by The SOC Puppet
Part 1 – Battle Within
[Author's Note: I haven't read the manga, so all I have to go on is the anime, and what I've read of the manga summaries on the Net. This story will start during/after Episode 29 of the anime; after that, it'll probably become an AU.]
" " – Speech
Italics - Thoughts
"Get up, boy." Naruto didn't stir. Half of him didn't feel like it, and the other half felt so battered and beaten, it couldn't have moved anyway. That long-tongued freak really did a number on me…
"I said get up! If you've got the strength to complain, you've got the strength to stand back up and do something about it!" This time the voice moved him a bit. He'd never heard anything like it, with power and tone so strong it felt like a physical force upon him. Gingerly, favoring his wounds, he sat up.
"About damn time." Naruto had had enough.
"Who the hell are you, anyway?" Looking around didn't help; there was nobody in sight. And a strange sight indeed... It was the Forest of Death, where he was taking the Chuunin Selection Exam, and yet it wasn't. He could see the trees, but where there had been light, all was dark. Once shadow-covered areas glowed with a strange energy; in the distance a dark dome loomed over the skyline, pulsing with an unknown malevolence. Sakura and Sasuke, who should have been on the trees nearby, along with their unknown assailant, were missing.
"Who I am you will find out soon enough. Don't bother looking around for your teammates; this isn't the Forest of Death." Still grimacing, Naruto stood, looking about to place the voice's location. He found it hard; the voice seemed to come from all about him, permeating the almost-forest.
"Then where the hell am I? How long have I been out cold?" The voice sounded half-amused and half-disgusted.
"You're still out cold. This is all within your mind. And unless you can get your act together, you're probably better off staying unconscious."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Bah, you'll know better when we speak in person. You can see that dome in the distance, I presume."
"Yeah…" Naruto drawled out the comment, feeling a bit uncooperative.
"You do realize that I know exactly what you think, don't you? Being an idiot is only going to make things worse."
"If you know what I think, then you know I want you to show your damn face! Stop skulking around like that long-tongued freak!" He would have thrown a kunai, but without a target it seemed futile.
"Want to know why you're out cold instead of still fighting? You can't even stand to sit still and talk to somebody without flying off the handle. Some future Hokage." The voice dripped undisguised contempt.
"You have two choices, boy. You can find your way through that forest, and meet me on the cliffs near the dome. Or, you can simply ignore me and try to wake up on your own. If you really want to be Hokage, to become truly strong, you'll come here and face me man-to-man." A hint of laughter crept into the last sentence, as if the speaker had meant it as a joke. That got Uzumaki Naruto's attention. Laughing at me? We'll see who's laughing when I get my hands on you!
He leapt up from his branch and set out into the forest, intent on finding his tormentor.
Okay, this definitely isn't the Forest of Death I remember. Naruto thought about the situation as he dodged yet another pitfall on his way to the cliffs. He'd thought to walk there, to rest muscles tired from coming to his teammates' rescue (for all the good that had done), but was greeted by traps, snares and pits. The trees were no safer, hiding odd, poisonous-looking creatures and all sorts of sawed-through branches and oil-slickened trunks.
The voice still plagued him, occasionally making snide comments when he barely managed to avoid another trap, and generally making a nuisance of itself. If nothing else, he was still moving because he wanted to shut whoever it was up for good.
Whoops, another one. Hidden under those heavy leaves, almost missed it. He swung lightly around a small sapling, jumping over the rope snare, and focused his chakra briefly to his feet, bouncing off a larger tree, always moving forward.
"There, now; is that so bad? To think about a situation rationally, not leaping in with both feet, half-blind?" Naruto wasn't sure whether to be annoyed again or feel subtly complimented.
"If I didn't know any better I'd think you were trying to teach me instead of making my life a living hell."
"Bah, you think this is bad? I'm taking it easy. If you hadn't shown the guts you did against Orochimaru, I'd not have given you even the slightest possibility of a shortcut to me."
"That 'long-tongued freak' you keep mouthing curses at. His name is Orochimaru, and he's one dangerous guy. I'm not surprised you don't know him; your teachers have better things to do than tell you stories about criminal missing-nins way above your level." Naruto bristled.
"Hey! I beat that gigantic snake, didn't I?"
"You got lucky!" The voice snapped, shaking the air and ground around him with the force of its statement. "He was toying with all of you, even the Uchiha kid. When he got serious, you wound up here quickly enough. But that was his mistake."
"Whaddaya mean, mistake?"
"Orochimaru saw you accessing the Ninetails' chakra when you went berserk and started beating the second snake up. He knocked you out by strengthening the seal on the Ninetails, which drained you of chakra and sent you here. But what he didn't know was that in making the seal stronger, he also made me stronger than I've been in a long time. If you ever manage to get your sorry ass to the cliffs, you'll find out why that was a huge mistake on Orochimaru's part.
"So keep moving!" Still muttering under his breath, Naruto complied. Not like I've got anywhere ELSE to go…
"I made it through the forest, you sadistic bastard! The least you could do is meet me halfway!" Naruto panted another complaint as he rested on the thin ledge, a few feet up the sheer, rocky cliff. He had no sooner celebrated passing the forest when he found out that his kunai wouldn't pierce the rock of the cliffs, and there were no cracks to pry open. He would have to scale the heights one handhold at a time.
"A kunai's as much a tool as a scroll or sword would be. If you ever went undercover, the only thing you could depend on would be yourself. So get used to it, and get up here! If you've got the strength to complain…" Naruto finished the sentence for the umpteenth time.
"I've got the strength to get moving. Yeah, yeah. I've heard it a million times already."
"All you have to do to shut me up is reach the top, boy…if you can." The teasing tone of the voice only made him angrier. Keep laughing, Chuckles.
Naruto climbed slowly, painfully. Handholds disappeared suddenly, crumbling off the rock face, or just vanishing along with more disembodied laughter. More than once, he fell onto ledges or slid down the cliff until he could desperately hook an arm or leg around an outcropping. His perceptions vanished; height didn't matter, only movement. Upward lay victory, and every little slide or stumble was a defeat. And Naruto hated losing.
By the time he draped an arm over the edge of the summit, Naruto barely registered his success. Shoulders aching, muscles taxed, he dragged himself over the edge to lie on flat rock again, limp as the ramen his empty stomach craved. A shadow soon loomed over him.
"Not bad, kid. You may become Hokage after all." He closed his eyes, savoring the victory.
"What do you care? What's your stake in this anyway?"
"Take a good look, if you really want to know." The voice was different now, almost proud. Naruto opened his eyes to see a man in the familiar Hokage robes, but it wasn't the Hokage he knew. This one he knew only from a face carved in solid, emotionless rock, looming above the Hidden Leaf Village. He stared up at a tall man, with spiky blonde hair peeking out from under his conical hat, like a halo of sunlight.
"I am the Fourth Hokage of the Hidden Leaf Village. The man who sealed away the Ninetailed Fox Demon.
"And I'm your father."