Rating: PG for one or two swear words. I know, I know, I'm really old fashioned.
Spoilers: None, really, although there is a reference to a flashback from the Valley of the End battle. (Kudos if you spot it.)
A/N: So basically, I suck. Five months since the last chapter update for FYE and instead you get a really long one-shot. I apologize profusely, but the original intent was to make this a short piece to get me back into the mood for writing. Yeah. I am actually ready to finish the chapter of FYE I have sitting on my desktop and at the very least one more by the end of the year, so I guess some good came out of this.
On another note, this story is part of my Observation 'verse along with Bonds that Hold. You shouldn't need to read either one to understand this, so basically I guess I'm just pimping my fic.
Oh, and for those who don't know, the insult that Sasuke uses for Naruto in the Japanese version--usuratonkachi--basically means Naruto is an idiot, but it is also apparently very unique to Sasuke, so I decided to leave it in untranslated.
Disclaimer: Don't own. Want. Want very badly. But sadly, don't own.
Medical Disclaimer: Despite the fact I have two medically-oriented parents, I, sadly, am lacking in this department. Therefore only half of my description is at all accurate. The other half is complete BS for my enjoyment of torturing characters. Have fun deciding which is which.
Summary:His defenses have dropped, the barriers weakening, and for just a little while he glimpses the terrifying secret beneath the surface.
The Truth of the Matter
It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense. --Mark Twain
"Naruto! Where the hell do you think you're going?! Get down here you damn brat!"
Naruto Uzumaki grinned down at the store manager, flush with his recent accomplishments and the effort of climbing up a rainspout to reach the roof. The overweight man was breathing pretty heavily after having chased the blond kid for a good five minutes, which was probably more exercise than he had gotten in the last week. Naruto laughed cheerfully as the thought crossed his mind, thinking it would do the man some good.
The academy had only let out a few hours earlier, but the young boy had quickly found himself in the familiar predicament of being bored. He had stopped trying to include himself in other kid's games years ago and there was only so much you could do by yourself and stay out of trouble. Usually, the seven-year old did a little extra training after school to keep up with his classmates—or at least not get farther behind them, although he would never admit it if asked—but an accident involving his normal antics and a badly aimed shuriken a few days before had left a deep cut on his arm.
It was healing quickly—the medics were always amazed at how fast Naruto healed for some reason—but even this injury would take time to really get better. The doctor had forbidden any heavy training for the young blond after he had ripped his stitches out for the second time, and knowing who he was talking to, it had been firmly impressed upon Naruto that if he did manage to injure himself again he would be tied down to a hospital bed. The troublemaker listened to the warning—reluctantly—but left to his own devices Naruto had soon found himself trying to attract attention to relieve the boredom, resulting in the current situation.
"I mean it Uzumaki! You think you can get away with this? I'm not going to put up with your crap like the others!" Blue eyes rolled at the comment. No one ever put up with his pranks. Empty threats like that had ceased to worry him a long time ago. "You're going to clean this mess up or the Hokage will hear from me!"
"Whatever, old man! Ya have to catch me first! Nyah ha!" the mischievous boy pulled down his eyelid in the manager's direction and then raced across the rooftops. To tell the truth, things had gotten a little out of hand while he was being chased around, but he had switched to using water based paint for things like this after the first time the old geezer had made him clean things up.
The bandage around his arm had come loose again and was flapping around as Naruto ran so he stopped to tuck it back in and take a break. Despite a nice breeze, he was feeling warm as the sun beat down on his head and his breathing was a little heavy. He frowned in annoyance and wondered if maybe the doctor's insistence that he not do much was getting him out of shape, but when he was worn out like this the direct sunlight made him feel a little lazy and he was more inclined to find a shady tree to curl up under than run laps around the school track.
He sighed and turned his gaze to the cloudless blue sky, rubbing the back of his neck. It was hot to the touch and the blond remembered the last time he had played outside too long, the strange look on Iruka-sensei's face as he peeled the dead skin off his shoulders almost in one clean sheet a day later, healthy skin right underneath. His teacher had tried to insist that he wear sun block if he ever played outside that long again, but it wasn't like Naruto ever planned on it and anyway it took up too much time to put the slimy stuff on for a burn that wouldn't even last a day. Besides, it couldn't have been that bad. Ino had once gotten a sunburn from purposely laying out in the sun (because girls did weird things like that) and hers had lasted a week.
"Naaaaaaarutoooooooo! Oooooi! Naaaruuutoooooo!"
The troublemaker started at the sound of his name, looking down in the streets for any sign of the old manager but what he saw instead was even worse. He grumbled to himself and started walking along the rooftops again, trying to ignore the call.
"Naruto! Oi, I know you can hear me! We need another person to play soccer! Get your ass down here!" That commanding voice belonged to one Kiba Inuzuka, and it pissed Naruto off to no end.
"Like hell! What makes you think I'd do anything that might team me up with your sorry face, dog-boy!"
While most days hanging out with Kiba wasn't a bad thing—Naruto might even go so far as to call it enjoyable—the two had gotten into a rowdy fight involving plenty of punches and kicks and a lot of rolling around in the dirt. The blond boy couldn't really remember what they had been fighting about, but he did remember the tongue-lashing he had gotten this morning when Iruka-sensei had noticed the mud-streaked, torn bandages on his arm. The stitches had held, the only reason Naruto was a free man at the moment, but he hated being scolded by Iruka-sensei and Kiba had gotten away scott-free which resulted in the blonde's current grudge against his partner-in-crime.
Kiba pointed at the bandaged left arm and grinned, "If you don't come, I'll tell Iruka-sensei you've been climbing with that thing." Akamaru barked, seemingly in agreement with his master.
"What?! Kiba you bastard! I'll beat your face in if you do!" More than the possibility of being tied up in a hospital bed until the cut healed, the idea of Iruka-sensei's disappointed face when he learned Naruto wasn't following orders made the blue-eyed boy squirm. Iruka-sensei was one of the few people who treated him fairly and he was always hesitant to do anything that would ruin that. A wave of hot embarrassment (and possibly guilt) flooded through the blue-eyed boy as he contemplated the instructor's reaction, but Kiba didn't seem to notice.
"Just come on! It's not like you have to play with me. Stop being a stuck up moron and get down here."
Naruto was about to shoot something else off at Kiba, telling him to get lost, but he remembered his initial boredom and started to reconsider. If they really needed one more person, the other kids might actually let him join and he wouldn't be stuck entertaining himself all afternoon.
"Fine. But only if I'm not on your team! I'm gonna kick your ass for yesterday." He scrambled down the side of the building, unusually mindful of his arm, and raced after the brown-haired boy.
"Hah! You wish! There's no way such a sorry excuse for a ninja could beat me! Me 'n Akamaru'll take you guys out by ourselves!"
Naruto traded insults with Kiba the rest of the way, secretly glad for something to do.
"To late. We already found someone else. There's no more room on the teams for him, it'll just make them uneven."
Kiba looked incredulously at Akira's choice of teammate. "Shikamaru? You really want Shikamaru on your team?"
"Oi," protested the young shadow shinobi. He may not have wanted to be a part of this game, but he wasn't planning on standing there and being insulted.
Although, Kiba had a point.
Anyway, the dog-clan member was ignoring him as the argument escalated around them about whether to let Naruto join over Shikamaru or not. Shikamaru didn't feel like getting involved, so he just stood next to Chouji, who had been the one to insist the black-haired boy take the invitation to play, and watched the scene unfold. It was…slightly depressing, and reminded him of when he first met his best friend.
Half of Akira's team—the half Shikamaru was assuming wanted to win—was all for Naruto joining them. They may not have like him, but at least he was guaranteed to put in some effort. The other half disliked Naruto so much they were willing to put their victory on the line just to keep him away. Most of Kiba's team agreed with them, grabbing the chance to strengthen the odds for their game, but one or two kept silent. Shikamaru was pretty sure that they also wanted to win but were more conscious about feelings that would get hurt even if they didn't have the guts to stand up for their beliefs.
The entire time this was going on, Naruto's face went from excited (while trying not to be) to hopeful (while expecting the worst) to disappointed to accepting (while trying to pretend it had always been that way.) It made Shikamaru a little sick to watch, knowing deep down inside that this wasn't the first time this had happened to the blond. His mother and father had always taught him to respect other people even if you didn't have a whole lot of love for them. No one should have to expect rejection from the start.
"Shikamaru?" asked Chouji as he opened a bag of potato chips.
"Yeah," he answered and turned to walk away along with the snacking boy. Shikamaru hadn't really intended to play from the moment Kiba suggested Naruto join them. The only reason he had agreed at all was because Akira was being pushy to the point that it was more trouble to ignore him than agree and Chouji had said he didn't mind sitting on the sidelines. The young shadow shinobi didn't really believe that, however, so if they had someone else he wasn't about to let his best friend sit on the sidelines without him.
Chouji glanced back one last time at the group before stuffing a handful of chips in his mouth and jogging a little to catch up with Shikamaru.
"You think he's okay?" he asked through his mouthful.
"Naruto? He'll be fine. He's always fine." It was kind of the thing that defined Naruto. When the blue-eyed boy wasn't fine that's when you knew things were really bad, but Shikamaru had never seen Naruto shed one tear, not even when his entire class made fun of him, not even when Shikamaru knew he hadn't eaten in a couple of days.
"It's just…he looks a little like my mom."
"What? He looks nothing like your mom."
"No, I mean…Mom's been sick lately. Really sick. She's throwing up and her face is all red and hot. Dad says it's a fever."
"Don't you think Naruto looked a little red in the face?"
Shikamaru sighed. It was too much trouble to worry about someone like Naruto. It wasn't like they were close friends. They barely hung out and when they did it was more of a coincidence than anything else. "You're only seeing things because you're worried about your mom, Chouji. It's just the sun. You know Naruto. Before they found him he was probably running around doing something stupid."
Chouji didn't look quite convinced but he still agreed with his best friend. Shikamaru was a lot smarter than he was. Naruto would be okay.
The game lasted less than half an hour. Naruto was allowed to play just because the others were getting fed up with fighting, but that still didn't mean they accepted him. Only half his team made any real effort at heading for the goal and the only time he managed to put a foot on the ball was due more to a lack of coordination on the other team's part than any real teamwork from his side. Naruto's heart wasn't in the game anyway, not really. He refused to let others see that they were getting to him, that their words always made his chest feel like it was hard to breathe, but today it was difficult to trick himself into believing it too.
The others got bored or pissed off fairly quickly and the only reason Naruto lasted as long as he did was because people left in pairs. Finally it came down to five people, which wasn't much of a game anyway, not when Akira insisted on having a goalie, but Naruto didn't even have to be told to know that he was going to be kicked out. He was a little surprised when, after Akira stated the obvious, Kiba tried to turn the game into a free-for-all that would include him, but the blue-eyed boy wasn't interested and the other three made excuses about their mothers and dinner-time.
He had to give Kiba credit though. He might even let dogface's earlier threat slide.
Naruto trudged back home, sweat dripping down into his eyes, his whole body aching a little. The sun was setting, and the dusk air was beginning to cool but he still felt warm. His arm was hurting too but, lest he rip the stitches, he didn't dare touch it except to rewrap it as the bandage had started to unravel again. The seven year old messily tried to twist it back around his arm and tuck the end in, hoping it would be enough to fool the adults.
His thoughts drifted towards his cupboards and Naruto wondered if he still had anything cold to drink in the fridge, or if there was anything left to eat for supper. He had already skipped lunch; there should still be one package of instant ramen left, but then again he had eaten a midnight snack a couple times this month—maybe a few more times than he should have. Thinking about all this food though, the young boy wasn't really sure that he was even hungry in the first place. His stomach wasn't so much empty as it was uncomfortable and he decided to wait until he arrived at the apartment to think more about it.
Suddenly, the troublemaker realized that he had missed a turn three streets back and was heading for the market and center district shops. If he wasn't careful he'd soon run into the old manager again and it would be hours before he even saw the orphanage dorms, let alone be in them to actually make dinner. The blond turned and raced back in the other direction, coughing as he kicked up street dirt.
In the end Naruto decided to skip supper. He skipped most of his homework too, although he actually felt bad about that knowing he'd have to make it up somehow later and that it would be even more work, but he was exhausted and his chest was starting to hurt from all the coughing (his room must have been getting really dusty, he'd have to clean it soon.) His head was throbbing, which made trying to figure out all the hiragana nearly impossible—forget learning the kanji—and he still felt really hot no matter how wide he opened his window or how still he sat. It was only when Naruto crawled into bed an hour and a half earlier than normal that he realized how cold he actually was—and how weird was that when his face felt like it was on fire?
He slept badly that night. When he wasn't tossing and turning, the blond-haired boy shivered uncontrollably with nothing but a ratty old quilt to cover him or sweated until he wondered if there was any liquid left in his body at all. His throat sure felt dry enough for that to be the case and another bout of coughing emphasized this point. Even if he did shrivel up from lack of water, though, he didn't have the energy to do anything about it. And yet, as tired as he was, his mind wouldn't shut down.
His thoughts were scattered and incoherent. The one thing that did come through clearly Naruto didn't really want to acknowledge; he was beginning to become frightened, unsure of what was happening to his body. Even though he had never experienced it himself, he was sure he wasn't sick. He had seen sick when Kanon had thrown up all over her desk last year. This was different, pain and hot and cold and so much loneliness that he was afraid he would start to cry. He couldn't though, couldn't cry after so long without it, trying so hard to never let it get to him, to be better—no, the best—to prove he was worth it, prove that his existence meant something, that he did have a right to live, he did—
Succumbing to the darkness was a relief as he passed out tangled in his bed sheets, wet tracks sliding down his cheeks and silent screams echoing into the warm spring air.
When he was finally conscious enough to look at the battered clock next to his bed that morning, Naruto realized that he was already forty-five minutes late for school. His entire body protested the idea of getting out of bed, hands trembling so badly that he knocked the timepiece off the nightstand when he went to turn off the alarm. The blue-eyed boy groaned in frustration as the ringing continued and literally tumbled out of bed to chase after it.
He managed to stay standing for a few moments while the world spun drastically, but the quilt he had kicked off in the middle of the night tripped him up as he went to take a step. He slammed into the hard wood floor, trying to bring his arms underneath his body in an attempt to keep from hitting the ground too hard. Unfortunately, he was too weak to really support his upper body and they twisted beneath him so that his injury was crushed into the ground. The blond gasped as his arm screamed in protest and he curled it closer to his chest, waiting for the pain to pass.
He wanted to stay there. He wanted to stay there so badly, curled up on the floor with nothing to worry about but the occasional involuntary hacking episode and the pain from the injury (and he could make that go away, push it to the back of his mind so there was nothing to think about, nothing but the emptiness of his thoughts which flittered into the echoing yawn of the apartment he lived in) but the ringing of the alarm was still going on, so loud and jarring that if he didn't stop it someone would come and complain. He knew they would, they always did as if they were looking for an excuse to throw him out.
Naruto pushed himself back to his feet laboriously and surveyed the apartment (there's two of everything, when did I get two of everything?) before finding the alarm clock face down near the foot of his bed. He stumbled towards it and half knelt, half fell close enough to reach it and flip the switch.
The ringing continued, constant and thundering in his ears, in his brain it felt like, and he twisted the clock around in bewilderment to look at its face as if the numbers and hands would provide some clue as to what was going on.
It turned out 'what was going on' was the time being a quarter past nine, and when had that happened? He'd just gotten out of bed, it had only been…only been…well he'd been late for school when he got up…or was that yesterday, he couldn't really remember—no it must be today, because he was late now, wasn't he?
Yesterday…yesterday something bad had happened, but he didn't want to think about it. Something…something…
Had he fallen behind in school again? Was there something else that he hadn't quite understood, didn't quite have the coordination to pull off yet? Had he practiced it at all? Had he forced himself to learn the concept, to remember what it was they were even supposed to be doing? Fear rose up in his throat, the old fear from back when he started the academy and he realized that the others were so far ahead from the start, that if he didn't hurry, didn't catch up, then he would only drop farther and farther behind and if he failed at this, at this one thing that the others said even he could do, at the one thing they might actually acknowledge him for, then he really was worthless useless goodfornothing.
In a panic, Naruto rushed to his kitchen table, which doubled for a desk to put his homework on since it was the only flat surface he could afford. The papers were there, they were all there, but they were only part way done. At least, from what he could tell they were, because everything was blurring together. They couldn't have been finished, though, not with half the page without any pencil markings, any eraser markings, any wrinkles or tears from having to redo it over and over until it was almost impossibly illegible, but it would still be done so Iruka-sensei could give him credit for that at least.
He had to get to school. It was bad enough that he was this unprepared. It didn't matter if he got the credit for the homework anymore; the seven year old just needed to be there so he could find out what to learn later, on his own. Iruka-sensei wasn't the only teacher he had, and not all of them would be willing to inform him of what he missed, instead berating him and dismissing him for skipping when he hadn't. (He wouldn't, not today, not when he had somehow missed this much, forgotten this much, why couldn't he concentrate, why couldn't he remember?)
He ran around the room gathering some clothes together to get changed out of his outfit from yesterday that he had been too tired to strip out of. Peeling it off his skin and off his body, the blond dumped them on the floor and changed into a new one, shaking and panting and sweating from the effort it took to push his arms through his sleeves, to stand on one foot as his pants came on. He took a break to catch his breath, but only a short one.
At least he hoped it was short.
(Had he passed out? Could he recall every second that had just passed by?)
Snatching up his backpack, he rushed out the door. There was no time for breakfast, no time for other routine morning duties. He didn't bother to grab the half-finished homework, or even turn off the alarm that was still ringing, had been ringing this whole time. He'd deal with it later (deal with the complaints later.)
Oddly enough it followed him, the ringing. He could hear it even as he walked down the stairs of the building, hear it as he stumbled down the street. It still felt like it was inside his brain, and maybe it was, he thought, maybe it was inside his brain because something really, really weird was happening. As the blue-eyed boy made his way towards the school his vision gradually went from double to blurring and back again and he gasped and coughed as he ran along.
Maybe running wasn't such a good idea but he shouldn't be this out of shape, he wasn't that far behind, except that maybe he was because he couldn't remember things and his brain was ringing, so he pushed himself to run a little faster, to get in back in shape a little quicker.
Nobody was in the streets when he started out because nobody went near the orphan dorms, it was to depressing, too harsh a reminder (and maybe, just maybe, they didn't want to get near him, but he wasn't sure that was it at all, because why would he matter that much when they all said he didn't?) but as the blond got closer to the heart of the village, as it got harder to breathe, harder to put one foot in front of the other, harder to push himself to just keep going, the roads and paths became more crowded.
The blond didn't notice it at first, there were too few people, but as he got deeper into the crowd he could feel their gaze on him, feel their eyes piercing and harsh on his skin, and when he had enough energy to look up what he saw terrified him, terrified him more than when they looked at him normally with eyes that didn't care, eyes that were usually hard and cold, because these eyes glowed. These eyes glowed hot and bright and orange with hate and rage and malice, malice so overwhelming that Naruto nearly froze to the core, a cold that reached all through his body so that if he weren't so afraid he would have been glad for the slight relief it provided from the burning waves of heat he had been feeling before.
He was so out of it by now, trembling so badly and stumbling all over the place to the point where he could hardly be considered standing. The only thought in his mind was to make it to the school, to just reach the academy. Focusing only on that goal pushed him past the fear, the terror that steadily increased as an orange haze drifted across his sight, twisting everything he saw to give the people mouths outlined in black, grinning humorlessly with teeth razor sharp. The haze began to twist what he heard too, the ringing from before and the chatter of the villagers becoming deeper and deeper until it all meshed into a chest-rattling bass laugh, a mocking laugh that was so horrible the seven year old gagged, an action made even more painful by the fact that his throat was dry and incredibly sore.
It took a while to force the panic down, to realize that he wasn't dying, his insides weren't going to push their way out through his mouth as he knelt there in the street. Even when he got over that he still couldn't look up and face the monsters surrounding him without the threat of dry heaving. He stood up again, the chill that was still sweeping through him an odd contrast to the sun shining warmly on his back. Naruto to took off in the direction of the academy, swiping at the sweat dripping down the side of his face with his head tucked down so that the only thing he could see was the ground and the unnerving feeling that no matter how fast or how far he ran the mocking laughter would always be right behind him, whispering horrors into his ear.
As far as bad days went, Iruka had to admit that his could have been far worse. His morning had gone pretty smoothly; he woke up on time, his most comfortable outfit was washed and hanging up in his closet so he didn't have to go searching for it in the mess that was his humble bachelor pad. His breakfast could have been a little more filling, but it was a toss up between that and not having to put in the effort to make it. The pages of his lesson plans for the day were a little mixed up, but at least he had them. Now if only his students would behave, Iruka would be willing to call the day a success.
That was starting to look like it was going to be impossible, though, and as usual the culprit for the teacher's stress was little Naruto. The chuunin wondered if it was some kind of record that the blue-eyed boy wasn't even at school yet and already he was causing trouble.
Of course, had it been any other student the teaching staff would have completely ignored the absence. It would have been duly noted on the attendance sheet and only brought up again when the student failed to bring in an excuse note from their parents. Not so with the blond-haired troublemaker.
Every new teacher that discovered the problem student of the entire school hadn't shown up that morning contributed to the griping about how they would all be better off without him and how he was more trouble than he was worth. Iruka gritted his teeth and tried to ignore the complaints, but it was tough when after every new statement of 'what I would have done with him if it were me' he was tempted to point out that they should count themselves lucky Naruto hadn't shown up. It meant the likelihood of pranks disturbing the classes had gone down drastically and maybe they could have a peaceful lesson for once.
It wasn't that Iruka didn't know what Naruto was. He knew all right. If anything, he was hyper aware of what resided in his classroom every day for the past three years. It made him extra vigilant in the first year, careful to monitor the monster that interacted with his students, that acted out and disrupted everyone. But as time passed and the teacher realized that the deadliest thing the blond had ever done was to stick himself in the path of a class of seventh years during weapons training, Iruka began to relax his guard. Not all the way. He was still very careful to keep an eye on the boy, but now he was willing to recognize Naruto as a student.
And Naruto was a student. He wasn't the best, not by a long shot. His martial arts was the sloppiest Iruka had ever seen and still been able to consider someone a shinobi, his marksmanship with a weapon was horrible to the point that the chuunin was often amazed that the blond could hit the target, and his chakra control was all over the place. Sometimes the boy could produce results that were a couple years ahead of the others and other times Iruka struggled to find reasons that could give the Kyuubi vessel any kind of passing grade at all. Naruto didn't even always manage to stay through the whole school day.
When it came down to it, however, Naruto was always able to pass. Granted it was usually with an average grade or slightly above, nothing that would get him into the good graces of the other teachers, but he wasn't just squeaking by either. His homework was always turned in, even when none of the answers were strictly correct, and every problem was seriously answered. Iruka never found any extra doodles on them, despite the graphite smeared all across the page. The blond could be doing horribly on any one concept, but when testing time came around the teachers rarely had to hand back a red 'F' (and some of those had been fabricated by the instructor.)
So Iruka did what he could. Naruto didn't receive any special treatment. He was treated like any other student in the chuunin's class, but frankly that was more than could be said for some of Iruka's colleagues, who tended to purposely try and humiliate the seven year old, much to his disgust. He didn't defend Naruto to the others when they mocked and scorned the boy behind his back, but he made it a point to never join in even when he was provoked, and the other teachers knew to leave him alone by now when the topic came up.
That was why Iruka left the teacher's lounge early to head to his classroom when the insults became too much. If he were honest with himself, he was a little worried too. Naruto may have had a track record of skipping out in the middle of the day, but the chuunin couldn't even recall one time that the blue-eyed boy had missed the start of school. He was sure he would have remembered the lack of chaos and the lucky break from constant vigilance over his classroom.
Of course, there was always the possibility that Naruto was simply sulking over his injury. The troublemaker had taken some offense to the fact that the wound hindered him from fooling around like normal. Iruka had even found him and Kiba wrestling in the dirt the other day, which was hardly surprising. The blond and the Inuzuka boy had very similar temperaments and were often at odds with one another. Lecturing them was normal, but Iruka had gone over his speech a couple times in his head since then and was willing to admit that he might have put extra fault on Naruto, especially since his bandages had come completely undone.
It was just frustrating to watch a student who put so much work into his studies—despite the questionable results they produced—completely disregard the needs of his body. Shinobi were known to push the limits of what they could do physically in battle, certainly; but when they were recovering at home they made sure to actually recover and not aggravate their injuries by repeatedly reopening them.
The blue-eyed orphan was also set off from his classmates in that most children had a tendency to coddle their injuries, still used to their parents worrying over every little scratch. Iruka had the unfortunate luck of witnessing just how ignorant Naruto was when he practically shed his skin like a snake after a particularly bad sunburn and couldn't understand his teacher's horror.
Despite this, the rambunctious boy did not turn a blind eye when he was treated unfairly. The chuunin had often been the recipient of Naruto's frustration when he was accused of crimes he had not committed and Iruka did his best to be prepared for whatever elaborate trap had been set up for him to trip over. Unfortunately, Naruto was incredibly inventive, to say the least, and Iruka rarely saved himself the trouble. It had forced the scarred man to gain a lot of patience when dealing with the blond and he had hit the limit yesterday. Maybe having the one teacher who treated him fairly slip up and act like every one else in the school had been the breaking point, and the mishcevious boy was giving up on his dream of becoming Hokage.
Iruka barked out a laugh at that thought. Somehow it just didn't seem like Naruto at all.
That left the question as to where he was unanswered, but the chuunin had no more time to ponder over it as he entered the classroom of rowdy seven and eight year olds. A small group had gathered around the back of the class and some kind of heated argument had broken out. Iruka put a stop to it before it got any worse and started roll call. Naruto was missing, as expected, and his absence was not unnoticed by the others. Someone called out, "Good riddance," which got a round of snickers and discrete cheers that where quickly stopped by a glare from their instructor.
At least, most of them stopped. To Iruka's surprise Chouji and Shikamaru were still whispering to each other, and from their expressions it wasn't just idle gossip. The fact that Shikamaru was conscious enough to be involved at all was surprising in and of itself, but it actually seemed as if he were angry with Chouji, which had never happened to Iruka's knowledge. Annoyed, yes, but everything was an annoyance and too much trouble to be worth it to Shikamaru.
"Is something wrong, you two?" the chuunin questioned them.
Shikamaru's focus was suddenly on the front of the room, but Chouji watched the other boy out of the corner of his eye. "No, sir," came the answer, "It's none of our business." The stress put on the last four words was almost unnoticeable, but clearly meant for someone other than Iruka. An angry crunch came from Chouji, who had angled his body away from his best friend.
What has gotten into my students today? The instructor thought as he continued with the attendance. After about seven names down, though, he realized that his laziest student was staring with some worry at the empty spot across the room. Shikamaru knew something, but he wasn't giving it up in front of his peers. Iruka would just have to interrogate the boy after their weapons training then.
The classroom was empty. It was cold too, Naruto thought as he stood shivering with his arms across his stomach and his hands gripping his sleeves, but most importantly it was empty and he couldn't remember what came after that. There was a line of reasoning, a logical conclusion where 'if the classroom is empty' then…
But he couldn't think of it no matter how hard he tried.
You're not trying hard enough, Naruto!
This is the kind of third-rate results I'd expect from you.
You don't know?! You're so stupid Naruto! What a moron!
I'm disappointed in you.
"No, no, no," he tried to growl (keep on the mask, don't let them see) but it came out as more of a moan. He was tired, damn it. He was tired and cold and his head hurt so much. Wasn't he allowed to be a little tired? His arm was throbbing too, but he'd never tell anyone that, he'd never let them know that he had hurt it again just so they could tie him up in the hospital and ignore him. At least when he was in trouble people looked at him. People talked to him. In the hospital they stuck him in a room behind a curtain and forgot about him.
But there wasn't anyone here now. He tried again to think where they would be and a wave of exhaustion forced him to stumble to a desk and sit down. At least the laughter had stopped, the haze was gone and his vision was…well it was still blurry when he could get his eyes to open all the way, but it wasn't orange. That was good. Naruto was pretty sure people didn't normally see in orange.
Or maybe they did. Maybe people did see in orange, only he had never asked because he didn't and that's why they all looked at him like he was a freak. Because he was, because he didn't see things like normal people did.
More coughing and hacking and gagging drained what little energy he had and suddenly it was a good idea to lay his head down on the desk. Not forever—he still had to figure out where everyone had gone—just enough so that he wasn't so exhausted.
Someone was speaking to him.
"C'mon Naruto! Don't be so lazy! You weren't even here this morning, how can you fall asleep on my desk?! Naruto, get out of my seat!"
Someone was yelling at him. Why were they yelling at him?
"He's being stupid, Sakura, what do you expect? Just push him out."
"Ewww, gross! I'm not gonna touch him! He's like, one big pile of cooties! And he's all sweaty too!"
Oh, good. Maybe they would leave him there. He was tired. And hot. And in pain.
"Well I don't want to sit next to him! Seriously, if you don't get him out of your seat, you'll have to sit next to Kenta. You really want that?"
"Ino, he's sitting in my seat! That's just as bad as sitting in his seat. Of course I want him out. I just don't want to touch him!
They really should stop yelling. It was almost as loud as the ringing.
"Fine, if you won't do it, I will!"
Ow. That hurt. Stop shoving.
"Get off the chair you stupid lump!"
He was trying. It was just that his legs wouldn't seem to work together anymore. It was hard enough when he couldn't breath. Or see. He misjudged where the edge of the desk was and another shove from behind made him smack both the bandaged arm and his chin against it as he slipped out of the chair to the ground.
"What? It's not my fault, Chouji. The clumsy idiot missed the desk on his own."
"Guys, I don't think he's breathing."
"Don-don't be stupid Sakura-"
More coughing. It felt like someone was dragging a rake down his throat. Through coals. Why was it so hot?
"—See. You can't cough if you can't breath."
"That sounded more like a dog barking than cough."
"I told you something was wrong, Shikamaru. I think he's really sick."
"Ew! I'm not sitting in that seat if he's sick! I'll catch his germs!"
Panic suddenly crept through his body. The ringing hadn't stopped, but it was changing. Changing like it had before. His eyes snapped open and he pushed himself up shakily.
"Maybe one of us should go get Iruka-sensei."
"Shikamaru, you should go."
"What? Why me?"
"'Cause…'cause you were the last one in and I said so!"
"Naruto are you okay?"
He couldn't breath. He couldn't look up either, was too afraid. Holding his hands in front of his face he could already tell that the orange haze floated in front of them, and if he looked up he knew what he would see. Just the memory of the glowing eyes, everyone's glowing eyes increased the fear tenfold and his throat closed up, gagging him.
"Oh god, move back! He's going to throw up!"
"Shikamaru, Iruka-sensei is still outside putting the equipment away! We need to do something!"
"Yeah, okay. Jeez, this is so troublesome."
Now the voices were changing, too. He had to get away from here. He kept his head down and grabbed onto the chair, struggling to function at all and failing miserably. The mutterings of the crowd started to run together into a deep bass and Naruto knew he didn't have much time. The haze was even thicker than the last time but he could still see beyond it, and if he could see he could escape.
"What are you doing usuratonkachi?"
It was a reflex. That unique insult was only ever directed at him and only ever by one person, and several years of rivalry apparently couldn't be beaten out of him even when he felt like dying, even when he was terrified of what he would see. He lifted his head, mouth open to retort, only to have the words ripped from his throat in a terrified sound as his brain's flight response kicked in.
WHAT'S WRONG KID?
It wasn't Sasuke. Not from the chest up, anyway. None of them were who they were supposed to be. Instead their faces were twisted into the form from before. Glowing orange eyes, cat-like and hateful. Rimmed with black outlines just like their mouths. Mouths with grins that stretched back to their ears and deadly teeth. He couldn't move. He wanted to. He wanted to get away from that killer intent that radiated from the… the thing and made him feel like drowning. But his body wasn't responding to him.
HEY. FUCKING BRAT. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?
"Mon…monster…" was all he managed to rasp out.
The thing's grin widened and this time there was a hint of glee in the eyes. The killing intent and the haze seemed to strengthen and solidify at the same time, and Naruto could have sworn that a fox tail was beginning to form behind the body of his rival.
SCARED? It chuckled. YOU SHOULD BE FOOL. DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH I LONG TO TAKE YOU APART? IF ONLY I COULD REACH YOU WITH MY CLAWS, I'D TEAR OFF ALL YOUR LIMBS, ONE BY ONE, AND RELISH THE SCREAMS. IMAGINE. ALL THAT STANDS BETWEEN FREEDOM AND ME IS YOU, BRAT. A FUCKING CHILD. AND YET, I STILL NEED YOU. A BRAT THAT CAN'T EVEN TAKE CARE OF ITSELF.
YOU SHOULD THANK ME YOU STUPID PIECE OF SHIT. I'M SAVING YOUR LIFE.
"You—" he was shaking in terror and barely able to breath, but his body finally forced him to react, "You're…you're…a monster!" He crashed into the desk as he tripped on the stair down in his desperation to escape. The bodies of his classmates scrambled out of his way, their tails whipping in his face as he scrambled through them. The thing laughed a deep, barking laugh as Naruto stopped in his tracks. Blocking the doorway was the complete form of a fox, nine-tailed, flaming and crouched down ready to pounce.
DON'T YOU GET IT YET, FOOL? THEY AREN'T THE MONSTERS. IT'S YOU!
Claws outstretched, jaw open wide, the fox lunged.
Hiruzen Sarutobi, Third reigning Hokage of the Hidden Leaf Village, stood outside the hospital room of the most troublesome boy the village had ever seen and wondered how long he would be able to use Naruto's sickness as an excuse to escape the meeting with the council elders. He felt a little guilty about it, especially since he was honestly concerned with the young orphan's health. Hallucinations were not something to take lightly, even when they weren't about murderous, secret demon spirits. Still, he really wasn't looking forward to long drawn out 'discussions' about how the village could be run much better if he would just listen to their suggestions. Today they would be especially worried as to whether the Law of Silence had been broken, and if so by whom and would they have to enforce the punishment for the first time in five and a half years.
The Hokage heaved a deep sigh, hoping his burdens would fly away with it. Sadly this was not to be the case.
"Are you all right, sir?" asked a soft, kind voice from behind. Sarutobi turned to face Iruka standing in the doorway with a concerned look on his face. He realized that he probably didn't look like the model of the strong, confident leader but more like an old, weary man. To be honest he had begun to feel that way more and more, but Iruka was not someone to whom he could confide this in and so he worked to mold his face into a mask.
"I'm fine, thank you for your concern. How is he doing?"
The chuunin shook his head. "He's asleep. They still have him sedated. It's not surprising considering how hysterical he was, but the amount they have to push through his body is insane. The… his metabolism seems to filter it very quickly and he wakes up after only a few minutes on an adult dosage." Iruka looked through the small window in the door to the small form lying motionless on the bed. "I'm surprised he got this sick without anyone noticing. I mean, you think we would have seen the signs, something that would have given a hint of what was happening."
"Actually, Iruka-san, it's really not that surprising at all."
The two shinobi turned to face the newcomer as he walked toward them down the hall.
"Doctor Miyake," Sarutobi greeted the man with a nod of his head. Miyake had been a shinobi for twenty years and a medical ninja for seven of those, but had chosen to give up that career path for the much needed position of civilian doctor. Civilian doctors took care of injuries for those who were not currently an official ninja and illnesses caused by anything non-mission related. Frankly there weren't enough of them, medical personnel trained in more than just major internal injuries, missing limbs and field surgery, but theirs was a community centered around a group of people whose main source of income required them to be in peak condition, and therefore they were vigilant in keeping themselves from getting too sick. This meant the supporting members of the village—shopkeepers, housewives, maintenance men—generally got shafted when it came to things like medical care and schooling, but it would be a while before any reform would happen. Until then civilian doctors and nurses would have to deal with being understaffed and overwhelmed.
Miyake had taken over the case after the first time Naruto had ripped his stitches and random chance had brought them together. The gray-haired doctor had been horrified to discover that the blonde's sutures had been improperly done up, which was apparently part of the reason they had come apart. He had requested to be the primary doctor for the boy's case from then on and Sarutobi had jumped at the chance to put him under the care of someone who would respect Naruto as a patient rather than see him as a nuisance.
"Hokage-sama, I'm glad you're here. I was planning on notifying you anyway, but this saves us both time."
"Is it that bad?"
Miyake shook his head, "No, no. Naruto is doing much better now that he's been getting treatment. It's just…because of…circumstances…well let's just say that Naruto is somewhat of a miracle child."
The two men looked at the white-coated man in confusion. "Care to elaborate Doctor?"
"Naruto is an amazing patient, simply for the amount of time it takes his body to heal and recover from injuries. Surface scratches and abrasions that might take weeks to disappear for you and I only take a couple days at most for him. This is obviously due to—" Miyake hesitated, the instinct to avoid the taboo words kicking in, but with a nod from the Hokage he continued. "It's obviously due to the…source of the incredible amount of chakra he has residing inside of him. Because of the seal, that healing process is much slower than it could be. Theoretically, if the seal were to ever crack, even just a little, his healing period could be essentially instantaneous. However, even just the small amount of ability he has now makes it seem that his body is generally stronger than it actually is."
"Then are you saying that if things have gotten this bad, Naruto's illness is more complicated than it looks?" the Hokage questioned becoming a little impatient with the drawn out explanation.
"Yes and no. Actually, the cause is quite simple," the doctor answered. "Infection of the area around his arm wound. When the nurse took off his bandages to redo them, she found the site severely red and swollen, and some pus. Classic infection."
"What?" Iruka started, "What are you talking about? I saw his arm just the other day when the bandages came off. It was perfectly fine then."
"I imagine you didn't have him clean it off though," the gray-haired man pointed out.
"Well…no, I had to get the kids inside for their next class. I sent him to the infirmary."
"Nurse Hidaka is normally a very kind woman and very good at her job. Unfortunately, I think you are both aware of the attitude of many villagers towards my patient. I am ashamed to admit that many of my colleagues would not hesitate to abandon their oath when it comes to him," Miyake said sadly. "She was probably very quick to get him bandaged up and out of her sight. I would not be surprised if she didn't bother to disinfect the wound first. And infections are tricky things. Most of the time they are slow acting and can be stopped in their first stages by anyone who is paying attention. Naruto is unlucky enough to have caught one of the nastier bugs out there. It's rare, but it can take down a grown adult incredibly fast and a child even faster unless it's caught early on and treated."
The gray-haired doctor hesitated as if he had more to say but was reluctant to admit it.
"Would it be too much to hope that Naruto's illness was caught in time?" Sarutobi verbally prodded the man along.
"The truth is, from what I can tell from the test results, the boy should be dead by now. The infection itself isn't what causes problems; it's the side effects from the person's body trying to fight it off. Your body temperature can only get so high before it starts to become more harmful than helpful. The readings we were getting from Naruto, hallucinations should have been the least of his problems. How he made it to the academy from his apartment I'll never understand. He's lucky his brain hasn't melted in his skull, let alone the fact that he should have been going through severe seizures and might suffer from brain damage."
At this news Iruka suddenly looked heartbroken, to the surprise of the Hokage. He had thought the chuunin's visit to the young troublemaker was purely out of the compassion that Iruka showed all of his students, regardless of how they were connected from the past. It appeared that Naruto had managed to worm his way into the heart of someone other than himself, which filled the old village leader with a sudden wave of relief and joy despite the gravity of the news.
"He'll be crushed. He works so hard already just to pass most of his schoolwork. I don't think his grades can take anymore set backs."
"Don't count him out just yet, young man," Miyake scolded. "Haven't I already said he's something of a miracle child? He's alive, and that in and of itself is incredible. It's my personal opinion—not that I can ever prove this of course—that the Kyuubi was using its influence to heal Naruto as much as it could. Probably why he was hallucinating the monster even when he shouldn't know anything about it. It might not have been able to affect the infection directly, which is why Naruto got so sick, but it could manage the after affects of the body's own defense system to keep the boy from dying. A self-preservation instinct, if I remember my seal work right. When the boy's life ends, so does the Kyuubi's. This might have extended to the boy's brain cells, although we can't be sure until he wakes up. In essence, don't be surprised if his grades drop a little, but it wouldn't be too much to hope that they won't also."
This raised Iruka's spirits somewhat. He offered a word of appreciation for the explanation and left to go tend to his piles of paperwork that needed grading.
Sandaime, however, stayed behind with one last concern.
"You really think Naruto's luck was the Kyuubi's doing? You've said it before, that wound on his arm will take a while to heal. Would it really be able to correct that much damage to the rest of his body in such a short amount of time without breaking the seal?"
The doctor shook his head in rebuttal. "The knife wound on his arm is not necessary to Naruto's survival, whereas suppressing the fever was. It probably took a lot of energy to do that while sealed that the fox normally wouldn't waste otherwise." Miyake gave a small ironic smile. "You forget, Hokage-sama. The fox may be a murderous monster, but it is still very sentient and intelligent. In the battle field, if you've got a limited amount of resources when trying to get out of enemy territory you wouldn't waste bandages and sutures on a paper cut from opening a scroll, but with a kunai to a vital spot you're going to put everything you've got into closing up that wound. That doesn't change the fact that you're still behind enemy lines."
Sarutobi nodded to acknowledge that the doctor had gotten at his hidden agenda. "Then we shouldn't have concerns about the Kyuubi breaking the seal."
Miyake shrugged. "I'm just a civilian doctor these days, sir. I'm afraid you'll have to tell me the answer to that."
The steady, rhythmic beeping sound of the heart monitor was the first thing to worm its way into Naruto's consciousness, but his eyelids felt heavy and the rest of him felt like he had run a marathon—twice—after a brawl with a chuunin, so he lay completely still and matched his breathing to the tempo of his heart beat. He had a vague idea where he was. It was that place, the one with the white walls and the funny smell that he didn't go to very often but when he did he hated it. He knew the name of the place. He knew, but his head felt fuzzy and he was tired and he really didn't care so he let it go and tried to drift back off to sleep.
Except someone had left the blinds up on the window and the setting sun was perfectly framed so that it shone right on his face and the harder he tried to ignore it, the more aware of it he became. He opened his eyes so that just a slit of light came through to glare at the sun and was surprised to see someone sitting on the sill staring out into the distance. Naruto couldn't make out the man's face through his eyelashes and the brightness of the sun, but he could see enough to make out the distinctive set of off-white and red robes and the mess of blond hair that just barely brushed the man's shoulders.
"Who're you…?" the boy asked. The words came out as barely more than a whisper, and they were so slurred together that he wondered if he would have to say them again so the stranger could understand.
The man looked over with what Naruto assumed was a smile on his face (was the man smiling at him? When was the last time someone smiled at him?) and said, "Ah, you're awake."
His voice was soothing and oddly familiar, as if Naruto had heard it a very long time ago and had been waiting his entire life to hear it again, and somehow it felt so good to hear that sound that the young patient stopped worrying about who the man was and started wondering how long he could convince him to stay.
"Don't go." The plea slipped out of his mouth before he realized what he was saying. He cringed and mentally criticized himself for sounding so weak, but the stranger didn't mock him. Instead, he slipped off his perch in the window and almost glided to the chair beside the bed.
The blond-haired boy tensed, ready for anything the man might try to do to him in his weakened state. Physical abuse was rare from the villagers. More often than not they wanted to avoid everything that had to do with him. Still, it had happened and Naruto tried very hard to make sure he always had a way out if he thought he was being cornered. However, that wasn't an option this time. Even if he could muster up the energy to rip out the tube in his arm, he wouldn't have any left to stand, let alone run away.
He needn't have worried. A large warm hand slipped around one of Naruto's smaller ones, but it didn't feel constraining like when an angry villager would grasp his wrist tight enough to keep him from escaping (tight enough to leave a ring of angry bruises). The man gently ran his fingers through Naruto's hair and it felt so good that his body shivered as he leaned into the touch, felt so good that he closed his eyes to stop himself from crying.
"Don't go…" he pleaded again, this time not caring how weak he sounded.
"Alright, Little Bit," the man whispered back, "I'll stay as long as I can."
"Who're you…?" he asked again, not really caring about the answer, just wanting the man to talk.
"Well…" the stranger paused as he seemed to think about it. "Maybe… maybe I'm something like a ghost."
The stranger chuckled, "You don't know what a ghost is?"
Naruto tried to scowl but the motion of the hand brushing his hair was making him sleepy and relaxed, so his face didn't do more than twitch. " 'M not stupid… I jus' don't know… Can' know somethin'…if nobody tells me."
"You're right. I'm sorry," the man apologized, and Naruto instantly forgave him. He couldn't remember anybody ever apologizing to him before. "I didn't mean to laugh at you, I was just surprised. Do you want to know?"
"Okay, then. Some people believe that when a person…when a person's done living, sometimes they come back, but you can't always see them. Sometimes you just here a voice or see objects move."
Naruto opened one eye, this time a little more than before, to stare incredulously at the blue eyes looking down at him. "Y'mean when they die? People think y'come back…when you die?"
"You don't believe it?" the man asked.
"No," he answered. "I once…caught a whole jar of…fireflies, 'cause I thought they were pretty…'n they could light up the room at night. But the next mornin'…they were all dead…at the bottom of the jar. If ghosts were real, then…I would have 'n empty jar…'n dead bugs flyin' around… That's gross… And creepy."
The stranger looked a little sad at this story and Naruto remembered how one of the girls on his floor had been horrified to discover that he had killed a mass of harmless fireflies by keeping them trapped. Quickly he reassured the man, "Don't worry, I don't catch fireflies anymore. I liked 'em better when they were…flyin' around outside anyway."
The man smiled again, although it wasn't as big a smile as it had first been, which disappointed Naruto a little, and he closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to see.
"I think it's okay to catch the fireflies if you want to watch them for a little while. Just remember to let them go," the stranger advised.
"Are you mad that I killed the fireflies…? Are you gonna leave? Please stay. Please don't go…"
The stranger gave his hand a squeeze and continued to brush his hand through Naruto's hair to calm him down. "Don't be silly, Little Bit. I'm not mad about the fireflies. Didn't I say I'd stay as long as I could?"
Naruto breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed.
The two of them didn't say anything more for a while, simply enjoying the others presence. The heart monitor continued to bleep slowly, and every once in a while the young boy would open his eyes a little to make sure the man wasn't going to leave suddenly. The man always smiled back in reassurance and Naruto's eyes watered each time he looked at it. He tried to engrave it in his mind, sure that he would never get to see that kind of smile directed at him ever again.
After a while the young boy could feel himself falling into unconsciousness even as he struggled against it.
"You should sleep, Little Bit," the man suggested in a murmuring voice. "You were very sick and you need to rest up to make sure you'll get better."
"But you'll leave!" Naruto cried out with a raspy voice, somehow knowing with certainty that when he next woke up, the stranger would have disappeared.
"I know you don't want me to go. I don't want to leave either, but there's a very important battle I'm fighting and I need to get back. I won the last time, but the enemy won't stay down for long and I have to make sure he doesn't take away the thing I most want to protect. Do you understand, Little Bit?"
He didn't. He didn't understand why the stranger, the only person who had accepted him couldn't stay by his side forever. But in his half-asleep state a memory surfaced of his rival, Sasuke, sitting by himself on the dock at the lake, and somehow Naruto knew he couldn't keep the man here.
"Will you at least come back? Will I at least get to see you again?"
…I don't know. It won't be for a very long time. Just be patient, and be strong…
There was one last thing he had to tell the man, something very important before he was completely gone.
" 'M gonna b'come H'kage, someday."
…I'll be waiting, then…
Naruto smiled and succumbed to the warmth that enveloped him as he finally drifted off.
A/N: Just as a side note, I usually try to keep honorifics in the stories if I can because I like the way they define relationships in Japan for some reason, but I kept the English 'Doctor' to avoid confusion for those not as Japanese-savvy as the rest of us. (For those who don't know, doctors are referred to as 'sensei' in Japan.)
So even though it may not have been what some of you were hoping for, let me know what you think. My one concern was that I just rambled on too much, so tell me if you think that's the case. Of course, glowing reviews are always welcome, too ;)