Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto...if I did, it would be much kinkier!
Author's Note: Okay, before we get started here, I would like to make one thing very clear. The abuse implied in this chapter is not in any way of a sexual nature. I quite deliberately left the things that happened vague because, quite frankly, I was not and will not write about the abuse and/or torture of small children. One reviewer has chosen to interpret that lack of explicit detail as the child being raped. That I'm not going to go into my thought on that, but that is not at all what is meant to be implied by anything in this story. This does not mean that I condone the abuse of children. Child abuse is a serious and reprehensible act in all situations, and I refuse to write anything more specific than what is already there. For a child in the situation that this one is in, to think that there would be abuse is not a stretch. However, I refuse to write about it, and mentioning that it's happening is used to introduce a non-canon connection between two characters that wouldn't have otherwise been connected in a way that I need them to be further down the plot.
"How can such a terrible creature look like such a cute little girl?"
A small, blond figured cried in the darkness. It was too much…it was all too much. How was she supposed to deal with it all? What had she done to deserve this?
"If we can't kill the little bitch, we should at least have a little fun with her…"
She didn't understand, couldn't understand. She was too young to know what was happening to her, other than to know that it was wrong…so wrong. Everywhere she looked there was fear, anger, sadistic gazes. She just wanted it all to go away, especially the ones looking for 'fun'…
The Hokage stared at Naruto across his desk, his gaze warm but speculative as he waved off Iruka, who had just delivered the village's most notorious prankster to him. "You can go back to your class now, Iruka; I think I can handle our prankster. I'll be sure to return Naruto to class when we're finished." The brunette looked surprised for a moment, but quickly complied with his leader's orders. Sarutobi continued to watch the blond for a moment after the chuunin left, taking a long draw from his pipe and releasing it slowly. "Naruto, Naruto, what am I supposed to do with you?"
The blond gave him a cheeky grin. "Treat me to ramen for pulling such a great trick? I would have got away with it too, if those idiots hadn't looked up at the wrong time."
The old man chuckled softly. "Naruto, we can't have you defacing the village monuments. Tomorrow is the graduation exam! No one will take you seriously as a shinobi if you continue with this foolishness."
Naruto gave him a pained look. "Foolish! It's a masterpiece, old man! I know you can see it!" The blond's grin was contagious.
Sarutobi attempted to look stern, though his mouth twitched suspiciously as he spoke. "Painting all over the Hokage monument isn't a 'masterpiece'. You'll clean it up after class tonight. Iruka will supervise. Have you given any thought to what we discussed last month?"
The blond's demeanor instantly became serious. "I'm not telling 'em, old man. No one needs to know." The tone was firm and decisive, much to the elderly leader's dismay.
The elderly Hokage shook his head. "You're not going to be able to hide it forever, Naruto. You're old enough…certain things are going to start happening."
There was mischief in the blue eyes that met Sarutobi's. "It'll be my biggest prank ever then! Who better to pull off something like this? They don't think of me as anything else…why should I let 'em in on my secret? None of 'em likes me anyways, cuz their parents don't like me…I won't be seen as weak in front of 'em."
The old man frowned at that. "It's not a weakness…we have plenty of strong…"
Naruto cut him off there. "It's not the same though. It's never been the same. The things expected are different…the standards are different! Few are exceptional, and the ones that are have to work twice as hard to get that far…I refuse to be held down to what people think of them!"
Sarutobi sighed. "We'll see. Go back to class now, and we'll talk about this again after the exam."
The blond grinned and stood, waving carelessly and heading right for the door. "Only if you treat me to ramen when I pass, old man!" Laughter could be heard as the prankster headed back to class.
The Hokage sighed, feeling every year of his age at that moment. "Naruto, why can't I make you see? If only you hadn't died, Minato, maybe things would have been different for her." The old man turned resolutely back to the mound of paperwork that awaited his approval. Though he was determined to get Naruto to reveal her true nature, he hadn't become Hokage without learning that there was a proper time and place for everything. The girl couldn't run from what she was forever, no matter how much she managed to look like a boy.
"Mommy, that little girl looks sad. Can I go play with her?"
The voice that answered the question was sharp and angry. "Don't you dare go near her, Ino. That girl's no good…bad blood. You're not allowed to play with her, you hear me?"
There was a pause as the young blond tried not to look over at the other little girl and her mother. She wondered briefly what it would be like to have a mother…
A shaky soprano answered, "Yes, Mommy…I hear you. No playing with her…"
The younger blond just sighed softly and continued to play in her little corner of the park.
When school let out the blond could be found at the Hokage monument, with Iruka watching over her as she sullenly scrubbed her work off the sun-warmed stone faces. "You're not going home until you've gotten every bit of it off!"
The prankster glared up at him as she continued scrubbing. "I know that! Not like I have anything to go home to anyways…" She looked quickly back down at her work, muttering as she pushed away the empty feeling that statement brought surging up. She'd been alone for such a long time. The old man helped out as much as he could, but he was the village leader, so he only had so much time for her.
"Naruto…" She heard the softer tone in her teacher's voice, and looked up. He hid it quickly, seeming slightly embarrassed as he announced, "When you have it all clean, we can go get some ramen. My treat!" He seemed determined to look anywhere but her at that moment.
Her eyes lit up as she scrubbed stone with new-found vigor. If there was anything she loved in the world, it was ramen. "Ramen, ramen! You're the best, Iruka-sensei!" The sense of emptiness retreated for the moment…she loved it when the chuunin took her out for ramen. He didn't do it very often, but he never seemed to do it out of pity. She'd never understood why so many of the adults hated her, but Iruka didn't seem to be like them. She didn't trust it completely, of course…but it was nice to imagine, even if it was only for a little while, that he was an older brother. That he was family.
She had taken too long at the park that afternoon, and she knew it. It was getting dark…never a good time for her. As much as she loved being outside, the darkness was a bad time for her. She didn't know why, but worse things always happened at night. Bad things hid in the dark. So, she rushed home tonight, trying not to show her trembling. She could feel the air around her thicken, the intent to harm her like electricity, tingling across her skin.
She darted into an alley to take a shortcut, but immediately realized that was a mistake as shadows fell over her from behind. She tried desperately to suppress a whimper as she dashed for the other end of the alley, but she wasn't fast enough, and the space was too confined. A rough hand caught her arm, and a male voice drawled in soft, cruel amusement, "Well, what do we have here?" She was jerked around hard and tossed to the ground. "What are you doing, sneaking around in the dark? Monster…we should teach you a lesson…"
The class the next morning was full of anticipation, tense with excitement. The graduation exam day had arrived, and they all wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Naruto was especially nervous, though she covered it well with her loud jokes. The skill that was to be examined was kept secret until the examinations took place, to ensure that no one got the chance to practice it to the exclusion of any other skill. A ninja was required to be fairly well rounded to pass the graduation exam, so it was fair to think that they should be able to use any skill required equally.
As the bell to signal the start of class rang, Iruka walked in with the assistant teacher Mizuki in tow. The class settled down quickly as Iruka took his place at the front. "Examinations will take place in the next room, by order of name. You will be told immediately if you pass or fail, and may leave and have the remainder of the day to yourself after the exam. The skill that we will be examining today is the bunshin no jutsu."
Naruto groaned as he announced the first name. The bunshin no jutsu was her worst skill! She practiced and practiced, but the skill required to make a clone always seemed to elude her. She put her head down on her desk as the exams started. She had to pass this time. There was no way she was going to be held back because she couldn't make a stupid clone! She knew that Iruka was aware of her problems with that jutsu, and almost certain that he was doing this to her on purpose.
Her turn finally came around, and she was bursting with nervous energy as she walked into the room, watching Iruka take his place at the examination table beside Mizuki. The brunette nodded brusquely and said, "Go ahead, Naruto. Show us your skill." Mizuki seemed to be watching with interest, though it didn't seem unkind.
She took her place before the table, taking a deep breath. There was no way she was going to let this damned jutsu hold her back! She took her stance, forming her hand seal with care and calling up her chakra. She closed her eyes, concentrating on the skill she was trying to perform, and released her chakra with a shout. "Bunshin no jutsu!" The smoke cleared, and she opened her eyes to look to her right expectantly…only to find a single, pathetic looking clone. Suppressing a surge of disappointment, she looked up at the two teachers on the other side of the table. Iruka stared back; his lips pinched thin, and then he roared, "You fail!"
She bit back a cry of protest. Mizuki gave her a sympathetic look. "Come now, Iruka…this is his third exam. He did technically create a clone. Maybe we could let him pass anyways?"
Iruka shook his head, his tone stern. "No, Mizuki. Everyone else managed to produce at least three clones. He only produced one, and it was a useless one at that. We can't make an exception."
She stood there, stiff and nearly trembling in disappointment. She'd tried so hard, but they were keeping her back again because of one stupid skill! She refused to give in to the tears that were threatening to burst out though. Instead, she turned and walked out silently, suddenly needing to get away from the Academy, be anywhere but there. She heard Iruka's voice call after her and sped up to a run, ignoring the regret that was suddenly so obvious in it.
She curled up in a ball, expecting to be hit. She was almost always hit. They seemed to like punishing her, but they never really explained why. Sometimes there were other things, but most often she was hit. She could feel the intent from her attackers intensify, but a new presence suddenly cut through it, sharp and unfamiliar. There was a rush of air above her, and the sounds of her attackers grunting. A few soft, very squishy sounding thumps and a growl. A deep voice drifted through the alley from somewhere above her. "This child is under the protection of the Sandaime Hokage. While some may choose to forget this, I do not. Leave, or I will take further action."
The voice of the man leading her attackers was resentful as he spat, "How can anyone loyal to Konoha protect that little brat? That monster should be…"
There was the near-silent hum of a kunai being thrown, cutting the man off as he yelped to get out of the way. The deep voice replied in a deceptively mild tone, "That is treason, you know. Hokage-sama's orders are very clear, as anyone loyal should know." The tone hardened into iciness. "Now, leave. This is your final warning. If I dislike the next words out of your mouth, you will be explaining them to Hokage-sama. Understood?"
The man's answer was sullen. "Yes, Anbu-sama, of course. We'll just…be going now."
There was some shuffling in the alley, which got fainter and then finally disappeared altogether, as did the killer intent around her. The small blond opened her eyes slowly to find the Anbu still standing over her, watching her from behind his weasel mask. He crouched as she started to push herself up, extending his hand to her slowly when he noted her flinch. She noted his dark hair, pulled back into a tidy ponytail at the nape of his neck, as he asked her softly, "Are you injured, little one?"
She thought about that for a moment, and then shook her head solemnly. "No, Weasel-nii-san, I'm okay."
She couldn't see the smile, but she sensed it. His tone was once again deceptively mild, but the ebony eyes staring through the mask were warm. "Well, I think I will take you home myself, then."
She didn't stop until she'd found a balcony off of an empty apartment, far from the Academy. It faced out towards the Hokage monument, which was an oddly soothing sight in spite of her failure. After a moment of silence, she was suddenly aware that she wasn't alone on the balcony. She ignored him though, until he finally spoke up on his own.
"You can't take it personally, you know. Iruka wasn't trying to make it hard because it's you. He just wants you to be strong, I think." She couldn't really ignore what Mizuki was saying. It was a better alternative to the terrible reasons that had occurred to her for the choice of skill for the exam.
She sat for a moment in stony silence as good as any that the brooding Sasuke might manage, and then shook her head. "Thanks, Mizuki-sensei." There really wasn't anything else she could say.
Mizuki allowed the silence to continue for a moment, and then spoke up again. "Naruto, I know a way that you could pass anyways."
She turned to look at him, startled by the pronouncement, and by the renewed hope that surged with it. "Really? I thought there was no way you could pass after the exam!"
The chuunin grinned at her, though she couldn't quite read the look in his eyes. "There's a certain scroll in the Hokage's office. A huge thing, full of jutsu. If you were to learn one of the jutsu from that scroll, they'd have to pass you. And if you go to the east wall, there's a little clearing on the other side of it with a hut that you can use to practice in private."
Her eyes lit up excitedly. "Are you serious? That's great! I'm gonna go right away. Thanks, Mizuki-sensei!" The blond bounded off, her plans for getting into the office already firmly in mind. She wasn't Konoha's greatest prankster for nothing!