Red pooled on the damp earth, slowly trailing down towards a gentle stream formed by the earlier morning rain. A metallic scent permeated the air, mixing unpleasantly with the fresh scent of the surrounding forest.
No birds sang. No insects crawled.
The red trail reached the gentle stream and was silently carried away.
Quieter still, footsteps managed not to disturb neither earth nor fallen leaf as a young man approached. The slight widening of dark eyes were the only indication of wrong as he quickly took in the scene while stepping over the small stream and following the red trail to its source.
The red pool surrounded the equally shocking red hair of a man who lay unnaturally still amongst the foliage. The young man knelt down and reached out with two fingers in attempt of finding a pulse, only finding cold flesh. With an inaudible sigh he withdrew his hand and began to stand back up to properly scan the area and the body.
A harsh, rattling breath disturbed the unnatural silence, startling the young man from moving. Two clear blue eyes forced themselves open against the light of day and stared through their observer.
The corpse gasped a name.
“He said Sasuke,” a soft but even voice pronounced. A harried looking blonde man appeared to be searching for something to say in return, but was interrupted before he had the chance of speaking. “I’m certain it wasn’t in relation to my brother, if that is your concern.”
“You’re more than likely correct. However, some caution would be prudent. I’ve sent an Anbu to watch over him at the academy just in case. The circumstances are more than a little unusual, not to mention ominous.” The blonde sighed before continuing. “I sent Kakashi out after the first team returned with no idea of where this guy came from. No scent trails, no footprints, no disturbances in the foliage, no blood trails, no chakra trails – did the guy get flung out here by a tornado or something?”
“No visible force of impact,” the first voice countered flatly. The blonde grinned tiredly in return.
“I can always leave it up to you to debunk my perfectly sound theories, Itachi.” He sighed again.
Itachi directed his vision to the window of the Yondaime Hokage’s office. The Yondaime followed his line of sight and sighed yet another time.
“He’s probably out of surgery by now if you wanted to get the report of his condition for me.” he unsubtly suggested. Itachi straightened guiltily and bowed.
Namikaze Minato watched as Itachi disappeared without a sound from the window.
“Five cracked ribs, one compound fracture in the right femur, a shattered kneecap, a broken ankle, two punctured lungs, head trauma, severe blood loss, and to top it off severe chakra exhaustion! Whoever was after this kid managed to incapacitate him in just about every possible way, and somehow still fail to kill him. Tch, I can’t decide if I should be impressed the brat is still alive, or embarrassed for whoever was trying to take him out. I suppose I’ll settle for a little bit of both, because I really didn’t think he was going to make it.”
Itachi watched as Tsunade of the Sannin furiously wrote what was supposed to be a report on the condition of her latest patient, but appeared to be a demand for free sake. He blinked as she thrust the paper under his nose.
“Give that to Minato and tell him to come over here himself if he wants to talk about this guy.” She leaned against the counter and snatched a bottle of sake from somewhere, only to set it down in disappointment after finding it empty. She frowned and continued. “And yes, I mean here in person. There are certain things that shouldn’t be discussed over notes or Anbu.”
Itachi nodded and glanced over at the occupied hospital bed.
“So his condition has stabilized?”
“Keh, stabilized? I would hardly call it that. I’ve healed what I can of his physical condition and we’ve given him enough blood to keep his heart beating, but when I say he was suffering from severe chakra exhaustion I meant his chakra reserves were drier than a dune in Suna. Whatever he did, or whoever did this to him used up every bit of chakra he has – and then some. There’s always a chance his body will go back into shock and unless he starts reforming his own chakra soon, introducing anymore foreign chakra to his system could create complications.”
Tsunade crossed her arms and sent a contemplative look towards her patient. Itachi took the few steps over to the hospital bed to better observe its occupant.
Wild red hair not quite as long as Itachi’s own stood in stark contrast against both the harsh white of the hospital sheets and ghastly pale of the man’s face. Smudges of blood lingered, not fully wiped away after he was brought in for treatment ten hours earlier. Six scars mirrored each other, three on either side of his face.
Itachi thought that he looked very young.
“He’s probably in his early twenties, though with these guys it can be hard to tell.” Tsunade responded to the unspoken question. Narrowed eyes looked back at her.
“‘These guys’?” He parroted blandly. Tsunade waved him off.
“Some things shouldn’t be discussed over notes or Anbu,” she repeated her earlier words. “Drag the Yondaime out of his chair; I need his confirmation on this.”
“No need for dragging, curiosity is all that it took this time,” the Yondaime’s cheerful voice materialized from the doorway. “Kakashi came back just as perplexed as the first team.” He continued in a stage whisper, “I think it hurt his pride a little bit.” The blonde was followed by a world-weary masked jounin who purposefully ignored his former teacher’s teasing.
“So this is the guy who – Oh.” Minato startled, eye’s widening as he approached the subject of conversation. “He’s …”
“So I was right. Not that I had much doubt after the hair and chakra reserves.” She instinctively grasped for the flask that was supposed to be in her pocket. Her eye twitched as she withdrew an empty hand.
Minato hovered over the patient, hand rising to cover his mouth as he continued his observation. Kakashi drew in a long breath when he understood the implication, but remained by the door.
Impatiently, Itachi crossed his arms and stared at Kakashi, his best bet for information at this point. Kakashi blinked and stared back in amusement, gifting Itachi with a cheerful wave. Itachi continued staring.
“Yes, if the hair and chakra coils aren’t dead giveaways, the fuinjutsu certainly is.” Minato said.
“Fuinjutsu?” Tsunade strode to where Minato was standing.
“The tattoos,” Minato clarified, pointing to nonsensical designs trailing the man’s right arm. “They’re well-disguised, but I can promise they’re not there for decoration. This is fuinjutsu I have never seen before. With a cursory glance, I’m not sure I could even tell you what this seal does.” He trailed off briefly before continuing. “As skilled as she was, Kushina herself admitted she was hardly comparable to the Fuinjutsu Masters of the Uzumaki Clan, having only her childhood to learn the subject. If he’s an Uzumaki…”
“If he’s an Uzumaki, he would have been a toddler – if that – when Uzushio was attacked.” Tsunade proclaimed.
“But his parents might have survived, passed on the knowledge.” He countered.
“Hmph, well it’s in poor taste to make up his life story for him. We’ll have to wait and see when he wakes up. Someone else might have put that thing on him for all we know. What I want to know is how the boy ended up nearly dead in a Konoha training ground.” She turned to look at Kakashi, who sheepishly scratched the back of his head.
“Maybe you should ask Itachi-kun, since he was the one who found him?” Kakashi deflected. Itachi gave him a dry look. “Maa, sometimes words help in a conversation, Itachi-kun.” At Minato’s stifled chuckle and Tsunade’s eye roll, Kakashi sighed. “It’s all very strange. I don’t know what to make of it. I can’t track something that has no trail.”
Itachi reverted his gaze to the patient.
“There wasn’t anything at the training grounds this morning. It was quiet.”
Kakashi read between the lines.
“You followed the quiet and found him.”
“The quiet, huh? That’s the last place I would expect to find an Uzumaki.” Tsunade reached under the hospital bed, and pulled her arm back up in triumph with an unopened bottle of sake.
He felt heavy. His eyes throbbed under eyelids that refused to open. Something in his chest burned and spread with every wet, shallow breath he stole. His mouth felt like cotton and tasted like copper.
He should be dead.
He moved his head slightly and tasted bile in the back of his throat.
He should be dead.
Something cold touched his face. Muffled noises felt like bricks to his skull.
Why wasn’t he dead?
His eyelids slowly ripped open and he continued to see nothing. His dry eyes burned. He closed them in acquiescence.
Sasuke was dead.
Something cold snaked under the back of his neck and grabbed his shoulder causing him to shiver. Cold glass was pressed to his lips and a small amount of liquid made him gag. The hand at his neck moved to the base of his skull, the cold giving him relief he didn’t know he needed. The muffled noises began to sound like voices. He could smell blood. He opened his eyes.
He should be dead too.
Two figures stood to his left, dark blurred shapes against a white backdrop. His eyes kept slipping, unable to focus. The figure closer to him was the one holding his head. The hand was gently pulled away. A familiar face started to come into focus.
Maybe he was dead.
He relaxed and opened his mouth to speak, only to let out a painful cough instead. A voice from his right calmed him. He knew that voice. Relief bled through him. He closed his eyes.
He was dead.
“– It’s to be expected, he did have extensive trauma to the skull – that’s not something anyone jumps right back out of. I’d be less surprised if he hadn’t woken up at all in the condition he’s in. People have died from less.”
“It’s been four days, Tsunade, and you said when his chakra began recovering two days ago his body began healing ‘substantially faster’ than –“
“I’m aware of what I said, thank you, Minato. All that means is that it took four days for him to wake up rather than a week or two.”
A short silence.
“I’m sorry, I’m just worried.”
“I understand.” A pause. “He’s regaining his focus.”
He opened his eyes. Four dead ninja stared back at him.
Tsunade no baachan, the Yondaime Hokage – his father, Kakashi-sensei, and Sasuke.
No, no – that wasn’t right. Even in the end, Sasuke never developed the deep lines under his eyes that his brother bore. Itachi, then. But where was Sasuke? He looked around the small room in confusion.
His father smiled pleasantly and moved closer to the bed he was stationed in.
“Hello! It’s good to finally see you’ve decided to join us in the world of the living.” He said, smiling as though nothing were wrong.
World of the living?
He remembered now.
He wished he didn’t.
He wasn’t dead.
Sasuke sent him back.
His head spun.
“That bastard,” his rough voice wavered almost inaudibly at the ceiling.
“Yes, people say that a lot when they see my face first thing in the morning. It’s perfectly understandable. My name is Namikaze Minato, the current Hokage, and this lovely young lady here who brought you back to life is Senju Tsunade.”
Tsunade scowled and pushed the Hokage away.
“How are you feeling? Any dizziness or nausea?” She asked.
Resigned, he looked over at the fussing Sannin and Hokage.
“Was… was I alone?” He asked, voice low and rough from lack of use. At their confused pause, he continued. “When you found me. Was I alone?”
“Yes. You were alone.” Itachi murmured from his left.
The simplicity of the answer stung, despite already knowing it was the truth.
He stared at Itachi, following the familiar contours of a face that he – He looked away.
“What’s your name?” Tsunade’s voice gently broke his train of thought.
Uzumaki Naruto, he almost answered instinctively. But something was wrong.
He looked at Tsunade’s face, deceivingly young and full of concern. Long blonde hair pulled back into tails. Not unusual.
He turned his attention to his father – wild blonde hair, sharp blue eyes; Naruto distractedly wondered how he never saw the resemblance between them when he was younger. His face had more lines than Naruto remembered him having during their brief meeting inside Naruto’s mind those many years ago.
Kakashi-sensei, masked and one-eyed as ever stood silently at the far end of the bed, observing Naruto as Naruto observed him. He shifted his sights to Itachi.
Itachi. In the village. Long black hair loosely pulled back, and dark eyes – not Mangekyo red – unreadable. Proudly wearing his Konoha forehead protector and jounin flak jacket. He never knew Itachi well and Sasuke rarely spoke of him, but he knew Itachi didn’t make jounin before the massacre when he was thirteen. This Itachi was sixteen at least.
He redirected his eyes to his father. Older than he should be. He didn’t die during the Kyuubi attack.
His eyes found Tsunade’s. Still in the village, working as a medical ninja.
Naruto shook and broke into a cold sweat as he took in the information. Bile once again reached the back of his throat. Small but practiced hands held back his overgrown hair as he dry heaved over the side of the bed.
“How did I get here?” Naruto forced out when the nausea passed.
Tsunade gently sat him up on the hospital bed and pressed a glass of water to his lips. Naruto grabbed the glass and shakily took a small sip. His throat burned.
“Uchiha Itachi,” the Yondaime gestured to Itachi who was still at Naruto’s left side, “found you in a training ground bleeding out. We’ve been wanting to ask you ourselves how you got there.”
Found me in a training ground, Naruto mouthed. Unease swept through him as the shock began to fade.
“That bastard.” He whispered. Minato and Kakashi swapped glances. Naruto tried to make eye contact with the Yondaime, only managing to keep it for a moment.
“Paper,” he quietly demanded as he held out his hand. Kakashi silently supplied both paper and ink, and the four watched as Naruto began to draw out a complex seal with shaky hands. Minato let out a small note of surprise when he realized the purpose of the seal. Naruto didn’t bother finishing it. He wasn’t drawing the real thing, anyhow. He handed it to the Yondaime.
“I was working on that when – my group – we were attacked.”
Kakashi moved over to the Yondaime’s side and attempted to make sense of the choppily drawn seal.
“What is it, Minato-sensei?”
“It’s an incomplete but very complex draft of a space-time seal, similar to the Hiraishin, except this one seems to be intended to be used without physically marking a destination beforehand. So I suppose it would be more accurate to liken it to Kamui.” He said, gaining the two sharingan users’ attention.
Naruto avoided everyone’s gaze.
“So you used this to escape the attack?” Kakashi asked.
Naruto’s head snapped up, eyes burning.
His four visitors startled. Tsunade grimaced.
“Alright, alright. I think there’s been enough interrogation today. He’s just woken up after a four day coma; I think he’s had enough excitement. We still need to run a few tests, make sure we didn’t miss anything.”
“No,” Naruto repeated. “I’m fine.”
Tsunade snorted, but crossed her arms complacently.
Naruto briefly recalled Shikamaru tell him the best lies were crafted within the truth. The image of his friend bloody and half-paralyzed, yet still managing to hold down five enemies with his shadow technique while hoarsely screaming at him ‘save Temari and’ – Naruto broke off the thought.
Hoarsely, Naruto gave his story, “I was working on that – seal – when, we were attacked. I don’t know what happened to – I saw Gaara last, he was alright. Fighting. I don’t – I don’t want to think about what happened to him. The – Our attackers must have been watching us for a while. No idea how, I had more perimeter traps set up than there was perimeter, but they clearly found something I missed. I was tired – a few days without sleep – wasn’t able to react fast enough when they turned in my direction.”
Naruto winced as he recalled the pain.
“Sasuke, that bastard, grabbed me – “ Minato and Kakashi gave quick glances at Itachi, who remained impassive as he listened. “ – pulled me to the back where I had the – He saved my life, that asshole. I was dying, we both knew it. That was the only way out of that shithole and he forced it on a dying man.”
He gave Itachi a desperate look, trying to ask a question without words. Itachi faltered, dark hair failing into his eyes.
“Do you have the location of where this happened? If it’s within the border of the Fire Country, I can have a team scout the area and see if any of your group – “
“No. They didn’t make it.”
The Yondaime hesitated, “But if there’s any chance at all.”
“No, you don’t understand. There was more to that seal than – It – There’s no one left.” He finished quietly while giving a bleak smile. “Not that it would matter, because if memory serves, the attack took place within Lightning Country.”
An uncomfortable silence stole the room. Tsunade grunted.
“We never got your name, kid.”
Something so simple, Naruto thought. He thought about Shikamaru and blood and decided that he was never very good at lying anyway.
“Naruto!” The Yondaime grinned brightly, dispelling the gloom. “That’s a great name! Before Kushina passed, she was insistent on naming our kid that if it was a boy. I’m sure she would be glad there’s an Uzumaki out there with that name already.” Minato continued smiling brightly, despite the difficult topic.
Uncomprehendingly, Naruto asked, “Kushina…?”
“Uzumaki Kushina, my late wife – the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on.” He spoke with reverence.
Kakashi didn’t seem to be able to handle the matter as easily as the Yondaime and turned to look out the window, despite the closed blinds.
“It’s been twelve years already, but the fact that I was able to know her at all is more than I deserve.” He declared. Tsunade’s expression crumbled as her own demons came to surface.
Naruto stared with pained eyes as he tiredly realized just how far away from home he was.
“She thought with the loss of Uzushio, she lost her family as well. I’m certain she’d have been overjoyed that someone from her clan managed to survive.” Minato’s face gained a look of determination. “As the Hokage, I welcome you to remain in Konoha for as long as you please. I’ll have the arrangements made for your stay, and if there is anything at all that you need –“
Shocked by the invitation, Naruto interrupted. “No, no. Thank you, but I need to go.”
Tsunade stomped her foot, creating a slight crater in the floor. “You ‘need to go’? Brat, do you have any idea the condition you’re in right now? You’re not leaving this hospital, let alone the city!”
“I- I heal fast!” Naruto argued weakly, bewildered by the sudden change of atmosphere.
“You heal fast,” Itachi repeated, unimpressed.
“You heal fast?!” Tsunade shouted. “It took two days for your body to start healing itself at all! Yes, we may have patched up all of the worse injuries, but even your fast healing isn’t fast enough to clear you for leaving this room!”
“I used to heal really, really fast.” Naruto said petulantly, sulking back into the pillows behind him.
But not anymore, he thought. Not after the extraction.
A red, feral grin appeared in his thoughts, and he banished them.
“But Tsunade-hime, he’ll recover even faster with some fresh air!” the Fourth Hokage whined, ignoring Naruto’s declaration of leaving.
Tsunade opened a window and stared pointedly. Minato sighed dramatically. Tsunade glared.
“Really, Yondaime-sama. His health comes first. Once he’s recovered he’s all yours. Now that he’s awake I have some questions I need to ask him in order to ensure that he’s healing properly. Don’t you have some papers to sign or something? Ideally he shouldn’t be put under this much stress just after waking up to begin with. Uchiha-kun has been the only helpful one in this room today.” Itachi blinked at the admission.
“I’m fine! Really! I appreciate all the concern, but I really can’t stay here.” Naruto proclaimed, the exhaustion in his voice discrediting him.
“And where exactly do you need to go? Do you have a hometown or any family we can send notice to? Because I can promise you’re not going anywhere with a broken leg and shattered kneecap. Those aren’t things that heal quickly even at a hospital.”
Naruto looked at his fully bound left leg.
“I’ll be fine with a pair of crutches.” He said.
Four pairs of eyes stared at him in disbelief. Minato poorly stifled his laugh.
“How severe was the head trauma again, Tsunade-hime?” Kakashi asked dryly.
“Clearly more severe than I initially assumed,” a large vein pulsed in her forehead. “You’re not going anywhere and that is final. I’ll have Uchiha-kun stand guard if you’re going to be difficult.”
Itachi raised an amused brow at the declaration.
“Maa, demoted to invalid guard duty, Itachi-kun?”
“He’s been over here enough, he might as well get paid for it.” Tsunade said distractedly. “You didn’t answer my questions earlier, brat. If you have any family or friends you’d like to get in contact with, now is the time to let us know.”
Naruto lowered his eyes, thinking of Sasuke and Gaara, the last ones he saw.
“No, I’m alone now.”
After an uncomfortable silence, Minato smiled sadly and spoke, “No. You’re not.”
“Sensei, you’re the Hokage. As cute as he is, you can’t bring strays to live in your house with you. He might have fleas or something.”
“After a week and a half in the hospital, I would certainly hope they managed to get rid of any fleas. I’m pretty sure fleas are something Tsunade wouldn’t stand for.”
“It’s a matter of security, Hokage-sama.”
“I’m hardly an old man, Kakashi-kun. If he turns out to be a very well-disguised assassin, I’m pretty sure I can take him.”
“Even so, taking in a random, unaffiliated, shinobi is hardly setting a good example for your people. I’m sure you can imagine the type of rumors that would get around.”
“He’s hardly a random shinobi – he’s Kushina’s family. That makes him my family by default.”
“He’s twenty-four years old; he wasn’t even born yet when Uzushio was attacked. He said he was an orphan too, meaning he has just about no connection with Uzushio and Kushina-san beyond legacy.”
“It doesn’t change the fact that he needs our help! He’s planning something, probably some kind of revenge. He’s being very evasive about details on what happened and why he was attacked.”
“Minato-sensei, that’s exactly why we shouldn’t trust him. That he is unable to trust us – even after saving his life – that makes him dangerous. We have no idea who he is, or if anything he’s said to us is true –
“He looks just like her.”
A silence as numbing as the winter’s morning breeze coursed through the room.
The quiet twisted Namikaze Minato’s face as memories unbidden surfaced. Kakashi closed his visible eye and tried not to remember.
Minato’s hushed voice struck through the silence.
“His hair, the shape of his eyes, the way he talks – I can see Kushina in him. I… I never got to say my goodbyes to her, I wasn’t – I wasn’t gifted that opportunity. If I can get to know Naruto and bring him peace, I think… I think maybe I can learn to forgive myself. I think maybe Kushina could forgive me.”
“Sensei. You’ve done nothing that requires forgiveness. Kushina-san would tell you the same thing if she were here. Along with the fact that you’re an idiot.”
Minato let out a choked laugh and brought his head down to rest in his hands.
“Yes. You’re probably right. But I think – just this one time – I need to be selfish. I just – I need this, Kakashi. For my sake.”
Obligingly, Kakashi let the topic drop. He leaned against the ledge of the open window, staring out.
“I’m not saying he shouldn’t be allowed to stay in the city. I’m saying the Hokage himself shouldn’t be the one playing nursemaid, host, and keeper while he’s here. You already have enough responsibilities, Sensei.”
“I know, I know. But I can’t just leave him in the hospital, either. Unbelievably, he’s already healed to the point where Tsunade would be comfortable releasing him, provided that he takes it easy. The only reason she hasn’t is because she knows he’ll do something stupid out on his own.”
“We can’t force him to stay in the village,” Kakashi pointed out. Minato tapped out an agitated rhythm on his desk.
“I’ll think of something. But for now we need to find him a place to stay while he’s recovering before he starts a revolt within the hospital.”
“He can stay with me.” Itachi’s calm voice suggested. The blonde’s head whipped in his direction.
“Itachi! When did you get here?”
“Really, Itachi-kun, it’s rude to eavesdrop on private conversations, you know.”
“The door was open and I wasn’t masking my chakra.” He stated, pointing at the door.
Minato grinned. “You’re just too quiet. You’re always scaring people when you walk up behind them.”
“It’s hardly my fault they’re not paying attention.” He shrugged, glancing pointedly at Kakashi. “But I meant it. I could take in Uzumaki-san while he finishes recovering.”
“You’ve been trying to convince me to take a vacation for years now – Now is as good a time as any, especially with Sasuke’s graduation coming up.”
“I’m not sure this would really qualify as a vacation.” Minato said sheepishly. Itachi shrugged.
“I would get bored, otherwise.”
Kakashi tilted his head, eyeing Itachi.
“Hmm. You’re unusually interested in this guy, Itachi-kun. You’ve been visiting him in the hospital rather often since he was admitted.” Kakashi pried.
“I was the one who found him. Maybe I feel responsible for him.” Itachi not-answered, waving his hand dismissively.
Kakashi continued humming skeptically, single eye boring into Itachi’s impassive countenance. Ignoring the not-interrogation, Minato brightened at the news.
“So you’ve been visiting him too? Has he said anything interesting to you? So far all I’ve gotten is his age, a few details on how he grew up, his favorite color – orange, by the way –, and knowledge of his forbidden and not-so-secret love of ramen.”
Kakashi and Itachi both turned to stare at the Hokage.
“What?” He asked defensively. “He keeps trying to get the nurses to bring him ramen, and Tsunade punched the bowl through the window when I brought him some from Ichiraku’s. The poor guy looked like she just stuffed all his hopes and dreams into a dirty old bag and beat it with a rusty pipe full of poisoned senbon.” He paused briefly, “And then fed it to Gamabunta.”
Itachi coughed discreetly. “He plays Go. He says an old friend of his tried to teach him to play a while back, but Uzumaki-san was ‘too troublesome to teach when he couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes’. I brought over a goban and we’ve played a few games.”
“He any good?” Kakashi asked.
“He’s a beginner. He’s too aggressive on the board – doesn’t really consider his defenses much.”
“Hah, well that’s ironic, since in the real world all he seems to be doing is building his defenses. Every time we talk I feel like he’s built another wall around himself.” Minato eyed the ceiling suspiciously.
“I don’t think he’s used to being this vulnerable. We’ve caught him at what he sees as a disadvantage and he’s trying to control his situation as much as possible, which in this case means limiting the information he gives us.”
“That’s what I was afraid of.” Minato admitted, leaning back in his chair. “I just want him to feel comfortable here.”
“No, you want him to move in with you and smother him until he develops Stockholm syndrome and never leaves Konoha ever again.” Kakashi revealed.
“Well, there’s that, yes.”
Itachi looked mildly concerned.
“But his comfort comes first. Itachi! I’ll leave him in your hands for now.” The Yondaime said while scribbling something down on a piece of scratch paper. “You’re living in the jounin apartments at the moment, right?”
“Ah, no. Sasuke got into a… disagreement with one of the neighbors and since he visits frequently I thought it would be best to find somewhere less – disruptive. I moved to the apartments down Kaiou Street last month.”
“Would that disagreement involve Genma by any chance?” Kakashi asked.
“Hmm.” Itachi not-answered again, staring out the window past Kakashi’s head.
“That’s even better! Those apartments are practically right around the corner!” Minato barreled on, unconcerned with Itachi’s reason for moving.
“So expect several visits from the Hokage, Itachi-kun. If he agrees to live with you, that is.”
“When I visited him three hours ago, he’d built a tower from chopsticks he’s been stashing somehow and was stuck between naming it ‘the Eater of Worlds and Master of Crossword Puzzles Lord Zerith’ and ‘The Aroma of Ramen When The Sun Began To Set Under The Tree Next To That One House I Was At That One Time’. He said he was leaning towards the latter, but he was afraid he’d forget it since it was so long.”
Kakashi blanched. “We need to get him out of the hospital right now.”
Itachi silently agreed.
“Alright, here –“ Minato held out a rejected form titled ‘Equal Opportunity Bathhouses! No More Gender Segregation!’, blinked in surprise and flipped it over to reveal a hastily scrawled note to Tsunade. “Give this to her, she’ll let you know anything you need to about his condition. Kakashi, you go too, just in case something happens. I’d go myself, but Hiruzen-san has me on lockdown since he’s figured out I’ve managed to stockpile four days’ worth of paperwork.” He said, glaring down at the poorly hidden stacks of papers behind his desk.
Itachi took the note and began to follow Kakashi, who was already half way out of the window.
“Swing by later and let me know how he’s doing!” The Yondaime called as the two jounin left for the hospital. Kakashi waved his hand in affirmation as he reached ground level.
Naruto pulled another chopstick out of his tower. It wobbled slightly, but remained standing.
He never thought being in a past alternate dimension could be so boring.
Another chopstick was successfully removed without bringing the tower down.
He never really thought he’d be in a past alternate dimension at all. It was kind of weird.
He hesitated with his current choice of chopstick, when the tower began to waver unsteadily.
He really hated hospitals. The novelty of being in one again disappeared as quickly as it came when Tsunade forced a cup full of pills down his throat.
Success, he thought as the worrisome chopstick managed to come out while still leaving the tower intact.
He had things to do, dammit. Alternate dimension or no, he had a mission to carry out. He was the only one left who could do it. He ignored the wave of grief and the condescending voice in his head telling him he was never any good at doing things alone. It sounded too much like Sasuke.
His eyes narrowed and his tongue stuck out as he gently pulled a precariously placed chopstick. The hospital room’s door slammed open, causing a brief tremor to run throughout the room.
“- too early to let him out, he might be recovering faster than most patients, but his chakra is still unstable and I can’t figure out why.”
Naruto stared at the pile of chopsticks that littered the small tray over his lap.
“You killed Lord Zenoth.” He said, eyes glazing over.
“I thought it was Lord Zerith,” Hatake Kakashi replied. Itachi gracefully sailed in through the door after Kakashi and Tsunade.
“I think I’d know the name of my own creation.” Naruto argued, crossing his arms petulantly. Lord Zorath would never be forgotten. “Where’s Minato-san?”
“The Hokage is probably busy drowning in all the documents he’s been ignoring since you came tumbling out of the space-time continuum.” Tsunade ranted, hitting a little closer to home than she was aware.
“We’re here to get you out of this place before you go completely insane.” Kakashi intervened.
“You mean you’re letting me go? Really? I think Tsunade-baachan was ready to stitch me to this bed if I tried to take a walk without her supervision again.”
“Watch your tongue, brat. You’ll have worse things to worry about than immobility if you keep calling me that.”
“There’s nothing worse you can do to me; I’ve been having ramen withdrawals for days.” He groaned.
“And to answer your question: No, we’re not letting you go. You still have some recovering left to do, but we’ve figured perhaps a change in scenery might do you some good.” Kakashi informed.
“I’m recovered already! I bet I can walk just fine without this stupid cast on.” Naruto protested.
“That ‘stupid cast’ is all that’s preventing your bones from deciding to get a nice view of the sunlight again. Even with your accelerated healing, you’ll be wearing that for another week at least. Just be glad lungs are easier for us to heal than bone, or else you’d be sitting around with a tube sticking out of your chest as well.” Tsunade lectured, brushing a blonde pigtail over her shoulder.
“…It itches.” Naruto grumbled.
“What are you, twelve? It’s time to grow up and act like an adult! And stop being so reckless with your health! Once you’ve recovered you’ll be free to go and jump down a well or whatever it is you do.”
“Why would I jump down a well? That’s stupid. I have important things I need to do… somewhere.” Naruto frowned and glared at the ceiling. “I’m still figuring that part out! But everyday I’m stuck here is a day I’ve been set back.”
“Hmm, you should consider yourself lucky you have any days at all. You wouldn’t if Itachi-kun hadn’t stumbled upon you when he did.”
Naruto made a face at Kakashi, but didn’t argue the fact.
“Uzumaki-san, I’ve informed the Hokage that you’d be welcome to stay at my apartment during the remainder of your recovery if you were amenable.” Itachi politely interrupted before things got out of hand.
Naruto gaped at the invitation, blinking dumbly.
“I keep telling you, don’t call me Uzumaki-san. It’s weird.” Naruto weakly forced out. And it was weird. Maybe he wasn’t the same Itachi that Naruto knew, but he was still Uchiha Itachi. He should be staring at him with creepily overpowered Mangekyo Sharingan while shoving crows down his throat or something. Not visiting him in the hospital every day and playing Go with him. And definitely not inviting Naruto to stay with him at his apartment.
“Did you really just invite me to stay at your apartment?”
Black eyes darted briefly to the side as Itachi responded. “If that’s something you’d be comfortable with. If not, other arrangements can be made so that you do not have to remain in the hospital.”
“Eh? No, no. That-that’d be fine. I was just surprised.” Naruto laughed nervously.
In some ways, spending time with Itachi was easier than it was with anyone else he’d met in this place so far. He never really knew Itachi, so he never had to worry too much about acting too familiarly or bringing up something that he shouldn’t know about him. Not that they’d talked enough for him to seem suspicious. Itachi was a quiet guy – and surprisingly kind, Naruto thought as he eyed the goban that sat on table to his right. After overhearing Naruto complain about not having anything to do all day, Itachi came back the following day with a goban and somehow managed to teach him a little bit – something Shikamaru declared impossible years ago. Not only that, but Itachi kept coming back. It was weird and awkward, but nice.
In other ways, spending time with Itachi was incredibly difficult. His appearance reminded Naruto so starkly of Sasuke, who was still so fresh in Naruto’s mind; sometimes it was painful to look at him for more than a few seconds at a time.
Really though, Naruto thought, They’re nothing alike at all, Itachi and Sasuke. I wonder if that’s what bothered Sasuke the most, even after all those years.
“Ahh, you’re too nice, Itachi-san. You’ve got to have better things to do than watch over a poor old cripple like me.”
“Not really.” Itachi bluntly replied. Kakashi slapped a hand over his face.
“He’s on vacation.” Kakashi helpfully supplied.
“I can think of a lot of things I’d rather be doing on a vacation than watch over this menace.” Tsunade grumbled from over where she was gathering paperwork (which Naruto noticed had a lot of large, angry unintelligible scribbles all over the pages).
“I’m not very good at taking vacations.” Itachi blandly summed up.
“We’ve noticed.” Tsunade wryly informed.
“But that means I get to leave the hospital, right?”
Tsunade rolled her eyes, “Fine, yes. Against my better judgment I’ll let you leave. You’re still going to have to come back every other day – there are still some major irregularities with your chakra that are concerning. Other than that, you’re healing well, so as long as you don’t do anything stupid you should be alright to leave.” She looked at Itachi as she spoke the last part. “I hope you know what you’re getting into, Uchiha.” She handed him a jumbled pile of medical notes. “That’s all you’ll need to know about his condition, so don’t come running to me when he starts complaining about itching or ramen withdrawals.”
Itachi flipped through the medical charts and prognoses. “Thank you, Tsunade-sama. I’ll be certain to read these in depth.”
“See, brat? That’s the proper way to address someone who saved your sorry life.” She huffed.
“Whatever you say, baachan.” He flippantly replied. “Oi, Bakashi – gimme those crutches over there. I need to make my great escape before she changes her mind, injures me more and forces me to stay longer.”
Tiredly, Kakashi grabbed the crutches. “Why is Itachi-kun the only one who gets any respect from you?”
“Itachi is nice.” Naruto answered simply.
“I’m nice.” Kakashi sulked.
“When Minato-san brought in yakisoba, you stole all my chicken when I wasn’t looking.”
“How would you know if you weren’t looking?”
“I know.” Naruto said venomously.
Kakashi was the same, Naruto had noticed over the past week. Maybe a little less aloof, but overall the same as the Kakashi he’d known since he was twelve, avid porn reading and all. His presence was comforting in a world that seemed to be consistently different than his own.
He thought about the Yondaime and Kakashi’s friendship and was grateful that they still had each other amidst the losses they’ve faced.
I just wish they’d never had to lose anything, he thought. If only I’d have been able to finish the seal…
Naruto thought about Kushina, about himself never having been born in this world.
A hand resting on his shoulder broke Naruto from his thoughts. He looked up to find Itachi watching him in concern.
Blinking twice, he came back to attention to find Tsunade and Kakashi squabbling over the Yondaime bringing unauthorized food to patients.
Finger in ear, Kakashi once again grabbed the crutches Naruto asked for earlier.
Tsunade, believing that Kakashi had been properly chastised, turned to face Naruto.
“I mean it, kid. Every other day. And try to keep chakra use to a minimum until I clear you – something’s out of whack with your reserves, and another episode of chakra exhaustion is not something your body can handle any time soon.”
“Gotcha. Visit every other day, no fun allowed. Blah blah blah. Oh look, time to go!” He quickly blabbed as he hobbled off the bed, wincing as his still healing ribs made themselves known.
Itachi grabbed Naruto’s right elbow to help him stay upright as he settled on the crutches, Naruto flashing a quick grin in thanks. Itachi then watched as Naruto slowly swung his way out of the hospital room door, Tsunade looming closely behind heatedly continuing her earlier lecture about his manners.
“I still don’t get it.” Kakashi said as Tsunade and Naruto were too busy bickering to notice. “You’ve never shown much interest in anyone before. What happened to the unsociable Itachi-kun we all know and love?”
Itachi somehow got quieter and glanced at the battered redhead hobbling down the hall.
“When I found him, he said something.”
“Hmm, your brother’s name? Which turned out to be his friend’s name. I don’t see how that’s still bothering you.”
“Yes, he did say Sasuke. But after that… he said ‘please don’t leave me alone’. ” Itachi hesitated before continuing. “The look in his eyes…”
He went silent. Kakashi pulled out his coveted Icha Icha Paradise.
“You know, Itachi-kun. Pity is the last thing that guy wants.”
Itachi continued walking.
“I know.” He replied after a long pause.