Iruka didn't believe it, couldn't believe it. With a shaking hand he reached up and took Ruito's pulse.
He wanted to scream, rage, sob – or maybe a combination of all three. All that came out were silent tears. A cold numb sensation spread from his heart. The time from Ruito's death to the time he registered the hand on his shoulder was an eternity and an instant all in one.
"I'm sorry for your loss. Go take care of the boy. We'll handle the rest." Iruka stared at the ANBU he had brought back from the hospital before the words made sense. The medic-nin the ANBU must have fetched was checking Ruito's pulse. 'A little too late for that.'
Iruka shook away the thoughts and looked around him. Two new ANBU were taking the bound ex-teacher and Genin off while the two traitors cursed. Kouga's last teammate was nowhere in sight. The only ones left were the dog-faced ANBU, the late medic-nin and the cold body of Ruito.
The ANBU pointed to a dark corner where two buildings met at an angle. Squinting, Iruka could make out the shadowed form of a young boy. He acknowledged the ANBU's order but made no move to follow it. When the medic-nin took Ruito from his arms to prepare the body for transport, he weakly protested. The ANBU held Iruka back until the medic-nin started to remove the sword from his friend's back. That was too much to take. Iruka turned away and moved towards the boy in the shadows. It wasn't until he was almost there that he realized just who 'the boy' was.
Kyuubi. Nine-tails. Naruto Uzumaki.
No one could fault him for freezing. Right in front of him was the blonde boy Ruito had defended. The one his friend was adamant was just a child, not a demon. For this boy his friend had died. This boy was the root of all his troubles and frustrations for the past year.
'This boy' also happened to look heartbroken. Naruto Uzumaki was staring at where Ruito's body was being prepared with large hollow eyes. Iruka had never noticed just how blue those eyes were.
Tears streaked down the blonde's face in rivers and snot was running into the boy's mouth. Silent sobs were shaking his frame, but Naruto didn't seem to be aware anything but his former teacher. Looking back, Iruka realized that the ANBU and medic-nin had already left with the body, but another glance confirmed that Naruto's gaze hadn't moved an inch.
'He must be looking at the blood.' Ruito had died a messy death. A pool of blood was left behind. There was enough that a child could jump and splash in it like they did with large rain puddles. The image made Iruka shudder and turn away once more. Seeing Naruto wasn't much better. The boy was covered in blood. Looking down at himself, Iruka realized that his state of dress wasn't much better.
A choked sob brought him back to Naruto. The boy had curled up with his back against the joint walls and was sobbing into his knees. Iruka could feel his heart aching as he listened to the boy's grief. He tried to tell himself that this was the Kyuubi - that the monster deserved this pain for taking Ruito away from him.
The argument fell short at the sight of a broken boy. This was how he felt at the news of his parents' deaths. No one should have to feel that pain.
For several moments Iruka waged war within himself, emotions fighting emotions. Then he took the last few steps and scooped the blonde into his arms. Naruto's only response was to clutch at his Chuunin vest and bury his head into the fabric. Before he could change his mind Iruka took off towards the Hokage Tower. He couldn't help this child - this hybrid of demon and boy. But the Hokage cared for Naruto. The wise ninja would take the blonde off his hands. 'At least I hope he will.'
Naruto jolted out of sleep, heart hammering in his cheat, eyes wide in panic. After a few deep breaths he realized he was safe in bed. The blonde calmed and lay back down. The pillow was soft and his mattress lump-free. It was perfect.
'Wait a moment.' Opening one eye he peered around the room. His walls weren't tan. He didn't have a window with a nice view of the village. And his mattress was anything but lump-free. This wasn't his room.
Panic came back threefold. Thoughts were jumping around too much to make sense of anything. He didn't understand what was going on.
The mattress sunk in on one side and he glanced up to see the Hokage sitting next to him on the bed. Naruto had only seen the Hokage once before. 'I was in the hospital.' But this room wasn't like the hospital room. Glancing down he realized his arms were lightly bandaged. 'But they feel fine…'
"Do you remember what happened Naruto?" The blonde jumped, not expecting the voice when he was thinking so much. He stared at the old man, trying to figure out what he meant. It wasn't as if he had hidden for a few days again. Naruto wouldn't do that. Even with the Academy out, if Naruto didn't show up for sword practice Ruito-sensei would-
'No... No!' Ruito-sensei wouldn't die like that. His teacher was a terrific fighter! There was no way Goju-teme would be able to kill Ruito-sensei. That was just a really bad dream.
He must have run off to perfect his ninjutsu so he could convince Ruito-sensei to graduate him despite failing the exam. That had to be it. And then… and then he had… fallen down a cliff or something. And scratched up his arms and… and he had hit his head and was knocked out and a ninja watcher brought him to the Hokage because… because the ninja watchers had found out he practiced ninjutsu before he started the Academy and they were kicking him out! That's it! Naruto was being kicked out of the Ninja Academy and the Hokage was here to find out why Naruto didn't tell him about his ninja practice when they spoke last time and-
"Naruto!" The sharp command broke Naruto's thoughts and he was startled to find the Hokage's face right next to his own. He scooted back quickly to get some space and tried to explain why he hadn't told the Hokage about his practices. But nothing came out.
There was a big lump in his throat and the blonde couldn't seem to make it move. Breathing was difficult and Naruto realized he was crying and his nose was plugged up. He scrubbed the tears away and caught a line of snot before it could run into his mouth.
Shaking his head he tried once more to explain, but it didn't happen. A high-pitched whimper was the only noise that came out. Naruto shook his head harder as if it would shake away the lump and tears and pain. His heart was throbbing. He could feel his pulse in his head and someone was trying to rip his heart out, or squeeze it till it burst, or stab it to see how many time the knife would go in before there was nothing left.
Arms went around him and he tried to pull away. They didn't let him. The arms pulled him closer to a warm chest that was rumbling in time with a soothing voice he couldn't understand. He tried to shake his head harder, but was hindered by the soft robes his face was pressed in.
'This isn't happening. I don't need to be hugged. Nothing happened. I'm just in trouble for practicing ninjutsu and I'm going back to First Elementary and Ruito-sensei will be okay and-'
The soothing words were finally making sense, but he didn't want them to. The gentle voice of the Hokage was telling him everything would be okay, that he should let it out. Crying is a good thing sometimes. It helps. When an important person dies-
"No!" Anger lent him strength he didn't know he had. The Hokage's arms that wouldn't let him go went with the old man's body as he was shoved off the bed. The room spun and Naruto fell face first on the bed, clutching his stomach. Rage rushed through his body.
'The Hokage is wrong! No one died. And crying doesn't help, it never helps!' Rage turned into hate. He hated Kouga-teme for being a bully. He hated Goju-teme for hating him. He hated the Hokage for lying to him. He hated Ruito-sensei for leaving him.
'No. I don't hate Ruito-sensei! I can't hate Ruito-sensei! He's- He's an important person! He cared! He taught me-' Another wave of anger and hate smothered his thoughts. Short flashes of memory ran through his head.
He remembered the first time he scraped his knee and went to Kogeru-san to make it better. The orphanage caretaker had looked at him like Goju-teme did and told him that a monster doesn't need any help. When he started to cry harder Kogeru-san had slapped him hard enough to knock him into a wall and yelled at him to stop playing around - had yelled that a monster doesn't feel pain like good kids do.
He remember the first time he dropped a pot filled with hot water and rice and burned his legs so badly he screamed. The blonde had been slapped out of his shock and told to quit making such noise and clean up the mess he made. When he moved too slow Kogeru-san had yelled at him some more and told he wouldn't get any dinner for the trouble he caused.
He remembered the first time he was yelled at for trying to play with the other kids in the park. He had been so happy being away from the orphanage but it seemed this life was just as lonely. When he started to cry the other adults noticed him, but no one came to help. They glared at him and quickly got their own children and led them away from the park. The feeling of emptiness as he stared at the villager's backs was worse than anything Kogeru-san had ever done to him.
And then there was Mendo and his gang. They helped him, tried to be his friends. Naruto remembered the day he looked for Mendo to show him the cool rock he found. The older boy was being beat upon by a group of drunks. The blonde hid and watched, not knowing what to do, but knowing that Mendo wouldn't want Naruto to see him being beat. The parting words of one drunk as they left Mendo in a bruised heap made Naruto realize he could never have friends with the village kids.
"Keep hanging around that monster and we'll be back."
Naruto wanted to hurt those men. The ones that hurt Mendo. The ones that hurt him. The ones that showed him that he would never be normal. He wanted everyone to feel the same pain he felt. He wanted to them to lay in a bruise heap at his feet and know they had no power over him. He wanted to shed their blood like they had shed his. To make it run in rivers and pool in the street like Ruito-sen-
'Ruito-sensei!' The pain of loss cut through the hate and rage. It flooded his system, leaving the blonde drained. He couldn't find the strength to move. Arms lifted him up and he felt the Hokage's soft robes on his face, but he didn't care anymore. Let the old man hold him. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered.
"Oh Naruto. Life has not treated you well. Such tragedy should never be felt by a child."
'It doesn't matter. I'm not a child. I'm a monster.'
"Fate has given you a hard hand to play with, but no matter what happens, you continue to go on. You have taken life's challenges and overcome them every time."
'No. No more. I don't care anymore.'
"Ruito saw that. He looked beyond what others said of you and saw the wonderful boy you are."
'But he's gone now. He's gone and it's my fault.'
"He cared for you Naruto. He watched you, taught you, and enjoyed seeing the potential you possess grow each day."
'It didn't matter. What good am I if I couldn't save him.'
"Despite the way you are treated you continue to smile each day. The pure drive and determination to be the best you can be gave him strength as well."
'It didn't help. He still died.' Tears were falling again. He wanted them to stop.
"You will be a great ninja one day. That was what Ruito wanted. He wanted you to be happy."
'I was happy with Ruito-sensei. I don't care about being a ninja. I want Ruito-sensei.'
"I know that losing a loved one is hard, but know that he died protecting one he cared about. There is no better way to die."
'He shouldn't have died. He shouldn't have cared. No one else did! Why?' He chocked back a sob, but still felt it tremor through his body.
"Shh. It's okay Naruto. Cry. Grieve. Let it out. Only then can you go on."
'I don't want to go on! I want Ruito-sensei!' A sob broke through this time and he couldn't hold them back anymore. A hand rubbed his back and he found the strength to lift his arms and clutch at the Hokage's robe, burrowing his head deeper in its folds.
They stayed like that until the sobs grew quieter and the tears ran down to a trickle. The blonde asked the one question he still couldn't answer in a voice the Hokage had to strain to hear. "Why?"
The Hokage didn't answer for a moment, letting the question hang in the air. "Why did Ruito save you? Because he didn't want to see your life end just as you were learning what it was like to really live. You were important to him, and when something is important, a ninja will give everything to keep it safe."
"But why?" The question was more of a quiet plea than a true question.
"You are very special Naruto. Anyone who takes the time to look can see that."
Naruto jumped to the floor and glared defiantly at the Hokage - anger giving him strength once more. "But why did Ruito-sensei have to go? Why didn't someone save Ruito-sensei?"
The blonde's voice echoed off the walls. And the old man looked at him with sad eyes. "Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. We can only try our best to make sure such things never occur. When they do occur we have two choices: we can allow ourselves to be defeated by them or we can take our mistakes and learn from them.
Naruto shook his head. "That's not good enough. Ruito-sensei is dead! Dead! Why? Why did it have to happen? Why weren't you there? Aren't you suppose to protect everyone? Why!"
The Hokage knelt in front of the blonde and placed his hand on his shoulder. "Naruto. What happened to Ruito should have never happened. I thought with you being in Ninja Academy that the teachers would look out for you. I used the Chuunin that guarded you for other missions that desperately needed attention.
"I was wrong. I believed that my request to leave their hatred aside would be enough for the Academy teachers. I should have kept a better eye on the situation, and double-checked to make sure the teachers were following orders."
"I didn't think it would be necessary. I have trust in my people, but strong emotions can sometimes overwhelm the strongest ninjas. I knew that things would be rough at first, but ninjas are trained to look underneath the underneath. I believed they would do so without having to be asked."
"No! Why me? Why do they have to hate me so much? What did I ever do?" Naruto bowed his head and tried to see if the patterns in the wood grains would tell him the answer. No matter how often he asked, no one had been able to tell him just why everyone looked at him with such cold eyes. If he just knew what he had done to have made such hate and pain he'd be able to make it up somehow.
Another hug enveloped him. And for the first time he tentatively returned it. His arms wouldn't wrap all the way around but he held on tight, hoping that for once he would find an answer.
"If only I could tell you Naruto, but I cannot. Not yet. Just know that there is nothing you have ever done to deserve such pain. You are a good boy, and will grow up to be a strong ninja. One day, everyone will see it. One day, the name Naruto Uzumaki will be known throughout Konoha as a true hero. Ruito knew that as well."
The pain in his heart eased a little as he listened to the Hokage's words. 'Ruito-sensei.' Only now did he remember what his teacher had said. "Goju's wrong… not a monster… don't believe… people like that… You're a good kid… but some… Some people won't see that… get stronger… surprise them all… grow up and prove… prove to them you're… Naruto Uzumaki…"
The lingering anger and hate was pushed down as a burning resolve started to form deep in Naruto's heart. He stepped back and looked up at the Hokage. He looked tired and sad. This old man had cared for him as well. Though they had only met twice, the Hokage had helped him all his life. If it hadn't been for the ninja watchers, Naruto would still be playing pranks, all by himself. If it hadn't been for the Hokage, Naruto would have never gotten into the Ninja Academy, never met Ruito-sensei or Hitori-sempai.
"To be Hokage is to be more than the strongest. A Hokage must look after all the people in the village. He must love each person in it and look after them. Oh, it isn't easy. But you learn to look past people's faults and see the good in them. Each person in this village has value. You just need to find it."
The Hokage's words from their first meeting came back as he continued to study the Third's face. The Hokage was supposed to be the strongest ninja in the village. Naruto believed that. He looked at this old man who was tired and sad and trying so hard to make Naruto feel better. And he realized that this was also what the Hokage was. An old man. And everyone seemed to forget that.
Naruto's decision was made.
"Alright old man! You better enjoy the next few years for I'm going to be taking your job soon. Just you wait! You're looking at Naruto Uzumaki, the future Fifth Hokage of Konoha! Just wait and see! Everyone will acknowledge me and you'll have to sit back and sleep all day like all the other old farts do!"
The surprise on the Hokage's face was priceless. The old man's eyes got wide and his jaw dropped a little. He recovered quickly but it was enough to put a big shit-eating grin on Naruto's face. 'I'll show them Ruito-sensei! I'll surprise them all. They'll never know what hit them!'
As he watched the Hokage trying to find something to say back to him, he could have sworn he saw Rutio-sensei grinning at him at the Hokage's side. As his teacher faded away, he heard the Chuunin's last words echo in his head. "Smile Naruto… always liked… your… smile…"
It made his impossibly wide grin wider. 'Always, Ruito-sensei. Always.'
Iruka pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to wish his headache away. It was the first day back after the summer break and the kids were high strung. Fights and troubles had been breaking out all morning. He could tell this year was going to be a long one.
Currently his problem was Ino Yamanako bickering loudly with Sakura Haruno. Ino had never been in his class before and he was amazed with her lung capacity. The fact that Sakura was able to match her friend was still putting him in shock. Sakura had always been a quiet studious girl. He had never seen her raise her voice to anyone.
'Enough is enough.' He clapped his hands to gather the class's attention and placed a calming hand on the two girls shoulders. "We're going to review the transformation technique today. You will transform yourself into Hokage-sama." A collective groan made its way through the classroom and Iruka held back a grin. Sometimes it paid to be a teacher.
He ran through the classroom attendance list and each person transformed with decent marks. Then he ran across a name he hadn't thought of for a while. "Naruto Uzumaki."
As the young blonde made his way to the front of the class, Iruka tried to figure out how he could have forgotten that the nine-tails was going to be in his class. It had been a little over a year since Ruito's death and the only time Iruka had ever seen Naruto was at a distance.
The Academy staff had a complete overhaul and the only ones now working were those that could be trusted to stay polite. Iruka had tried his best to avoid the situation entirely, but he had still caught pieces of conversation throughout the year.
He didn't excel in class as he had during Ruito's year. Mizuki had taken him into his class and could only report average skill in physical portion of class and terrible skill in academics. Iruka hadn't allowed himself to wonder what that was about.
Instead, Naruto was most well known for skipping classes and pulling pranks on teachers and students alike. Iruka and Mizuki had been the only two that had never been caught in one of the blonde's infamous prank traps. Iruka hadn't allowed himself to wonder what that was about either.
As always, classes were mixed a little at the beginning of each year to allow the students to know more of their fellow classmates. This year Iruka had kept four of his previous students, had gained three that he had in the first year, and had four more he had never taught before. Including Naruto Uzumaki.
"Henge!" He was brought out of his musing by the blonde's yell. A puff of smoke surrounded the boy and Iruka waited patiently to see how well Naruto had done. The rest of the class had only learned this skill near the end of last year. Naruto had learned it nearly eighteen months ago.
As the smoke cleared, Iruka could only stare in surprised horror. There was the Hokage, but he was ultra short with fish lips. Iruka slapped a palm against his face and tried to fight against the worsening headache. He glared at Naruto, wondering why the boy had failed so miserably.
The class laughed as Naruto returned to his original form. The blonde laughed as well and rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. He waved a hand in front of himself as if to ward off Iruka's glare. "That was a joke! I did it on purpose."
Iruka continued to glare and pointed at the blonde to drive home the fact that he wasn't pleased. "Quit fooling around Naruto! This is your third year in the academy!" The blonde seemed taken aback at Iruka's abrupt tone. "Do it again, you fool!"
Imediately Naruto performed another henge. As the smoke cleared, Iruka looked down upon the same misshapen Hokage. "Are you doing that on…" Iruka trailed off when the deformed Hokage's eyes met his. There was a hint of blue in those supposedly brown eyes, silently pleading for something.
He didn't have time to figure it out when the class broke out in laughter once more. "Is this for real? You've been in the academy for three years, and you still can't transform properly?" Iruka resisted the urge to sigh for the umpteenth time today. Kiba Inuzuka was a good kid, but rather loud and obnoxious. Last year had been troublesome, but this was the year Kiba should be getting his dog partner. Iruka had hoped another teacher would have gotten him.
Naruto de-transformed and scowled at Kiba. "You all just watch I'm going to become the real Hokage one day!" The class just laughed harder.
"Are you stupid? You? Hokage?" Kiba's words made Naruto look at the floor. The class might have thought it was in shame or embarrassment, but Iruka was close enough to see the blonde grit his teeth and clench his fists. The blonde's entire body was shaking in suppressed tension. The class probably thought he was fighting against tears, but Iruka was wondering if he was going to have a real fight on his hands.
Just as he was about to step in, Naruto's body relaxed. Beneath the bowed head, Iruka noticed a sly grin form. The class's laughter was loud, but Iruka was close enough to make out the blonde's whispered words. "They'll definitely be surprised Ruito-sensei."
When the blonde looked up a cheesy grin was in place, looking like a complete idiot. But Iruka caught a glint of steel determination in the squinted fox eyes of his latest student. He leaned down for a closer look, but his movement caught Naruto's attention and in the next instant it was gone.
"Sorry about the Umino-sensei. Am I done?"
The class was still laughing, and Iruka realized that even if he asked Naruto to try again, the results would be the same. It didn't matter if Naruto knew the henge or not. The blonde wasn't going to perform it correctly. As he gazed into the blue eyes of his student he noticed that the determination wasn't completely gone. He could see it there beneath the cheerful exterior.
He remembered the last time he truly looked into this young boy's eyes. The pain and emptiness had overwhelmed him, causing him to wonder if a demon could truly feel such things. He had been ignoring the conflict for over a year, not wishing to dredge up old feelings and memories of Ruito when the pain was still fresh.
But he had finished grieving a while ago, and Ruito's memory wasn't painful to reflect upon. Iruka still wasn't sure if this was the nine-tails or Naruto Uzumaki, but for Ruito, his lost friend, he was willing to try and find the right answer.
"Umino-sensei?" Naruto looked confused and Iruka realized he had been lost in thought long enough for the laughing to quiet a little. He gave one last look at the blonde before deciding.
"Call me Iruka-sensei, Naruto." Iruka smiled at the surprised look on Naruto's face. Naruto would be the first to call him by his first name as a teacher. Only teachers that had a one-on-one teaching relationship were called by their first name. General academy classes weren't on the same level as private tutoring or Genin training. But this seemed right. Ruito had seen something in this boy and the best way to find that would be to treat Naruto as Ruito had. 'I'll try and see what you saw Ruito. I won't let the hate blind me to whatever the truth may be.'
Author's Note: Yes, this particular story is complete. There will be no further updates. Many have requested a sequel and I do have some ideas, but I don't have any concrete plans to actually do one. Trial and Error was ment to be a prequel to the Cannon verse, nothing more. Still, I have started on a re-write of Trial and Error that would help make way for a future sequel.