[Prelude: A short piece originally preceded by a more substantial work; also an orchestral introduction to an opera.]
There's a voice in Naruto's head, tucked in behind his thoughts, and it’s always been there.
When he’s little, it’s simple enough to ignore, easy to overlook, because it doesn’t say much and Naruto rarely understands it when it does. So he runs and plays and ignores the way people glare at him, and it’s simple. Not quite easy, but close enough to count. He’s a child, living first in the orphanage and then on his own, and if he’s a little better than other children at chores and housekeeping and the like, he puts it down to practice when he bothers to think about it at all.
But it comes to him in dreams more than it ever does awake, and there he doesn’t bother to shut it out or push it down, because those dreams are beautiful. There's an island under a bright summer sun, a city on the sea, with azure waters all around. A city in white and red and shining gold, built on terraces climbing from the edge of the ocean and up into the surrounding hills.
He dreams he’s there, more nights than not. He dreams of walking the streets, running them with other children his age, darting through crowds of civilians and dodging groups of shinobi wearing a symbol he doesn’t know, even though it feels achingly, horribly familiar and laced with regret. The children run and he goes with them, leads them more often than not, and instead of the black and brown hair common in Konoha those around him have red or blond or even stranger colors.
And they smile, these people. They smile and laugh at Naruto, ruffle his hair and call hello, and that’s never, ever happened in Konoha before. Naruto finds himself smiling back without fear or hesitation, too, answering their waves and laughter with his own. And he runs and plays with the other children—his friends, and that’s never happened in Konoha, either—from the time the sun rises to the moment it sets, and then goes back to a huge, stately building that rises from its surroundings like a palace.
There are other children there, some of them his friends and some only acquaintances, and they eat around a long table filled with food. Men and women in bright uniforms watch them, laugh with them, play with them, and Naruto thinks that this place is an orphanage, but it’s very different than the one he knows, brighter and cleaner and happier, with shinobi for caretakers instead of civilians.
So Naruto dreams of laughter and friendship and people who slip into his heart and take up space, become more precious than air and even dearer.
Then he wakes to an empty apartment that’s too large for just him, cold gazes and blank stares and dark whispers when his back is turned, children who avoid him and parents who pull their families away by the hand, and it…
It aches. It stings and wrenches and hurts, and Naruto doesn’t think this is the kind of thing you can put a bandage on and fix so simply.
But he runs and laughs anyways, an echo of his bright and beautiful dreams brought into the cold and dreary light of reality. He pretends he has friends, and he plays pranks, and runs, and he tries not to listen to a voice that pounds in his head and whispers not home not home not home go go go go home and I’ll find happiness.
Cold eyes and cold hearts and colder loneliness in reality.
Joy and kindness and comfort in his dreams.
Sometimes Naruto wonders why he even wakes up at all.
(He’s dying by inches and no one cares.)
But then someone does care, and that’s better. The Academy is good, and Iruka-sensei is better yet. The people there don’t whisper so much, even if some of them glare, and Iruka at the very least treats them all the same. Some of the children there aren’t wary of him, either, and their parents don’t seem to care as long as they don’t spend too much time together.
But it’s worse, too, because the voice in Naruto's head is stronger there, when he’s listening to the teachers. The lectures are enough to drive him mad, because the teacher will be talking about one thing and the voice in his mind fills in everything else, reams and reams of information until Naruto's head throbs and he can't remember a thing. He’s always getting distracted, listening to the voice instead of the chuunin instructor, and they snap and snarl and yell at him for it, even if it’s not his fault. The voice is more interesting a lot of the time, easier to understand, almost like remembering rather than learning.
Chakra, someone says, and an instant later Naruto's head is full of elemental affinities and the cycles and the different classifications of strength as based on ranks and beginner chakra theory and—
In the midst of trying to sort it all out, he misses what the teacher asks and is treated to a disapproving frown.
They give a test on taijutsu theory, and Naruto looks at the questions and suddenly recalls a hundred different forms and their respective katas, the most appropriate applications depending on the situation and the history behind each sequence and—
His test is turned in mostly blank, with a series of stick figures in action poses doodled along the outside edges. (The teachers, being unfamiliar with the originating style, never notice that it’s an A-rank taijutsu kata from a city lost decades ago, and mark down zeroes with a shake of their heads.)
(“Smart,” one of the older instructors tells Sarutobi grudgingly, when he asks. “Well-read, I think. Certainly knows more than most, but he’s lazy. Not applying himself.”
Sarutobi, too busy to be anything but a slightly distant grandfather figure, sighs and rubs his eyes. Minato was a genius, after all, and it’s only to be expected that his son has at least a little of that. But Naruto is still a child, still unaware of what he is, what he could be, and Sarutobi isn't about to push him. Let the boy have as much of a childhood as he’s able. He’s going to be a shinobi, so it will likely be shorter than most, regardless.)
The classes on sealing are the worst of all. Naruto sits through the first three, but only just, because the voice in the back of his head is growling no no no that’s not right that’s not how it works what are you saying you idiot and the urge to say it out loud is all but overwhelming. But, even though he’s inexperienced in dealing with other people outside of his pretty dreams, Naruto already knows that his opinion is far from appreciated by this teacher, and instead looks away, plans pranks and focuses on other things instead.
Needless to say, he fails that unit, too.
Kunai and shuriken come easily enough, because that’s simple—he listens to the voice, to the hours of practice he’s put in both in dreams and in reality, the understanding of his own body that comes from dream-memories of training. He’s got a special flair for senbon, too, an almost unnerving accuracy for a nearly-twelve-year-old that lets him hit the target in the center every time. It’s better, like that, because while there's a basic stance everyone is different, and throws just a little bit differently, and Iruka-sensei doesn’t try to make him change the way he does it. In fact, Iruka-sensei grins at him, reaches out and ruffles his hair and says, “Good job,” with so much warmth that Naruto freezes, not used to hearing it outside of dreams.
He grins back, wide and bright and delighted, and thinks, precious.
He darts through bright streets, a colorful market swarming with people, the weight of his hitai-ate on his forehead and the smell of the ocean in his nose. Blond hair sways around his shoulders, the tie lost somewhere between here and the shinobi housing where he lives, and one woman with crimson hair laughs as he flashes past, waving a hand to call him closer.
“Arashi-kun!” she calls. “Wait, wait, you'll never get anywhere with your hair in your face like that!”
Naruto—or Arashi, maybe, or possibly both of them—stumbles to a halt, then ducks back with a bright grin and slips around her stall with its display of beautiful hair ornaments. “Thank you, Mio-san,” he says dutifully. She’s tall and pretty with callouses on her fingers from kunai, her brilliant hair pulled up in a neat knot, and she clucks her tongue when she tugs him close.
“Of course, Arashi-kun,” she says, blue eyes sparkling as she pulls out a brush and runs it through his hair. “Are you late today? Have you eaten?”
“No, Mio-san. Saehara-sensei gave us the morning off, and I ate at home.” Mio’s not his mother, is only distantly related—cousins, or at least that’s what she says, though in reality the Uzumaki clan is large enough that it’s possible they're hardly related at all—but she acts like it, and Naruto, who gets the same treatment from the majority of people on the streets, has long since learned not to protest.
He does regardless, though, when she picks up a pair of hair-sticks with needle-sharp points and a string of golden bells on them. “Mio-san, I don’t have money for that, and you can't—”
“Hush,” she says fondly, pulling his hair up into a twist and sliding the ornaments into place. The bells chime softly as she brushes her fingers over them. “They're mine, so I can do whatever I want with them. And besides, they're a good backup weapon for a shinobi, don’t you think?” She winks at him, tapping her own hair ornaments, and Naruto flushes but smiles back.
“Thank you, Mio-san,” he says, reaching up to touch the slender string of bells. It’s a sweet sound, cheery and kind, and reminds him of her voice. There are so many people in this dream world who are precious to him, so many near to his heart that it’s very close to the whole city, and he loves them. Loves this place, so different from the waking world.
Mio smiles at him, placing a hand on his head. “Anything for our future Uzukage,” she says, and though the words are amused they're not patronizing in the least. Hopeful, maybe, and for Naruto, who’s used to mockery and derision whenever he tells someone beyond Hokage-jiji or Iruka-sensei about his goals, it’s the absolute best thing in the world.
“Arashi!” another voice shouts, rising above the din of the market coming awake, and Naruto turns automatically—he’s been living in this dream-world every night for as long as he can remember, and now that name is just as much his as Naruto. There's a rare dark head bobbing and weaving through the crowd at a run, and a moment later a boy his age ducks a pair of men carrying a crate between them and latches on to Naruto's arm with a grin.
“Arashi, there you are! You're late!” he says. “Come on, let’s go!”
“Kagami!” Naruto protests, letting his best friend pull him away with a laugh. He waves at Mio, who watches them go with an indulgent smile. “Kagami, you didn’t tell me a time to meet you! How was I supposed to know?”
Kagami rolls his dark eyes. “Matches start at eight,” he counters. “Don’t you want to see all of them? And as the genius student of the Nidaime Uzukage’s niece, shouldn’t you be able to figure out the Jounin Exams schedule?”
Naruto restrains an eye-roll of his own, even as he breaks into a run with Kagami at his elbow. He waves to a white-haired man selling bread, and then a pair of blue-haired kunoichi standing at the market’s western gate, who laugh as they rush by. “And as the eldest son of the Uchiha clan’s greatest diplomat and ambassador, shouldn’t you act more respectable?” he counters, then sidesteps a woman carrying baskets of flowers, takes a running leap, and springs up to the tiled rooftop above.
A moment later, the Uchiha joins him, looking faintly disgruntled. “What my father doesn’t know can't hurt me,” he mutters, but is gone before he even finishes the thought. Naruto paces him, headed for the arena by the southern wall where he can already feel chakra rising and swelling like the tide.
They laugh as they race each other, leaping across gaps and sliding down inclines, putting as many acrobatics into their leaps as possible. Kagami has been in the city for three years now, and every one of those he’s spent as Naruto's best friend. Naruto has other friends too, of course, but none with whom he shares this edge, this push for competition and drive to get stronger. Rivals, that’s what they are, rivals and best friends and everything in between.
(Sometimes, in the waking world, Naruto looks across the classroom at a sullen boy in Uchiha blue, his clan’s symbol emblazoned proudly on his back, and…regrets. Because Kagami is—was?—so very bright and full of life, and in comparison Sasuke is just…dulled. Flat and grimly sad and it makes Naruto think of the difference between his dreams and his reality, between a shining city on the sea and Konoha amidst its forests. Makes him think of having precious people, many, many of them, and then waking to find that only two exist at all.)
When graduation comes, and the exam is held, Naruto raises his hands to make a bunshin and automatically starts the signs for a bunshin of his own creation, one he practiced just this morning in the dream. Wind and water wrapped up together, durable when summoned and explosive when released, and it’s only at the last moment that Naruto recalls where he is, realizes that that is perhaps not the best jutsu to use in an enclosed classroom, and fumbles.
Disaster, he thinks, staring at the misshapen, awful thing he summoned. And to make it worse, Iruka-sensei yells at him, and he fails, fails like he did last two times he tried to take the exam, because he always defaults to his own Storm Clones and has to correct at the last moment, or gets overwhelmed when he looks at the test questions, or writes something he knows is correct but that disagrees with what his lectures said.
Iruka looks so disappointed that it’s heartbreaking.
He’s the only one who failed, the parents whisper when they come to fetch their children, voices low but not quite low enough.
Well, that’s a good thing. He shouldn’t become a shinobi. Since he is—
Shh. We’re not supposed to talk about that.
Naruto pulls his goggle down, tries to remember only dinner with Iruka last night, the man’s rather awkward kindness. Tries not to count the minutes until he can go home and go to bed and dream, dream of another world where everyone is precious to him.
I just…wish I had graduated.
In that case, Mizuki says to him with a smile, I’ll tell you a special secret.
Don’t trust, the voice in Naruto's head whispers, but for the first time in a very long while, he forces it back, shuts it out completely until he can't even hear a trace of it.
He can't live in dreams forever, after all.
(But that evening, when he closes his eyes for just a minute before going to steal the scroll, he dreams of being a genin with a strange and yet familiar symbol on his hitai-ate, of a jounin sensei who grins at him and calls him a genius and ruffles his hair, of a girl and a boy who train with him and grow with him and urge him on even as he does the same to them.
Naruto wakes with his cheeks wet and a pulsing, throbbing ache in his chest, and even though the voice is silent the quiet is no comfort. I want that, he thinks, and then promptly pushes that thought away, too. He’s long since given up on wanting truly impossible things.)
He dreams out of order, sometimes, though they're usually only little flashes, moments here and there. Dreams of looking in a mirror and seeing a grown man looking back, a man with long blond hair wearing pale blue robes and a pair of hair ornaments with golden bells. Of a woman with red hair pulled up in a tail and a pair of glasses, shaking her finger at him even as mirth glimmers in her eyes. Of years and fights and creating jutsus that he knows when he wakes up.
He doesn’t use them in class, doesn’t even try, because it’s just a dream, right? Just…a fantasy.
(But sometimes Naruto isn't so sure, because he dreams of being that man and going to meetings, having people bow and smile and murmur “Sandaime Uzukage Uzumaki Arashi”, dreams of reading letters bearing the newly appointed Hokage's seal, signed with the name Sarutobi Hiruzen. Dreams of talk of war and then actual war, of going out onto the sea like walking on dry land, each step steady even with a fleet of boats darkening the horizon.
The Storm God of Uzushio, they call him when he summons wind and waves and tears an entire army apart. And they cheer for him, when he comes back at an even, measured pace, stepping onto the shore only to have the woman with the red ponytail throw herself at him and hug him tightly. Only to have Kagami push his way through the crowd that’s gathered and punch him in the shoulder, then wrap his arms around him and pull him close.
“Idiot,” his best friend calls him, and Naruto laughs at him even as he hugs him back, even as he tries not to remember the screams as he ripped that fleet to pieces.
“As the Sandaime Hokage's preeminent and most trusted diplomat, shouldn’t you not talk about the Uzukage that way?” he asks in amusement.
Kagami snorts. “As the revered and much-loved Sandaime Uzukage, shouldn’t you know not to take idiotic risks by now?” he retorts. “Uzushio has barrier seals for a reason, doesn’t it? You could have let Kiri just—”
“Run up against the barrier?” Naruto finishes for him, and he can see the seals that Kagami is talking about, careful and intricate and infused with the blood of every shinobi family in the village. He pulls back and meets the Uchiha's dark eyes, and his own gaze is steady and firm. “No. Uzushio isn't ready to withstand a siege, and I will not let them get that close. Not to my people.”
With a weary, long-suffering sigh, Kagami lets him go and shakes his head, rolling his eyes just faintly. “Fine,” he says. “But if Kiri is making a move against Uzushio—”
Naruto nods, plans already clicking into place, courses of action and probable outcomes and strategy whirling through his brain. This is no time for his usual impulsiveness, not with an entire village depending on him. “We’ll need Konoha,” he agrees, knowing what his friend was going to say. “And we’ll have to move quickly. Uzushio’s location is good for defense, but we’re also cut off from help here.”
“I can be gone by morning,” Kagami offers, closing his fingers around Naruto's wrist in a loose clasp and meeting his eyes. “Four days to Konoha, and then four days back, and probably a week in between to gather forces and hash out the politics. You can last that long?”
“Uzushio won't fall so easily,” Naruto answers, twisting his hand to lace their fingers and giving a light, reassuring squeeze. “If worse comes to worst, I’ll let Kiri wear themselves out on the barrier and then send my jounin out to clean up the mess.”
“We’d all appreciate the chance to actually get off our asses and enjoy your leftovers, Uzukage-kun” Ookami Shunka puts in, smiling as she approaches. She’s the jounin sub-commander, from one of Uzushio’s smaller clans, and is carrying a scroll that she waves at Naruto. “I've got the rosters of all jounin available and fit for action. Should I start drawing up battle squads?”
Naruto nods, even as he rolls his eyes at her. “I've heard,” he says dryly, “that the other Kage actually get respect from their subordinates. Isn't that a novel idea, Shunka-san?”
The silver-haired kunoichi grins cheekily at him. “We respect you, Uzukage-sama. Every one of us. But we also love you, and of course that’s going to make us impudent once in a while. You're like a little brother to half of our forces, and an older one to the rest of them. Get used to it.” Putting words to actions, she smacks him over the head with her scroll and then turns away with a lazy wave, sauntering off into the crowd.
Naruto sighs and rubs the lump forming on his skull. “I should have just become a fisherman,” he bemoans. “I’d probably get more respect that way.”
Kagami snorts. “Never,” he promises, slinging an arm over Naruto's shoulders and knocking the sides of their heads together fondly. “We’d all pick on you just as much then. Maybe even more, because you’d be an awful fisherman.”
But he’s smiling, and even though there’s timber just starting to drift in on the tide, timber and sails and scraps of cloth and the faintest hint of red, Naruto smiles back.)