Where was he…?
At first he thought it was the Hokage's office, having been in there many times before in the past, but at a second glance the place was completely different. Whereas the Hokage's office had a warm atmosphere to it, much likely due to the fact that he often visited it during the daytime and the smiling face of the old Hokage had always been there behind the desk, this place was calm and cold, covered with a stillness that seemed to come from the grave. The windows were covered with velvet drapes, letting no light in, yet despite the lack of visible lighting the place was bright enough for him to see – perhaps not perfectly well, but things were visible, at least.
There was music in the air, a haunting melody that soothed the soul. It seemed to be coming from somewhere outside the room, although where he could not tell. It sounded like a poem, yet an aria at the same time.
It took Naruto several seconds to realize that he was sitting on a wooden chair, which seemed to be rather high-class and ornately decorated if the engravings at the side were any indication. Something like this he had rarely ever seen in the village, although he had heard it was more popular in the towns and cities without shinobi. Gripping the arm rests, he looked around.
The place was definitely like the Hokage's office. The layout, the size… It was the office. Just… intensely redecorated. Everything was draped in soft blue velvet… Everything. From the bookcase, to the desk, to the floor… It was as if an interior decorator with a velvet fetish had managed to break in through the ANBU guards and gone to town.
"Welcome… to the Velvet Room."
Naruto jumped at the voice. In front of him, he realized for the first time, sat an old man in the chair where the Hokage usually sat. His face was cast downwards, and for a second Naruto thought he was asleep, before his eyelids opened up to reveal bloodshot orbs with tiny pupils. His face turned upwards, and Naruto was struck by the size of the man's nose. All in all, the figure in front of him reminded him less of a man and more like a goblin or a monster. He was bizarre, and Naruto wondered to himself if this was a dream.
At his side was a woman wearing glasses, who was engrossed in a notebook in her arms. She flipped through it vacantly, as though deep in thought. Her position at his side, standing up, seemed to mark her status as somewhat below his. Her hair was a beautiful blonde, tied up in a bun, and her visage was one of unearthly beauty. Any man out there would've been over her in an instant, yet she seemed to be the type to turn any who didn't fit her standards down.
He opened his mouth, yet found that he could not speak.
"Ah… It seems we have a rather unique guest this time…"
His voice was smooth, and his air was that of a learned gentleman. His tone matched his looks, yet somehow managed to soften the harsh edges of his visage. The slightly-hostile and dangerous feeling he gave off before was dispelled in a second by his even tone.
"My name is Igor… It is a pleasure to meet you. This is my assistant, Safie," declared the strange man, gesturing to the woman at his side. She turned to Naruto, and gave a slight nod. The bored expression on her face didn't change. "The Velvet Room exists in a place between dream and reality, mind and matter. Only those bound by a 'contract' are allowed to enter. Hmm… It seems that you have already entered into one, perhaps even upon your birth."
Naruto wanted to ask what he was talking about, but the words wouldn't come out. Yet, it was as if the man understood. Igor nodded his head and smiled that strange, unsettling smile once more, as he folded his arms underneath his chin and looked deep into Naruto's eyes. It was strange, Naruto thought. The man, Igor, looked even more at home in the Hokage's desk than the old man Sarutobi did.
"It's fine that you don't understand… All will come to you in due time. As you may have suspected already, this is all a dream. You are deep asleep right now, yet remember the Velvet Room is not something that exists just within your imagination… You will come here again, of your own accord next time. But until then… hold onto this."
Igor unclasped his hands and held them out in front, clapping twice as he did so. Instantly, a soft blue orb of light began to form over Naruto's head, and fell gently into his palms. The light subsided, and Naruto could see for the first time that the enclosed object was a key. The tip of the thing was metal, but the rest of it was soft blue velvet, much like the room was made of.
"That is the Velvet Key. Just remember. Although you will encounter hardships along the way to the end of your journey, as long as you persevere the journey will not end prematurely. 'Til the time we meet again… Farewell."
Naruto found his eyelids falling closed, as though they were tied to heavy weights. The world around him was wavering in and out of focus, as though time and space, indeed, the world itself was warping. He could feel his body becoming ethereal… As though he were being whisked away to somewhere else…
All of a sudden, he was slammed back to earth.
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
The alarm clock found itself being swatted aside once again, like during all the previous mornings. Naruto rubbed his head gingerly as he woke from bed, his head swimming… He had been so excited yesterday that he had neglected to sleep, only managing to do so when his energy had run out and he finally collapsed onto the bed out of exhaustion.
Why had he been excited again?
Something about… the Academy?
"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit! OH SHIT! Outta my way – 'ttebayo!"
The residents of Konoha watched as the human dust cloud streaked by, some of them looking on in disgust and others in mild bemusement. Like him or not, Human Typhoon Uzumaki was a common occurrence to those who routinely went out in the mornings. It seemed as though the boy's routine was to get up late, brush half of his teeth, and run to school attempting to pull on his jacket and chew toast at the same time.
The dream was forgotten in the recesses of the boy's mind, as so many other dreams were, as he charged down the sidewalks and trails that were lit by the morning sun. Today was the Graduation Exam, and he had somehow managed to screw it up already.
He had no idea things much larger than that were in store for him.
One Past Midnight
by Crossover King 46
Classes were over at the Shinobi Academy at last, Iruka sighed as he looked outwards at the setting sun. Although he wasn't happy with the outcome of the test, it was something he would nonetheless have to get over. Taking a look at the paperwork on his desk, he gingerly prodded the pile with his finger. Team assignments… He didn't want to think about that right now. All the information in the pile, his pupils' statuses, he had already stored away in his head. A couple years worth of experiences with his students told him more than these typed up reports ever would… He didn't need this stuff.
Kicking back, leaning against the back of his chair in a position that he would never, ever show his students, he gazed out the window once more. The setting sun cast orange rays across the sky, and made the clouds glow with a soft hue. Although the sight was indeed beautiful, it wasn't something that Iruka could enjoy at the moment.
Naruto had failed…
Of course, he had expected it. The boy was never the best of the best. In fact, you could make a case for him being the worst of the worst. He tutored the kid sometimes, he knew what he was like. Although he had all the enthusiasm in the world, he skipped the crucial parts of lectures and focused on the wrong parts of being a ninja. Although he wanted to learn ninjutsu, his chakra control was horrid to the point of unusability.
Still… he had hoped against hope for a miracle.
The miracle never came.
Sighing once more, he let the chair drop onto the floor, sending him back into a proper sitting position. Looking at the paperwork in front of him, he groaned and started to work. Although his heart wasn't in it, it was his job. Flipping through several of the paper files, he rubbed his head gingerly, wondering exactly how he was going to pull this off. Team assignment was a big deal, and he wanted to be sure that he didn't screw this up. It'd be best if he had a sounding board to bump ideas off of, but Mizuki had gone somewhere…
Speaking of which, where was Mizuki?
The day came and went, and for most of Konoha it was simply another day. Perhaps a small percentage of the population today were affected by the outcome of the graduation exam, perhaps even only in the single digits. Yet for those who were affected, the difference was huge. Successful students went home to their parents who were praising their deeds, promising to get them this and that, to take them to their favourite diner, telling them how proud they were, and other such riff-raff. To Naruto, this day had become one that he wished had never happened. From the start of the day things had been screwing up, like waking up late, and now he was stuck in the middle of nowhere with a scroll that he had stolen from the Hokage's office.
Speaking of the Hokage's office… Didn't he have a dream about that…?
Oh well, chances were it was just something about becoming the Hokage again. He had a lot of dreams like that. And it looked like these dreams weren't something he had to give up just yet, not if he managed to master this Kage Bunshin no Jutsu! Lessee… He pretty much had all the basics down, and he had managed to pull it off successfully a couple times. Looked like things were more or less getting there…
Now he just had to show it to Iruka-sensei!
Speak of the devil.
"Oh hey! Wassup, Iruka-sensei?"
"What the hell do you think you're doing?!" cried Iruka, who emerged out of the shadows. His face, now thrown into sharp relief, held a clearly pissed off expression, something that Naruto didn't pick up on. "Do you know how much trouble you're going to be in…?!"
"I know, right!" grinned Naruto, as the words went in one ear and out the other. "Nevermind all that stuff, though! Mizuki-sensei told me that if I managed to master this jutsu, you'll let me try it again and pass for sure, right?"
"Didn't you say that?" asked Naruto, cocking his head to the side. "That's what he said. Mizuki-sensei, I mean."
Iruka's eyes widened in realization, just as the whirlwind shuriken missed him by an inch. During the second before it had hit, he had thrown himself forwards and grabbed Naruto, throwing both of them to the ground. Despite the orange-clad boy's protests, he did not relinquish his hold, even as he turned to look behind him. On a large branch of a nearby tree, the visage of his teaching assistant looked at him with cold eyes.
Mizuki was wearing his jounin uniform, with the black bandana that he always put on when he got serious. His eyes were cold and calculating, although there was a mysterious emotion hidden within that Iruka could not pinpoint. Although the whirlwind shuriken he had thrown was now buried into the ground, the silver-haired man had another one sitting on his back, waiting at his beck and call. The eyes of the two Chuunin met, and sparks flashed.
Naruto finally pried himself out of Iruka's grip, and turned to look at the scene.
What was going on…?
"I have nothing against you, Iruka. Step aside and let me get at the boy," said Mizuki, his mouth tightened into a thin frown. Iruka did not back off, still standing protectively over his pupil. Naruto had no idea at all what the hell was happening. "Just give me the scroll, and I'll be out of your hair. Forever, preferably."
"Mizuki… what the hell happened to you?"
The silver-haired man did not answer, merely gripping the oversized shuriken on his back with his fingers and hefting it forwards so that the ring of the thing sat on the palm of his hands, waiting to be used. He changed his stance slightly, so that more of the weight was on the forward leg. It was a stance that said he was ready to attack, and he wasn't messing around.
"…You don't need to know."
"Just shut up and give me the scroll!"
The silver-haired Chuunin leapt off the branch with agility that Naruto didn't know he had. Mizuki-sensei had never shown anything that even came close during practice, and now he was going all out. Soon enough both of his sensei were on the ground engaging in close-combat, both of them showing clear mastery of the Academy basics. Their footwork, speed, and strikes were all things that he remembered seeing in the textbooks, yet the pure faultlessness of their actions put them on another level. Yet… Mizuki clearly had the advantage.
It seemed like it took forever, but in only a couple minutes Iruka was kneeling on the ground, the kunai the he had been using to fight falling to the floor stained in blood. His hands were covered in red blood as a wound that Mizuki had opened up earlier bled furiously. The Academy instructor looked upwards at the other teacher with determined, if not slightly sorrowful eyes.
"Don't give me those pitiful eyes, Iruka," said Mizuki looking aside at Naruto. "Now, Naruto, give me the scroll."
"Don't do it, Naru--!"
"Quiet!" cried Mizuki, delivering a swift kick to Iruka's head. The attack sent the Chuunin reeling, hitting the ground with his back to the floor. He turned around once again to Naruto, who by now was feeling terrified. What the hell was happening…? Both of these teachers had looked out for him so long during his Academy years, and now they were fighting…? This wasn't a practice fight either… This was for real! "Give it to me!"
"Naruto! Take the scroll and run!" screamed Iruka. "Don't give it to him, no matter what you do!"
Given direct orders for the first time from somebody that he knew he could trust, Naruto's discipline, honed by years of instruction at the Academy, sent him off into a sprint before his mind could catch up. But Mizuki had anticipated his reaction, and stopped in front of him, hitting him in the stomach hard enough for Naruto to feel like throwing up. The fox-boy took a couple steps backwards, gingerly, before falling to his knees much as Iruka had done before, trying to keep the bile down.
The scroll that he had been holding fell onto the ground, and instantly both Mizuki and Iruka, who had recovered adequately from his situation, dived after it. They met each other on the ground, and another round of fierce combat ensued. This time Iruka had broken free of his hesitation, and was showing much more initiative and creativity in his forms and strikes. The result was that, despite his injury, the two were at a stalemate with neither of them able to land a decisive blow on the other.
"What drove you to do something like this, Mizuki?!"
"You wouldn't understand!"
"Talk to me! We've been friends since we were kids! What the hell is going on!?"
"Shut up! It's too late for that now! It's too late for everything! Give me that scroll!"
He had seen enough of the fight to know that whatever it was that was happening, Mizuki wasn't on the right side of it. Naruto quickly ran forwards, forgoing his terror, and snatched the scroll up on the battlefield. The two Chuunin were locked in deadly combat, and this was a good chance. If Mizuki wanted the scroll badly enough to break free from the fight, Iruka-sensei would without doubt score a decisive strike in that instant. He gripped the scroll, and prepared to dash out of the battlefield, before he felt a hand on his back.
He turned around, only to stare into Mizuki's cold black eyes. Time seemed to stop still for a second, as Mizuki's whirlwind shuriken came down, and Naruto's eyes widened. Iruka, who had been repelled by Mizuki's defenses, cried as his assistant teacher proceeded to kill his favourite student…
Instantly Mizuki jumped backwards, as though shocked by something. Naruto clutched his chest for the briefest of moments, wondering what the hell he had just felt. Iruka, too felt it. It was as if time had stopped for a second, before continuing on once again. Whatever it was, it wasn't a normal feeling, nor was it a good feeling. Something had happened, something had changed… Whatever it was, it was something that Iruka had never experienced before.
"What… what the hell? What did you do? Is this Genjutsu?" cried Mizuki as he looked around. Iruka was about to question him about the validity of such a question, before realizing exactly why Mizuki had asked such a thing. The air had become still, the wind didn't flow anymore, and for some reason the entire place was tinged with a shade of green. Everything had become brighter, but at the same time was washed over, as though something wasn't quite right with his eyes.
Iruka looked over at Naruto… He had been going through the Forbidden Scroll earlier, perhaps he had picked up some sort of… This idea was dashed on the rocks the moment he saw Naruto's face, which was one of combined terror and wonder. It seemed whatever it was that had caused the sudden change in colour, it had nothing to do with Naruto.
The battlefield had changed. Now Iruka and Naruto were on one side, staring straight at Mizuki who was standing on the other. The scroll was gripped tightly in Naruto's arms, and Iruka stood between him and Mizuki, prepared to jump once again into battle at the first hint of aggression. Time seemed to stand still as the three battlers stared at one another.
"I'm… so weak."
Yet at once, all three of them turned to the source of the newcomer's voice.
Standing directly in front of them was a picture-perfect copy of Mizuki, although this one had his face twisted into the nastiest scowl Naruto had ever seen. The entire body of the new Mizuki was darker, as though light worked differently across his skin, and for some reason his eyes seemed brighter than the original, as though they were glowing in the dark.
Iruka was about to call it off as a Bunshin and a fine mind game played by Mizuki, before realizing that the silver-haired teaching assistant seemed to be about as shocked as they were. With every step that the dark Mizuki took forwards, the original Mizuki took one back.
"I'm… so weak. I want power… More power for myself! Enough power to make my problems go away…"
The voice of the new Mizuki seemed to echo, even though there was nothing here to echo off of. The tone he used was mocking, although it seemed like he wasn't even looking at Iruka or Naruto. No… the gazes of the two Mizuki were locked solely on each other. The clone smiled a predatory grin, and the original had an expression of pure disbelief on his face.
"What's so fun about teaching anyway? Hahaha… Little dipshit brats running around everywhere, without even a shred of dignity, yet they're all going to end up in a better place than me. Looks like no matter how much work a commoner puts into his profession, he's not gonna match up with a genius… Oh, look at poor 'ol me! Boohoo!"
"Shut up! It's not like that!"
"Mizuki…?" breathed Iruka looking at his silver-haired aide. The man in question was looking at his double with a face of pure terror, as though the figure in front of him had escaped out of his worst nightmares and had stalked him into the world of the waking.
"I can't do anything! No… I'm stuck as a lowly Chuunin, right? Stuck as an assistant to Iruka. Oh, good ol' Iruka-sensei, the goody-two-shoes who's farts are rose-coloured and smells like unicorn giggles. Oh man, that guy is so much worse than me… Yet since he wants to be an instructor, they forced me to be one as well!"
"I… I didn't think like that…"
"Mizuki…" said Iruka, looking at his silver-haired friend, who was right now in obvious mental turmoil. "Did you really think this way…?"
"Why are you trying to lie to me? I'm you! Isn't that what you're trying to do right now? Don't bullshit! They said you were going to be the brightest, the alpha male, you were going to have your pick of everything! But they lied to you, didn't they…? Genius backed up by their bloodlines passed you by in every way, forcing you to take a position like this just to remain a ninja. Isn't that why you're doing what you're doing ?Isn't it because you want to rub it in their faces? To show that a commoner can do… will do anything they can…?"
"I just… I just want to be free…"
"But you know… You know that you can't escape from it. You know you can't escape the weakness in your heart. You can't escape the fact that you can't do anything at all! What have you done in your lifetime…? Huh? I'll tell you right now, and you won't have to go through a walkabout to figure it out. You've done jack shit! You've never contributed a single way to your village! Isn't that right…? Isn't that why you want out of here? Because in this place… people who outclass you in every aspect of life lie just around the corner…?"
"Sh—Shut up… SHUT UP! How can you claim to know what I'm thinking?! YOU'RE NOT ME!"
Mist gathered inwards, all of a sudden. It was as if the darkness of the night was starting to gather in one point, and that point was Mizuki's double. The figure, now hunched over and giggling an insane giggle, gripped its sides as though it was holding in splitting laughter. Mizuki stepped back several steps, watching in terror as the figure in front of him gathered up energy… Iruka gripped his kunai in his hands, his knees trembling… Something was going to happen, he just didn't know what… Naruto held onto the scroll for dear life, his nails turning white as they dug into the paper…
"Hahahaha… Ahahahahahahah! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"
The gathered energy was released in a pent-up burst, knocking Mizuki unconscious. In front of both Iruka and Naruto, Mizuki's clone was transforming gruesomely, its proportions stretching and twisting like a contortionist, yet something of this level was definitely not natural. Its head was starting to grow, humongously, and its body widened as if being injected with fat. A pair of legs grew on top of his other pair, and his clothing shrunk away to reveal a black tight suit underneath. A length of string dangled from his neck, and his face contorted and twisted, revealing shiny metal underneath marred with cracks, as well as black, chaotic eyes…
His forearms grew, and the skin on them turned to resemble fabric… Suddenly, one of the arms drew backwards, and his entire body shuddered as a gigantic book fell out of the sky, its cover filled with psychedelic colours that moved across the surface of the material. The arm that had been drawn back gripped the book for dear life, and it was as if the humongous weight of the book was pushing the figure downwards into the earth…
At the end of it all, they weren't staring at a double of Mizuki anymore. It was a monster, something out of their worst nightmares. It was Mizuki if Mizuki had been born a monster instead of a man, created by somebody who had the barest idea of what a man was. The monster towered over them… Its body was at least twice the height of a normal man, and with that book, it was even greater…
"I am a Shadow… the TRUE self…" said the monster, slowly. "Nobody… IS GOING TO SURPASS ME!"
"Where are you…?! Come on out!"
The voice bellowed through the forest as Iruka and Naruto took refuge behind a grouping of trees. If they turned the corner, they'd be able to see the thing that called itself a Shadow rampaging through the clearing, attempting to find them. It was a good thing that it seemed to have traded up its rational mind for the huge amounts of power it was displaying, otherwise chances were they would've been found already. Iruka gripped a kunai in his hands, looking around the corner tentatively every now and then to make sure that the monster was still there. His hand had been bandaged, and was now pretty much in perfect condition for a battle. He was still going to have to visit a hospital in the near future, but for now it'll hold.
Iruka looked behind him. Naruto sat there, and although he was trying to hide it, the fear that his body displayed could not be hidden away from the eye of a trained ninja. It was clear that the boy was trying his damndest to prevent terror from doing what he had to do, but with that emotion crippling his reflexes and thinking process, he was all but useless at the moment.
"Iruka-sensei… What is that thing…?"
"I have no idea," said Iruka. It was funny… Naruto had always tried to find something that Iruka didn't know, trying to embarrass him in class, and now that he had managed to find it neither of them were in the mood to laugh about it. "All I know is that it's dangerous."
"It… it came from Mizuki-sensei, didn't it? It said it was him… Were those his thoughts?"
"I don't know," said Iruka. "But that's not important right now. What's important is that we need to keep ourselves safe until backup arrive. There's no way that we're going to be able to take on that thing alone."
"But… why don't we just run then?"
"I…" said Iruka, hesitating. He didn't know himself. There was something keeping him from running, something more powerful than the instinct of saving one's own hide. He wasn't sure what it was, but the simple act of running away seemed a greater taboo to him right now than anything else he could think of. He tried to shake the feeling away, telling himself that emotions were unnecessary to a ninja, but he lacked the blind conviction to do so. "You run, Naruto. Take that scroll with you, and try to find a Chuunin or a Jounin or somebody. Tell them I'm in trouble."
"What are you going to do, sensei?"
Just then, another crash resounded through the battlefield. Iruka and Naruto both winced as a nearby tree fell to the forest floor, having been completely destroyed by the creature's almost comically oversized hands. Never mind the fact that they looked like they came out of some strange cartoon. Their strength and speed had already been proved by the trunk of the tree, which looked like it had been smashed apart by a sledgehammer.
The monster looked around, its torrid black eyes searching to and fro angrily. Iruka spared a glance at the thing out of the corner of the tree, and ducked his head back once more before the thing could catch a glimpse of him. It was completely fine, even after about twenty minutes worth of rampaging… Looked like it didn't have an end to its stamina after all. But what was he supposed to do then…? It was clear that the thing was much stronger than him, both more powerful and quicker. If size was any indication, none of his weaponry was going to have much effect, and he didn't specialize in powerful elemental jutsu, which meant he was unable to cause damage on a large scale, which seemed like a pretty necessary talent in this battle.
"Keep running… will you…? Fine! It doesn't matter to me anyway!"
It was throwing a temper tantrum, Iruka realized. There was something strange about the way that the creature spoke. Although the voice was Mizuki's, it sounded hardly like the gentle and caring man he had come to depend on over the years at all. It sounded more… infantile, as if the creature was locked in a state of perpetual immaturity, and even though the voice was that of a grown man the words seemed more in character for a small child.
Yet, even as he reflected on the differences between Mizuki and this monster, he could not help but think back on the words that the clone had uttered when it had first appeared. Had it not been for Mizuki's reaction, he would've thought the words baloney and bullshit at its finest, but he had acted like the figure in front of him had been spewing out all his innermost thoughts… The ones that he hid from the rest of the world…
Was it true?
Was the clone… really Mizuki?
Even as he found himself in a situation where every moment was crucial and concentration was necessary, Iruka thought back on the years he had spent alongside his silver-haired comrade. From their childhood together in the Academy… To the times they spent with their respective Genin teams, keeping in touch even during the rigors of daily life… Then to the time they had made their decision to remain Chuunin and enter the Academy as instructors. All of a sudden, he found himself questioning the good times they had, and he bit his lip to keep the emotion from getting to him.
Had it been all a lie…?
Dammit, now was not the time.
"…I'll just do what I've come here to do…"
Wait, that sounded bad.
Iruka turned around the corner just in time to see the monster calm down and start shuffling to where Mizuki was lying, the book on its back forcing it to drag its legs along the floor. Although it seemed burdened by the gigantic tome, it nevertheless moved along much faster than its size should allow, although it had reduced in pace to a mere brisk walk now. The nervous feeling in the pit of Iruka's stomach was acting up full force now as he watched the monster take steps, ever closer to the prone form of his assistant teacher.
The monster hefted the giant book slightly, and Iruka's eyes widened as it realized the purpose of the stance. Without even thinking about it, Iruka moved from his position. It was a good thing that the monster had its attention focused on Mizuki, because Iruka was now in plain view, and looking very aggressive. Naruto gasped as he watched his sensei step out of the shadows.
"Iruka-sensei, what are you…?!"
"Mizuki-sensei betrayed you, didn't he? Why are you doing this for him!?"
"Naruto-kun," said Iruka, smiling at him. Naruto realized he had never really seen this smile of his before. Sure, Iruka-sensei often smiled in class, but that was the smile of a teacher teaching his students and doing his job. He had smiled at him in privacy before, when they went to eat ramen together. But this was a smile with a purpose and filled with determination, the smile of a warrior going into battle. "…I've never really had a chance to say this before, but I'm really proud of you. You've tried really hard these past three years… Given the chance, I'd definitely give you another go at the test again. Remember to hold onto those feelings though, and you'll be successful no matter what path you take in the future."
"Mizuki… I never really realized how much he was hurting before…" said Iruka, eyes slightly downcast. "But… even if he hurt me and tried to betray Konoha, I can't just let him go like that. We've spent our childhoods together, you know. He's close to me… My best friend by far. If I don't do something right now, he'd going to die."
"…Shinobi usually give up their emotions to fight, that's true," said Iruka. "That's what I taught you guys to do in the Academy as well… Well, you weren't there for that lesson, but that's something in the curriculum. To be honest… I don't think that's the right way to do it. If you give up your emotions, you'll live your entire live with regret. I don't ever want to do that. Right now Mizuki is in trouble, and even though I know he's a traitor, even though I know that he really actually despises me in his heart…"
Iruka breathed deep, holding the kunai up to his chest. He breathed out, gathering his chakra. The moment as of now was crucial… It all depended on the next few seconds.
"…If I let him die, I'll hate myself for the rest of my life!"
And with that said, Iruka charged off.
Naruto yelled as he emerged from behind the tree as well, the fear coursing through him preventing him from attaining his full speed. He watched as Iruka charged the monster, his footsteps against the grass sounding like a rapid-fire machinegun. The monster turned around to look at the source of the noise, taking his attention off Mizuki, who was still prone on the ground, unmoving. It looked at the little figure, a third of its size, and seemed to scoff visibly.
Then, with the speed of a bullet and the force of a sledgehammer, it sent its hand into Iruka's side. Naruto's scream was definitely audible this time as Iruka's body crumpled like a rag doll and was sent careening off into the side, his body moving in unnatural ways. There were specks of blood in the air where the collision had happened, and as they dropped the ground was sprayed red.
"There you are…
The monster looked at him.
It was looking at him.
Directly at him.
It saw him.
Just as Naruto's survival instincts finally kicked in, he found his body frozen in fear. No matter how much he wanted to move, he simply couldn't. Cold sweat broke out all over his body, so much so that he felt like he was trapped in a sauna and an iceberg at the same time. Absolute death was terrifying in any case, but right now he was staring straight into the maw of a nightmare come true in every way. It had been terrifying when he had been looking at it from the side earlier, but not it was like he was starring in a horror movie rather than watching one.
It made a step forward.
Two steps forward.
Then it broke out into a run, holding its free hand behind it, as if it was going to break out into a clothesline at any second. Naruto willed his body to move, he willed it with his entire heart and soul, yet it didn't listen. No matter what he did, it seemed like his life was going to end here. Right here and now. End prematurely. Just like that.
Flashes flew through his mind.
The image of a bent, long-nosed old man sitting in a chair reserved for kings.
Music that resounded throughout the soul.
Soft blue velvet.
And a single key.
I am thou…
Where was that voice coming from…?
…and thou art I.
Strange images flew through his mind…
The time has come to open thine eyes…
They were cards. Cards with elaborate images decorated on them.
…and call forth what lies within…
And yet… One stood out amongst all the others…
…know you my name…?
A man with a stick, with a bag tied to the end and a little dog at his heels…
Time slowed down for Naruto, as he watched the monster in front of him, that aberration that warped Mizuki's features, come slowly at him. He could feel the ground shake as the monster's legs came into contact with the compacted earth. He could feel its hot breath, even from a hundred meters away. He could see death…
Yet he wasn't afraid. He didn't know why, but suddenly all the fear had vanished from his body. His mind felt as light as a feather, and he couldn't help but smile. He watched the creature moved towards him, and instead of disgust or horror, he felt instead a new sense of determination and power. Something inside of him was changing…
It was inside of him, and coming upwards. He looked at his hand… When had he dropped the Forbidden Scoll…? Instead of the large hulking thing, he was now holding a small, orange scroll in his right hand. Even without any instructions, he knew exactly what he had to do…
He opened the scroll with a flourish, catching the fabric with his left hand. The inscriptions inside he couldn't read, but he somehow understood them anyway. The power inside of him was solidifying now, he could almost see its form… Then, all of a sudden, there was a sound as if glass was breaking, and he could feel the power break free from him, evaporating and then becoming solid in the space of perhaps half-a-second. The power gathered in front of him, a giving off a gentle, bluish glow. The monster stopped in its tracks as it watched the energy form, slight horror now evident on its face… It was scared… He had scared the monster…
The bluish glow died down, and Naruto realized he was staring at the back of a figure about twice his size. It was overall orange in colour, although with red here and there as well as black where the more organic parts of its body were. Although he could not see all of it, it nevertheless gave off a sense of power and majesty, and somehow managed to resemble a fox. From its back drifted nine white bands, giving off purity and light. It turned its head, so that Naruto could see its profile, and what he saw surprised him. The head looked almost like a helmet, with glowing eyes that appeared out of inky oblivion. The front of its face was designed to resemble fangs, and instilled him with a feeling that he was sure he would've felt had he been staring down a tiger or a lion.
It was that of a born predator.
A carnivorous god.
"I am thou and thou art I. From the sea of your soul I cometh… I am O-Inari, the Ninetailed Hero… Show me your enemy…"
And, for the first time in the entirety of this day, Naruto felt like everything was going to be alright.
"Him… Get him," said Naruto, pointing at the monster.
The being, O-Inari it called itself, turned once more to face the monster. Wordlessly, it sank into an attack pose. Naruto could feel the power radiating from the being, it filled his body as well, making it feel lighter than air. His fear evaporated, and he took up a fighting pose, pulling out a kunai from his pouch. He was outclassed and outmatched, but he'd be damned if this thing went down without him having a chance to prove himself.
The being charged forwards at speeds Naruto could barely see. It didn't touch the floor, no, it hovered slightly above the ground, its nine bands spiraling behind it, providing the illusion that it was flying. In the barest of moments, it had already reached the monster, and before the gigantic creature, roughly a grown man taller than the orange fox, could even realize, it was being pummeled ferociously by the creature that had materialized out of thin air. Naruto could only watch in awe as O-Inari absolutely destroyed the Shadow.
After a relentless tide of attacks, O-Inari finally gave the monster a chance to recover. Drawing back its arms, it delivered a shattering blow to the monster's face, sending it backwards and crying out in pain. The book dropped from the monster's back, hitting the ground with a thud. The earth shuddered and moaned at the impact, and Naruto had to fight to stay on his feet. It was a good thing that the monster didn't land on Mizuki, who was only scant meters away from where the monster had dropped like timber.
O-Inari turned to look at Naruto, as though waiting for something. Just as Naruto was about to ask what it was doing, it clicked in his head. The way that he was acting right now… It reminded him of the way that the Hokage's bodyguards acted around him at times… Was it waiting for his order…?
"Um… Attack him!" cried Naruto.
O-Inari nodded preparing to charge off once more. It dropped low to the ground, and charged forwards like a rocket. This time, without even letting the monster get up off the ground, it engaged.
The poor creature didn't know what was happening.
O-Inari didn't simply use punches in its fighting style, it used its entire body. From its vulpine-like legs to its steel-bound head and even its nine tails, it let no part of its body remain stationary as it beat the living hell out of the monster. Naruto could barely keep track of its movements, as it whirled around in mid-air, releasing strikes that he was sure could crumple a Jounin with ease. The monster cried out in pain, wheezed, and gasped as it felt the strikes. Its large size was proving to be a weakness, as O-Inari zoomed about its body like a fly, dodging deftly and elegantly the clumsy counterblows that were too slow to hit. Just when the creature was about finished, and O-Inari charged up the final blow, however…
Naruto had no idea why it hurt, but it hurt. All of a sudden, it was like he had been hit. His body didn't move, but his chest felt as if somebody had decided to take a sledgehammer to his sternum, and as the pain registered he quickly steadied himself. Gingerly poking his torso, he felt pain striking through his body. It was no phantom pain, he had really been hurt. What just happened…?
O-Inari smashed into the ground beside him, and for a second Naruto was worried about his new companion. These fears turned out to be unfounded when the being rose up on its hind legs, looking up at the monster in front of it.
This time Naruto could clearly see what was happening. The monster raised a barrier, shaped much like a mirror in front of it. The barrier existed for only the barest of seconds before disappearing once more, but from the way that the monster was now getting back on its feet and preparing for an attack, it seemed to have confidence that no more attacks would be damaging it.
Naruto turned to his partner.
"Hey… What was that?"
O-Inari cracked its neck, completely silent. Naruto was slightly amused as the fox spirit did so… It was something that he liked to do, and seeing something else that was so obviously inhuman do it was a little strange. However, he wiped that thought from his mind. There were more important things to worry about at the moment. He noticed for the first time the slight damage on the fox's armour. There were cracks here and there, and the skintight suit it had on underneath was ripped open in places. It was a good thing that the wounds seemed to be slight…
Naruto looked back at the monster, which was charging at them blindly. Just when it was about to reach them, however, the monster stopped in its tracks and sent its arm up, gesturing at them like a kabuki actor.
Its hand glowed green, and blades of wind suddenly spewed forth like bullets, cutting through the air like elegant birds. They passed by several branches of a nearby tree, and the wood visibly severed and fell to the forest floor, landing in thumps as they did so. These things were clearly dangerous. Naruto visibly flinched as the attacks came closer, and covered his eyes… Strangely enough, the pain never came, and when he opened his eyes once more and looking forwards, did he realize why.
O-Inari had sent out its arm in front of it, mimicking the monster's motion. The wind blades came to a stop instantly as they neared its form, before reforming into a ball of green energy and being absorbed. The cracks on the fox spirit's armour sealed themselves, and the wounds that had appeared on its body healed up faster than Naruto's own injuries.
As O-Inari's wounds healed up, Naruto felt the pain in his chest relieve itself. The pain subsided gradually, and then it was gone, as if it had never been there. He poked himself gingerly in the chest once more, prepared for a flash of agony, but it never came. Somehow, when O-Inari healed itself, it had healed him too…
"That's… that's awesome!"
O-Inari looked at him, and gave a gesture that was mildly reminiscent of a thumbs-up. Naruto was sure that if the being had a face and was capable of displaying emotion, it would've had a shit-eating grin on its face. Well, that was the expression Naruto currently had on himself, after all. The monster was currently displaying a modicum of shock, which Naruto was sure wouldn't last long. It seemed that right now, in this battle, he would be unable to do much with his abilities. If Iruka-sensei had managed to get himself knocked out in one blow, there was no way in hell he was going to be doing much better. If the only thing he could do right now was give commands to O-Inari… Well then, that was good enough for him.
"O-Inari, attack him!"
The being didn't move, shaking its head. Naruto looked at it, wondering if perhaps he had done something wrong. Then he remembered… The barrier. Apparently, at this juncture, there was no way to attack. Naruto cupped his chin in thought… How the hell could he take it down without attacking then…? Was there no other way…?
He felt a slight tap on his shoulder, and turned to look at O-Inari. The fox spirit then made a motion, pointing its arm out much like the monster had just seconds ago. Naruto looked at it for a few seconds, wondering what it was trying to tell him, before realizing. Just then, that monster had created wind blades just by reaching out its arm… Was O-Inari trying to tell him that it could do the same thing? Well, there was nothing for it but to try, Naruto supposed.
What were the words again?
"Um, O-Inari!" cried Naruto. "GARU!"
The fox spirit accepted the command with gusto, spinning around and swing both arms back. Instantly, blades of wind gathered at their tips, turning themselves spheres of revolving wind. Without a second thought, the fox swung its arms forwards and released the orbs, which burst open in mid-swing and instantly turned into blades of wind, much like the monster had created just moments before. However, these blades were obviously stronger. Their size and speed completely outclassed the previous barrage. Spinning through the air like miniature localized hurricanes, they tore into the flesh of the monster, which had no time to react at all.
It took only a second for the monster to fall, screaming as it did so. Purple blood spewed out of the deep gashes on its body that had been caused by the attack, which evaporated as it came into contact with the air. The monster fell to the ground, convulsing as if it was struggling to breathe, relentlessly attempting to grasp anything as though it were drowning. It took several ragged gasps of air before it fell to the ground, its life extinguished, and soon enough its body was breaking down, as though it were being dragged into the ground. At the end of it all, nothing was left where the monster had fallen.
"Is… that it? It's over?" asked Naruto, looking at where the monster had been lying.
Indeed, it was gone. Except for the remnants of the destruction that the monster had caused in its rampage, there was nothing left of the horrid beast that had erupted out of Mizuki's double. He kicked the ground where it had been, wondering if perhaps it was just playing dead, before a sharp pain tore through his head. He gripped his head in pain, but seconds later he was fine again as the pain subsided.
"What… what was that…?"
There was another tap on his shoulder, and he turned to look at O-Inari. The fox spirit, its enemy defeated, looked considerably more at ease, although the fact that it was still hovering a couple centimeters off the floor still lent it a feel of considerable power and divinity. It pointed in front of him, and Naruto turned to look forwards.
Where the monster's corpse had been, there now floated three glowing, light-blue scrolls. Soon enough, they lost their glow and dropped down slowly. Naruto walked forwards cautiously and gripped one in his hand, opening it up. Although smaller than the orange scroll that had appeared in his hand before, which he was still holding onto, it was nevertheless similar in design and a calming blue in colour. The letters on the page were also, to him, completely unrecognizable, although he did notice the picture that took up half the scroll. It was of a girl wearing a blue leotard along with stockings and long gloves, but the most striking feature of the picture were the wings that came out of the figure's back.
Naruto closed the scroll and opened up the orange one. Although larger, the letters were very similar, and he even spotted a couple ones that matched up perfectly with the other. In the heat of the moment before, he had missed the picture on the scroll.
It was of O-Inari.
He looked upwards at his silent partner, who simply nodded. Just as Naruto was about to ask what the hell was going on, O-Inari tapped his shoulder once more and pointed in another direction. Naruto's line-of-sight trailed along its path, before stopping on the prone form of his Academy instructor.
"Iruka-sensei!" cried Naruto, breaking out into a run. The scrolls that he had received he stuck into his pouch. There was more than enough space in there. O-Inari followed alongside its master as they quickly came upon the form of his fallen instructor.
With no time to lose, Naruto fell into a crouch. He knew this… He had to! He went to the classes on emergency first-aid, it was one of the ones that Iruka had forced him to come to. It had been boring at the time, but if it allowed him to save Iruka right now he'd never complain about it again. God dammit, he had to think… First, he had to assess the situation….
The wounds on Iruka's body were terrible to behold. The swipe that the monster had taken at him had seemed strong earlier, but only now was the monster's power truly evident. Iruka's body was messed up, especially on his right side, where he had taken the blow. His right arm was bent in an odd direction, a result of his attempt to block the strike with it, yet that wasn't the scariest thing. It seemed that Iruka had completely misjudged the monster's power, and had held his arm at the wrong angle. The result was that the kunai he had been holding had been pushed inwards due to the force, and had ripped his right side almost completely open. Blood was spewing from the wound horribly, and it was pooling around the ground.
At this rate, Iruka was going to die.
And there was nothing Naruto could do about it.
Shit, shit, shit.
Dammit, now wasn't the time to give up! Naruto quickly wiped his eyes. There was no time to be getting teary-eyed. He'd do everything he could to make sure Iruka lived, he'd be damned if he didn't. Quickly ripping off his orange jacket, he tied it around Iruka's torso. It was a good thing that the Chuunin was out-cold, otherwise the pain probably would've been unimaginable. It stemmed the flow of blood somewhat, but not well enough. Soon enough red stains could be seen on his jacket as the life-giving fluid drenched the fabric.
He had no medical equipment in his pouch. He had never thought he'd need it.
And now that he needed it, he didn't have any.
The despair got to him as he watched Iruka's face become paler and paler. He put his hand against his sensei's forehead, and felt the pit of his stomach fall six feet as he felt the coldness and clamminess against his skin. Where the hell was the back-up…? Didn't Iruka-sensei say they were coming…?
Just as hope was about to leave him, he felt a gentle nudge at his side. O-Inari had crouched down, now touching the floor instead of hovering, and seemed to be trying to get him to move. Naruto blinked away the tears, looking at the orange spirit. During the time he had known it, which was somewhere around ten minutes now, it had done nothing but help him and display amazing powers. Was it trying to do something right now…?
Sure, let it.
There was nothing he could do now anyway.
Naruto moved aside, letting O-Inari come in closer, and watched as the fox spirit put its arm-stumps on Iruka's chest. It looked at him for a second, as though asking for permissions, and Naruto nodded. Having received permission, it sank its arms lower, and Iruka yelped unconsciously as he felt the pressure. Naruto was just about to call O-Inari off when he realized what was happening.
White energy was gathering at O-Inari's armtips, but unlike with Garu, the energy didn't come together. Rather, it was being dispersed into Iruka, and Naruto could clearly see the spheres of white energy melt into Iruka's skin. The blood flow was slowing visibly, although it clearly wasn't stopping, and colour was returning to Iruka's face. The Chuunin moaned slowly, and muttered slightly, opening his eyes. He looked at the figure above him for a second, dazed from the suddenly awakening and the blow he had taken before, enough for it to take several seconds for him to gather his wits about him.
"Iruka-sensei, stop!" cried Naruto. Iruka, who had almost started to struggle, looked off to the side. Seeing his pupil, he calmed down instantly, although he did look back at O-Inari once or twice with a suspicious expression on his face. "He's healing you… Just bear with it for now."
"Healing…?" asked Iruka. "Oh… Oh yeah. What happened to that monster? Who is this?"
"This… uh… He… Are you a he?" asked Naruto looking at O-Inari. The figure nodded, although most of its attention was focused on Iruka's body at the moment. "He called himself O-Inari, and he beat the crap out of that monster! If he wasn't there, we would've been done for! Man, Iruka-sensei… You're the one who tells me not to be reckless. Why did you have to run off like that? Getting me all scared…"
"Oh, sorry…" said Iruka. "Your name is O-Inari…? Why are you dressed like that?"
O-Inari didn't reply, merely raising his arms from Iruka's body. The Chuunin instantly felt a jolt of pain, and arched his back as if preparing to scream. Naruto stepped up from where he had been standing, prepared to go to his teacher's aid at any second, but the Chuunin stopped him with a rather forced smile.
"It's alright. I was wondering why it didn't hurt when I woke up," said Iruka as he rubbed his right arm gingerly. Although the wound at his side was mostly healed up, the colouring of his face still betrayed the fact that he wasn't doing as well as he could be. His right arm was still broken as well, although Iruka had gone through enough missions to know how to dull the pain. "I don't know where you come from, O-Inari-san, but thanks for your help."
O-Inari didn't reply, merely returning to stand at Naruto's side. The blonde Genin turned to look at his partner with a smile on his face, feeling all the gratitude in the world for the guy that had popped up out of nowhere to save his butt and revive his teacher. This feeling was added to by a surge of emotion; had O-Inari not come to help them out during this time… Maybe they wouldn't have survived…
"Where's… Mizuki?" asked Iruka.
"Over there…" said Naruto. "Why, sensei?"
"I want to talk to him," said Iruka. "I want to ask him if what that clone said was really the real thing. I want to know why he wanted to betray Konoha."
"Iruka-sensei…! You're injured! What if he tries to attack…"
"He won't, not now," said Iruka. "You might not know this, but I've known Mizuki for a long time now. I can usually tell what he's thinking. Not to mention… Even if he does attack, O-Inari-san here can probably stop him himself, can't he?"
"Well, O-Inari is super strong, but…"
"Not to mention…" said Iruka as he looked towards where Mizuki had been. "It looks like I don't need to wake him up after all."
Scant meters away from where they were, Mizuki had already gotten back up on his feet. Yet, he was obviously in no condition to fight. The black bandana that he had been wearing before dropped to the floor, and his legs were barely keeping him up. The windmill shuriken that he had been using before laid on the ground, as his strength, spent as it was, left him completely unable to pick it up. Deep gasps and heavy breathing were the only sounds that came out of his mouth, and from where they were, his face, and especially his eyes, were all but invisible to them. Silver bangs drooped in front of his face, casting shadows across his features.
Mizuki said nothing. Instead, he merely looked upwards.
"You're still here…?"
His question was directed at none of them, and Iruka and Naruto both turned around. Behind them stood another Mizuki, the same one that had mutated into the giant monster before. Iruka and Naruto both fell into battle stances, preparing to fight, but it was not until Naruto realized that O-Inari had stopped moving did he relax slightly. Iruka followed suit soon, after realizing the new figure was barely moving at all. Instead of the twisted expression that the clone had been wearing before, this one was pretty much completely passive, merely staring at the real Mizuki with a combination of apathy and intensity.
"You… you really…"
Naruto merely looked between the two, unsure of what to say.
"No, I get it already…" said Mizuki, this time a smile worming its way onto his face. It was not a smile of mirth, but one of bitterness and repressed anger. "It hurts… you know, to have everything inside of you revealed like that… especially in front of the person you don't want hearing it the most. Dammit… Looks like I've managed to screw up everything…"
"I have no idea what you are, but I don't care anymore. Everything you said is the truth. Every goddamn thing," said Mizuki, his voice clearly breaking down as he continued on. Unable to hold himself up anymore, he collapsed onto his knees, his breathing getting more and more labored as he continued to talk. Iruka gave a start, before slowing down… This was something Mizuki needed to get off his chest. "…I've always been jealous… Jealous of everything."
"Shh, Naruto. Just let him talk," said Iruka. There was magic in conversation, as a teacher he knew that. Emotions that were bottled up inside, hateful urges; things like that could only be dispelled through heartfelt confession. If they stopped Mizuki now, he'd never be able to do something like this again. Only here, when pushed to the brink, could a ninja stop being a ninja and start being a man.
"Born to a commoner family… I loved the idea of being a ninja… I wanted to be great, like Jiraiya and Tsunade of the Sannin, like Hatake Sakumo, like the Hokages…" said Mizuki. His eyes were focused, staring at the ground, yet it was unclear who he was talking to at all. "But at the Academy… I was surpassed by everyone. A goody-two-shoes, I was average in every single goddamn way… "
"I… wanted to do something for my village. I wanted to be famous, to be remembered by people. I wanted to inspire future generations, so when I realized that I'd never make it to Jounin; I quit and joined the Academy with him… But, even there… I was overshadowed. I tried to be nice, I tried to help…! Don't think I don't know what the other teachers think of me, Iruka…!"
" A 'loser'… Somebody without an ounce of talent. The students only like him because he's kind… If he teaches, the students will only end up becoming trash like him…! He'll ruin their potential…! I TRIED MY BEST! I WANTED TO HELP THEM!"
At this point, Mizuki was openly sobbing. His façade shattered and his true feelings revealed, everything he had pent up within himself was opening up like a dam. Naruto felt shaken to the core from the revelations; he had never expected there to be so much in common between Mizuki-sensei and himself, while Iruka could only look on in pain. He'd seen shinobi crack under the pressure, either exterior or interior… However, it was something that he had never expected Mizuki to go through. Only now did he realize how good of an actor Mizuki was.
"I had enough of it… I wanted to run away from this village… I needed the Forbidden Scroll to run from Hunter-nin…" said Mizuki. "What was I thinking…? How could it have ended up any other way than like this…? I know already! You're me… and I'm… you…"
The Shadow – that's what it called itself – walked forwards slowly, approaching the sobbing Mizuki. The impassive look on its face remained, but now there was a hint of life, of warmth. Stopping right in front of the original Mizuki, the Shadow reached out its hand. The silver-haired Chuunin looked at it, before smiling in disbelief, all the while attempting to cover his face in shame. Just then, there was a flash of light, and the Shadow disappeared.
I am thou… Thou art I…
Naruto blinked as he heard the voice. It was like when O-Inari had asked him to summon him… Except, this one was deeper. Wheras O-Inari's was cheerful and childish, and carried a note like a vulpine yip, this one was more like a bull, a grown-up male bull.
I am thy courage manifest…
I am… Persona…
The Shadow disappeared gently, as if being blown away by a gentle breeze. In its place was a pillar of light, and Naruto could clearly see an object inside. The light died down, and there, in the air, was a scroll, much like the four that Naruto himself now carried. The scroll drifted downwards gently, and the silver-haired Chuunin took it into his hands slowly, numbed and dazed.
Just as the light completely died, Mizuki slumped to the floor with a thump.
The events of the night, although frightening and completely out of this world, soon came to an end. Without Naruto and Iruka noticing, O-Inari disappeared to where he came from, and the greenish tinge that had covered the entirety of the forest and the night sky disappeared in a flash. The vanishing of the greenness disoriented them for a second, but they quickly found themselves adapting to it. The sky regained its normal colour, and soon enough the other shinobi that had been sent out alongside Iruka had arrived.
Despite Iruka's hesitant protests, they took Mizuki into custody, clearly intending on taking him to the Hokage. Iruka looked at Naruto, who nodded in understanding. Although Mizuki had indeed done something that he shouldn't have, neither Iruka nor Naruto found themselves holding it against him. People often collapsed under pressure, internal or otherwise, and Mizuki had simply gone a little bit too far. Before the two were able to converse about what had happened, they separated. Nobody, surprisingly enough, had blamed Naruto for the ordeal, although he did recall seeing a couple faces who looked upon him with disgust in the streets. It seemed that Iruka had been able to shift the blame off him after all for stealing the Forbidden Scroll, although he hoped that the blame didn't land on Mizuki. It was true that he was the one who initiated it… but still…
Before he had left with the rest of the contingent, Iruka had given him a knowing nod. Naruto knew what it was about; there were a lot of unexplained events that had gone on that night, from the clone of Mizuki that had appeared and mutated to the strange apparition that had come to Naruto's help in his time of need. He had fingered the four scrolls in his pocket tightly when he realized that; not even Iruka knew about the scrolls that he was keeping on his person, although it wasn't by his design. He didn't mean to keep anything from his sensei, it was just that with the instructor's near death and Mizuki-sensei's breakdown, his mind had been occupied during the entirety of the night.
The pressing matters were done with now, realized Naruto as he lay on the bed, looking out of the window and into the moon. The adrenaline rush that he had felt during the battle was keeping him up, and he found that he couldn't fall asleep.
The moon was shining brightly…
As the clock kept ticking, Naruto felt his eyelids drop lower and lower…
The sunlight was bright, and the birds were chirping. Iruka opened up the hospital window, which was luckily right beside his bed, and looked outside. The view of Konoha in the morning, especially from such a high place, was indeed a balm on the soul. Down under he could see the market district already overflow with people, as well as all the shinobi standing guard around the city. Here and there he could catch glimpses of Jounin hiding away, either for personal or business reasons. Konoha was a place where things happened, after all.
"…You alright now, Mizuki?" asked Iruka, turning to his roommate, his arm wrapped in a cast. Although whatever it was that O-Inari had did yesterday was effective, it was nevertheless nothing more than a temporary measure. To fully restore his right arm which had been wounded in battle, it was necessary to rest.
The silver-haired man in the hospital gown said nothing, merely looking down at his lap. He was sitting upright in his bed. This man was a far cry from the sobbing wreck that he was in the forest two days ago, having had a day and a little extra to recover from his ordeal.
"…I can't believe this," said Mizuki at last. "...I don't deserve any leniency. My actions were unforgiveable."
"You did it in a moment of stress, Mizuki," said Iruka. "You snapped, that's all."
"Iruka, that's not a very good excuse… I'm surprised the Hokage listened to you at all. He knew everything about I had done, and why. If everybody acted like I did and managed to get off just like that… I don't think a ninja village like that would last very long."
"I've known you the longest, and he knows that." said Iruka as he looked out the window once more. He had specifically requested the window bed, since he loved the fresh morning air. Mizuki was the same way usually, but whenever he felt gloomy he was the type to shut himself up in his room for a couple days, brooding over his problems. Brooding didn't help matters, Iruka knew. "…Sandaime-sama is a very kind man. I'm actually a little surprised myself… I didn't think my pleas would get through to him."
"…In any other Hidden Village, I might've even received the death penalty. All I got here was a probation."
"Yes, but you're a member of Konohagakure. That means you're lucky," said Iruka. "Actually, he knew a lot about you, you know. When I told him about your conditions, he actually told me that he knew how hard you worked as an Academy instructor, and how much you wanted your students to grow. I know he visits the Academy a lot… but…"
"He told me he respects your contributions to the village, you know."
"…What contributions…? All I've ever done is screw up…"
Iruka sighed. It seemed that nothing was getting through to his friend. That was one of Mizuki's problems… In a normal mood, he was one of the kindest and gentlest people that Iruka knew. When he was in a bad mood, however, with the sole exception of last night, he often blamed himself for everything that went wrong and refused to see things otherwise. As a friend, Iruka thought it was unhealthy, yet he didn't want to pry nor preach. After what had happened last night… Well, Mizuki could really use a bit of a break.
In the distance, they heard the sounds of a commotion. Iruka turned his head from the window to look at the door, where the sound was coming from. Whatever it was, it sounded like it was getting closer. Footsteps rang through the air as what seemed liked nine pairs of legs ran down the hallway. Iruka smirked slightly, a rather uncharacteristic motion on his part. Whoever it was out there was, swarm or not, was going to get chewed out by the head nurse, who was a bit of a control freak here.
"…oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…!"
"I think we lost her!"
"Good. You spread your Bunshin out already, right?"
"Yep! Henge'd into each of us. She'll be spending her whole afternoon chasing clones!"
"Yeah, that's Sakura-chan for you! Gimme a hug, babe!"
"Shut up, Naruto!"
"C'mon, guys! We're following Akamaru's nose! It should be… this one!"
The door burst open and nine bodies entered the room in a rush. Iruka's eyes widened as he watched his favourite pupils drop in unexpectedly, arguing amongst themselves. Mizuki was equally surprised, as the stunned expression on his face testified; his jaw was actually hanging open, a complete reversal from his usual composed demeanor.
Naruto, who was in the lead, got up and brushed himself off. During the trample to get inside, Kiba, who had been behind him, had managed to smash him into the ground in his rush. The blonde boy got up and delivered a dark look to his black-haired classmate, who grinned sheepishly. Iruka realized that Naruto wasn't wearing his usual orange jacket, and for a moment wondered why. The reason came to him in a flash, though. Ah yes, he had used it to stem the blood that had flowed from his wounds two nights ago. It was too bad that it was stained beyond repair, however. The head nurse had thrown it away before he had the chance to protest.
"Heya, Iruka-sensei, Mizuki-sensei!" grinned Naruto.
Mizuki was visibly surprised. Having had no chance to talk to the blonde boy since his betrayal, Iruka had judged by the expression on his face and his general attitude that he had expected the eternally orange-clad boy to hold an intense dislike, if not outright hatred for him. After all, it had been his fault that the boy had been caught up in a situation where he had been fighting for his life, and had almost been the accomplice to the theft of village secrets.
"What are you doing, Naruto?" cried Sakura, the next in line. She pushed the blonde boy aside, looking around the room at her teachers. With a cry she launched herself at them. "Sensei! We heard you two were hospitalized! Are you alright?"
"Thanks to that, we haven't had school at all yesterday!" grinned Kiba as Akamaru agreed with a bark. "Man, you two should get sick a little more often! You guys can rest and we can have a day off school, sounds like a win-win for everybody!"
"Ki—Kiba-kun…" muttered Hinata. "That's… not right…"
Shino said nothing, although his presence said it all. The Aburame clan were known to be notorious hermits, and when not at places where their attendance was mandatory they were rarely ever found outside of their clan compound or wandering around in the forests of Konoha looking for bugs.
"Get off them, forehead! Can't you see they need rest?" cried the last girl in the group. Ino had her hands on her hips and was looking at Sakura with a death glare. Iruka smiled, bemused at the girls' rivalry. Although it had cropped up completely by accident, it was nevertheless something that facilitated their growth as they competed against each other. In no way was it a bad thing.
"What's that you say, Ino-pig? You want some of this?"
"Don't be like that, Shikamaru. They're our teachers. Of course we have to visit."
"I know, Chouji, I know…"
"Hmph… instead of doing this, I could be at home training right now," said Sasuke, with his arms crossed in front of him as he leaned against the wall. He looked at Mizuki, and then at Iruka. "Iruka-sensei… Mizuki-sensei… Get better soon so we can receive our team assignments. Looks like they aren't handing it out to us until you two get back."
"Shut up, teme! Can't you show a little compassion!?"
"Naruto, stop bothering Sasuke-kun!"
Iruka watched the quarrel with a smile on his face. Although the peace and quiet of the morning had been ruined already by his rowdy students, nevertheless he found himself happy inside. Just as Naruto, Sakura, and Ino got into brawl, with Kiba and Akamaru cheering them on, Hinata walked forwards and placed two fruit baskets on each of the teachers' bedside tables. Iruka looked at the fruits with a smile, before glancing at Mizuki. The silver-haired man's face radiated disbelief.
"A—Ano… This is from the entire graduating class, as well as Naruto," said Hinata. "They wouldn't tell us what happened to you two, so we thought the worst… Naruto was the one who came up with the idea, you know. He came to classes yesterday before we were let out and told us you were in the hospital… U—Um, please get better soon!"
She gave a deep bow, and retreated soon after, her face completely flushed. As she went back to the other side of the room, Iruka saw Kiba give her a small pat on the back and a friendly grin, which she replied to with an even heavier blush. It looked like the poor girl was mortified for having to speak on everybody's behalf.
"What, you're not going to say it?"
"Fine, I'll do it for you!" grinned Kiba, who went up to Mizuki. The silver-haired man looked at the boy with surprise in his eyes as the beast boy jumped up and sat down on the assistant teacher's bed. "Mizuki-sensei! Just wanted you to know that Hinata-chan's sister's going to be joining the Academy soon! She requested to be in your class!"
"A—Ah, Hyuuga Hanabi-chan, was it…? I know about that."
"Hinata-chan just wants you to know that she puts up a bit of a façade, but she's actually a really nice girl at heart," grinned Kiba. "You know what she wants me to tell you? Since Iruka-sensei's probably going to be yelling at the class all the time, she wants you to look out for her little sis, 'kay? What a nice older sister, don't ya think? Wish mine were like that."
"M—Me?" asked Mizuki, looking at Hinata's face, pointing to himself. "You want me to look out for her?"
"Well, duh!" grinned Kiba, putting an arm on Mizuki's shoulder. "C'mon, Mizuki-sensei! You're only the nicest teacher around!"
"You mean, you don't mind that I'm not a very good teacher…?"
Just then, the motions in the room stopped. Each of the students turned to look at their silver-haired teacher, and Mizuki felt his face burst into flames. Iruka was sniggering in the corner, unnoticeable to all but Mizuki, and the silver-haired probationary Chuunin felt like smacking him one for it. Just then, Sakura walked up to Mizuki, putting her hand against his head. Mizuki simply stared at her, dumbfounded and wondering exactly what she was up to.
"Nope, no fever. Are you alright, Mizuki-sensei?"
"Of course you're a good teacher!" smiled Ino. "At least, much better than Iruka-sensei over there…"
"Don't get offended!"
"Whenever Iruka-sensei doesn't make sense about something, you're always the one who tries his best to explain it, remember?" asked Sakura. "And every time that Naruto, Kiba, Chouji, and Shikamaru ditch, you're always the one that spends his time outside looking for them and dragging them back to Iruka-sensei for a lecture! What do you mean you're not a very good teacher? You're the nicest teacher we've ever had!"
Mizuki blinked and looked around himself. This time, he really looked. For once, his eyes were clear. Whereas he had just looked at their faces before, now he stared into their eyes. Each, each and every single one of them, although some were more obvious than others, displayed warmth and respect for him from the very depths of their soul. He had been an instructor at the Academy for a long time now, and never had it occurred before to him to try and see what his students thought of him.
They respected him.
They liked him.
He turned to Naruto, who was hiding behind all the others with the sole exception of Sasuke. The blonde boy winked knowingly and gave him a thumbs-up… Never before had such a simple gesture evoked such a deep emotional response in him, and he had to look away from the boy before he burst out crying again and making a fool out of himself. His eyes came to rest on Iruka's face, who was winking as well and mouthing the words 'I told you so.'
"What's up with this gloomy atmosphere…? How troublesome."
"Yeah, we came here to cheer them up, right?" grinned Ino as she looked around. "C'mon, guys, let's have a party!"
The other students reacted to her words immediately, Shikamaru scoffing and Chouji simply smiling at the simplicity of his friend. For the next hour or so, the room was noisy enough that any rest that Iruka or Mizuki might've considered getting was thrown straight out the window. Iruka conversed with his students, albeit finding himself slipping into lecture mode more often than not, trying to remind them of their responsibilities now that they were going to become Genin. Mizuki was at the side, trying to talk with Hinata and Shino, who were two of the more shy students in the class. Well, Hinata was shy. Shino was just quiet. Mizuki had a smile on his face, one that Iruka recognized.
This was the Mizuki that he had first met in the Academy, this was the Mizuki that he had made friends while practicing out in the field, working hard under the instructions of their teacher. This was the Mizuki that joined him in the Academy after becoming tired with trying to climb up the career ladder, and this was the Mizuki that loved his students more than anything. Iruka smiled. It seemed that he didn't have to do anything after all.
"Um, sensei…" said Naruto, approaching him.
"What is it, Naruto?"
"I've got to go now, sorry," said Naruto, apologizing and bowing his head. "I wanted to stay a little longer, but…"
"How come? Do you have an appointment?"
"Something like that," said Naruto, shaking his head and looking slightly disappointed as he did so. "I'm going to see a blacksmith who said he might take me on as an apprentice. Since I failed the graduation exam three times now, I'm pretty much barred from becoming a ninja, aren't I…? So I've got to meet with this guy and figure out where to go from here on out—"
"Wait, you mean nobody told you?" asked Iruka with surprise.
"After I explained the situation to Hokage-sama two days ago, he agreed to my assessment of you," said Iruka, smiling, keeping his voice low so that the other students couldn't hear. "For providing assistance to a shinobi on duty and for saving my life during that time, you've been granted an exemption on passing your exam. You're on the same level as everybody else in this room now."
"Are… are you serious?" asked Naruto in disbelief.
"Of course! Would I lie about something like that?"
Naruto's face went from disbelief to tearful relief in the span of point five seconds. He tackled Iruka with the speed of a kunai and gripped his shoulders in a bear hug, and Iruka found himself unable to breathe. The pure joy and happiness that the boy was releasing was astounding, it was like being hit with a baseball bat made of happynium alloy.
"Hey, hey… Don't get so emotional—"
"I'm—I'm so happy! Yes! I knew it… I knew if I didn't give up, I had a chance! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
"Ah, Naruto! Let go already, or the others are going to see!"
Thankfully, that seemed to do the trick. Naruto calmed down, wiping away the tears that had been streaming down from his eyes. The grin on his face, as bright as the sun, was infectious. Iruka found himself smiling as well. There was something about Naruto that made people feel his emotions. When he was happy, the people around him became happy. When he was sad, the people around him became sad. It was a special ability of his, Iruka found, and perhaps the source of it was his sincerity.
"Thank you, Iruka-sensei!"
"Calm down!" said Iruka, pulling something from underneath his pillow. He had no idea why the Sandaime had given it to him, but he supposed he knew the reason now. Naruto would've come around to visit him sooner or later, and it looked like Sarutobi had expected him to give the kid the good news. "Look, I was planning on giving you this after I got out of the hospital, but I guess right now is as good a time as any. Here you go."
Naruto gasped as he looked at the object he had been given. It was the hitai-ate, proof of recognition. Although Iruka had told him scant seconds before that he had been given the pass to becoming a ninja, it wasn't until he felt the fabric in his hands that he really realized what it had meant. Grinning tearfully, he ripped the goggles off his head and put the hitai-ate on, much like the rest of his classmates were already wearing theirs. Strangely enough, nobody had noticed the exchange between teacher and student yet. They were all crowded around Mizuki, who was trying to answer their questions about what had happened as vaguely as possible.
Just as Naruto was about to join the crowd, he felt Iruka's hand on his wrist.
He turned around, to stare into Iruka's sincere eyes.
"Naruto… I don't know how to say this but… Oh, dammit," said Iruka, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. This was a habit that he had passed onto Naruto a long time ago, and it was something the two of them shared in common. "Naruto, I just want you to know that I'm proud of you – and… Well, I know you're an orphan, but… I think any parent out there, living or not, would be proud to have you as a son."
Naruto blinked, and smiled.
The positive feelings in his chest were a far cry from the feelings he had felt two days ago. In the space of forty-eight hours, it felt like he had gone directly from hell to heaven. First, the soul-crushing despair that accompanied the realization he had failed, and now the pure bliss that was the realization that he had started out on the path he wanted to be on, and had begun to take his first steps.
Thou art I… and I am thou.
Thou hast established a new bond…
Thou shalt be blessed when creating Personas of the Fortune Arcana…
And then, just as quickly as it came, the feeling left Naruto.
"Are you alright?" asked Iruka, looking at him with concern in his eyes. "You look a little dazed."
"No—No, I'm fine," said Naruto. What the hell was that…? Dammit, since his meeting with Igor two nights ago, everything had become weird. First, he had gotten involved with that giant monster, and then he began to hear voices in his head…? Granted, these voices weren't that bad, and even helpful sometimes, but still…
"Looks like Mizuki wants to talk to you," said Iruka, looking off to the side. Indeed, the rest of the students were chattering by themselves now, with the exception of Sasuke and Shino, who had already left. Neither of them were very social animals anyway, and they had simply shown up to greet their teachers. That was more than enough, in Iruka's opinion. "You'd better go to him."
Naruto moved over to the other side of the room, where Mizuki was lying. The silver-haired man's face was a mixture of nervousness, anticipation, as well as insecurity, but he nonetheless greeted Naruto was a smile as the blonde boy moved in closer. Naruto returned the favour with a grin of his own, and judging by his mood at the moment, which was one of pure elation, he was willing to bet he was showing more teeth than he actually had.
"…I never had the chance to apologize to you," said Mizuki.
"Apologize? For what?"
Mizuki looked at him with a look of disbelief.
"…For what? Are you joking?" asked the silver-haired man. "I lied to you… I was planning to use you for my own purposes and then pin all the blame on you when I made my getaway… Because of my momentary insanity… No, that's too easy of an excuse… I take full blame for what happened. Don't you hold a grudge against me?"
"All you said was that getting the Forbidden Scroll meant Iruka-sensei was going to let me pass!" grinned Naruto, scratching his cheek. "And y'know what, turns out it actually did. Don't worry about it at all, Mizuki-sensei. Looks like everything turned out for the better."
"…You mean, you forgive me just like that…?"
"Well, yeah. What's the problem? You're not a bad guy, sensei."
Mizuki chuckled, unable to hold in his laughter.
"…Hahaha… Both you and Iruka, and the Sandaime as well. Looks like this entire village is a collection of soft-hearted people," said Mizuki, looking at his lap for a moment, before looking back up at Naruto. "…You know, before I thought you were a bit of an idiot, but now I see that there's a reason Iruka likes you so much. You're really a wonderful person."
Naruto felt his face heat up as Mizuki smiled. Dammit, that happy feeling in his chest was happening again, although this time it was mixed with a bit more embarrassment. He had a pretty close relationship with Iruka-sensei, that was for sure, but this was the first time that the other teacher revealed something to him so sincerely. Somewhere deep within, he felt a connection with the man in front of him, who had revealed so much to him inadvertently two nights ago.
Thou art I… and I am thou.
Thou hast established a new bond…
Thou shalt be blessed when creating Personas of the Hanged Man Arcana…
And just as quickly as it arrived, it went again. Naruto blinked.
"What are you waiting for, Naruto? We brought cards!"
He quickly pushed it out of his mind.
The rest of the morning was spent pleasantly with his fellow classmates, although Hinata had to leave in the middle of it to return home. They whiled away the time playing different card games, from go fish all the way to strip poker, and at the end of it all Mizuki was wearing absolutely nothing at all and red from head-to-toe, covering himself up with the sheets on his bed. It wasn't until noon that the head nurse finally found them and chased them out. The last thing that Naruto heard before he left the room was the chubby woman yelling at the teachers, one for allowing people in to visit when it wasn't visiting hours yet, and the other for stripping down to his boxers and thus risking sickness while suffering from exhaustion.
Naruto grinned. It was time to celebrate. To Ichiraku Ramen it was!
In the busy marketplace of Konohagakure, movement was everywhere. People moved along in throngs, most of the time being pushed by the waves of other people. Shops lined the streets, with street vendors shouting out greetings at the top of their lungs, trying to get prospective customers into their respective shops. Nobody here paid attention to anything other than their destination and how they were going to get there, they had no time to spare. This place was crowded like this everyday.
"Man… this place is busy, hee-ho…"
A small figure stood at the edge of the marketplace. Nothing was really obvious about it, aside from the cloak that it was wearing. The cloak had a hoody as well, which covered up its face and prevented any of its features from being shown. It had an ice-cream bar in one hand, and was munching on it absent-mindedly as it carried a small bag with the other. All in all, it looked like a little wanderer, drifting from place to place.
"Konohagakure is so hot-ho. At least it's better than Suna, hee-ho. I feel sorry for Py-bro," said the little figure with a rather distinctive voice. Just as it finished its ice-cream bar, it threw the remains into a nearby garbage bin and shifted the weight of the bag a little. Taking a look around, it seemed to be attempting to search for something.
"Hmm… I feel something. Maybe this way…?"
The little figure continued on its way, hiding in the shadows as it moved.
It was a good thing that nobody was looking downwards.
"Father… Have you seen Hanabi-chan around?"
Hyuuga Hiashi looked up to see his elder daughter in front of him, taking his eyes off the newspaper in his hands. They were in the living room, and the day was both bright and sunny. It was almost enough to get Hiashi out of his eternal bad mood. Well, that was the way it was when you were clan head. Not a moment to spare to yourself or to build a relationship with your daughters, not with the elders breathing down your neck. In fact, nowadays it was quite a pleasant experience for his daughters to speak to him at all without him approaching them first.
"Not really. Did you check her room?"
"No… I—I don't really know where she went. Her caretaker says she just disappeared…"
"Hmm, that's good. To be able to hide from the Hyuuga is the proof of stealth. Looks like she hasn't been neglecting her training at all," said Hiashi, drinking from the teacup in front of him. Hinata was actually a little surprised to see the edges of his lips turn up slightly. "Still, that's not very becoming of her, causing people to worry like that. Don't worry, though, I have confidence that she'll be back soon."
"B—But, I'm worried…" said Hinata. "Um…"
"What? What is it?"
Hinata quickly retreated out of the room as her father looked at her back. That girl acted a little too meek and shy sometimes, but he supposed it was just part of her personality. Oh well, she'd get over that teenage awkwardness in time. It was a normal part of growing up, after all. Turning back to his newspaper, he glanced at the advertisements, eyes lingering on one part of it for several seconds.
"Junes Department Store…? Oh, there's one open in Konoha now… Don't they even have TV ads for this thing? Hmm… I remember the nanny put a TV in Hanabi's room… Wonder if that was a good idea."
Elsewhere, a little girl was running through the second floor of a certain department store, bothering the customers and the sales staff. But they dared not tell her off, for they all recognized her. The second daughter of the Hyuuga clan, and a member of the main family. They knew that if they somehow pissed her off or made her cry, the possibility of their lives being crushed under the foot of the Hyuuga was higher than should be expected.
"Everyday's a great day at your Junes~!"