Hiruzen Sarutobi, former third Hokage of Konoha, took a deep breath as he stepped out of his family's home. He had been enjoying his retirement, content to live out the remainder of his days among his children and grandchildren. A small application of chakra lit the pipe between his lips, and the smell of fragrant tobacco filled the air.
"I take it you're accompanying me to the Fire Festival tonight? I am far from needing a bodyguard, even at my age." The Third called out as he approached the gates. A hunched, bandaged man emerged into view, cane clacking along the stone walkway as he moved. "Still, I wouldn't mind the company of an old friend. The festival is all about reflection, after all, and what are we but mirror images of the mentality of our time."
A ring of smoke puffed up into the air, causing the bandaged man to scowl. "I never understood that habit. You only push yourself farther into the grave, smoking like that. It's a bad habit for civilians, let alone ninja."
"I wouldn't have thought you'd be worried about my health, Danzo." Hiruzen replied, casually walking out of the gate, smiling softly as his old friend fell in step beside him.
"Differences in opinion." The bandaged man grunted, leaning on his cane as he kept up the leisurely pace. "That's all it's ever been between us. Both of us were mighty in our prime, both working towards the most noble of goals."
"Peace." The former Hokage supplied.
"Prosperity." Danzo countered. "It's not enough to merely exist in this world. Look around this village and tell me we aren't the best. That the rest of the world should feel privileged to follow in our example."
"Ah, but where is the fire in our arguments now?" Hiruzen chuckled. "We are no longer in positions of power. Merely old men bickering about a world we no longer understand."
"Nothing has changed. The world is still the same as the one we grew up in, only the violence and corruption is harder to see. It will be a long time before the world becomes anything I do not recognize."
"We should be so lucky if it does. I think a bit of change would do this world a lot of good." Hiruzen mumbled, packing more tobacco into his pipe.
"Change doesn't come without violence. Talk to the leaders of the world and they bluster and posture, humming and hawing and making excuses. The truth is the people in power enjoy it too much. What they all say, when it comes to negotiations, is 'Make me'." Danzo grumbled, the cane striking the ground a little harder as he walked.
"Perhaps it isn't the old men who lead that must do the talking then. The young who wish to see the world change have power of their own." The Third Hokage suggested.
"And make a world without us old men." Danzo stated.
"I'd like nothing better to leave behind for my own grandson, than a world that doesn't need people like us."
In training ground seven, two figures stood perfectly still, heedless of the world around them. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves and branches of the trees into a noise that filled the background with a dull roar. Sasuke Uchiha, red eyes spinning, stared down his opponent, a white unicorn who gazed back with equal determination.
Time ticked by, leaves fell off the branches and blew across the field on wind that rippled the grass with a gentle caress.
The world seemed to shatter around her. Fragments of light and color and sound rained down like jagged pieces of a stained glass window, spinning and falling into an endless void. In every shard he could see her opponent, sword drawn and dashing about, reflected a thousand times from all directions.
It was nauseating, disorienting, unpredictable, and hopelessly unrealistic.
A burst of chakra dispelled the illusion, and Rarity threw herself out of the way of a swipe that came perilously close to her mane. "Honestly Sasuke, you're as bad as that 'Genjutsu Mistress' who enjoys growing trees. If your illusions do things that normal techniques can't, people will realize they are illusions right away and break free!"
"This is how ninja fight with genjutsu." Sasuke replied, sheathing his sword once again and returning to his starting position. "I've been over all the scrolls from my family library, all of the genjutsu are just like this."
"Then you'd better start making your own." Rarity insisted, stomping a hoof and turning to look away indignantly. She'd been trying for a while now, to teach the last Uchiha in 'yin' techniques. He'd taken well to several conceptual ideas behind Unicorn Magic, but still had the habit of associating illusions with the gaudy ninja-made techniques.
"Show me a chair." Rarity said, causing the boy to grimace and his eyes to spin once more. The unicorn gave him a moment to compose himself, and then blinked. One of the first lessons she'd taught him was to delay the activation of the technique to when the opponent wouldn't notice it activating, hence the split second of darkness when someone blinked. They'd had a good laugh at Naruto's expense when she described the boy's attempts at training himself to blink with one eye at a time.
When her eyes opened a single chair sat in between them. It was one from the academy, straight backed and wooden, with worn-looking joints and no arm-rests. "Good. Better than your early attempts. Simpler is better, trying to get delicate things like fabric and stitching will come later. I take it you're familiar with this particular chair?" She asked, circling the chair and looking for flaws.
A quick glance confirmed that he'd created the bottom side of the chair properly. It was a rookie move, to save effort by not creating things that wouldn't normally be seen. Someone like Sakura would know in an instant of a genjutsu didn't account for the ground beneath her feet.
"I can make a chair just fine. Can we move on to more practical things?" Sasuke asked, interrupting her thought process. In response a kunai whipped towards his head. The dodging motion was instinctive, forged from countless hours of sparring and practice, he moved his head to the side just enough for the knife to miss by inches.
'Don't throw yourself out of the way, let it miss by the narrowest of margins.' Kakashi's words were beaten into the heads of their whole team. They gave themselves more room to maneuver than most ninja, having seen firsthand how dangerous wind chakra could be. But the basic premise remained, throwing yourself around was the easiest way to be led into a trap.
"Was that real?" Rarity asked, forcing his attention back on her. He'd seen the knife up close for the split second as it passed by. Felt the wind against his face from its flight. Heard the thud of it impacting the tree behind him. Every sense told him the knife was real, and he came close to death just a few seconds ago.
"I don't know." Sasuke replied. Without turning around to look at the knife, he had no idea if anything his senses told him about it was true. He could probably have caught the knife, felt the weight of it in his hand, and thrown it back at the unicorn, only to hear her laugh as it vanished mid flight. That was the sort of power an illusionist had. That was what he was here to learn.
"Creating a kunai is more complex than a simple chair. Shape, color, texture, the way it flies through the air, how it sounds, how the wind feels when it misses, how it stings when it hits. You must account for the very definition of the kunai, bring it into existence within the shared reality you create between yourself and your opponent." Rarity lectured, pacing back and forth as she did so.
"Shared reality?" Sasuke asked. The white pony took her passions seriously, both fashion and illusions. Honestly sometimes dealing with her was as bad as Deidara with his rants about explosions.
"Reality is a philosophical thing. Everything you know about the world around you, you know from your senses. When you manipulate those senses, you manipulate reality. That kunai from before, you can't tell if it's real or not. If I killed someone with it, does that make it real? What about the person who dies, were they real or just another illusion. If I stabbed you with it, and you felt pain, does that make it real? In a well constructed illusion, there is no possible way to distinguish constructs from real objects. In a well constructed illusion, reality is what you make it."
She paused her rant, noticing the Chuunin was barely paying attention. "We'll end here for today. You must have a lot on your mind, given what day it is."
Sasuke nodded, thanked her for the lesson, and darted away in silence. Moments later he arrived at the side of the lake, on a dock that he and Naruto commonly skipped stones from. Today there'd be no throwing rocks, and the only company would be his memories. Slowly, with purpose, he formed several hand seals and raised his hand to his mouth. A great roaring fireball filled the sky above the lake.
He imagined the blisters on his fingers, the rough dryness of his throat, the stinging burns across his cracked lips. In his mind he could feel the hand of his father on his shoulder. "Well done Sasuke. To master this technique is proof of adulthood in the eyes of the Uchiha. From now on you'll wear our symbol on your clothing. Wear it proudly, your family will always be at your back."
The din of construction rose into the air over Konoha as the stands and stages for the Fire Festival took shape. It was a grand tradition, dating back to the days of the First Hokage, devoted to looking back at their rich history. It was a time of reflection, of looking critically at the world around you, as well as a modest amount of navel gazing.
Every year, every citizen of Konoha would prune a dead branch from a tree and bring it to the grand bonfire. It would symbolize something that they regret, something irreparable or lost, and they would throw it into the fire. It was supposed to grant closure, to acknowledge their shortcomings and move on, and when the fires finally died they'd all take a pinch of ashes in a little pouch for good luck.
Naruto didn't have his branch, as he sat on a cloud high above the village, gazing down at the workers below. He had a plan to get one later that day, but at the moment he lacked the courage to go get it. Harder still was considering what regret he was willing to burn.
It wasn't that the blonde boy didn't make mistakes. He had plenty to choose from, even since becoming a ninja. The festival wasn't just about mistakes he made though, it was more about letting go of things beyond control. For a long time he'd hoped the people of Konoha would use it to burn away their hatred of him, and the beast he kept imprisoned. The Kyuubi was really just a force of nature, according to legend, and it would seem silly to find a fishing village that harbored a grudge against a hurricane even decades later.
He'd gone every year, usually with the Third Hokage at his side, for his own safety. The plays and productions of exaggerated historical moments were his favorite. He remembered being jealous of the children his age that got to be 'trees' during the famous battle of Hashirama and Madara.
Even more thrilling were the productions based on the Fourth Hokage. The battles against Iwa were usually performed by a tall blonde actor, usually a ninja under a transformation technique, cape billowing in some unseen breeze. Dozens of Iwa Ninja would rush the stage, circling the actor and reciting their lines. The actor playing the Fourth Hokage would give his grand speech, about Konoha triumphing against all odds, and the will of fire, and then disappear. The Iwa ninja would all fall over 'dead', and the actor would reappear on stage, explaining to the audience that he had moved too fast to see.
The play was a crowd favorite. Minato Namikaze was easily one of the most loved of the Hokage, and his loss to the Kyuubi was almost unanimously the regret of those who didn't lose someone personally to the attack that year.
'Minato Namikaze.' The name brought unfamiliar feelings to Naruto as he thought it over. He was his father. Naruto, the poor orphan without a family, was the son of one of the most loved men in the village. Naruto Namikaze. It was a hard concept to wrap his head around. He'd been told from a young age that he wasn't abandoned due to a lack of love, despite what many of the crueler villagers had said. Still...
His mother, Kushina Uzumaki, had apparently died in childbirth. Nobody knew the truth. Nobody knew the real reason that she had died and the Kyuubi had broken free that night. Nobody really knew why the Fourth Hokage had to give his life to pass that burden onto his newly born son.
Naruto wasn't certain how to feel about that either. His own father was the reason he held the Kyuubi, the reason the villagers hated and feared him. The reason he was so neglected growing up, until he accidentally found Equestria.
"Oi, Naruto!" A voice brought him out of his own reflection, and he glanced over to see another cloud occupying the airspace. Perched across it was a grinning Genin.
"Konohamaru? What the hay?" Naruto asked, looking around in confusion.
"You gave this technique to the Monkeys right? Well you're looking at their latest summoner!" The child boasted, posing a few times before nearly losing his balance.
"Heh, I'd almost forgotten. How's that working out for you? The only Monkey I've met seemed rather stuffy." Naruto asked, turning to face the younger ninja as they sat in the sky.
"Nah, that's just the elders, the ones my age are awesome. Wei has been teaching me to fight with a staff, Wu has me learning all sorts of cool techniques, and Shu... Well Shu just takes me pranking a lot, but it's a good way to measure my skills. We stole three whole bottles of wine the other day!" He boasted, stretching back on his cloud.
"Ah well, a Monkey-summoning Monkey, who would have thought." Naruto laughed, causing the younger boy to frown.
"Yeah yeah keep laughing. I'm going to be Chuunin by the time the next exam is over, and probably a Jounin before you!"
"Better settle for Seventh Hokage, I'm going to be the sixth." Naruto replied, laying back to relax again.
"How are your summons doing? I see a few around sometimes, it's odd, the Monkeys don't enjoy coming here nearly as much." Konohamaru asked, after a few moments of silence.
"The Monkeys have had a contract with Konoha for generations, the novelty hasn't worn off for the Ponies yet." Naruto shrugged. "If you mean the three you used to play with, they're all doing well. Can't really call them the Cutie Mark Crusaders anymore, but they still 'crusade' regularly. Mostly it's get-rich-quick schemes they come up with."
"Any of it work?" Konohamaru asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Some. Beyond that, Apple Bloom is quite the builder, she's already consulting on designs for several major projects. Scootaloo still flies the only airship in Equestria, makes for a heck of a way to move cargo around. Sweetie Belle has become an Idol, her concerts sell out regularly."
"That's cool. You're going to the festival later right? I'm in one of the plays, playing the role of the Third Hokage in 'The Miracle of Bandit's Ridge'."
Naruto smiled, the title bringing back memories. "That's a good story. It's the one that got me interested in summons to begin with. I had no idea what I was doing back then, maybe it was dumb luck or the universe smiling on me." Laying back on his cloud he closed his eyes, feeling the nostalgia of the day. It hung thick in the air, as everyone in the village took moments throughout the day to contemplate the past.
He didn't notice when Konohamaru said his goodbyes, and floated back down to the ground to get ready for the evening.
The bell at the top of the door gave a small chime as another customer entered the flower shop. Ino was once again forced to spend her day off of training helping out with the family. Sighing she glanced up from the book she was reading, brightening immediately upon seeing who it was. "Sakura? I haven't seen you in ages! What brings you here?"
"Ah well, nothing in particular. I'm actually hiding from Naruto. He's got this 'no brooding' rule, and an uncanny ability to enforce it." Sakura grumbled, leaning up against the counter.
"Sasuke broods. You mope." Ino corrected, pleased to note some things about her old friend hadn't changed. "I suppose I can spare the time to listen though, for old time's sake."
The pinkette sighed, remaining silent for a few moments, before she placed her heavily bandaged right arm on the counter. "Do you think I'm pretty?"
Ino blinked, grinning slightly as she replied. "I don't swing that way Sakura."
That at least got Sakura to smile slightly, before continuing to frown. "Not what I meant. I mean like, objectively."
"Seriously? I mean, you're a mess right now. Your hair is atrocious, have you even been using conditioner? You've got bags under your eyes, and bruises all over. Your outfit is... practical at best. All in all you're the same as I've always seen you since you became a ninja, so what's the big deal?" Ino asked, seeing her former friend slump even farther.
"Harsh. Couldn't you have sugar coated it or something?" Sakura grumbled.
"If you wanted that, you would have gone to 'Mr. Optimism' himself." Ino shrugged.
"My arm is messed up." Sakura said, after a moment of silence. A tug at the bandages revealed the pale skin beneath. A myriad of fine scars crisscrossed the surface from finger tips to elbow. "I was lucky Fluttershy was there to fix it immediately, or I would have lost the arm. It'll still work fine, after some rehabilitation but..."
Ino simply stared, uncertain what to say. Sure scars were common among ninja. Some of the male population considered them cool, like badges of honor. Ino had seen far worse than Sakura's newly acquired ones, heck her father even worked with Ibiki, who's scars caused most seasoned ninja to pale.
"I know it's stupid, but I look at these scars, and think back to all of the things I gave up to get here. My hair, my makeup, my outfits. It all seems superficial. But there's more than that, I've lost friends, and free time, and I can't remember the last time I spoke to my family." Sakura said, still not taking her eyes off the back of her hand.
"I set out, after the academy, after our team passed our first test, to become strong. Plenty of girls in the academy wanted to be 'strong like Tsunade'. I wanted to become strong on my own, and have girls one day say they wanted to be 'strong like Sakura'. So I followed the boys. I trained with them, I sweated with them, I bled with them. I became one of the guys." She paused, taking a few breaths to calm herself.
"The nurses bandaged up my arm before I left the hospital. They assumed I'd be ashamed or disgusted by my scars. I realize now, I've been one of the guys so long that I just see them as cool. I see them as proof that I can punch the most destructive technique of an S rank Ninja and live." She laughed, the sound seeming hollow and out of place.
"I realize, I've been one of the guys so long, I forget how to be one of the girls." She shook her head, looking pitiful for the realization.
"That's stupid." Ino said, finally breaking her silence. "My mother used to say there was an infinite number of ways to be a girl. One for every girl in the world." Reaching out she grabbed onto her old friend's hand, pulling her around the counter. "C'mon, short hair is in this season, we'll pick a style for you. Then we need to go shopping for some more stylish ninja gear, practical as well of course."
Sakura smiled, for the first time in ages, shaking her head at her old friend's antics. "I missed you Ino."
"I missed you too, Sakura."
Naruto walked slowly down the streets of Konoha to his apartment, a cardboard box held in his hands. The world around him was tuned out as he thought over the box and what it meant. It was all that remained of his 'inheritance'. His parent's home was destroyed in the Kyuubi's attack, so suddenly there was no will, or last message from either his mother or father. A modest amount of money remained, neither parent was vastly wealthy. All he really received was what was picked out of the rubble in the aftermath.
It was depressing, but anything that could link him to his parents was more precious than gold to the blonde boy.
The door to his apartment swung open. Given the time he spent in Equestria growing up the place was rather empty. Often he'd return home after a long day and merely use the place as a safe zone, where he could pass between worlds in peace. He passed through the kitchen, with its outdated appliances, the bathroom which rarely had hot water, and into the bedroom. With a thump he flopped onto his bed, the box unopened, laying beside him.
The light from the window cast on his bedside table, drawing his attention. He smiled, sitting up and stepping closer. There was a photo, taken with his first camera, a 7 year old Naruto stood surrounded by brightly colored ponies, his own orange clothing causing him to blend in. He was smiling, not the fake smile he used to put on for the Old Man or Ichiraku, but a great big vibrant smile that reached his eyes. Beside it was another photo, taken with his team. All three of them looked happy, and even Kakashi was smiling with his one visible eye. Hanging off to the side was a familiar white and red mask.
He laughed, seeing it again. Fluttershy had recovered it from the pond, and several other ponies pitched in to recreate it, this time in pristine white porcelain. They'd given it to him for his seventh birthday, the same day he posed for the photograph. It was the first time his birthday was ever celebrated, and not the subject of scorn or violence.
With a soft smile he turned it over in his hands, fitting the elastic strap around his head. It was tight, and the mask was too small for him now, but he grinned anyways, placing it back on the desk. Turning back to the box on the bed, his smile faded away.
"Penny for your thoughts?" A soft voice asked from the doorway. Naruto turned in surprise to see Princess Celestia herself giving him a gentle look.
"What are you doing here?" Naruto asked, fingers tracing the edge of the lid absently.
"A princess knows when she is needed. Even if it's just for moral support." The Alicorn said, slowly walking over to sit next to the bed.
Naruto sat in silence a few moments, glancing down at the box. "Afraid?" Celesia asked, her tone comforting.
"A little. I know barely anything about my parents. There could be something amazing in the box, or there could be nothing. I'm trying not to be optimistic, but..." Naruto replied, fingers gripping the lid tightly.
"You know, I felt the disturbance the moment you entered Equestria for the first time. I was worried, until I received a letter from Twilight." Celestia commented.
"You remember it?" Naruto asked.
"I remember every letter from my faithful student... She was excited, understandably, about meeting a human for the first time, but what caught my attention most was how worried she was about you. She mentioned how hungry you looked, how you were dressed in rags when humans apparently never went without clothing. She relayed your stories of the villagers cruelty, as well as your obvious attempts at optimism. I believe, from that moment onwards, my student and her friends decided to do what Konoha would not."
"They really are my family, aren't they?"
"She triple-checked the list before sending you to the Academy, did she not?" Celestia asked.
"She only does that when it's really important." Naruto nodded, fighting back tears.
"You remember, shortly after your ninth birthday, your apartment was broken into?"
"They always trash it around my birthday, the reminder of the Kyuubi is too much for them." Naruto nodded. It was particularly bad that year, much of his furniture was broken, and the walls were covered in graffiti, he was lucky to be in Equestria when it happened.
"Twilight sent me a letter asking if there was a spell that could make you a pony forever. She didn't want you coming back here, to that sort of hostility and cruelty. Her friends talked her out of it, eventually, by reminding her of your dreams and ambitions. But you know, if it would have made you happy, we would have done it and welcomed you. You are family to us, Naruto Uzumaki, to Twilight and her friends, to my sister and myself, and anything inside that box can only add to it. You are wanted, and you are loved, and no matter what happens, you have an entire world on your side."
Naruto was crying when he finally pried the lid off of the cardboard box. The contents were packed with crumpled newspapers, and with trembling fingers he pulled out several objects. There was a mobile, for a baby, for him he dimly realized. Cardboard shapes hung down from a spiral of plastic, a fox, and ox, a beetle, a horse, a monkey, a turtle, a cat and a tanuki. He held it up and gave it a spin, trying not to think of the childhood he never had.
The next was a rusted, three pronged kunai. The paper seal tag was gone, probably lost to the elements, but the signature weapon served as a solid reminder of who his father was. "Do you resent him?" Celestia asked, seeing Naruto looking pensively at the knife.
"Not really..." The boy replied, after a moment of thought. "Considering everything that happened, that my own mother carried the Kyuubi before me, and the safety of the village was at stake. I respect him for having the courage to make the tough decision. If I was put into the same situation, I'm not certain I'd have what it takes to do the same."
Placing the knife on the bedside table with the photos, Naruto drew the final object out of the box. It was a photo, old and worn, showing a smiling couple. A handsome blonde haired young man held a happy redheaded woman in a loving embrace, while she in turn held a rather large stomach. "A family photo." Naruto said, letting out a laugh and sob at the same time, tears streaming down his face. "I'll put it with the others."
It was another two hours before Naruto emerged from the room, Celestia walking alongside him. Jiraiya sat in his kitchen, a hot cup of ramen in front of him, with another sitting to one side. "My biggest regret is not being there for my godson when he was growing up." His usual boisterous attitude was subdued, as he fingered an old tree branch that stuck out of his pocket. "I think it's high time I try to fix that, if you'll let me. Let's go to that festival, I'll tell you about the first day of training my Genin team."