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Children of the Wind

Chapter Text

1. After Life


“Sometimes, in the wind of change, we find our true direction.”
- Unknown.

Naruto remembered once, when he was a very small boy, a caretaker at Konoha’s orphanage gathered all the children around to tell a story. He had kept to the back of the room, hoping the shadows would hide his tear stained cheeks and trembling lip. Why he was distraught, he couldn’t remember, as there had been many similar instances, and in his old age, memory had begun to fade and blur together.

He remembered how he hadn’t wanted to listen to the story. He’d only wanted to find some secluded place where he could be alone with his misery and his scorn. As always, Naruto was defiant to authority and adamant about his wants and feelings, and rightly so.

But slowly, word by word, the story pulled him in. It influenced him so much that even in his final moments, decades later, it was a story the legendary Rokudaime Hokage of Konohagakure remembered as clearly as if he’d heard it yesterday.

They said one day, many years ago, a piece of sun fell to earth. Blinded by its radiance and threatened by the unknown, all the world tried its hardest to tame it. The rain did its best to drown it, the dirt and stone attempted to bury it, and the cold strived for its demise. One thing, and one thing alone, became the piece of sun’s salvation. They called it the wind.

Bound to neither earth nor sky and answerable to no one and nothing, with just a few words, the wind fed the piece of sun to a roaring flame. It burned so brightly that no amount of rain could ever drown it. No amount of dirt or stone could ever bury it. No amount of ice and cold could ever bring about its demise. As a child of the wind, it became everything it had ever wished to be, and more.

The world said, “You are beneath me.”

The rain wailed, “You will be nothing.”

The dirt and stone shouted, “You will always fail.”

The cold hissed, “You will be your own undoing.”

The wind whispered, “You are far more than they think you are.”

And the wind alone was right.

~.~

Naruto could not remember the exact moment of his passing. One moment, he lay in his bed, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, friends and loved ones. The next, nothing.

There had been many faces missing from the crowd around him. He had outlived many from his generation, and was the last of the Konoha Eleven. It was because he was a Jinchuuriki, he knew, but even Gaara had let go just a few days prior, Shukaku with him. The rest of the Jinchuuriki were gone, and so were their Bijuu.

Kurama, too, had chosen to die with Naruto, the one host he’d grown to love more than any other. As Naruto’s body and mind had slowed and grown weary with age, the retired Hokage had insisted the stubborn fox take a new host or be set free, but time and time again, Kurama refused. The days where such decisions were forced upon him were long past, so eventually, Naruto relented.

When he died, there would be no tailed beasts left in the world. Memory of them would fade and become stories, myths, then legends. None would remember. None would know the truths they had fought so hard to bring to light. And, strangely, they were okay with this. The time for useless violence was over, and after their passing, the Bijuu would never again be made to suffer in quite the same way as Naruto and the others had done.

Naruto himself would likely fade away into legend. The last great Jinchuuriki, just another face in the stone. But his will would live on. That was what was important, he knew. Uzumaki Naruto would be no more, but in a way, he would always be remembered.

Children of the wind always are.

~.~

Naruto surveyed his surroundings with a clarity found only after death. He sat on a high cliffside overlooking a vast forest, cross legged and relaxed as he watched the goings on of life below him. He felt the wind as it brushed past him, given power with height and distance, and reveled in the feeling of freedom he had so long been denied, confined to his bed as he was.

All his life, he had loved high places. At first it had been because childhood bullies and hateful adults could rarely follow if he decided to wait them out on the roof of a building, from the top of a tree, or even from the highest point on the Hokage Mountain.

After he had heard the story of the wind and the piece of sun, his appreciation of high places became an obsession. Whether it be from a rooftop, tree, or mountain - whether he be committing acts of vandalism or trying to get people to just acknowledge him as they passed - Naruto felt like the higher up he was, the closer he was to the wind, and the closer he was to acceptance. Finding out later that his Nature Affinity was wind made it all the better.

It made sense that his afterlife would start on the top of a cliff, he supposed. A bit… unexpected, sure, but he wasn’t going to complain.
He felt weightless, as if no one could touch him. Though, this was likely because they really couldn’t, him being invisible and all. His body had no solid substance. When he looked down at himself, he could see straight through the faint outline of his body to the earthen terrain beneath him. He wondered if he had truly passed on yet, or if showing up on a cliff wearing clothes he hadn’t worn since the war and translucent was some sort of in-between stage.

Out of the corner of his eye, Naruto glimpsed movement, and smiled at its familiarity. A much larger, warmer body curled around him, the tip of a huge glossy black nose sniffing the air beside him. On his other side, nine russet colored tails - just as transparent as himself - spilled over the side of the cliff, swaying slowly in the wind as one. Naruto greeted his once-enemy-now-long-time-friend with a fond smile.

"Been awhile since you were free from a seal, huh? Really free?” He asked the Kyuubi, who was gazing at the world around him with a look awe and nostalgia.

Kurama flicked his ear in his direction as he responded, voice quieter than his former host was used to now that it was no longer echoing in his head. “The only times I’ve been outside the seal in the past two centuries were when I was under the direct control of one dictator or another. Earlier on in life, the other Bijuu and I were raised by the Sage of Six Paths, who gave us freedom over thought and action, and we were left alone for many years after his passing.” He lowered his massive head to the ground with a huff, eyes cracked open like those of a sleepy cat. “It wasn’t until you shinobi started sprouting up and thought to use us for power over others that we last our freedom.”

Naruto blinked. “Didn’t ask for a history lesson, but alright. Take it all in, Kurama. This is our eternity!” He said, making use of Kurama’s shoulder as a back rest as he turned his gaze skyward. Has it always been this blue?

Kurama snorted, the deep throaty sound succeeding in jarring his human friend rather forcefully from his comfortable position, earning loud protests in response. “I’m merely taking advantage of your sudden ability to remember the things I say for more than five minutes at a time-”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“-and my ability to speak to you without having to repeat myself multiple times, because apparently I was ‘speaking too quietly’ for you to hear.”

“You were!” Naruto insisted.

“I was in your mind, old man. There was no volume control.” Naruto swore the fox was smirking at him, though with that full mouth of sharp teeth, it was difficult to tell. “You were going senile, admit it.”

“Technically, you were in my stomach,” Naruto said indignantly, crossing his arms in defense. “And who are you calling an old man? You were centuries older than I ever was!”

“I’m immortal, I don’t count,” Kurama grumbled, deep voice taking on a weary tone. “Death has made you annoying again, brat.”

“Were immortal,” Naruto corrected, then chuckled sheepishly. “And yeah, sorry... I guess that’s the side effect to dying and waking up in a younger version of yourself. My voice went back in time, too.”

Kurama grumbled again, but otherwise didn’t respond. He shifted a bit, folding his legs and laying his head on his paws, and Naruto took the opportunity to use him as a pillow once more. For a while, the only sounds were the chirping of the birds, the wind across the clifftop, and the large fox’s deep rhythmic breathing. The former Hokage closed his eyes and sighed softly, reveling in the serenity that came with having no danger, responsibility, or expectations every moment of every day. Now he had until the end of time to feel the sun on his face and the wind in his hair.

It was Kurama who finally broke the silence. “Naruto.”

Naruto raised one eyebrow questioningly, cracking one eye open to glance at his friend. “Yeah?

Kurama let out a long breath, flattening the grass around them. Then, after several long moments, “... Eternity is dull.”

Naruto laughed.

Chapter Text

“Standing still is the fastest way of moving backwards in a rapidly changing world.”
- Lauren Bacall.

~.~

Days seemed never ending in the afterlife. Never once had the sun moved even an inch towards the horizon. It was fixed in the center of the sky perpetually. There were no seasons other than summer. Naruto wasn’t sure how much time had passed since his death, though it felt like years had gone by, and Kurama shared these sentiments. Both the fox and the man-turned-boy had grown used to something always going on, and now that there was nothing, both had started to grow a bit uncomfortable with the world’s frozen state.

They never became tired, hungry, or thirsty. When staying in one spot for any length of time, they never grew sore or stiff. The few times they ventured from the cliffs, they always felt the inexplicable need to return again.

Eventually, Naruto and Kurama ran out of things to discuss concerning their new situation that wasn’t a complaint or abstract comment and began to reflect on times long passed.

“Hey, do you remember that time I beat you up and stole your chakra?”

Kurama made a low rumbling noise in the back of his throat, and Naruto could’ve sworn he saw the fox roll his eyes. “We’re talking about this now? Really? I forgave you decades ago, old man.”

Naruto reached over to playfully swat the Kyuubi’s ear, earning a halfhearted growl in return. “No, just bear with me for a minute, okay? It won’t kill you.”

“Famous last words.”

“Quit being dramatic. Anyway, I beat you up and stole your chakra with the power mom gave me to help me out,” Naruto continued, “And it worked. And then I altered the seal to be more oppressive. I pinned you down until you could barely move… and I just left you there. I stole chakra from you whenever I needed it, and I left you.” Naruto reached up to rub the back of his neck, a nervous habit he’d never quite gotten over, and averted his gaze from the fox to the ground. “I don’t know… I think I just realized I never said sorry, is all. I’m sorry, Kurama, for being just like everyone else.”

The fox let out a long sigh, breath flattening the grass in front of him. He was silent for a long moment. Finally, he said, “It’s not your fault, Naruto,” in about as quiet as voice as you could get out of a tailed beast, which still rumbled through the ground like the beating of drums.

“Have you gone senile, too?” Naruto asked, raising an eyebrow questioningly at his friend. “Of course it’s my fault. I’m the one who did it!”

Kurama grimaced, his large ears flattening against his head. “...You did it again, brat,” he muttered, sending the boy a sideways glare.

Naruto’s defiance dropped from his face, replaced with a guilty half smile. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he said in a tone that was lower and softer than before. “I’m not used to having a higher pitched voice.” Then his stubbornness returned full force. “But it’s true either way. I was in the wrong, so just accept that I’m trying to apologize here so we can move on with our li- er, afterlives!”

“Have you forgotten that I killed your parents? You had every right to do what you did, so your apology is unnecessary. Just drop it, kit,” Kurama growled, firm voice leaving no room for argument. He shifted to rest his large head over his dark auburn paws and added, “The afterlife is supposed to be peaceful.”

Then Kurama saw it. The all too familiar way his former host sat up a little straighter, the way his shoulders became a little more squared, the tense set of his jaw and the fierce flame of defiance coming alight in his eyes. Kurama huffed and sat up, readying himself for the fight to come, tails beginning to twitch in irritation. There was no way he was going to get a peaceful nap now.

“That was before you even knew me!” Naruto fired back, pointing an accusatory finger at the fox. “You can’t use that!”

“So is what you’re referring to,” Kurama growled, ears pinned straight back as his tails swished in wider, more agitated arcs. “You’d think me having killed your parents would be a valid reason why you shouldn’t apologize for “beating me up”, as you put it!”

“I’m not mad about that anymore!” Naruto’s voice had risen to a shout, the heavy glare and bared teeth providing an almost comical contrast to his words.

“And neither am I!”

“Why didn’t we talk about this when we were alive?!”

I don’t know!” Kurama roared, jaws snapping shut just inches from Naruto’s face. He had leapt up, enormous claws gauging deep trenches into the earth, russet fur bristling and red eyes narrowed to slits. His voice was so loud it sent every bird as far as the eye could see into a frenzied flight, the sheer power of it ripping leaves from their branches and flattening every blade of grass in the area around them.

Naruto went completely still, his hair blown back in spikes away from his face. His blue eyes had gone wide and his mouth hung open in dumbfounded awe. Slowly, he brought his hands up in surrender. “Okay… okay. I get it. We’re both terrible to each other. The past is in the past and all that shit. We’re dead. It’s all good.”

Kurama stared at him for a moment, then sighed defeatedly, releasing the tension in his muscles and allowing his fur to lie flat and smooth once more.

“Truce?” Naruto offered, holding out a steady hand.

The fox looked woefully resigned to his surrender, if a bit guilty for his outburst, as he pushed the tip of his inky black nose into the blond’s palm. “... Yeah, brat,” he mumbled. “Truce.”

Kurama had always wondered how a simple smile could resemble the sun so closely.

~.~

Naruto lounged leisurely under the warmth of the ever-present sun, nestled comfortably in the soft fur between the Kyuubi’s ears. Beneath him, Kurama dozed peacefully, his dark rust colored ears twitching every so often. The feel of the large rise and fall of his deep breaths was calming, almost causing Naruto to fall asleep himself. They may not have really needed sleep, but sometimes it was nice to just allow themselves the indulgence.

But just as the blonde’s light doze was beginning to sink into something deeper, Kurama’s head jerked upwards suddenly. For a moment, the world tilted, and the next thing Naruto knew, he was on the ground staring up at the fox in shock. Though their bodies seemed to hold no substance, his spine’s impact with the ground had stung just as much as it would have when he was alive.

He was about to give his former tenant a piece of his mind when he noticed Kurama had dropped into a state of high alert, complete with hunched shoulders, bristling fur, narrowed red eyes and nine powerful tails whipping into an agitated frenzy. Immediately, Naruto froze, casting his gaze warily around them. He felt incredibly vulnerable, splayed out on his back in the grass as he was.

“Kurama,” he whispered, watching the fox’s ears twitch in acknowledgement. “Hey. What’s going on? What's wrong?”

Kurama’s bright red eyes flicked down briefly before returning to the trees behind them, the wind from the cliff on the other side moving his fur back the wrong way. “Get up,” he growled, his deep voice sending vibrations through the ground.

Naruto scrambled up, backing against Kurama’s leg until he felt the coarse fur against his palms, tickling the back of his neck. “What is it?” He asked again, scanning the trees.

“Something’s off,” Kurama responded, ears pinned flat against his head. “You don't feel it?”

“No, I…” Naruto trailed off. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as a full body shiver made it's way down his spine.

The moment of silence which passed between them felt like hours. Steadily the wind behind them slowed and ceased. There was no bird song. The leaves on the trees froze in place like a picture.

All was still.

All was quiet.

A cold feeling of dread settled in the pit of his stomach. Something was wrong. Something was about to happen. He could feel it.

Swallowing thickly, he tilted his head up, another question on the tip of his tongue. That was when he felt it. He stumbled forward, spots swimming in his vision, dark and brightly colored alike. “Ku-Kura…” he gasped, hardly registering the impact of the ground beneath his head. “Kurama…?”

Had the sun always looked so big? Naruto didn’t think so. He was fairly certain it wasn’t supposed to cover the rest of the sky like that. It looked like it was bleeding. Like it was crying. Why was it so red? There should be blue somewhere, shouldn’t there? Was he breathing? He couldn’t tell.

Red. Red and black.

… Eyes? Eyes. They were eyes.

Whose?

A fox. A fox’s eyes. And ears. The fearsome, worried face of a dear friend framing a bleeding, crying sun.

Did suns cry? Did people befriend red eyed foxes?

These were the questions running through Naruto’s mind as he fell into darkness, the frantic shout of his name echoing faintly in his ears. It was like dying all over again, only this time, he felt hopelessly, completely alone.

When Naruto woke, it was to darkness and silence, and Kurama was gone.

Chapter Text

“So take a deep breath, pick yourself up, dust yourself off… start all over again.”
- Frank Sinatra.

~.~

As Naruto blinked the heavy darkness out of his eyes, one of the first things he became aware of was moonlight. It shone down on him from above, momentarily blinding him as he groaned, slinging his arm over his eyes to block it until his he had had a chance to adjust. As he laid there, his mind spinning, he turned his attention to his ears - or, more specifically, what he could hear.

At first, all that was there was silence. Then, as he willed himself to focus - squeezing his eyes shut and blinking away the moonlight - he heard something. Something soft and quiet all around him… like the sound of many bodies breathing.

And then Naruto noticed something else, something that caused him to freeze up completely with his hand still lifted to his face. His fingers were… smooth? There were no calluses like he had come to expect. He had had them for most of his life from a very young age, and yet…

Slowly, he lowered his hand, dread coiling in his stomach.

The hands attached to his body were not the hands of a tired, aged man, nor were they the hands of a seasoned Hokage, or even the hands of a young teenage shinobi. Naruto had begun developing calluses when he was roughly five years old, immediately following his inevitable expulsion from the orphanage.

The hands-that-were-not-his (but were) began to shake as he tore his eyes away and peered into the darkness. Rows and rows of beds were crowded into the small room around him with hardly any space between them, the inhabitant of the one next to his being so close he could reach out and touch him without much of a stretch. All of a sudden, the sound of all the orphaned boys breathing drowned out everything else, second only to the beat of his own heart in his ears.

In the wake of his rising panic, Naruto reached inward for the only comfort he knew, down and down to the cage within his mind which held one of his oldest, dearest friends. But the attempt was like a child trying to touch the tallest shelf. He could not reach, he could not see, hee could not feel. There was nothing. For the first time in decades, he was completely, utterly alone.

Naruto's vision tunneled.

“No,” he whispered. “No, no, no, no.” He drew his knees up, his head falling to rest against them. His chest and throat tightened until they hurt.

There was the sound of shifting blankets somewhere beside him a ways, warped and twisted like from the end of a long hallway, and a shoe came flying at him out of the darkness. Naruto didn't move. He hardly felt the sting of it. His hands shook harder.

Shuddup,” a young boy's voice grumbled bitterly, presumably the one who had thrown the shoe.

And then suddenly, it was all too much. With his heart in his throat, he threw himself out of bed, stumbling over his own spindly, awkward limbs in the dark. His foot, bare and unscarred and still far too small, got caught on the hardwood leg of another bed, sending him harshly to the floor. Several more children’s voices rose out of the darkness, confused and tired and angry at the racket he was making. Naruto hardly cared. He pushed himself up and lurched towards where a distant memory knew the door to be.

His eyes stung when he instinctively reached down for the door handle, only to realize that it was at eye level instead. His hand barely fit around the cold metal. It took all the strength in his weak, thin arms to pull it open and slip through into the quiet hallway, leaving the room full of protesting children behind him. He took off running.

The next several minutes passed in a blur for Naruto, who could focus on little else than the ache in his soft bones and untrained feet, and the fluttering of his frightened heart. When he finally stopped to catch his breath, it was with the moon on his face, the looming shadow of the mountain brushing his toes. The cold of the night seeped beneath his skin as he reached up to wipe at his eyes, a child’s fist coming back wet with a child’s tears. He stared at it for a moment, then looked past it, beyond and up and up, until his neck strained and his head could tip back no further. The face of his father stared back, with only untouched rock beside it.

With wide eyes and heavy limbs, Naruto slowly turned to face the village behind him. The trees were younger and smaller than he remembered them last, the buildings different and older in style, newer in shape. It was as if someone had reached into one of his old photo albums and plucked out a photo of the village of his childhood. His knees shook violently, then gave way, depositing him unceremoniously into the dirt.

Everything - everything he had done, everything he had built, the life he had created for himself through all the pain and the suffering - all of it was gone. All of it. He had to start over.

“But I…” His voice broke, a sob catching in his throat. “But I worked so hard…” his chest heaved, fresh tears rolling down his cheeks. His face crumpled. “It was so hard!”

Through the grief and the fear and the pain, a hot flash of anger burned through him. He tilted his head to glare accusingly at the sky. “Why am I here?! Why now? Why again?”

“Well, I would assume you're here because you ran here, Naruto.”

The voice was aged and soft, like wind over stone, weary and kind. Even after all the years that had passed since they had last seen each other, Naruto would know that voice anywhere. He scrambled to his feet, stil tool awkward and small, turning to face the shadow of the mountain. The Sandaime Hokage, Sarutobi Hiruzen, gazed down at him, a small frown on his lips. Had he always looked so worried for me? Naruto asked himself, taken aback by the realization. “...Jiji?”

“You've worried your caretakers, child,” Sarutobi said as he stepped out of the mountain’s shadow and into the moonlight. He bent down to better address him. “Now, what is the purpose of this late night adventure, hm?”

Naruto winced at the mention of his ‘caretakers’. His memories from his time in the orphanage were fuzzy at best, but he knew that the man’s careful use of the word “worried” meant that they had likely freaked out and demanded ANBU be sent after him, beast as he was. That was likely the reason the Sandaime was with him now.

“Well?” The Hokage asked, arching a questioning brow.

Naruto looked away, feeling chastised. Despite his mental age, he looked on his memories of this man with fondness and respect despite his wrongdoings. His foot scraped the ground. He couldn’t tell the truth, so... “I’m sorry, Jiji. I had a nightmare.”

Hiruzen blinked in surprise.

Naruto’s eyes widened with a sudden realization. He hadn’t ever really apologized for anything at this age, had he? It would certainly be odd for Hiruzen to hear it coming from him, especially after fleeing the orphanage in the middle of the night, as he was often prone to do. For an agonizing moment, he was afraid Hiruzen had caught on, that he knew the boy in front of him wasn’t the same Naruto who had gone to bed the previous evening. What if he was detained? Interrogated? Would he spend the rest of this life caged or tortured because of a mistake in wording?

He flinched back when he felt a hand on his head, his heart rate spiking, but every one of those thoughts fled when a gentle thumb brushed away his tears. The Hokage, usually so detached from him from what he remembered, kneeled in front of him now to see him at eye level, a smile deepening the wrinkles on his face. His large, time-worn hand ruffled Naruto’s hair.

“You’re a strong boy, Naruto. The nightmare will pass, as all things do.”

Naruto just stared back, too shocked to reply, and settled for a simple nod. Hiruzen hadn’t done this before, he was sure of it. A simple “I’m sorry” went a long way.

Hiruzen stood, touching his shoulder lightly as he passed. “Come, now. Let’s get you back to bed. A growing five year old needs his rest, don’t you think?”

So he was five, then. One year off from academy age. He filed this information away for later.

Naruto heaved a sigh - the sort of quivering gust of air one heaves after a particularly hard cry - and followed obediently after the man he hadn't seen in a little over ninety years. Tentatively, he reached out, grabbing a fistful of the Hokage's robe sleeves. No matter how distressing the situation was, there’s nothing quite like seeing someone you never thought you would see again. Seeing their face, hearing their voice… feeling that they were there, breathing, real

If Hiruzen minded the child clinging to him as they walked, he did not say, and slowly, Naruto's heart began to settle, the feeling of his hand still lingering on his head, in his hair. He was still scared. He didn't know what had happened, why it was happening, or how he would get it to stop, but the logic and reasoning he had learned in the last few decades were beginning to replace the panic. All that was left to do was follow the old man back to the orphanage of his past, get a little sleep if he could, and try his best to begin again.

The moon shone down from above, a quiet witness to the events beginning to unfold.

Chapter Text

“I learned that the world didn't see the inside of you, that it didn't care a whit about the hopes and dreams, and sorrows, that lay masked by skin and bone. It was as simple, as absurd, and as cruel as that.”
-Khaled Hosseini, ‘And the Mountains Echoed’.

 

Learning to re-adopt the hell his life had once been, having already tasted the heaven it could be, was among the hardest things Naruto had ever had to do. Where once his people had smiled and greeted him respectfully as he passed, they now only glared back at him in the best of cases. Regularly, on the rare times he was allowed out and about under the half-assed supervision of a short tempered orphanage caretaker, he found himself constantly on the lookout for wads of spit and attempts to trip him up by passers by.

If ever he came too close to vendors or store fronts he was quickly chased away with raised fists and broom handles. If he happened to catch someone's gaze, he was called out for staring, often emphasized by small objects or dirt clumps hurled at him. He let some hit him on occasion, slowed his reaction time and turned a blind eye. He was not a shinobi, Naruto reminded himself. He was weak. He could not dodge. The caretaker watched coldly from a distance, sometimes ignoring him completely.

However bad it was outside the orphanage, inside was worse. It was common knowledge that children learned by example, and the caretakers sure weren't setting good ones where Naruto was concerned. He remembered how a small amount of maturity had made Hiruzen open up to him, even if just a bit, and he hoped that maybe if he applied the same attitude here, things would be different. He was wrong, of course, but that had never stopped him before.

Having been a father, grandfather, and great grandfather himself, he was unable to escape truly caring about the other children, no matter how horrible they were to him. This only made the bullying worse. Who was he, a five year old outcast, to even remotely act as a father figure would? Naruto couldn't seem to help it. It was just ingrained. Once a father, always a father, no matter what crazy thing the universe decided to do to you next.

That didn't stop him from harshly chastising himself when once he had said to another boy, “Now why don't you go to your room and think about what you've done!” The older child had laughed in his face and shoved him to the ground. And that had been one of the more mild reactions to his slip ups.

No matter how bad it got, Naruto never raised a hand to any of them, not even in self defense. They were all just children, after all. They were only doing what they knew and had been taught and it was no one's fault but intolerance for what the adults couldn't understand and feared. He recognized many of them as trusted allies, comrades, and friends from his time as Hokage. He was optimistic that they would end up alright in the end. He had to be.

Even nights proved torturous for Naruto, and as a result, he often found it difficult to sleep. He lay there awake every night, staring out his window at a quiet silver moon. Sometimes, thoughts of the future ran through his head. Sometimes, memories of the past. Sometimes he managed to drift off, and both twisted themselves into one horrible nightmare, leaving him quivering and gasping into his pillow. Sometimes, everything turned out alright. Most times, Naruto’s dreams made him watch everyone he loved and cared about die horribly before his eyes.

And every day, no matter what pains and sorrows were thrown his way, Naruto never stopped trying to reach Kurama. Over and over, he exhausted himself in the attempt to reach into the seal, draining almost every bit of chakra he possessed. It was only because of his Uzumaki heritage that he possessed any at all without training, and much like physical strength, he would have to work to build up his tolerance and stamina before he would be able to do anything with it. It would take years to get where he once was. In the meantime, he missed his friend terribly, and the feeling of loneliness only grew worse with every day that passed without him.

And friends tortured Naruto, too. Every now and then, out and about in the streets somewhere avoiding wrath and humiliation, Naruto would catch a glimpse of someone so achingly familiar that he would freeze in his tracks and just… stare. He saw Sakura once, bright and cheerful and so young, being gently guided by the hands of an amused yet exasperated mother. He saw Shikamaru, too, someone he once counted among his best friends and the fiercest, most loyal, most amazing damn right hand adviser he had ever had the fortune of working with. And then… he had seen her.

Summer had given way to autumn, and autumn to winter, and the morning was cold. The snowflakes drifted slowly, soft and lazy, like from a long lost memory of a different life. The blankets of white muted most sound until the only noise left was faint and haunting. Naruto had managed to escape the confines of the orphanage, though he rarely did - at least, not as much as his former self had done. He traced a familiar snow covered path through the wooded area beyond, watching the snow swallow his feet and most of his legs with every step.

Time passed, and there were several points where Naruto thought he should maybe turn back, abandon his little adventure and return to his caretakers before someone alerted the ANBU again. He didn't. Something kept urging him forward, forcing him to keep going. Something pushed him. Something wouldn't let him go.

And then he heard it - faint laughter drifting out of the misty trees, accompanied by the heavy crunching of snow under bodies and a soft, distressed sound like a sigh, quiet and feminine and so familiar. Suddenly, all at once, it hits him. Naruto knows what this memory is. This was perhaps the most important memory he had stumbled across yet in this strange new life. And then, just as suddenly as the realization had hit him, the old man turned boy knew that he didn't want to be there. He didn't want this memory.

But whatever was pushing him refused to let him turn around. He rounded a bend in the path and came across the scene from his past. The group of young boys, laughing and jeering and pushing each other around, and the tiny girl with pale eyes and ebony hair shrinking inwards in front of them, staring up at them with tears in her eyes.

It is important to note that Naruto had loved his wife as well as anyone could whilst spending the majority of his time more married to his work than he was to her. The rare moments he had been able to spend at home, he spent at her side, basking in the warmth of her love and devotion. He would die for her - almost had a few times. He would kill for her, and had done just so on a handful of occasions. Yes, he loved her fiercely, deeply, dearly. But the difference was that that had been his Hinata.

This tiny, frightened little girl… this was not his Hinata.

Naruto slipped back behind the trees out of sight and took a moment to imagine the outcome of his next action. In his previous life, unable to condone someone treating someone else the way they treated him, he had rushed in to take the brunt of the bullying and had paid the price with his dignity and a particularly nasty bloodied nose. This action had been what sparked her love for him (though it had just been innocent admiration at the time). This morning had been what started it all. They would go through their lives, and she would pine silently for years, and he would be oblivious. They would go to war. He would save her, and she would save him. He would fall in love with her, they would marry, have two beautiful children… then, in the first few years of true retirement, she would get sick.

Naruto's breath hitched as those memories came rushing forth, despite his efforts to resist. Hinata, her once beautiful ebony hair thinned and grayed, falling out in handfuls. Hinata, with a smile which had once been a blessing from the gods themselves, become bloodied from coughing away the lining in her lungs. Hinata, her once strong and capable hands grown pale, bony, and wasting away like the rest of her. His sweet Hinata, his beloved wife, crumbling right in front of him before she was ever supposed to. Long before he would ever be ready to let her go.

It was an assault on her life from the very genes which gave her so much strength, like so many Dojutsu users before her, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

“I'm sorry,” she had whispered in those final hours of their life together.

Naruto had had a perpetual lump in his throat since the moment they had been told she was dying. He had taken her hands, limp and trembling, in his own. “Don't be sorry, love. It's not your fault.”

“If… If you…” Hinata gasped for breath, eyes searching in vain for him through the darkness her lungs struggled against. “If you could go back and change things… If you could choose not to love me… would you do it? Would you walk away?”

“No,” he rasped. “No, Hinata, please… I could never… why would you…?” His voice broke and he paused, pressing her hand to his cheek, unable to hold back his tears seeping into her near-translucent skin. He took a breath that was meant to calm him. It didn't work. “The years I spent loving you are the years I will cherish for the rest of my days. I couldn't ever change it. Not for the world.”

He looked up at her, watching through blurred vision as tears fell from her dimmed gray eyes - once an opalescent lavender, now tired. Weary. Dying. “I wish you had,” she had sobbed, squeezing his hand with as much strength as she could muster. It was hardly enough. “I wish you hadn't ever loved me. If you hadn't, I wouldn't be hurting you so much.”

In that moment, Naruto could have sworn the shattering of his heart was almost audible. “No,” he said again, shaking his head and closing his eyes tightly against the pain. “You could never hurt me,” he lied.

“But I am,” she had said, her eyes beginning to droop noticeably beneath the weight of an impending sleep from which she would never wake. “I'm doing it right now.”

It had been no less than excruciating, and much more than just that, to lose his wife the way he had. Even now, standing stiff in a frozen wood, some of her last words to him rang in his ears as clear as day. Naruto knew he had a choice to make.

‘If you could choose not to love me, would you do it?’

‘I couldn't ever.’

He had loved his Hinata. Tragic as their ending was, they had had a lifetime of memories together. Every second was a part of him just as much as his village and his children. So many bright, beautiful years, so much warmth and life and love to hold onto and remember.

‘I wouldn't change it. Not for the world.’

Whatever Naruto was sent back for, whatever he was supposed to do, things were going to change. Either they would do so on their own, or he would do it himself. Even if he stepped forward now, out of the trees and into her life, her heart… even if he planted that seed, even if he cultivated those thoughts and feelings and desires… everything would still be different in the end. He had loved her in all the ways he knew how the first time around. He had promised her he wouldn't change it, and he had meant it. Naruto always kept his promises, most of all to the people he loved most.

‘I wish you had chosen not to love me.’

All at once, Naruto knew what he would choose. He peered out from the trees one last time, and his breath caught in his throat at the sight of her. He ached to stand beside her. To touch her face, to hold her hand… to know that she was there. Real. Alive. He could do it. He could let her love him again. She was right there… Right there…!

Slowly, he turned around and started back the way he came. With each step he took, the ache in his chest grew, a numbness settling over him, thick and cold and unyielding. The image of that last look… her beautiful, sorrowful eyes glancing his way, catching his gaze. The heartbroken acceptance when he did nothing. The sound of what could have been, what had been once in another life, fading between them, drifting away with the wind and the snow until it was lost. Gone.

Naruto went to bed that night feeling as if he had watched Hinata die all over again, as if he had killed her himself, knowing that his one seemingly simple choice had set into motion the first major change. The complete lack of the only woman who had ever truly loved and supported him all their lives. He didn't know where he went from here. He couldn't see his future clearly without her at his side.

He doubted, in that moment, that he could ever love another as completely, as deeply, as truly. He doubted, in that moment, that he had ever felt so hollow, or that he had ever wanted - no, needed - one of his precious people. To hold, talk to, cry with. But he had no one. Nothing. Again, he felt completely, utterly alone.

Naruto went to bed that night and dreamed of something which no longer was, dreading what other changes his actions might bring.