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write your name in the sand of the hourglass and hope it doesn't break

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Naruto grows up alone, in a tiny apartment splattered with orange. The color has a place of honor in his heart, as a blend of red and yellow. ANBU loiter outside his windows and follow him through the city, turning a blind eye to his little inconsistencies. His neighbors take great pains to avoid him, staying in until they’re sure he’s left for the academy or simply moving away.

Naruto is alone.

But he is an Uzumaki. The Uzumaki are never alone, not really.

--

One red eye, one grey , say the runes written over Dog’s mask. Eyepatch. ( Porn , says the ANBU’s left breast pocket, and Naruto stifles a snicker at the thought.)

Guilt , says the Hokage’s robes, flashing the message every time the old man treats him to ramen at Ichiraku’s or scolds him for a prank.

Mother , says a framed image of a beaming redhead with her arms around a ruffled blonde. Father.

( there’s a reason Iwa was so thorough. Fear made them efficient. )

( but there’s also a reason so many Uzumaki fled days before the invasion, disguised as fishermen and little birds and sea foam. )

( you can’t sneak up on an eye that sees more than the Hyuuga’s Byakugan could ever hope to see .)

--

Naruto attends the Academy, a place where the shapes in the air that only he seems to see go wild. Kunai, Uchiha, Sharingan, senbon, assassin, jounin, teacher, enemy.

Traitor. The word pops up in the air around Mizuki-sensei every time he exhales, fueled by the gases expelled from his lungs. Naruto watches it more than he watches the lessons, and when the man approaches him the first time he steps away, into a cloud of students like fish, and stares the man down.

Thousand-yard stare , some people have said about him, and maybe that’s true. The letters tell him who to trust and why, and they’ve never been wrong yet. He doesn’t want this man, with traitor and nonono written into his very skin touching him.

He tells the Hokage next time, about the grey-haired teacher at the academy who oozes bad feelings, but nothing changes. Mizuki-sensei doesn’t leave, doesn’t stop trying to catch him, to touch his arm or his shoulder or his neck, doesn’t stop sending help me, stop him, traitor into the fabric of his flak jacket and pale grey pants.

That’s when the dreams start.

--

They climb out of the word on his belly, sleepy , and shift up to scrawl themselves on his arms, his neck, his face. He can feel the letters, the characters, the symbols, etching into his skin.

He wonders if others will see it this time, the words he carries in his blood, anchored in his flesh like hooks, like chains.

He dreams that night that he is fighting for his life, but the dream is strange. It pauses and rewinds, showing him where to stab, what the end result will be. It pairs him against Mizuki, against the Hokage, against Dog; it reveals weaknesses, throws shuriken and kunai and senbon until their shields crack and shatter, and all throughout this, Naruto absorbs.

--

The next morning, Haruno Sakura from the Academy asks scornfully, “How did you get permission for tattoos?” and everyone around them stares at her. Naruto grins, a toothy thing that stretches his lips to reveal the little words on his teeth. Tooth, tooth, canine, molar, tooth.

Sakura is a doodle in space, a 3D child’s drawing with each little piece labelled. Lonely, sad, angry, jealous, terrified.

Lonely, lonely, lonely. Naruto could write that word if he didn’t know how to spell.

“I didn’t,” he says in reply, dropping a note in her desk when he passes it by.

Her hair’s pink and she saw them; she’s an Uzumaki.

It’ll be enough. He needs allies.

--

He leaves her notes everywhere.

Don’t forget to watch for words everywhere, letters and phrases. They’re warnings, Sakura-chan, and they’ll help you survive.

She stares at him in class now, at the walls and the maps and at Mizuki-sensei, with his kill, show them what I can do, and fool when Iruka-sensei is friendly to him. She stares at the grey-haired man while they do katas and practice-spar, because his hate and dangerous intentions are written all over him.

Naruto scrawls graffiti onto bridges and monuments and park equipment: stash, avoid, jounin nearby, hidden cave below. Iruka-sensei screeches at him for it, but he knows Sakura sees it from the way she eyes him thoughtfully at the academy now, and doesn’t yell at him anymore. She steps back mentally from her fawning and pays attention to the world around her.

This entire village is a trap in the making, Sakura-chan. You just have to choose what you’re aiming to catch, and make sure your prey can’t turn the tables. Be prepared; it’ll begin soon.

--

Shikamaru approaches him after class. His father watches from a distance away, spying.

“I want it,” says Nara, settling into the dirt next to Naruto. Sakura is also watching them, alone on the swingset and crumpling her forehead in consideration.

“Hmm,” says Naruto, curious.

“What you gave her, the little messages you send each other. I want it too.” Nara flops backwards and curls his arms beneath his head.

“...ok.” Naruto agrees, because it can only be a good thing, having a Nara able to see his little messages. The other boy won’t have the inborn ability, Naruto’s dreams have told him that much, but he’ll be able to read Naruto’s messages and maybe write his own, if he’s clever enough (and Naruto doesn’t doubt he is). “Hold still.”

He pulls one of the words off his forearm with a pinch and rubs into it into Shikamaru’s arm. Ally, says the brand, and any with Naruto’s Sight will know this boy is to be trusted. (Sakura’s says grandchild , the Uzumaki way of pointing out distant relatives with some modicum of Sight.)

The boy’s eyebrow slowly goes up as he observes the courtyard.

Base is scrubbed into the dirt by Naruto’s sandals; bomb is underneath the oak tree, escape tunnel by the fence, active is a blinking circle on the academy’s front door.

“Ok,” says the Nara, and then, “Can I show my dad?”

Naruto shrugs. “He won’t be able to read it like you can, but sure. He can’t show it to anyone else, though. It’s a clan secret.”

The boy nods and slowly strolls away.

--

Mizuki-sensei doesn’t last very long after Shikamaru’s casual mention of his traitorous writing during a shogi match with his father.

Neither does Gato. Or the Snake Sannin.

( The Uzumaki Clan was thorough, too. And revenge makes their minds focus, their weapons sharpen, and their eyes widen. )

( the world is a very small place, for a team that can read the language of the land itself and hunt you across space, time, and soul, can find allies in every village, every flock of birds, even your own body. )

--

Naruto has never really been alone.

And he never will.