Chapter 1: The First Steps

Uzumaki Naruto was in shock. Ever since the Sandaime Hokage made an official announcement about his chosen successor and said successor’s parentage, Naruto’s life had turned upside down. He was no longer glared at, or refused service. No more hateful words were thrown his way; only compliments and encouragement. It was a massive reversal of attitude, and poor Naruto, six years old and completely befuddled, went straight to his jiji to clear things up.

“Hokage-jiji!” Naruto greeted cheerfully as he tore into the Hokage’s office like a maelstrom, befitting his name. Hiruzen surreptitiously waved his anxious ANBU aside, having identified Naruto’s burgeoning chakra in the split second before the boy had burst into the room. The active child scrambled to the Hokage’s side of his desk, before bluntly putting forth his question. “Why are people nice to me now?”

The wizened man winced inwardly. It sent the man tumbling towards another guilt trip, but Sarutobi stashed that away. He had changed things for Naruto already, and no longer would the boy be treated like scum, but instead a hero. “Well, it’s because I’m going to train you to be Hokage.”

Little Naruto’s eyes widened considerably, the disbelief clear in his azure orbs. He told his jiji about his dream, but he didn’t think the old man would do so much to help him achieve the dream. “R-Really?”

“Hai, Naruto-kun,” Sarutobi smiled, ruffling the boy’s unruly flaxen locks affectionately. He was then engulfed in a crushing hug as Naruto babbled his thanks over and over, making promises to be good and train hard and be the bestest student the old man will ever have. Hiruzen patted the child on the back. “Naruto-kun…I have two important things to tell you.”

The boy ended his verbal diarrhea, sliding off his surrogate grandfather. Happy tears were quickly scrubbed away, and Naruto beamed brightly at the Sandaime. “Okay.”

How can people see such a sweet child as a monster, I have no clue, Sarutobi sighed within. Outwardly, he smiled genially at the blond boy. “I have told the village yesterday about your parents. I believe it is right for you to know as well.”

“M-My parents?” Naruto whispered unsurely.

“Hai. Your parents. Your mother was a beautiful kunoichi from Uzushiogakure. Uzumaki Kushina was her name. She loved ninjutsu just like you do, and was a brilliant ninja,” Sarutobi told the boy. “Your father…his name was Namikaze Minato. You know him better as the Yondaime Hokage.”

“Y-Yondaime?” Naruto stuttered, falling backwards on his butt in shock. “Y-Yondaime-sama was my dad?”

“Hai, and both of them loved you very much,” the elderly Hokage spoke. “They died protecting you from the Kyūbi.”

“They died…protecting me…they didn’t abandon me…they loved me!” Naruto sobbed, a huge weight lifted off his little shoulders. For ages, he had wondered who his parents were. Did they love him? Did they abandon him because he was a demon, a monster? But with those doubts dispelled, Naruto felt relief. He finally knew who his parents were. They loved him. They didn’t abandon him. His father was the Yondaime Hokage! His idol, the man he wanted to surpass, was his own father. It was a liberating thought.

“Naruto-kun,” Sarutobi smiled kindly, wiping away the tears from whiskered cheeks with his long sleeves. “I have something else to tell you. Something very important.”

“What is it?” Naruto leaned forwards in anticipation.

Hiruzen sighed ponderously. How to explain it to a child? Never mind, just go with the truth. “You know about the Kyūbi right?”

“Yep! Yondaime killed it when it attacked Konoha!” Naruto grinned proudly, pleased that it was his father that defeated the mighty Kyūbi.

“The story is not entirely true,” Hiruzen explained. “Tell me, Naruto-kun, have you seen ninjas sealing stuff into scrolls? Like weapons, supplies?”

The boy nodded furiously, gesticulating wildly. “Yea, yea! There was this shop where the owner puts lots of stuff onto a scroll, and he does a hand seal, and poof, everything is gone!”

“The stuff disappeared into the scroll,” the Sandaime explained in simple terms so the child could understand, “Like putting things into a box. The Yondaime couldn’t kill the Kyūbi, so he sealed the demon up, locking it away so it cannot harm anyone.”

“So where is it?” Naruto asked curiously.

Sarutobi gently lifted Naruto’s shirt, and placed his finger to the boy’s navel. Pushing some chakra through his finger, it revealed the spidery seal that was etched into Naruto’s skin. The boy’s eyes lit up in wonder and fear as his stubby fingers traced the pattern absentmindedly. He was a child, but even he could deduce where the venerable Hokage was going. “So the Kyūbi is in my tummy?”

“Hai,” Hiruzen confirmed the boy’s words.

The child observed the seal further, before looking up to meet the Hokage’s eyes. “I’m not the Kyūbi, right?”

“Iie, you are not. You are the son of the Yondaime,” the Hokage smiled in relief, glad the boy had understood. “He trusted you to keep the fox in its cage, and to protect Konoha from it. Will you continue to protect Konoha like your father and mother?”

“Of course!” Naruto nodded emphatically. “I’m gonna keep the naughty fox in my tummy forever, and I’m gonna be the best Hokage ever!”

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Sarutobi Hiruzen was mighty glad he made his decision while Naruto was still six. The boy thirsted for acknowledgement, and with his hyperactive nature and his mother’s genes, he might very well end up being an attention-seeking prankster if the Sandaime had neglected the boy. But now, with the recognition of the village (how fickle, Sarutobi scorned) and the attention of the greatest ninja in the village, Naruto had an environment conducive for growth and development. Oh, Sarutobi knew Naruto might not be Genin-level for a couple of years; only the truly exceptional bucked the trend. But by setting the foundations early, it would be a strong platform for Naruto to bring out his potential.

It was why all clans prepared their children early, to give them that early boost and a solid starting point for further ninja education. Clan ninja were almost always at the top, and only hardworking and talented civilian children make the grade. It was slightly unfair, but it provided Konoha with a steady supply of strong ninja with access to secretive clan techniques. Konoha’s strength was built on the might of shinobi clans from the moment the Senju and Uchiha joined forces, and that tradition would not change for a long time to come.

The wizened man was pleasantly surprised to have Naruto hanging onto his every word as he began instructing the child. He had expected, from Naruto’s frequent visits, that the boy would be jumping all over the place, begging to learn the flashy ninjutsu that characterized so many modern ninja. However, the Namikaze just sat quietly in front of Hiruzen, soaking up the knowledge Sarutobi dispensed with childlike awe. The Sandaime had frankly thought Naruto would be like Jiraiya; noisy, boastful but brilliant in his own way. Or maybe he would be like Tsunade; the haughty prince of Konoha, who had utmost confidence in his abilities. In the end, he resembled Orochimaru the most; the quiet, unassuming child who had talent oozing from every pore.

Iie…I should not compare, Sarutobi thought firmly, as he watched Naruto try to access his chakra. They are different people, with different personalities. There is nothing to suggest Naruto will end up like Orochimaru. That is a mistake I will not make again.

He was brought out of his reverie when a not insignificant flare of chakra occurred in front of him. Naruto’s whiskered face was screwed in concentration as he unleashed his chakra. Sarutobi smiled as the blue energies swirled around Naruto’s body, a veritable helix of power. What intense chakra, and only six. The last I’ve seen with such a strong chakra was Jiraiya. Another stroke of luck it seems…if I didn’t pick him up, he will inevitably struggle with chakra control in the future.

“That’s enough, Naruto,” the Hokage stated. Naruto pulled his hands apart, grinning sheepishly. Sarutobi smiled. “That was very good. You have a lot of chakra, which is good.”

“Ne, sensei, does that mean I can use lots of ninjutsu at one go?” Naruto asked curiously. “You explained that ninjutsu uses the most chakra of all jutsu, so does that mean I should use ninjutsu?”

Hiruzen nodded, his smile widening. While not as precise as he would have liked (and he can hardly fault a six year old for simplification), the underlying concept was there. “Hai, Naruto. With such chakra, you are very suited towards using ninjutsu. It is going to be very hard to control so much chakra, so genjutsu is very, very difficult. And taijutsu doesn’t use chakra much.”

“So…lots of chakra is my…good point?” Naruto ventured cautiously. “And because I got lots, it’s really tough to use genjutsu which uses only a tinny bit, right?”

“Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn genjutsu and taijutsu,” Hiruzen replied sagely. “All three are important for a ninja.”

“Hai, sensei!” Naruto saluted, before scratching the back of his head. “Ano, what about fūinjutsu? It’s really strong, right? I mean, the Kyūbi was this big demon fox, and the Yondaime used fūinjutsu to defeat it! Does that mean it’s also really, really hard?”

“Fūinjutsu is very tough, and it is best if you learn it when you are older,” the Sandaime advised. “For now, let us focus on the three core arts, and other shinobi basics such as weapons and trap making.”

“Okay!” Naruto beamed brightly.

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There were no words that need be said. Silently, a crack team of ANBU was on Naruto’s tail, trailing the ignorant boy. Sarutobi cricked his back, glad for the recent upturn in exercise. For too long he had been cooped up in the office, dealing with one crisis after another. Now, with a student and a valid reason to dump the ridiculous paperwork to the administrative gophers in the Tower, he could get some much-needed exercise. It was unbefitting for a Hokage to be lacking in fitness. After all, it would do no good for Naruto to outlast him during training; it might give the boy a boost to the ego he didn’t need.

Hiruzen hated it, but there were also other reasons for Naruto’s selection. He was a Hokage for decades, and did not lose his ability to govern. With age came wisdom, so they say. The Sandaime hoped his decision would not bring any physical harm to Naruto; it was a balance between mental and physical health for the boy. Should he not reveal Naruto’s parentage, it would impact Naruto’s mind. If he did reveal his parentage, he would be under threat from other countries.

And become prime bait. Sarutobi had little proof, but knew that as Konoha grew weaker from constant conflict, more and more insurgents were making inroads into the village. And the Sandaime could not tolerate that. As much as he loved peace, safety of the village was of paramount importance. Naruto thus became bait for all anyone who wished harm upon Konoha; after all, what bigger target is there than the son of the Yondaime and the future Hokage? It was why he had a team of ANBU watching Naruto at all times; not just for the blond’s safety, but to root out all the spies that would crawl out of the woodwork to observe his protégé’s movements and actions.

Of course, what the ANBU didn’t know was that he had Hatake Kakashi’s team on their tail. Hiruzen was not stupid by any means; he knew Danzō’s Ne were still active and have infiltrated the ranks of ANBU. Danzō would definitely plant his men into Naruto’s guard detail in order to somehow convert Naruto over to Danzō’s fanaticism or eliminate him so he could weaken Sarutobi’s legacy. Not knowing which members have been compromised, Hiruzen had no choice but to draw them out with Naruto, and use Kakashi’s team (a superior and completely loyal team of ANBU) to observe the guards. Paranoid it may be, but better safe than sorry.

The lessons that the Senju have expounded should not be destroyed by the ideals of a power-hungry fool, the venerable leader mused, as he took a seat in his expansive office. He sighed as he perused another report from one of his most trusted agents. A slight crook of his finger, and an ANBU appeared before the aged man, ready to receive orders. “Get Taka here.”

The ANBU nodded, disappearing as silently as he arrived. Hiruzen managed to stamp two more high priority documents before Taka materialized in a puff of smoke. Dressed in regular ANBU garb, with the stylized porcelain mask of a hawk shielding his face, he looked like any typical block ops member. But Sarutobi knew better. “Your report has raised some highly uncomfortable issues.”

“It was inevitable, I suppose, for the Uchiha to plan a coup d’état,” the Sandaime sighed heavily. “Do you believe reconciliation is possible?”

“It is already moving past the preliminary planning stages,” Taka intoned dully. “If no action is taken now, then the entire clan will become culpable of treason eventually. Only the children will be unaware of the plot.”

Hiruzen did not speak for a moment. He pulled out his tobacco pipe from his voluminous robes, and lit the packed tobacco. Screwing the end of the pipe to the corner of his lips, the old man smoked serenely for five minutes. Blowing a cloud of smoke from his lips, Sarutobi turned back to his operative. “This is a black bag operation. Eliminate all the ringleaders of this ridiculous coup d’état. Do not let yourself be identified as the assassin. I believe a team of Iwa-nin was apprehended two days ago. They shall be the assassins who took out the Uchiha leaders in order to weaken the clan and destabilize Konoha.”

“Understood,” Taka bowed, before leaving to begin his plan of action.

Sometimes, it is necessary to prune diseased branches to prevent the entire tree from death.

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Uchiha Mikoto sighed softly as she slowly walked home from her meeting with the Sandaime. It had been a rather casual conversation on the surface, but Mikoto was not a former Jōnin for nothing. The Sandaime had surreptitiously requested for the reintegration of the Uchiha clan into Konoha’s fold. Mikoto was in full agreement on that front; for too long, the founding clan of Konoha was separated from the rest of the village by a physical and mental wall. It was high time the Uchiha became not a subsidiary of Konoha, but a vital organ of the village.

The assassinations were a reminder that while the Sandaime was getting older, he was baptized in the fires of war. He led Konoha through four major wars, and was far from soft. It was the first and final warning for the Uchiha not to tread on his toes, and Mikoto was keen on heeding said warning. But she was glad she was negotiating with Sarutobi Hiruzen. The man had endured far too much conflict, and sought peaceful resolution. If it were Danzō or the Go-Ikenban, they might have ordered the execution of the entire clan. It was a sobering thought.

And the first step the Sandaime took to help reconciliation was to assign Itachi a role as Namikaze Naruto’s guardian when the child was not practicing various shinobi arts with the Shinobi no Kami himself. To hand the safety of the successor to the Hokage seat to the Uchiha clan heir was a major leap of faith for even the forgiving Hokage, and Mikoto intended to repay the man’s kindness in full. Her maternal instincts told her that the venerable Hokage was also seeking to increase young Naruto’s network, and was obviously commanding her to encourage friendship between her son and Naruto. They were of similar age after all, and even a friendly rivalry can push both of them to greater heights.

It would also hopefully have the effect of reducing Sasuke’s use of Itachi as a benchmark. It was wholly unfair for the younger child to have been neglected by their father because Itachi was his key to the inner workings of Konoha’s military, and Mikoto intended to fix it. With the Sandaime generously offering her the opportunity to do so, she would grasp it with both hands. All in all, it was a peaceful ending to a saga hidden from the eyes of most, and it was one of the best scenarios that could have worked out for the Uchiha. And as a bonus, her family could finally mend.

And I get to baby Kushina’s son, Mikoto smiled, as the noises of friendly roughhousing was heard even outside the house. Entering her home, she tracked down the noise of boys knocking each other about to the courtyard. Itachi stood on the veranda, a soft upturn of his lips the only indication that the sight amused him. Sasuke and Naruto were rolling about in the dirt, trying to grapple the other without much success. Mikoto placed a dainty hand on her elder son’s shoulder. “I don’t blame you.”

“I know,” Itachi intoned.

His voice was monotone, but Mikoto was his mother. She could hear the distinct relief in her quiet son’s voice; he was only twelve, and as mature as Itachi was, even he sought his mother’s approval. The azure eyes of Naruto finally noticed Mikoto’s presence, and they conveyed confusion. Sasuke paused in his attempt to strangle Naruto, surprised his current mortal enemy had halted his attack. He then noticed his own mother, and blushing sheepishly, he sprung to his feet.

Naruto clambered upright, scratching the back of his head in befuddlement. “Ne, Sasuke, I thought you said you only have a brother. When didja get a sister?”

“She’s my mother, you dolt!” Sasuke hissed.

Mikoto giggled as she strode over, brushing the dirt off a pouting and evidently embarrassed Sasuke, before smothering Naruto in a motherly hug. “Arigato gozaimasu, Naruto-kun, for your compliment.”

“Eh?” the boy tilted his head sideways, face scrunched up in thought. “What did I do?”

The Uchiha matriarch gushed at how adorable the boy was. He’s going to be a real heartbreaker in the future, Mikoto thought, as she ushered the children into the house for tea. As Sasuke got into another argument with Naruto, still angered that his brother would have to spend more time with the blond than with him, Mikoto noted that Itachi’s smile widened. It was the first full-blown smile the mother had seen on her older son for months.

May this happiness last forever.

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Hiruzen wondered if Benzaiten was blessing him ever since he made that fateful decision. He had always wondered about Naruto’s unnatural luck (proven with dice), and now it was as if Benzaiten herself gave his decision full approval. First, Kakashi had reported in with a list of over twenty ninja or civilians who have had markedly increased attention focused on Naruto. He had no idea if that was all, and if they were even spies. But he was not going to take any chances; anyone spending an above average amount of time observing a future Hokage and son of the Yondaime need to be interrogated for full details. Ibiki was going to have a lot of work for the next few weeks.

By a stroke of luck, Itachi had managed to apprehend a Ne operative attempting to make contact with his protégé. Recalling Jiraiya from his travels, Sarutobi hoped to unravel the Juin on the operative’s tongue and squeeze some answers about Danzō out. Koharu and Homura then expressed their satisfaction with his quick response to the Uchiha situation, and threw their weight behind Naruto’s training. With their heavy influence, it brought massive support from the various clans, who could see the potential of training a Hokage candidate from a young age.

Finally, Jiraiya had returned a message stating that Gamabunta was curious about Minato’s kid, and wanted to meet the child. Sarutobi was thankful for that; Naruto seemed to have little interest in weapons, particularly bojutsu, which was the hallmark of any Monkey summoner. Having a summoning contract was an ace for any top ninja; the animal clans have always held secrets about nature and chakra that most can only dream about. He knew about the Toads’ sennin training, and the vision of a sage cum jinchūriki as the Hokage was a tantalizing prospect.

And Naruto was proving as much of a genius ninja as his father was. Hiruzen watched proudly as the boy danced nimbly through the Academy basic kata, far more proficiently than most graduates he had the opportunity to observe. It wasn’t the fault of the Chūnin instructors, really; students were always prone to like flashy ninjutsu, never mind their suitability to the arts. Taijutsu always fell by the wayside; it took too much effort, and never really showed its benefits. Of course, most Genin realise the usefulness of a strong taijutsu when they are faced with enemies, short on weapons and chakra; by then, it was a little too late to regret the lack of attention to the body arts.

Naruto, however, had not pestered the Shinobi no Kami to learn ninjutsu. Instead, he had quietly followed Sarutobi’s every instruction. Hence, he only had a rudimentary grasp of ninjutsu, having learnt and mastered the three basic E-rank techniques the Academy taught. His control was not improved upon; tree climbing was the level his control was pegged at. Genjutsu was only given a passing mention, seeing as the blond was really unsuited to the subtle arts. So all his time was mainly pushed into taijutsu and other basic, non-chakra skills. The Hokage also instructed Itachi to help the boy with his general studies on mathematics, history and language. The boy had a packed schedule, but he never complained, and was now Genin in all but name.

He completed the four-year curriculum in just one year, the Sandaime mused proudly. Of course, he was always more of a kinesthetic learner; if put into the classroom environment of the Academy, he might not excel as well as he has. The friendly rivalry with Sasuke has helped his studies too.

His senses picked up the presence of another shinobi in the vicinity, which went completely unnoticed by the ANBU that surrounded the clearing as his protection. The Hokage resolved to increase the corps’ training, as he greeted his most loyal student. “Jiraiya. It’s been a while.”

The man materialized from thin air, alerting the ANBU. A subtle twitch of the hand kept them in their hidden perches amongst the trees. Jiraiya chuckled perversely as he surreptitiously checked out a female ANBU, leering at the nervous operative, who was obviously disturbed by the ease with which the tall man had bypassed their perimeter. Sarutobi cleared his throat to gain his student’s attention. “Jiraiya. Don’t.”

“Bah, you’re such a spoilsport,” Jiraiya pouted childishly, crossing his arms. “I’ll have you know I’m-”

“Jiraiya.”

“Fine, fine,” the man grunted, before his hand slipped into his sleeveless haori. He retrieved a small, orange book, handing it over to his teacher. “Here. This is advanced printing. I’m pretty sure it’ll be a hit; the editors were going crazy over it.”

Hiruzen blushed healthily as he recalled the various drafts that he had helped review, and tucked the book into his clothes. Clearing his throat once more to hide his embarrassment, he called Naruto over. The child, understandably curious about Jiraiya and the sudden halt to his training, trotted over quickly. Sarutobi smiled at the boy, praising his kata, before Jiraiya butted in. “Kid!”

“Who’s he?” Naruto cocked his head.

I thought he had seen the history texts already… Sarutobi pondered, before the boy’s face lighted up in recognition. “Oh! You’re Jiraiya-sama!”

“Oh, so you know of me?” Jiraiya puffed his chest out in a display of machismo. Naruto frowned, before spouting a tactless statement. “Ne, sensei, he’s not very humble like the textbooks say.”

Jiraiya spluttered indignantly, while the Sandaime had a good laugh at the expense of his student. Jiraiya huffed, before he crouched down to meet Naruto eye to eye. “Hey kid, do you know anything about summons?”

Naruto nodded enthusiastically. Jiraiya grinned, ruffling the boy’s hair. Naruto preened at the attention, while the venerable Hokage decided his latest student needed to gain a bit more distrust for strangers he never met before. Of course, his presence ensured that Jiraiya was not a threat, but paranoia was pretty much a must in the job, and the boy had no sense of personal regard. He watched quietly as Jiraiya demonstrated the Kuchiyose no Jutsu, summoning the man’s favourite toad, Gama. Naruto goggled in awe as the large toad unfurled its tongue to reveal a contract.

“Before you can sign the contract though, the boss wants to meet you,” Jiraiya stated solemnly. “He wants to judge if you are worthy.”

Of course, both Hiruzen and Jiraiya knew Gamabunta was definitely going to accept Naruto as a summoner, but the boy didn’t need to know that. The blond child was requested to step back several metres along with Sarutobi, as Jiraiya flashed through the seals for Kuchiyose once more. The Sandaime was pleased that Naruto was paying attention to the seals, and seemed to be catching them despite Jiraiya’s impressive sealing speed. Sure, the flamboyant man was not the fastest sealer around; Sarutobi himself, for instance, trumped his student in that regard. But it was still faster than what most Jōnins could accomplish, and his protégé was catching them. Note to self; get him a medical to check his senses for any signs of enhancement.

Slamming his bloodied palm to the ground, a web of seals erupted from the man’s hand. A huge blast of smoke preceded the arrival of Gamabunta, the largest toad of the clan. The toad was a rusty red in colour, with various bright red markings over his body. He wore a blue vest and a large blade, a tantō by its proportions, was strapped to his waist. The sheer size of Gamabunta caught Naruto by surprise, judging by the boy’s startled squeak and tumble to the ground. It was not a poor reaction, to be honest. When confronted with a building-sized toad with webbed feet that could crush boulders, it tends to give people the jitters.

Is that the boy?” the massive toad asked gruffly, a lazy spiral of smoke rising from its pipe.

“Yep. Kid, meet Gamabunta. Gamanbunta, that’s Minato’s brat,” Jiraiya introduced, although he had to shout in order for his voice to reach the people on the ground. Gamabunta bent his head down, scrutinizing Naruto. The blond had clambered up to his feet, and glared defiantly at Gamabunta’s condescending stare. Then, the great toad burst into hearty laughter, which nearly shook Jiraiya off his precarious perch on the toad’s head. “Good, good! You have determination and inner strength! I approve! We must share a drink when you are older! For now, you can be my subordinate!

“Arigato gozaimasu, oyabun!” Naruto cheered.

As the massive toad left the clearing in another blast of smoke, the Hokage wished he had a camera to capture Jiraiya’s face. The man had his fair share of quarrels with the toad, and for a seven year old to gain Gamabunta’s approval so easily, it was a rather big blow to the man’s fragile ego. The envious look on the white-haired man’s face said it all. The man grumbled under his breath as he offered the contract to Naruto, instructing the boy to sign it with his blood. Gama retook the contract, and left for Myōbokuzan while Jiraiya bid goodbye to his godson and his teacher as he went off to places unknown (Hiruzen had a sneaking suspicion it was the onsen).

“Well, now that you’ve signed a contract for Kuchiyose no Jutsu, we might as well get started on ninjutsu,” Sarutobi declared nonchalantly.

Naruto roared with excitement, dancing about in a ridiculous victory cheer. The Hokage sighed; the blond had obviously saved up all his hyperactivity just for that moment.

Elsewhere, women’s privacy was actively violated as a certain perverted author settled down to begin research with unbridled glee.

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“Miko-nee!” a chirpy voice called out.

Mikoto smiled lightly as Naruto entered the Uchiha abode as if it was his home, which, in many ways, it was. The boy sounded rather excited, which Mikoto gathered was because of his recent promotion to Genin after a rigorous test by unbiased Jōnin judges. It was a rather unorthodox promotion, seeing as promotions to Genin were always team-based, and only the rank and file that didn’t make their Jōnin’s grade gets promoted as individuals. He dashed into the kitchen where Mikoto was preparing dinner for the night, a megawatt grin plastered on his face. “Miko-nee! Guess what?”

Mikoto found the boy’s infectious smile and endearing name for her to be rather adorable. His round, whiskered cheeks also made for wonderful pinching. But unfortunately, she was busy cutting vegetables, and had no extra limbs to give the boy his deserved cuddle. “Hai, Naruto-kun?”

“I’m gonna go on my first mission tomorrow! Sensei says it’s not gonna be a D-rank too!” the boy babbled enthusiastically. “He says it’s a cool C-rank outside of Konoha! I can’t go alone, and Itachi-niisan’s coming along too, but this is going to be so cool!”

Mikoto congratulated Naruto, which made the boy smile even wider. The Uchiha matriarch was pretty sure in a couple of years, the blond would be the main object of affection from the female populace, much like his father was. Naruto then offered to help with dinner, which Mikoto gladly accepted. The boy chatted with the woman about his training animatedly as he helped chop vegetables, something Mikoto had to force down his throat at times. The soft patter of feet told Mikoto that her younger son was back. Sasuke entered the kitchen, scowling at Naruto’s uninvited presence.

“Hey ‘Suke,” Naruto greeted. “I’m going on a C-rank mission tomorrow! Isn’t that great?”

Sasuke growled, dashing out of the house, no doubt to train harder. Mikoto shook her head amusedly at the interaction between Naruto and Sasuke. Despite Sasuke being slightly older than Naruto, the blond treated his friend as a little brother, always poking fun at Sasuke’s fan girl situation (something Naruto didn’t have, since he didn’t go to the Academy) or lording his achievements over Sasuke. Everyone in the Uchiha household, including Sasuke, knew it was just to rile him up, but Sasuke always fell for it. Mikoto knew it was Naruto’s way of pushing Sasuke to greater heights, since he was not given individual attention from the Academy like Naruto does from Sarutobi. Naruto had also requested Itachi to help Sasuke with training, offering to stick about so Itachi could still fulfill his protection mission obligations.

Mikoto thought it was a really sweet gesture from the boy, and made sure to pamper him with food every time he popped by. She was really glad Kushina’s son did turn out to become good friends with her own younger son (although Sasuke would vehemently deny such outrageous claims).

The softer footfalls of Itachi were heard as dinner entered advanced preparations. The raven-haired teen entered the kitchen, softly chiding Naruto for running off without waiting for Itachi to chaperone him. But both Itachi and Naruto knew of the ANBU swarming about on the rooftops around the blond boy, and that it was just Itachi’s way of expressing concern.

The Jōnin, having left ANBU, was far happier than before. The pressure from Fugaku had been all too unreasonable, and while Mikoto had supported the coup d’état, she was still a mother first and foremost. Now, he had time on his hands, time which Itachi was spending with Sasuke and Naruto, and his fiancée. Mikoto giggled at the thought. Itachi, for all his emotionless façade, was a shy and introverted teen, and was somewhat uncomfortable with any form of affection. And though it was an arranged marriage, the two were extremely fond of each other. It was just Itachi’s luck to be arranged to marry a lecherous girl who was intent on molesting Itachi everywhere.

As the family plus Naruto sat down for dinner, and Naruto squabbled with Sasuke over the food, Mikoto wished Fugaku could see them then.

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Their C-rank mission was a simple one, to eliminate a bunch of bandits staying on the outskirts of a small hamlet and terrorizing the inhabitants. It was a mission for Naruto to be acquainted with the darker aspects of shinobi life; killing. Bandits were no match for a trained ninja, so there should be no issue even if Naruto froze up. It was a necessary evil that had to be done. It was mental trauma on the highest level, and not something a seven year old should be exposed to. But Naruto had to learn early, if only so he can protect himself adequately in the future.

But when they arrived at the hamlet and then proceeded into the forest where the bandits lurked, Itachi found something amiss. The forest was too silent. Naruto could sense the terrible vibes with the area as well, and the two trekked through the place slowly. Itachi’s keen eyes morphed into the familiar crimson of the Sharingan, and he spotted the white blur of chakra through the thick foliage. Gesturing Naruto to follow behind, Itachi approached the chakra cautiously.

It was where the bandits had set up camp. That was evident by the signs of human activity along the edges of the artificial clearing, no doubt cleared for habitation. However, in the centre of the clearing, where living quarters and humans should be, was a massive crystal of ice. Glinting in the sunlight that shone through the gap in the canopy, it was a hauntingly beautiful sculpture. Itachi’s eyes easily spotted the remains of the bandits, torn to pieces by the ice that no doubt speared through, then enveloped them in an icy hell.

Itachi frowned, his eyes narrowing. His quick mind assessed the situation, and came out with only one solution; there was an ice user, and he or she was tasked with the elimination of the bandits. Why the use of such an elaborate technique was troubling too. Was it a show of power from another village? Was it a message to everyone out there that there was a Hyōton user? Itachi couldn’t fathom the purpose of leaving the evidence of the carnage behind.

Then, he realised Naruto had left his side to wander around the ice. The warm feel of Naruto’s chakra from across the crystal quickly quelled light panic. Trudging around the clearing, he found Naruto squatting before a small child, malnourished and traumatized. The child was dressed in brown rags, filthy and torn in several places. A tight, leather collar was wrapped around the neck, a sure sign of forced slavery.

“Ne, My name is Namikaze Naruto,” Naruto introduced himself softly. “What’s yours?”

“S-Stay away,” the child stuttered, shuffling backwards only to meet the rough bark of a tree. Naruto creased his forehead, hopping forwards. “Why?”

“I’m a m-monster,” the raven-haired child sniffled.

“You don’t look like a monster to me,” Naruto retorted, the memories of his own childhood rising to the forefront of his mind. “C’mon, let’s get out of here. Whoever did that ice thing could be lying in ambush or something.”

“I-I did it,” the dirty urchin mumbled, so softly Naruto almost didn’t catch it. Naruto’s eyes widened, astonishment reflected in his azure orbs. “You did that?”

“I don’t want to hurt anymore,” the child broke down, sobbing hysterically. “I don’t want to hurt anymore!”

Itachi watched with great sympathy as the child crumbled under the trauma. It was possible that the bandits had acquired him or her (Itachi couldn’t really tell the child’s gender) through unscrupulous means, and through some trigger, the child unleashed his or her latent kekkei genkai. Naruto, ever the kind soul, tried to comfort the child, but was shoved away frantically.

“P-Please, just let m-me die,” the child sniveled. “I o-only h-have my c-curse.”

“It’s not a curse!” Naruto snapped angrily. He had always been a fighter, and he intensely disliked anyone who gave up. “It’s a gift that you haven’t learnt to use yet!”

“I-I’ve killed m-many with it…” the child shivered. “M-My father, t-those men…”

Naruto’s eyes flashed red in ire. “Because they were trying to hurt you! You are allowed to defend yourself from bad guys!”

“I-I just want it t-to end…” the child coughed, wrapping trembling arms around thin knees. Naruto roared, grabbing the child’s shoulders roughly. He/she looked at the blond as if encountering a wild animal, and truth be told, the Genin did resemble an angry beast at the particular moment. “You’re just a kid like me! You got plenty left to live! So don’t go about saying you want it to end! Stop being a coward and fight! Fight for yourself and fight for your dreams! Don’t just give up on life like that!”

The child was shaken (literally) by Naruto’s outburst, and the flood of tears ceased from the shock delivered to his/her system. Then, downcast, the child averted obsidian eyes. “I don’t have a dream.”

“Then find one!”

“It’s pointless. I can only cause more death. I’m worthless.”

“No you’re not!” Naruto growled, before an idea flashed through his mind. “You can be my assistant! That way, you won’t be worthless. You’ll be very important to me. So come back to Konoha with us. I need you.”

The child stared at Naruto as if the blond had grown another head. Itachi gave the Genin a similar stare. Naruto continued. “And if you come back to Konoha, you’ll learn how to control your power, so you can protect me. You won’t be causing death then. You’ll be protecting life! See? It’s going to be better from now on, I promise.”

“R-Really?” the child hiccupped, befuddled but glad for the weird turn of events.

“Definitely,” Naruto nodded solemnly, forever capturing the loyalty of the child, later introducing herself as Haku.

Itachi resolved to tell Naruto not to make staggering promises to strangers who had unknown abilities and were on the verge of mental breakdown, thus posing a potentially massive threat to his health and well-being, but he decided that it could wait.

He wondered if Konoha would survive having Naruto as Hokage.

<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>

Chapter 2 (Incomplete)

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