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"Why are you standing here all alone in front of the
Gates and moaning to yourself over your misfortune?
"

SaltilloGatekeepers


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two

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He awakes in the middle of the night, fever-stricken, with his blanket—the kind of thing you'd cover yourself up with during the early winks of spring—tangled around his left leg.

He can barely twitch his toe, or the index finger of his hand, for that matter. The only thing he can do is shudder and shiver and try not to hyperventilate.

Uzumaki Naruto rarely gets sick—nothing a bowl of soup and his beat-up mattress couldn't fix. But this, this, however, is something else entirely. He feels nauseous and dizzy just thinking about turning his head to the side or propping himself up on his aching elbows. His body feels hot and cold and cold and hot at the same time.

Naruto reaches out, grips his nightcap and yanks it off his head for a short second of bliss and relief. He is sure, so sure, that his temperature is beyond anything he's ever experienced. He lifts his hand back to his head, rubbing his slick forehead with his forefingers to ease the building pressure behind the skin and flesh and bone.

In the back of his mind, he manages to wonder.

Wonder why, out of all nights, the ANBU chose this night to stop lurking about his window frame. They are usually there, he knows—they're not too subtle about it. The glinting porcelain of their masks always catches his eyes in the moonlight, coupled with the suffocating presence they emit just before disappearing at the brink of dawn. They were hard to miss, and Naruto, even in his weakened state, knows that they aren't hiding nor ignoring him.

They just aren't there.

Was it because of Mizuki? Or perhaps—himself, after his little sneak in for the First Hokage's scroll?

He is too frail and too faint to call out for help and, even if he manages to, he doubts that any civilians living next door or below him would be willing to help take care of a monster.

Yes, Naruto muses the thought through and through, despite the discomforting feeling of his brain barely able to function.

He is a monster.

He is the nine-tailed fox.

The nine-tailed fox is him.

If Naruto had the strength, he would be laughing now.

It all adds up like a puzzle piece: the fiery looks, the turned-up noses, the fear, the hatred—all misconceptions, nothing more.

Or are they?

Naruto feels a sudden poke as if a needle is being jabbed into his side.

And then another, and another...then a dozen.

Finally, he lets out a slow, heart-reaching groan as his insides seem to be lit and boiling. Tears cascade down his cheeks in burning hot streaks—or is it his face that's on fire? His limbs and muscles start to collapse and his heart is hammering and positively beating out of his rib cage and—

His head lulls in exhaustion, pain exploding all over, his body paralyzing and slowly, slowly—Naruto falls back to sleep.


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zero

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Drips and drops of clear, salty liquid land on his skin and, for a moment, he freezes. Naruto looks up into the glistening eyes of Iruka-sensei and studies him with evident wariness.

(You are the nine-tailed fox that killed Iruka's parents!)

The words of Mizuki echo and echo and echo through his skull.

He takes an audible gulp, forcing the buildup of saliva down his esophagus. Iruka is watching him with kind eyes and a quivering mouth. Naruto wonders if, maybe, he is humanizing him to make the expression less forced and more effortless.

He wouldn't be surprised if that really is the case, all things considered.

If the Kyuubi inside of him killed his parents, too, he'd—

Naruto blinks.

He blinks away the image of his most cherished person, the one that's been beside him throughout his entire life, before sprinting off through tree roots and branches, through snapped twigs and stray shrubs. He hears his sensei calling out for him to return, to just stop, and Naruto wants—very much so—to halt his pace.

But he can't bring himself to do so.

Naruto blinks back the tears, for the wind brushing across his cheeks doesn't allow them to fall properly.

He wants to be alone, for the first time in his life. But the reality of the fact that he was never really alone to begin with stings more than the cut of the particularly sharp branch he just ran past of.

Why him?

Why was the nine-tailed fox inside of him, of all people?

Questions and assumptions cloud Naruto's mind as his legs continue to take him deeper into the forest, unaware of the scuffle happening behind him, of the churning inside his belly caused by the previous rage he had displayed, of the invisible seal turning and cracking under the pressure of his chakra.


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three

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The next time Naruto's eyelids crack open, it's already early morning. He tries to raise himself up from the dampened pillow, expecting pain—but feeling only ache when his feet meet the littered hardwood.

Oh, and what a numbing ache it is.

Naruto rotates his stiff wrists around, hearing his bones creak and tweak as if he hasn't used them for quite some time now.

But, considering last night's events, Naruto knows that theory is quite arguable.

His body feels like an overused punching bag; arms hanging, feet limping, muscles burning. Even the roots of his hair and the tips of his eyelashes throb a little, which Naruto finds unnerving, to say the least.

It doesn't worry him much, though. Not until he catches his full-length reflection.

He turns, bleary-eyed, to the mirror, then pauses.

"W-What the—?" Naruto splutters, bringing up a shaky hand to his whiskered-cheek.

He doesn't recognize himself.

A hand plants itself on the glass, causing a loud bang to resonate throughout his barely sustainable apartment. He inches closer, and with every changed detail registering in his brain, his heartbeat accelerates.

Breathe in, Naruto urges himself as the sudden spike of eumelanin in his hair makes his throat contrast and clog. This is all just a dream. A very, very, bad dream.

He grabs at the dark—dark!—colored locks framing his face, before pulling, tugging—almost ripping, really. He is wary enough to check if maybe, just maybe, this is all just a prank, skillfully orchestrated—or rather, executed—by the countless of ANBUs he has pranked over the years.

But the only thing he gets out of this precaution is a mild headache.

His scurried-up, dark brows and soured expression reflect in the mirror before him, and an unwanted image of his seemingly stuck-up classmate flashes before his eyes.

"Gah!" He suddenly pulls back, shielding his eyes away with flailing arms. "I'm turning into Sasuke!"

A true nightmare, indeed.

His cheeks are aching; not from laughing or smiling, though. The inexplicable whisker marks marring his face are thicker, wilder now. Naruto places his fingertips on his right cheek again, adding pressure to his touch, and then flinches away immediately.

"W-Woah," he breathes out in confused, stuttered wonder.

What's happening to him?

He stumbles back into a nearby wall, just beside his main door frame. Naruto tilts his head to the side and suddenly feels ill and numb and queasy all over.

His blue eyes are aligned with the latest slash of his Kunai knife, marking his most recent growing sprout. He brings up a trembling hand and measures himself with tremor, for he is unsure if he's truly awake.

Huh.

Naruto is sure that he really is dreaming now—otherwise, he has grown a few inches overnight as well.

Soon, what was once only a mere seedling of a problem, blossoms into a sturdy oak tree of distress as a burning sensation ignites his abdomen. Naruto clutches at himself, wrapping numb limbs around his form, almost doubling over in the process. His vision mists once more, flickering to black every few seconds.

'Well, well, kit,' an ominous voice rasps in his head, and Naruto grits his—suddenly—sharp teeth. 'Not too bad.'

"What's 'not too bad'?" Naruto calls out into the empty air before him, aggravated and peeved at the nine-tailed fox's antagonistic antics. The pain fades from his stomach, dulls into an irritating itch, and Naruto pulls up his shirt to inspect the damage, yet regrets it almost immediately.

"What is that?" His voice, deep since that morning, reverts back to fairly high in panic. His form moves quickly back to the mirror to get a better look at the black ink curled about his stomach, resembling something akin to a seal in one of his academy textbooks, only a lot more intricate and detailed.

'What does it look like?' The Kyuubi returns, tone annoyed and bored as his voice booms against Naruto's eardrums. 'It's a seal, designed to hold me inside your puny form.'

A seal, Naruto repeats. The only line separating me and Nine-Tails.

A confirming grunt resounds throughout his skull, and Naruto's legs feel weak and rubber. He slumps down the wall, inches away from the mirror. His mind is blank and full and aching as he turns his face towards a nearby tabletop, and his eyes level with the long, blue ribbon of his newly-acquired headband.

It's a symbol, he knows. A symbol of his future and his fealty and his home.

Yet, for some reason, the etched swirl engraved into the metal causes a tang of bitterness on his tongue and a pang inside his stomach.


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one

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'Why deny something you already know to be true?' The menacing voice startles Naruto, the echo of it unfamiliar to his ears, unaccustomed to his nerves. He clutches at his torso as if the pressure of his tired arms could take away the jabbing pain he feels inside. Naruto's back digs further into the bark of the tree as he endures and grits his teeth.

"W-Who?" Naruto calls out numbly into the sleeping forest, and the answer rings throughout his body instead.

"I think you already know.'

Naruto is in a stage of panic; his breathing is erratic, heart thumping, hands clenching. He feels his chakra seeping out of his form once again, albeit on a grander scale. Naruto can see it now: the once opaque, thin ribbons of energy gaining color and thickness. He stares at the wisps of blue, so bright and clear he is almost surprised by the purity of it.

But his wonder quickly morphs into utmost horror as the sapphire streaks corrupt from the root of themselves, coming out of his pelvis at an alarming rate. The fiery color of the Kyuubi's chakra mixes and blends into an obscene purple before his very eyes.

Naruto stares, jaw unhinged, legs weakened as his heart jumps to his throat. He feels cold sweat clinging to his jumpsuit as his chakra contaminates with the vile energy of the nine-tailed fox inside of him. The blond is utterly petrified and horrified at the sudden turn of events.

All I wanted was to graduate the academy, Naruto thinks as his vision clouds with unshed tears. I never wanted this; all I wanted was to become Hokage!

'A Hokage, huh? Just like your old man?'

"Huh?" Naruto completely disregards the alarming process happening right before him, for the cunning words of the Kyuubi draw his rapt attention to his prisoner. "What do you mean by 'like your old man'?"

Uzumaki Naruto is aware—more aware than most would think. He is aware that there is—was—something beneath the surface of the village's discontent with his mere existence. Countless nights Naruto had been spent pondering, wondering, questioning. He had tried to recall, to pinpoint the exact moment he had committed a crime so mortal and unforgiving that he was doomed for a lifetime of scrutiny. When no memory had forged behind closed eyelids, Naruto had mused if, mayhaps, his parents were to blame for his misfortunate life.

Naruto is an orphan who, unlike many other kids, did not have the luxury of growing up inside the bright, rowdy walls of the Hidden Leaf's overcrowded orphanage. Instead, his first memories showcased cold ANBU porcelain and the lonely space of his rundown apartment.

The only thing Naruto had to look forward to was the academy's bell and the reoccurring visits of the Third Hokage and Iruka-sensei.

He had always found it strange why he alone was subjected to this peculiar isolation, but now, with the rumbling laughter of the Kyuubi rattling his bones, he finally understands.

Naruto understands, and rages.

Rages why nobody had told him, had warned him.

Naruto is hysterical, for he is yet to understand why it was him who became the Nine-Tails' container. As if sensing the right moment to play his turn, the tailed beast strikes.

'It's funny, see, you wanting to be Hokage, ' The beast's voice coils around Naruto's heart. 'Just like your father—the Fourth Hokage.'

In the blink of an eye, Naruto tears. He trembles and quivers, and the tears, mirroring the tendrils of chakra, return.

October 10.

His birthday and, coincidently, the day the Kyuubi had risen, and fallen at the hands of Namikaze Minato.

Of course.

Of course!

He can't remember the last time he felt so astounded and furious, so hurt and awestruck.

Naruto sobs, no longer caring if he is seen or heard or killed. He feels wounded and betrayed by the lies and the sour luck placed upon his shoulders involuntarily.

Between the tears and snot and pain, the jinchūriki wonders what had compelled his own father to ruin his life.

Were his reasons simplistic? Naruto thinks, teeth grinding together noisily.

Did he, as the Hokage, figure that his newborn's life was meager compared to those living between the forest's trees? Did the Fourth even pause to think or even care that he had subjected his son to a lifetime of mistreatment, abuse, and discrimination—intentionally or otherwise?

It wouldn't take a genius to predict that the villagers would have, sooner or later, turned their scorn and hurt and hate from the Kyuubi to the little baby boy. The little baby boy who, unsurprisingly, was too young and too underdeveloped and still crying for his mother's warmth to even comprehend and understand his parents' actions and sacrifice.

Yes, Naruto knows from history that his parents—or, at the very least, his father—had sacrificed their lives for the sake of the village.

But they also sacrificed his life, as well.

Because of the nine-tailed fox, Naruto has nothing.

Because the price of peace he has to pay—everyday—for the sake of the village that loathes him is loneliness and sorrow and hate.

It doesn't matter how hard the blond tries to break and push the barrier placed between him and everybody else—it would not budge an inch. Some kids refuse to talk to and acknowledge him because of the venomous whispers and hisses of the adults, and as Naruto tries—time and again—to prove his worth to the grown-ups, the rest of his peers shun him for his eccentrics and failures.

Iruka-Sensei and the Third, too—even the ANBU keeping watch of him. They are all performing a duty, nothing more.

For a moment, though, Naruto doubts his own thoughts, but as the words of Mizuki resound throughout his head in grim reminder, the blond does well to suppress another sob at the notion that his teacher most likely sees him in the same light as the rest of the villagers.

It is not fair.

Naruto did not want this.

Does not want this—this isolation, this resentment.

Naruto wants friends and love and joy, just like everyone, just like everyone has already, for they do not carry a demon inside of them. A demon who, Naruto guesses, will lead him to further pain and extortion as he grows older.

Naruto does not want to be used or controlled or weaponized but feels as if that is an unavoidable future prospect for him as a living, breathing cage.

And he hates it and—

Gods, he's slipping.

He is succumbing to his distress and anguish and outrage, and it weakens the fortress residing within.

And even as Naruto hears the two older shinobi land near his hiding place and Iruka-sensei's words of reassurance that he does indeed separate the boy from the demon and mends a tiny part of the blond's heart, it is too late.

For Uzumaki Naruto's and the Nine-Tails' chakras are already, irreversibly, mingled wholly and completely.


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