One morning, an enemy entered Konoha. Well, enemies entered Konoha on a daily basis, naturally, but that time it wasn't a common enemy - it was Uchiha Sasuke. The great village was blissfully unaware of the presence of their former darling, until the man reached the Hokage tower. ANBU wasn't going to be fooled by some henge, especially ANBU captains.
"What are you doing here?"
Hyuuga Neji, huh.
"I need to see your Hokage. And I am not going to tell why."
Somebody shrieked, feeling dread from two killing intents clashing.
"Then I am not going to let you in." The ANBU replied, shifting his stance ever-so-slightly.
As if he was going to.
The air shifted again. "What a visitor," the newcomer drawled, looking through Sasuke's henge with a single Sharingan.
Whatever calmness the Uchiha possessed snapped at that moment, causing him to lose the grip on his jutsu.
"That's much better," said his former sensei (if Hatake Kakashi ever deserved the title). "Such scowl fits only on your real face."
There was again a shriek as the Uchiha was recognised. Kakashi's grip on the kunai loosened a fraction.
Uchiha pride aside, Sasuke had little chance here. He had felt no need to use his chakra sparingly and now suffered the consequences. Whatever he might think of Hatake Kakashi as a teacher didn't mean the man was a weak ninja. The Hyuuga couldn't be tossed aside as well.
"I came to see your Hokage," he repeated.
Kakashi smiled acidly, not missing the pronoun. "Do you have an appointment?" He asked with poisonous politeness and smiled again at Sasuke's withering look.
And then with a slight woosh of wind the Hokage himself arrived.
"What's going on?" Naruto was already in a Sage mode, probably to see what got two of his top ninja so riled up. He looked at his unappointed visitor, frowned and nodded, releasing his stance.. "Let him go inside, you're attracting too much attention already."
Once they made it from curious eyes and ears, Naruto turned to the unexpected guest. "What brings you here?"
Sasuke tensed and shot a glance at the ANBU, who stood right behind his leader now. After a few heartbeats of silence, the Rokudaime finished studying his wayward (former, now, wasn't he?) teammate and sighed.
"Okay, leave us alone."
"That's not very wise," Kakashi warned.
"Have some faith in your Hokage, will ya?" Naruto mumbled. "Have some free time and don't feel guilty. Now," he stressed the word, showing it as a clear dismissal. He looked after the displeased shinobi and activated masked seal on the floor. "Now all the privacy you can get here."
"First," Sasuke began, "I'm not doing it for you, I'm doing this for Itachi's dream, so don't get any ideas."
"I have plenty of ideas, but very few of them are about you," Naruto shot back.
They stared at each other for the next couple of minutes.
"You would find it interesting to look at the statue again," Sasuke said finally and registered Naruto's paling face without any kind of pleasure. "Have you already?"
The Hokage shook his head. "No time. But- have you been there yourself?"
"Not for me," Sasuke blinked and repeated to himself that Itachi would tell his beloved Konoha's Hokage everything, "Karin and Juugo had told me they were poisoned before they died."
Naruto's face became grey even under his tan. He took a deep breath and fell silent, looking somewhere behind Sasuke. "Did you have a professional medic look at you?"
The Uchiha only raised his brow at the question. Any medic good enough would strike him down at the first opportunity, and he had absolutely no desire to deal with missing-nins.
"How do you even live with all the trouble following you?" Naruto asked and Sasuke raised his brow even higher to indicate that he considered the question to be highly hypocritical.
The Hokage released the seal. "I need a medic to look at you before I go- What the heck?" he cried as the room flooded with people. Well, not exactly flooded, but three aggressive ninja would be enough to make a stadium feel tiny.
"I'd ask you that," Shikamaru drawled, not bothering to be respectful. "Half of the village is panicking, and you decide to shut yourself up with him."
Naruto frowned and sagged slightly, but his tone was firm. "I need to leave Konoha for a while, so make a rumour that it was… erm… my stupid prank and now I'm lying ill due to Sakura's… well, due to Sakura. And call for her."
Nobody moved, all stares at the leader. "You cannot leave," Neji informed finally, seeming to be the only one with enough will to not strangle the Hokage right there and then.
"I have to."
Shikamaru stepped in. "Tomorrow is your birthday, if you disappear right before the festival no amount of false rumours will be able to calm the civilians. And am I right and you intend to "leave Konoha for a while" with a nukenin?"
Naruto winced. "It doesn't-"
"It surely does! Get yourself together, Hokage, you have no right to abandon your village."
"Calm down and let me finish!" Naruto replied, straightening and squaring his shoulders.
His advisor deflated under the Hokage's stare. "My apologies."
"Did anyone send for Sakura? Oh, Kami," the Rokudaime said, momentarily creating a clone. "First, it doesn't matter if Sasuke is nukenin or not. Considering the information, I'll go either way. Second, I'm not abandoning my village, you may safely refrain from reminding me of my rank. And third. I'm going now, and by dawn I'll be back."
"You are not going alone." Neji said after the Konoha shinobi understood the Hokage's I-Made-A-Decision tone of voice.
"I'm going to travel fast," Naruto shrugged. "And all of you have business in the village."
"Sparrow is able," Neji replied, and Shikamaru smiled thinly.
"Sparrow is able," The Nara nodded, followed by Kakashi. "And that's the only condition I'll accept."
The mighty Rokudaime Hokage looked as if he was deadly sick.
"Sakura is coming." Neji informed. So he had his Byakugan active that whole time.
"What's the matter, Naruto?" they heard her worried voice before the girl herself stepped in, stopping dead in her tracks at the sight of her long lost classmate. She pursed her lips and turned away from the Uchiha. "You called, Hokage-sama?" she asked.
"I need you to inspect him, Sakura." Naruto said calmly and rather quietly. "Look for any traces of hostile chakra, and hurry up."
She looked dubious, but complied, frowning when Sasuke took one step back.
Naruto grit his teeth. "Oh, for Rikudo's sake, stay still, there were no orders to kill you."
But Sasuke still hesitated, catching Sakura's look of veiled displeasure at the words. He wasn't comfortable with anybody getting too close to him for a long time, and now to let a high-level medic near his vitals seemed pure insanity. Sakura had a reputation to be mindlessly cruel when provoked since Academy days, when she hadn't known yet how to cut a person's nervous system with one gentle touch of chakra.
"I'm going only to inspect," she stated calmly. The heavy 'that's only for now' hung in the air.
Sakura's chakra was light and calming, contrasting the medic's cold eyes.
"I've found nothing, Hokage-sama," kunoichi reported and walked away at the first sign of dismissal. Her back was rigid and tense.
The heavy silence hung in the air.
Naruto clapped."All right! Get the Sparrow and to the dawn I'm back! Hokage's word!" He smiled brightly, although that obviously was fooling nobody. "Hurry, hurry, the sooner I leave the sooner I return. Thanks for the visit, good luck!" The Hokage waved at Sasuke, and the Uchiha couldn't refrain from blinking in astonishment. Sure, he wasn't going to play some guide, but that cheerful dismissal was unexpected.
"Wait," he said, folding his arms, "I gave you the information. I need your answer."
"You mean now? I haven't seen anything yet, so what information? Or are you going to travel with us? Can you keep up?"
Although the question wasn't meant as offensive, Sasuke bristled. Still the moron could shake him out of his calm. "Try me."
"Okay." Naruto shrugged and leaped out of the door. Outside, "Sparrow" was already waiting. With some difficulty, Sasuke recognized the boy who filled Sasuke's own place in Team 7. Naruto nodded at the ANBU and grabbed their arms.
Next moment they were outside the village, near the Ice Springs.
"Let's go!" Naruto cried sharply and darted forward, giving Sasuke no time to look closely on the Hiraishin seal under the rock.
The question about keeping up certainly wasn't offensive. Sasuke might be faster in combat, but Naruto was an insanely fast runner, not to mention endless Uzumaki stamina. After the first three hours of constant speeding up, Sasuke gave up and followed Sparrow's example, who was flying on an ink bird. Seeming as both of his companions had no trouble now, Naruto decided to accelerate more.
It was getting ridiculous.
"What an insane creature," Sasuke's hawk noted, and was absolutely right.
When the grey crater of the Juubi's blast got in sight, Naruto stopped and signed for his guard to land.
"Get down too!" Uzumaki hollered at Sasuke, but he pretended not to notice. "Your summon won't go further anyway, don't be a child."
"He's right," Kataka said before Uchiha could retort, "I got you here only because humans never before made such a good competition." The hawk landed graciously and went to his realm.
"Stay here, would you?" Naruto offered softly and went to the grotesque statue. Sasuke frowned, noting tiny changings in its position, and proceeded to follow.
"Stay there!" Uzumaki shouted angrily, turning back. Sparrow wasn't moving, seemingly having received his orders.
"It didn't poison me then, it won't now." Sasuke said, releasing his seal.
Naruto didn't seem too surprised, he just looked at the Uchiha for some time and ran again, that time not bothering to check.
It's even worse than we thought. Kurama growled, his tails twitching.
'No shit' Naruto thought in reply.
He could practically feel the Juubi inside the statue whispering, whistling and howling. It had been mad when he applied the first seal, now it was beyond human understanding.
'Do we have any chance?'
We didn't have it then, why should we now? And no, Gyuuki is not able to help either, Naruto. The poison is already spreading.
'I cannot think up any seal to block it,' Naruto thought.
Because there isn't one. Face the truth, Naruto, it's too late. Kurama said sadly
'I know' the Jinchuuriki replied and the mere admission hurt more than Shinju's chakra, which tried to eat Naruto's constantly regenerating lungs and eyes.
Go back, Naruto, no need to torture yourself.
Naruto was stopped short when a clawed hand grabbed his shoulder.
"What did you see?" Sasuke demanded, and even that inhuman form of his terrified Naruto less than the dissolving Shinji behind.
"I saw less than you, I have quite common eyes." Naruto shot back and sped away.
"I can help you." he heard and halted, turning to the frowning Sasuke.
"I can help you, I said. I have Itachi's dream to keep, and- and he believed in you." Uchiha seemed to almost choke on the words.
Naruto's eyes were hooded. "I need to think. Alone and in quiet."
Where are you going to find quiet if these two are short of killing each other?
'I wish I knew'
Naruto was slumped under a tree, half a mile away from the crater, but the ground here already felt poisonous.
'I wish I defeated the bastard then. There was a possibility not to let him make the seals. I damn hate regretting and wishing, but I wish.'
Sasuke was a master of impassive stares, but ANBU mask gave Sparrow a big advantage. He was half tempted to walk away, but whatever made Uzumaki I-Laugh-At-Your-Stupid-Hairstyle-Madara-And-Taste- Some-More-Rasengan Naruto look so defeated and doomed deserved some waiting. Even if the Konoha's Kage was acting like a drama queen.
Sparrow twitched and flashed away. Sasuke frowned and cocked his head, detecting a pair of well masked shinobi. They flared for five seconds, jutsu clashing, then everything went silent again.
"Jeez, what jerks, couldn't wait for a half an hour?" Naruto moaned, watching as Sparrow calmly tied nins to the nearest tree. "Should have returned to Konoha, dammit."
"I doubt there will be others attempting to kill you, now that it's clear you're the Hokage."
Both Naruto and Sparrow turned to Sasuke, incredulous. Considering Sparrow's mask, it was quite a feat.
"Of course there will be more, now that it's clear that I am the Hokage," Uzumaki replied and shook his head at Sasuke's furrowed brow. "I smashed half of their country into nothing, how do you think they should feel?"
Sasuke stood perfectly quiet, trying to adjust the situation. "Usually people feel gratitude."
"Well, when they face off something and then somebody defends them, probably, but thankfully they weren't there when we fought, and they don't know what we fought, so naturally they'd blame us. Whom else?" Naruto shrugged casually. "Besides, it's not like they do not have a point. We did blast half of their fields and plantations away, not to mention chakra poisoning from Bijuu bombs."
The perfect, iron grip Sasuke always had on his emotions blasted away. Probably just like those fields and plantations.
It was idealistic, it was accepting, it was stupidly, ridiculously honorable, but it was honest, and it was damn. Naruto.
Those blasted fools were dense to not care what could hit them, to not pay any interest to possible dangers, only because half a thousand shinobi met their death here.
Maybe that's why Itachi held him in such high regard.
"Is it a common occurrence?" Sasuke asked finally, finding himself eager to slap the Hokage.
"Well, three countries are after my head." Naruto scratched his neck sheepishly.
Or beat him to the ground.
Come to think about it, Sasuke wanted to do it for a damn long time.
No wonder Itachi asked him to…
"Then I'm going with you."
Naruto just stared at him with a still face. "You're going where with me?"
"To Konoha. You are going to get yourself killed." And Itachi's dream would be lost to some retard like Hatake.
The Rokudaime looked at him very, very long, a far cry from the boy who had promised to get Sasuke back even if it'd take broken limbs.
"You do realize that it's not my place to make decisions like that, don't you?" Naruto finally asked. "I have a village to listen to."
"You have council." Sasuke said accusingly, feeling strangely betrayed.
"Of course I do," There was again the same incredulous look on Naruto's face. "How am I supposed not to be some control-freak? A Hokage cannot just order what they want. And I won't ask every villager for the opinion," Naruto scoffed, "don't be ridiculous."
'It's you who is ridiculous' was Sasuke's childish thought.
"My council and my advisers I trust without any doubt, Sasuke, and I need them to trust me. So if it's not for for your liking, I'm sorry - but I cannot bid the village to your tastes."
The feeling of betrayal and disorientation grew. "So what do you choose - your title or your promise, which you boasted you would keep no matter what?"
"Did the seal finally screw your brain? Kami, Sasuke, don't dare to place me in front of such a choice. Have you ever cared to think why there are no hunter nins from Konoha or Suna or Kiri after you? I am perfectly loyal to my promises. Make up your mind already, you go or you don't."
"Although you always were like that, I take my words back. You have whatever long you need."
Sasuke literally saw red, because the words weren't even said and meant as offence. No, they were simply stated facts, without vile and much emotion.
Sasuke wasn't about acceptance at all, so he didn't believe it ever existed. He was blatantly showed the opposite today, and Naruto had been disgustingly honest and open and easy-to-read. No, not easy to read, but easy to detect lie - as he had always been. Terrifyingly, horribly accepting Naruto, who didn't accuse people because he didn't expect of them more than a person was wont to do. That was what made him such a beloved Hokage, what inspired Itachi so.
And terrified Sasuke to no end.
"I'll go." He said, still in shock.
Naruto blinked. "I'll use Hiraishin. If you go the same way, please don't kill each other."
Sparrow turned to the Hokage. "It's too dangerous to travel at that distance in one jump."
"I beg you," Naruto scoffed. "Of course I left a few kunai on the way here, haven't you noticed?"
Sparrow seemed slightly baffled, because apparently he hadn't. Sasuke was ashamed to admit the same.
With the swirl of light and chakra Naruto jumped away.
Naruto had two advisers and a small council of five. However, such case clearly demanded for the whole of clan heads and civilian representatives.
And gossips would be worse than anything he had seen.
Pausing to pick his kunai, Naruto sniffed the air.
The rain is coming.
'Maybe tomorrow's celebration will be cancelled.'
Don't even hope
Kurama laughed and Naruto smiled in return.
Shikamaru still waited for him in his office, which meant that the laid-back Nara was really pissed or on edge. Or both.
"How did it go?"
"Well, they cheated. Used birds," Naruto sniffed. "Bastards. And Sasuke suddenly wants to bodyguard me."
Shikamaru seemed just as appalled as Naruto felt, though undoubtedly over different facts.
"What did you reply?"
"That I cannot answer him by myself. So if he's really serious, they should be here sometime soon. I asked them not to kill each other really nicely, would they listen to it?"
"What? You are not serious, Naruto, you cannot yield to him because of the childhood rivalry or long ago given promise."
"I didn't yield, okay? I didn't say 'Yes' and drag him here, the bastard is free to go wherever he feels like. And if I go back on my promise, how am to trust myself?
Naruto turned away. "Besides I really have no intention to decide it by myself."
Shikamaru's shoulders sagged. "But you cannot parade him in front of the Main Council. The civilians will panic."
"Your ideas?" Naruto still looked somewhere else.
"I have plenty of them. We'll call for our small council, decide what to do together, and afterwards I'll talk with him."
"You are really mad, aren't you? I'm sorry."
"Don't apologise for something you didn't do or cause," Shikamaru clasped Rokudaime's shoulder. "I'll go fetch everybody."
"Geesh, who are you and what did you do to my adviser?" Naruto cried. "I'll do it myself."
Naruto's small and quick-thinking council of five consisted of people who knew how to make decisions. But even they would have a hard time with the current case.
"Sasuke decided he wants to bodyguard me." Naruto started without preamble.
The Hyuugas stared, Sakura stared, Tsunade stared. Kakashi opened his book. "Either I am delusional or you met some other Sasuke."
The Hokage shot his former teacher a withering look.
"What did you reply?" Tsunade asked with barely concealed disgust.
"That I need your opinion. And although I pretty much know it, I would like to hear it."
"What are his reasons?" Hinata asked. "Do they have anything to do with your trip?"
This time Naruto directed a Look at Neji. "Partly. I stumbled on a pair of hunter-nins, as usual. And he decided I am too easy to kill." he finished with loathing.
"Oh, no, what are his real reasons?" Kakashi interjected mildly. "Sasuke decided that long ago, if I am not mistaken."
Naruto looked uncomfortable.
"And where did you went today?" Sakura frowned.
Knowing that Sai would tell them, Naruto replied. The tension increased twice.
"Why would he ask to travel there? What did you find?" Sakura stood up. "And he better has good reasons for his request, I am too tempted to cut off his spinal nerves."
"How the hell would I know? I have no Sharingan, and everything looks the same."
Kakashi looked at him but kept silent.
"I think it's safer to kill him." Neji said and received a nod of confirmation from Tsunade. "And we did start without Sai."
"We also started without Sasuke-san," Hinata added, unfazed by cringing at her politeness, "wouldn't it be better to listen to him? He's a man of purpose, I wonder what prompted him to request that."
"He's a man of rotten mind and honour." Neji spoke through his teeth.
"But Hinata-san has a point. We need to talk to Sasuke-kun to be fair." Kakashi said. "We cannot be unfair, can we?"
Thus Sasuke was greeted by the Hokage's advisors, while Sai was politely invited to join the rest and probably not beat their Hokage.
"Hello again, Sasuke." Kakashi said. The Uchiha noted the absence of any book.
"I need to hear your request and the reasons behind him." Shikamaru's eyes were sharp and loathing.
"I made no request. I simply stated that Naruto is too reckless and," Sasuke spat the alien word, "honorable to even kill the hunters after his head."
"That is none of your business."
"Aah, calm down, Shikamaru, that is clearly Sasuke's business. I wonder, maybe Naruto misinterpreted his words and Sasuke just meant that he must be the one to kill Naruto. That, I can believe."
Kakashi calmly met Sasuke's burning glare.
"We seem to be in a confusion, Sasuke," The shinobi went on. "I personally think that you're after Naruto just like those hunter nins. Am I right?"
The nukenin only kept on glaring a hole through his skull.
"That will not do, Sasuke. If you really have any interest in Naruto you must let us know, because I'm not going to expose my Hokage to someone like you without a solid reason."
Sasuke turned to Shikamaru. "But you are perfectly alright with exposing your Hokage to someone like him?" he nodded at Kakashi.
Nara's brows shot up. "As you see. If you're wondering what's the difference, I am not even going to waste my time."
"Me neither. I am here not to pledge my loyalty to you." Sasuke sneered.
"I don't need it, but if you intend to live in Konoha, you are to pledge your loyalty to the Hokage, and I doubt it exists at all."
Shikamaru looked at him hard, again. "I'll let you near Naruto if you swear on your eyes."
Kakashi scoffed. "That's not the most important. I accept if Sasuke swears on his brother's will and honour."
Sasuke pinked with fury, and Shikamaru secretly marveled at the jounin's ability to perceive.
"That is the reason you even bother, isn't it? If you publicly swear, I'll accept. Oh, don't pale so much, Sasuke, I won't make you shout your oaths from the top of the Hokage's tower, but there are people who would dearly love to hear it."
Kakashi stood up, looked at his former pupil and went out.
One evening before the Rokudaime Hokage's twenty third birthday, Uchiha Sasuke swore on his brother's memory, honour and dream to follow him and accept as his Hokage.
Kakashi and Shikamaru looked far too pleased with themselves, Neji and Sai looked disbelieving but accepting, Hinata looked so polite nobody could guess at her thoughts, Tsunade and Sakura looked murderous.
And Naruto looked like he wished the earth could swallow him up. Or hiraishin out of the room as soon as possible.
"Do we even need all that drama?" he asked meekly.
Sai ignored the remark. "That's all very good, but how can Uchiha-san fit in Konoha?"
"As an ANBU." Shikamaru yawned.
Both Neji and Sai looked at him and chorused "No."
"My men are not going to like it, Hokage order or not," The Hyuuga shook his head.
"And Uchiha-san has been in our bingo books for too long for mine to be trusting." Sai added.
Hinata frowned. "But we cannot expose Sasuke-san to the villagers. And even ANBU gossip."
Her cousin looked aghast, but didn't argue.
"I wasn't talking about him joining ANBU and taking missions." Shikamaru was looking at the ceiling. "I answered the question how can he fit into Konoha."
It took the council the entire of two seconds to get his idea.
"Some special mask, then? I am not too eager to consider Uchiha-san to be part of my squad, and I bet Neji-san feels the same."
"Need to install a voice alterer."
"Puberty did it for you."
"Sasuke-san has never been prone to talk a lot anyway."
"I still don't like that, and I'm not going to heal both of you, you hear me?"
"Gosh, obaa-chan, when was the last time I needed it?"
"More importantly, where's he going to live?"
Kakashi looked at the Hokage with alarming affection. "If Sasuke is Hokage's charge now and vice versa, it's only logical for him to live in the immediate vicinity. Hokage mansion is big."
Naruto went ashen, and even Sasuke, all the time picturing Itachi to refrain from snapping, leveled the adviser with his best Die-Long-And-Prosper glare.
"That's for all the bother we got today." Shikamaru nodded. "If you won't be able to keep somebody on leash, Konoha doesn't stand a chance."
"I am going to cut your nerves one by one at the first sight of disloyalty." Sakura declared finally and everybody fell silent. "Naruto, I hope you won't regret it tomorrow. I need to go, my shift is about to start."
The woman rose gracefully, gave her Hokage a small bow, another one to the rest of the counsil, and for newly accepted fellow shinobi she had a great look, full of venom and promise.
Naruto heaved a sigh and pressed a hand to his right temple. "If that's all, I suggest a break for a few days. By the way, any ideas as to who send to Kumo?"
Hinata coughed politely and smiled at the Hokage, indicating her intent to leave. The Hyuugas rose and bowed together, followed by still frowning Tsunade.
"And I still have some business to deal with. Have a good night," Sai smiled at Naruto's I-hate-you.
"I have one idea," Kakashi drawled, and with an overly interested "You don't say" Shikamaru followed.
It surely didn't seem as though they were abandoning their Hokage
Naruto looked at Sasuke.
"You sure know how to make one's life a hell, don't you?"
The mask they gave Sasuke was grey without any pattern, the inside covered in complicated seals, eyeholes shadowed. The rest of outfit was just as dull and undistinguishing, seals here and there, a pair of sheaths and a few hidden weapon pouches.
"The seals will hide your chakra signature," Naruto sniffed. "And don't forget about the hood, you stupid duck-butt."
The new Hokage's guard at first terrified half of the village out of their wits, especially considering the fact that he didn't even bother to hide, following Naruto's bright figure like a shadow of doom.
Then people got used to him, as they always do, with everything and in every situation, and Konoha opened itself in front of its wayward son fully.
Naruto, as always, gave puzzle after puzzle, never ceasing to stun people with the unique way his mind worked. Among people he was just the same as he was at home - thoughtful and attentive one moment, cheerful and goofy next. He dove into his duties with that same resolve that had always led him everywhere and got victorious, at the same time never ceasing muttering complaints about ungrateful brats and slacking advisers. Uzumaki Naruto was considered one of the most dangerous Kage ever lived, not mentioning the rest of the shinobi world, but every time the fact was mentioned, Naruto got flustered and changed the subject clumsily.
And weeks passed, bringing silly sense of safety and hope. Weeks grew into months, month morphed to become a year. Somewhere during that year Sasuke received a punch and a permission to visit the closed-off Uchiha compound. "Happy birthday, shovel face!" Naruto declared and frowned at the pile of D-ranks.
Chuunin Exams were the bright buoys, mainly because Naruto felt obliged to accompany the Konoha genins to the villages, and that caused Sasuke to curse his love for Itachi to heaven, because protecting someone with a bunch of dense brats ready to get underfoot was trying.
"I'm still a genin." Naruto snickered once, sitting next to Kazekage. "I remember on my first Chuunin Exam I promised to become Hokage no matter what. "
Mizukage, who was situated on Gaara's right, smiled at him. "I am quite sure we would've seen an interesting exam if the participants weren't so scared at the prospect of fighting you. Almost all my jounins refused to apply their teams."
Naruto slumped slightly, resting his chin on an open palm. "Not fair! I also want to have fun."
Gaara let out a sigh which in his cause indicated a snort.
With time the first signs of an oncoming disaster became visible. Maybe because of Sasuke being so close for so long time, or maybe because of his natural power of observation.
Naruto was becoming restless. He composed himself more and shut himself in his fuuinjutsu room every evening. He drawed elements of seals every free minute, but hid them from anybody. Too bad Naruto wasn't sneaky enough to hide from Sasuke.
The last drop was one quite unassuming morning, when Sasuke was woken by a deep wired instinct under the name Something Wrong/Someone Near. He got up groggily, not bothering to put on his cloak and fully expecting to find Naruto doing something stupid with the help of a couple of clones. Or a woman.
Ow, that mental image is disgusting.
Instead he found four people staring dumbfounded at the Hokage's empty bed, a couple of kunai in the pillow and an impaled sheet. They didn't even manage to cry in surprise when the killing intent hit them.
After wiping his bloodied hand on a shredded sheet, Sasuke frowned and looked around. Naruto could be idle and lazy, but not to the extent of hiding somewhere when his home was invaded.
By the time the Hokage condescended to show up in his torn room, blinking owlishly at the mess, the ANBU forces were in uproar.
"What's going on?" The Rokudaime asked and shrank back under Kakashi's smile.
"We need to talk," the adviser crooned, and Naruto almost whimpered.
"I wanted to spend some time alone! It's not my fault these stupid jerks decided to show up at that same moment. By the way, shovel face, was there really any need to wash my room in blood?"
Sasuke sent his best despising glare from behind his mask.
Sakura on the other hand wasn't wont to keep silent when crossed. "You can be alone in your mansion!"
"I can't! The shovel face lives there!"
"That's the whole idea of keeping you safe! Where were you?"
"On the monument. There is something inspiring in promising to show everybody what you're worth and then like "Hey, that's my head I'm sitting on! Cool!" he snickered.
"Don't keep me for a fool!" Sakura hollered. "We looked there first thing!"
Naruto snapped his teeth helplessly under her furious glare. "All right, all right, I was in the Fuuma Hot Springs, just don't kill me, I can't possibly have any kind of private life with the shovel face around, can I?"
Sakura stared and stared.
"You were… having your… private life… in the Fuuma Hot Springs?" she straightened from her intimidating position and looked at the Rokudaime. "Well, that's sensible, I guess. Oh, Kami, you are twenty four, aren't you?"
Naruto sniffed. "That's really mean."
Sasuke moved to the only member of the small council who knew how to be unbiased to the limit. Hinata was looking at their ruler with the mild interest, Neji was glaring at the advancing Sasuke.
"How can I help you, Sasuke-san?" she asked complaisantly. To some extent, her politeness was expected, if Sasuke's memory was sound (and it definitely was), Hinata was something timid and afraid to insult, but the young woman with the always calm face wasn't timid or afraid. She was just polite and attentive, another Konoha enigma.
He indicated to the door. Hinata's right brow did a slight move and the clan head shook her head slightly. "Later."
"I promise not to scare you like that, satisfied?" Naruto shouted, jumping from his seat.
"So?" Hinata asked politely, standing near the silent shadow, while Naruto proceeded to eat yet another plate of takoyaki, resisting the attempts of Chouji's youngest to free the Hokage of his bright hair.
"I think he was lying." Sasuke said in a barely heard whisper.
"I am quite sure he was." Hinata nodded. The Hyuugas wasn't adept in body language for nothing. "But it'd be useless to pry, I'm afraid. It seems Naruto-san does not trust us with some secrets."
"He makes some seal."
"That's not an uncommon occurrence. Naruto-san is extremely good at fuuinjutsu, he creates something all the time."
Sasuke tried to swallow the information. In his opinion, fuuinjutsu was a brain-wracking knowledge, where your insides could be scattered a mile around because of one stupid brush stroke. While his natural genius provided the Uchiha with basic understanding and ability to combine most simple elements, he preferred to stay away from seals and seal users, explosion tags included. He hadn't thought Naruto took fuuinjutsu to that extent. Sure, the Hokage had the room which he tenderly called 'My Boom and Stuff Room", where every wall was stuffed with the fuuinjutsu scrolls. It was twice as big as his weapon room and ten times bigger than that cupboard with the bed that Naruto called a bedroom.
"But he hides his sketches, especially from Hatake."
"Have you seen any?" Hinata asked, and her brow lowered again, a tiny, barely perceptible movement.
"I am not as good as Naruto-san, but I have to understand the seal-making," she said. "I would appreciate it greatly if you recreate and show me a few of them."
A piece of fried potato flew past them and the pair turned to observe the Akimichi siblings wrestling one another among the piles of plates and Naruto, drenched in ketchup.
The Hyuuga clan head appeared in the Hokage mansion that same evening, slipping past the Hokage unnoticed. She looked at the crude drafts for a long time, turning her head that way and another, until admitting defeat.
"Naruto-san is a genius. I need to look at the full seal, although some parts I don't like either way. It needs to be quite big."
The place where Naruto could keep the seal was right there, in the mansion. The problem was, when a fuuinjutsu master wanted something hidden, he usually hid it well, and some time ago Naruto'd decided to keep his study shut. The issues began at the door.
"It's sealed, isn't it?" Sasuke asked.
Hinata hummed something and activated Byakugan, only to take a step back immediately, squeezing her eyes shut. An attempt to use Sharingan left the Uchiha just as stunned and disoriented from the assault of chakra design.
"No other way, then." The woman decided and placed her hand at the door knob. The wood squeaked pitifully and gave way under the assault.
The room was literally full with the scrolls, banned from Konoha's libraries and clan possessions, rough sketches everywhere.
And in the middle of the floor, proud and elaborate, the full seal was painted, every little element in blood.
Hinata gasped and stumbled back, her chakra flaring chaotically. For Sasuke, the seal was while quite intimidating (honestly, when had Naruto managed to become a fuuinjutsu jenius?), but nothing that scary. Apparently, the Hyuuga clan head thought the opposite. "Wh-what's that?" She stammered, taking deep breaths and scanning the seal again and again.
If Sasuke weren't so annoyed, he probably wouldn't have noticed a tiny flare of chakra before the blade went for the Hinata's throat.
"What?!" Naruto squeaked, still holding the kunai against Sasuke's protected forearm.
"I'll ask you that," The Uchiha hissed. "What's with the seal?"
The Hokage looked doomed and pleading at the same time. "Hinata, Sasuke, let it be."
The offer was met with silence and incredulous stares.
"Oow, that's something quite elaborate, isn't that?"
Naruto seemed to shrink in himself, looking at the newcomers. Kakashi was studying the seal with so much interest, it was quite clear the adviser was feeling sadistic, Sai contrived to snatch some scroll and was showing a great interest.
Neji and Shikamaru, wearing same I Am About To Throttle My Hokage faces, turned to Hinata.
"Please explain what's going on here."
"Hey, what're you guys doing here?!"
"Maybe you shouldn't have paled and cried about your study while rushing away? Anyway, spill, or I'll unleash Sakura on you."
Naruto made a sour face at his second adviser and yelped, looking at the business end of Sasuke's kunai. "What. Does. That. Do." The Uchiha seethed, backing the Hokage to the wall. "Spill, or I'll burn all the scrolls."
"No need for that, Sasuke-kun," Kakashi interjected, straightening. "It's a very powerful time-dimension seal. I'll admit I'm a little jealous, I'd never think something like that up."
Hinata shot up. "But Kakashi-san! Look here!" she pointed at the five triangles biting into the middle of the seal.
Kakashi smiled and looked at his former pupil.
"It basically states 'reject the body', and that northern part-"
"Enough, Hinata-chan," Naruto smiled hollowly, looking at the seal with strange mix of longing and disgust. "I'll activate it anyway, so let's not cause a scene."
The kunai dug into his throat and met an unresisting air. the Hiraishin seal was on the ceiling, right above the seal, so the mad Hokage managed to slam his open palm on the floor. The magnificent drawing lit up and became alive under everybody's shocked gazes.
The first strike was made by Neji, a simple, classic Juuken move, which got the Hyuuga prodigy stumbling into the growing seal. After that, the hell broke loose.
"It's chakra that makes it see a person." Hinata mumbled and followed her cousin's example. The middle of the drawing was a humming column of light, slowly eating its originator away.
Kakashi looked at the lateral parts with the mild interest. "Oh, I get it now," he shrugged and touched the thin line tenderly.
For Naruto, the creation of the seal became worth it the moment his chakra touched it - it really was something else, above human or even bijuu level of understanding. It was alive, roaring and coming to existence with the force of tsunami. The Kurama's chakra was wild around him and inside him, and when the roaring grew into a low whine, Naruto pushed.
For what seemed to become an eternity of disorientating immateriality, he pushed and was suddenly afraid to dissolve into live he felt around. When the struggle was too strong, and the temptation too inviting, Naruto got help.
Stop it. You're going to eliminate not only yourself.
So he stopped pushing.
And saw himself.
Oh, Kami, how tiny he was - what age had he gotten himself into?
"Hey," the Hokage said softly, coming closer to a little hunched up boy. Everything around was white and light, but the boy's shadow stood up blackly and promising, red grass under bare legs.
The boy's eyes was red and tortured, a gaze of a lonely child.
"Who are you?" he asked, paying no attention to the shining surroundings.
"I'm quite sure I am you," Naruto smiled and stepped closer, watching as the boy looked his tall figure up and down appraisingly.
"Then who am I?"
Naruto frowned and stepped even closer. "Let me tell you my story. How old are you?"
"I am twenty four. Well, I need your help. You see, I became the Hokage-"
"You!? You mean- me?!"
Naruto laughed and clipped the boy on the back of the head softly. "Yes, I did it, I've been the Hokage for four years now, but before that, I was participating in a war. A very bad one. You with me?"
The boy's eyes were shining. Whether he believed that he suddenly met an older version of himself or he was ready to believe in any lie it was impossible to tell. Probably both. "Yes! I kicked lots asses, right? Did I? Did?"
"Jeesh, was I really that bad with the grammar?" Naruto scratched the back of his neck in embarrassment. "Yes, pipsqueak, I did."
"Don't call me that! You are me!"
"That's why I have a right to call you anything I want. Now, where was I? Right. So, the war was over, but we didn't win. We only subdued our enemy."
Naruto looked at the confused face of the boy and rolled his eyes. Seriously, Kami, why all the brains he inherited had started to work after twenty?
"We tied him. And buried. But the thing is, that creature, he began to poison the earth. And now I don't know how to stop it. And nobody does."
The Hokage passed a tired right hand over his face and looked at the tiny dirty toes of his eleven-years-old self.
"So I decided - not without the help of my friends, of course - why not travel back in time and redo the fight? I pretty much know how to do that. But you see, I got too far, and I honestly didn't expect to see myself as an Academy brat… you attend the Academy, don't you?"
The boy scoffed and puffed his narrow chest. "Of course! How else am I supposed to become a Hokage?"
"I dunno, technically, I am still a genin."
"That's how awesome I am!" the boy laughed and Naruto joined, wholeheartedly agreeing.
"But I need your help. The seal which send me here destroyed my body, and the only one I can fit in is yours - my own."
The boy paled and looked at him with wide, terrified eyes.
"So- so I'll disappear?"
"No! No!" Naruto shouted hurriedly, knowing his biggest childhood fear. "Look, I know that it's hard, and it's really unfair, but I am you! So you won't ever disappear, I won't die until I pass a few new rules... oh, crap, the Hyuugas again- anyway, I've already lived through my childhood, so it won't disappear-"
"But I haven't!" the boy shouted, jumping up and crying. "All I know that everybody hates me!"
Naruto cringed. "I need to do that. That is my duty as a Hokage. People may still hate me and they may never acknowledge me again, but I'll keep them safe. I love them more that myself."
The small, round wet face looked up at him, eyes wide at the sight of that silent strength and resolve. "But they will?" the boy asked quietly.
"I'll do everything possible." Naruto said and clasped the small palm between his, feeling so proud and sad at the same time.
For a moment, he felt disoriented under the attack of flowing memories - long forgotten childhood wounds and tears came alive again, fears grew anew, until Naruto noticed the end of the ties of his hitai-ate and ordered himself to get up.
"I am the Rokudaime Hokage," he said in a soft voice, and his unyielding will straightened with him. The light around dimmed and the outlines of dark walls became visible.
"Oh, blast," Naruto mumbled, looking at the almost forgotten mindscape. "I forgot about that gloomy thing."
He tapped his lips for a few moments, then shrugged and decided to go to the left, big assured steps and proud posture, and it didn't take him long to reach his destination.
"Kurama," the Rokudaime greeted, nearing the great cage and reaching for the seal. He barely managed to dodge a monstrous claw, aimed for his chest.
"Sorry, Naruto," the demon growled, bending his head and lying lower to be on one level with his host's shocked face. "But you can't take off the seal right now. We reached too far ago, and your current body is just not accustomed to the my chakra in any amount. Furthermore, any feel of my power will send Konoha in frenzy, and don't you need the key to do that?"
Naruto scoffed. "As if I can't recreate it. Anyway, you are right, but was it really necessary to scare me like that? I thought for a moment that it was old version of you."
"You understand everything better through actions."
The young man smiled sheepishly. "But I'm sorry you'll have to sit in this thing."
"I understand that such seal is able to hold almost any amount of power within, but why the gloomy catacombs?" the Hokage frowned.
"It's just the reaction of your mind to the seal and the foreign source of power. But mostly the seal. Your subconscious perceives it as a threat and the inability to get rid of it causes some distress, which in turn manifests into these surroundings. And close your mouth, Naruto, I've lived enough to know how human mind works."
"So cool!" Naruto shouted. "But still I wish I could do something."
"Don't fret, child. Look, the walls are lighter and- there's grass near my cage?"
"Great! I'll grow a forest here!" The Hokage shouted again and jumped in joy. "And then free you!"
He fearlessly walked to the cage and past huge bars. "Thanks for help, Kurama. I'll do my best."
"I know, child," the demon grumbled low, nudging his host with a tail. "Good luck. And look - we have a guest."
"Wha-" Naruto cried out, pushed out of the cage by another giant tail, stumbled, ran into something and raised his head.
Only to look straight into the redredredred wheel of the Mangekyo Sharingan.