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All Of These Waves

Chapter Text

Maybe it made Mito a bad mother, but when she realized none of her children were Uzumaki she felt her heart break. She had held out hope for her grandchildren, but they too were Senju through and through.  In another world, perhaps Mito would have been able to accept that, to be happy with the family she had and become a Senju, to leave behind the ocean and give herself over fully to the forest. This, however, was not that world, and Mito was not that woman. The ocean called to her, and as much as she loved her husband, her children, and her village, her heart longed for the sea.

When Kushina arrived from Uzushio at the end of Mito’s life, ready to take her place as jinchuuriki, Mito loved her immediately. She doted on Kushina, and thought of her as her own granddaughter. But Kushina had a family she loved dearly, and Mito was nothing more than a mentor-figure. When Mito felt her final breaths rattling in her chest, when she completed the ritual and smiled sadly at Kushina, she thought of everything she knew, all of her knowledge and techniques, and she lamented how it would all die with her. People like to be poetic about death, talk about how memories live on, how the legacy people leave will last for centuries, but Mito was not so precious. She knew her legacy would be one of human sacrifices, of innocents being turned into weapons to create a fragile facade of peace. There was nothing beautiful or poetic about her death, there was just pain, and loss. She wondered if that was true of her life as well.

Being an Uzumaki, Mito knew the Shinigami’s face. It was an old rite of passage, to don the Shinigami Mask and call forth the great Death God, to look death in its face and stare it down; to meet the eyes of death and understand that there was no escaping the Shinigami’s grasp. There was one life to live, and the Uzumaki did their best to live it well.  

As Mito died, she found herself once again staring into those old familiar eyes, eyes she hadn’t looked into since she was young, but eyes she saw the hint of in every battlefield. Eyes that followed every shinobi, eyes she had felt watching her many times throughout her life, more and more as the years went by.

“Uzumaki,” the Shinigami rasped.

Mito inclined her head respectfully while still maintaining eye contact. It did not do to turn away from death. 

“It is time,” the Shinigami continued, spreading its arms wide, the folds of its cloak sweeping outwards like wings. Mito began to step forward before pausing for a moment. She knew she should not pause. Uzumaki accepted death with grace, their backs straight and heads held high.  Do not look back, her father had drilled into her over and over as a child, as a teenager, as a woman, do not look upon what you leave behind.

Ahead of Mito lay peace, at last, in the Pure Lands. Ahead of Mito lay reuniting with her husband, her children, her family. Behind Mito lay Kushina, lost and afraid, the sole Uzumaki in Konoha. Uzumaki were not meant to be alone, Uzumaki were not meant to be hidden in the leaves. Mito had suffered that fate. Her heart wrenched to think of how she had damned Kushina to it as well. Mito was a formidable warrior, a sealmaster, the creator of jinchuuriki, one of the founders of Konoha. She was intelligent and resourceful and cunning. She was a wife, a mother, a sister, a grandmother. She was all these things, but when you boiled all of them down, took their most basic bits, there was only one thing Mito was, only one thing she ever would be, ever had been.

Mito looked back. She was only human, after all.

“You look back?” The Shinigami asked. If Mito didn’t know better, she would say the Shinigami had sounded surprised.

“Please,” Mito whispered, her gaze still lingering upon the mortal world. “I am all she has. Just for a little while, just until I know she will be alright, allow me to stay with her.”

The Shinigami was silent. Mito turned back to look upon it, and their eyes met once more. Mito did not, would not, blink. To blink was to back down. It felt like an eternity stretched between them. It felt like only a second had passed. The Shinigami blinked, and Mito did her best to not let her triumph show on her face.

“Very well,” the Shinigami sighed. “You may stay, and watch, but that is all. You cannot interfere, and you will not be seen. You are a ghost now, a lonely thing.”

The Shinigami faded, and Mito was left alone, standing there, staring down at her own lifeless body, Kushina crying over it. Mito smiled sadly and reached a hand out, running it down Kushina’s hair. Kushina could not feel it, but Mito knew in her heart Kushina would feel less alone. Kushina was an Uzumaki, after all, and she too had gazed upon death. The gulf between the worlds was smaller for them.

The years passed, and while the Shinigami visited many times, to ask if she was ready, Mito denied him. Now, though, now she was ready to go to the Pure Lands at long last. Her time to rest was upon her, and she welcomed it. Kushina was adjusting to Konoha well, was handling the Kyuubi with aplomb. It was time for Mito to move on. She readied herself, and waited for the Shinigami to come fetch her, and she was at peace.

And then Uzushio fell. Her home, her clan, her family, her people, all of her people, gone. Dead.  Mito felt herself burn. Konoha had done nothing. The Uzumaki had given so much to Konoha, and Konoha had done nothing.  

“Uzumaki,” the Shinigami called to her, after he had ferried the last of her people to their eternal rest.  “It is time.”

“I cannot leave her now,” Mito insisted, indignant, furious. “I am truly all she has. She is alone in the world, now. I cannot leave her, not like this.”

The Shinigami sighed, but left her alone. Mito could have sworn the Shinigami looked saddened, almost grieving. The Shinigami had known the Uzumaki too, Mito remembered. The Shinigami had loved the Uzumaki too.

Kushina adjusted to the grief of the massacre, gave herself over to Konoha wholly, heart and soul. It broke Mito’s heart, but she understood all the same. Konoha had to be Kushina’s only home now. She would not last otherwise. Kushina fell in love, married a bright young man with a talent for sealing so rarely seen outside of the Uzumaki. Kushina taught him her techniques, told him of the Shinigami Mask, and Mito swore she could see the gears in his mind turning. Kushina became pregnant, and Mito rejoiced alongside her, hoping above all hopes that Kushina’s child would be an Uzumaki.

Kushina was doing well, and Mito knew her time to leave was fast approaching. She would wait until Kushina’s child was born, and then she would go with the Shinigami quietly, without a fight. She nodded her head, determined with the decision she had made, and watched as Kushina and Minato decided to name their child Naruto.

Like ramen, Mito laughed, or a maelstrom.

Everything was going so well that Mito should have seen it coming when everything went wrong. Peace only ever lasted for so long - for as many people there were who rallied for peace there were always going to be those who railed against it.

The kyuubi was released, Minato and Kushina dead, and little Naruto, not even a day old, the new jinchuuriki, another victim of her terrible legacy. Mito could not bear it as she gazed down at Naruto, crying, with no one to soothe him.

The Shinigami stood at her shoulder, peering down at Naruto as well.  

“An Uzumaki,” The Shinigami rasped. Mito nodded.

She reached out to him and stroked his soft face with the back of her finger. Naruto scrunched his small face in response, and stopped crying. Mito jerked her hand back, astonished, and looked over at the Shinigami, eyes wide.

“Did he…?” she trailed off, uncertain.

The Shinigami sighed his rattling sigh. “His father used the Dead Demon Consuming Seal,” he rasped. If Mito didn’t know better, she would say the Shinigami sounded both irritated and impressed. “My mark is upon him. He can see you. He can hear you. He can touch you.”

Mito felt her breath catch in her lungs. She made to reach out for Naruto but paused, looking over at the Shinigami with narrowed eyes.

“You aren’t asking me to go with you.”

The Shinigami inclined his great head. “I have spent more time with you than I have ever spent with a mortal. I have...grown fond of you.” The Shinigami paused.  If Mito didn’t know better, she would say he seemed embarrassed. “You will come with me one day. But until then…” he trailed off and looked at Naruto, who had finally fallen asleep. Mito smiled. She understood what the Shinigami wasn’t saying.

“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you, old friend.”

The Shinigami laughed then, a terrible sound, and faded from view. Mito looked down at Naruto again, her smile spreading wider across her face.

“I’m here, Naruto,” she whispered, her heart full and aching, running a gentle hand over his soft hair. “You aren’t alone.”

Chapter Text

Naruto wrote in beautiful calligraphy. Mito had always emphasized the importance of the art form if he was ever going to become a fuuinjutsu master like her. There was nothing Naruto wanted more than to be just like Mito, so he worked hard at his calligraphy to make her proud.  

Mito had been furious when Naruto told her he wasn’t going to be taught fuuinjutsu at the academy. She had gone on a tirade, bemoaning the state of Konoha’s education, and had finished with a stern look to Naruto.

“You will become a Master of Fuuinjutsu,” she said, an imperious tilt to her chin. “You’re an Uzumaki, and a jinchuuriki at that. Sealing is your birthright.”

She had given Naruto a look, as if daring him to talk back, but Naruto had merely beamed up at her. He loved learning from Mito. She was so smart, and knew way more than the instructors at the Academy. Besides, sealing was an Uzumaki specialty, and if none of his other classmates knew it then that meant Naruto had an advantage over them. Mito had always told him how important it was for a shinobi to have tricks up their sleeves.

So Naruto practiced his calligraphy, even going so far as to take notes in class in calligraphy.  Mito had smiled when he had shown her his notes, which Naruto knew meant she was proud of him.

Class was dragging on, and Naruto could feel himself starting to lose focus, his excess energy burning within him, making him feel as though every piece of him was standing on end and vibrating. He tried to pay attention in class, he really did, but it was hard for him to sit still for so long.  Mito had told him it was because he was an Uzumaki. 

“Uzumaki are of the whirlpools,” she had told him.  “Have you ever heard of a whirlpool being still?”

Naruto hadn’t understood what she meant at first.  Mito liked to speak cryptically sometimes. Naruto thought it was because she was so old, since every old person he had ever known spoke in riddles, though he would never say that to her face.  He wasn’t an idiot.

He tried to take a few deep breaths, practice circling his excess chakra through his body, tried to channel a little bit of it into his handwriting like Mito had taught him, but he was struggling today.

It had been a bad day.

It had started off well enough, with Mito sending him off to school with a hug and a smile, but it had only gone downhill from there. Some villagers had been louder than usual, in their whispered cruelty as he walked by. Usually they would just ignore him, or back away from him with cold eyes, but every so often they would speak, loud enough for him to hear.

It had been a long time since Naruto wondered why they hated him so much.  When he was young, he hadn’t understood, and he wondered what he would have done had it not been for Mito. She had explained the truth to him, had told him that she had been a jinchuuriki, that his mother had been one too.  She had explained the events of his birth, had explained his parents’ deaths, had explained everything to him. Even as young as he had been, Mito had entrusted Naruto with that sensitive information. Mito had always trusted Naruto.

Naruto appreciated that.  Mito was never anything but honest with him, in a way no one else had ever been. 

He had eventually made it to class though, had made it past the hateful stars and cold countenances, and he took his usual seat, off to the side slightly.  He liked to sit near the window, liked to be able to look outside, to see Konoha. He still loved his village, the one that treated him so coldly, the one Mito had helped build, the one his parents had died to protect, but some days, like this one, he dreamed of running off with Mito and living in Uzushio, rebuilding the village and living there for the rest of his life. It was a nice fantasy, but Naruto knew he would never abandon Konoha.  His eyes darted up to the Hokage Monument, the carved faces watching over the village. His gaze lingered on his father’s face. 

The rest of the students had filed in as the start of class drew nearer, and none of them sat near him. Naruto had felt his stomach churn with loneliness, but he did his best to ignore it.  He plastered a stupid smile onto his face, and pretended he wasn’t lonely. It was easy to pretend, when you played the fool. It was strange, Naruto thought, but the more attention he drew to himself, the less people wanted to notice him.

When he told Mito that, she had frowned at him. “It can be a powerful advantage, to be underestimated,” she told him, “so long as it is your enemy that is doing the underestimating.”

Naruto didn’t know how to explain to her that some days his fellow citizens of Konoha felt like the enemy.  Judging by the tight expression on her face, however, Naruto thought that was something she already knew.

Sakura had shown up late to class, and had been forced to sit next to him, since there were no other empty seats.  Naruto had almost groaned at that. He had once had a crush on Sakura, embarrassingly enough, because her pink hair was the closest he had ever seen to Mito’s beautiful red.  Naruto wished he had red hair like Mito, like his mother.    

Sakura was nothing like Mito though; she was mean to him, harsh with her words, not bothering to look past the facade he put up.  He had told Mito about Sakura one day, after Sakura had been particularly cruel in her rejection, and Mito had placed both her hands on his shoulders and forced him to look into her eyes.

“I do not know this girl,” Mito said, her voice soft but firm. “But I do know you, and I know what kind of person you are.”

“What’s that?” Naruto had grumbled, frowning. “Loud? Obnoxious? Stupid? No good?”

“Kind,” Mito had replied, her voice insistent and firm.  “Infinitely so. Kind, and selfless, and open-hearted. This village treats you like dirt, and your dream is to become their protector.  I know how hard you work to become strong, to prove yourself worthy of their respect and admiration, but you are already worthy of those things, Naruto, just by virtue of who you are.”

Naruto had blinked up at Mito in shock, feeling tears welling up in his eyes.  He felt his heart swell up in his chest. He was so lonely, and he desperately craved acknowledgement from others, but in that moment he thought maybe, as long as he had Mito, he wouldn’t need anyone else.

“You are a good person,” Mito continued, “and if this Sakura can’t see that, then she must be a fool.”

Naruto had flung his arms around Mito then, and she hugged back.  Mito always hugged him back. They were Uzumaki, and even if the rest of their clan was gone, they had each other.

Ever since then, Naruto had been doing his best to avoid Sakura.  Mito had told him he didn’t need to spend time with people who were mean to him.  Naruto knew if he stopped spending time with every person who was mean to him then he wouldn’t spend time with hardly anyone at all, but he figured he could do this with Sakura at least. 

Sakura hadn’t been happy to sit next to Naruto. She had dragged her chair as far from him as she could and glared at him until Iruka-sensei had called the class to attention.  Naruto had rolled his eyes at her, and turned his attention to Iruka.

Iruka-sensei was Naruto’s favourite teacher, but even he couldn’t make some subjects interesting.  As he discussed math and angles and vectors, Naruto decided to write Mito’s name on his paper, using his excess chakra to turn the ink purple, the same shade as the diamond seal on Mito’s forehead.  Naruto snickered as he imbued the paper with more chakra, adding small sealing swirls to the edges of his letters. If Naruto activated the chakra within the seals he had painted into Mito’s name, the paper would give off a bright, blinding purple light.

It was, technically speaking, a flash bomb.

Naruto snickered again, shifting in his seat, and he heard Sakura growl under her breath.  He glanced at her, out of the corner of his eye, and could see her glaring at him. If she wanted to keep her place as the top kunoichi, he thought, then she should pay more attention to the lecture, and less to Naruto.  He made a face at her and turned back to his paper, admiring his work, but not before he caught a glimpse of anger rising inside her.

Mito had taught Naruto to read people.  She had apologized when she did, but had told him it was for his own safety.  He hadn’t understood why she had apologized at the time, but the better he became at reading people, the more he understood.  It was hard to see that amount of hate directed at him on a daily basis. Some people were open about it, with their cold eyes and sneering mouths, but others did their best to hide it, only for a twitch in the muscles to betray them to Naruto’s keen gaze.

Sakura was easy to read.  She had a crush on Sasuke, and she kept trying to be someone she wasn’t, a sweet, gentle girl, pretty and perfect and doting and devoted.  There was an anger to Sakura though, a spiteful side, one that didn’t fit with the image of the perfect girlfriend she had assumed Sasuke wanted.  

Sakura’s angry gaze drifted from his face to his paper, opening her mouth to scold him for not paying attention, when she noticed his handwriting.  The anger vanished from her face, wiped away by shock and curiosity, and her gaze snapped back to Naruto.

He frowned, an uncomfortable feeling churning in his gut.  He didn’t want Sakura to see his calligraphy, didn’t want her to know about that part of him.  He didn’t want her to make fun of it. It was too important, too precious to him. Without even waiting for her to turn away, he channeled his chakra into the paper, setting off the blinding flash.

The class cried out from the painful burst of light, and Iruka shouted for Naruto to stay where he was, but Naruto was too quick, darting out of the classroom through the window and tearing off through the streets of Konoha, laughing uproariously all the while.

He ran up to the Hokage Monument and stared up at the faces. For a moment he entertained the idea of painting all over them, ridiculous designs, making their somber expressions all the more ridiculous with their painted faces.  

Mito would probably find it funny, he thought, so long as he especially made the First Hokage look ridiculous. Mito liked to tell stories that made the First Hokage seem foolish. It made Naruto smile, to think of the God of Shinobi in such a way. Mito told him all the best shinobi were the strangest people. 

Naruto decided not to paint the Hokage’s faces, in the end. They were like family to him, each in their own way, be it through blood, or marriage, or choice. Family was important, Naruto knew, thinking of Mito. He turned away from the monument only to come face to face with a fuming Iruka.

“Naruto!” Iruka exclaimed. “There you are!”

Naruto considered bolting, but judging by the forbidding expression on Iruka’s face that would likely only result in him getting into more trouble.

“Heh,” he said instead, scratching the back of his head and smiling blithely up at Iruka. “Hey, Iruka-sensei.”

“Naruto,” Iruka growled, advancing forward.

“Hey, hey, Iruka-sensei,” Naruto repeated, stepping back nervously. “I’m really sorry about class today. I just couldn’t sit still! I want to be a ninja, you know, not some math guy!”

Iruka sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose with his hands. “You need to take class seriously,” Iruka admonished. “Graduation is coming up soon!”

Naruto knew that. He knew that all too well. He had wanted to try taking the graduation exam earlier, but Mito had put a stop to that, telling him he wasn’t ready. Naruto was pretty sure he still wasn’t ready now, considering he still couldn’t make a clone. He thought about telling Mito about the trouble he was having, but he wanted to do this himself, and impress her. 

“I am taking class seriously!” Naruto exclaimed. “I just couldn’t sit still today!”

Iruka narrowed his gaze at Naruto before shaking his head and allowing a slight smile to slip across his features.

“Alright,” he conceded. “I’ll let it slide just this once. It was pretty inventive. How did you do it?”

Naruto grinned at him. Iruka really was the best. “It’s a trade secret!” he exclaimed.

“If I treat you to dinner,” Iruka said, “will you give me a hint?”

“Make it ramen and I’ll give you two hints!” Naruto exclaimed. Iruka laughed, and the two headed off to Ichiraku’s ramen, Naruto chattering excitedly the whole way. 

.

It was hard for Mito when Naruto went to class.  Being a ghost was a lonely thing. Sometimes she longed for the Peaceful Lands, longed to see her husband, her children once more, but she couldn’t, wouldn’t leave Naruto.  

She just sometimes wished she had someone other than a twelve-year old boy to talk to.

Mainly Tsunade, who Mito was incredibly disappointed in for never coming home.

When Naruto had been younger, he had asked Mito why he didn’t have any family except her.  Mito had the heartbreaking task of explaining the fate of the Uzumaki to Naruto then. He had cried for what seemed like hours after hearing that, his empathetic heart devastated to hear that his clan had been wiped out.  

After the Uchiha massacre, Naruto had cried again, understanding, to some small extent, how Sasuke must have felt.  It was more distant for Naruto though, never having met the Uzumaki. Mito had desperately wished she could have spoken to Sasuke after the massacre.  She understood what it was to bury your family, to lose your clan, to feel so alone in the world.

Mito had also told Naruto about Jiraiya and Tsunade.  

“Jiraiya is your godfather,” she told him.

“Then why isn’t he here?” Naruto asked, sniffling, his eyes still a little red from crying over the fate of the Uzumaki.

“He is Konoha’s spymaster,” she said.  “That is why he is away. At least, that is the official reason.”

“Official?”

“Yes,” Mito nodded.  “I believe what he is really doing is mourning.  He loved your father like a son. Losing Minato broke something in Jiraiya.  He wasn’t there for the attack, you see, away on a mission. When he heard the news, I don’t think he had it in him to come home and not have Minato there to greet him.  If he stayed away, he could pretend.”

“But I’m here,” Naruto said, frowning.  “Doesn’t he want to meet me?”

Mito wrapped her arms around Naruto then, pulling him close and stroking his hair.  

“He does, I think,” she whispered.  “He sends you presents sometimes. Your frog wallet was from him.”

“Really?”  Naruto perked up a little upon hearing that.  He loved that wallet.

“Yes.  But he feels guilty for not coming back, for not getting to know you.  And the longer you put aside a task, the harder it becomes to do. I don’t think he knows how to come back.  I don’t think he believes he deserves to.”

Mito thought Jiraiya deserved to be at the very least smacked for abandoning Naruto like he had; ideally he would face the full force of Mito’s wrath, but Naruto didn’t need to know that.  Jiraiya did love Naruto, in a distant, guilty way, and Naruto needed there to be someone out there who loved him other than her. Even if Jiraiya never came back, Naruto could always hold onto that.  Even if the Shinigami came for her the next day, Naruto would have that.

“He loves you Naruto,” she told him, “he’s just afraid you’ll hate him.  And it’s okay if you’re mad at him, or if you can’t forgive him for not being here.  He should have been here. He did fail you. But he does love you.”

Naruto was quiet for a moment, clearly thinking that over.  It was a hard thing, sometimes, for an Uzumaki not to act on instinct, but Naruto did his best to thoroughly think this through.  He was so like Kushina, brash and impulsive, but there were moments like this, when he put his mind to something, when he had some of Minato’s stillness to him.  Like the ocean, Mito thought with pride. Crashing waves and whirlpools on the surface, with countless leagues of still and silent depths hidden underneath.

“I’m not mad at him,” he finally said.  “Maybe a little, but not a lot. People aren’t always nice when they’re sad.  I’ll just have to help him not be so sad anymore!”

Mito smiled sadly, and hugged Naruto a little tighter.  He was so forgiving. Mito had never been so kind. She was so worried about what the world would do to his heart.

“There’s also Tsunade, out there,” Mito told him, a little more reluctantly.  She was less certain of Tsunade’s love. Her granddaughter had let heartbreak turn into bitter resentment.  Mito couldn’t say she didn’t understand. 

“Tsunade?” Naruto asked, lifting his head a little and looking up into Mito’s eyes.  She smiled down at him, a little wobbly.

“My granddaughter. She’s distantly related to you.  Something of a cousin.”

Naruto gaped up at her.  “Really?”

“Really,” Mito confirmed.  “But I’m not sure she would see it that way.”

“Why not?”

Mito frowned.  “Tsunade is…” she trailed off, a little unsure of how to proceed.  What could she say? Tsunade is heartbroken? Tsunade is bitter, and perhaps rightfully so?  Tsunade is lost, and she may never find her way back? Tsunade is one bad day away from snapping?  Tsunade may have already snapped and Mito wouldn’t even know? 

“Tsunade is a Senju,” she finally settled on saying.  The simplest answer, the kindest answer. A true statement, but not a true answer.  “She’s not an Uzumaki. Not like we are.”

“But she’s your granddaughter,” Naruto pointed out.  “Doesn’t that make her at least a little bit of an Uzumaki?”

“Not exactly,” Mito replied slowly.  It was hard to put into words what it meant to be an Uzumaki, a true Uzumaki, especially since she had never had to describe it before.  

 “Naruto, have you ever felt the call of the sea?” She finally asked, trying to explain the bone-deep longing she sometimes felt, even now as a ghost, the sound of the ocean rising up in her ears, her breaths matching the ebb and flow of the tide.  “Have you ever heard the ocean song in your heart?”

“Of course,” Naruto replied simply, immediately.  “I’ve never seen the ocean but once when I was falling asleep I heard this sound and I just knew it was waves.  I asked jiji if I could go see the ocean, but he said no.”

Ah yes, Mito thought.  Hiruzen would say no to that.  He was in an unenviable position, Mito knew, and he did the best he could, but she burned with bitterness sometimes, thinking of his tenure as hokage.  He didn’t send any shinobi when Uzushio fell. He left Naruto alone in an apartment, with no one to love him. Hiruzen visited when he could, but it wasn’t enough.  Had Mito not been there, Naruto’s only companion would have been loneliness. That was no way for a child to live. That was no way for anyone to live.

Naruto had never left Konoha.  Naruto had never seen the ocean.  Naruto had been denied so much of his birthright as an Uzumaki.  One day, when he was a shinobi, she would take him to the Uzumaki clan’s mask storage temple, and she would have him undergo the ritual, would have him look the Shinigami in the face and know death, the way all Uzumaki knew death.

It all fell to her.  She would do her best to raise Naruto as an Uzumaki should be raised.  She would do her best to ensure he would know the ways of his clan, his people.  Together they would not let the Uzumaki be forgotten.

“Tsunade has never heard the call of the ocean,” Mito said.  “She is a Senju, and the Senju belong to the forests, the trees.  There was one Senju, my brother-in-law, Tobirama. He was the strongest water-nature to ever be born to the Senju, and I thought perhaps he heard the ocean’s song, but it was the rivers that run through the forests that called to him.  There are no Senju called to the ocean. Only Uzumaki. None of my children were Uzumaki. None of my grandchildren, either.”

Naruto was quiet after that.  “That’s sad,” he said eventually.

“It is what it is,” Mito replied.  She had, in her own way, made peace with it.  “I left Uzushio to join the Senju. I understood that my children would be Senju, and I accepted that.  I agreed to leave the ocean behind of my own free will, and I will never regret doing so for a single moment, for that decision has brought me so much joy.  It brought me my husband, who I loved. It brought my children, my grandchildren, who meant everything to me. It brought me this village, which I helped create.  It brought me you.”

Naruto flung his arms around Mito then, holding on tight.  She did the same.

“Tsunade thinks she has lost her entire family,” Mito whispered into his hair.  “She thinks she is alone in this world and it broke her heart. Maybe one day you’ll show her she isn’t so alone.”

“I will!” Naruto exclaimed, pulling away, a fire in his eyes, determined expression crossing his face.  He clenched his little hand into a fist. “I swear it!”

Mito smiled at him.  Maybe it was manipulative of her, to use Naruto to help Tsunade, but it was for their own good.  Tsunade was Mito’s only remaining grandchild. Tsunade was dear to Mito, in a way few others would ever be.  Besides, Naruto needed family.  

She had sent him off after that, to go and run and play.  He was an Uzumaki, after all, and had been sitting still for too long.  He needed to burn energy, or he would be impossible later.

Mito sighed now, alone in Naruto’s apartment, waiting for Naruto to return from school.  He would be graduating soon, becoming a shinobi. She had no doubt that he would pass. He was the jinchuuriki, after all.  Hiruzen needed his weapon to be trained.  

Maybe that was too bitter of her.  She should try to be kinder to Hiruzen.  He wasn’t the one who had created the jinchuuriki after all.  That sin was hers to bear.

She floated out of the apartment, deciding to wander the streets for a little while.  Her eyes caught on one of Naruto’s instructors, a white-haired man. Mizuki, she remembered Naruto calling him.

Naruto had said he was nice enough, which unfortunately made Mito incredibly suspicious.  She had spent a month tailing Iruka when Naruto said he had started being kinder to him. Iruka, it seemed, was one of the good ones, doing his best to keep an eye on Naruto, buying him ramen every so often.  Iruka had even come to Naruto’s apartment once, when Naruto was in class, and had cleaned off some of the more offensive graffiti. He had left before Naruto had come home, and had never told Naruto what he had done. Mito had, though.  She thought Naruto deserved to know there were people who would do nice things for him without expecting anything in return.

Mizuki, however, Mito had not followed yet, so she floated after him now, watched as he crept into the so-called Forest of Death as stealthily as he could.

It was suspicious behaviour. 

Hashirama had grown that forest, and sometimes Mito could swear whatever remnants of his chakra he had left in the trees recognized her, as the branches sometimes seemed to reach for her ghostly form.  She passed by them, letting her incorporeal hands drift over the branches in greeting.

Mizuki was weaving through the trees, deeper and deeper into the forest, when suddenly he stopped, at the base of a large tree.  The leaves rustled as Mito approached. Mizuki did not notice. It had always shocked Mito how often people would excuse the unnatural movement of trees as the wind, even knowing of the Mokuton.  

He looked around wildly, a dark look in his eyes.  Mito narrowed her eyes at him, watching his sweet academy instructor persona slip away to reveal that it had been nothing more than a mask, a way to hide his true self.  There was a cruel countenance to his features, a deranged slant to his smile as he turned in circles, tugging at his hair.

“I will impress Orochimaru this time,” he muttered.  “I’ll impress him and I’ll destroy that disgusting evil fox and this gods forsaken village will thank me for it!” His grin deepened, the crazed look in his eyes heightening in intensity.  

Mito took an involuntary step back, her hands instinctively flickering up to form seals.  But she had no chakra to draw on anymore. There was nothing she could do to stop this man here and now.  He would be easy enough to defeat, she thought, especially for someone of her calibre. He was clearly the sort of man convinced of his own power and importance, despite being nothing.

The only thing Mito could do was warn Naruto.  She cursed her ghostly form once more. Would that she could show this fool up herself, show him why it was a bad idea to even consider crossing an Uzumaki.  There was a reason it had taken multiple nations banding together to be able to destroy Uzushiogakure.  

Still, though, she may as well follow him a little longer, and provide bother herself and Naruto with as much information as she could. If being a ghost had taught her anything, it was that she was now remarkably adept at espionage. It was easy to eavesdrop when you were a ghost.

Chapter Text

Naruto wasn’t there when Mito came home after tailing Mizuki. He hadn’t done much more that day, just wandered around for a little before going to the apartment he shared with his girlfriend. She seemed unaware of his treachery, but Mito would keep an eye on her just in case.

Mizuki was working for Orochimaru. Mito sighed, rubbing her temples. Orochimaru was a pest that Hiruzen should have taken care of when he’d had the chance. Orochimaru hadn’t always been like this, she knew, but nothing about him made any sense to Mito. His parents had died and he had wanted nothing more than to see them again - that made sense. He decided that his only recourse was to become obsessed with gaining immortality - that made no sense. 

Mito groaned. Death, immortality, and resurrection. Of course. She had a sneaking suspicion she knew exactly which scroll Orochimaru wanted Mizuki to steal for him, that little snake. The Edo Tensei. He likely already knew it, given his genius, but there was knowing a technique, and perfecting it. She wondered if he knew about the Uzumaki Mask Storage Temple. She would need to take Naruto there and have him place some new protective seals around it. 

She cursed herself. If she were alive she would have taken care of this Mizuki already, preventing Orochimaru from getting his hands on that scroll and her clan’s temple. But she wasn’t alive - she was just a shadow of her former self, and it could be exhausting to live like this. Trying to effect change as a ghost was like trying to swim with your hands tied; nearly impossible and almost always a futile effort. 

If she were alive, if she were alive, if she were alive. But she couldn’t waste her time dwelling on these things. Naruto needed her to be focused.

“I’m home!” Naruto called, stepping through the door.

“Welcome home!” she called out in reply.  Naruto smiled at her. He looked to be in a good mood, for which she was glad. She hated that she was likely about to ruin it.

“Where have you been?” she asked. “You’re home late.”

“Iruka-sensei took me out to dinner!” he exclaimed. “We had ramen!”

Mito smiled at him. “That was generous of him. I hope you said thank you!”

Naruto grumbled and walked over to the sofa, flopping down. “Of course I did.”

“I have something to speak to you about,” she told him, settling down next to him. She wasn’t really sitting, more hovering. It was a strange feeling, but over time she had grown somewhat accustomed to it.

“Yeah?”

“Yes. I followed your sensei today.”

Naruto frowned. “Iruka-sensei? But I didn’t see you…” he trailed off, and Mito shook her head.

“No, the other one. Mizuki. It seems he is a traitor to Konoha.”

Naruto blinked at her. “What?”

Mito supposed she could have been less blunt, but Mito had never believed in beating around the bush when it came to situations like these. 

“Mizuki-sensei?” Naruto continued, clearly processing the news. “A traitor?”

“Yes,” Mito replied. “He’s working for Orochimaru. That damn snake.”

“Orochimaru?” Naruto asked, confused. Mito frowned. She was sure she had mentioned him before.

“Yes, Orochimaru. He was Jiraiya and Tsunade’s old teammate before he turned traitor.”

A look of comprehension dawned on Naruto’s face, and he fixed her with a gimlet eye. Mito raised an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged.

“I don’t think you’ve ever said his name before, that’s all.”

Mito thought about it. Now that he mentioned it, she realized, she probably hadn’t. She preferred to refer to him as what he was - a traitor and a snake. She shrugged, not bothering to deign Naruto’s observation with a reply.

“Mizuki is planning on stealing a scroll containing forbidden jutsu tomorrow,” she informed him. “I believe he is planning on using you to do so.”

That was what burned, more than anything. That Naruto was so unprotected, so vulnerable and alone and hated that he was the perfect target for these sorts of manipulations. Hiruzen should never have allowed Naruto to grow up so isolated. He should have done better as a Hokage. The village should have done better. Mito could feel that old familiar anger burning in her chest and moving up her throat, making her want to scream and rage and spit out words as sharp as knives at anyone who she deemed guilty. 

But there was no one to hear her ire except Naruto, and she would never direct her ire towards him. She willed her anger down. Naruto wasn’t as alone as this Mizuki thought he was, and he certainly wouldn’t be so easy to manipulate. He had her, after all, even if she was only a ghost.

“Use me?” Naruto asked. “How?”

“I’m not sure,” Mito said. “I think he believes you’re going to fail the graduation exam. Which is ridiculous, of course, as you’re far more skilled than some of the children in your class.”

Naruto shuffled uncomfortably at that, and Mito narrowed her eyes at him. He looked guilty, and his hand moved up to scratch the back of his head, a classic tell.

“Naruto?” she pressed gently. “Is there a reason he might think that?”

Naruto hunched forwards, drawing his shoulders up to his ears and pressing his fingers together. He mumbled something under his breath, and Mito leaned closer, unable to hear him.

“Pardon?”

“I said I can’t make a clone!” he exclaimed, looking up at her with bright and watery eyes. “I’m sorry Mito, but I can’t do it! I didn’t want to tell you because I wanted to pass the exam all on my own but I can’t figure it out! I can’t!”

Mito blinked. She watched as a few tears slipped out from his eyes, watched as his shoulders tremble, watched as a miserable expression began to take root on his face. How had she missed this? She reached out and brushed a tear from his eye.

“Oh Naruto,” she sighed. “I owe you an apology.”

It was Naruto’s turn to blink, looking surprised. “What?”

Mito nodded, letting her hand fall from his face. “I should have remembered that they instituted that ridiculous rule about academy students needing to know those three jutsu. As if an Uzumaki would ever be able to produce a basic clone jutsu! We have far too much chakra, and you’re a jinchuuriki no less! I’m sorry, Naruto, I should have realized. I would have taught you a different clone jutsu you could have used instead.”

It really was ridiculous, Mito thought. Had Konoha really allowed itself to forget what the Uzumaki had been like so quickly? It hadn’t been that long ago that Kushina was in the academy, surely? Except it had, Mito realized, it had been a long time, and there had been no other Uzumaki in Konoha until Naruto. There were not even emissaries, as they were all gone. Dead. Destroyed. Forgotten.

The shinobi of Konoha wore a spiral on their uniforms so they would never forget, and yet the Uzumaki were barely a footnote in their history. Mito felt old, then. Old and weary and cynical. She reached out with her hand and placed it atop Naruto’s head, ruffling his hair.

“Once we have this Mizuki situation sorted I’ll teach you a clone jutsu you can actually use,” she told him. “But for now, we might be able to use this to our advantage.”

Naruto scrubbed at his face with his hands and looked up at her. He looked somewhat overwhelmed, which Mito couldn’t say she blamed him for. 

“How?”

“Fail the exam,” she told him. “Let him approach you. Steal the scroll. Then, we’ll ambush him.”

Besides, she thought, she wanted to see if her suspicions were right, see if the scroll Orochimaru was after was the one possessing the Edo Tensei. It was a dangerous technique, made even more dangerous by the fact that Mito knew Orochimaru possessed some of Hashirama’s DNA, given his experiments on that child who now had an artificial Mokuton. When Naruto was an official shinobi, she was going to give him a list of practices and techniques to give to the ANBU so he could improve his Mokuton.  He was good with it, but Mito had been married to Hashirama, so she liked to think she knew a thing or two.

If Orochimaru could resurrect Hashirama, and then proceed to control his mind, then Konoha could be in serious danger. There were not, currently, any Konoha shinobi powerful enough to take on Hashirama, let alone a Hashirama that could not die and could constantly regenerate.

If only Tobirama hadn’t been so brilliant, Mito thought. If only he had not found a way to raise the dead. If not him, though, Mito mused, then someone else likely would. She wished there was a way to counter the mind control aspect. If she knew that, then she could teach Naruto, and he would have another weapon in his arsenal, another way to protect himself.

“Is that a good plan?” Naruto asked dubiously, pulling Mito out from her thoughts. “You’re always telling me to think things through, and this seems kinda reckless.”

Mito hummed. “You’re probably right,” she eventually conceded, “but do I really seem like the kind of person who knows how to make a plan that isn’t reckless?” She had turned herself into a ghost, after all. And, when faced with a giant, nigh-unstoppable force of pure chakra that was, for all intents and purposes, a demon, she had decided the best course of action would be to seal it within herself.

She was an Uzumaki, no matter how stately and gracious history had decided to portray her. Recklessness was practically her clan’s kekkei genkai. 

She grinned at Naruto, and he grinned back, all traces of his former upset gone.

“Let’s get this traitor,” Naruto declared, “and show him why no one messes with the Uzumaki!”

Mito had never felt so proud.

.

It had been, Naruto reflected, far too easy to steal the scroll.

Their plan, as minimal as it was, had gone off without a hitch. Naruto had failed the exam, as they decided he would, and it turned out failing hurt much less when you meant to do it. It still hurt, a burning ache beneath his ribcage, and it was awful seeing Iruka-sensei’s disappointed face, but Naruto knew it was the right thing to do. A shinobi must be willing to do anything to protect their village, even at their own expense. He had learned that lesson from his parents.

Naruto and Mito had arrived in the clearing where Mito said she had spied on Mizuki, and they had quickly and systematically set up a series of seals that, when triggered, would trap Mizuki within an impenetrable chakra cage. It paid to know fuuinjutsu, Naruto thought with a grin.

“Unfurl the scroll, Naruto,” Mito insisted once they had finished setting up their traps. “Let’s see what’s inside.”

Naruto nodded and slowly opened the scroll. He was unbearably curious about its contents, considering how important it seemed to be. Even Mito was curious to see what was inside, and Naruto had a suspicion she already had an idea of what this might contain.

“Are you serious?” he blurted out, staring at the first jutsu. “The clone jutsu?”

How was that a forbidden technique? He groaned, and Mito laughed.

“That isn’t any clone jutsu,” she told him, peering over his shoulder. “That’s the shadow clone jutsu. It’s dangerous because it splits your chakra, creating a solid clone.” She paused, and Naruto glanced over his shoulder to see her looking at him with a considering gaze.

“I was going to teach you either the wind clone or the water clone,” she said thoughtfully, “but this might actually be the perfect technique for you. Why don’t you practice it while I look at the rest of the scroll?”

She had phrased it like a question, but Naruto knew it was a command. He sighed and nodded, unfurling the scroll the rest of the way and laying it neatly out on the ground for Mito to look at. He glanced at the name of the final jutsu on the scroll - the Edo Tensei.

He shuddered, something cold stirring in his gut as he looked at those words.

“Is that the jutsu Orochimaru wants?” Naruto asked quietly. Mito glanced at him, and nodded.

“Yes, I believe so.”

Naruto looked away. He already didn’t like the sound of Orochimaru, but if he was interested in techniques like that...Naruto didn’t want to think about what that made him. Mito had always told him that only three people ever try to circumvent death’s embrace - the truly desperate, the truly grieving, and the truly corrupt.

Naruto didn’t need to think hard to figure out which one Orochimaru likely was.

He drew his hands up into the seals the scroll had said to use for the shadow clone jutsu, and he did his best to put Orochimaru out of his mind.

Naruto was surprised by the progress he had been making with the shadow clone technique when Mito called out to him.

“Please copy down everything about the Edo Tensei,” she instructed. He nodded, pulling out the empty scroll Mito had insisted he bring along. Naruto was pretty sure she had been planning on having him copy this the entire time.

“Why do you want a copy of this?” he asked, writing as quickly as he could.

“It’s a dangerous technique,” she said. “I guess I was hoping there would be some information on how to counter it.”

Naruto glanced down at the technique. It looked like sealing, to him. He peered a little closer. It looked, somehow, slightly similar to certain aspects of the seal on his stomach, the one his father had used to seal the Kyuubi in him. 

“Well if it’s based around seals,” he said, finishing up and rolling both scrolls up tightly, stashing his copy away in his pocket, “then I don’t see why you can’t figure it out yourself, even if it doesn’t say. Uzumaki are fuuinjutsu masters, after all!”

Mito paused, and stared at Naruto. She looked startled, her head tilted to the side like a bird. 

“Naruto,” she whispered, her eyes shining. “You’re brilliant!”

Naruto smiled at her, confused. “Uh, okay?”

Mito laughed before she started muttering, her index finger tapping her chin thoughtfully. She looked happier than she had for a while. Naruto stared at her, confused, before shaking his head and turning away. Mito may have raised him, but he still didn’t understand her sometimes. 

He kept working on the shadow clone jutsu, and he was fairly sure he had it mastered by the time Mito alerted him to someone’s approach. He didn’t really get why it was supposed to be such a high rank forbidden technique because he really did find it so much easier than the standard academy-level clone jutsu.

“How do you know someone’s coming?” Naruto asked, walking into the centre of the clearing, deftly avoiding all the traps he had set in place and doing his best to appear nonchalant.

Mito shrugged. “The trees.”

Naruto didn’t know what that meant, but he didn’t have the chance to say anything back, as he heard footsteps starting to approach. He felt himself tense, and forced his body to relax, so as not to garner any suspicion. 

“Naruto!” a voice called. A familiar voice, and not Mizuki’s voice. Naruto shot a confused glance at Mito as Iruka stepped out from the trees.  “What have you done?”

Naruto hadn’t expected Iruka-sensei to be here. He blinked, and watched with horror as Iruka moved to step directly on a trap Naruto had set.

“Iruka-sensei wait!” Naruto exclaimed, jumping forward. Iruka paused, raising an eyebrow.

“Heh heh,” Naruto laughed nervously. “Don’t uh, don’t step there.”

Iruka’s eyebrow lifted even higher, reaching a forbidding height, and one that usually prefaced one of his infamous lectures.

“Anyways!” Naruto exclaimed, trying to distract Iruka. “I did it! I learned a technique from the scroll, which means I pass, just like Mizuki-sensei said I would!”

Iruka narrowed his eyes. Good, Naruto thought, now Iruka would be suspicious of Mizuki, once the damn traitor finally got around to showing his face, and would be more likely to side with Naruto. 

“Mizuki is here,” Mito warned, interrupting. “He’s lurking in the trees.”

“Mizuki told you that?” Iruka asked at the same time. Naruto nodded in confirmation at both of them. 

“Why would he…” Iruka trailed off, and Naruto saw understanding begin to dawn in his eyes. Naruto couldn’t help the grin that tugged on his lips, and he did his best to turn it into his standard overly-bright smile. He couldn’t help it, he felt as though he was so full of energy, as though all of his chakra was vibrating throughout his body. It was thrilling, being on a real mission! This was what being a shinobi was all about!

“Iruka,” a voice rang out from the trees. “I see you’ve found the little beast before I could. Unfortunate, really. I didn’t want to kill you.”

Mizuki moved forward, revealing his position and drawing attention to himself. Naruto barely resisted rolling his eyes. Mito didn’t bother resisting at all.

“Mizuki!” Iruka exclaimed, the only one caught off guard. “What are you doing?”

“What am I doing?” Mizuki asked, gearing up for a monologue, “I’m doing you a favour, that’s what. I’m ridding this village of the disgusting demon that you hate so much.”

Iruka shot a nervous, guilty glance at Naruto as Mizuki said this.

“That’s a lie!” Iruka exclaimed. “I don’t hate Naruto!”

Naruto nodded at Iruka. He knew Iruka didn’t hate him. He hadn’t for a long time, not since he had rescued him all those years ago. Even if he did still hate Naruto, Naruto couldn’t exactly blame him. If there was one thing Mito had taught him, as much as he could tell it pained her to do so, it was that grieving people were rarely rational. Naruto was an easy target for their pain, so they took it out on him. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t okay, but it was something Naruto could understand. 

He often thought he understood it better than Mito did, considering the way her hands were often clenched tightly into fists whenever they walked through the streets of Konoha together. Something always sparked brightly in his chest when he saw that. It was nice, having someone care enough about him to be angry on his behalf. That was what family was.

“Oh?” Mizuki asked, a mad glint in his eyes. “But how could you not hate him, Iruka? After all, he killed your parents.”

“How could I have killed Iruka-sensei’s parents?” Naruto interjected, fed up with this showdown already. “I never even met them.”

Mito snorted a laugh at that, indelicate and unladylike, and Naruto couldn’t help but smirk.

“But you did kill them!” Mizuki exclaimed, pulling a large shuriken off his back. “You killed them because, all those years ago, the Fourth Hokage didn’t kill the demon fox. He trapped him in a human! In you, Naruto! You are the demon fox!”

Naruto really did roll his eyes this time. As if his dad would do such a sloppy job of sealing that the fox would take over Naruto. Some people really didn’t seem to understand how sealing worked.

“No!” Iruka shouted, and Naruto watched as Mizuki threw the large shuriken and Iruka dove in front of Naruto, to protect him. Naruto brought his hands up into signs, and his eyes widened as he watched Iruka. 

He knew Iruka didn’t hate him, even liked him a little, but he didn’t know Iruka cared enough about him to risk his life for him. He felt something in his chest as he watched as Iruka leapt to shield him, something light and fluttering and warm. He was pretty sure it was happiness.

He glanced at Mito, dumbfounded, and saw her gazing at Iruka with a soft smile on her face. She looked back at Naruto and walked forward, placing her hand on his cheek, wiping tears he hadn’t realized had fallen from his face.

“He cares about you, Naruto,” she told him, an unfamiliar expression in her eyes. Naruto didn't know what to say to that, didn't know what to make of that even.

“Iruka-sensei,” Naruto murmured, dumbfounded, turning his gaze back to his teacher. “You protected me?”

Iruka straightened up with a frown, and glanced back at Mizuki, who was currently encased in a solid box of impenetrable chakra, the barrier seals Naruto had set up encasing him and his fuuma shuriken. He was screaming something, but no sound was passing through.

“I tried to,” Iruka said in wonder as he glanced between Naruto and Mizuki. “Though I guess I didn’t need to.”

“Yeah, I had it handled!” Naruto exclaimed, covering for the upheaval of emotions stirring in his chest. “I am the great Naruto Uzumaki, after all!”

“You are, aren’t you?” Iruka said, smiling. 

“Thanks, though,” Naruto said. He glanced over at Mito, and saw that she was keeping an eye on Mizuki, letting Naruto have this moment. “You didn’t have to stand up for me, but uh, thanks.”

“Of course, Naruto,” Iruka replied. “And you know you aren’t the demon fox, right?”

“Obviously!” Naruto laughed. “Seals don’t work like that, you know.”

Iruka nodded slowly, glancing back at the cage of barrier seals Naruto had constructed.

“You would know,” he mused. He glanced back at Naruto. “Why didn’t you tell me you were interested in fuuinjutsu?”

“Shinobi these days don’t seem to know anything,” Mito scoffed in the background. “As if an Uzumaki wouldn’t be interested in fuuinjutsu.”

Naruto shrugged in response. Iruka smiled down at him. He glanced back at Mizuki once more, and nodded his head, seemingly arriving at a decision.

“Close your eyes, Naruto,” he said. Naruto frowned.

“Why?”

“Just do it, please.”

Naruto sighed, but complied. He didn’t like to close his eyes around anyone other than Mito, but he could trust Iruka. Tonight had proven that.

Naruto heard a slight rustling, and then felt something being placed against his forehead and tied around his head. His heart began to race. It couldn’t be, could it?

“Oh Naruto,” he heard Mito whisper. His heart began to beat even faster.

“Open your eyes,” Iruka said. Naruto did, and saw Iruka standing there without his forehead protector. Naruto reached up, shaking and hesitant, and placed his hand against the cool metal, tracing his fingers over the engraved symbol of Konoha. He felt as though the sun was rising inside him, spilling golden light everywhere. He felt like a thousand birds had taken off in his heart all at the same time. He felt as though he belonged here, in this village he loved so much, at long last. He smiled helplessly up at Iruka.

“Congratulations Naruto,” Iruka said. “You passed, and are now an official shinobi of Konoha!”

Naruto surged forwards, wrapping his arms tightly around Iruka, feeling Iruka’s arms wrap around him as well. Naruto felt more tears spring into his eyes. He had never hugged anyone but Mito before. He had never realized how solid people could feel.

He felt a cold hand rest on his shoulder, and Naruto smiled even wider, pulling away and glancing quickly back at Mito, who looked as though she was crying as well.

“I’m proud of you,” she told him.

Naruto felt so full he could burst. Things were going to be different now. He could feel it.

Chapter Text

The Mask Storage Temple sat on the outskirts of Konoha, though it was close enough to the edge of the village’s borders that it could be considered beyond the village limits. Mito hoped now that Naruto was an official shinobi he wouldn’t have any pesky ANBU trying to stop him from edging towards the outskirts of the village. In the past they had never allowed Naruto to stray too far, for fear he would try to leave. They couldn’t risk their jinchuuriki running, after all.

They wove their way through the forests, Mito leading the way and Naruto trailing solemnly behind. She kept her eyes out for any movement amongst the leaves, but there seemed to be nothing, and the trees did not warn her of any approaching threat.

She knew, technically, Naruto wasn’t an official shinobi since he had not yet passed the secondary round of testing, but Mito also knew that there was no way Hiruzen wasn’t going to allow their jinchuuriki to be trained. The only thing more dangerous than a trained jinchuuriki was an untrained one.

The temple had fallen into disrepair over the years of neglect, the sight of which made Mito ache down to the core of her being. She stopped, Naruto drawing up next to her. 

“Is this it?” he whispered.

“Yes,” she replied, voice tight. “Our temple. At least, it was.”

“What happened to it?” 

“It was forgotten,” Mito replied. 

Out of the corner of her eye, Mito watched as Naruto lifted his hand to rest against the Uzumaki patch on the sleeve of his jacket. He gripped it tightly, his other hand clenched into a fist. She reached out and rested a hand on his head.

“We are here now,” she told him, willing not only Naruto to believe this, but herself as well. “We will not forget.”

Naruto nodded solemnly, and the two moved forwards together, stopping on the threshold just long enough for Naruto to prick his finger and smear some blood across the top of the door way. The door glowed a faint blue light upon contact with the blood before it faded, the blood fading as well, absorbed into the seal. At least the blood seals were still active, Mito thought, though Naruto would have to add some new ones if she wanted to keep the temple safe.

“Tread lightly, Naruto,” she told him as they ventured into the temple, “this is sacred ground.”

The interior of the temple was not much better than the exterior, coated in dust and neglect, the air still and stale. The silence felt all-consuming inside the temple walls, and Mito was acutely aware of the fact that she was like this temple. Forgotten, a relic of a bygone era, a remnant of a clan that did not exist anymore. Her throat was tight, her hands were shaking as she drifted in deeper, her eyes taking in the drooping banners with a faded Uzumaki crest, taking in the burnt out trays filled with ashes that were once incense, took in the dilapidation of it all. She had overseen the building of this temple, had told Hashirama not to use his Mokuton to construct it, had ensured that only Uzumaki chakra was woven into these walls. 

Her eyes drifted to the podium at the centre of the temple, row upon row of reaper death masks hanging there. They were undisturbed by dust and time, the triple spiral set above them, a barrier of specialized seals protecting the sacred masks the way the eddies that surrounded Uzu had protected their island for ages.

But the eddies had failed, and in time these seals would fail as well. Protection was never guaranteed, never eternal. Everything had its end. 

Mito allowed herself one more moment to wallow before she turned around to face Naruto. He was looking away from her, his gaze darting around the temple. Mito frowned. 

“You should have seen it when it was taken care of,” she told him. “It was magnificent then.”

Naruto turned back to her, and she could see that his clear blue eyes were shining with tears and wonder. She blinked, startled by his reaction.

“It’s magnificent now,” he whispered, his voice cracking. “I always knew that I came from a clan, but I’ve never really understood that, I think.” He gestured with his arms, a smile spreading across his face. “I get it now though.”

He placed a fist over his heart, and stared straight into Mito’s eyes. He stared through her, his gaze piercing. Mito felt as though she were being pulled into the ocean, as though she had been caught in the force of a whirlpool.

“I can feel it here,” he whispered. “The ocean.”

Mito knew exactly what he meant, and felt her mouth pulling upwards into a smile, unbidden.

“That’s the Uzumaki chakra,” she told him. “We wove it into every inch of this temple. Into every floorboard, every banner, every mote of dust and breath of air.”

“It feels like home,” he whispered.

Mito nodded. “It is home.”

She looked around the temple again, and it looked different, all of a sudden. It was rundown, sure, and dustier than it had been, but it was beautiful, and, if she closed her eyes and breathed, it almost smelled like the sea. It was still full of life, the lingering remnants of Uzumaki who had left a piece of their hearts in these walls. It had been her father’s gift to her, this temple. He had sent Uzumaki to help her build it, and she could feel that there, hanging in the air, like an embrace.

It was beautiful, and it was alive, and the chakra ebbed and flowed around her like the tides. It reminded her of something her mother used to tell her, when she was very young, the two of them together on Uzushio’s glittering shores.

“What is lost in the ebb of the tides,” her mother would say, “will come back in the flow.”

Mito smiled, and opened her eyes, looking at Naruto. She had lost so much in her life, but she had gained so much in return. 

“Alright Naruto,” she instructed. “Did you bring the chalk I told you to bring?”

Naruto nodded, blinking back the tears that had formed in his eyes, pulling out the small white piece of chalk. 

“Good. Now, starting from here, draw a large spiral radiating outwards, moving clockwise.”

She began to walk him through the steps, first having him draw the spiral on the ground, then the customary seals that surrounded the edges, before having him light the incense they had brought, setting it up in trays in the corners of the temple and directly in front of the wall of masks. 

“Kneel, Naruto Uzumaki,” she intoned once all the preparations had been made. 

Naruto, standing at the centre of the spiral, knelt to the floor. Mito closed her eyes, and remembered when it had been her turn to don the mask and greet the shinigami for the first time. She had been younger then than Naruto was, and she had been terrified. Her father had performed the ritual with her, several of the clan elders joining in at times to chant the mantras along with her. It had been a heady, wonderful experience. She looked back on it with pride and fondness. It would not be the same for Naruto, but she was determined to do her best for him.

“Thus I have heard,” Mito began, the old familiar words slipping from her lips with ease. “At the beginning of this world, before the lands formed and the God Tree grew to bear its fruit, there were only the endless waters of an eternal ocean.”

She moved forwards and placed the palm of her hand on Naruto’s forehead, meeting his gaze head-on.

“Within these waters there swirled a great whirlpool,” she continued, her eyes not leaving Naruto’s. “And from this whirlpool life was born to this world, rising up from the centre and spreading outwards, further and further until where once there was only waters an entire world began.”

She moved her palm, tracing instead the shape of a whirlpool on Naruto’s forehead with her finger. Were she corporeal, she would have taken ash from the incense tray to leave a visible mark, but this would do. 

“And from the centre of this whirlpool, where life began, so too did death spring, for where there is life there is death.”

She dropped her hand and stepped back, spreading her palms outwards.

“Repeat these words,” she instructed Naruto.

“From the whirlpool I am born.”

“From the whirlpool I am born.”

“To the whirlpool I will go.”

“To the whirlpool I will go.”

She reached a hand out to Naruto and, once he took it, she pulled him to his feet.

“We offer these words,” she continued, turning to face the wall of masks and bowing low, Naruto following suit. “We offer them to the great Shinigami, who walked these lands first, who walks in our shadows all our lives, who will carry our souls when we reach our end.”

“We offer these words,” Naruto repeated. Mito smiled, and straightened up.

“Go to the masks,” Mito instructed. “Allow the hand of death to guide you. Do not fear his touch, but do not welcome it either. Take the Shinigami’s Mask and place it upon your face, so you may look Death in the eyes and see it for what it truly is.”

Naruto drew in a deep breath and stepped forwards. He climbed up the podium and gazed at the wall, at all the masks hanging their. He closed his eyes and reached out, hand unerringly landing upon the Shinigami Mask. He drew it down from the wall and turned back to face Mito, opening his eyes. Mito nodded at him, and he placed the mask upon his face.

.

The moment the mask touched his face a great cold gust of wind blew through the temple, sending a chill down Naruto’s spine and blowing out the incense, leaving only trails of smoke behind.

For a moment, nothing else happened, and Naruto was worried that he had made a mistake, that he had somehow managed to mess this up, when, in the space between one heartbeat and the next, the Shinigami appeared before him.

Naruto blinked, and took an instinctive step backwards, his heart racing, pumping more blood through his veins, his breath quickening as his lungs gulped in breath after breath. The chill of the air pressed against his face, and the smell of the incense burned in his nose.

He had never been more aware of the fact that he was alive in his entire life.

“Who summons me here?” the Shinigami rasped, its voice terrible. 

Mito had told Naruto what to say but, for the life of him, he couldn’t think of those words. He wasn’t sure he could think of any words. What use were words when faced with the Shinigami?

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Mito stepped out from behind the Shinigami and walked closer towards him, her clasped hands hidden within her sleeves, the sealing tags in her hair, usually stagnant, fluttering in the Shinigami’s conjured breeze. She nodded encouragingly at Naruto, a slight smile upon her face.

Naruto blinked, and nodded slowly, the words coming back to him.

“I am Naruto Uzumaki,” he said, as confidently as he could, trying to disguise the quivering in his bones. “I summon you.”

The Shinigami continued to smile its awful smile, pointed teeth gleaming in the darkness of the temple.

“Uzumaki,” the Shinigami replied. “For what purpose do you summon me?”

Naruto clenched his hands into tight fists. He lifted his gaze up past the Shinigami’s sharp grin, past its long white hair, and straight into its dark eyes, the yellow iris glowing against the black sclera. He stared into the Shinigami’s face, met its eyes head on, and he understood.

The longer he stared at the Shinigami, the less terrible he looked. The grin, with its sharp teeth and unnatural bend, was not a cruel grin. It was just a grin. The hair, stringy and long and stark white, was not ominous. It was just hair. The eyes, inhuman as they may be, were not menacing. They were just eyes. His gaze was just a gaze.

He just was.

Death was not cruel, or ominous, or menacing, or anything else. It just was.

Naruto found the words coming even easier than they had, found himself standing up taller, lifting his head higher, felt his hands loosen from fists, felt his pulse steady and his laboured breathing even out.

“I summon you to see you. I summon you to face you. I summon you to understand you. From the whirlpool I am born, and to the whirlpool I will go. I am what I am, and you are what you are.”

“And what are you? And what am I?” The Shinigami questioned. Naruto frowned behind the mask. Mito hadn’t mentioned this part. He didn’t have a pre-planned response. His eyes darted to Mito, and he saw her nodding at him, a smirk on her features. He sighed. He should have known Mito would leave a few things out of her description of the ritual.

He thought about the question. He was Naruto Uzumaki, son of Minato Namikaze and Kushina Uzumaki. He was the third jinchuuriki, a loyal citizen of Konoha. He was the lonely boy who Mito had raised.

But that was who he was. When he thought about it, about what he was, the answer was simple.

“I am human,” he replied. “And you are death.”

“Indeed,” the Shinigami replied. “And when your time comes, I will be there.”

Of course the Shinigami would be there. And when his day came, Naruto would be sure to have made the Shinigami wait a long time. When his day came, Naruto would be sure to have left behind a legacy that lived on even when he didn’t.

Naruto couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face, sharp and excited. “I’m counting on it!” 

The Shinigami paused, blinking his great eyes, before he chuckled.

“Uzumaki,” he rasped. “I have known you all, and yet I have never known any like you.”

Between one breath and the next he was gone, vanished, and it was just Naruto and Mito in the temple. Naruto reached up and slowly pulled the mask off his face, holding it in his hands and staring at it for a long moment. He felt as though he had run up and down the Hokage monument twenty times, exhausted and exhilarated, all at the same time.

He set the mask gently back on the wall, and he turned back to Mito.

“Congratulations Naruto,” she said. “You are now an adult in the eyes of the Clan.”

She beckoned him close, and he walked over to her. As he stepped back into the centre of the spiral he had drawn, the chalk-line under his feet began to glow blue, faint and first but steadily growing in intensity as it began to radiate outwards, the glow following the path of the spiral. As it reached the outermost point, the rest of the temple seemed to light up as well, hundreds of hidden seals sparking to life before his eyes. For the briefest moment Naruto thought the room was full of people, glowing blue silhouettes cheering and clapping for him before the glowing faded and it was, once more, just him and Mito.

“Uh,” he said, unsure what had just happened. Mito smiled at him.

“The Clan approves,” she told him, “and we are all so proud of you.”

Naruto didn’t know what to say. “That was...that was the clan?”

Mito nodded. “I told you that Uzumaki had woven their chakra into these walls. When you imbue a place with your chakra, you also imbue it with a part of you. The part of our clan that lingered in these walls recognized you, and welcomed you.”

Naruto felt hot tears sting his eyes. All those people, all of them cheering for him, believing him, accepting him. That was what family was, he thought. He nodded at Mito before turning in a circle, looking around the temple and holding his right hand out in a fist.

“I won’t let you down!” he shouted to the empty temple, to all those blue silhouettes that, while not visible, were still there in these walls. “I’ll make you all proud, I swear it!”

Mito smiled, bright as the sun. Out of all her smiles, this one was Naruto’s favourite. He smiled back, genuine and bright and happy.

“Now, we have some work to do,” Mito said, breaking the moment, “but after that let’s go get ramen.”

“Alright!” Naruto exclaimed, brushing the tears away from his eyes. “Ramen!”

.

As Mito set Naruto to strengthening some of the seals, she turned back to the Shinigami, who was hovering at the centre of the spiral Naruto had drawn earlier.

“It’s good to see you under these circumstances,” she told him.

“It is good to once more be summoned under these circumstances,” he replied. “To think, were it not for your stubbornness, this would never have happened.”

Mito had thought about that. It was true enough, she supposed. Were it not for her, the Uzumaki traditions would have died. Naruto would not have known any of them. Through him, the Uzumaki lived on.

“He has a good heart,” the Shinigami continued when Mito remained silent. “Like his parents.”

“Yes,” Mito replied softly. “It is always a relief when a jinchuuriki has a good heart.” She would know, after all. She had created them.

“It is always a relief when anyone has a good heart,” the Shinigami replied. “Jinchuuriki, shinobi, and civilian alike.”

Mito hummed at that, watching as Naruto carefully traced over the seals, pouring all his careful attention into his hand movements.

“I cannot go with you,” she told the Shinigami. “Not yet.”

“No?”

Mito looked back to him. “No.”

The Shinigami sighed then, and began to fade from her view.

“Someday you will have to come with me,” he told her, fading entirely, only his rasping voice remaining to linger in the still air. “Someday soon.”

Mito didn’t move for a while after that, waiting for Naruto to be finished.

So her time was coming soon. She let her eyes follow Naruto around the temple. He wasn’t ready for her to go yet. She couldn’t leave him yet.

“I think I’m finished!” Naruto exclaimed, hurrying over to her. How he still had so much energy after performing the Shinigami ceremony, Mito didn’t know. She had been shaking and exhausted when she had finished, and her father had had to carry her home.

“Well done,” she replied. “We can come back again, to keep an eye on things and fix it up.”

“Sounds good! And you said something about ramen, right?”

Mito laughed, and nodded. The two of them made their way outside of the temple, and Mito watched as the blue glow flared up once more as they crossed the threshold, brighter this time, the wards sealing themselves back into place. 

Naruto stiffened, and Mito glanced away from the temple to see an ANBU standing on the path in front of them. Mito sucked in a sharp breath before she processed the dog-faced mask he was wearing, and the shock of white hair sticking out from beneath the mask.

“It’s okay Naruto,” she told him. “You can trust this one.”

At least, Mito hoped he could. Had Minato and Kushina lived, Mito would have had no doubt that Kakashi would have been a permanent figure in Naruto’s life. As it were, however, they were strangers to each other. Another injustice done to Naruto, she thought, though she could not blame Kakashi for it. A grieving fourteen year old would not have the wherewithal to properly look after Naruto.

Naruto’s eyes cut over to her, and he nodded subtly as he could, but Mito could tell Kakashi caught the movement.

“You are not meant to leave the village, Naruto,” Kakashi spoke.

Naruto shifted uncomfortably. “I, uh, didn’t?”

Kakashi crossed his arms over his chest. Naruto scratched the back of his head nervously.

“You are not meant to be here,” Kakashi told him. 

Mito couldn’t help herself. She scoffed, and Naruto twitched slightly. 

“Of course you are meant to be here,” she told Naruto. “This is an Uzumaki temple, and you can tell him that. Say this is a clan matter, and that it doesn’t concern him.”

“Naruto,” Kakashi continued. “You need to return to the village.”

“I’m allowed to be here,” Naruto said, his eyes shifting to Mito again. “This is a clan matter.”

Kakashi dropped his arms from their crossed position. Mito could tell he was surprised. Kakashi likely didn’t know Naruto knew anything about the Uzumaki clan. If it had been any other ANBU, she wouldn’t have suggested Naruto mention that to them, for fear they would report back to Hiruzen, but this was Kakashi. He would keep this secret.

“Besides,” Naruto continued. “I’m done for now anyways. But I’ll be coming back, you know, and you can’t stop me!”

With that Naruto started running, dodging around Kakashi and heading back towards the village as fast as his feet could take him. Kakashi stood still for a while, staring up at the temple.

“He’s just like her,” he murmured, before turning around and jumping into a tree, darting off to follow Naruto. 

Mito felt her mouth twist sadly. Naruto was so much like Kushina. But he was his own person too. Mito hoped Kakashi would one day be able to see Naruto for Naruto, and not as the ghost of two people he had loved and lost.

She sighed and hurried off, racing to catch up with Naruto. Kakashi was another person who could have been family to Naruto. It was just another way the world had let Naruto down.

But tonight wasn’t a night for wallowing in sadness and the unfairness that was woven throughout Naruto’s life. Tonight was a night for celebration and joy, a night for Naruto.

Chapter Text

Sitting on the rooftop next to Sasuke and Sakura, his new sensei leaning on the railing in front of them, Naruto wasn’t feeling confident about his new team.

His sensei had been late, hours late, leaving Naruto to wait with Sasuke, who didn’t seem inclined to acknowledge anyone’s presence, and Sakura, who had been acting strange, sending the occasional confused glance over towards Naruto in between bouts of her pretending not to be staring at Sasuke.

Naruto wasn’t sure what had gotten into her. He had been practicing reading people, but she was acting differently than she normally did. She seemed almost puzzled by him. Naruto wasn’t sure when she had started acting this way towards him, but he wasn’t sure he liked it. Sakura was highly intelligent, if untrained and unmotivated, and he didn’t care to be subject to her gaze.

When he had first heard who would be on his team, he hadn’t been thrilled. He had been avoiding Sakura, not wanting to spend time with the girl who so often yelled at him. As for Sasuke, Naruto wasn’t sure what to make of him. He was certainly traumatized, Mito had said, and there was a strange sort of kinship between the two boys. When everyone else in your class had families to go home too, there were only Naruto and Sasuke who were used to empty homes and silence.

At least Naruto had Mito.

Naruto wasn’t sure what was worse - never knowing your parents at all, or knowing them and having them be taken from you. Sometimes Naruto thought Sasuke had it worse, of course, because he had all those memories of a family. But other times Naruto wasn’t so sure. It didn’t make the pain of missing them disappear, not having any memories. It just meant you were longing for something you didn’t really understand. Maybe the pains weren’t comparable. Maybe both things just hurt, and it didn’t matter which was worse.

Naruto felt guilty when he thought like that. He loved Mito, more than anything else in the world, but there were days when he couldn’t help but fantasize what it would be like were his parents still alive. Would his mother teach him about Uzushio, the way Mito did? Would his father help him with school, the way Mito did? Would they welcome him home, the way Mito did?

Whenever Naruto tried to imagine a parent, he imagined Mito.  Whenever he tried to picture his own parents, especially his mother, they would inevitably turn into Mito. 

Naruto hoped they wouldn’t blame him for that. He had never known anything but Mito’s parenting.

It was still lonely, though, not having anyone but a ghost to keep you company. There were times when his loneliness burned in his chest, but not the way fire burned. More like ice. Cold and painful and ultimately numbing.

He felt guilty for feeling lonely when he had Mito, but he thought Mito probably felt lonely too. At least, he thought, they were together in their loneliness. At least he had that.

Naruto sighed, and peered at his still-silent sensei. He thought his sensei looked familiar, and with each passing moment Naruto was growing more and more certain that his sensei was the ANBU he had encountered outside of the temple, the one Mito said he could trust.

“Well then,” his sensei spoke. “How about you introduce yourself, name, likes, dislikes, dreams for the future, hobbies. That sort of thing.”

“Um, sensei?” Sakura asked. “Maybe we would have a better idea of what to do if you went first?”

His sensei sighed, and seemed to slouch even further.

“Okay,” he said, the shape of his mouth making his face mask twitch, his single visible eye looking bored. It looked like an affectation though, Naruto realized as he peered closer at what little of his sensei’s face he could see. As though the boredom and laziness was an act. Naruto had seen ninja like that before, looking relaxed when they were at their most tense.

Shinobi are liars, Mito had always told him. We must be, to survive.

His sensei, Naruto thought, was a liar. That was okay. Naruto was a liar too.

“My name is Kakashi Hatake,” he said, his voice bored. “I don’t feel like telling you guys about my likes and dislikes. I’ve never really thought about my future dream...as for my hobbies, I have many.”

Sakura blinked, and turned with a disgruntled expression to Sasuke and Naruto.

“So all we learned about him was his name?”

Naruto shrugged in response. He wasn’t sure what she’d expected. He was a shinobi, after all. Naruto paused for a moment. Was this a test, perhaps? Maybe Kakashi-sensei wanted them to find out information on him on their own. It was the sort of thing Mito would do, after all, and Naruto generally found Mito to be the standard by which he judged all shinobi.

“Okay, you guys next,” Kakashi continued blithely, acting as though he had not heard Sakura at all. “How about we start with you.” He gestured towards Naruto.

Naruto hummed thoughtfully for a moment, plastering a large grin to his face and adjusting his headband proudly.

“I’m Naruto Uzumaki!” he exclaimed loudly, watching as Kakashi-sensei narrowed his eye at him. If Kakashi was really the ANBU from the other night then he would probably know Naruto was putting on an act. After all, and idiot wouldn’t know about their clan. Or their clan’s temple. Or how to get through the blood wards and into their clan’s temple.

If Kakashi was going to put on an act, Naruto thought, then he would too.

“I like ramen! Especially the ramen from Ichiraku’s when Iruka-sensei buys it for me! My dislike is waiting the three minutes for the ramen to cook! My hobby is eating ramen, and comparing different ramen flavours! And my dream…” Naruto trailed off then, clenching his fist and relishing the increasingly deadened expression gracing his new sensei’s face. “My dream is to become Hokage!”

His dream was actually to find a way to rebuild the Uzumaki Clan and make the world remember them once more, writing their name across history so they would never be forgotten again.

But Kakashi-sensei didn’t need to know that.

“Uh, okay,” Kakashi said. “Next.” He nodded to Sakura.

“My name is Sakura Haruno!” She introduced herself, smiling sweetly. Naruto stopped listening then, as she kept glancing at Sasuke and blushing. Naruto knew Sakura had a personality beyond her crush on Sasuke, but some days she wondered if she knew that, or if she had forgotten.

“My name is Sasuke Uchiha,” Sasuke began, and Naruto tried to pay attention again, but Sasuke was just as forthcoming as Kakashi-sensei, which was to say not forthcoming at all. Naruto nodded as Sasuke said he wanted to rebuild his clan, though. That was something they had in common. The murder part, though, they didn’t share. 

He didn’t know who Sasuke was talking about, but he would ask Mito if she knew. Something about that level of desire to kill a man was frightening. Shinobi were not meant to kill for pleasure. Though, Naruto thought, glancing at Sasuke’s expressionless face, he wasn’t sure he would classify any of this as pleasure. 

Naruto glanced back at Kakashi and had to fight back a laugh at the exhausted look on his sensei’s face.

“Good,” Kakashi said eventually. “Now, we’re going to have a mission tomorrow.”

Naruto sat up straight, excitement beginning to burn under his skin.

“It will be a survival exercise, Kakashi continued. “But this is no ordinary survival exercise. Of your graduating class, only nine of you will go on to become genin. The rest will be sent back to the academy.”

Kakashi started laughing then, and Naruto rolled his eyes. He could try to frighten them as much as he could, but Naruto knew, in a miserable sort of way, that there was no way his team wasn’t passing. Sasuke was the last Uchiha, and Naruto was the jinchuuriki. Of course they were going to become shinobi.

“I’ll be determining whether you pass or fail this exercise,” Kakashi said after he had finished laughing. “Bring all of your gear, and meet at five in the morning.”

He stood up, and made as if to walk away before glancing back over his shoulder.

“Oh, and don’t eat any breakfast. You’ll throw up.”

With that he leaped off the roof and onto the next, bounding across the buildings until he disappeared from sight. Naruto groaned. He had a feeling this wasn’t going to go well.

.

Mito had been pouring over the Edo Tensei for days now. First, she had had to break down the technique to its bare bones so she could see how Tobirama had created it in the first place. Not for the first time she cursed her brother-in-law’s intellect. He was far too smart for his own good.

He had based the entire array off of Uzumaki seals, however, which helped, but it was difficult for Mito to determine which matrices he had used. She was starting to think he had combined several, which brought her no small amount of frustration. She sighed and turned away from the seal. It was easier for her to work on this when Naruto was here, so he could write things down for her.

She wondered how he was doing, whose team he would be on, who his jounin-sensei would be. She hoped beyond hope it would be someone fair.

If he was assigned a sensei that hated him she had half a mind to just take him away from Konoha. They could leave it all behind, go and live on Uzushio, just the two of them.

But that was crazy. Naruto was social, remarkably so, which made the ever-present loneliness that had shadowed his life even worse.

Humans were social creatures for a reason. There was something hollow inside them, that they could not fill themselves. It was only through others that the emptiness disappeared.

Mito hoped Naruto would find others now that he would have a team.

She turned back to the Edo Tensei. Loneliness and grief were what had driven Tobirama to invent this technique in the first place, a young boy desperate to see his brothers again. Maybe that was her problem - she was trying to take this array apart with a rational, adult mind.

She thought back to the small sealing library the Senju had possessed when she had first moved to Konoha. Tobirama had already invented the Edo Tensei at this point, what with the two small books on Uzumaki sealing the Senju owned. What was in those books, she wondered. What techniques had Uzu deemed safe enough to pass on, yet were still dangerous enough to be twisted in the hands of a grief-ridden child?

She peered at the swirling lines of the array, at the compounding vertices and sharply drawn symbols.

Oh, she realized, of course. There were seals for vitality and longevity, the sort of gift perfect for the Uzumaki to give their allied clan, only these seals had been flipped, reversed, their vertices inverted and twisted.

“I’m home!” Naruto called, stepping through the door.

“Welcome home,” she called back, distracted. “Come here for a minute, I need you to write something down for me.”

Naruto hurried over and sat at the table. Mito pointed to several of the lines, and told Naruto to draw their inverse on a blank scroll with the chakra-neutral ink, so as not to accidentally activate anything. Naruto nodded, and got to work.

Mito smiled. She was starting to make progress. Had this technique been made by an adult Tobirama, Mito wasn’t sure she would have been able to begin to decode it so easily. Then again, an adult Tobirama would not have made this technique in the first place, as he had learned to deal with the aching loneliness that lived in his heart as he aged.

“Done!” Naruto told her, grinning. Mito smiled back, and patted his head.

“Thank you,” she told him, forcing her mind away from thoughts of the past for now, focusing instead on the present right in front of her. “Now, tell me about your team.”

Naruto groaned, the grin slipping off his face.

“Oh man, it’s the worst,” he grumbled. “I’m with Sasuke and Sakura, and my sensei is a lazy guy who was three hours late!”

Three hours late? Mito wondered. It couldn’t be, could it?

“His name is Kakashi-sensei,” Naruto continued, and Mito’s eyes widened at the confirmation. “I’m pretty sure he’s the ANBU from the other night, too!”

“Yes,” she said slowly, her mind quickly running over what this could mean for Naruto. “Yes, that’s him.”

Naruto sighed and continued complaining, but Mito wasn’t listening any longer. Kakashi could either be a very good sensei for Naruto, or a very bad one. It all depended on whether Kakashi could get his act together or not. 

Mito supposed it made sense that Kakashi would be assigned Sasuke, what with Konoha’s increasing obsession with the strength of the sharingan over the years. It was a strong doujutsu, and Sasuke would need to be trained. Kakashi was, unfortunately, the only one who could even somewhat train him.

That was likely why Kakashi had been assigned to this team, though Mito doubted it was the only reason Kakashi had agreed. She was fairly sure Kakashi saw training Naruto as a debt he owed Minato.

“And then he didn’t even tell us anything about himself!” Naruto exclaimed, drawing Mito’s attention back to him. “He only told us his name, that lazy-sensei!”

“Well, it is a strength to control information when you are a shinobi, especially about yourself.”

“I know that,” Naruto grumbled. “That’s why I didn’t really tell him anything real either.”

“However,” Mito continued, trying to hide the smile that Naruto’s words provoked, “these are your comrades now. There needs to be trust between you. You should know each other’s weaknesses, and strengths, so as to be an effective team.”

“We aren’t even a team yet, officially,” Naruto replied. “We have to pass survival training, though I’m pretty sure it’s all for show.”

Yes, Mito thought, it would be for show. It would likely be the bell-test, too, Tobirama’s game he used to play with his students.

It wasn’t a very effective test, Mito had always found, and she had never hesitated to tell Tobirama that either, though he had always waved her off, claiming it was just a game.

It seemed it was no longer just a game. 

“I wouldn’t worry about that survival training,” she told Naruto. “But I will tell you a little about your sensei, if you’re interested.”

Naruto blinked at her, then nodded rapidly.

“Yes please!” he exclaimed. 

Mito nodded slowly. Where could she begin? She should have told Naruto about Kakashi earlier, maybe when she had told him about Tsunade and Jiraiya. Maybe Naruto could have helped Kakashi.

But Kakashi had been so broken. Maybe it was wrong of Mito, but she had wanted to protect Naruto from the depths of Kakashi’s heartbreak and grief. Kakashi had been a child too.

Another lonely genius-child, desperate and missing the family they lost, forced to grow up too soon, to fight in a war they didn’t choose.

Perhaps if Kakashi had more access to sealing, though he was proficient in fuuinjutsu as well, he too would have created something like the Edo Tensei too, instead of joining ANBU and hoping a mission would get him killed.

“Kakashi was your father’s student,” Mito said, bluntly. There were certain truths that could not be said in any other way. “He lost his family when he was very young, and your father and mother became like family to him. Had your parents lived, I think he would have been like a brother to you.”

Naruto stared at her in silence, his hands resting on his knees gripped his pants tightly.

“Another person who loved them,” Naruto said eventually. “Another person whose heart broke when they died.”

Naruto blinked, his eyes filling with tears, his lips trembling.

“Was I worth their sacrifice? Sometimes I wonder if my life was worth all this pain.”

Mito had lived a long life, had been a shinobi, had sealed a demon inside herself, had had children, had lost her husband, then brother-in-law, had died after having the kyuubi extracted from her, had lived as a ghost, helpless to help as Uzushio fell, as Kushina fell, as Naruto grew up surrounded by hate-filled glares she couldn’t protect him from.

She knew pain.

She wasn’t sure anything had ever ached like this before.

She swooped forwards and enfolded Naruto into her arms, clutching him close to her chest.

“Don’t ever say that,” she told him, her voice sharp and shaking. “Don’t you ever say that. You were worth it, you were worth everything. Do you hear me? Your parents died because they loved you. You were worth it to them. Everyone else, with all their grief and heartbreak, that will never take away from the fact that your parents died out of love for you. You were worth it to them, and you are worth it to me, and if no one else thinks that then you will just have to change their minds.”

“Change their minds?” Naruto whispered.

“Yes!” Mito exclaimed, pulling back so she could meet Naruto’s eyes. “Change their minds! You’re Naruto Uzumaki!”

Naruto nodded slowly. “You’re right,” he said. “I’m Naruto Uzumaki. I’ll show them all!”

Mito pulled him into another hug. 

“You mean the world to me,” she whispered into his hair, her words shaking and honest, fragile as bird.

“I don’t really think that way,” he replied. “I just sometimes…”

“It’s okay,” she reassured him. “I understand.”

She did understand. She thought that way too, sometimes. Everyone did. But Naruto was so young, too young to ever think that.

The Shinigami had told her she would have to leave with him soon, but how could she when Naruto clearly still needed her?

.

Naruto had eaten breakfast. He felt it was the right decision, considering how late his sensei had been. Sasuke and Sakura, he could tell, had not. They listened to their sensei so easily. They were too used to trusting people, Naruto thought. Naruto was used to being lied to.

Mito had stayed behind, telling him she was going to keep studying the Edo Tensei, now that she had made her first breakthrough.

Naruto wished she was here with him.

He was hiding in the forest, sending shadow clones out to distract his sensei so he could set a trap and grab the bells from his belt.

He would give the bells to Sasuke and Sakura, even if they wouldn’t give a bell to Naruto. He would show his sensei he could put the wants and needs of his teammates above his own. 

He felt one of his clones dispel, the memories rushing into him. He hadn’t noticed the memory transference until Mito had pointed it out. He wondered if he ever would have figured it out himself, but he also hadn’t sent any of his shadow clones too far away. He had seen everything they had seen - their memories had always overlapped with his own.

His sensei was good, that much was clear, with an indistinct yet strong fighting style. Mito had called him the Copy-Nin, after all, saying he knew and had mastered various techniques.. He seemed to be adept in ninjutsu, elemental ninjutsu, taijutsu, genjutsu, and even had knowledge of fuuinjutsu.

If his sensei could get around his hang-ups towards Naruto, he could be a great teacher.

Naruto had, however, noticed the way Kakashi tensed around Naruto, especially when Naruto grew too loud, or had too much excess energy, or when he laid a great seal trap that his sensei seemed to avoid with ease.

When people die, they never think about the shockwaves their deaths leave behind. They die nobly, saving people, sacrificing themselves for the greater good, but they never think about the people who depend on and love them personally.

It was easy to say you would lay down your life for the village when you thought in abstracts. It was harder when you considered the personal cost.

Kakashi had been a victim of Naruto’s parents’ death, just like Jiraiya.  Just like Naruto.

The Shinigami was inevitable. Death was inevitable. But that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. Naruto thought of the Shinigami, of his terrible voice and smiling face. He thought of all the souls the Shinigami had carried in its arms over the years. He wondered if there was a god that watched over the living, the way the Shinigami did the dead.

Naruto thought there probably wasn’t. People were supposed to look after each other, when they were alive. 

Sakura’s scream pierced the air, and Naruto sighed. He abandoned the trap he had been setting up and hurried over to find her.

She was wandering around, aimlessly, tears streaming down her face and mumbling something about Sasuke. Genjutsu, Naruto thought. You could break someone out of a genjutsu by disrupting their chakra, or physical pain.

Naruto had always had chakra to spare. He flared it out and quickly grabbed Sakura’s wrist, dragging her away. If his sensei could sense chakra, then he would surely descend on the place they had been.

“Naruto?” Sakura asked, confused. “What...Sasuke!”

She looked panicked. Naruto hauled her up the tree she had been in before, even as she struggled to get away, channeling chakra into the hand that was holding her so she couldn’t run off.

“He’s fine,” Naruto hissed. “You were caught in a genjutsu.”

Sakura blinked.

“Really?”

Naruto barely resisted rolling his eyes.

“Really,” he replied. “Now be quiet and help me for a second, okay?”

Sakura frowned at him. “Why should I?”

“I’ll give you and Sasuke the bells,” Naruto said. “I promise.”

“Why should I believe you?”

Naruto looked at Sakura, right in the eyes. “I don’t know,” he told her. “I guess you just have to.”

Sakura was quiet. Naruto sighed.

“We can’t beat him alone,” he said. “None of us can.”

“Sasuke can!” she defended immediately, though she looked doubtful, as though she was just saying that, whether she believed it or not. Naruto turned away.

“If you believe that,” he told her, “then go.”

She stayed. Naruto smirked.

He finished up setting his trap, Sakura watching on in his silence, once they were finished, they headed off together to see if they could find Sasuke and convince him to work together. Naruto wasn’t feeling optimistic, but if he was right and their sensei was watching them, they had to at least make the effort.

They found Sasuke buried up to his neck in the dirt. Sakura panicked and almost immediately began trying to dig him out. Naruto did his best not to laugh, though he wasn’t very successful, considering the glares he received from Sakura and Sasuke.

Eventually they managed to free Sasuke, but before Naruto could ask him to help, he had sneered and run off by himself, off to find and fight Kakashi alone.

Fine then, Naruto thought. At least I tried.

He glanced at Sakura.

“Do you still want to work with me?”

Sakura was quiet. “Yes,” she replied, her voice subdued. “I can’t do this alone.”

“Kakashi-sensei is a jounin,” Naruto pointed out. “I’d be surprised if you could.” 

Together they set off towards the clearing of the training ground, staying as silent as they could. They arrived in time to see Kakashi defeat Sasuke, though it seemed Sasuke had managed to at least touch one of the bells. There was no denying Sasuke was good, Naruto thought, but if he refused to fight alongside others then he would never get better. Mito had always told Naruto that the true path to strength was working alongside others.

“Alright,” he whispered to Sakura. “You know what to do.”

Sakura nodded and set off, Naruto pulling up to shadow clones and sending them both off to distract Kakashi. Naruto reached out for the seals he had placed. He had asked Mito for more information on Kakashi, and she had told him a little.

Most importantly, though, she had told him his chakra type.

Naruto liked to use seals to create barrier techniques. He had been interested in it after Mito had mentioned it was something his mother had excelled at. Naruto wanted to feel close to his mother. He had his father’s hair, and his father’s eyes, and while Naruto was a jinchuuriki, like his mother, he wanted their connection to be more than just both being living sacrifices.

He had developed a disruption array to include in a barrier seal a few months ago. Since he needed the bells, however, he could not use a barrier. That was where Sakura came in. While Kakashi was distracted by the clones, Sakura would sneak up and place only the disruption array onto any part of Kakashi-sensei’s body, at which point Naruto would activate it. In theory, this would be enough to disrupt his chakra that Sakura could snatch the bells.

Naruto had never actually tested this seal out before, and certainly never with a lightning type. He had developed it first for fire chakra only, since it was the most prevalent in Konoha. Lightning was a rare type, and had Mito not told Naruto Kakashi possessed lightning chakra, Naruto never would have guessed that he did.

He felt one of his clones be dispersed, and he turned his attention back to the fight, sending another two clones out. Kakashi seemed to be fighting them lazily, barely paying attention. Naruto watched, ready to activate the seal as Sakura approached.

Sakura sneaked forwards, hand outstretched towards Kakashi, Naruto tense, when Kakashi whirled around and snatched the seal from Sakura’s hand just as time ran out.

Naruto activated the seal anyways.

As the chakra disruption seal flared to life in Kakashi’s hand, he staggered, losing his balance for a moment. Had he been anyone other than who he was, Naruto thought, he likely would have collapsed. But he was strong. Naruto had disrupted his primary chakra affinity, but Kakashi was known for being adept in many.

Kakashi sent out a pulse of his raw chakra, his hands unerringly forming the seal for dispelling fuuinjutsu, and his single-eyed gaze turned to where Naruto was, scrambling out of the bushes. Naruto paused as Kakashi looked at him, and Naruto raised his chin, letting the hint of a smirk spread across his face.

Look at me, Naruto though. See me.

Kakashi looked away first. Naruto wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. He finished running over to join Sasuke and Sakura in standing in front of their sensei.

“None of you took any bells,” Kakashi said, unhooking the bells from his waist and rolling them around in the palm of his hand, their faint jingling filling the air. Naruto noticed him pocket the seal.

“However,” Kakashi said, “I’m very impressed with this seal.”  He turned his gaze to Sakura. “Was this your work?”

He knew it was Naruto’s seal. Naruto knew that. This was a test.

Sakura glanced at Sasuke first, then at Naruto. Naruto didn’t say anything. This was her test to take, not his. Naruto knew he had already proven himself.

“No, sensei,” Sakura replied, clenching her hands into fists at her sides, determination sparking in her eyes. “It was Naruto’s.”

“Hmm,” Kakashi replied. “So the two of you were working together.”

Sakura nodded. “That’s right.”

“So if I asked you, would you say you and Naruto deserved the two bells?”

Sakura stiffened, her gaze turning back to Sasuke. Sasuke seemed to be carved of stone, with how stiff and still he stood then.

“No!” Sakura exclaimed. “I shouldn’t get a bell! It wasn’t my plan, and Sasuke almost got a bell on his own! I didn’t do anything!” She dropped her gaze, red staining her cheeks. “I didn’t do anything.”

“Oh?” Kakashi replied. He turned to Naruto. “And what do you think, Naruto? Do you agree with Sakura?”

“Give the bells to Sasuke and Sakura,” he said. “I would rather go back to the Academy then turn against a teammate.”

Kakashi’s mouth twitched slightly, and Naruto wondered if that meant he was smiling. Kakashi turned, at last, to Sasuke.

“What do you think, Sasuke?”

“Give them the bells,” Sasuke gritted out, his teeth clenched. “Their plan was good.”

Naruto almost laughed at how pained Sasuke sounded saying that.

“So none of you can agree?” Kakashi mused, tapping his finger against his chin. It reminded Naruto of Mito, when she was deep in thought. Naruto wondered if his mother had done that too, if she had passed that quirk on to his father, who had then passed it on to Kakashi.

“Fine!” Kakashi exclaimed. “Then I guess you all…” he trailed off, looming forwards slightly ominously. Naruto could see Sakura tensing beside him. “Pass!”

Naruto smiled. He had known he would pass, known this test had to be rigged due to the political situation of their team, but he hadn’t realized how good it would feel to hear those words all the same. He had passed, they had passed! They were a team now.

“Be here tomorrow morning, same time!” Kakashi chirped before using the shunshin to get away. 

“Hey!” Naruto said, turning to his new teammates. “Way to-”

He stopped, watching as the two were already walking away. The excitement that had just bloomed in his chest withered and died, leaving behind only the bitter sting of disappointment.

“Way to go,” he whispered to no one. “We did it.”

Chapter Text

Mito was getting worried about Naruto’s team.

It seemed to Mito that, with every mission Naruto came home from, he was more and more dejected. It was hard for him, Mito thought, to be on a team with people so determined to be alone.

Mito drifted a little closer to where Naruto and his team were weeding a woman’s garden. She had followed him today, curious to see the dynamics in person. She usually tried to give Naruto space, but she couldn’t help it. Today she was curious. 

Things did not seem to be going well.

They had only done c-rank missions the entire day, and had not yet trained at all. Kakashi seemed to be more interested in reading pornography - which Mito would love to smack Jiraiya for - than putting any effort into his team.

Mito wasn’t sure what he was thinking, only that it seemed he wasn’t. She sighed, drifting closer to Naruto, watching him dig up a plant.

“I don’t think that’s a weed,” she told him. He looked up, eyes wide.

“Oh man!” he groaned. “It looks like a weed! I was so focused I didn’t even notice!”

“Naruto, you idiot!” Sakura exclaimed.

Mito ignored her, hoping Naruto would too, and laughed. “It is good to focus on your mission,” she told him, “but you can’t become so focused on one thing that you become blind to others.”

Naruto hummed. “Do you think I can replant this?” he asked.

Kakashi looked up from his book. “Hm?”

“I asked if I could replant this?” Naruto asked again, brandishing the plant at Kakashi.

“You can,” Mito replied. “You were careful with the roots. But wait until Kakashi answers.”

“Maa,” Kakashi replied. “Probably not.”

Naruto scowled. “I can too! I was careful with the roots!”

“I think Kakashi-sensei knows more than you, Naruto!” Sakura interjected.

“Not right now!” Naruto insisted, and went about trying to replant, just to prove them wrong. Spite, Mito reflected, had always been an excellent motivator for the Uzumaki. 

Mito watched in silence for a moment. Her earlier assumption had been correct. This was not going very well.

It didn’t make sense to her. She knew Kakashi could be a good teacher. He had helped teach the child with the artificial mokuton. He had led ANBU teams. Kakashi was capable.

She just didn’t understand why he was so reluctant to teach this team.

She eyed Naruto, his hands covered in dirt, before she moved her gaze to Sakura, who seemed to be doing her best to remain as clean as possible, and then over to Sasuke, who seemed to be doing his best to pretend the rest of his team did not exist.

“Hm.” she said. Naruto glanced at her out of the corner of her eye. He had gotten away with talking to her earlier, but he knew better than to push it. Mito smiled at that. She had taught him well.

“When you’re done today,” she told Naruto, “invite your team over for dinner. All of them. And I don’t expect any of them to accept, so don’t be upset if they don’t. Alright?”

Naruto frowned, flickering his gaze over to her once again. 

“If they turn down dinner, then ask them to train more. Make it clear to your sensei that you want to make this team work.”

Naruto frowned, but nodded.

Mito wasn’t sure if this was the problem, if Kakashi was just waiting for his students to show some inclination towards teamwork, but she could hope that, for once, the simplest solution was the right one.

“I have some errands to run,” she told Naruto. “I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

Naruto nodded slightly. Mito reached forward and ruffled his hair. He couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face, nor could she help her own. She turned away, and drifted off.

She was going to go and spend the day eavesdropping on Hiruzen. She needed to know what was going on, if Orochimaru had made another bid for the scroll. She also needed to know more about the state of the world. She had spent all this time focusing on raising Naruto, she had completely lost touch with the political climate. Anything that had happened in Naruto’s lifetime had become something of a mystery to her. 

She needed to know more about the world so she could prepare Naruto for what was to come.

When she reached the Hokage’s office, she found Hiruzen at the end of a meeting with his old teammates. Mito frowned at them, Danzo especially. She had grown to hate him over the years. The man he was entirely removed from the boy he had once been. She wondered what Tobirama would think of his former students now.

She glanced out the window, letting their arguing voices wash over her. She wondered what Hashirama would think of Konoha now, what he would do if he saw his dream so twisted.

There was good in Konoha, of course, but there was darkness too. It seemed there could never be light without there also being shadows. She glanced back at Danzo. At least his Root operation had been stopped.

She wondered when he had become injured. Had it been in the Kyuubi attack? She didn’t think so, as she had a few vague memories of him without the bandages after the attack. She frowned, inching closer to him. What was he hiding? And why did no one question the permanent bandages he wore?

“We believe Orochimaru to be behind it,” Hiruzen stated. Mito turned away from Danzo, cursing herself for her distraction.

“Why would he want the scroll?” Koharu asked, a frown on her face. Mito glared at Koharu. Everyone knew why Orochimaru wanted the scroll.

“I believe he is interested in continuing his experiments,” Hiruzen said. “He is likely going to study the Edo Tensei.”

So he had managed to get his hands on the scroll after all, Mito noted. She would have to redouble her efforts to counteract the jutsu.

“Orochimaru’s motivations are not as big a concern as the faults in our security,” Danzo said, tapping his cane on the ground. “We should focus on tracking down any more traitors and tightening our patrols. Infiltration like this cannot be allowed.”

Hiruzen nodded. “I’ll put some ANBU on it,” he said.

Danzo nodded, and did not say anything further. Mito frowned. That was unlike him. Danzo was anything but passive, and she was surprised he would not have taken the opportunity to advocate for the reinstitution of Root.

She thought of Naruto then, pulling up the wrong plant from the garden. The roots had been preserved, so it was easy for him to replant it. It was like a lightning strike, then, and Mito cursed herself for not realizing sooner.

Danzo had never disbanded Root. Of course he hadn’t. His organization, and therefore his power, had been preserved. He was just waiting for the right moment to strike.

Mito sighed, and wished she were corporeal so she could hit Danzo over the head right now and, if she were lucky, be done with him once and for all. Another problem Naruto would likely have to face. Another problem she would have to come up with a way to solve, even with this ghostly form.

Her work, it seemed, was never done.

.

Naruto had asked his entire team, including his sensei, to dinner and extra training, just like Mito had asked and, just as Mito had suspected, they had all declined, though Kakashi-sensei had patted the top of Naruto’s head the way someone might pet a dog. It was the most affectionate his sensei had ever been, and despite the rejection it made Naruto beam.

He paused at Ichiraku’s and peered in, seeing Iruka-sensei sitting their. His smile widened.

“Hey, Iruka-sensei!” He called, rushing in and taking a seat next to Iruka. Iruka looked up from his ramen and smiled.

“Hello, Naruto,” he replied. “It’s been a while. How are you?”

Naruto shrugged, waving at Teuchi and Ayame, the two getting a bowl ready for him, not even bothering to wait for him to ask. 

“It’s okay,” Naruto told Iruka. “I don’t think my team likes me very much though.”

Iruka frowned. “Why do you think that?”

“I asked them if they wanted to come to my apartment to have dinner with me, but none of them wanted to. And then I asked if instead they wanted to train more with me, but they didn’t want to do that either!”

Iruka was quiet for a while, and Teuchi placed Naruto’s bowl of ramen down in front of him. Naruto shouted his thanks and dug in, enjoying his favourite meal.

“Some teams take a little longer to come together,” Iruka said eventually. “Give it some more time.”

“I will!” Naruto replied, slurping up some noodles. “I’m not gonna give up, Iruka-sensei, I promise!”

Iruka smiled, and turned back to his dinner. The two of them finished in silence, and Iruka even paid for Naruto’s ramen. 

“I’ll walk you home, Naruto,” Iruka said, a serious look on his face. Naruto knew better than to argue. He knew Iruka didn’t like where Naruto lived very much, and Iruka often insisted on taking Naruto home when it was getting late like this. 

Naruto liked knowing that Iruka cared.

The sun was staining the sky pink and orange as they wound their way through the quiet streets. Naruto liked this time of day. It looked like the world was glowing. 

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Iruka said as they walked, “how did you make that barrier to trap Mizuki?”

“With seals!” Naruto exclaimed. “I’m really good at seals, you know!”

He didn’t mind letting Iruka-sensei know these things about himself, because he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Iruka was an ally. More than an ally, really, but Naruto didn’t know what word to properly use to describe Iruka. They weren’t friends, but they did care about each other. Iruka looked after Naruto, and sometimes it felt similar to the way Mito looked after Naruto.

Naruto shied away from labeling it, though in his heart he could feel it there, the word tucked away and secret. Naruto was afraid to acknowledge it, that fragile connection, for fear that it would disappear.

“I didn’t know that,” Iruka replied. “Fuuinjutsu isn’t something that’s taught at the academy. Usually that falls to the jonin-sensei to teach if they have any familiarity with the technique, or you can see about entering into an apprenticeship with a sealmaster, though they are very rare.”

“It’s different for me,” Naruto replied with determination. He wanted Iruka to understand. “I’m an Uzumaki.”

Iruka stopped suddenly, and Naruto didn’t notice for a moment, his gaze trained on the orange sky above him. He made it a few paces before realizing, turning around and doubling back once he did.

“What do you mean by that?” Iruka asked, his brow wrinkled in confusion. Naruto eyed the scar across Iruka’s face. He wondered how that had happened. There was so much he didn’t know about Iruka. There was so much Iruka didn’t know about him. This, though, this might help bridge the gap between them. 

“I’m part of the Uzumaki Clan,” Naruto replied. He pointed at the clan symbol on his arm. Iruka peered at it.

“Uzumaki,” Iruka repeated. “I’ve heard the name but I’m not familiar with them, I’m afraid. How do you know about them?”

Naruto wondered what he should say to that. As far as Iruka knew, Naruto didn’t know who his parents were. That was the problem with all these secrets, Naruto thought. No one really knew anything.

“I was wondering the same thing, actually,” another voice spoke out from behind Naruto and Iruka. They whirled around to see Kakashi standing there, hands in his pockets, slightly slouched, but with a sharp look in his eye that belied his casual stance.

“Kakashi-sensei!” Naruto exclaimed. “When did you get here?”

Kakashi hummed. “I asked you a question first.”

Naruto huffed, and crossed his arms. 

“Naruto,” Iruka prodded. “What’s going on?”

Naruto looked down at his feet. He couldn’t tell them about Mito - they would never believe him, and besides, Mito had always told him not to tell anyone about her. She was afraid of what people would do if they knew the Shinigami could be bargained with. After meeting the Shinigami, Naruto couldn’t say he blamed her for that. People needed to respect the Shinigami’s authority, needed to think of death as an absolute.

“You wouldn’t understand,” he said, kicking his feet in the dirt. 

“Try me,” Iruka implored. Naruto sighed, and looked up. This was Iruka asking. He could try to answer if it was Iruka. He glanced surreptitiously at Kakashi-sensei. Mito had said Kakashi could be trusted. Besides, he was Naruto’s sensei now. 

“I can just feel it,” he said, thinking of the way he sometimes awoke in the night, the tides tugging at his bones. Even if he had never known Mito, he thought, he would feel something inside him, a sort of restlessness that he wouldn’t be able to explain.

“Besides,” he continued, deciding to lie. “I read about them one time when I broke into the archives. There was a whole clan of us, you know, and we lived on an island!”

“You can feel it?” Kakashi asked, ignoring Naruto’s lie.

Naruto sighed. “Yeah.”

Kakashi nodded, but didn’t say anything. Naruto wondered if Kakashi understood what Naruto was talking about. He had known Kushina, after all. She would have felt the call of the tides, likely even louder than Naruto did, considering she had been born in Uzushio. Another Uzumaki, forced to leave home for Konoha. Naruto pushed down on the bitter resentment that bubbled in his stomach. He didn’t like to think like that. 

Kakashi’s hand twitched, as though he wanted to take it out of his pocket. Naruto wondered if Kakashi wanted to pat his head again. Naruto wouldn’t have minded, but he figured, with Iruka here, Kakashi would. Kakashi instead took a step back, seeming to melt into the shadows before the telltale burst of wind that signified the shunshin was released. Naruto turned away from where Kakashi-sensei had been and looked back to Iruka.

“Naruto,” Iruka-sensei scolded. “You can’t just break into the archives!”

Naruto groaned. “I just wanted to find out who my parents are!” he replied. He felt guilty, using his orphan status against Iruka like that, but Naruto didn’t want Iruka to pay too much attention to this and figure out Naruto was lying. 

Iruka was quiet for a while after that, the two continuing their walk to Naruto’s apartment in silence. They stopped at the door, and Iruka opened his mouth like wanted to say something before he closed it, glancing away.

“Thanks for the ramen, Iruka-sensei,” Naruto said.

Iruka smiled, though it was a weak thing, slightly rueful.

“Of course,” he replied. “I’m always happy to have dinner with you.”

So unlike his teammates, Naruto thought. He wondered if he could hug Iruka-sensei. They had hugged when Iruka had given him his headband. Naruto thought about closing the distance, about wrapping his arms around Iruka’s middle and feeling Iruka’s arms wrap around him in return. It would be comforting, Naruto thought. 

He wondered, wildly, if his father would have ever hugged him. He probably would have, given the way Mito talked about him, how excited he was to become a father.

“Naruto,” Iruka said, pulling Naruto out of his thoughts. “If you want to know about your parents, maybe you could ask the Hokage. He would probably know.” 

Naruto was quiet. He didn’t know what to say to that. On the one hand, had he been any other orphan, Iruka would have been right. But on the other hand, had he been any other orphan, he wouldn’t have the close relationship with the Hokage that invited questions like these.

Naruto loved the Hokage. He always made sure Naruto had full access to see him whenever he needed, no appointment necessary. He visited Naruto from time to time, eating dinner with him, sometimes buying him ramen, sometimes cooking for him. He had provided Naruto with an apartment, when the orphanage caretakers didn’t want Naruto around anymore.

But Naruto saw the way Mito tried to hide her scowls at him, saw the way she tensed when Naruto talked about his visits.

He knew she thought the Hokage should have done more for him. He also knew she tried her best to hide that, tried her best to just let Naruto love the Hokage without any complications.

So no, Naruto couldn’t ask the question, but he appreciated that Iruka seemed to care enough to actually offer up a suggestion. Most people likely wouldn’t do that.

“Can I ask you a question?” Naruto asked, the words falling from his lips before his brain caught up and stopped them. “Do families...do they keep secrets from each other?”

A complicated expression crossed Iruka’s face, one Naruto couldn’t entirely read, but he was able to see the grief that settled around Iruka’s eyes. Naruto felt guilty again, bringing up memories of Iruka’s parents.

Iruka sighed. “I wish I could say no, but that would be a lie. They do keep secrets. But Naruto, I’m sure if you just asked the Hokage he would tell you.”

Naruto nodded. He knew the Hokage wouldn’t, but that wasn’t why he had been asking. Mito had been acting strange recently, her hyperfocus on the Edo Tensei one thing, and her recent interest in the ongoings of the village and the world another. It had been like that ever since the ceremony in the temple.

Naruto didn’t know what had happened, and he didn’t know how to ask either.

“Do you think Kakashi-sensei will ever come to dinner?” Naruto decided to ask instead. “And Sakura and Sasuke too?”

Iruka smiled. “Like I said, give it time. I’m sure they’ll come around. How could they not?”

Naruto smiled back, and Iruka turned to leave, waving goodbye.

Disabling the seals, Naruto let himself into his apartment.

“I’m home,” he called, but there was no answer. He hadn’t expected one, considering Mito had told him she was going to be late. Still, though, Naruto didn’t like the silence. 

It was far too loud.

Chapter Text

Sakura had realized a lot of things since becoming a genin, most of them about Naruto. It was strange - she had spent so many years ignoring Naruto, learning as little about him as she could, and now, suddenly, she was having revelation after revelation about him. Though each revelation felt less like a revelation and more like the dawning realization that Naruto was entirely different than she - and perhaps everyone else in the village - thought.

She could admit, even if only in the privacy of her own mind, that she had grown up a bit spoiled, in the way shinobi usually weren’t. Her parents weren’t shinobi, and so they hadn’t raised her the way the clan children were raised. She could admit she was a little prejudiced too, letting her desire to fit in and be accepted win out over her common sense time and time again. When everyone hated someone, she did too.

It wasn’t fair, but everyone did that sort of thing, it wasn’t just her. That probably made it worse, she realized with a sigh.

Sakura remembered the first time she had started to pay more attention to Naruto. She had been sitting next to him in class, and had glanced over to see what he was writing. She had been astonished to see his handwriting - all his notes had been done in beautiful calligraphy. It didn’t fit with the image of Naruto in her head, a loud-mouthed obnoxious slob. She’d had trouble reconciling the two Narutos for a long time, until she had been placed on a team with Naruto, and had actually been forced to get to know him.

He wasn’t, at all, the loud-mouthed and obnoxious slob he presented himself as. She watched him run through the basic katas during their mission to paint a fence, and she shook her head slowly. He was determined, and diligent, and he practiced hard. He was even able to make solid clones, something she had never even heard of before. She glanced over at his clones, three of them who were speeding through the painting. It cut down on the amount of work she and Sasuke had to do. Kakashi had even had to tell Naruto to limit the amount of clones he made so everyone could actually do something.

She had always thought Naruto was abysmal at clones.

He didn’t make any sense to her! Naruto was a puzzle, and as much as she pretended not to, she loved puzzles. 

She glanced over at Sasuke. He wasn’t paying attention to her. He never paid attention to her. But that was part of what made him so cool. That was what Ino had always said, and Sakura had always agreed with her, imagining scenarios where he only opened up to her. It was romantic, wasn’t it, to be loved by someone who ignored the rest of the world? Sakura had always thought that, and Ino had too, and so had so many other girls in their class in the academy.

Sakura frowned as she thought of Ino. Ino had been Sakura’s first friend, had defended Sakura against bullies, had given Sakura self-esteem, had taken Sakura to her clan’s personal training grounds and helped her run through the academy drills.

And Sakura had ended their friendship over Sasuke.

Sakura paused in her painting, glancing at Sasuke again. She was starting to get the feeling she had some very skewed priorities. She glanced over to Naruto.

Naruto had stopped asking her out after she had yelled at him, and even smacked him on the head. She had originally thought he had finally gotten the message, but she was starting to wonder if there was something else to it. He had started asking them all to dinner, but he seemed to only be reluctantly including her in the invitations.

She moved closer to him, and further from Sasuke. She watched, out of the corner of her eye, as he noticed her movement and shuffled slightly further from her. He was always so aware of his surroundings. She wondered when he had developed that skill, if it was a trait he was born with, or if it was something he’d had to learn.

She had seen the glares the villagers gave him, sometimes. She remembered the other day, when their team had shown up to complete a mission and the villager, upon seeing Naruto on their team, refused to let them help. Naruto had said nothing, and Kakashi had pulled the villager aside, saying something that left the villager shaking and pale.

“Naruto,” she said, shuffling closer. She couldn’t help it any longer, she was so curious. “Would you like to come to my house for dinner tonight?”

She glanced over at Kakashi and Sasuke too, her heart suddenly racing. She didn’t want Naruto to think it was a date, even if he had stopped showing interest in her.

“Kakashi-sensei and Sasuke-kun are invited too, of course!”

Sasuke turned further away. Sakura’s heart turned to stone, sinking in her chest. She lifted her hand up and clenched her dress for a moment before dropping it back down. Pathetic, she thought. That’s all I am. 

Kakashi-sensei hummed where he crouched atop a fencepost, reading his dirty book.

“Maa, Sakura,” he said lazily. The Sakura that lived inside her head growled at how apathetic he always seemed to be. “I appreciate the invitation, but I don’t think I’ll make it tonight.”

Sakura shrugged, and turned back to Naruto. She hadn’t really cared whether Kakashi-sensei said yes anyways, she told herself, ignoring the sting of rejection that was taking root under her ribcage.

Naruto was staring at her with wide eyes, his jaw hanging slightly open. She tried to smile at him, and he blinked, his mouth snapping shut and his eyes narrowing with suspicion.

“Really?” he asked.

She nodded. He glanced to the side slightly, his eyes flicking up. She wondered if he was thinking. He glanced back towards her.

“Okay.”

Sakura nodded, and turned back to the fence. “Great!”

The rest of the day passed quickly, and as Kakashi-sensei dismissed them, Sakura made her way over to Naruto.

“You ready to go, or do you need to go home first?” she asked.

Naruto shuffled slightly. “Are you sure your parents won’t mind if I come home?”

Sakura knew why he was asking. She had heard other parents, when she was a child, telling their children to avoid Naruto. They were usually civilian parents - it seemed shinobi parents usually didn’t say anything at all about Naruto. There were a few exceptions, of course, but Sakura had seen the pattern. Her parents were civilians. To Naruto, there was likely a much bigger risk that they would hate him.

She had thought parents told their children to stay away from Naruto because he was ill-mannered, and he was usually dressed in shoddy, slightly ill-fitting clothes, ones that looked as though they had been mended time and time again. Sakura had never wondered who mended Naruto’s clothes before. He didn’t have any parents, and he didn’t live at the orphanage. 

He must have done it himself. 

Would her parents mind if Naruto came for dinner? They had never told her to stay away from him before - they had never said anything about Naruto at all before. But her parents could also be a bit oblivious sometimes, since they traveled a lot for their jobs as merchants, and didn’t always know about everything that was going on in Konoha. 

She decided to risk it.

“They won’t mind,” she declared, as confidently as she could. “Besides, it’s only my father home right now. My mom is on a trip.” Her father was the safer bet for not minding Naruto’s presence. He was certainly the more easy-going of the two.

Naruto looked uncertain, but he ultimately complied, and the two of them set off, winding through the streets to Sakura’s house. Naruto’s eyes were wide.

“You live here?” he asked as they reached her home. 

“Yes,” she replied. 

“Wow,” he said. “It’s so nice!”

Sakura frowned. Her house wasn’t that nice. It was just an average house, the same as any other on her street. She wondered what Naruto’s home looked like, and part of her burned with curiosity. She desperately wanted to know.

“Well, come on in,” she said. They walked through the door, and she called out her greeting, her father replying.

“Sorry for the intrusion,” Naruto said as he toed-off his shoes. Sakura’s father made his way into the front entrance and he paused as he saw Naruto.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m Sakura’s father. Who are you?”

“This is Naruto,” Sakura cut in. “He’s on my team.”

“Naruto Uzumaki,” Naruto declared, a hard glint in his eyes. It looked almost challenging, as he looked at Sakura’s father, as though he was daring him to have a problem. “It’s nice to meet you, Haruno-san.”

Sakura’s father’s eyes widened. “Uzumaki, huh?”

Naruto stared at him. “Yes.”

Sakura watched her father carefully. There was a strange expression on his face as he took Naruto in. Sakura would almost call it grief, though she couldn’t understand why.

“Come in, come in,” her father said eventually. Dinner is almost ready.”

Naruto and Sakura followed her father into the house, and Sakura led Naruto over to the sofa, a little ways away from the kitchen and her father. She felt incredibly awkward, all of a sudden. She had no idea how to talk to Naruto.  She realized then that she had never really spoken to him before.

“So what do you think of Kakashi-sensei?” Naruto asked, breaking the ice. Sakura glanced over at him. He was barely sitting on the sofa, perched on the edge, his hands in fists over his knees. He was trying, Sakura realized. He was always trying to reach out to others. 

“He’s lazy, right?” Naruto continued when Sakura didn’t say anything. “But I think he’s also a pretty good shinobi.”

“He is pretty lazy,” Sakura agreed. “I wish he would train us more.”

Naruto seemed to perk up as she replied, his hands slowly uncurling from their fists. “Right? I don’t want to just do these boring missions! I want to do a real mission! Or at least do something other than these d-ranks, you know!”

Sakura smiled a little. Naruto might be different from how she had always seen him, but he certainly was exuberant. She didn’t know if she had ever met someone with so much energy.

The smile fell from her face.

“Can I ask you something?” she said.

Naruto nodded. Sakura fidgeted, reaching up and fiddling with the strands of her long pink hair.

“Why did you stop asking me out? I’m not interested or anything, I’m just curious.”

She cringed as the words left her mouth. That sounded so conceited. Why was it so hard for her to say things the way she meant them? The things she said never sounded as bad in her head.

Naruto glanced over to Sakura’s father, looking uncomfortable again.

“He can’t hear you,” Sakura said, rushing to reassure him. “I promise, whatever you say, he won’t hear you from here.”

Naruto turned back to her, his sky-blue eyes suddenly looking more like ice, holding her in place and sending a chill down her spine.

“I wasn’t interested in you anymore,” he told her simply. “It’s not worth it, having a crush on someone who isn’t nice to you.”

Sakura thought of Sasuke then, unbidden, and she shoved that thought aside. It was a different situation, she told herself. Different, different, different. 

“I’m sorry,” she told him, guilt making her stomach churn. She didn’t want to be a mean person, didn’t want her own teammates to think that way about her. “I guess I was kind of mean.”

Naruto smiled at her, the iciness leaving his gaze even quicker than it had appeared. “That’s okay, I forgive you!” He replied. “Besides, you invited me over for dinner. That was pretty nice of you, so it’s all water under the bridge, you know.”

He forgave her so easily. Sakura wasn’t sure she had ever forgiven someone with such ease. 

“Well, you’ve been inviting us over,” she replied. “It was only fair.”

“Dinner’s ready!” Sakura’s father called, interrupting them. Sakura was half-annoyed, half-grateful, which was confusing, but everything seemed to be a little confusing when Naruto was involved these days. 

They headed over to the table and sat down, saying their thanks before digging in. Sakura had expected Naruto to have bad manners, since he didn’t have any parents to teach him good ones, but he was remarkably polite.

She had judged him unfairly, yet again.

“So, Naruto,” Sakura’s father began. “Tell me about yourself.”

“Eh,” Naruto replied, swallowing his food and setting his chopsticks down, scratching the back of his head nervously. “There’s not much to tell.”

“Oh come on,” her father cajoled. “Surely you can tell me something! I want to know about one of my daughter’s teammates! Any hobbies?”

“Naruto writes in beautiful calligraphy,” Sakura piped up, trying to help Naruto out. “I saw him taking his notes in calligraphy one time.”

Her father dropped his smile, a sad look flickering in his eyes. “Well, I suppose that makes sense,” he said quietly.

Naruto dropped his hand from his head and nervously poked at his chopsticks, the friendly air suddenly turning tense and tight.

Sakura wasn’t sure what she had said.

“What’s going on?” she asked her father. “Why are you acting so weird?” She hoped it wasn’t because he hated Naruto or something, especially not after she had told Naruto it wouldn’t be a problem. 

Her father frowned. Naruto didn’t say anything, merely watched and waited. Sakura wasn’t sure what he was waiting for, but she could feel the tension ramping up in the room, and she wondered what would happen when it burst.

“I wasn’t born in Konoha,” her father began slowly, glancing at Naruto. Sakura frowned, wondering why he was telling Naruto this, what his hometown had to do with anything. “I grew up in a civilian village, along the coast. My parents moved to Konoha after…” he trailed off, looking uncomfortable.

“After Uzushio was destroyed,” Naruto finished for her father.

The tension burst then, Naruto’s words as sharp as a knife. Sakura’s father looked down. He looked sad. Sakura’s frown deepened, as did her confusion. 

“Uzushio?”

Her father looked at her, his brows drawn together in confusion. “You don’t know about Uzushio?”

“They don’t mention Uzushio at the Academy,” Naruto replied, a bitterness she had never heard from him before spilling into his voice. “We’re a military village. We don’t learn about our failures.”

Sakura had never felt more confused in her life. She had hoped having Naruto over would help answer some of her questions, but it felt as though it was just making more.

“I suppose they wouldn’t,” her father replied quietly.

“What are you talking about?” Sakura asked again. Naruto looked over at her, but it was Sakura’s father who replied.

“Uzushio was another hidden village,” he explained. “It was home to the Uzumaki Clan, masters of fuuinjutsu.”

Sakura’s eyes widened. “You have a clan?” she asked Naruto. She had always thought he didn’t have any family.

“Had,” Naruto replied. “Uzushio was attacked by the combined forces of Kumo, Kiri, and Iwa. They thought that by pairing up they could wipe out Uzushio with minimal casualties on their side.”

Naruto clenched his hands into fists, a hard look in his eyes. “They were wrong,” he continued. “They suffered many casualties.”

Sakura stared in shock.

“Mito Uzumaki was the wife of the first Hokage,” Sakura’s father said. “The Uzumaki Clan helped found Konoha.”

Sakura couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Such a formidable clan, such an important clan to Konoha, and she had never even heard of it before? Her head was spinning.

“What’s fuuinjutsu?” she asked, her mind latching onto that word as a way to avoid succumbing entirely into shock.

“The art of sealing,” Naruto replied. “Like explosive tags, or storage seals. Of course, they can be used for much more, but those are some pretty common examples.”

Sakura blinked. “How come we never studied that in the academy?”

Naruto hummed. “Not many people know enough to teach it,” he replied. He glanced back at Sakura’s father, a hesitance in his eyes, along with something else. If Sakura were pressed, she would say it looked like longing. “Did you ever visit Uzushio?”

Her father nodded slowly. “It was beautiful.”

“Lucky,” Naruto replied, his gaze looking faraway. “Sometimes I dream about it, I think.”

Her father didn’t seem to know what to say to that, and Naruto didn’t offer up anything else, turning back to his dinner. 

The rest of the night passed in silence, as Sakura turned this new information over in her head. Naruto left shortly after they had finished dinner, and Sakura walked him to the front door.

“How do you know so much about fuuinjutsu and Uzushio? I didn’t think you had…” she trailed off, feeling awkward as she once again stuck her foot in her mouth. 

Naruto smiled gently. “Oh you know,” he said vaguely, scratching the back of his head. He did that when he was nervous, she mused, or lying. “I broke into the archives.”

Sakura raised an eyebrow at him, and Naruto laughed, smiling widely. It was a smile she had seen hundreds of times before, but for the first time she realized it was fake.

She decided to let it go.

“You shouldn’t break into the archives!” she half-heartedly scolded him. He laughed and waved as he began to walk away. She turned away, and headed back inside.

“Dad,” she said, walking up to her father who was washing the dishes. He glanced over at her.

“Yes?”

“Could you please tell me everything you remember about Uzushio?”

Her father looked at her, long and hard for a moment before a soft smile spread across his face.

“Sure thing,” he replied, handing her a plate and a rag. “So long as you help me dry the dishes.”

Sakura nodded, and got to work.

“Can I ask you something else?” she said after a long moment of silence.

“Sure,” her father replied easily.

“Why were you so sad, when you were talking about Uzushio? You seemed guilty.”

“You know I grew up near Uzushio,” he began, his voice quiet. “Uzushio helped protect our village. I knew a few Uzumaki pretty well, since my parents traded with them often. It was a tragedy, what happened to them.” He smiled at her slightly then, a rueful sort of smile. “Even though there was nothing I could have done, I’ll always feel a bit guilty. I think that’s sort of just how tragedies are. Even if you know you couldn’t have done anything, you’ll always still wonder, just a little, if you could have made a difference.”

He turned back to the dishes then, tension in his shoulders. Sakura didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t sure if there was anything she could say. Sakura didn’t ask her father anymore questions, finishing with the dishes in silence before heading upstairs to her room so she could have a moment alone to think.

She didn’t have any of the answers she had been hoping to get, but she had a lot more questions, and she had the feeling that these were, at last, starting to be the right questions.

Next time Naruto invited the team over for dinner, she would accept. Maybe, if she was lucky, he would show her some fuuinjutsu.

.

It was a stroke of luck, Kakashi thought, silently moving towards Naruto’s empty apartment, that Sakura had invited Naruto to her house for dinner. He hoped it was a sign that he now had two genin willing to work as a team, but the cynical part of him - which, these days, felt like it was all of him - wasn’t so sure.

Still, though, he was an opportunist, and the opportunity to take a look around Naruto’s apartment when his student wasn’t there was all too tempting.

Maybe Kakashi would find something that explained how Naruto seemed to know so much about the Uzumaki Clan.

Kakashi hated looking at Naruto’s apartment. He could still remember Minato-sensei and Kushina decorating their own home, making sure everything would be perfect for Naruto. This rundown apartment was the furthest thing from their cheery home.

Kakashi paused at the entryway, pulling up his headband to have a better look at the seals carved all around the doorframe. Using chakra to stick to the side of the building, he moved over to one of Naruto’s windows. There were seals there too. He was thorough, at least.

They were good seals. Advanced, for an average twelve year old, but Naruto was an Uzumaki, and Kakashi had no idea at what level of sealing Uzumaki twelve-year-olds should be. 

Kakashi was fairly adept at sealing, being a student of Minato-sensei, but Kushina had always said Kakashi was a baby when it came to seals. He had always thought she was just teasing him, since that did seem to be one of her favourite pastimes but now, peering at Naruto’s seals, he wondered if she wasn’t being serious. 

Kakashi had never seen some of these seals before.

He made his way back to the door, and set about finding a way to bypass them, or at least temporarily disable them so as not to set them off.

There was something very familiar in the way Naruto drew seals. Kakashi drew seals in the same style Minato-sensei did, who drew them in the style Jiraiya-sama did, but Kushina’s seals had always looked a little different. A special Uzumaki flair, she had always claimed. In his later years, Minato-sensei had also begun to use that style, promising to teach it to Kakashi, exclaiming how much simpler it made sealing.

He had died before he had been able to fulfill that promise.

Kakashi wondered if the gaping hole inside him would ever stop hurting. When he closed his eyes, it was the same size and shape as the hole he had punched into Rin’s chest. 

Kakashi friend killer indeed.

Kakashi took his time making his way through the seals, and even then he only just managed to bypass them without setting any off or disabling them. Had he been any less adept at sealing, or even as a shinobi, he wouldn’t have been able to. He wondered if Jiraiya-sama had ever been in contact with Naruto. Kakashi hadn’t thought he had been, but maybe Jiraiya had been the one to teach Naruto about sealing.

The apartment was small, and as neat as it could be considering how old and rundown the entire building was. The air was cold, and Kakashi could have sworn he felt a slight breeze blow past his left side. He shook it off and ventured deeper in, inspecting the place for any sign that Naruto knew more than he let on.

He found, on the kitchen table, a stack of papers with very complicated seals on them. He squinted at it, but he didn’t recognize the technique at all. There was something unsettling about these seals, though Kakashi could not put his finger on what exactly was so unsettling about them. He set the papers back down on the table, carefully placing them back in the exact position they had been.

There were no pictures here, no personal correspondence saved in special drawers, but there were some rough sketches of the Uzumaki spiral stuffed away in a back cover, carefully done, over and over, as though Naruto had been practicing drawing it to make it perfect. Kakashi thought of the Uzumaki clan symbol he had stitched onto his jumpsuit. These rendering looked just like it. He had always thought the Hokage had given that symbol to Naruto. Kakashi was starting to wonder if Naruto had made it himself.

There was something strange about Naruto. It wasn’t just that he knew things he shouldn’t, but sometimes it felt as though Naruto wasn’t talking to him at all, but instead was using their conversations as a cover. Kakashi would have thought it was the Kyuubi if he didn’t know how powerful the seal Minato-sensei had used was.

Kakashi reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, worn picture, slightly creased on the corners from rough handling. He smoothed it down, gently rubbing off any finger smudges, staring silently at the smiling faces of Minato and Kushina. Kakashi had taken it from their home, when he was closing it up after the Kyuubi attack. He had meant to give it to Naruto, but every time he approached the orphanage he had felt his head swim and his stomach churn, his knees turning weak and his courage giving out.

Coward, he thought. He was nothing but a coward.

He could still remember when Kushina and Minato had told him they were going to be parents. They had invited him to dinner, like they did almost every night, and the two of them had been bursting with excitement. Kushina had laid her small hand over Kakashi’s, and she had grinned at him, a beaming grin.

The few times Kakashi had seen Naruto genuinely happy, his smile was the same as hers.

“Kakashi-kun,” Kushina had said, her eyes shining, “You’re going to have a little brother!”

Kakashi hadn’t understood what she meant. He had turned to Minato-sensei, his eye wide. Minato had smiled at him and ruffled Kakashi’s hair.

“Kushina and I are going to be parents,” he had said. “We were hoping you’d look after our child, the way a brother would.”

Kakashi had felt as though his heart was going to burst, to be so easily included in their family. Their child would have such a happy home, Kakashi remembered thinking, just like his had been before everything happened with his father. 

Kakashi stared at the photo in his hands. He used to stare at it all the time, back when he was drowning within the ANBU, waiting for the day he wouldn’t make it home from a mission. 

He had been so furious when Gai had finally managed to convince the Hokage to take Kakashi off on ANBU, even though Kakashi knew now that had probably saved his life. Gai was always looking out for Kakashi.

Kakashi should have been looking out for Naruto. Naruto shouldn’t be a stranger to him. Kakashi was supposed to have watched Naruto grow up. But Kakashi’s life was full of things that should have happened but didn’t. His father should have watched him grow up, but he didn’t. Obito and Rin should have lived, but they didn’t. Minato and Kushina should have raised Naruto, but they didn’t.

He set the picture down on top of the kitchen table, next to the seals Naruto had been working on.

“I’m sorry,” he said to the smiling faces frozen in time, preserved forever in a worn, slightly faded photo. “I’ll do better now. I’ll look after him now.”

He felt a chill on his right shoulder, and for a moment he could have sworn Kushina was there, squeezing his shoulder, smiling slightly with eyes full of unshed tears, as if to say she knew he would.

He left the apartment and went back to his own. It was empty, just as Naruto’s had been. He looked out the window, and wondered what Gai was doing. It had been a while since their last challenge, and Kakashi was starting to think he needed to get back into his own training. He had a team to whip into shape, after all.

.

Something felt off in the apartment as Naruto made his way inside. His seals were all intact, none of them had been set off or disabled, but something about the air felt disturbed.

“I’m home,” he called.

“Welcome home,” Mito replied, her voice soft. Naruto made his way in, and saw Mito staring down at the kitchen table, papers strewn across it.

“Still working on the seal?” he asked. She shook her head, and looked up at him, her eyes shining.

“Your sensei was here,” she told him, moving back from the table slightly. 

“Kakashi-sensei?” he asked, confused. Why would Kakashi-sensei break into his apartment? He took a moment to reflect on his undisturbed seals. His sensei really was talented, to be able to avoid all of the seals. Naruto wished he would just train them. He probably had all kinds of awesome skills he could teach Naruto.

“Yes,” Mito replied. “He dropped something off.”

Naruto walked over to the table, still confused, and glanced down, his heart skipping a bit as he did. There, on the table, was a small, worn photo of a smiling man and woman. The man had bright yellow hair and sky-blue eyes. My hair, Naruto thought, his hands shaking as he reached for the picture. My eyes. The woman had long red hair, bright as Mito’s, and her eyes were scrunched up, her smile wide. My smile, Naruto thought.

He stared reverently at the photo, his eyes burning with unshed tears that were one blink away from spilling over. He didn’t dare blink though, didn’t dare look away from those smiling faces for fear they would disappear.

“They look so happy,” he whispered, staring at his parents.

“They were so happy,” Mito whispered. “They had just found out they were going to have you.”

Naruto couldn’t help it. He blinked then, the tears spilling over. Mito had always told him his parents had wanted him, but it was always the fear of every orphan that their parents hadn’t wanted them. But this...this was proof, tangible proof, that he could hold in his own hands, could see with his own eyes. His parents had wanted him. Had loved him.

He thought he understood their sacrifice a little better now, seeing the joy radiating from their features. Naruto had always thought they had sacrificed themselves to save the village, but staring at this photo, he thought that maybe they had really just been trying to save him.

“Kakashi-sensei brought this?” Naruto asked, his voice shaking, his eyes still glued to the photo.

“He did,” Mito replied. 

Naruto laughed then, watery and tear-filled but happy, so happy. He felt a weight leave his shoulders that he hadn’t realized had been there since the day of team assignments.

“I guess he isn’t so bad,” Naruto mused. “Maybe I should stop complaining about how lazy he is.”

Mito laughed. “Definitely don’t stop doing that,” she told him. “But no, he isn’t so bad.”

Naruto felt a smile spread across his face. He hadn’t expected much from this day when he had woken up, but Sakura had invited him over for dinner, her father had been nice, and Kakashi had given Naruto a wonderful gift. 

“Today was a good day,” he told Mito. “I think tomorrow will be too.”

“I think you’re right,” Mito replied.

The setting sun filled his apartment with golden light, setting the small space aglow. Naruto looked away from the photo and over to Mito, cast in gold, her hair looking like a fiery halo around her head. He looked back to the photo, at his parents, also glowing, also golden.

Naruto thought his heart was glowing too.