.
The three glanced at one another and all burst out laughing at the same time.
"What's so funny?" Naruto fumed. Okay, so he didn't exactly look very official in his nightclothes. But that wasn't his fault!
"So, you're the Land of Fire's Jinchuuriki? Konoha's hero? The one who stopped Pein all by himself?" the old man chuckled.
"Pein… Jinchuuriki?" Naruto tilted his head uncomprehendingly, scowling. Now he was confused and annoyed. Unfortunately, that seemed to amuse them even more.
"I heard he was still pretty young, but there's no way he is a little squirt like you," Kito said. "It's cute that you look up to him, kid, but it's a hundred years too soon for you to go around claiming to be him."
Naruto was getting frustrated. "I'm not sure what you're talking about, but I am most definitely Uzumaki Naruto!" he slapped a hand on his chest. "And I am a Konoha shinobi, and I need to get back to my village before Tsunade-baachan finds out I'm missing and decides to beat me up for skipping out on missions when we're short on forces!"
This caused them to sober up a little bit.
"Well, if you really are a shinobi, even a weird one, it's true you need to get back there. Konoha needs all hands on deck right now," Kito said seriously.
"That's what I'm saying," Naruto said, nodding vigorously. "So can you help me out?"
"You just take this road south," The old guy said, pointing down the road. "It's about half a day's travel from here. Ah, well, probably less than that for a shinobi. I still find it hard to believe you are one, but if you weren't, I guess you wouldn't be fool enough to try to go to Konoha and pass for one."
"Where's your hitai-ate?" Shinji said suddenly, glaring at Naruto. "And all your ninja gear? And how did you end up here and not even know where Konoha is?"
Naruto grumbled and rubbed his head. "I dunno! I just woke up a little way into the woods there. I don't remember how I got here, so I'm hoping someone at home can figure out what happened."
"Ah… are you alright to go on your own?" Kito was looking doubtful, too.
"It's fine! It's fine," Naruto insisted, nodding. "But, um…" he looked down at his feet. "I need some shoes… I don't have any money on me, but I'll pay you back as soon as I get a chance if you'll let me borrow some."
They agreed, and even though Shinji protested, they let Naruto take a pair of his shoes. They were simple straw tabi, not nearly as good as his ninja sandals, but better than nothing. The boys' father also insisted that he take a small pack of onigiri with him. Naruto thanked them and promised repayment repeatedly.
"Will he really be alright, I wonder?" Kito mused as they watched the boy take the road toward Konoha.
His father shrugged. "If he's really with Konoha, there's nothing to worry about. If he's not an enemy, they probably won't do anything to him. Even if they're on high alert right now, Tsunade-sama is still kind."
Naruto munched on an onigiri, walking at a slower pace to eat, now that he was starting to recognize the surrounding area. He knew that he really wasn't far from Konoha at all.
His chakra was restoring itself very quickly, and the food helped. He found that he could climb up a tree if he went slowly and concentrated. He had already used that to confirm his location a couple of times.
The tension he felt waking up had evaporated, but he was still confused. So far, nothing horrible had happened to him, and no one had confronted him. The road was quiet.
Naruto didn't know that Konoha had resorted to discouraging visitors. It probably reduced the chances of Orochimaru or the Akatsuki slipping in again, but how were they accepting missions if no one was allowed in? Naruto shrugged mentally and licked his fingers when all the onigiri was gone. Hopefully, no one had noticed he was missing yet. Team 7 would probably assume he was out training if they had nothing to do, but if they were called to do a mission, he might be in big trouble. Naruto winced. How was he supposed to explain what happened, when he had no idea himself?
A sudden loud bark and deep throaty growl made him jump. Dropping into a battle-ready position in an instant, Naruto looked around quickly. The dense foliage on either side of the road made it difficult to see very far. He soon saw it, though. A huge white beast came stalking out of the bushes, head lowered menacingly. It was… an enormous dog.
Naruto stood very still and tried to figure out what to do. Distract it, and then run away? He might have enough chakra control for a few Kage Bunshin.
The dog came closer and sniffed at him. Suddenly it perked up its head, tongue lolling out of its mouth happily. It barked twice with a decidedly different tone than before and bounded up to Naruto, nosing at his face in greeting.
"Good dog…?" Naruto said warily, and the beast wagged its tail furiously.
"Oi! If it's just Naruto, then why did you run off so fast? You made it sound like there was an intruder or something," a familiar voice grumbled, and Naruto let out a breath he'd been holding when he saw Kiba emerge from the bushes behind the dog. "Sorry, Naruto. We were on perimeter duty and Akamaru heard you coming. We didn't smell you at first, so I think it threw him off a little bit." He walked closer and looked at Naruto suspiciously, then sniffed. He pondered for a moment then shrugged, apparently satisfied, and jumped onto the giant dog's back.
"Um…" Naruto said. "Are you saying… that… is Akamaru?"
Kiba frowned. "Well of course he is, duh."
"But… he's HUGE!" Naruto wailed, and Akamaru whined through his nose.
"Seriously, why do you always go on about that?" Kiba crossed his arms and scowled. "I haven't noticed any difference. You exaggerate too much."
Naruto spluttered, completely unable to put his words together, but Kiba ignored him. He and Akamaru turned to face down the path where Naruto was headed.
"I guess you're heading back to the village? We'll go too, since it's time for us to change shifts anyway. Our team's been on perimeter duty since early on." He didn't wait for an answer, and the alleged Akamaru broke into a light run.
"W-wait!" Naruto jogged to keep up with them. "Perimeter duty?"
"Yeah, we've been put on that for now, since we're all good tracker-types and all," Kiba yawned. "I wish we didn't have to start so early, though. Damn! I need a nap. My mom dragged me out of bed before I was even awake. Why are you coming back to the village so soon, anyway? I thought you had that S-rank mission with Gai-sensei and those other old guys."
"Eh? S-rank? With Huge Eybrows-sensei?" Since when did he get S-rank missions? Ones that he couldn't remember receiving, at that.
"Why are you asking me? You're the one that told me about it this morning," Kiba snapped, glancing over at him irritably. His gaze stayed a little longer this time though, as if he suddenly noticed something. "Naruto, did you change your clothes since this morning? You look weird."
"Ah…" Naruto laughed confusedly. He wondered if he really did leave on a mission that morning and ended up in some kind of enemy trap that caused him to have a memory lapse. Or maybe it just messed up his brain so that nothing made sense.
Then again… he eyed the huge Akamaru and looked at Kiba, realizing the other boy looked a little off, too. He sort of seemed taller and more built, though it was hard to tell next to the huge Akamaru. Or maybe Naruto just wasn't used to seeing Kiba without his trademark hoodie on. For some reason, instead, he was wearing a tough-looking leather jacket that made him seem… older, Naruto decided.
Maybe this was the sign of weirdness that he had been looking out for? Naruto tensed and glanced all around them as they ran. If someone was about to attack, he wished they'd get it over with already. All this tension and weirdness was getting on his nerves. He wasn't good at dealing with it.
They emerged on a hill Naruto was familiar with, one that overlooked the village.
"I'm gonna go around since I have to go report at the main gate," Kiba said. "See you later, I guess."
Naruto didn't answer. More specifically, he couldn't answer, because his voice stopped working. He stared down at his supposed home with wide eyes, and knew that this could not be reality.
The settlement he saw down below was only a little bit bigger than the one he had found earlier, and made of similar wooden structures. But it was nestled in a space much too big for it. Naruto would have denied to the end of his breath that it was Konoha, except that he easily recognized the village wall and gate, like his home had been gutted from the inside of its shell and hollowed out. And at the back of it, there was the iconic Hokage Monument, displaying five faces. Five faces, even though the Fifth Hokage had only been inaugurated yesterday.
Konoha was simply gone. There was a gaping hole in the ground where his village used to be, and that was terrifying even if there was no way it was real. A cold numbness weighed down his limbs and completely jammed his thoughts.
"Uh, are you okay?" he heard Kiba say distantly.
Akamaru barked. Naruto barely caught movement out of the corner of his eye before the feeling in his body suddenly returned, at the point where he felt a sharp pressure prick his throat. A kunai.
"Hey!" Kiba cried. "What're you—"
"If you're going to impersonate someone, you should research it a little better," Naruto heard a chilly voice from behind him. "Your disguise is out of date."
Naruto turned his head a little to the left, away from the edge of the knife. "K-Kakashi-sensei?" The man behind him tensed when he spoke.
"OI." Kiba interjected loudly. "What's going on?"
Naruto was going to ask the same thing, but when he turned his head some more, he caught sight of an angry red Sharingan, which swirled and pulled him into the blackness.
Naruto opened his eyes and gasped as if emerging from deep water. The first thing he noticed was that he was bound tightly to a chair, ropes tied to his ankles, wrists, and around his chest. He was sitting in dim wooden room. It was dingier than what he remembered of the Hokage's office, but that was unmistakably where he was. The desk in front of him had a banner with the kanji for "Hokage" draped over it and the Hokage herself was sitting behind it, arms crossed and looking at him with a great deal less warmth than he was used to seeing in her eyes. Morino Ibiki was standing behind her at a respectful distance, but still looking very imposing.
"Whatever it was, I didn't do it!" Naruto wailed, noticing Ibiki's presence. "Please don't torture me!"
"Tsunade-sama…" Kiba started, and Naruto looked to see both he and Kakashi there standing a little bit behind him. "I don't understand what's going on. What's got you and Kakashi-sensei so worked up? It's just Naruto…"
"Naruto left the village on a mission this morning," Kakashi said in a steely voice that sent a shiver down Naruto's spine. "Besides, can't you tell that this guy isn't our Naruto? He looks years younger, as if the enemy was working off of old data to try and imitate him."
Kiba scratched his face. "Does he? But he smells like Naruto…"
Tsunade leaned forward to rest her chin on her hands, eyes narrowed at Naruto. "If you put aside the fact that it is an outdated imitation, it is a perfect one, which apparently works even while the user is unconscious. It seems strange that an enemy would be able to pull off such a complete transformation, but make such a basic mistake as getting the age wrong."
"Akatsuki has created perfect copies in the past, using human sacrifices," Ibiki spoke up, stepping a little closer. "Though the user of that technique has been neutralized now, they showed it was possible. And we can't forget that Orochimaru also had considerable expertise in ninjutsu transformations, as well as actual physical alterations. With Yakushi Kabuto still at large, it's definitely possible."
"I agree; but the question is, why would they go through the trouble for a disguise that would be seen through right away?" Kakashi said. "And if they were going to send a spy, surely it wouldn't be one that could be taken out by a simple genjutsu."
Naruto was a little irked by that comment, but he was too confused and afraid to really feel angry about the potential slight at the moment. "Look, I don't know what's going on either, but I really am Naruto! Come on, Baachan… Kakashi-sensei!"
Kakashi sighed and rubbed his head. "There is another possibility… it could be that it is Naruto…" Naruto perked up at that, turning his head sharply to give his sensei a hopeful look, "…that he found out the true purpose of his mission and is pulling some kind of distraction scheme in order to escape."
Tsunade pinched the bridge of her nose. "Mattaku," she grumbled. "I would rather it be an enemy nin…"
Kakashi thwacked him hard on top of the head with his fist, causing Naruto to screech indignantly.
"Oww! What the hell was that for?"
"Well, we know this one isn't a Kage Bunshin, at least," Kakashi said cheerfully.
"We'll know for sure once we get a reply back from Gai," Tsunade sighed. "If Naruto is still with them, they are supposed to confirm that it's really him."
Naruto squirmed in his bonds. "Um… you guys keep talking about some mission with Huge Eyebrows-sensei… as for me, I don't even remember getting a mission like that, so I think I'm probably having a really weird dream right now, or else I'm in some kind of genjutsu… for one thing, I know for a fact that Orochimaru's attack didn't destroy the entire village."
"Orochimaru?" Tsunade raised an eyebrow. "What are you talking about? Pein of the Akatsuki destroyed the village."
"That's common knowledge all over the world by now," Ibiki noted. "Unless their intention is to divert, I don't see how this can possibly be an enemy spy."
"Akatsuki?" Naruto gasped. "Those black-cloaked bastards that put Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei in the hospital?"
He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Kakashi looking at him very seriously.
"Naruto," he said slowly, "What is the last thing you remember?"
Panic seized his heart—was it that he had amnesia or something, and that was why nothing made sense?
"Tsunade-baachan was inaugurated as the Godaime, and you and Sasuke were released from the hospital, though Bushy Brow was still hurt from the exams," he looked anxiously at Kakashi's face, trying to glean some meaning from his impassive expression. "And after that Ero-sennin told me he was going to leave for a little while to gather some information. And then I went home and went to sleep and when I woke up, I was in a village a little outside of here."
Tsunade stood up, hair concealing her eyes. Naruto gulped as she walked around her desk and toward him. She reached out a hand and he flinched—but she only pulled at the string hanging around his neck, pulling it from under his shirt and revealing the slightly luminous green stone attached to it.
"You gave me this, yeah? Don't hit me," Naruto said instinctively.
She held the stone between her thumb and index finger, squeezing it slightly and frowning, as if listening to it.
"This was destroyed in the fight against Pein," she murmured. "No one should be able to replicate this chakra crystal."
"Baachan… h-hey!" Naruto said as she let go of the necklace and pulled his shirt up to where the ropes were tied around his chest.
"Shut up and focus your chakra," she demanded. "Mold it as if you were going to do a jutsu."
Muttering curses, Naruto did as he was told, and all the adults present craned to see the seal appear on Naruto's stomach.
"That's exactly how it looked before sensei re-did the seal, when it nearly—" Kakashi gave a sharp intake of breath.
"Okay, is someone going to explain to me what the hell is going on?" Naruto said.
"Seriously. I don't get this," Kiba agreed, and Akamaru whined. "Is it Naruto or not?"
"Ibiki!" Tsunade said sharply, turning to the man. "Relate all of this to Shizune. I am going to send a small ANBU unit to scout each of the nearby villages for any recent Akatsuki sightings. First will be the village he arrived in. Where was it, Naruto?"
"Um, it wasn't one that I knew," Naruto said. "It was about half a day north of here, but—"
"Shizune will bring in the readiest available combat squad for briefing and they'll be sent right away. The rest will be organized into smaller scouting units and scattered out. You will be in charge of anything that they find. Try to contact Anko's team for any updates on the enemy's movements. Normally they would tell us right away if anything happened, but if the enemy got to them first…"
"Understood," Ibiki bowed and then vanished.
"Something like this happens right after Kabuto and the remnants of Akatsuki join forces. Who's to say the two are even acting separately anymore? Damn it, how can this be possible?" Tsunade stalked back and forth like a restless lioness, biting her thumb nail.
"They had immortals among their group," Kakashi said in a low voice. "There is no way of knowing the extent of what they are capable of, and if their goal is to capture Naruto, it makes sense they would go after a less experienced, more vulnerable version, if they had a way of doing that…"
"If that's the case, then why not get him as a young child, or even infant?" Tsunade said, just as quietly and intensely.
"I don't know," Kakashi admitted. "Maybe they can only detect hosts if they've already made contact with the bijuu's power, and Naruto didn't until after he became a ninja…"
"OI," Naruto said loudly. "Eek!" he squealed as Tsunade shot a dark glare at him.
"No matter what, you always cause us trouble, don't you?" she growled. Suddenly her face softened and the corners of her lips even tilted up a little. "I forgot how cute you were at this age." She ruffled his hair. "Look at those puppy-dog eyes, Kakashi. No wonder I couldn't resist coming back."
"Baachan," Naruto said, half questioning, half embarrassed.
"Naruto," Tsunade inclinded her head toward Kakashi, who nodded and began untying Naruto's ropes. "We're going to take your word for it for the time being and trust you a little, but you need to listen to us in return, alright?"
"Sure," Naruto said cautiously. "Does that mean you're gonna tell me what's going on?"
"We don't really know what's going on, but yes," Kakashi finished untying and patted Naruto on the head. Naruto scowled.
"You can go, Kiba," Tsunade said. "But don't tell anyone about this for right now. If I'm not mistaken, you're supposed to be changing patrol shifts, aren't you?"
Kiba winced. "Yes, Tsunade-sama. C'mon, Akamaru." Akamaru yipped briefly and followed his master out.
That was really weird. Since when did Kiba have responsibilities and actually listen to orders without complaint? Naruto's unease increased further.
Kakashi noticed him watching Kiba leave with confusion and coughed. "You're both way too thickheaded sometimes. Notice any differences with Kiba, Naruto?"
"Well, Akamaru got really huge all of a sudden," he scratched his head, "but Kiba acted like it was just my imagination or something."
"You know," Kakashi said mock-conspiratorially behind his hand at Tsunade, "I guess I never noticed since it was so gradual and slight, but I think he did get smarter over the years."
"Ahhhh, mou!" Naruto shrilled, pulling at his hair in frustration.
"And a few decibels quieter, too."
"Just a few." Tsunade smiled, crossing her arms.
"You're doing this on purpose," Naruto accused, pointing at Tsunade and Kakashi. "First acting all scary like you're about to drag me in to be tortured, then making fun of me and talking in riddles!"
"Calm down, Naruto," Kakashi sighed, placing a hand on his shoulder. "We couldn't help ourselves. Seeing you like this really is nostalgic. But the truth is, we're worried," His grip tightened. "It seems that someone brought you here through time. What I mean to say is, you're in the future."
"Eh?" Naruto said blankly.
Neither of them answered and there was silence for several moments. But Tsunade and Kakashi stared at him.
"What do you mean, future?" Naruto elaborated, looking back and forth between the two adults.
"What do you think?" Kakashi asked, but he was asking Tsunade. "It doesn't seem like he wants to go along with my crazy idea. Either this guy is really good, or we're dealing with the real thing."
"We can figure that out later," Tsunade said. "Right now, whatever we believe, it comes down to the same thing. Whether it is really Naruto or an exceptionally good fake, we have to assume that Madara or Kabuto is involved. We don't know of anyone else that would have the power and motivation to do either."
"I believe he's real," Kakashi said. "It would be pointless for them to make a fake like this. It would make much more sense to try to switch him with an appropriately aged replacement, en route to the Lightning Country. On the other hand, if the enemy had the ability to pull a more inexperienced Naruto to our time, they would do that without hesitation."
"Don't… don't joke like that, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto said, smiling shakily. "That's impossible. You're still messing with me, aren't you?"
"Naruto, how else do you explain the village being destroyed?" Kakashi asked softly. "You said yourself the last thing you remember is right after Orochimaru's attack, and it wasn't nearly as bad as this."
"Yeah, but…" Naruto threw his arms out, eyes wide. "How? How could that be?"
"As I was saying, the only ones with both the power and the motivation for this are Akatsuki," Tsunade frowned. "Right now we're going to assume it was their doing. You are aware at this age that they are hunting for you, right?" she looked like she was trying to remember.
"Yes…" Naruto said slowly. "Uchiha Itachi and a weird fish-looking guy tried to kidnap me when we were out trying to find you, Baachan… and Sasuke showed up, but neither of us were any match. If Ero-sennin hadn't rescued us…" his eyes darkened at the memory. "Ero-sennin said that they were after… after the Kyuubi." Even though he had come to accept his burden, he still didn't like speaking about it out loud.
"If you understand that much, it will be easy for you to understand what is going on now, at least the basics," Tsunade put a hand on her hip. "Shortly after that time, Akatsuki seemed to quiet down and leave you alone for a while. We aren't entirely sure why, except that you did travel with Jiraiya for a long time, and that probably had some influence. But recently, they have been going after you actively again." She bit her lip, worry clear on her face. "That is why they may have brought you here: to try to capture you at a younger age. But that is just a wild guess. We can't actually say until we know more."
"They're still after me… wait, is that why they destroyed the village?" Naruto croaked. "To get to me?"
Tsunade hesitated, then nodded.
"Please don't start blaming yourself for that now," Kakashi said, knowingly but a little exasperatedly. "The you in this timeline has already done that enough."
"But… how am I still alive after that? From what I saw, it looked like someone dropped a huge bomb on this place. When did they invade? How many people died?" he buried his face in his hands. "I didn't think all that out there was my fault."
"Fortunately, you weren't in the village at the time," Tsunade said. "Naruto," she added gently, stooping down in front of his chair to look him in the face, "Because of you, the village wasn't wiped out entirely—"
"What else would you call that—"
"Idiot!" Tsunade cut him off. "A village is more than a few buildings! A few years ago, we didn't fully understand how powerful Akatsuki was. What happened here wasn't an invasion. All of the destruction was done by a single shinobi. And you were the one who confronted him and made him back down. He had god-like powers of destruction and revival. He killed half the village and then turned around and sacrificed his own life to bring them all back. All because of you!"
Naruto stared at her, eyes wide. "But… wait. Am I really that strong? The villagers I met this morning were saying the same thing."
"You didn't defeat him with your fists," Naruto turned to look at Kakashi, who eye-smiled at him. "Though you didn't do half bad with those, either." He opened his eye and looked very serious. "I was one of the ones he had to bring back. You saved my life."
"Wait…" Naruto's wide eyes fixed on him, trembling. "You mean you died, Kakashi-sensei?"
"Maa," Kakashi waved a hand. "That is all in the past now, for me at least, so don't worry about it—" he was cut off as Naruto tackled him.
"Stupid sensei! How can you say that like it doesn't matter? And why did you do something stupid and get killed in the first place!" Kakashi was slightly surprised at the moisture shining in the boy's eyes. "It was bad enough when you got put into a coma…"
Kakashi shuddered and gently pried Naruto off of him. "Trust me, Naruto, that time was way worse. I'd take death over that kind of torture again any day. Besides, it worked out. Ne? I'm still here."
"I think that's enough for now, Kakashi," Tsunade said warningly. "It's probably not a good idea to tell him too much about things that have happened, especially not until we understand what this is. If he's really from the past, it could alter things. Besides, I get the feeling there are quite a few things about the future that he would not like to hear."
"Like what?" Naruto said immediately, glancing at her.
"Hokage-sama is right," Kakashi rested his hand on Naruto's head. "Right now we need to figure out what we are going to do with you. Honestly, it's lucky you managed to make it back to the village before Akatsuki or whoever did this found you."
"Lucky… or it could be intentional," Tsunade considered. "We can't let our guard down." She sighed heavily. "Great. Now we have two Narutos to hide instead of one. Just when I thought this job couldn't get any harder."
"Well if it's true, hopefully this one will be a little more apt to listen to us, since he at least realizes he can't take on Akatsuki by himself," Kakashi said, poking Naruto's forehead.
Naruto scowled and rubbed his forehead. "Quit messing with me! Sheesh. I didn't realize you were this touchy-feely. Or are you even more of a pervert in the future?"
"Sorry, sorry," Kakashi held up his hands pacifyingly. "You're just like a cute younger-brother version of the Naruto that we know now, so it's difficult. I bet Tsunade-sama's just dying to pinch your cheeks."
Naruto glanced suspiciously at her again and she looked away, neither confirming nor denying it.
"Ahem," Tsunade coughed. "I'm sorry, Naruto, but since we aren't sure whether or not this is an enemy trap, you're going to have to stick with Kakashi and stay out of sight for a while. You do understand that, right?" she leveled her amber eyes at him. "The only way we can remain convinced you aren't an enemy is to have your cooperation."
Naruto was thrown by how serious she sounded suddenly. "I… I understand."
"He'll have to stay in the village until we figure out something else. There's too much to do with the cleanup and preparations to figure out a plan right now," she said in a clipped voice to Kakashi. "For the time being we need to keep this to ourselves, even within the village. I don't think it would be unbelievable to anyone in Konoha at this point, after we've seen what Akatsuki can do. But the less chance the enemy has of knowing where he is, the better. If it does turn out to be true, though…" She frowned. "We'll have no choice but to tell the other Kage, at least. They wouldn't appreciate it if they found out I was hiding something like this if it directly has to do with the enemy's plans. For now, we have some leeway because we don't know exactly what is going on."
"The other Kage?" Naruto said, puzzled. "You mean the Kage of other Hidden Villages? But why?"
"Enough," Tsunade said. She bent down in front of Naruto again and did a series of hand seals before poking him in the forehead, eliciting a small half-growl from him. "Get over it. I've placed one of my specialty henge on you, so it should work until I choose to take it off of you, or if your chakra can't maintain it. Considering your ridiculous reserves even at this age, I don't think that will be a problem."
Naruto felt of his face. He hoped that was the case, since his chakra had almost entirely returned. "What did you do?"
Tsunade pulled out a compact mirror from her sleeve and handed it to him. "I just made you look like a generic genin for the moment. It's not a permanent solution, like I said, but it'll suffice for moving you right now."
Naruto peered at himself in the mirror. Generic was right. He had plain brown eyes and hair; longish hair that was tied back, and a hitai-ate draped around his neck. He wore a dark green square-necked tunic that closed with two ties on his right side, with standard pants and sandals. Not even a speck of orange anywhere.
"Where am I going?"
"Mm…" Tsunade straightened up and put the mirror back in her sleeve. "Well, I have no idea as far as the long run. But for right now, Kakashi will take you to your room, since it's vacant since this morning. You may have noticed that our housing is… limited right now. And Kakashi is next door to you."
"Many ninja unaffiliated with any of the major clans have been put in boarding houses like this," Kakashi explained when Naruto looked at him in surprise. "Construction is moving along very quickly, though, so we won't be in this awkward situation forever."
"I'm counting on you, Kakashi. Naruto," Tsunade added, and Naruto looked at her. "I promise I won't forget about you being there, so try to stay put and out of sight, please?"
Naruto rubbed the back of his head. "I'll try, but you know, Baachan, when I get into trouble I don't usually mean to do it…"
Tsunade's eyes flashed dangerously. "Well this time, try harder than usual. Kakashi," she commanded, and Kakashi nodded.
"Time to go," he said. He pulled out an unfamiliar, green-covered Icha Icha volume and slouched casually toward the door.
Naruto paced after him until he caught up. "You're still obsessed with those perverted books, Kakashi-sensei?"