A/N: Hey, y'all. Chuckles here. A while ago, I wanted to make a One Piece fanfic, but just kinda abandoned it when my ideas ran dry. Hopefully, this one proves to be a deeper well for me to draw from. In this story, I wanted to make the Narutoverse a little deeper with some personal headcanons, and a few lore tweaks. Storylines are gonna change, and the whole thing is gonna run differently than canon. I mean, this is supposed to be an AU, it'd be boring if it didn't, right?

Eh. Hopefully y'all will like it, and if not? Just throw this story somewhere atop the mountainous pile of trashy Naruto fanfiction.

Anywho, A/N over! Kick back. Relax. Take a breather, and let me take your mind somewhere else for just a little while.

I don't own Naruto. All rights belong to Masashi Kishimoto and the Shonen Jump corporation.

0-0-0

Naruto Uzumaki hadn't shown up to class for a week.

His teachers had been tense with anticipation for a big prank that never came. It was unusual for the kid to play hooky, as despite his lackluster academic performance, and troublemaker tendencies he really did try to apply himself in class. The boy had only ever been sick twice in his entire life as well, but he made sure to send notice to the academy of his absence ahead of time.

Iruka Umino, Naruto's homeroom teacher, was worried. Worst of all, he was possibly the only teacher in the school that even had it within him to care. Most adults in the village treated him like he was radioactive, or sick with some kind of contagious and terminal disease. Most instructors would give the little blonde boy a harder time during class and say nasty things about him behind his back. Umino Iruka seemed to be the singular exception.

It was 4:45 on a cold winter's day. The roofs were caked in a layer of old snow. The village's dirt roads had been cleared by young Genin this morning. Hiruzen Sarutobi sat at his desk shuffling through mission reports. A halo of pipe smoke hung around his head. Upon first meeting with the man, you wouldn't find anything too special about him (assuming that you didn't recognize his face carved into the mountain overlooking the village).

He was old. Noticeably so. His thinning hair had turned gray a long time ago. He had a care-worn face marked with liver spots, and his back had been hunched by long hours rifling through miles of paperwork. He wore snow-white robes trimmed with red. A wide-brimmed hat with (火) emblazoned on it rested at the corner of his half-circle-shaped desk. Upon closer examination, however. A person would immediately notice he was more than just an old man. He had a presence about him. Like a stern librarian that could silence anyone with a look, and an aura of gently controlled power that could be unleashed at a moment's notice.

A phone at the corner of the man's desk rang. The Hokage blew out a ring of smoke and answered it.

A teacher was at the other end of the phone. Iruka Umino. Hiruzen Sarutobi knew the man since he was only a boy, broken by the loss of his parents. His story was the story of thousands of other people in the village. What made him different was that the teacher was capable of looking past the shadow of a demon hanging over Naruto's head to see a lonely boy huddled underneath it.

Hiruzen Sarutobi had a hard time blaming the people of his village for their behavior. Naruto did have a demon in his stomach with the power to level half the country. He didn't expect the layman to understand the integrity of the seal keeping the demon away. Even he had a hard time understanding the Fourth Hokage's handiwork after all. If he could mimic his successor's techniques, he'd never walk anywhere again. Not with his joints aching the way they did.

This week, though? Naruto's reputation seemed to attract the worst kind of attention. Iruka called him telling him a story that came from the mouth of young Hinata Hyuga. She was being bullied by a group of older students, which Naruto tried to stop. The kids immediately turned on him, and beat him badly enough to break his nose. Naruto hadn't been seen in class since.

"..Failed you again" Hiruzen muttered around his pipe.

"...Sir?" Iruka's voice inquired from the other end of the phone.

"Ahem. I'll find him, Mr. Umino. I know the feeling of his chakra well. It's like looking for a firework in the night sky." Hiruzen's attention turned to a crystal ball lying on a cushion in the center of his desk. With only a gentle application of chakra, the ball lit up with blue mist. It swirled for a moment, filling with an array of colors that sharpened into the image of Naruto sitting at a campfire.

He was roasting a fish on a sharpened stick. The boy had a bandage across his swollen nose, cuts all over his face and his eyes had pronounced purple circles underneath them. Periorbital Ecchymosis, otherwise known as "Racoon eyes", Hiruzen noted. A symptom of a Basilar skull fracture. It would have taken much more than just a punch to the face to do this to Naruto. The boy may not be as strong as some of his classmates, but he was notoriously resilient. His attacker would have had to be stomping on his face repeatedly to do this.

Hiruzen's fist clenched. Hard. They would pay. No leaf ninja would do this to a comrade. Not if he had a say in it.

"I'll take it from here, Mr. Umino. The winter semester is nearing a close, and you have tests to grade, yes?"

"Yes sir. Please take care of my student." Iruka's tinny voice came from the other end of the line.

Hiruzen sat alone. His face lit by the crackling light of Naruto's campfire through the ball.

0-0-0

The village was burning. Sounds of sirens and screams filled the air almost as much as the smoke.

"My lord… Please…Please take care of him… My son… His name… Na…ru…to…"

She lay in a pool of blood. The same color as her hair. A hole had been pierced straight through her stomach, yet still, she had managed to crawl to her child's side as he squirmed on a small altar surrounded by candles. Naruto's father had already passed, yet his mother had managed to hang on til help arrived. The young babe was wailing inconsolably.

Hiruzen gently took the baby in his arms. He was so small, yet he could almost taste the wretched power of the demon fox swirling around him,

"Naruto? Hmm. Very well. I take full responsibility. Rest well, Kushina. You're free." He knelt to gently close her eyes.

The baby continued to cry. A building collapsed nearby sending a column of dust into the night sky, blocking the stars.

Hiruzen snapped out of the memory. He hadn't looked after her son. He'd made sure the boy was sheltered, fed, educated, and clothed, sure. But he'd missed out on something, he realized. Something vital.

He didn't make sure the boy was loved.

So much had happened since the nine-tails attack. Investigations had to be made, the village had to be rebuilt, and wars had to be prevented. He was barely managing to keep the village from collapsing in upon itself, but after a while, he'd let himself drift apart from the responsibility laid upon him by Naruto's mother.

Kushina… Minato… I've failed you both.

0-0-0

Naruto's campsite was easy to find, Hiruzen noted. Either he didn't care if he was found, or he didn't know how to hide it. Knowing the boy, it could have easily been both. Hiruzen didn't bother keeping himself hidden either, allowing his footsteps to crunch on the old snow, alerting the boy to his presence. He clocked an ANBU's shadow lurking in the treeline. Too dark to make out any features. Tenzo possibly. The ANBU commander Danzo liked to ensure that the fox wasn't too far away from its biggest weakness whenever Naruto was particularly emotional.

"...Hey, Gramps.", Naruto's blue eyes pierced him, as he mumbled around a mouthful of fish.

"Naruto, where have you been?" Hiruzen crouched across from him, the fire keeping them apart.

Naruto swallowed, and looked away, "Ah, y'know. Here. There… Around."

"Why haven't you been at school, boy? I thought that you wanted to be a ninja."

Naruto took another bite, and continued to talk, "There was this guy and some other jerks. Don't know their names. They were picking on a girl from my class. But she was way too nice to deserve that kinda thing, y'know?" He took a moment to chew," So, I got mad, stepped in, and tried my hand at teaching the jerks some manners. Then, y'know… This happened" He waved a hand over his face. Up close it looked even worse. How bad were those injuries just a few days ago?

"No big deal, I thought." Naruto continued, " I can teach him a lesson later, maybe prank him with some glitter bombs, or paint all his stuff pink. I found out where he lived, and when I did…" He sighed, throwing his fish bones into the flames,

"His dad hits him, Gramps. He hurts his mom too. I couldn't prank the guy after seeing that. His dad didn't even care that his son's arm was in a cast."

Hiruzen locked that information away for later, but kept his attention on Naruto, "Again. Why haven't you been back to school, yet boy?" Your teacher is worried about you."

"He is?" Naruto looked surprised,

"Indeed, he called me wondering where you've been."

"I dunno… I guess…"

Hiruzen waited for a while. What the boy said next made his blood run cold,

"After all that? I don't think that I want to live in Konoha anymore, Gramps. I don't think that I'm cut out to be a ninja."

"Out of the question." the response was immediate, and accompanied by a non-insignificant amount of panic.

"Everyone hates me, Gramps! I suck at school. I have no friends, and it's not like anyone would even miss me. It's not like anywhere else can be worse, y'know? I can hunt for food, uh, maybe build a cabin? I dunno…" Naruto's eyes trailed downward.

Hiruzen was well aware that children tended to run away when they were young. Rebelling was a natural part of maturing. His son Asuma certainly wasn't an exception.

That being said, not every child had a weapon of mass destruction ready to devour their soul at the first opportunity. Naruto needed to become a ninja. He needed to master his abilities. He needed to tame the fox. Otherwise… It would not only destroy Naruto, It would come back to finish off the Hidden Leaf, and everything else within a fifty-kilometer radius. Hiruzen had studied his predecessor's notes on the demon. It was not the kind of creature to forget a grudge.

Worse yet, As the village's guardian, Hiruzen could not let the decay of the boy's skills get that far. Too much rebellion would mean… He'd have to find another host for the demon. The Village's security depended on it. Naruto wouldn't survive the process.

"I promised your mother to take care of you. I. Promised." Hiruzen thought.

But… He would be the first to admit that he was an awful parent. Asuma would certainly back him up on that, possibly through a megaphone. He was a shoddy grandfather as well. Konohamaru wouldn't have tried to stab him with a kitchen knife yesterday otherwise. His wife Biwako was always the heart of the family, and when she was killed, that only left Hiruzen. He was an accomplished warrior. A devoted leader. A genius at strategy and statecraft. But a caring father? Well… every man has their weakness.

Hiruzen knew that he couldn't hack it as Naruto's Grandfather. He had neither the time, the patience, or the heart. But a teacher? Possibly… Hiruzen Sarutobi was legendary for the knowledge he had accumulated over his lifetime. His students were famous the world over for their prowess. He had mastered every technique that Konohagakure possessed; A feat not even the Uchiha clan could boast of. If Naruto was so depressed because he was failing his classes, then he was by far the most equipped to serve as a tutor.

"I know that you've been doing your best, gramps. You've paid for my apartment, and classes, and equipment, and all. Maybe it'd just be for the best if I got out of your hair." Naruto got up and began kicking snow over his fire, casting both of them into darkness.

"No."

"Eh?"

"NO."

A spark fell from the old man's pipe into the fire. With just a hint of chakra, the fire roared back into life with greater force. So hot that the flames glowed gold soaring ten feet into the air casting the two of them into flickering light.

"Naruto Uzumaki. I have failed you. Long ago, I made a promise to your mother that I would take responsibility for you. As the Hokage, the best way for me to do that is to ensure that you become the best shinobi you could become."

"Whuh? YOU KNEW MY MOM?!"

Hiruzen held up a hand, "She was a shinobi with phenomenal power. Ever since she was your age, she was burdened with the responsibility of keeping the village protected from terrible forces as great as the Kyubi no Kitsune. With her gone, that responsibility will soon fall into your hands."

Hiruzen knelt, and grabbed Naruto's shoulders," You cannot leave this village, Naruto. I need you to become a ninja just like her."

Naruto's face was filled with angry tears, "Find someone else then! Somebody who's not a dud! Someone everybody doesn't hate! Someone who matters!"

Don't you dare ask me to do that.

"My boy, you matter. You are not broken, you are simply lonely and hurting. Believe an old man's words, you are not as alone as you believe. There are people in this world who care about you and want you to succeed more than anything. I care. Iruka cares. Your classmate cares."

Even your absent Godfather cares…

"...really?" His voice was so small, so uncertain. So filled with the desperate hope that Hiruzen was telling the truth.

"It seems that you have been falling behind in your classes. Your calligraphy is sloppy. Your understanding of world history is abysmal. You cannot sit still for long enough to concentrate on your chakra, and you fail to even avoid cutting yourself with your kunai. No wonder you're depressed"

"Whuh?

"You need tutoring. Starting tomorrow, I will personally begin supplementing your education. Return to your apartment, and get a good night's sleep. I will see you at 7:00 sharp tomorrow. Be ready."

Hiruzen let his control on the campfire's flames fall, casting the both of them into dim light again. The fire was lit, and that was all that mattered.

"I… You have time for that?"

"I'll make time. I have plenty of ways to do so… and keep a secret between just the two of us?"

"Yeah?"

"You are absolutely worth it. Goodnight."

The Professor walked back towards his office. He had paperwork to do, and a lesson to plan.

0-0-0

Naruto stared at the Hokage's retreating back as he disappeared into the shadows.

"Was he telling the truth?" It was funny. For as long as the Hokage had been Naruto's sponsor, the kid couldn't say that he knew anything about him. It was probably the mark of a good ninja. Either that or it just went to show how little Naruto really paid attention to the world around him.

"Truth or no. I've gotta try harder. If what he's saying is true, then I'm gonna be fighting some scary stuff in the future. I've gotta be ready to kick its ass, or I'll never be anything more than a sad little blonde nobody to this village."

Naruto made a choice then. If the Third Hokage would give him a chance, then he'd give the Hokage a chance. Fair was fair.

And hey, maybe the old man would let loose some secrets on how to become hokage himself? Now there's a thought…

"Heh hehh… Get ready to give up that hat soon old man!"

AAAAAND That's a wrap! Hope I got y'all engaged with this chapter. I have some rough ideas on the rest of the plot coming up soon. Stay tuned!

Or don't. I'm not your dad.