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Gold Dust

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She was a small thing, all flailing limbs and warbling cries, and Sarutobi had never felt older than in the moment when he first saw her; Minato and Kushina slumped in the dirt beside her shaking form.

He approached with heavy steps, the scene from mere moments ago still playing before his eyes. The chaos that had torn through his home still echoed in his head.

He plucked the child from her place, his heart aching at how light she was, even as his eyes caught sight of the seal that was delicately, intricately marking her stomach. It was a work of beauty, even he could tell that, and Sarutobi could only close his eyes, tuck her into his chest to shield her from the cold night, and try and suffer through the terrible pride and bitter sorrow that grew inside him.

Minato was gone—he had known that from the moment the fox had vanished. But Kushina was not. Not yet.

Her young face was etched in pain, and something precious in her eyes was broken as she looked at him.

Sarutobi wanted to beg her, to demand that she live for her daughter and not leave the child alone in this cruel world. But he knew it would do nothing.

So instead, he knelt before her, bowed his head at her whispered plea, and felt hot tears burn his eyes at the name that fell from her bloodied lips.

-

Naruto Uzumaki was orphaned hours after her birth, amidst the flaming ruins of a village, with the blood of her parents painting her skin and a monster raging inside her.

-

“What are you going to do?”

Sarutobi leaned back in his chair, watching the boy across from him with unconcealed sympathy.

Kakashi wasn’t even looking at him. His entire being was fixated on the baby in his arms; and had been since he had laid eyes on her.

He was the first to hold her after Sarutobi—the only one he trusted with the girl right now, beyond himself. And the sight they made was overwhelming in its tragedy.

They had both lost much tonight, and Sarutobi wasn’t sure who he pitied more.

The boy whose mentor was now gone, the last of his clobbered-together family finally ripped from him. Or the little girl who would never know her parents, who would never experience their unbridled love for her.

“She has to be protected.” Sarutobi said, voice low so as to avoid awakening the child. She was resting peacefully, but she had been difficult to settle; almost as if she already knew exactly what had been taken from her this night. “Not only as a jinchuuriki, but as Minato’s daughter. She is—too valuable. We have to keep her safe from those who would seek to harm her.”

It was subtle, but he knew the boy understood what he was implying from the way his fingers dug just a little deeper in the faded orange blanket wrapped around the baby. Naruto had to be protected from all threats, both external and, most importantly, internal.

Kakashi’s head remained turned down towards the child, and as Sarutobi watched, the boy gently swayed his hand back and forth, his forefinger caught in the grasp of the girl’s tiny fist.

“What’s her name?” Kakashi asked softly, his focus pinned to those small fingers curled around his own.

“Naruto. Naruto Uzumaki. Kushina named her before she passed.”

The grief on the boy’s face was as sharp as a blade’s edge. “Uzumaki. Not Namikaze.” He muttered to himself. “That might not be enough. Everyone—everyone knows who he married. It won’t take a genius to put it together, especially with her hair. Blonde isn’t exactly common here, not this shade.”

Sarutobi sighed, and the hole in his chest seemed to widen. “I know, but there is little I can do. I won’t—” he paused, searching for the words, “I will not take them from her. Not completely. She deserves something, some piece of them, no matter how small.”

Kakashi nodded, though the movement was sluggish, weighed down. “What about Minato’s family? If they find out about this, they might try to claim her.”

Sarutobi frowned at that, knowing there was some truth to the boy’s concerns. “Minato relinquished all ties to them when he became a shinobi of our village. It was his wish—his and Kushina’s—that Naruto be raised here, as a citizen of Konoha. I intend to honour that.” He twisted his head to look out the window of the office. His office, once again.

There was a brief lull, then, “They might not see it that way. Our treaty with them is a farce, we all know it. If they find out and try to push the issue—”

“They will not.” Sarutobi cut him off, tone harsher than he had meant it to be. “Kumo will have no say over Naruto’s life. She is of Konoha, and it is here she shall remain. Her connection to Minato does not outweigh her status as the Kyuubi’s jinchuuriki. Kumo will be risking war if they attempt anything, which they can hardly afford at this time.”

Kakashi was silent. Sarutobi turned back to him expectantly. “You disagree.”

The boy finally gave him his attention, mismatched eyes blazing. “I think Naruto is a vulnerable baby that holds the strongest bijuu in existence, and that alone would make her a prized target for anyone looking to destabilise us. I think Kumo has the right mixture of greed and motive to go for her, and will, if they hear even a hint of her parentage.” Kakashi looked back down at Naruto.

“They haven’t forgotten that Minato was theirs first. They’re still bitter about his ‘betrayal’. They would jump at the chance to have his only child, Kyuubi or not.”

“Then what would you suggest?” There was no scorn in Sarutobi’s voice, merely weariness.

Kakashi blinked slowly, shifting so that Naruto was held more securely. “I think she should be prepared for the life she’s going to endure.”

“You would have me make her into a weapon? Have me take her childhood and innocence from her?” His anger stirred at the suggestion.

Kakashi’s shoulders tensed. “No.” He snapped, bordering on mutinous before he managed to reign in his own temper. “No. But we can’t ignore the fact that she’s going to need to know how to defend herself. She’s—she needs to be safe.”

“And she will be.” Sarutobi declared with ringing finality. “But I will not abide by turning her into a weapon. I would see her have a normal childhood, to let her grow, before putting her on that path.”

Kakashi held himself stiffly, before jerking his head in a nod. “Of course, Lord Hokage.”

The title had Sarutobi’s eyes sliding shut, hurt from the attack it was meant to be. He had never expected to have it directed at him again, and it felt wrong to hear it and know it was only because his successor had sacrificed everything to save them all.

It was wrong. Because Minato had been only twenty-four, and he should have had years left. Years to lead Konoha into a new era, years to enjoy the peace he had fought and bled to bring about—years to spend with his wife and watch their daughter grow into a young woman.

But life wasn’t fair. And it certainly wasn’t kind.

He forced his eyes open.

“Will you take her?” He asked.

Kakashi froze at the question. The sudden jolt disturbed the child in his arms, and she squirmed, face scrunching in discomfort. The boy shushed her instantly, rocking back and forth until she once again quietened.

Sarutobi studied them, wondering just what Minato would think, seeing his student holding his daughter like she was the most important thing in his life.

“No.” Kakashi said, not once looking away from her sweet, slumbering features. “I can’t.”

“May I ask why?” Sarutobi inquired after a moment, hiding his surprise as best he could. “I am sure there is no one else Kushina and Minato would—”

But Kakashi was shaking his head. “I can’t. I’m not…suitable. My duties to the village, they wouldn’t allow me the time, and, and it would be suspicious, wouldn’t it? The Fourth Hokage’s student raising a child that looks like him and bears the surname of his wife? They would know within a week. It wouldn’t be a good idea.”

Sarutobi tilted his head, seeing the excuses for what they were, hearing the almost desperate note to them. “Kakashi.”

The boy’s head lowered, his face covered by his hair. His words grew faster, messy, and contradicted the way he held the child so close, curling his body around hers. “I wouldn’t be good for her, Lord Hokage. I don’t know anything about children. I’d simply end up hurting her. I’d look at her and—I wouldn’t be able to not see them. She doesn’t deserve that. It’d be best for everyone if she never knew me.”

He could see the boy grappling with himself, his pain and longing so evident on his face and in his voice. It was more emotion than Sarutobi was used to seeing from him, but given the circumstances, he couldn’t blame the boy.

He sighed, disappointed but understanding the choice. Kakashi was still so young, after all, and it was perhaps callous of him to ask such a thing when the loss was so fresh.

When their bodies were still warm, and their skin still flushed with colour.

“Very well.” He stepped around the desk and approached carefully. He stopped just before them and held out his arms patiently. “You are dismissed, Kakashi. Give Naruto to me.”

Kakashi did not move for a long moment. He stared at the child almost hungrily, and with his headband pushed upwards, Sarutobi noted how his sharingan shone as it ran over his sensei’s newborn daughter.

When he did hand her over, his movements were mechanical and stiff, but the fingers he brushed over Naruto’s soft hair were as tender as a whispered goodbye.

“I’m sorry.” He said. Then, without another word, he flickered away.

Sarutobi gazed down at the child in his arms and sighed again.

-

The funerals were held a week later.

Sarutobi’s voice was steady as he gave his speech. Behind the podium his hands shook, and his knees trembled, weak under the weight of his own grief.

He stood before the crowd, watching as his village lamented the losses—remembering the lives cut too short and the damage dealt to their home.

A black cloud hung above the proceedings, and even the heavens cried with them.

He refused to look at the photos of their fallen. Refused to see his wife’s face staring out blankly at him. Refused to see two in particular—to have their eyes pierce him and demand he keep his unspoken promises.

He would protect Naruto. He would keep her safe and alive.

But first he would mourn for his people, mourn for himself and his son.

For Biwako.

-

In the aftermath of the attack—slaughter, he should say; anything else implied that they had had a chance—it was difficult to keep track of everything.

Having the leadership of the broken and fragile village thrust back onto him, struggling with the gaping hole his wife had left behind and the shattered glint in Asuma’s eyes, beating back the council, and wading through the carnage—all of it left him stretched to breaking point.

He had entrusted Naruto to one of Minato’s anbu guards, leaving the child’s primary care in the woman’s capable hands. He knew she was aware whose child it was, if the reverent way she had held Naruto meant anything.

She would keep Naruto in good health, if only out of respect for her former Hokage. Perhaps with time, Sarutobi could even convince her to be the girl’s caregiver, at least until Naruto was of an appropriate age to live alone.

Kakashi wasn’t the only option after all. Was not the only person who could raise Minato’s child.

The problem was, he realised as the weeks dragged on, that there were far too many options available. Nearly every clan had put forth a request to house Naruto; and while Sarutobi knew the majority were heartfelt in their desire to protect the girl—old friends and subordinates and mentors of her parents—there were some who saw her only for the power she would one day wield.

He wanted to give Naruto a family. He wanted her to grow up loved and loving in return. He wanted her to be surrounded by people who saw her for who she was, not what she contained. He wanted to honour his pledge to her parents.

But the longer the debates drew out, the louder the voices grew and the more aggressive the demands became, he knew that he could not.

He couldn’t trust any one of them with the girl, not when there was even the slightest chance that she would be used to further someone’s interests.

Naruto was an important piece in the game of the world, and even though it galled and disgusted him to think such things, he had to remember that fact. Jinchuuriki were as much political tools as they were people. Granting one clan precedence over the others would, at best, sow bitterness between his people, and at worse, incite civil war.

There was a reason so few people had protested to Kushina’s marriage to Minato, and it mainly stemmed from the fact that the boy was a clanless bastard, born from an unwedded union, that held no ties to his former home. Minato had had no clan-driven loyalties. No temptation to use his wife’s status to promote his family’s standing.

He had, objectively, been perfect in the council’s eyes. And his own position as Sarutobi’s successor had merely been a bonus. What better way to keep a jinchuuriki loyal, then to marry her to the Hokage himself?

It was a sickening way to view their relationship, especially considering Sarutobi had witnessed their love for each other firsthand—had seen the way they had gravitated to each other from the beginning, the way they had blossomed together, burning ever-bright in the other’s presence.

But it was not something he could ignore.

Naruto, much like her mother before her, was a weapon to the council and the clan heads. To disregard that would be dangerous, and foolish. He had to think like them to keep her free from the mechanisms of the village.

So, to ensure Naruto’s safety, he had no choice but to dismiss all offers.

Some took it better than others.

-

Mikoto Uchiha sat before him, her hands curled into the fabric of her dress, the only physical sign of her distress. Beside her, her eldest son was seated silently, his intelligent eyes watching keenly.

“She is Kushina’s.” The woman said calmly, staring him in the eyes and daring him to reject her again to her face. “She is the daughter of my closest, dearest friend. You expect me to stand aside while she grows up alone? You expect me to let Kushina’s girl grow up never knowing her mother’s name? Her family? Her history?”

“It is too dangerous, Mikoto. You know this. Both of Naruto’s parents had enemies, and their enemies will become hers if her connection to them was publicly known. I am trying to protect her.”

“As am I.” Mikoto said, the first bite of anger entering her voice. “I am her godmother. I have more claim to her than anyone.” Her shrewd, dark eyes scanned him. “Lord Jiraiya has not returned, has he? He has refused. Abandoned her.”

“Jiraiya is preoccupied with his duties.” Sarutobi replied, feeling the need to defend his student, even if he internally agreed. Minato would have been disappointed that his old sensei—his father in all the ways that mattered—had left his child alone when she needed him most.

But they were all grieving in their own ways, and Sarutobi could not bring himself to force Jiraiya to return, no more then he could have made Kakashi take Naruto.

Besides, Jiraiya’s lifestyle was hardly suited for such a small child. Or any child for that matter.

“He is not here,” Mikoto reiterated with satisfaction that was as sharp as her smile, “her godfather is not here to care for her. I am. You have no right to stop me.”

“I have every right.” Sarutobi said, his own voice deepening in warning. “Her parents entrusted her safety to me. I will deem what is best for Naruto.”

“It has been months. I have not even seen her with my own eyes, yet.” Mikoto told him. “You say that they entrusted her safety to you? Well, they entrusted her happiness to me. Who better to raise her? Her mother and I were close friends. I likely have a better understanding of the Kyuubi and its effects on its host than anyone alive. My clan is wealthy, so she would want for nothing with us. We would love and cherish her, protect her and make sure she is happy.”

Sarutobi sighed, longing to close his eyes but knowing that showing any weakness to this woman was the equivalent of handing an enemy a kunai and showing them his back. “Mikoto, you know I cannot accept.”

Her rage finally reached her eyes. Her chin rose a fraction. “Is it because she is a jinchuuriki, or because I am an Uchiha?” She asked, bold and fearless as ever.

“Neither.” He denied, though they both saw it for the lie it was.

Desperation bled into her features even as the steely glint in her eyes never wavered. “What about a marriage contract?” She asked, throwing the words down like a challenge. Sarutobi blinked in surprise.

“If there was a marriage contact, created between Kushina and myself, would that allow me to care for her?”

He leaned forward, steepling his fingers and frowning thoughtfully. “Between Naruto and young Sasuke?”

Mikoto started to shake her head, her gaze darting to Itachi. His face was tilted up towards her in interest, and Sarutobi had no doubt that the boy understood everything they were saying. “Sasuke, or Itachi. We had always wanted to join our families one day. If Kushina had a girl, we agreed that it would be a good match.”

Sarutobi narrowed his eyes sharply. “Naruto is an outsider. The Uchiha are not in the habit of marrying outside the clan. Especially not their heir.” His own gaze moved to Itachi, who met his eyes easily and with a solemnity he had expected but still found disheartening. Five, and already far too aware of the horrors of the world.

“There are no rules against marrying outside the clan.” Mikoto countered rather fiercely. “Naruto is the daughter of a Hokage, and a descendant of the Uzumaki clan, one of the last of the main branch. Status is not an issue.” She reached over and grasped her son’s hand tightly.

Sarutobi knew she spoke the truth. The Uzumaki clan was as old as the Uchiha, and with Minato as her father, Naruto would have made a sought-after match for any of the clans.

Mikoto continued, likely sensing his weakening resolve. “Kushina and I decided, and our husbands agreed.”

Sarutobi rubbed at his eyes, showing a brief glimpse of his exhaustion. He could see why the match would have been discussed. The joining of an Uzumaki descendant—even if it was a demolished and scattered clan—with one of the Uchiha heirs would have been a powerful move. It would have done wonders in improving the relation between the village and the Uchiha clan; and was surprisingly cunning of Kushina and Minato.

He stared at the woman; one hand braced against his mouth. “Be that as it may, without seeing the contract there is no way I can confirm your words. You do have the contract, yes?”

For the first time, Mikoto faltered. Sarutobi watched her, hating himself just a little for hurting her so. He had no doubt that Mikoto and Kushina had discussed a marriage contract. The two had always been close, ever since their genin days; and Minato and Fugaku, despite everything, were remarkably cordial with each other.

And he could almost see it. Could see Naruto joining the Uchiha clan. Could see her married to one of Mikoto’s sons, growing and thriving amongst people that loved as violently as they hated.

But without concrete, legally binding documents backing her, there was no way Mikoto could lay claim to Naruto. Not in any manner that the council would accept.

And especially not after the rumours the Kyuubi attack had stirred up. It had only been a handful of months since that night, yet already links were being drawn between the fox and the Uchiha clan. If word got out that they intended to take the new jinchuuriki as one of their own, without the contract as leverage, Sarutobi knew that the simmering suspicions would explode into outright hostility.

“Mikoto?” He prompted gently.

Her shoulders slumped. “We never…not through official channels. We thought—" her eyes watered in a stunning display of sorrow, “we thought we would have plenty of time.”

Sarutobi looked away, giving her much needed seconds to regain her composure. “You know I cannot grant your request, Mikoto. Perhaps in the future, when Naruto is older, of marrying age."

She shook her head, “It won’t matter.” She whispered brokenly. “It won’t matter, because by then she will have grown up with no one.”

Sarutobi paused, hand moving to fully cover his lower face and hide the downwards tilt of his mouth. “Right now, things are too unstable to allow anyone to have Naruto.”

Her eyes narrowed in offence at his insinuation, but she kept her silence.

“I will not sign her away on a vague promise made between friends. I am sorry.”

Rage and dark acceptance warred over her face, before her chin dipped in defeat. “May I at least hold her? Just once?”

Not even he was cruel enough to deny her that.

-

Hisa allowed them entry with a respectful bow, her brown hair pinned back and her dark eyes watching them closely.

She led them further into the modestly decorated apartment and directed them to stay in an open room with a few comfortable seats while she went to collect Naruto.

Sarutobi stood to the side, letting Mikoto and Itachi settle themselves on the chairs. He had visited a number of times himself in the past months, enjoying the rare moments of tranquillity that the baby provided him with, and tried not to feel guilty each time he left.

He knew Kakashi came regularly as well, both from Hisa’s briefings, and his own observations.

A new toy in the crib, a handful of new books on the shelves, a new blanket. All of it spoke of the boy’s hovering presence.

Sarutobi never brought it up when he saw Kakashi, in between his missions and whenever he managed to drag himself in for reports; and the boy never mentioned his routine trips, so Sarutobi was content to let him be. Far be it for him to deny Kakashi whatever he got from his late-night visits.

Hisa entered the room again a minute later, her hands securely holding a small form wrapped tightly in a blanket.

Mikoto cried, one of her hands rising to cup her mouth as Hisa brought Naruto closer, bending to allow the Uchiha matriarch her first glimpse of her goddaughter.

Sarutobi turned his head away, idly reading the titles of the books on the wall as Naruto was placed in Mikoto’s arms. Hisa came to his side after transferring the baby over, her eyes alert as she periodically glanced back to her ward. “Lord Hokage.” She greeted with a polite incline of her head.

“Hisa. How is she faring?”

The front of ice masking her expressions thawed slightly, and something akin to pride gleamed in her eyes. “The young Lady has begun teething, and her speech is taking form—she is quite vocal most nights. As well as that, her spatial awareness is remarkably well-developed for her age.” Hisa tilted her head enough to see the others.

“Hello, Naruto.” He heard Mikoto breath. When he looked over, she was stroking the girl’s cheek tenderly with one finger, staring down at her with adoration and an acute sense of pain. She looked shattered, as if her heart had been dashed across the ground like glass.

After a few minutes of simply holding the girl close, Mikoto called for her son.

Itachi moved closer on the lounge, sitting patiently, eyes studying the baby curiously. “Mother?” The boy asked quietly.

“This is Naruto.” Mikoto whispered, brushing the soft blonde hair and pressing a kiss to the girl’s brow. “Kushina was her mother. You remember Kushina?”

Itachi nodded once, gaze flickering between his mother and Naruto. “She’s alone now.” He said with a clarity that was jarring in such a young child. Next to him, Hisa’s face tightened.

Mikoto’s next breath sounded like it was torn form her. “Yes, my darling. She is.” Mikoto looked to her son, smiling despite the tears in her eyes. “Would you like to hold her, Itachi?”

Hisa moved to step forward, a protest on the tip of her tongue, before Sarutobi stopped her. Together, they watched as Mikoto carefully shuffled to her son, moving with the ease of a mother as she deposited the child in Itachi’s arms. He held her steadily, hands bracing her correctly.

They all watched as the boy stared down at Naruto. Sarutobi drifted closer, finding the expression on the boy’s face intriguing.

Eventually, Itachi looked up at his mother. “She is smaller than Sasuke.” He informed her softly.

“She is.” Mikoto murmured, her hand still running over the child’s scalp. “But she is beautiful, isn’t she?” The words were more to herself, but Itachi nodded either way. “Has she started rolling yet?” Mikoto asked without taking her eyes off her son and goddaughter.

Hisa straightened at the question. “She has, Lady Uchiha. I make sure she has adequate time to develop her muscles each day.”

Mikoto nodded with a sad little quirk to her lips. “Good. That’s good. What do you think, Itachi?” She asked.

“She’s…bright.” The boy answered after a pause, mulling over his words thoughtfully. Mikoto laughed softly.

“She definitely has her father’s hair.” She commented with a rueful smile.

Naruto stirred, likely woken by their voices. Mikoto gasped when the girl’s eyes peeled open, looking about with interest. “Oh,” she said, “she has his eyes, too.”

Sarutobi nodded in agreement, even though he prayed on many occasions that the shining blue of Naruto’s eyes would darken to her mother’s grey, or that her hair would lose some of its vibrancy as she aged. It would lessen the resemblance, at least marginally.

“She’s bright.” Itachi said again, and Sarutobi raised an eyebrow at the boy, finding it a curious repetition.

“Yes, she is.” He echoed, and when Itachi looked up at him, Sarutobi felt like he had misunderstood what the boy had meant.

-

The council was as intolerable as he remembered, and their demands and politics exhausted him more each passing day. It seemed that everywhere he turned, there was a new problem just waiting to make itself known.

It had been days since he had seen the inside of his house, and Sarutobi could sense the gorge that was slowly tearing itself between himself and Asuma. It felt like he was being pulled in every direction at once, forced to choose between the village and his son, and he couldn’t help but think that every decision he made only worsened everything.

The village was crumbling around him, slipping through his fingers like grains of sand.

Whispers had begun to spread through the village, rumours of corruption and treachery circulating in the minds of his people. Sarutobi listened with growing dread, watched as the wheels began to turn, the sparks threatening to ignite—unable to stop the escalating situation.

The bad blood between the clans bubbled forth, and every meeting became a battle as fingers were pointed and accusations thrown like stones.

Sarutobi knew what this would lead to, and they had already suffered too much in the past year for him to risk it.

He reached out to Fugaku and ordered the Uchiha to move to an outer section of the village, hoping that the separation would quell some of the tension.

The Uchiha protested, loudly, viciously, their red eyes burning, their lips twisted with resentment—but they went.

Sarutobi oversaw the relocation personally and hated the approving nods he received from his advisors, hated the satisfaction he could glimpse in their cold, predatory eyes.

They saw it as pre-emptive caution, of putting a stop to a threat that hadn’t even appeared yet. Sarutobi saw it as a means of keeping his people from tearing themselves apart. He turned a blind eye to the objections from the Uchiha, focussed instead on the reconstruction of his village and fortifying their defences.

It was, however, incredibly hard to weather a storm when it was already inside the walls.

But he had been raised to never let himself seem weak, even when he was bleeding from the throat. Sarutobi knew things would get better. They just had to persevere.

Because there were more pressing issues than which clan held the most influence.

There was something brewing in the cracks of his village, and Sarutobi could do little more than watch as it grew in strength, clawing its way into the roots of his home and seeping into the very soil of Konoha. He watched, and waited, until it finally made itself known to him in the form of an old friend.

-

Danzo entered his office one sunny day with a promise like poison on his lips, an offer of aid disguising the blade pressing into the soft flesh of his stomach.

Sarutobi knew a trap when he saw one—knew how this little game between them worked, the rules and pieces playing atop the board between them—and he knew what Danzo wanted. Because he had always understood the necessity for the shadows of their world, even if he had never liked them.

So, he smiled, agreed, watched as Danzo bowed low and mocking, and prepared himself for the next move.

But.

The thing about men like Danzo, was that they were effective.

Sarutobi sat in the spotlight and pretended not to see the shadows that crept along his walls.

Pretended that each voice that was quietened was merely the result of tireless negotiations and concessions.

Pretended that every complaint seemingly fixed itself overnight.

Pretended that the way his largest contesters were suddenly incapable of meeting his eyes, was because they finally realised that he was the best one suited to leading Konoha right now.

Pretended. Pretended. Pretended.

-

The village settled into something like peace in the following year as they painstakingly picked themselves up from the ashes of the Kyuubi’s attack.

Buildings were restored. Stores reconstructed. The academy reopened. The missions began to trickle back to them slowly as their reputation was rebuilt brick by brick; customers and clients returning from the other nations they had flocked to.

The weaknesses were still apparent, if one knew where to look, but with the combined efforts of the clans and the strings Danzo so masterfully pulled in the background, Sarutobi knew it was only a matter of time before they broke out into the world, reborn and reforged from their recent crucible.

They couldn’t afford to continue limping on, lest they draw the vipers to them.

But as the days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, Sarutobi began to feel more secure as no new threat surfaced.

Naturally, that was when everything fell apart in his hands.

-

Hisa’s body lay crumpled against the far wall, her throat slashed open, blood coating the floor in front of her.

Scattered through the rooms were five other bodies, each wearing similar, unmarked uniforms.

Sarutobi stood in the centre of the chaos, hands behind his back to hide his clenched fists from the prying eyes of the investigators.

His gaze was firmly planted on the blood-splattered orange blanket that was discarded carelessly on the floor of the living room.

It was late, closer to dawn then not, but the blood was still fresh, the corpses not yet rigid. It couldn’t have been more than an hour since the assailants had slipped away with their target.

But an hour was more than enough of a window. An hour was a lifetime to any shinobi smart enough to exploit it.

A figure melted into existence at his side, silent and radiating deadly intent. The other shinobi scurrying around the apartment shot uneasy glances in their direction, but none were foolish enough to approach.

Sarutobi turned his head, gazing down at the porcelain mask aimed up at him. The anbu said nothing, though Sarutobi had no doubt that there was anger and blame swirling in those eyes. “Can you track her?” He asked.

The anbu nodded once. “My ninken are hunting them now. They’re outside Konoha.”

Sarutobi hummed, taking in the room—that blanket—one more time. “Do we know who they are?”

“No.” The anbu muttered, voice heavy with dark promises. “But we will.”

Sarutobi nodded, “Find them. Bring her home.”

The clone dispersed.

-

As the grey light of the morning began to creep over the village, Sarutobi stared up at the picture of Minato that loomed over him and silently begged for a miracle.

Two hours later, Kakashi Hatake appeared in his office, uniform soaked, white mask splashed with red, hair matted, and a squirming bundle strapped to his chest with the tattered remains of a shirt.

He told Sarutobi in short, clipped sentences who the culprits were—nukenin with no known affiliations with the other main villages—and what they had revealed to him before he despatched them.

Sarutobi did not know from who the information slipped, but it was not something he could ever allow to happen again.

He had made a promise and had very nearly broken it tonight.

It was unacceptable. Naruto was too valuable, too important, too vulnerable.

The very next day, Sarutobi made his decree to the village.

No mention of Naruto’s status was to leave their lips.

Chapter Text

Kaya stared down at the bundle in her arms, wrapped securely in a little white blanket, tiny face peeking out from the folds. Her jaw clenched at those blissfully unaware features.

The three anbu guards that had delivered the child to her had already left, slipping like shadows back into the thick trees that surrounded the orphanage. She had scarcely exchanged five words with them—and was glad for it, because she knew what those masks symbolised, and they never failed to make her skin crawl—but the few things they had bothered to say made her sick with rage.

To think that she was expected to house this horrid little beast. To feed and clothe it, to watch the child thrive while their village was still reeling from the attack.

The thing in her arms let out a noise, a soft gurgle, and it snapped her into action.

She carried the child—monster, murderer, demon—through the doors of the orphanage, walking fast so as to avoid the inquisitive gazes of the other carers and the children.

She went up the stairs, tucking the blanket firmly around the now-squirming form, not wanting any of them to see; to ask questions, or even know too much about their latest acquisition.

Kaya took the child all the way to the dormitories, deliberately sweeping past the nursery, and coming to a stop by the door at the end of the hallway. It was a supply closet, old and hardly used, only recently repurposed.

She pushed the door open and moved directly to the bed she’d had shoehorned in the room just yesterday, back when she had first been told what she was being forced to care for. She placed the child on the thin mattress and stepped back hurriedly, winding her arms around her waist for some measure of comfort.

Kaya stood over the little figure, trembling from the tide of emotions rising inside her at the mere sight of it. Molten anger and morbid curiosity choked her, and her hands curled into fists.

This was a disgrace. An insult to everything they had suffered.

The orphanage was already filled to the rafters with so many poor children left parentless from that night. So many young ones without anywhere to stay but under her roof—with no one to look after them except her and her staff.

And now, to have the very thing that had caused all their torment living within these walls…

It was beyond dangerous. To have such a being in a place meant for innocent, defenceless children was a perversion of the highest order. How the council, or the elders, or the Hokage thought that this was the best option, she had no idea. Why they couldn’t just keep the child where it had been for the past months she couldn’t understand.

Kaya wondered if any of them had even considered the threat they were unleashing on her home and her wards.

Just watching the child sparked something vicious in her heart, called forth something dark and ugly and depraved; and the flickers of anger in her burst forward into a well of frigid hatred.

It would be better for all of them if the child just starved, a shameful voice in her mind whispered, insidious and far too alluring. If it just withered away, taking that cursed monster with it to the grave, never to taint their lives or village again. Never to reign terror and fire down on their heads.

Never to claim another lot of victims.

After all, what right did it have to sit in her home, to grow and breathe and live when so many others had perished under its claws? How was it fair that her brother—so young and optimistic and happy—had died and yet the thing that killed him survived?

She wanted to sob. To wail and curse and take that small throat and crush it—

The thing let out a sharp cry, and Kaya threw herself backwards at the piercing noise. The child looked at her, too alert and aware for its age, with tears flooding down its marked cheeks; and for a heart-wrenching moment Kaya feared that maybe it had heard her thoughts. That it had sensed the black feelings swirling through her head and was reacting.

She started to shake violently, because for all she knew it could.

She had no idea what this thing was capable of—no way to defend herself against the evil hiding under its skin, and she had never felt this hopeless before.

But.

Kaya released her next breath slowly, forcing herself to calm. To bury those poisonous thoughts deep inside her. She would not let it win. She refused to let it get to her.

She had a duty to perform. The Hokage himself had asked this of her, and no matter how the child disgusted her, no matter what doubts sat heavy in her gut, she would do as she was bid.

Kaya spun on her heels, marching to the door and closing it behind her. She made sure to lock it properly so that none of the older children accidentally stumbled across it. The last thing she wanted was one of them to get hurt.

She slipped the key into her pocket, heading back to the first floor where the others were no doubt waiting for her.

They had much to discuss, now. New rules to implement. New schedules to draw up. A different evacuation plan, even. Safety measures, contingencies. A complete overhaul.

-

The following weeks were difficult, filled with uncertainty and anger and a constant cloud of fear that hovered over them all. None of them liked thinking about the child. None of them enjoyed caring for the girl, of wasting their already limited resources on her.

On the days when her exhaustion grew too strong, when she was run into the ground trying to raise, comfort, protect dozens of young ones, Kaya let herself entertain other thoughts.

Like how easy it would have been to forget. To let the knowledge slip from her mind, ignored and unwanted, for even just a day. To let the child upstairs become nothing more than an afterthought.

It would have been such a simple thing—there were so many to watch, after all, too many even with her staff supporting her. It would be easy to explain away, an accident.

So very, very easy.

If not for the constant visits.

Every month, without fail, one of the Hokage’s masked shadows would appear on her doorstep, terrifying whichever carer had the misfortune of opening the door.

They would rarely speak to her, only wait patiently in a side office as she scurried to collect the child from the room she was kept in. Then, after assessing the girl with a perfunctory examination, they would leave without comment. They never asked any questions, only lay green-glowing hands on the child’s back, and they never stayed for long.

The visits infuriated her, because for all she understood the necessity of them, it bothered her how much attention they paid the child. There were so many other children that might benefit from such check-ups—she understood little about the medics and their jutsu, but enough to know they could heal even the most dangerous of injuries with a wave of their hands—and yet no matter how often she asked, the masked ninja always denied her.

But there was always a pitch of nervousness as well, whenever those all-seeing hands hovered over the child—because what if something was wrong? Kaya did not neglect the girl’s needs, did not dare to, even if she sometimes wanted to indulge the dark thoughts, but the anxiety sat hot in her stomach long after the anbu had left.

However, each month the funds continued to trickle in with no changes, no restrictions or strongly worded reprimands; and as time dragged on, Kaya began to relax into the routine.

Clearly, they saw nothing wrong with her handling of the situation, of the precautions she had put in place to keep her other charges safe. The Hokage must be satisfied with her work.

And it made sense.

She only had to the bare minimum; she had been told at the beginning. She only had to keep the child alive and in relatively good health.

And once she was old enough, she would be taken off Kaya’s hands and put in a far more suitable place.

All Kaya had to do was wait until that day came.

-

But as the months turned to years, and the child started to grow, Kaya felt an ever-present ripple of unease run down her spine whenever she laid eyes on the girl. It was always accompanied by a lingering sour taste on her tongue, a heaviness to the air that made her teeth ache and her lungs struggle to breathe; a faint burn in the backs of her eyes whenever she got a glimpse of that blinding hair or those whiskered cheeks.

Because everything about the child was wrong.

She grew too quickly, bypassing crawling entirely, and as soon as she could stand, she was walking, then running—her thin legs pushing her further and further every day, like she was constantly chasing something.

Or how noises, fragmented and broken, fell from her mouth. Unintelligent babble that rolled swiftly into words, then full sentences within a matter of weeks. She took to it all like she had already done it before—less like a newborn experiencing everything for the first time, and more like she was relearning skills she had always possessed.

It was disturbing. She was disturbing. Odd and freakish and unnatural—how the child changed so rapidly, developing too fast, spurred on by something unseen. Collapsing and condensing and ever evolving into something grotesque, so far ahead of the other children for all that she was smaller and younger; each day revealing something new about the thing masquerading as a little girl.

But that was all nothing compared to her eyes.

Because there was a hint of something lurking in those blue depths every time Kaya looked into them. Something ancient. Something more. Always bubbling just below the surface, hungry and waiting, like it wanted to devour the entire world.

Kaya saw it.

Saw it in the way the girl just stared at everything, silent and contemplative in a way no child should be. The way those eyes would pierce whoever they fell on, reaching into them without remorse and reading a person’s darkest secrets. The way it always felt like two were looking out at her instead of one, that they judged her and found her insignificant.

Kaya saw it all. She knew exactly what it was, and it horrified her.

-

There were times, though, where the doubt at her. Thoughts slithering in the back of her mind, filled with maybes and buts and what ifs.

Like the days when she walked into the girl’s room and found her sitting on her bed, limbs huddled close and with the smallest of frowns on her face.

Or the afternoons when she’d watch from the window as the child walked around the playground alone, gathering handfuls of sticks and rocks, drawing shapes in the dirt and building little towers.

And the nights when she got up to do her rounds and would hear muffled cries leaking out from behind the only locked door on the second floor.

It tore at her, and her hate only increased every time she let those thoughts bloom.

She would not be fooled by the act. She knew the myths, had listened as her mother wove stories of silver tongues and twisting tails in between the ones of war and people with magnificent powers.

Foxes were tricksters.

Foxes lied. Foxes lured. Foxes tempted.

Foxes were capable of many things—and the one that prowled around her home in the form of a little blonde girl was capable of anything.

Kaya would not fall for the illusion, no matter how convincing it was. Her eyes were her greatest weakness, but the more attention she paid, the closer she looked, the more she began to see just how devious it was.

-

No one had ever told her what her name was.

But then again, she’d never needed anyone to.

It had always been there for her, drifting in the depths of her mind. A gift she had been given before she could even comprehend its true worth.

Something special that had been taken and burned into her soul.

Because names were powerful. Names were a representation of your very nature. Names meant everything.

And the being trapped inside the soft confines of her body knew that all too well. Knew how important it was to be named.

To simply be.

So, it was easy, really, to take the name bestowed on the child and carve it into her core with claws and foxfire. To whisper it into the vast corridors of her mindscape, over and over, until it was as familiar to him as his own; until his mouth knew the shape of those two words better than it knew the taste of air.

Because she was his now, as much as he loathed it—and nothing of his would ever be nameless.

-

Naruto realised quickly that she was different from the other children.

She saw it in the way people stared at her with something mean in their eyes, the way their gazes scraped against her like needles and knives. She saw it in the way their lips twisted when they spoke to her, if they bothered to speak to her at all—and how she wished they didn’t sometimes, because it felt like the words monster and demon were branded into her skin and she didn’t know why—

But she was different in other ways too.

Hair too bright. Eyes too blue. Marked cheeks and sharp teeth.

And there was the itch too—something under her skin that writhed and howled. Something hot and uncomfortable, pressing against her insides like it wanted to burst her open.

It scared her. Terrified her.

More than the matron, with her cruel words and cold indifference. More than the halls of the orphanage, the ones that felt like they were trying to suffocate her. More than the formless shadows that haunted her steps and stared at her blankly from their white faces.

Whatever it was in her, it wasn’t like everyone else.

She knew it in her bones, knew that no one else around her seemed to have the same burning need scratching at their heads. The thing buried inside her, the thing that licked at the back of her throat and made her want to scream—Naruto knew it was far more dangerous than anything out there.

Naruto knew she was different, that she was strange and wrong. That wasn’t the problem.

No.

The problem was that everyone else seemed to know it too.

-

The first time she was hit, the first time she felt the smack of an open hand against her face and had the spark of pain zip through her, Naruto was three and had dropped a plate onto the floor.

The force of the blow threw her to the ground, head snapping to the side and small body landing atop the porcelain shards that cut into her flesh. She cried out, hunching over, her hand flying to hold her cheek and try to make the sting go away. Her eyes watered, both from the pain and the suddenness of it all.

The matron stared down at her, disbelief plastered across her aged features as a thick stillness encroached on the kitchen. Neither of them spoke, and only the soft clinks of the plate’s piece broke the silence as Naruto shifted backwards.

Naruto’s hand dropped from her face, and her gaze moved from the grooves on the wooden floor to the woman looming above her.

The matron flinched back, her expression twisting through several emotions before finally settling on something hard and cold. The woman reached out and Naruto couldn’t twist out of the way in time. She gripped her by her upper arm, dragging her to her feet and causing her to whine again as the cuts on her legs pulled and hot red lines slipped down her skin.

“Be quiet.” The matron hissed, voice harsh and filled with something Naruto struggled to name; but she silenced herself immediately, swallowing back the noises that wanted to break free.

The matron tugged her towards the sink, letting go of Naruto in favour of wetting an old cloth. She was muttering under her breath, loud enough that Naruto might have made out the words if she could’ve concentrated beyond the roaring in her ears.

There was a new sensation creeping along the edges of her awareness, some nebulous instinct brimming in her chest that had her breath hitching and a prickle blooming at the base of her skull—all of it followed by a congealed word that seared itself into her brain, whispered in a voice she half-remembered.

Threat.

She wanted to run, the urge bubbling up until she was almost vibrating with it—but her feet wouldn’t move.

Instead, she waited quietly by the matron’s side, head down, mouth throbbing, body shaking.

She stared at her legs, looking at the gashes and the red running out of them. Again, a word shook loose from the bottom of her mind, breezing its way to the forefront of her thoughts. It slotted into a space she hadn’t realised was empty.

Blood.

The cloth was shoved into her face. “Here,” the matron said gruffly, “clean yourself up. I won’t have you bleeding everywhere; not when the others could see you. Be quick about it, then throw that away and sweep up the mess you made.”

Naruto took the cloth without a word, the damp fabric hanging limp and cold in her hands.

The matron’s lips puckered, for a moment looking like she was going to say something, but she didn’t. Just turned and left the kitchen. Naruto watched her go, mouth dry and chest tight with an emotion she was too young to know.

Slowly, she brought the wet cloth to her leg and began to dab at the blood there, each swipe of her hand taking more and more away.

Naruto sniffled softly as she worked, her cuts burning whenever she brushed the cloth over them, and she sunk her teeth into her bottom lip to quell the sounds building in her throat. The matron had told her to be quiet, and she didn’t want to be in more trouble by disobeying.

She cleaned herself as best she could, picking out the minuscule pieces of porcelain still embedded in the wounds, wincing each time her fingers tugged on the broken skin.

She had never hurt like this before.

As if summoned by her thoughts, a strange feeling began to erupt in her legs. Naruto reached down, hands hovering just above her wounds, wanting to touch but not wanting to hurt it again. The tingling grew stronger, and she watched with teary eyes as the edges of her cuts drew back together, stitching themselves closed until nothing remained but the red smudges.

Blinking in confusion, Naruto ran questioning fingers over where the largest gash had been, and the pain receded into a dull ache.

She stood there for a moment, wondering. She remembered last week, remembered Hideki, tripping, cutting his knees on the ground—cuts that were still on him this morning.

The same feeling appeared in her mouth, and Naruto poked at her cheek as the pain there started to disappear as well, leaving only the funny taste behind.

Her eyes drifted to the bloodied cloth in her hand, and for a long minute Naruto had trouble breathing.

Different, she thought with ringing clarity.

Wrong, she could hear the matron sneering.

-

That was the first time she had ever bled. The first time she had tasted her own mortality, thick and metallic, on her tongue.

It wasn’t the last.

The carers grew bolder, when they realised how quickly she healed. More liberal with their punishments, because the evidence was always gone within the day and no one else cared.

She learned how to take a hit by the time she was four, how to sway with the force, how to fall without hurting herself, how to grit her teeth and swallow her cries.

She learned to accept the burst of blood in her mouth.

Naruto had been drowning in blood since the moment she was born, and she knew she’d be drowning in it until she died.

-

Naruto wasn’t allowed to play with the other children. She wasn’t allowed to eat in the dining hall with them either.

Instead, she ate in her room, with a small plate and a tiny meal already gone cold by the time it was brought to her.

She swallowed every bite though, forcing the hard bread and lumpy rice down, and drinking the water from her chipped glass, always careful not to cut her mouth on the jagged edges.

The food in the orphanage was never nice, and the empty feeling in her never truly went away, but it was better than nothing. It was better than the days the carers forgot to give her anything at all.

She was young—too young to understand why she was treated this way, why she was so small, why her collarbones were so sharp, and her ribs were visible, and why this was wrong.

She was too young to know why her body was literally eating her alive because it needed more.

Naruto learned another word that way, sitting in the dark of her room, bent over her licked-clean plate and ignoring how her stomach twinged.

Hunger.

It sizzled in her gut, seeping into the cracks and crevices of her heart and making a home there.

Naruto always felt hungry, sometimes for things she couldn’t even explain. It was just there, weaving between her thoughts and leaving her sad and hollow and confused.

-

Most days Naruto spent locked away in her room, whiling the hours away as she waited for the matron to let her out by staring out the tiny cracked window that hung high above her bed.

She would pull herself up, fingers clamped over the wooden lip, nails digging deep and arms shaking from the effort of holding herself there for hours, and she would just watch.

She would watch the colourful little figures moving below her with covetous eyes, face pressed against the grimy glass, fogging it with her frantic breaths.

She would watch the way the other children played with each other. Watched the way they laughed and jumped and squealed together; and she wanted with a ferocity that scared her.

She wanted to be down there. She wanted to play with them. To laugh and jump and squeal and have friends. But she was only allowed outside in the afternoon, when the other children were doing chores or having lessons.

Naruto didn’t understand why she was kept separate. She didn’t understand why the matron was always so angry with her—and that was another word Naruto knew now, one she was all too familiar with, because it seemed she sowed anger wherever she went, but no one ever told her what she was doing to cause it, not when they hit her, not when she had to drag herself back to her room and wait for the wounds to disappear—and she didn’t understand how to change things.

All she knew was that the carers were afraid of her. That the faceless men and women that visited her sometimes were too, in their own way.

Naruto knew it—had learned to read it in the way people tended to edge around her, each movement so carefully planned, like they thought she would lash out. She saw it in the way they sometimes stood over her, backs straight and shoulders drawn tight, even as their hands shook and their feet shifted. How they cringed when she looked at them for too long, unable to hold her gaze.

And if she couldn’t see it, she could smell it. The heady scent of sweat and panic that filled her nose whenever she entered a room.

It confused her, prompted her to spend hours squinting at her faint reflection in the window glass, fingers pulling at her lips and eyelids, trying to understand what they saw that made them all so afraid.

She’d scratch at her cheeks with uneven nails—scratch and scratch and scratch until her skin was red and irritated, and the faint lines there were hard to spot for the few minutes it took to heal. And then they’d still be there, untouched and unbroken.

She’d push dirt into her hair, turning it into a muddy brown instead of its normal colour, hoping maybe that would be enough; only to have the carers pour buckets of water over her head until it all washed out.

She’d trace the soft pads of her thumbs along her teeth, feeling as they went from blunt to too sharp and back again; pressing into the points until the skin was on the verge of breaking. She tried to stop opening her mouth, to not show her teeth—because no one had teeth like hers, she’d come to realise—but her silence seemed to scare them more.

Nothing she did ever worked, and Naruto just wished someone would tell her what was wrong with her so that she could fix it.

-

Some nights, Naruto would lay in her cot, surrounded by the smell of mould and dust, and squeeze her eyes shut. She would press her hands to her chest and curl up tight and imagine.

A woman with bright hair. A man with eyes like hers. Hands that would stroke her face and voices that would wish her goodnight. Arms that would cradle her close and smiles that were warmer than the sun.

Those night she always woke up crying, because she knew that the ghosts she longed for didn’t exist—knew that they hadn’t wanted her, because the carers told her so and they were mean, but she didn’t thing that they would lie about that.

She was alone.

-

Except she wasn’t.

Because there was a fire building in her heart and a presence clinging to the edges of her consciousness, eager to avoid the darkness lurking below.

It spoke to her without words when she slept, reaching out to her from the void, hovering under her eyelids and tingeing her dreams red.

Those nights she dreamt of faraway places. Of water that went on towards the horizon and that tasted like her tears. Of land that jutted up into the sky. Of fields covered in white powder that sprayed up as she ran through it.

And words swirled through her mind, connections being drawn between things she’d never seen and terms she hadn’t learned.

Ocean. Mountain. Snow.

Those dreams always left her with the aching sense of loss, and the thing in her chest would snarl because it was angry.

Always, always angry.

-

Sometimes Naruto felt too big for her body. Like her skin was pulled too tight over her bones—bones that were the wrong shape, bones that bent strangely, bones that were thin and weak and breakable.

She’d look up at the people around her, at the adults that ruled her life, and think that it should be the other way around. That she should be towering over them, that they should be the ones craning their necks to see her.

Other times she felt too small. Incomplete and lacking somehow. Like she was missing something important that she couldn’t fully remember—only that she needed it because she wasn’t worthy without them—

She felt less than what she was. Less than what she was supposed to be.

Just.

Less.

-

In the afternoons, the children sat down for their lessons. An hour or two a day dedicated to teaching them the basics. How to read, how to write, how to count.

Naruto, like with everything else, wasn’t allowed to participate—wasn’t suitable to sit in with the others. She’d learned early that it was better for her to avoid the orphanage at this time. Too many times the carers had caught her with her ear pressed hard to the door, desperate to glean any hint of what was being said. And too many times she had been thrown into her room as punishment, blood thick in her mouth, hours before nightfall and without any dinner.

So, she spent her afternoons wandering the grounds outside instead, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face and the feel of the grass beneath her toes.

She felt more at home amongst the trees, with the sky stretching in all directions above her, than she ever could inside her little room in the orphanage. While the space was hers in a way so few things were—there was something about the forest that called to her. A tug in her gut that drew her back time and again.

She loved the flavour of the air, how rich and fresh it tasted. She loved to run her fingers over the harsh bark of the trees. She loved to climb into the canopy, playing with the vibrant leaves and sitting with her eyes shut as the wind rustled around her.

It was indescribable in many ways, just how peaceful she felt in those moments.

But there were some days when not even the forest could sate the curiosity brewing inside her. It was on those days—when the sight of the orphanage sent her skin crawling, when the knot in her chest grew too tight, when she could still feel the phantom hands on her even if the bruises were long gone—that Naruto ventured further, out into the village that lay beyond the trees.

She was always careful when she did, knowing how much trouble she would be in if the matron ever found out. Leaving the orphanage grounds was forbidden, and it was the first rule all of them learned, reinforced with warnings of the unknown and vague threats of what could happen to lost children.

Naruto hadn’t received the same warnings as the others, but the impression had still carried over to her. At least until her first rebellious visit.

Because the village fascinated her.

There was a buzz under her skin whenever she slipped into the heart of the bustling streets, caught in the crowds and the noises and the colours. It was so different from the dense forest, filled with people and lights and buildings, but at the same time it felt similar—something magnetic that sung to her, that made her blood beat faster.

But for all the interest the village evoked in her, it had its dangers as well.

The people in the village were just like the carers. They didn’t hit her, nothing beyond a few jostles or nudges, but their eyes were venomous, and their words were bitter whispers, dogging her steps and cutting into her every time she walked freely amongst them.

The disappointment of that discovery—that even here, away from the matron and the orphanage, people still hated her—had buried its teeth into her with relish.

So she rationed her visits, only daring to go out when she couldn’t bear to remain at the orphanage any longer; when not even the forest could soothe her. She stuck to the alleyways, content to watch from the shadows as the village pulsed around her, absorbing the many sights and splendours, obsessed and captivated. She moved silently, avoiding being seen as much as she could—and she always returned before sundown.

She’d scurry back to the orphanage, tired and dirty from the trek, but shaking with residual excitement, feeling more alive than she ever had before.

-

It was inevitable, really.

Naruto was smaller than everyone else—one of the youngest in the orphanage, caught between an infant and a child. Her wrists were birdlike, and her bony shoulders seemed to shudder with every breath she took. Her long hair fell in tangles around her, and her eyes were almost too large for her face.

She was quiet, shy, weird.

And children were cruel, cruel creatures.

Naruto had long accepted that she would never be friends with any of the others, had taken that small flicker of hope she used to cradle in her chest and smothered it, so it stopped hurting her.

She learned to ignore the taunts the others threw at her, careless in their words and ignorant of their meanings. She learned to suppress the flinch that came with every monster and freak they aimed her way. She learned to squash the spark of something dark that crackled at the back of her mind whenever one of them shoved her, pulled at her hair, tore her clothes.

She pushed it all down, desperate and determined to not let it show. But the storm brewing inside her was not something she could contain.

So, when Eiji—ten and so much bigger than her, hard knuckles and sharp eyes—dug his hand into her hair and ripped a chunk from her head, Naruto turned around and sunk her teeth into his arm.

Eiji flailed, falling to the ground, and Naruto—jaw locked and eyes raging—went with him. She sat perched atop him, hands clenched onto his shirt, his shoulder, pushing him into the ground with a strength she’d never had before.

He shrieked, voice pitched high and distressed, and the other children scattered, the fear spreading through them like a noxious wave.

Hands grabbed at her, large and familiar in the worst way, and a sound ripped its way free of her throat, deep and guttural and wild.

Voices were ricocheting around her, blurring together into one loud mess, and something struck her in the back of her head. Naruto let go, and arms like steel wrenched her away from Eiji, crying loudly and surrounded by several of the carers.

Naruto shouted, thrashing in the hold, snapping her red-stained teeth at the matron as the woman hauled her towards the orphanage. She bucked, hands clawing at the woman, her anger giving way to fear as they went up the stairs, past the second floor, going to the third.

Naruto shivered, because the third floor was off-limits, but everyone knew the stories.

And when the matron stopped before a door with a thick lock on it, Naruto started to cry.

The door was opened, and the space beyond it was small, smaller than her room, with walls that looked damp and discoloured and inky shadows dancing in the corners.

“You horrid little beast,” the woman hissed, “you’ll stay in here until you learn to behave. Biting—like an animal, I should have expected it from you.”

The matron threw her inside, and Naruto scrambled onto her knees, crawling back towards the door frantically. “No! Please!”

The door slammed in her face. Naruto rammed into it, her hands beating against the wood. “No! No! I’m sorry—let me out! Please!”

It was dark—darker than she had thought, darker than she was used to—barely a sliver of light slipping through the edges of the door, and Naruto trembled. She hit the door harder, tears springing to her eyes as hysteria lodged in her throat. “Please!”

The only thing she heard was the sound of the lock clicking into place.

A sob burst out of her as footsteps moved away from the door.

Leaving her.

Naruto spun around, pressing her back into the door and sinking to the floor. Her hands wound into her hair, bunching it into fistfuls as she struggled to breath.

She closed her eyes tight and burrowed into her knees, shaking, her chest heaving, too fast, too fast—

Naruto screamed.

-

Hours, days, weeks, years later—she came back to herself.

It was hard for her to remember where she even went. The darkness of oblivion was the same darkness around her when she was awake, cloying and ubiquitous. But for a time, Naruto had been elsewhere.

Breaking out of that other place, she woke curled in a ball, on her side with her back braced against the wall.

She forced her eyes as far open as she could, trying to make out anything. But she couldn’t see.

She couldn’t see.

The strangling hold around her neck tightened, and she whimpered, eyes roaming blindly for any hint of a shape—anything she could distinguish.

Nothing. Nothing nothing nothing—

Her eyes began to itch, burning hot like nothing she’d ever felt before—the sensation strong but not painful. Naruto rubbed at them, and slowly, she began to make out the edges of the room, to see the planks of the floor and the corners of the walls.

She blinked rapidly, and her vision sharpened.

It was still horribly dark, but she could see.

Naruto wrapped her arms around herself, keeping her eyes open, terrified that if she closed them, she might lose it again.

Someone would come to get her. Someone would open the door and let her out. They wouldn’t leave her here. Not forever. They couldn’t.

Naruto sat in there for almost two days.

-

When the matron finally returned for her, Naruto looked up at her with red-flecked eyes.

The woman jerked back, hand flying to her chest in horror.

Naruto picked herself up gingerly and inched out into the hallway, the flames in her eyes fading, red sinking beneath blue. She walked, skittishly, to the second floor, intending to go to her room.

The hunger in her gut barely registered, not above the need to bundle herself in her blanket, to surround herself in the familiar scent—but the energy shooting through her body propelled her outside instead.

The other children flung themselves out of her way, whispering and pointing as she went, but all Naruto could focus on was the wave of warmth that washed over her. She tilted her face up to the sun, basking in it, needing to wipe the cold and shadows away from her skin.

She stood there until the sun dipped below the horizon, her skin soaked with heat and a promise engraved across her heart.

Never again.

Chapter Text

Rows upon rows of little shadows moved below him, performing every action in perfect synchronisation—the result of months and years of rigorous drilling. Their silence was total, their obedience absolute.

He stood above them all, high on a separate balcony that provided an unhindered view of each of them. His hawk-like gaze scanned every recruit, meticulously searching for any hint of weakness, hesitation, restraint. Anything that might indicate failure. It was better to weed out the unsuitable now, he knew, rather than invest more effort into them only to discover a fault later.

He did so hate wasting resources, after all.

Though, so far this batch looked promising. Several of them in particular had caught his attention, showcasing remarkable skill and fortitude; which was precisely what he needed now. Already, he had begun preparing the next phase of their training, intending to fast-track the ones he could afford to.

He needed to replenish his forces. The loses he had suffered from the Kyuubi’s attack—because Sarutobi refused to call upon all their shinobi, regulating their younger, stronger, more plentiful generations to the non-combative operations—were still felt; and his usual methods, unfortunately, took more time to produce results than he had available right now.

On top of that, the botched attempt to remove Sarutobi from his position, of Hatake’s backsliding loyalty and subsequent betrayal, had cost him some of his best operatives as well. Only one had survived—and not even by the boy’s own merit, but as an act of mercy. Kinoe was still behaving erratically, his attitude and compliance beginning to morph into something that bordered on unruly. He would have to find something new to occupy the boy’s time with, so that he would stop his childish obsession with the one who had spared him.

The sting of his failure in overthrowing Sarutobi, and the inability to handle one of his most useful agents, had yet to subside. It seemed every day he was losing more and more control. And now, here he was, forced into the shadows of his own village, far deeper than he had ever had to go before, because Sarutobi thought he could force a concession.

It was more of a nuisance then he would have expected.

Of course, none of it would have mattered if he had had the girl.

Naruto Uzumaki.

Just the thought of the sheer potential that was being squandered right now had his lips curling into a soft sneer. It was downright idiotic that they were letting such a tool remain dull and useless. If Konoha wanted to regain even a spark of its former glory, then it was time to stop ignoring their greatest weapon.

Once already, he had been made to stand aside and watch as their jinchuuriki wilted away into a generic housewife, instead of being utilised properly. Kushina Uzumaki could have been magnificent. Her specialised chakra and her heritage, as well as her possession of the Kyuubi would have guaranteed it. And yet, even with all those abilities at her fingertips, she had never progressed beyond a jounin rank—seemingly content to remain in retirement and raise a family.

Perhaps if they had bothered teaching the woman to use the bijuu, the war would have ended years earlier. Kumo’s jinchuuriki was rumoured to have perfect control over his own bijuu, and that no one seemed to find that fact as concerning as he did, infuriated him.

It had been a crime to allow their jinchuuriki to fade into the background once, but for Sarutobi to appear willing to repeat his previous mistake with their newest one? It was unspeakable, and dangerous, and would undoubtedly lead to their destruction.

The girl should have been handed to him the night of her birth, from the very moment the Kyuubi had been sealed inside her, regardless of if her parents had survived the ordeal or not. He could have begun to shape her into what Konoha needed.

To have a jinchuuriki—the strongest jinchuuriki—devoted to his cause would have been a powerful boon indeed. With the girl under his thumb, he could propel Konoha in the right direction, for the first time in decades.

But she hadn’t been given to him, and now he was trapped in yet another game with Sarutobi. The two of them attempting to outmanoeuvre each other, to disrupt the other’s plans; neither gaining much ground, neither willing to admit defeat.

It was maddening, and humiliating, that a pacifist such as Sarutobi was able to not only predict his movements, but counter them so effectively.

He had yet to make another try for the girl, too wary of being exposed, of being stopped before he could accomplish anything. The first attempt had been a spectacular disaster, and he supposed the only real benefit had been that no one had discovered his involvement. The men he had charged with stealing the girl from her crib had inevitably been able to mislead Hatake enough to be labelled as mere mercenaries.

It was pure luck, he knew. The boy had been too emotional, compromised and frantic in his retrieval of his late sensei’s daughter, to look closer at the answers he was fed. The bodies had been collected swiftly by his own forces, and Sarutobi remained none the wiser.

It was a minor, if irritating, setback.

Sarutobi might believe that he was protecting the girl, but he was a fool.

He refused to relent. Not again. Not on this.

The jinchuuriki was too important to remain as she was. She was too valuable to be allowed to follow in her mother’s footsteps. To have a weapon of her calibre go through the general ninja admittance—to have her wallow away in the academy for years, learning things of little substance, when she could already be out working for them by the time her peers graduated—was not something he could abide.

She needed to be used correctly, with every ounce of her talent and skills dedicated to the improvement of their village.

And afterwards, once she had secured Konoha’s position as the undisputed power that it should be, perhaps then he would give thought to having the Uzumaki clan revitalised. There were certain characteristics inherent to that clan, traits that would be well-suited to his ranks. It would be a shame if her genetics were to go to waste, especially if they needed a jinchuuriki after her.

But unfortunately, not everyone understood his aspirations.

Sarutobi saw himself as a visionary. As someone who could turn centuries of violence around and create something as farfetched as peace. Preaching the saint, when for years he had contributed directly to the cycle’s continued existence—years where he had revelled in the fights and the chaos, at being able to crush his opponents on the battlefield.

If that man was the one leading them, then he would at least be content to wait. But it wasn’t. Sarutobi was weak now, because he would not do what was necessary. What was one child, one life, in comparison to an entire country? What was the point of having such power at their disposal if they left it untouched?

There was a shift in the air, the faintest rustle of clothes, and Danzo turned to see two agents kneeling behind him, heads lowered respectfully. Excellent.

“Report.”

It was Souta who spoke first, and though he had returned his focus to the recruits below, Danzo listened intently to the medic’s words.

“The monthly check showed no changes in the girl’s health. Malnutrition is still prevalent, and her weight and height remain far below the average for her age range; though despite this there appears to be no signs of enamel erosion or cognitive impairment. Currently there are no physical injuries, but I did detect traces of lingering soft tissue damage, and a collection of stable fractures in her arms that are healed.”

Danzo hummed to himself, unsurprised. The girl had been underweight for every report he had received so far, and he doubted that would change anytime soon. Not without intervention. The knowledge that her mental development had not been affected was intriguing, however. There was little to no research done on jinchuuriki, due to their volatile nature, and certainly none done on one so young.

Naruto Uzumaki had barely been an hour old before the Kyuubi had been sealed within her, and Danzo wondered if these anomalies—the curious way she both exhibited classic symptoms of malnourishment in some areas, yet in others remained completely unaffected—were linked to that fact. It called for further investigation.

“And what of her seal?”

“From my observations, it is unaltered. The blend of chakra is still miniscule at this stage.”

Danzo nodded, a begrudging kernel of respect growing in his chest at the reaffirmation of Minato Namikaze’s abilities. The man’s resourcefulness with fuuinjutsu was rivalled only by his old mentor; and his access to one of the last Uzumaki had only sharpened those skills into something monstrous.

It had taken months for his operatives to uncover which seal the man had used on his newborn daughter—months spent deciphering whatever scraps of Uzumaki sealing scrolls they could get their hands on. It had been an exercise in patience. Like solving a puzzle with only half the pieces.

But in the end, they had done it.

The Eight Trigram Seal. An ingenious answer to a dire problem.

The exact details were still unclear, but from what he had deduced, Naruto Uzumaki was a jinchuuriki that not only housed a tailed beast but was one whose chakra was incrementally merging with the bijuu’s. It was revolutionary and provided a unique chance for him. Danzo did not know if the bijuu could be removed from the girl now, should the situation call for it.

He had too many questions. How long would it take for the Kyuubi’s chakra to fully integrate with the girl’s? What effects would it have on her that he had not already seen? What would happen to the bijuu if the merging was even completed?

And, most importantly, could she harness it?

There were too many variables for him to be comfortable, and the answers had ultimately died with her parents—if they themselves had even known the full extent of the seal’s properties, or how it would impact their daughter’s growth.

Truly though, Minato was a shinobi that Danzo should have claimed, back when the boy had first shown his talents in the academy. No one would have missed a clanless bastard, even if the rumours of his lineage were true. He could have been so much more under Danzo’s tutelage. Maybe then he would not have objected so strongly to the man’s promotion to Hokage.

“Were there any other developments?”

There was a brief lull before Souta responded, a moment to properly gather his thoughts, or something more—either way, Danzo faced the two of them, his uncovered eye narrowing at the unexpected pause.

“The girl is showing symptoms of trauma.” Souta continued swiftly, sensing his disapproval. “During the examination she was significantly more defensive, and regularly flinched away from me. She was overly aggressive and…reactive in a way she was not last month. She tried to bite me. And I believe she is not sleeping, she was exhausted.”

Danzo almost raised an eyebrow. Biting. He supposed it was common enough in young children—but he would have thought the carers would have beaten that particular habit out of the girl in their fear. The guardians of the orphanage—a civilian orphanage, goodness knew what Sarutobi was thinking—had always held a hostile attitude towards the girl.

It spoke of the serious ignorance of the civilian population. The arrogance that they wielded, so assured they were of their own safety and superiority; when they were little more than ants, cowering beneath the strength of the shinobi who risked their lives for them. Antagonising a jinchuuriki intentionally, without any working knowledge of how secure the seal was—it was asking for a swift and bloody death.

They were fortunate that their fallen Hokage was so proficient, or there would have already been another rampage brought on by their carelessness.

But the physical abuse was not important to him. The child was a hardy one, and with the bijuu inside her, it would take more than the pitiful hits of the untrained to seriously harm her.

This mention of psychological damage intrigued him far more. Something must have struck a chord in the girl recently, to have such a visceral reaction. Something more than the occasional backhand or skipped meal. There was a gap in his information somewhere, and he wanted it filled.

It was a mistake easily fixed, though. He could sense the sudden opportunity being presented to him.

That the girl’s response to a perceived threat was violence boded well. Someone that did not act pre-emptively against enemies, that did not defend themselves viciously, was useless.

Naruto Uzumaki would be his greatest accomplishment.

Abused children were simple things to manipulate, after all. He had been careful these last few years, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

He should have taken a more personal approach to the jinchuuriki from the beginning. Now, it would take time—at least several meetings—to coax the girl and gain her trust. But an extended hand of kindness was often more effective than brute force; and the promise of protection and guidance, of no judgement or undeserved punishment, might be all he needed to get her.

He had to go about this carefully. Sarutobi was having him watched, and any interest he personally showed in the girl would surely be reported. No. He would have to send someone in to ease the way for him. Someone who could act as a bridge between him and the girl, until such a time where he could begin to persuade her.

Danzo almost smiled as an idea began to form.

“Very well. Go to the Hokage. The usual information will be fine—the girl is healthy, no signs of physical or emotional damage.”

“Yes, Lord Danzo.”

Souta vanished, and Danzo was content to know that in this, at least, he was ahead of his old rival. Sarutobi had made a grave mistake in removing himself so completely from the girl’s life. Even more so in letting Hatake—one of the last true connections to her parents left—retreat from her, to reject any attempt to raise her. With no clan allowed to foster her, Sarutobi had left the girl open to anyone intelligent enough to influence her.

Aito remained behind, head still bowed. Danzo glanced at him, his satisfaction dropping off.

Alone she might be, but Naruto Uzumaki was not without any protection.

Mikoto Uchiha was fast becoming a problem, her voice one of the loudest in the sea of those revolving around the jinchuuriki. The woman had not wavered once in the time since the girl’s birth, and Danzo knew it was only the harsh threat of arrest that stopped the Uchiha matriarch from taking the girl into her home.

If Aito’s information was not favourable, Mikoto Uchiha and her ilk might have to be dealt with.

“Report.”

Below, his soldiers danced on.

She was different after that day, after the room, after the dark. More different than she had been before. It was like something in her had been rattled loose by the shadows and the cold, and Naruto didn’t know what it was or how to fix it.

She didn’t even know if she wanted to—if fixing it meant going back to a time before she knew just how unsafe she was at the orphanage. If it meant falling back into the haze of ignorance, of letting the matron and the carers and the other children hurt her just because they could.

Naruto had made herself a promise that day, had whispered it to herself every day since to make sure she remembered it—to make sure she didn’t break it.

Never again.

Never again would she go back into that dark room.

Never again would she let someone make her feel that helpless.

Never again would she cry out for aid, for mercy, for anything—because it would never come.

Naruto could see that now. She had had her blinders ripped from her in one cruel move. For the first time she knew, without a doubt, that there would never be any love for her here. That precious spark of hope she had once tried to shield from them—that spark that whispered one day, and maybe this time, and if I just—was gone. Evaporated. Nothing but ash in her hands.

The orphanage wasn’t her home. The people here weren’t her family. They didn’t care about Naruto, they barely even tolerated her. So why should she care about them? Why should she tear herself apart trying to fit with people who just didn’t want her?

She didn’t belong here.

And never again would she make the mistake of thinking that.

In the wake of her revelation, Naruto avoided the orphanage as much as she could.

The walls she had once believed would suffocate her presented a very real danger to her now, in a way they hadn’t before. The fear of them collapsing in on her grew into a terrible and violent thing; and being inside for too long made her skin prickle. The narrow hallways made her heart pound against her ribcage—made her head spin and her lungs ache and black spots dance across her vision. Whenever it happened, she would blindly lower herself to the floor, curl in close, and wait for the choking panic to subside.

She could barely stand returning to her room to sleep, only able to close her eyes on the nights when the moon was hanging high in the sky—the nights where she could see the pale light streaming through her little window—with her blanket draped loose around her. She would lay in her bed and stare up at the ceiling, or the corners of her room, and just wait until she drifted away.

Her dreams were different too, now. Not just flashes of places and things she had never seen and didn’t understand, but filled with shadows that reached out to her, clawing at her hair and face, icy fingers digging deep and leaving her soaked with sweat. They were always worse when she had been inside most of the day.

So, instead of subjecting herself to that, and the company of the other children, Naruto retreated into the forest, seeking the comfort it provided. The quiet serenity of the woods always managed to beat back the lingering terror of the orphanage, washing away her nightmares.

The matron didn’t bother locking her in her room anymore—not after that day, not after she had seen the frenzied gleam in Naruto’s eyes and flinched—so each morning, as the sun rose, Naruto would creep out of the orphanage and slip into the undergrowth.

And she went deep.

She walked between the engorged roots of the towering trees, buried herself in the earthy scent of the mud, and she let the knot in her chest loosen.

There was a tangible presence that hovered in the forest, a weight she couldn’t describe; but it wrapped around her, gently enfolding her senses and beckoning her.

It was familiar to her, in a distant way, like something in her recognised the glow emanating from the bark and the leaves, and it grew stronger every day.

She’d huddle in the hollow of a tree, eyes closed, and listen to the sounds of life buzzing around her.

She’d lay in the middle of a clearing, where the grass grew long and tangled, and let insects crawl along her skin, watching their progression with inquisitive eyes.

She’d sit in one place for hours, her body still, and wait patiently as snakes wound around her legs and lizards scurried over her feet.

There was something about the animals as well that intrigued her—all the bursts of life brushing against her consciousness, ebbing and flowing around her like a river that Naruto sunk into greedily. She didn’t understand the warmth that spread through her, the waves of energy that resonated and guided her further into the woods. The ones that never failed to lead her to something new and alive.

With each step she took, it was like the whole world was holding its breath, and Naruto could feel the nervous hum that followed her. Could hear the soft, cautious chittering of the bigger animals that stalked the area—the ones that burned like little candle flames in her mind, stronger than the reptiles and bugs, but placid and soft.

They stirred whenever she came close, most shrinking away from her, some just hovering; but all of them watching her with wariness.

Naruto recognised it, recognised that glint in their dark eyes, because it shone, fever-bright, in her own whenever she saw her reflection. It was a hunted kind of look, the one she knew she wore when she was around the matron and the carers and the faceless ones—anyone bigger, anyone she looked at and saw as a threat, the ones that made her want to bare her teeth and snarl to show them that she wasn’t weak.

It bothered her to have that look directed at her, because she hadn’t done anything to hurt the animals. She hadn’t hit them or yelled at them or chased them, like people often did to her. Though at the same time, it soothed the itch inside her, because here she was acknowledged. Here, they looked at her and knew that she—

But the thought always slipped from her grasp, leaving her chest oddly tight and her eyes stinging. Naruto wished she knew how it ended, that she knew who and what she was. Maybe then she’d know what was wrong with her.

She didn’t let the fear stop her though.

The forest was home to her too, in a way nothing else was anymore, and Naruto was a bundle of determination and desperation most days.

She wanted to change the way they looked at her—the animals, the way the skittered away from her, bolting whenever they caught sight of her. She wanted to show herself that she could; that there were some capable of looking at her without that crazed air surrounding them—even if they were only animals.

She wanted it so badly it lodged itself in her chest and festered.

Because if Naruto could change how the animals treated her, if she could erase the panic in their eyes whenever she came close, then maybe she could do it to everyone else too.

Maybe.

Hopefully.

Please.

She was careful. Patient and resolute in a way she rarely was—stubborn and half-mad in her desire to succeed.

She tried, over and over, blind but tenacious in her approach. She had no clue what she was doing, feeling like she was stumbling her way through a dance she didn’t know the steps to.

She’d make herself small. Hunch her shoulders and lower her eyes and wind her arms close. All tricks she’d learned at the orphanage, skills she had honed, things that made her seem like prey so that they wouldn’t see the predator.

It took weeks, weeks of sitting still, or of walking slow and calm, of baring her neck and speaking in soft, crooning tones—or sometimes not speaking at all, just copying the low hums the animals used to comfort each other.

But it worked.

The first time a deer nudged its wet nose against the palm of her open hand, Naruto cried. It was the first soft touch she could remember.

She had stroked the short, brittle fur of its neck, felt the steady thrum of its heart beneath the muscles, and cracked under the weight of her relief.

“Thank you,” she had whispered, her voice hoarse from disuse, and the deer had stepped closer, snuffling at her hair. “Thank you.”

After that, she found she could move freely amongst the larger animals without them shying away from her. It was the first time she was accepted, fully and unreservedly. The first time she could reach out and touch and be touched back without the expected flare of pain.

There were no horrid looks here, no mean words or harsh attacks; and Naruto would sometimes spend whole afternoons resting against the side of a doe and her fawn, or nestled under the weight of dozens of little creatures, dozing peacefully in the sun.

And if some days her cheeks were wet, and her eyes red-rimmed, there was no one to see her press her face into the soft fur and tremble through her pain.

There was no one to judge her out here.

There was no one at all, really.

She started to travel further than she used to, mapping out the area in her head, letting the damp coolness of the forest seep into her body.

She found a stream, and spent an entire day splashing around in the clear blue water, scaring the fish that lived there and washing the dirt away from her skin; letting her wet hair stick to her neck and shoulders, heavy and dark.

She followed the water, navigating the rocks and roots and logs like she was born for it.

She found a collection of boulders, all larger than her and stacked tall. They were rough, with plenty of places to grab, and when Naruto reached the top she could see over the thick canopy of the trees, all the way to the gigantic wall that rose up high, closer than she had ever seen it before.

She slowly worked her way towards it, marvelling at how it stretched into the air. When she finally reached the base, the sun was low in the sky behind her, bathing the wall in vicious reds.

It was cracked in some places, the faded paint flecking with age, and Naruto trailed her thin fingers along the vein-like lines. She walked for hours, her hand idly dragging along the wall as she went, leaving a trail in the dust and turning her fingers black.

It was quiet this far out, and Naruto might have been worried about getting lost out here—if getting lost didn’t mean never returning to the orphanage.

The sky grew darker, and as she walked Naruto’s head swivelled, darting from gazing up at the stars that were beginning to emerge, and watching where she was going.

Reluctantly, she made her way back to the orphanage, hungry and a little tired from her day.

That was the first time she felt them.

Naruto wondered if she had always known that they were there, and that’s why it took so long for her to actually realise.

There were people following her.

They weren’t like the people at the orphanage though, who flickered like fires in her mind, small and spluttering.

No.

These people reminded her of the stars, distant and cold but so clearly more. She only felt them when she concentrated, and even then only for a few moments.

They were like the ones that visited her sometimes, the ones with glowing hands and masked faces and strange clothes.

Naruto knew the matron called them ninja with a twist to her lips but unease in her eyes.

Naruto thought that anyone who made the matron look like that was alright.

She returned the next day, making it back to the wall well before midday, and continued with her adventure.

She found such wonderful things out here, broken things from long ago, aged and half-buried.

And metal.

She found lots of pieces of metal, some reminding her of the knives in the kitchen, but shaped strangely. Different, like she was.

They littered the ground in certain spots, old and discoloured and chipped, but Naruto delighted in each one she uncovered.

She’d pick them up as she came across them, running her fingers over their edges, and tapping the dulled points with interest. She’d wind her small hands around the handles and test the weight.

They felt familiar to her, even though she was sure she had never seen them before; and that not-voice in her head would rumble forth and whisper names to her.

Kunai, for the knives. Shuriken, for the stars. Senbon, for the needles.

Each piece she discovered seemed to have a name, and Naruto stored every one of them away, long passed questioning the presence in her mind that just knew things. No one else bothered to teach her anything, and Naruto was bursting at the seams with curiosity—so she accepted the words and impressions that ghosted through her with open arms and childish glee.

It felt good. Knowing something the other children didn’t. Having something that was just hers, something they didn’t know and couldn’t find out unless she told them.

She brought some back to the orphanage, her pockets cluttering as she walked, but if the matron suspected anything, the woman didn’t say. No one ever came into Naruto’s room, and for once she was glad for the solitude.

She would wait until it was late, then slip onto the floor and pry up one of the loose floorboards. She would take out the small wooden box there and place her treasures inside. It was her secret, and she’d never breathe a word of its existence to anyone.

She wanted to stay in the forest forever, far away from everyone that hated her. She wanted to stay with the animals that treated her like she was one of them. She wanted to find all the secrets that the trees were hiding.

If she had a choice, she would have.

But she didn’t.

The first time she had tried to stay, waiting on the rocky outcrop and watching as the stars came out—no indication of intending to return—faceless shadows had descended on her and dragged her back to the matron with nothing but firm warnings to stay within the grounds.

The second time she managed almost the whole night before they got her.

By the third attempt, Naruto had gotten the message. The men and women that dropped from the treetops would never let her remain in the forest. For some reason, they wanted her to be at the orphanage, even though Naruto knew that everyone there would prefer it if she never came back.

It confused and frustrated her because she didn’t understand why. No one wanted her there, they were all afraid of her—more than ever, since she had bitten Eiji, the smell practically wafting off of them—and yet they wouldn’t let her leave. It didn’t make any sense, and the ones who brought her back never answered her questions no matter how she shouted and screamed.

They never told her why she had to stay with the matron. They never said anything beyond the orders to stop running away. They didn’t flinch when she hit them, didn’t react to her snapping teeth or low snarls; they just guided her back unfailingly, again and again.

She got better at knowing when they were coming, though. Learned to heed the small trickle of awareness that would shoot down her spine whenever their eyes were on her. They blazed across her awareness, lighting up the darkness around her, and as Naruto began to seek them out in her senses, she also learned how to avoid them.

It was almost like a game, in some ways, and despite the anger and disappointment that wove through her each time she was caught, Naruto couldn’t help but wonder if this was what having friends was like.

The masked shadows didn’t laugh, they didn’t squeal or jump, not like she had seen others do when they played—but they didn’t hurt her either, which made them infinitely better than the carers in her eyes. Their hands never bruised her, and their voices never rose, and their gazes didn’t feel harsh when they looked at her.

They weren’t nice, but they weren’t cruel, and Naruto was smart enough by now to know that there was a difference.

She didn’t like them, not really, not when they were the ones who made her go back to a place that hated her, but they were familiar. There were even a few she grew to know, certain masks that began to appear more and more frequently. Some that visited her at the orphanage for her check-ups, some that simply always followed her into forest.

She grew to know what each felt like as they watched her from high above—grew to know the subtle difference between them, the flavour of them. She started to listen for their breathing, in the moments when it was like time was frozen, and how their movements both fit with the sounds of nature, and yet didn’t at the same time.

She talked to them, sometimes. Walking through the forest could get lonely, and she was so very sick of being alone. She would chatter to them as she wound down the overgrown paths, pointing out things she had found and asking questions she knew she wouldn’t get an answer to.

They never responded.

Until one day, one of them did.

His name, he had told her, when he had jumped down from his perch, was Kinoe.

He had only been following her for a little bit, Naruto knew, but even though he wore a mask just like all the others, he felt warm. There was something about him that made a sliver inside her shake. Something that both made her prickle with warning, yet long to be near him.

He was the first of her shadows to stay where she could see him, the first to really interact with her. The first to talk to her without prompting.

And he was kind to her, too. He showed her things, occasionally, like how to catch fish with her bare hands, and how to build a fire properly, so that it didn’t get out of control. He showed her how to hunt, how to kill smaller animals quickly, without hurting them. He showed her how to cook the meat, but refused any that she offered him, pushing it all towards her.

Naruto, always ravenous, didn’t protest too much.

He showed her a lot of things, but her favourite lesson was how to hold the scraps of metal. She wasn’t allowed to throw them, though, and he always stopped her before she could.

"Why?" She had asked, blinking up at his hidden face—and he couldn't be that much older than her, she realised. There were children at the orphanage that were bigger than him.

“Because you’ll learn wrong.” Was all he had said in response. He didn’t elaborate much beyond that, but for once Naruto did as she was told, afraid to chase away the one person who treated her normally. He did show her how to throw, using his own knives. He taught her the basic motions, nudging her feet further apart and tugging her shoulders into place, instructed her how to flick her wrist, how to aim, how to hit her target.

The knives he used were shiner than the ones she had collected, polished until they gleamed, and Naruto would watch with wide eyes as the kunai slashed through the air and dug into the trunks of the trees.

But he taught her other things as well, things Naruto didn’t think he even meant to.

He taught her how to walk without making a sound. She would watch how he stepped along the forest floor beside her, how he placed his feet so that there wasn’t a whisper from his steps, and she would start to mimic him. She watched how his body swayed, how his weight shifted, how his shoulders rolled—and she would learn.

She learned how to fade into the background, how to stay so still it was like she melded right into the trees. She learned how to read the tracks in the muddy ground, how to stalk prey for hours without detection. She learned how to hide so well none of her shadows could find her for days at a time.

She learned how to copy the way the comforting cloud surrounding Kinoe could vanish until she couldn’t feel him at all, even when he was standing right next to her. She had practiced for weeks, feeling inside herself until she discovered the warmth bubbling deep in her stomach.

The first time she had done it successfully—taking what felt like a sun burning inside her and hiding it behind some clouds—Kinoe’s head had snapped around to face her, and through the slits in his mask, she had seen how his eyes had widened in surprise.

Naruto loved the afternoons she spent with Kinoe. Loved the soothing timbre of his voice when he explained something to her—what plants she could eat, why she should boil water, how to set a trap—with endless patience. She loved the small wooden figures he would give her, how detailed they were, how pretty they looked. Each one finding a special spot in her box of treasures.

He was the closest thing she had ever had to a friend, and that was why it hurt so much when he just—disappeared.

It wasn’t the first time Kinoe had gone away. In the months she had known him, sometimes a whole week would go by without her meeting him. When she had asked him where he went, he’d answered.

He had told her that he was a ninja, a shinobi, and that he had missions to complete.

He explained to her what ninjas were, vague in the way he normally was when speaking about stuff he wasn’t supposed to be. He told her how dangerous it was, spoke of honour and bravery and other things she didn’t understand, but that scratched at her mind intensely.

Naruto knew Kinoe had an important job to do, but he had always told her when he’d be away for a long time, and he hadn’t said anything when she had seen him last.

So, when three full weeks had passed without her seeing Kinoe, without a word or explanation from him or the other shadows, Naruto finally accepted that he wasn’t coming back. That he had left her just like everyone did—because Naruto was a freak and he must have finally realised it.

She had cried that day, when it had eventually sunk in that he was gone. She had curled up under the tree they used to meet at, body trembling and her small heart breaking.

She didn’t move until it was almost night, when a masked figure dropped down in front of her—not the one she wanted, a different one, one she hadn’t seen or felt before—and Naruto didn’t even fight when he brought her back to the orphanage, too upset to even open her mouth.

Her throat was too tight, and her chest was cold; and the skin of her palms were creased from how hard she had been clutching the little wooden leaf he had given her two days before he had left.