Through the Cracks in the Mask

Chapter One: Mizuki's Present

The laughter was as loud and obnoxious as I could possibly make it. And that was saying something. I had a lot of experience in being loud and obnoxious.

Okay, so I was pissed off, even though I'd probably never have admitted it to anyone but myself. I was pissed off and worried as hell, and I hated being worried. Anger and sadness, loneliness and fear, I could handle. But I couldn't stand being worried. Because when I was worried, it meant I had a problem and I'd already tried everything I could to fix it and nothing had worked. So I was stuck there in a rut, unable to do anything about the lead ball in my stomach. When I was worried, it meant I was helpless.

And more than anything, I couldn't stand feeling helpless.

So mostly, I was just doing it to relieve stress. To do something, even if that something wouldn't really help my problem much. To get my mind onto something else, something productive, something I enjoyed. Something I was good at, for once.

Naturally, I turned to pranking.

Pranking was one of the great joys of my life. I loved everything about it. There was the planning of the prank, looking for all the right ways to pull it off, all the right materials to use, all the right escape routes afterward, mapping it all out to the last meticulous detail in a way I might have done with my homework if my teachers actually gave a fuck, all the while imagining the look on the unfortunate recipient's face when my practical joke lobbed them in the face right when they least expected it. There was the gathering of the materials and the wait for just the right moment to go ahead with the prank, always a moment of tenterhooks anticipation and adrenaline-filled tension. There was the set-up, filled with gleeful excitement and the prospect of a job well-done. And there was the execution and the wild get-away, which usually tended to happen within about five seconds of each other, three if I'd chosen my victim to be a shinobi.

Today, however, was a bit different. Today would mark my biggest prank to date, and I was proud of it. So today I stood boastfully over my work. I wanted everyone to be sure this was mine.

I had planned my prank well. My target this time was my most ambitious ever… which was a bit surprising, considering it wasn't actually a person, but a hunk of rock. This particular hunk of rock, however, was rather important to the village I lived in. This hunk of rock was a historical monument, with the faces of the village leaders, former and current, carved into the huge stone cliff face. It was practically worshipped, and no one dared even stray too close to it.

Except me.

I was standing on top of it, laughing at the crude drawings and curses I had slathered all over the faces in thick, heavy paint.

I inwardly marveled at the fact that I had even gotten away with such a feat. It had taken me almost a full week of studying the schedule of the constant guard surrounding the monument to figure out how to do it.

There was roughly a five minute period between when the morning guard got off duty and the afternoon guard got to their stations. That left me with five minutes to get up there, get everything set up, and paint the entire monument with enough color and creativity that everyone would notice and I could be proud of my work. Not too bad. I'd gone on worse.

So I bought some paint and scaffolding equipment at a local tool store under the Henge of a man who was dark enough and well built enough to be some kind of building contractor on a temporary job. I didn't disguise myself because I didn't want anyone to suspect anything; on the contrary, I wanted everyone to know this defacing of public property was all my fault. I didn't even disguise myself because a twelve-year-old would probably look weird walking into a store unattended and asking for scaffolding equipment. My disguise had more to do with the fact that if they knew who they were really selling to, the store clerks would probably have thrown me out.

A lot of the people in my village didn't like me very much. And it wasn't just because of my pranks, either.

People hated me, especially people in the more well-to-do areas of the place I lived: Konoha, the Hidden Village of the Leaf. I grew up in the biggest military base in the Fire Country. Shinobi were everywhere. But, except when they were doing their rounds, they kept to the wealthier parts of the village, where they lived. Shinobi were the village's power base, so they and the people related to them got all the good stuff. The people who didn't have any shinobi connections usually ended up in the poorer districts. Konoha was a wealthy place, but even it had its bad sides. I grew up in one of those bad sides.

Maybe it was because of that, or maybe it was because I was an orphan, or maybe it was because I was a poor orphan with no connections who was trying to pretend like he belonged at the Konoha Shinobi Academy with all the rich kids… I wasn't really sure. It wasn't like they ever bothered to explain it to me. But most of the stores in the wealthier districts, where I spent most of my time now (because of my place at the Shinobi Academy), wouldn't let me in, even before I started playing humiliating pranks on people and property of the state. They ignored me, looked down on me, spat on me… which was a lot of the reason I started graffitiing all their shops windows anyway. Revenge. If they refused to look at me, I'd force them to look at me. Even if it was only to glare and curse.

Anyway, long story short, I couldn't just walk into a store and buy paint and scaffolding equipment. Hence the Henge.

After that, I paid a small fee to walk up close to the monument, past the guards, and climb the stairs built into it that led all the way up to the backs of the leaders' heads, which was a service that was always offered to tourists. I Henged into a tourist, paid the fee, and walked right on up and around to the back of the monument. Between the materials and the fee, the prank cleaned out most of my meager funds, which amounted to a tiny orphanage trust fund and a very small scholarship from the Academy. I'd probably be living off of milk, cereal, and a couple of packages of instant ramen for the next week. But it was worth it. You just can't put a price on art.

Once I was in back, I planned a route to climb to the top of the monument as quickly as possible for the following morning. That took a couple of minutes.

Then I walked back around in my innocent little tourist Henge, thanked the chuunin on duty, told him the monument was absolutely fascinating, and walked away.

No one bothered to check for a Henge, because there was nothing important about the Hokage Monument aside from its history. An infiltrator in the Hokage Tower, the base of operations for all Konoha shinobi, the holder of all kinds of secret documents and files and significant shinobi scrolls, and the residence of the leader of Konoha, the Hokage himself, was much more likely. The guard around the monument was all for show. No one working there ever bothered to actually do anything but stand around and look good, something I was counting on.

I waited all morning the next day, camped out at a park nearby, filled with that sort of nervous tension I'd always loved about pranking. The moment the morning guard left, I snuck through back alleys to the monument itself. It was around lunch time, so a lot of people were indoors, but I decided not to take any chances on anyone seeing me running toward something big and important with a shit-eating grin on my face. The villagers of Konoha knew better than anyone else that usually didn't bode well.

I sprinted up the monument stairs, and then climbed up to the very top as fast as I could. I'd carried my materials with me in the only empty storage scroll I had left from that time the Academy was giving away free materials from the student store more than a year ago. I took all of it, figuring having spare storage scrolls lying around might come in handy one day. As it turned out, I was right.

I set up the equipment, which I'd practiced doing in my apartment directly after I bought it, and went to work. I had to rush as fast as I could, so it was a little sloppy, but I thought I got the point across pretty well.

The First Hokage had giant boogers coming out of his giant nose and a couple of curses I'd learned from my time living on the streets in the worst parts of town slathered across his cheeks for added effect.

The Second Hokage looked like a major pervert and had something I'd seen in some porn book someone threw away in the trash outside my apartment building once written in big, bold letters across his forehead.

The Third Hokage, the current one, who I actually liked because he was the one who let me into the Academy even though I didn't have a parent or guardian to sign the entrance forms for me, got it a little better. He was weeping great big fat tears, but did not have any rude remarks written anywhere on him.

The Fourth Hokage, who was revered throughout the village because he'd sacrificed his very life to save his people, fending off an attack from a greater demon lord right outside the gates of the village and dying in the process, I went a little easier on too. Not because I actually cared what anyone else thought of him, but because I looked up to him as well.

He'd saved everyone. It hadn't mattered who they were or where they came from or that he hadn't even met a lot of them, and it sure as hell hadn't mattered that he probably hadn't felt like dying at age twenty-seven and the height of his career. It hadn't mattered that he'd probably felt bad about his predecessor having to take back over for him only a few years after he'd entered office. He'd fought – and died – for them all anyway. Some of them probably hadn't even liked him. Even for someone like the Fourth, admiration and respect is never all-encompassing. But he was a good shinobi and he'd died for them nevertheless.

He could love people, even when they didn't love him back. I knew better than anyone that was probably the greatest test of a person's character there was. And he'd proven to everyone just how much he could be for them, in the end.

I wanted to be just like him.

All the same though, I couldn't exactly ignore the shining opportunity presented to me. So I used up all of my girly, pastel pink on the heroic, manly Fourth Hokage's face and helped him get more in touch with his feminine side.

I'd just finished when I heard the first shout of shock and outrage behind me. I couldn't help smirking to myself before turning right around, climbing up to the top of the monument (careful not to ruin my masterpiece, of course), and giving my biggest, loudest, most obnoxious cackle of laughter.

When your goal in pranking is to annoy rather than humiliate, as mine was, acting like a reckless, disrespectful, arrogant retard after the unveiling really seems to help get the full affect.

Which brought me to this moment.

I took a deep breath and, in a loud, carrying voice, started on a long, infuriating diatribe about how cool I was for daring to do this, with the biggest, stupidest grin I could manage on my face the entire time.

It seemed to work. Soon an entire angry mob had formed at the base of the monument, screaming incoherently up at me like one great, seething mass. I couldn't see the guard around any longer; they must have gone to get some big authority figure. It didn't matter. The Hokage himself had given me a stern lecture or two and a few hours of community service here and there for some of my bigger pranks, but what I knew really pissed them all off was that was all they could do. I was a master at humiliating and infuriating just under the legal level where they could hit me with heavy fines.

I might have felt guiltier about it if all the people I seriously pranked hadn't done something to me first to deserve it. The worse the offence, the worse the punishment. If there was one thing my childhood had taught me, it was that you didn't just sit around and take crap from people.

As for this… well, no one specific had gotten hurt or humiliated by this, had they? So there was nothing to feel guilty about. All this meant was more work for me, because I was going to be the one to have to clean it all up. And more work for me meant less time to worry, which was the whole point of the exercise.

So I sat back, completely confident and carefree, and I waited. I knew the routine. Just another day in the life. And after it was all over, I would get to eagerly soak up the glares shot at me for the next few days.

I loved attention. I loved the feeling that everyone was watching me. And when I'd first gotten here, years ago, when I'd first entered the Academy, I'd tried to get that attention by impressing them. I tried to be the perfect student. I tried to fit in. And it didn't get me jack-shit.

They just went on sneering and spitting at me and cursing at me under their breath as they walked by. Because, I eventually realized, they knew they could step all over me. They knew I wasn't going to push back.

Just like the street kids where I'd come from. Just a bunch of bullies.

So I eventually reverted back to what I'd always done. I pushed back. Good attention, I learned, was never to be expected for someone like me.

These days, I aimed to get the only attention I could get. The bad kind.

Attention was attention, after all.

I got that feeling now. I was in the spotlight. Everyone's eyes were on me. They were here to see my play, and I wasn't going to disappoint them.

All that attention I'd craved during my shitty childhood? I could get it here, no strings attached. So I gloated and I boasted and I grinned through my teeth down at them all below me, and I did my best to annoy the hell out of them, to get them so mad they'd be frothing over me and talking about me and glaring at me for days. So mad I'd be the subject of all the village for the next week. So mad they made sure I stayed there in the spotlight for weeks to come, basking in its glow.

It was an amazing kind of high. And I got so drunk with attention that I completely failed to notice the Hokage and his entourage show up.

I even failed to notice a much more important person show up, a person one particularly clever asshole in the guard had the presence of mind to bring to my afternoon show.


Iruka-sensei. My Jutsu teacher at the Academy.

Whose class I'd been skipping to do this.


"NARUTO, YOU GET YOUR ASS DOWN HERE RIGHT NOW OR I SWEAR I WILL COME UP THERE AND GET IT FOR YOU!" Iruka-sensei screamed from the ground. He looked up at me expectantly, and I scurried to get a hold of my scaffolding equipment to lower myself back down.

Most people sent after me would usually give up in disgust after an hour or two of chasing me all through the village, their superior speed versus my superior knowledge of all the best hiding places and escape routes. They would wait for me to turn myself in, grinning cheekily, the following day. I always did, and everyone knew that. That was me offering them an easy out. Iruka-sensei was the only person I knew who had never taken that out. Whenever Iruka-sensei went after me after I had pulled some crazy stunt, the headmaster of the Academy knew to get a substitute for his class for the rest of the day. Just in case.

Because not only did Iruka-sensei seem to know all the little nooks and crannies of the village almost as well as I did, he never gave up on chasing me. He could keep after me. All. Day. Long.

And he was always really pissed at the end of all our chases and fully willing to take all that anger out on me. Which he could. Because he always caught me in the end. It was kind of humiliating for an escape artist of my talent, to be honest.

That wasn't why I immediately obeyed his order to get down, though. I didn't fear our chases. I relished them. They were kind of fun, until they ended.

No, I obeyed him because I knew Iruka-sensei really would climb all the way up there, through the wet paint, grab me by the seat of my pants, and drag me all the way back down to the ground by my belt loops. Then he'd probably slap me over the back of the head like a five-year-old in front of the Hokage and everyone.

I decided I'd rather retire from my show early than have it be ruined. Besides, I'd done what I came here to do.

As soon as I hit the ground, Iruka-sensei had my arm in a death grip and was dragging me away, alternating between hissing apologies to the Hokage and hissing promises to me that after school, he'd stand there and watch me clean that entire thing up by myself. I'd be there all night if I had to.

I didn't bother to tell him I'd have done that anyway. I didn't figure he'd believe me.

Instead, I smirked at the countless glares boring holes into the back of my head as I walked away.

They'd be talking about this one for weeks. I relished the prospect.

As we walked – well, as Iruka-sensei walked and dragged me along with him by the elbow – I considered for the thousandth time just how weird my Jutsu teacher was. I didn't get why he actually cared whether I showed up to his class or not. None of my other Academy teachers ever had. They couldn't give a crap what I was doing when I wasn't with them.

They couldn't even give a crap what I was doing when I was with them. They ignored me just as much as the rest of the people around here did. My questions were rarely answered, I fended for myself when I couldn't get a technique or a concept, and I taught myself how to read and write. I think they were annoyed that I stuck with it, dragging along on the tail-ends of my classmates by sheer force of will, all the way to my final year, to be honest. Yeah, I probably could have done better in some classes, but I enjoyed the looks on their faces when they realized I had just met the requirements needed for graduation into the next year, and they'd just failed at getting rid of me.

It wasn't like actually doing well would have changed their minds.

They, like most other people, didn't think I belonged here.

Iruka-sensei wasn't like that, though. He actually cared whether or not I showed up to his class. It was fucking weird. The first time I skipped his class to pull some crazy stunt and he went out after me, I was so shocked that I just stood there and let him catch me. I hadn't been able to figure out what he was so pissed about, and I told him so. I think he thought I was being a smart-ass, because he got this really pissed-off look on his face and then subjected me to an ear-splitting lecture, the first of many. It took me a full five minutes of lecturing to comprehend that he was yelling at me for skipping like I was just another kid in his class.

Well, that kind of figured, I thought. The first time someone actually treated me normally and it was to yell at me all the time.

Still, I could never figure out what to think of Iruka-sensei. He was one of those few people I couldn't safely classify as against me, so I was thrown off-kilter around him.

We entered the dull red doors of the Konoha Shinobi Academy, and I had to wonder what my punishment was going to be. Iruka-sensei looked pretty mad this time. It would have made me nervous if I hadn't been so busy pretending his muttered threats and murderous glances weren't making me nervous.

Finally, we got to Iruka-sensei's classroom. Iruka-sensei was one of the more experienced teachers at the Academy, so he got one of the nicer rooms. A large, open window on the east wall let so much sunlight into the room that he didn't actually need the fluorescent lighting on the ceiling. On the left side of the room, the chairs all rose in tiers, three long desks per tier with an aisle in between each of the desks where the stairs were. The right side of the room was open except for a much larger desk for Iruka-sensei and the blackboard behind it.

The headmaster was leaning back in the teacher's chair, looking bored and watching my classmates chatter at each other. Apparently, he hadn't been able to find a substitute handy. He looked up at Iruka-sensei, visibly relieved, and then his eyes roved to me. They hardened into an icy glare, but I was used to that, so I glared right back. My hands had been stuffed into the pockets of my pants, and I carefully stuck my middle finger out of one pocket behind Iruka-sensei's back. The headmaster sneered slightly, but didn't say anything.

The headmaster and I had an understanding of sorts. I didn't blow up or deface anything in his school. He didn't protest my presence at it.

Standing and giving Iruka-sensei a stiff nod, which was returned with a slight bow, the headmaster left the room. The door slammed shut, and Iruka-sensei's carefully polite façade was dropped instantly. He whipped around and reached out for me. I ducked and he grabbed the back of my collar instead, hauling me into the middle of the room, dropping me on the floor, and putting his foot on me to make sure I didn't go anywhere as he got a length of rope out of the equipment pouch at his waist. It wasn't until he turned me over on my back, put his whole weight on my struggling limbs, and slipped the rough rope over my wrists that I realized what he was doing.

He was going for the humiliation factor.

I heard some of my classmates giggling at my predicament from somewhere above, and forced myself not to react when I realized it was working. Instead, I toughened up my face and jutted my chin out, just like I'd learned how to do over all the years of being laughed at as the class reject.

When he finished tying me up and got up to stand over me, I immediately turned myself over and sat up, looking him right in the eye so he could see how little he was affecting me. Standing wouldn't do any good; with my ankles bound I'd probably just fall over onto my face. So I sat there and glared at him. There was a long moment of stubborn silence, broken only by the whispers and snickers of my classmates in the background.

Finally, Iruka-sensei broke the silence. "Well, Uzumaki Naruto. You seem to get into predicaments like this quite often, don't you?" More snickers from my classmates. I didn't answer. You weren't supposed to when they started off like this. It just made it worse.

"I'll tell you why you're here right now, shall I?" I still didn't answer. I didn't even blink, though my eyes were starting to sting a little. Iruka-sensei's expression hardened, the long, horizontal scar that marred his young, thin face seeming to deepen.

"You're here because this is your second repeat of your final year here. You're here because the only reason your graduating class is still your age is because you started at the Academy two years early. You're here because this is your third time taking the Graduation Exam. You're here because that Exam is tomorrow, you still haven't shown that you're capable of one of the main techniques needed to pass my portion of the Exam, and you're out there painting a ROCK!"

Not even I could completely keep the scowl off my face, but I did make sure none of them could tell how much every one of those points cut. I did make sure none of them could tell that was exactly what I'd been stressing about for the past week. I did make sure none of them could tell that all of that was why I'd been out there painting the rock in the first place.

Iruka-sensei threw up his hands in exasperation. "What are you, stupid?" That got a few laughs.

My scowl deepened. If there was one thing I hated, it was when people assumed things. And that was exactly what Sensei was doing.

He assumed that I couldn't do the Bunshin technique because I wasn't trying hard enough at it. He assumed that I hadn't been training hard for that exam for the past month. He assumed that my grades sucked because I was stupid, because not for one second could one of his esteemed colleagues ever be a bad teacher, by choice or not. He assumed that everyone cared more about their career as a teacher than the fact that they were teaching that kid, like he did. He assumed that I was just a stupid, reckless, malicious, trouble-making ass completely incapable of any form of complex thought… like my classmates did.

And the real kicker was that I knew that even if I tried to explain this to him, he wouldn't care. Why would he? No one else did. Only one person had ever actually cared about me… and she was dead.

So instead of whining and bitching and moaning about my problems like the wimp they all probably thought I was, I shrugged and looked away. "Yeah, that's me," I muttered so that only he could hear me, "the class dumbass."

His face twisted in anger, either from his frustration at my apparent lack of care, from the fact that I was back-talking him, or because he heard the hidden sarcasm laced into my voice. I couldn't tell which.

He opened his mouth to yell at me some more, seemed to realize he probably wouldn't get any response, growled in frustration, and turned to the class. "Pop quiz!" he barked, and the class groaned. Mercifully, he decided I'd been humiliated enough because he said, "We're reviewing the Henge! Everybody line up here in front of me. I want a perfect transformation into me. Come on, you all should know the routine by now!" As I wriggled my hands around to untie myself and countless feet shuffled past me, I felt more glares aimed in my direction. Despite the situation, my lips twitched a bit as I finally freed myself and got up to stand in line.

"This is all your fault, Uzumaki!" a tall, platinum blonde girl named Yamanaka Ino hissed at me from her place in front of me in line.

"Yeah," the dark-haired guy behind me, Nara Shikamaru, grunted in annoyed agreement. "You're so troublesome."

I waved my hand carelessly and countered with, "Yeah, yeah, tell it to someone who cares," but inside, I could feel that faint euphoria in the pit of my stomach that meant I was the center of attention again. On some level, I realized that was kind of sad, but hey, beggars can't be choosers, right? It was still better than being ignored.

So I was feeling considerably better by the time I got to Iruka-sensei, who was holding his grade sheet against a clipboard. So much better, in fact, that I decided it was time for a little revenge for his earlier comments. Something small, because he did still give me this little gift of extra attention, but something big enough to make him understand that I was peeved…

And I had it.

"Begin," Iruka-sensei said dully, finally looking up from his clipboard… and meeting the wide, blissful smile on my face. His eyes widened in panic as he recognized that look, but it was too late. My hands were already forming the seal.

"Henge!" I shouted gleefully, forming in my mind the image of exactly what I wanted. Smoke issued around me from the chakra release, and I could feel that it had worked.

Sure enough, when the smoke cleared… instead of a mirror image of himself, Iruka-sensei saw something entirely different standing in front of him. I knew exactly what he was seeing as his eyes bugged out of his skull, because, although I couldn't see myself, I'd spent a long time perfecting this image for just such an occasion.

A tall, busty, blonde, and beautiful young woman stood in front of Iruka. Her long, silky hair was tied up in cute pigtails on either side of her angelic face, and her big blue eyes gazed up at him lustfully through long, thick lashes. Her full red lips pouted attractively, and she purposefully leaned forward to show off her impressive cleavage.

Oh yeah, and she was also completely naked.

"Iruka-kun," she crooned, sashaying toward him. She got right up in his face, their bodies nearly touching, and said in a breathy whisper, "Pass me, please?" She winked to complete the effect.

Sensei's reaction was better than even I could have expected.

He went several different colors, including but not limited to crimson, purple, blue, and white. Then his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he fell to the floor in a dead faint.

It was nice to know the people teaching us to be tough, hardened shinobi had such strong constitutions.

Abruptly, the Henge broke in another burst of chakra release smoke, and in its place was a twelve-year-old boy. The boy was small for his age, with a messy mop of golden blond hair that made him look like he'd just gotten out of bed. Strange, whisker-shaped birthmarks adorned his cheeks, and his eyes were the exact same color and shape as the woman's had been. He was dressed in an obnoxiously bright, searchlight orange jacket with a blue and white collar that clashed horribly with the rest of it. His baggy pants were also a bright, eye-searing, attention-grabbing orange.

This boy immediately doubled over and started laughing his ass off over the prone form of his Jutsu instructor. "I call it the Oiroke no Jutsu!" he cackled, and for once, his classmates were all too stunned to respond.

This boy was me, Uzumaki Naruto. This is my story.

Iruka-sensei was still glaring at me hours later as he watched me diligently scrub the Hokage Monument in the waning afternoon sunlight. Down below me, I could see street lamps being lighted in the dusk, and above me were Iruka-sensei's sharp brown eyes, angry and humiliated. I figured Iruka-sensei had to care a lot about his reputation as a diligent and competent instructor, or otherwise he'd never bother trying to teach me. That was the main reason I'd chosen that specific prank in the first place. He and I both knew it would be all over the Academy, and maybe even the village itself, by tomorrow.

So between Iruka-sensei's anger and my refusal to apologize for my revenge, I worked in a stony silence. I was used to silence; it was silent every night at my home. I ate in silence, practiced my Academy techniques in silence, and went to bed in silence. Every night.

Iruka-sensei didn't seem to be as comfortable with silence as I was. After a few moments, he said, "You're not leaving until every last drop of paint is cleaned up," in his stern lecture voice, like he hadn't already said that four or five times in the past hour.

I was annoyed. What did he think, that I thought I was going to get away with only cleaning up half the monument? I hadn't responded to any of his periodic comments so far, but now I looked up and snapped at him, a bit sharper than I'd intended to. "So? It's not like I have anything to look forward to when I get home, anyway!"

It took me a moment to realize what I'd just said, but when I did, I ducked my head, furious with myself. You were never supposed to let them know things like that bothered you! I scrubbed at the paint in front of me harder, keeping my head down so he couldn't see my expression.

I hoped he would let it go and still be too angry with me to bother talking to me. That would be preferable to making fun of me for my moment of weakness. But… "Naruto." Reluctantly, I looked up to where he was perched atop the monument above me. I couldn't read his expression, but I figured this had to be it. He was about to laugh at me or sneer at me for daring to show that I was human just like him.

"Yes?" I replied, not bothering to hide the sullenness in my tone.

Sensei stared at me for a long moment. I was about to open my mouth to tell him to hurry up and get on with it when he spoke. And he said the last thing I could ever have expected. "Why don't I take you out to eat after this, as a… reward for working so hard without any complaining."

I gaped at him. After a moment of shocked silence, in which I realized I actually wasn't hearing things, a slow, disbelieving smile spread across my face. I was a little insulted that he'd been expecting me to whine like a little five-year-old, but hey… free food was free food!

It was about then I realized how hungry I was. I'd skipped lunch to do my prank, and all I'd had for breakfast was the last granola bar in my cupboards.

"But only if you finish in the next hour!" Iruka-sensei added quickly, looking almost uncomfortable at my delighted expression. I couldn't even care at that point, though. Free food!

"An hour? I'll be done in five minutes, Sensei!" I assured him, digging in to my cleaning with much more vigor.

"Well, make sure all of it comes off or you still won't get any," Iruka called down, sounding exasperated.

" 'Kay!" I called back, not bothering to look up. Free food! I'd scrub my hands raw to get done in time if I had to.

I wasn't done in five minutes. I was done in fifteen, though, and that was still pretty impressive considering the size of the monument.

After Iruka-sensei grudgingly admitted that it looked like I was done, he asked me where I wanted to go. I was surprised that he was letting me choose, but answered almost immediately. I didn't have the money to go there very often, but my favorite restaurant in town was easily, "Ichiraku's Ramen!" Not only did it have great food, not only did it cook my very favorite type of food, but it had always let me into its establishment, which was more than I could say for a lot of other places.

Iruka-sensei looked surprised, like he'd been expecting me to name some fancy gourmet restaurant I'd never have gotten to try otherwise. Not me. Give me take-out over fancy gourmet any day. I wasn't hard to please.

Not to mention that with junk food, I always knew what I was eating. That was a definite plus. Who knew what any of that gourmet shit was, anyway?

We entered Ichiraku's a few minutes later. It was just down the street from the monument, and the Hokage Tower, which was close to the monument. The owner, Ichiraku Teuchi, had always said proudly that the place where he had set up his establishment was very much in-demand because it was so close to all the main tourist attractions in the village. It said a lot that a small, family-run business had lasted there for over a decade when all of its neighbors had been bought out many times over.

I had to agree. Ichiraku's was amazing. The patrons of the wealthier districts were at least smart enough to recognize that.

There was just something inherently warm and welcoming about the place. It definitely wasn't the biggest restaurant in town, or the most fancily decorated. You would never find it on a list of "Konoha's Finest Dining."

In fact, on the outside, it was rather small and shabby. But inside it was cozy… homey. It was painted in warm colors, with dark wood furnishings and booths tucked into quiet corners, while music played softly in the background. Not elevator music, but music from the family's favorite radio stations. Sometimes, when they wanted to do something different, the Ichirakus would call out to the people of the restaurant, "What do you want to hear?" and they'd take recommendations of different radio stations. Then they'd turn the portable radio behind the bar to one of the stations, playing it on the overhead loudspeakers. It was all very casual, but clean. Everything was always wiped down, dusted, and polished, and the people working there always seemed genuinely pleased to see you. The food was always excellent and came relatively quickly, and they had a pretty varied selection of food in case you didn't feel like eating ramen.

Ramen was what they made best, though. I could attest to that.

Iruka-sensei actually seemed mildly impressed as we walked up to the bar, and I glowed as if the restaurant was my own. I sat on a barstool, and Iruka-sensei followed suit. I always ate at the bar so I could talk to the people who worked there. The kitchen was right behind the bar, so you could sit there and watch your food cook, talking to the waiters and waitresses as they came by or the cooks when they weren't too busy. The Ichirakus were nice to me, and they were some of the only people I knew who I could actually relax around.

It was a fairly quiet night, so there was only Teuchi in the kitchens and his daughter Ayame, who was only about five years older than me, waitressing. They both smiled at me when I walked in, and then proceeded to give me some good-natured teasing over my stunt that afternoon. I knew they didn't mean it, so I grinned and ribbed them right back. I introduced Iruka, and we ordered our food.

As Teuchi got busy cooking and Ayame went out to bus tables, I noticed Iruka-sensei giving me an odd look. It was probably because of my conversation with the Ichirakus, which might have given off the impression that we were closer than we actually were.

In truth, I wasn't sure how to define my relationship with the Ichirakus, just as I was unsure why Iruka-sensei seemed to care about my education. On one hand, they treated me better than anyone else. On the other, that didn't necessarily mean they cared about me. Iruka-sensei had his reputation as a teacher. The Ichirakus had the money I paid them.

So I always hesitated around them, hiding my indecisiveness behind a mask of grins and mischief. Some small part of me wanted to trust them, to love like I'd loved that one time… but that part of me hadn't been in control for some time. So I didn't.

I pulled myself from my dark thoughts and, for lack of anything else to do, chattered with Teuchi for a few minutes about my upcoming Genin Exam, showing him all of my excitement and none of my nervousness. Teuchi asked a few questions about it, and Iruka-sensei and I answered them. Eventually, the food was ready.

I opened my mouth, but Teuchi was way ahead of me. "Already got another bowl on the way," he smirked, and shuffled back off into the kitchen. Iruka-sensei looked confused, and I suppressed a smirk as well. The poor guy had no idea he'd cleaned his pockets of any spare change for the next week by offering to pick up the tab.

I was a growing boy with no small appetite. I also tended to make up for the fact that I didn't get to eat non-perishable food like this very often by pigging out whenever I did. I had to eat even more this time, too, to save up for the next week, when I'd be living off half a box of grain cereal and two cups of instant ramen.

So all in all, I was about to screw Iruka-sensei's wallet for all it was worth.

It wasn't like I'd ever get the chance to do it again, so I figured this one time it was okay. Besides, he had way more money to spare than me anyway. Even after tonight, I doubted he would be living off of cereal and instant ramen.

I watched in secret amusement as Iruka's eyes grew bigger and bigger as I went through bowl after bowl after bowl. I'd mastered the art of really packing it in when I needed to, but I figured I'd stop after large bowl number nine. He couldn't have brought too much money with him, so even that was probably pushing it.

After Iruka-sensei's eyes stopped bugging out of his skull at the tab, and I stopped looking sheepish, he asked me something that actually gave me pause. "Naruto… do you know who the Hokages are?"

I thought about retorting that no, I had no idea who the people who ran my home village were, and I certainly didn't have any idea they were some of the most powerful shinobi ever to grace the ninja world. Why would I? I'd only been training to become a ninja for the past six years.

But I didn't want to be the one to break the fragile peace between us, so instead I said, "Of course. The Hokage is the most powerful shinobi in the village. That's why he's elected to lead it. The most famous one is the Fourth, who sacrificed himself to defeat the great Nine-Tailed Fox Demon twelve years ago." Speaking of which… that reminded me of something. As I answered, I casually reached up and removed the goggles on my forehead.

One morning a couple of years before, I had opened the door of my apartment, looked down at my doormat… and found a pair of blue goggles sitting there. Water goggles, the kind serious swimmers usually use. That was weird enough, but I lived on the twelfth floor of my building. So I figured either someone had left them there… or they'd grown legs and climbed to the twelfth floor. While the second option was kind of funny to think about, the first one was probably more likely.

Well, whoever had left them there obviously hadn't wanted them anymore, so eventually I took them in, cleaned them with tap water and dish soap, and then sat there staring at them. What was I going to do with a pair of goggles? I didn't exactly go swimming all that often, and at first I couldn't think of any other use for them. But then I thought, well, what do you do with goggles? You wear them. Wearing those goggles around would definitely be weird enough to be eye-catching, and a part of me found people passing me by on the street and then doubling back around to go 'What the fuck? Why is he wearing goggles?' highly amusing.

Wearing them on my eyes restricted my vision too much, but around my neck they'd have been too easy to miss. So I wore them around my forehead, where I was planning to put the head band that signified I was a shinobi of Konoha, the hitai-ate, once I graduated. Might as well get used to the feeling of wearing something wrapped around my head.

That was where Iruka-sensei wore his, and that was what I was eyeing now as I finished my brief summary of what Hokages were. Simple blue cloth with a metal plate sewed onto the center. The metal plate had Konoha's symbol carved into it, and was small enough to fit onto the front of the head as the blue cloth tied around at the back. All Hidden Villages had something similar.

Ever since I'd been a little kid, I'd wanted to know what it felt like wearing one of those. Once, when I was still young and naïve and sheltered from the world, I'd wanted to wear it so I could protect people. I'd wanted to protect everyone in the village I'd hardly ever gotten to go out and see, but which had once seemed so grand and perfect to me. Most especially, I'd wanted to protect my Grandma.

But then Grandma had died and I was thrown out into the world she'd sheltered me from. My naivety was lost on the streets of the poor districts, but my dream wasn't. Surely, I thought, there had to be something more than this. Surely, as a shinobi, my life would be better. So I'd had the audacity to actually ask to register at the Ninja Academy, two years early even, and through sheer stubbornness eventually worked my way up the ranks to the Hokage himself. The Hokage must have seen something he'd liked because he granted me special permission to enter, and I was delighted.

Then I'd learned what the word "elitist" meant. My dream had changed. I'd wanted to become a shinobi to prove to people that I could be more than they thought I was, that they were all wrong about me.

But no matter the reason, I'd always wanted to be a shinobi, and a certain type of shinobi in particular. If by some miracle everything went well tomorrow, I would be on my first step to that goal. But just in case it didn't… hadn't I waited long enough? Couldn't I know what it felt like, just once, to be a shinobi?

So as I answered Iruka-sensei's question, I quietly slipped my goggles off and eyed his hitai-ate. He'd been unusually nice to me this evening… maybe…

Iruka-sensei looked baffled, and as he opened his mouth to speak, I pulled myself back to the present. "If you know how worthy of respect they are, then why would you…?" He trailed off questioningly. I remembered abruptly that we'd been talking about Hokages.

I grinned. He should know the answer to this one. I hadn't exactly bothered to keep my ambition a secret. Let them know what I wanted to do with my life. Let them scoff at me… so I could prove them all wrong.

"Because I'm going to be better than any of them," I announced proudly. "I'm going to be Hokage someday, and I'm going to be an even better Hokage than any of them ever were!" And I was. Even if it took me my whole life to do it. I was going to be like my hero, the Fourth, and fight for them no matter what, just to prove that I was the better person.

Iruka-sensei was staring at me with this funny look on his face. It certainly didn't look like scorn or contempt… but I couldn't tell what it was. Either way, I decided to take advantage of his momentary silence to add, "By the way… can I try on your hitai-ate? Just once?" I gave him my best puppy dog look. "Please?" I added hopefully, forcefully keeping the desperation I felt out of my voice and tone.

Sensei looked startled, and then abruptly, he laughed. I didn't take that as a good sign, even though the laughter didn't seem especially cruel. "This is proof that a person is an elite of Konoha!" he chuckled. "I can't just give it to you to try on!" He sounded scandalized at the very thought. Then he gave me a canny look. "Is that why you took your goggles off?"

I nodded, hiding the true dejection I felt behind a petulant, childish pout.

It worked.

Iruka-sensei laughed again and set his money on the counter, confident in his reaffirmation that I was just some immature wannabe.

Of course it worked. It always did.

No one ever suspected a thing of someone who was always smiling and naïve.

That was why my inner emotions were still safe inside me, where not even a shinobi could dig them out and hurt them.

That night, I couldn't sleep. I knew I should. I didn't just have an important test tomorrow; I had THE important test tomorrow. I had to be well-rested for it. But I couldn't sleep.

This happened often. I'd always wondered if I had some sort of mild form of insomnia, whether from old memories or ingrained habits of knowing there was no such thing as rest out in the streets or just natural insomnia. Maybe it had run in my family. I wouldn't know. I'd never met my family by birth.

Anyway, I never got more than a few hours of sleep per night, and that was if I was lucky. There were a lot of nights when I just never slept at all. Full moons were the worst. I'd always found that cool, in a creepy kind of way. I always felt most awake at full moon. My blood sang in my veins, my brain was filled with this heady rush, and I just couldn't sit still. During full moons, I'd sometimes run laps around the village just to alleviate some of the tense, anxious energy inside me. I'd run all night and still have too much energy left over the next morning. Other nights weren't as bad as full moon, but I'd certainly never felt tired after a sleepless night, despite how frequent they were.

So I knew I wouldn't fall asleep in the middle of the test or anything tomorrow, but I still should probably rest. Just in case. I'd never have admitted it to anyone, but with two failures under my belt and the fact that I'd still never quite gotten the Bunshin right, I'd need all the help I could get.

Finally, frustrated, I did something I only ever did when I really wanted to not be conscious for a while. I held my breath. And I waited.

I'd always been able to hold my breath for a pretty long time, but eventually my lungs started to burn and my vision started to blur. I held on, refusing to breathe. My vision faded in and out, and then, eventually, it went black.

I'd passed out from lack of oxygen.

Grandma was reading me a bedtime story.

I giggled as she made her voice go up and down for the voices of the different characters, talking along with her to my favorite parts, which I now knew by heart.

I was good at remembering things. Grandma was already teaching me the alphabet, and she said I was very smart to get it so quickly. I was proud of myself. I bet not many five-year-olds knew their entire alphabet already!

Grandma finished the story and closed the book, standing up to kiss me goodnight. "Come on Grandma, another one!"

"No, no more," she laughed, her warm, rich voice reverbrating through me all the way down to my toes. "It's too late as it is. You shouldn't even still be up."

I pouted, but Grandma just laughed again. I sighed and my shoulders slumped in defeat. It was impossible to stay mad at Grandma. She was always smiling and hugging me and telling me she loved me. How was it even physically possible to stay mad at someone like that? I had no idea.

Especially since I loved her too. Grandma had taken me in when no one else wanted me. Even though I was just some nameless orphan, she'd wanted to keep me forever. And she read stories to me and taught me things and baked cookies with me! She was my very favorite person, even though she didn't let me go outside as much as I wanted to.

Someday I was gonna be a big, strong shinobi, so I could take care of her like she took care of me.

Grandma tucked me in, settling the blankets around me just so. As soon as she took her hands off them, I messed them all up as I wiggled around on the mattress, trying to get comfortable. She chuckled at my antics and shook her head, bending down to kiss my forehead.

"Goodnight, Naruto-chan. I love you."

"G'night Grandma. Love you too," I mumbled, already falling asleep. Grandma always made me feel sleepy… safe.

I didn't hear her leave the room, my mind drifting into the dark haze of sleep…

I was woken an interminable amount of time later by a scream.

I shot up in my bed, eyes wide. Slowly, it reached my sleep-fogged brain that the scream had been a woman's.

There was only one person it could have been.

I leaped out of bed and ran out of my bedroom, still half-asleep. I sprinted across the hall to Grandma's room, but she wasn't in there. The bed was even made.

Suddenly, there were footsteps on the stairs behind me and I whirled around to see Grandma appear on the landing, her face white and terrified… as though she was running from someone. She ran toward me. "Gran…" I started to shout, but she slapped a hand over my mouth.

"Naruto, listen to me," she whispered, and her voice was harder than I'd ever heard it. It was also the first time I'd ever heard her sound afraid, and it filled me with terror. "I'm going to lock you in here. Stay here, don't make any noise, and don't let him get you!"

Her hand left my mouth. There was so much I wanted to ask her… what was going on, who was she talking about, why was he after us… but before I could say a word, she'd run out, slammed the door behind her, and locked it. A moment later, the key slipped under the door frame and into her room.

There was barely a split second of silence in which I stood there, stunned, before a crash echoed from the floor below, and someone yelled something incoherent. Their footsteps thundered up the stairs, and then I heard a man's voice scream, "Where the fuck is he?" His voice was strangely slurred, something I would later identify as "drunk", but I barely noticed. I was scared, but not for me… for Grandma.

I waited anxiously for her to reply, but there was only a ringing silence.

The man's voice spoke again. "Is he in there?"

Still silence. Tears welled up in my eyes as I silently pleaded for Grandma to say something… anything.

Because if she didn't, the crazy man was going to kill her.

"Fucking answer me!" the crazy man screamed, and there was another crash, like something being thrown against a wall. I heard the man yell something else and I let out a sob, but no one heard it.

Grandma was screaming.

The man was yelling, something was banging against the wall, Grandma was screaming, I was screaming… and then there was silence. Horrible silence.

Something heavy hit the floor with a sickening thump.

I let out a choked, strangled sob.

I didn't know when I'd collapsed, but I was on my knees and tears were pouring down my face. I heard the man curse and stumble around on the landing, and then he cursed louder and suddenly something slammed against Grandma's bedroom door. I sobbed louder, beyond silence.

Grandma was dead. I just knew it.

Grandma was dead and the crazy man was gonna kill me.

I backed up against the wall as far as I could as the crazy man threw himself against the door again and again, screaming horrible things at me. I was terrified I wanted to wake up I wanted this nightmare to be over I wanted to die I wanted to live I wanted to scream I wanted Grandma I wanted -

The door finally crashed open.

It didn't matter what I wanted.

I could barely see the outline of the man in the dark, but I could hear his heavy breathing, his unsteady footfalls, as he walked toward me, now strangely silent. I couldn't move, terrified into silence.

He stopped, looming above me, and I gasped. In the light of the full moon, his eyes seemed to glow eerily.

And then he sneered.

"Bakemono," he hissed, and raised the sword in his hand to slash down at me.

All I could think in that single moment was that I didn't want to die.

My vision exploded in red and then everything went black.

You know what's worse than waking up from a nightmare about your grandmother's bloody, horrifying death on the day of the most important test of your life that you know you're not ready for?

Waking up from a nightmare about your grandmother's bloody, horrifying death on the day of the most important test of your life that you know you're not ready for with a migraine.

"Fuck," I said eloquently as I lay there in bed, knowing I was going to be late and just not giving a shit.

I knew the migraine wouldn't last very long – I have a very strong threshold for pain and none of my aches last long, not even the migraines. It would probably be gone by the time I started the written part of The Exam.

It was the memories.

I knew what happened afterward, of course. A neighbor heard screaming coming from our house and went to investigate. When they realized what had happened, they sent for the police, who sent for the ANBU, and then somehow the Hokage found out about it too, and everyone stared at each other for a while and went, "Duh… whose jurisdiction is this?" before the Hokage decided he and a couple of his ANBU Black Ops would go since it was a shinobi who had made the assault in the first place. They'd arrived there at the house to find a little boy crying next to the body of a dead man with his own sword through his belly.

The official report ended up saying that the man had murdered the woman and then killed himself.

I knew the man hadn't seemed very inclined to kill himself that night and that, even though I couldn't remember anything after he swung the sword down, I was probably somehow responsible for his death. I'd probably panicked and somehow pushed the sword aimed at me through him. But I sure as hell wasn't talking. Back then, I probably couldn't have talked even if I'd wanted to.

Old Man Hokage himself had talked to me after the investigation, and he had been very kind and told me the man "hadn't been in his right mind" and "nothing like this would happen again." He must have felt really guilty, because he sent ANBU to guard the orphanage I was sent to for the first few months I was there.

I hated it. The matron there hated me; she was always glaring at me like I'd just flipped her off, but I couldn't leave because the ANBU would wonder where I'd gone. I knew the Hokage meant well, but I kind of wished he'd just left well enough alone. It felt like they were holding me in instead of keeping others out.

Finally, the guard decreased and eventually it stopped coming altogether. I was finally free to leave the matron's paranoid, accusing eyes and go out on my own. I quickly learned just how hospitable the streets were where I lived, but I'd still rather have been independent and hated than under someone's thumb and hated. Just as one day the guard stopped going to the orphanage, one day I stopped going too.

Half a year of Hell later, I was back in front of Old Man Hokage again, demanding that I be let into the Ninja Academy. That way, I could legally live on my own, gain myself better prospects, and fulfill my dream, all at the same time.

I could become Hokage.

"Fuck," I said again, and got out of bed to take my Genin Exam.

My apartment was a piece of shit.

It made sense. I didn't have enough money to get anything better, so despite the fact that I went to school in the wealthy districts and all the equipment I needed for school could only be found in the wealthy districts, my apartment was still on the poorer side of town.

This did have its advantages. No one outside the other people in my building knew where I lived, and I could still buy things like food around my home, where people were a lot less picky about who they were selling to and what they were selling as long as they got money. On the other hand, a lot of the things sold where I lived were of a lot lower quality than anywhere else, and I still had to face the prejudice of the wealthier merchants to buy anything for the Shinobi Academy. So living in the poorer districts was kind of a double-edged sword. Especially when I had to walk all the way across the village to get to school every day.

My apartment only had two rooms… two and a half if you counted the half bath. In the main room was a tiny kitchenette with a small stove, a sink that only ran cold water, and a dishwasher that never worked. There were also a couple of cupboards, a crappy little fridge, and a few feet of counter space. Perched precariously on a wooden stool next to the wall was an old microwave.

I had no washing machine. To wash my clothes, I went to the Laundromat down the street.

Farther into the room, near the kitchenette, was a small round table with an unsteady leg and a single chair. This was my dining room. On the far end of the room was an old, beat-up sofa sitting in front of a TV that was practically an antique. Still had rabbit ears and everything. By the TV was the only window in the apartment, and it always stuck.

The other room was my bedroom. The main part of it was taken up by the bed, which was usually messy, and the wardrobe opposite the bed. The wardrobe was the color of rotting wood, and its front door held an old wooden dartboard with countless holes in it. This was what I used for target practice with my kunai and shuriken. The dartboard was two-sided, and when I flipped it around, the other side had a scribbled, messy, old, childish drawing of a dark-haired boy with an arrogant smirk taped to it. This was what I used for target practice with my kunai and shuriken when I was in a bad mood.

The name of the boy in the drawing was Uchiha Sasuke, and if you couldn't already tell, I hated his guts. But we'll get to that.

Near the closet was a long desk with countless books and papers and scrolls stacked in a messy heap all over it. Most of them were from school. Looming over all the school books and paper was a desk lamp. There was only one pile in the corner of the desk that wasn't from school, and it was also the only pile that was meticulously neat. This pile held my account books and papers and assorted bills. Next to the bills was a green, frog-shaped wallet and two hand weights, also courtesy of the Academy's student store.

Above the headboard of the bed was the only poster in the room. It was a map of the Fire Country, with Konoha highlighted in red. Something else I got free from the Academy stores. Next to the bed was a small bedside table, which held my shinobi equipment when I wasn't using it, as well as a small alarm clock, which was held together with duct tape because of all the times I'd thrown it at the wall.

On the other side of the room was a pile of clothes to go to the Laundromat. This was my hamper, but I just called it my Laundromat Pile. Next to the Laundromat Pile was a huge, hanging punching bag, like I'd seen boxers use. I'd found it thrown away in the trash outside my apartment building once with a hole in it. I'd brought it home, cleaned it off, fixed it, and hung it up. Now I used it.

The door to the half bath was in my room. There was barely enough room in it for one. It held the usual toilet, shower, and sink. Nothing fancy, just the necessities.

The only two things of value in my home were my shinobi equipment and the only picture I had of Grandma. I kept it with me and safe all through my time in the streets, and had it framed about a year after I'd started at the Academy. It was worn and faded, and the frame was a simple silver, but the memory was what counted anyway. It showed her and me at my fifth birthday, smiling over the cake she'd made me in our old kitchen. One of our neighbors had taken it for us.

I kept it on the bedside table, next to the alarm clock.

I took all this in as I rushed around getting ready, trying to brush my teeth and put my pants on at the same time. For those who have never tried this, let me tell you... it's not easy. You're hopping around, tripping over your own legs, and choking on your toothbrush, which is somehow falling out of your mouth even though you're choking on it. And all the while, you're wish you had one of those machines they have on those old "futuristic" TV cartoons, where it's just like "ZAP!" and then you're done.

My head still pounded, but I stubbornly ignored it, and five minutes later, my equipment was on and I was out the door. I locked it behind me, put the key in my equipment pouch, and headed for the elevator. It worked (for once) and then I was out into the street.

I sprinted past homes, stores, and restaurants. My stomach screamed for food every time I smelled something good, and was nauseous from nerves the rest of the time. By the time I got to the sprawling, two-story complex that was the Ninja Academy, my stomach's confusion had reached my brain, and I walked into three different classrooms before finally finding my own.

I was still five minutes late. Better than twenty, I guess.

Takara-sensei didn't seem to agree.

"Sit down!" she snapped, and I went obediently to an empty seat, too busy trying to prepare myself to make any sort of come-back.

The first time I took the Exam, I bombed the written test. I didn't even have to do any practicals; they kicked me out right then.

The written test was composed of history, geography, anatomy, basic maths, strategy & statistics & team management, and shinobi law & etiquette – in other words, our "mental" classes. These were the ones I could have done better in had I not been trying to piss my teachers off – which was still pretty damn funny, but not conducive to actually passing that portion of the test.

After that first Exam, I spent an entire week camped out in the library, memorizing and strategizing and learning – it wasn't fun, but it was worth it. After I'd learned all the stuff, all I had to do for the next Exam was review a little a couple of days beforehand, allowing me to continue with my method of pissing off my teachers and still scrape a B… it was the Bunshin jutsu that did me in the second time. That was when I realized how bad my block with it was. I'd been working on it ever since.

Anyway, I'd reviewed again this year, so I wasn't feeling too nervous about this part of the test. I knew most of the information, even if I liked to pretend I didn't. Takara-sensei, our shinobi law & etiquette teacher and our proctor for this part of the Exam, handed out the papers and pencils and told us we had two hours to finish, not to answer a question unless we could eliminate at least one of the answers, blah blah blah… finally, she told us to start.

The test wasn't bad. I figured I'd scrape another B. The shinobi law & ettiquette portion, which wasn't much more than memorized rote, the strategy & statistics & team management portion, which was basically my use of my pranking experience on a much more deadly field, and the geography and anatomy portions, which were just labeling pictures I'd already seen a million times before, were the easiest. I only remembered half the dates in the history portion and was pretty sure I'd gotten a couple of the word problems wrong in the maths portion, but looking around me, I could pick out more than a few people I knew would do worse.

Takara-sensei gave me a suspicious look as I handed in my test, and I gave her the cheekiest grin I could manage in return. After my second Exam, I was actually called into the headmaster's office and asked if I'd cheated during the written portion of the test. None of my teachers could believe I could get such a crappy grade in the class and such a high grade on the actual test. They grilled me in there for almost an hour on various questions from previous tests before reluctantly accepting that maybe I did know the material… all of them had looked disappointed at the loss of an excuse to expel me.

Takara-sensei apparently still wasn't convinced. That might have bothered me if I hadn't stopped caring about stuff like that ages ago.

I sat around and scratched a hole into the desk with my fingernail for the rest of the test period.

My next test was taijutsu, followed by weapons accuracy. I couldn't study for either of those; it was either a win or a lose at this point. Weapons accuracy I knew I'd do well on – that was something that was really easy to practice and get better at on your own.

"Weapons accuracy" was really just a fancy term for aim.

Taijutsu I was a little less sure about. That was something that was relatively easy to teach wrong. We went through the basic katas as a class, but the individual moves were mostly taught one-on-one. It was all too easy for Mizuno-sensei, my least favorite instructor, to skip over me or teach me the specific moves wrong. I'd learned not to trust anything he told me individually, but where did that leave me?

So I'd also learned to watch my classmates closely during the class spars and try to do what they did. It helped that I already knew the basics of how to block and punch and kick from my time on the streets. You fought for everything there, food included, so of course I'd learned how to brawl.

Between my knowledge of the basic katas, my knowledge of street fighting, the few moves I'd managed to pick up from my classmates, and my natural speed and endurance from being chased after pranking, I'd managed to cobble together a bastardized version of standard Academy taijutsu. But that still got points taken off for form, and it didn't help me against the taijutsu masters, none of whom I'd ever been able to last more than sixty seconds against.

So I was trying desperately not to fidget and my palms were slipping off the desk with sweat by the time class was over.

On the plus side, the written tests were given back at the end of the period. I did get a B, and sitting there while watching that portion's failures trudge out dejectedly did make me feel a little better.

Takara-sensei informed us that taijutsu and weapons accuracy would both be tested outside at the Academy's private training grounds, so most of the class headed out behind the building to the grounds. Mizuno-sensei was waiting for us on a bare strip of grass with that usual look on his face like he had something really long and heavy shoved up his ass so far, it was leaving a bad taste in his mouth. Without preamble, he ordered us to line up in front of him, single file.

Part of Mizuno-sensei's job was to teach us the different stances you took around different superiors and for different orders. Shinobi didn't march like soldiers, but the stance you took while waiting for a mission briefing was different from the stance you took while giving a mission report, for example. He had to teach us all of that.

It was boring as fuck, but relatively easy to be tested on. I guessed that was why he was doing it first. He would call out different orders to us and we would take the corresponding stance. It was over in about five minutes, and only one kid didn't pass.

After that, we moved on to the more exciting stuff. Mizuno-sensei kept us in our line to test our knowledge of the different katas. A few more kids were thrown out during this, but no matter how much Mizuno-sensei glared at me, I wasn't one of them. I dared to feel a little hopeful.

Then came the part I'd been dreading. The spars.

Mizuno-sensei would call out two names at random. Once they were in place, he would start his stopwatch. The two would go at it for five minutes, or until one had obviously won. You had to either win or last for five minutes to pass. And even then, if you hadn't met whatever mysterious standards Mizuno-sensei had, you still wouldn't pass.

I didn't put it past Mizuno-sensei to put me up against the best at taijutsu in the entire class… and I had some of the best at taijutsu in the entire year in my class.

There was Inuzuka Kiba, who was the son of the head of a major shinobi clan, and therefore got private tutoring from his family. It also helped that one of the things his clan was renowned for was its hand-to-hand combat prowess and its wild, ruthless fighting style. The Inuzukas had dogs that were specially bred to be incredibly fast, fierce, and could even use chakra. Every Inuzuka had a dog they partnered with and had a special connection with. The dog and the Inuzuka fought together in combat, so members of the Inuzuka were trained to fight as fiercely as their wolfish partners. Even though you were required to use the Academy style instead of any personal taijutsu styles during the Exam, those were still pretty big advantages.

Mizuno-sensei, however, ended up partnering Kiba with another boy named Akimichi Chouji. Chouji was also from a major clan. He was a very heavy and rotund boy, and was usually very nice and surprisingly gentle for a shinobi-in-training. Some people, me included, used to take that to mean that he was a pushover in a taijutsu fight… which was the farthest thing from the truth. Chouji could fight hard when he had something to fight for. He also used his sheer size and fat to decrease any hits landed on him, and went at you with heavy, clouting blows. Kiba, on the other hand, was fast and agile and about half Chouji's size.

It was easily the best fight of the entire period.

The two who had hissed at me the day before, Yamanaka Ino and Nara Shikamaru, also went up against each other.

This was easily the most amusing fight of the entire period.

Ino's forms were perfect, but she had very little speed or endurance, and her taijutsu was workmanlike. She made up for this by putting as much fire into the fight as possible. Looking good and waiting until the timer sounded wasn't good enough for her. She wanted to win.

On one hand, I could respect this. On the other… Yamanaka Ino was a bossy shrew.

Shikamaru was the exact opposite. He was very agile and light on his feet. He probably could have been really good at taijutsu if he'd wanted to, just because it would have been so hard to pin him down… but that would involve work, something Shikamaru didn't seem fond of. How the guy had gotten through the rigorous Konoha Ninja Academy with no work ethic was anyone's guess. But he had, and Shikamaru was really good at written tests, knew how to aim, and could make even the Bunshin technique look easy… without putting any effort into any of it. Ever. It was really annoying.

He could afford to scrape through the spars, and he knew it. Shikamaru hated taijutsu, and was totally okay with just meeting the requirements.

This, naturally, annoyed the loud, opinionated, competitive Ino.

Most of the spar consisted of Ino running around after Shikamaru, screaming bloody murder, as he danced circles around her and made a lazy kick in her direction whenever she got too close to actually hitting him.

Mizuno-sensei seemed like he passed them just because he didn't want the two of them in his class next year.

It was kind of pathetic, but so funny everyone was too busy laughing to comment.

No one else stood out. The only other person in our year who everyone knew would really put up a good fight was Uchiha Sasuke, the most popular (and, more to the point, probably the most talented) student currently in the Academy. And yeah, the guy was a complete asshole, but even I could admit that he was a talented asshole… on a good day… when he wasn't around.

Uchiha Sasuke didn't have his taijutsu test until the afternoon classes, though, so after that, there was no one to distract me from when my own name would get called out.

I got called near the end of the period, put up against a kid named Ryuuga Tenshi. He was a middle-of-the-roader, not great at taijutsu, but definitely not bad at it either. He wasn't as fast as me and he'd definitely never fought outside a rigid taijutsu spar in his life, so I managed to surprise him a lot, which actually made me look good. I was surprised. Maybe Mizuno-sensei had finally realized I was absolutely determined to be a shinobi and was just trying to get me out of his hair.

I didn't suppose it really mattered. What did matter was that he didn't tell me to leave at the end of the period, meaning I'd passed!

I was feeling so damn good about myself that not even the reminder that I didn't have any lunch could get me down.

As the bell rang for lunch period, countless students all rushed out of the building in a great wave, glad of the break. I pushed through the crowds to my usual lunch spot. There was a rope swing hanging from a tree in the front courtyard, and I always sat there to eat (or not eat) lunch. It was my swing, the one place that was solely my own, and no one ever bothered it.

I sat there now, glancing around me.

Kids all over the schoolyard were already forming into their usual cliques in their usual spots. No one walked over to me. They never did. No one walked over to a few other kids either, but they were all just really quiet and shy. I was the only one everyone purposefully avoided just because.

Emulating the adults.

I couldn't tell if they were aware they were doing this or not.

A light, melodic laugh interrupted my gloomy thoughts. I perked up despite myself, because I knew that laugh, and turned to where I'd heard it coming from.

A slim, bright-eyed girl with an oval, porcelain-pale, almost doll-like face was standing there. Her long, shimmering, silky hair was a strawberry blonde so rich that it was almost pink, and it fell down her back in soft waves. It was all done up in ribbons, and light hints of make-up cleverly accentuated the curves of her face. Her smile lit her face like a candle and made her green eyes glow as she laughed and chatted with some girls from across the courtyard.

That was Haruno Sakura.

She had the best "mental" grades in my entire year. She was really smart and had a photographic memory, but wasn't really known for much else. I knew her, though. I'd know her face anywhere.

I was in love with Haruno Sakura.

Haruno Sakura was in love with The Asshole. Otherwise known as Uchiha Sasuke.

The most popular, most talented guy in the entire school.

I had to compete with that.

That wasn't what really pissed me off about Sasuke, though. What really pissed me off was that Haruno Sakura was in love with Uchiha Sasuke, and Uchiha Sasuke didn't care.

Sasuke was… weird. He was from an elite clan of Konoha, the Uchiha clan. Until about four years ago, the Uchiha were the elite, even amongst the shinobi clans. They put out some of the finest Konoha had to offer, they were wealthy, and they were powerful politically. They had a seat on the Konoha High Council and they pretty much ran the village police force. They had everything. Sasuke especially, the son of the clan head, had everything.

And then a shinobi from within his clan itself, one of his own family members, went nuts and killed everybody. Every man, woman, and child in the Uchiha clan died in a single night… except Sasuke. The crazy Uchiha spared him. No one knew why.

Then the crazy Uchiha ran away from the village and was never heard from again. He was labeled an S-class missing-nin, but no one was ever able to find him, let alone apprehend him.

Sasuke had never been the same since.

When I first heard the story, I was a third year at the Academy. Sasuke was a first year, meaning he was only eight when it happened. My age.

Maybe that was why the story hit me so hard, or maybe parts of it were uncomfortably familiar… I don't know. But it was about a month after the attack, which came to be known as the Uchiha Massacre, and Sasuke hadn't appeared at school since. Everyone was talking about it, wondering where he'd gone, crying for him and spewing pity like it was going out of style.

I felt unreasonably defensive of him, especially considering I'd never spoken to him in my life before.

I knew why he was staying away from school and other people. The last thing he needed was for people to give him that horrible pitying look or try to say they understood or try to tell him not to do anything rash.

They didn't understand and he didn't want pity and he didn't want help, damnit!

I knew what that felt like.

The loneliness so thick and cloistering, it made you nauseous. The hot, burning anger and self-loathing that never went away. The feeling that it could never get better, that life was over, that you were beyond help.

I tried to imagine adding betrayal to that mix.

I didn't like what I got.

Sasuke wouldn't listen to anyone trying to talk him out of his funk, no matter what they said. Even when he got back, trying to reach out to him like that wasn't going to work. I knew that immediately.

It wouldn't have worked on me.

I felt bad for the kid. The sympathy heaped on him when he finally did get back was going to be suffocating.

But another month passed, and Uchiha Sasuke was still conspicuously absent. People were starting to talk about him like Mary Bloody Mary, always elusive and yet always inspiring fear and awe.

I tried not to think about him like the newest media pop star. I tried to think about him as just another kid like me.

One day, I was walking home from the grocery store. It was a Saturday, I was having a surprisingly good afternoon, and it was beautiful out. I decided to take a route home that I didn't usually take. It was longer, and it passed through a hill by the local lake. I was walking along, enjoying the sunset reflecting on the water, when I noticed some kid sitting on the pier at the edge of the lake. He was pale, dark-haired, and looked to be around my age. He was alone.

He was turning something shiny around in his hands, staring at it. It looked suspiciously like a knife from that distance. What really made me pause, though, was the look on his face.

It was lonely and anguished and desperate all at once, and actually physically painful to look at.

All I could think in that moment was that the kid was about to kill himself right in front of me.

I must have gasped or shifted or stepped forward or something, because all of a sudden his head shot up and he looked right at me with stunned black eyes. I froze. So did he.

I had to do something. I had to do something to keep this kid from doing what he was obviously thinking about doing. I couldn't just walk away and leave him there.

Talking to him wouldn't work. What would I say? "Hey, why are you trying to kill yourself?" Yeah, okay.

Well, I thought, what would have worked on me?

And I had it.

I looked him full in the face, hoping desperately this would work, and sneered. Then I deliberately turned and started to walk away, like he wasn't worth my time.

I challenged him. Go ahead, I was practically screaming, prove me wrong.

I heard him make a sharp intake of breath down below me, and then there was a sudden shift of movement. I glanced casually at him, and inwardly smiled.

It had worked. The angry fire in his face was incredible. He was standing, and he looked more like he wanted to stab me with the knife than himself now.

I let my face shift into something approving, and he paused, the anger freezing on his own face. His eyes were stunned anew, as if he was realizing what I'd done. I gave him my best "Gotcha!" grin, turned, and ran away.

Just before I turned away, I caught his own lips quirk upward, as if to smile back. His eyes were still stunned, but they didn't seem quite as lonely anymore.

I felt good about myself.

It only occurred to me days later that the boy might have been Uchiha Sasuke.

Only a week after I met the lonely, dark-haired boy, Uchiha Sasuke appeared back in school, and it was all anyone was talking about. Just as I'd predicted, the guy apparently had girls and teachers following him around everywhere, afraid he'd spontaneously burst into tears if someone wasn't there to hold his hand all the time.

I caught a glimpse of him in a school corridor a couple of days after he'd come back... and I stopped short, stunned. It was the dark-haired boy from the pier.

His new entourage was crowded around him, an entire gulf of people between us, but I recognized him. He was completely different from the boy on the pier. This boy showed nothing on his face. He was stiff and cold and alien. But then he looked up and saw me, and his eyes widened.

He'd recognized me too.

Then he was swallowed up in his entourage and I was swept down the corridor in the other direction and we didn't see each other again for another three years.

By then, he was practically unrecognizable from the boy I'd helped.

The Sasuke I knew now reminded me that no matter what he'd been through, Sasuke was born and raised a member of the revered Uchiha clan. He seemed like he'd gotten used to people catering to him at every opportunity because of what had happened to him, and putting up with all the shit he threw at them because of who he was. He was more than stiff and cold and alien, which I could understand. He'd crossed the line into arrogant and brooding, with a serious attitude problem, which I could still understand but never respect.

He wallowed. He wallowed and stewed in self-pity, and it was sickeningly obvious. He'd never even tried to get over what had happened to him, preferring to live in the past when he could, and it was sickeningly obvious.

It was obvious in the way he dismissed anyone who so much as said "hello, good morning" to him with cold, studious silence. It was obvious in the way he glared darkly at all the people who tried to befriend him. It was obvious in the way he sneered at Sakura and the countless other girls in our class who had crushes on him whenever he had to so much as look at them. It was obvious in the way he was given everything I'd ever wanted for free because of who he was born as. It was obvious in the way he took everything I'd ever wanted, and threw it away like trash.

It was obvious in the way he continued to remain alone, even when he was given chances not to have to be.

And yeah, maybe I was a little jealous, but I was entitled to that when I was living on the streets after what happened to me and he was treated like a prince after what happened to him and I still got over it better than he did. I was entitled to that when he could actually trust the people around him, and that was all I'd ever wanted to be able to do. I was entitled to that when I would have to work my entire life to prove I was everything they already considered him because of a surname.

It was infuriating. He... he had all these resources, all these available options, all these eager people at his disposal, and he took all of it and threw it in the world's proverbial face. But that was okay; he was allowed to. Because he'd just had a hard life.

When stuff like that happens to a clan kid, it's tragic. They get to play the tragic little hero and throw giant hissy fits at the entire world whenever they want to. They're never told to suck it up and move on. They never have to pretend like everything's okay when it's not. Because they're clan kids.

But what really got me was the way Uchiha Sasuke acted like he was the only person in the world who had ever had a hard life. It was like he honestly thought no one else could ever possibly have gone through what he had, and therefore he had the right to behave however he wanted toward all the little people who just didn't understand.

And what really got me was the way he sneered at me the first time he beat me at something in class, and then never said a civil word to me again, like he was throwing me away. I was only worth his time while he felt inferior to me. After he'd proven he wasn't, I was no longer worth the bother.

I could understand him perfectly. And I hated a lot of what I could understand.

I wasn't defensive of him anymore. If anything, I was usually the one telling him exactly what I thought of him… which didn't exactly endear me to my female classmates. Including Sakura, unfortunately.

Sweet, smart, beautiful Sakura… Sasuke-teme didn't deserve her.

I'd first met her years ago, though she hadn't seen me. It was a couple of months after I'd left the orphanage, and I was starting to get used to the dog-eat-dog style of existence that ran the streets. My belly was starting to get fuller, and my bruises were becoming less and less in number. I was feeling proud of myself.

I was walking along a back alley toward a market nearby to steal a bit of food for the day, maybe pick a couple of pockets – when I heard the oddest thing. It sounded like little girls.

Not exactly a frequent sound where I lived. At least, not out in the open.

I was curious enough to go check it out, and felt bad enough for them to think about warning them away from there. Big Jo, a smelly mountain of a drunken man who yelled at poles because apparently they'd just flipped him off, liked to frequent that particular place. Who knew what he might do to some little girls?

I never found out what they were doing there, but I remember staring at them when I saw them – because it was obvious they were a bunch of naïve little civvie girls who belonged way on the other side of town. Then I registered what they were doing.

Four or five of the little girls were all making fun of one. They had her surrounded and they were laughing at her. She was crying, but the others didn't seem to care. They seemed to be making fun of her because she had a wide forehead and, apparently, "it made her look like Frankenstein." The little girl hunched her shoulders up and cried harder, obviously believing them.

The others laughed.

Behind the boiling, searing anger that erupted at this, I remember thinking that they were wrong. I'd never have noticed her wide forehead if they hadn't pointed it out. They were probably just bitter because even with a big forehead, she was still way prettier than them.

Before I could do anything, however, she broke through their circle and ran away, sobbing. Her hair, tinged pink in the sunlight, flashed past me as I stood there in the alleyway, feeling startled and guilty that I hadn't stepped in sooner.

As the other girls walked away, sneering and cat-calling in a way that made me hope they choked on their fancy dinner that night, I thought about how that little girl didn't have any more control over the fact that people bullied her than I did. It was weird. I'd never thought I'd feel any sort of connection to someone who was so obviously wealthy and sheltered. I certainly never had before.

About a year ago, I saw her again – in my Academy class. I recognized her immediately and felt another connection to her. She'd overcome her situation, just like I had. Haruno Sakura was now one of the most confident and popular girls in our class. The only people who ever dared to make fun of her were the other girls who liked Uchiha Sasuke, just as she apparently did, and she gave it right back to them.

I wanted so badly to get to know her better, but even after all that time, I still couldn't quite trust easily, and she and I were in completely different spheres anyway. Besides, she spent all the time she didn't spend on her studies trying to get Sasuke to notice her.

But that just lent an air of challenge to it.

I knew Sakura was smart – really smart. So I made this game where I'd get right up in her face, acting all annoying and obnoxious just like I was so good at, but dropping subtle hints here and there that there might have been more to it – that I was just acting. To my disappointment, she never seemed to catch them… which was understandable because, as I said before, she spent most of her attention on Sasuke-teme. Mostly, my antics just seemed to annoy her. She snapped at me a lot. She had even slapped me over the back of the head a few times when she was in a... particularly bad mood.

And no matter what, I still didn't feel comfortable enough to really act like myself around her. I wanted to get to know her, but I wanted to know her before she knew me.

She mostly ignored me, even after an entire year of trying all sorts of ways to get her attention. The most I'd ever talked to her was when she turned me down for dates or told me to get out of her way or snapped at me to stop insulting "Sasuke-kun."

All this flashed through my mind as I watched Haruno Sakura from across the courtyard. I didn't go over to her. Usually I would have, but I didn't want anything to jinx today, not even something completely unrelated to the test like another rejection from Sakura-chan.

The bell rang for the next period.

The weapons accuracy test was just as easy as I'd expected. We all lined up in front of two sets of targets, one moving and one unmoving, back at the training grounds and took turns throwing one individual kunai, a set of kunai, one individual shuriken, and a set of shuriken at both targets, one after the other. We were graded on how we held them, how much time we took to aim, and how close they were to the center.

Sakura-chan was in this class with me. So was Yamanaka Ino. Ino also had a thing for Sasuke, so she and Sakura were constantly at arms against each other. Of course, they had to make even the Exam into a contest, slinging insults at each other at lightning speed and smirking every time they did something better than the other. Both did damn near perfect, and I did pretty well myself. A surprising number of kids didn't do so hot, though.

This test was over pretty fast, and we all sat around for the rest of the period. I only had one more test, but it was the one I'd been stressing over for the past month. The Jutsu Test. Where I'd be tested on the thrice-damned Bunshin no Jutsu.

I had good reason to be worried. The Exam was a pass-fail. You passed every part of the Exam or you passed no part of the Exam. Points didn't matter beyond "did this person pass this or not?" Failing at one technique – just one – out of the three techniques tested in the Jutsu Test meant I'd have to take the entire year (and the entire test) all over again.


I couldn't even practice the Bunshin now because of the way the jutsus were done. Jutsus were done with chakra, a special energy inside every person's body that was a combination of physical and spiritual energy. You channeled chakra from within your body to the outside and controlled it through hand signs (though a really talented and experienced shinobi could channel without). Different hand signs and different ways of manipulating the chakra got different results, which were usually beyond what any normal person could do.

Chakra was an actual presence, flowing through the body through vessels – kind of like blood vessels. Chakra was released from the body at will at special points along the chakra vessels called tenketsu points, which weren't points so much as they were holes that let you push chakra outside your body to control it.

This was all pretty basic first and second year stuff. What wasn't gotten into until later on in the Academy was that chakra was a person's life source – just like blood. If you used too much of it at once, you became sickly and tired. You could even die.

No techniques taught in the Academy would ever use enough chakra to kill a person, but I wanted my stores entirely full when I went in to take the test. I wasn't taking any chances. Not after all this.

So, no training.

I was starting to fidget and my palms were starting to sweat again by the time the bell rang out across the grounds to signal the period was over.

As I walked to Iruka-sensei's classroom, all the stress of the past month formed into a hard lead ball in my stomach. This was what I'd been trying to avoid for as long as possible with the monument prank. Worrying too much, I knew, would just make me too nervous to succeed.

I forced my mind onto other things.

Ino and Sakura-chan were both in this last class with me. So were Nara Shikamaru, Akimichi Chouji, Inuzuka Kiba, and Ryuuga Tenshi. As I sat down in a seat at the back (or the top, because of the tiered seating), the door slammed open. Ino and Sakura-chan stopped sniping at each other long enough to call out, "Sasuke-kun!" and I knew, without having to look up, who had just walked into the room.

Uchiha Sasuke was in this class too.

I watched from above as Sakura-chan and Ino both invited him to sit with them in turn, and he turned both of them down flat with that infuriating sneer of his and stalked over to an empty seat near the window. The hurt look on Sakura's face as he walked away managed to piss me off even through all my nervousness.

Sasuke seemed to feel my glare on his back, because he turned to look at me. His sneer grew even more pronounced and his eyes hardened as they landed on my face. We glared at each other for a long moment before he turned away again, slowly and deliberately, his back stiff and the look on his face antagonistic. I might have taken the bait and gone over there to pick a fight if Iruka-sensei hadn't walked into the room just then.

My nervousness returned. Even Sasuke was pushed to the back of my mind for the moment.

Behind him came his new assistant teacher, Takahiro Mizuki, a nondescript-looking man with long, pale hair. Mizuki had only been an instructor about six months, and he only came in on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to observe Iruka teach and occasionally help him out. Iruka had been giving him a bit more free reign lately as he grew into his role as a teacher, even just an assistant teacher, which was probably why he was there helping today. The guy was okay, I supposed. We hadn't interacted enough for me to really have an opinion one way or the other. He was kind of quiet, but that was at least better than "kind of stuck up."

Iruka-sensei made it to the front of the room and turned to face the class. For once, the room grew silent without him having to say anything. It appeared I wasn't the only one tense or anxious.

Iruka-sensei clapped his hands. "Alright, people, we're going to get started right away. For your own privacy, the test will take place in there." He pointed to the supply closet. We all stared at him. Iruka-sensei ignored us and continued, "Mizuki-sensei and I," he gestured to the man beside him, "will call the names one at a time. You will come into that room with us to demonstrate your proficiency at the Henge no Jutsu, Kawarimi no Jutsu, and Bunshin no Jutsu. You have to be acceptable at all three techniques to pass. If you show you are acceptable at them, we will present you with the one of the hitai-ates waiting in the room. We do ask that you not show whether or not you have a hitai-ate until after class, when the test is officially over. Any questions?"

The only answer he got was anticipatory stares.

Mizuki-sensei picked up a piece of paper on Iruka-sensei's desk. "Aburame Shino," he read off, "you're first." Shino silently got up and went into the supply closet with Iruka-sensei and Mizuki-sensei.

The room was absolutely quiet after he left.

No one seemed any more in the mood to talk than I had been all day.

The list of names seemed to be going in alphabetical order, much to my dismay. "Uzumaki" was a long way off.

By the time they got to "H", my head was in my hands and I was glad I hadn't eaten anything for lunch. All I could think was that I wasn't going to pass because of my stupid block with the fucking Bunshin no Jutsu. Every name that was called seemed like another step closer to the executioner's raised ax.

A lot of students weren't actually obeying the "no showing off your hitai-ate" rule. Many who had passed were gloating to the people around them or showing their brand new headband to their friends under their desk. I tried not to listen to them whisper about how easy it had been. It just made my nausea worse.

Sakura-chan passed. She smirked at Ino, who had yet to go, as she walked back to her desk.

Kiba and Chouji passed. I heard them whisper as much in satisfied voices to their friends as they made it back to their seats. Even lazy Shikamaru muttered, "Jeez, and this is supposed to be the hardest test of the year," after his turn. The guy I'd gone up against in taijutsu, Ryuuga Tenshi, walked out of the supply room beaming, one of his pockets bulging with something shaped like a headband.

Uchiha Sasuke stood smoothly when his name was called, the very picture of confidence. Sakura-chan's dreamy sigh as he strode into the supply room made my teeth ground together so hard I was sure the entire room could hear it. Less than a minute later, he came back out, completely unruffled, and paused at the front of the room, his eyes roving around for something. Finally, they found mine, and he gave me this smirk that said "I passed and I know you're not going to" better than the actual words could have. Then he sauntered back to his seat.

I could've strangled him.

Finally, "Uzumaki Naruto," Mizuki-sensei called out into the quiet room. I stood so fast I lost my balance and nearly fell, earning a few quiet snickers from the people around me. I ignored this as best I could and, pretending my legs didn't feel like they were made of jelly, descended the stairs to where Mizuki-sensei was waiting. He stepped aside to let me through, and I entered the final testing room.

It was small and stuffy. I didn't know why I was surprised; it was a storage closet, after all. The room had been cleared except for a desk set against the opposite wall. Iruka-sensei was sitting behind it, and Mizuki-sensei shut the door behind him and went to sit next to Iruka. At the edge of the desk was a neat pile of shiny hitai-ates. I eyed them hungrily as I walked over to stand directly in front of my senseis.

Iruka's young, scarred face was neutral as he looked up to me. "Henge," he said simply, without preamble.

I formed the seal, whispered "Henge", and transformed into a no-shitting-around-this-time copy of Iruka-sensei himself. He asked me to turn around for him, looking for any obvious flaws in the illusion. After he couldn't find any, he nodded in a satisfied way and made a mark on the piece of paper in front of him.

One down.

"Kawarimi," he said next, and I made another hand seal and whispered the technique's name again to help me concentrate. I felt like I was being sucked down a giant tube, and then I was sitting in Mizuki-sensei's seat. Mizuki-sensei was standing where I'd been a moment before, and he looked very disoriented.

Oops. I wondered if you could get marked down for not warning an instructor before you switched places with them.

But Iruka-sensei just nodded and made another mark on his paper. I could see from here that it was a capital "P." P for Pass.

Two down, and to my surprise, Mizuki-sensei gave me a good-natured grin as I sheepishly gave him back his seat. "Don't worry about it," he muttered, sounding mildly amused.

Once I was standing back where I'd been, Iruka-sensei gave the final order. "Bunshin. Two fully functional clones, if you please."

I remembered, completely out of the blue, how disappointed I'd been when I'd first learned the Bunshin no Jutsu was just an illusion. It only made it look like clones of yourself appeared around you. It didn't actually create physical copies of yourself.

Then I wondered how I could be thinking about that right in the middle of a test. Then I realized I was just standing there and my senseis were still waiting. Then I told myself to stop stalling and just get it over with.

Finally, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and made the seal. I called on my chakra and it formed around me, twisting this way and that. I tried to force it to go the way I wanted it to, but it was as stubborn as it always was when it came to the Bunshin technique. The more I tried to force it, the more it just seemed to grow out of control. I realized I was about to lose my grip on it and, desperate, cried out, "Bunshin no Jutsu!"

I kept my eyes shut as I felt the chakra release around me. Some wild part of me hoped for a miracle, but the more realistic part of me already knew it hadn't worked.

There was silence within the room for so long, I dared to let my eyes peek open.

Well, I had created two clones. And you could tell they were supposed to look like me.

The problem was they didn't.

All the color seemed to have been bleached from their skin, and both looked like they were about to keel over and die. One was hunch-backed and slightly deformed; the other's eyes didn't have any pupils or irises. Neither lasted for longer than about thirty seconds before dissipating in small puffs of chakra release smoke.

The lead ball in my stomach dropped through it and into the floor below me.

Everything I'd done in the past year to improve, all the training I'd done in the past month, the entire day of rigorous testing, all the hope… it had all been for nothing. I might as well have never showed up at all.

Useless. Fucking useless. All this time, and I was still nothing more than that terrified little boy, huddled against the wall, crying and helpless to save his only family.

Hot tears burned my eyes and throat, but there was no way I was crying in front of them too.

"… Fail. I'm sorry," Iruka finally said needlessly into the silence.

I left the room before anything else could be said, slamming the door behind me.

I ignored the rules just as I always did, storming out of the classroom as well. I didn't look at any of my peers as I rushed by, not wanting to see them or what they thought or the inevitable conclusion dawning in each of their faces. Not wanting them to see how much this hurt.

Especially not wanting to look at Sasuke-teme or Sakura-chan.

By the time I had left the school building, my vision was starting to blur. I screwed up my face and, in an act of sheer willpower, forced myself not to cry. I'd promised myself I'd never do that again after Grandma died. I'd lasted for seven years, through all the nights in the streets and all the prejudice and all the frustration, and I sure as hell wasn't going to give up now.

I wasn't going to fail at this too.

After I'd choked back the tears and the sobs and the screams, and I was sure the dam would hold for a while, I trudged slowly over to my rope swing. I could have just left the school grounds. I wasn't sure why I didn't. The happy graduates, the new, full-fledged shinobi, would be coming out soon. The parents, most of whom hated me, would be coming there to meet them. So why wasn't I leaving?

Maybe I was a masochist. It wouldn't be the first time I'd wondered.

Or maybe I just couldn't bring myself to care.

Three Genin Exam failures in a row. That had to be some sort of record.

What the hell was wrong with me? The Bunshin was the easiest technique in the book. Why couldn't I do something so fucking simple?

I just sat there, filled with fury and pain and self-loathing, for what seemed like hours. Eventually, even that drained out of me, and then there was nothing. I was empty.

For the first time in a long while, I welcomed the sensation.

The happy graduates did eventually spill out of the building. I couldn't see a single one of my final Jutsu classmates who hadn't passed.

The parents did come. They spared me glares and the occasional hissed curse as they passed, but other than that, they were too preoccupied with the success of their own children.

Teary-eyed mothers hugged daughters and proud fathers congratulated sons. Families planned celebrations and talked about the graduation ceremony and what they were going to wear to it and when orientation was going to be. Little siblings ran amongst the crowd, and friends got together to congratulate each other. Everyone was smiling, laughing, exultant…

I thought of Grandma, hugging me tight in her warm arms, her rich scent of spices filling my nostrils. I thought of her saying she knew I was going to grow up to become a great ninja, with so much pride and confidence in her voice…

My eyes were burning again. Damnit.

I got up off the swing and left the courtyard.

I wandered around after that, uncertain of what to do. I didn't have any money to go to Ichiraku's, and I wasn't comfortable enough around the Ichirakus to show them how upset I was anyway. I didn't feel like going back to my empty, silent apartment. There didn't seem to be much point in training. It hadn't done me any good in the past year; why would it help now?

So I wandered. So much of my time had always been devoted to the Academy and the assurance that I would one day become a shinobi that there wasn't much else to do. I didn't stay in the streets very long. Soon the afternoon crowd started entering the more crowded streets, and I didn't feel like getting glared at today. And wandering the streets near my home was out of the question.

I was just resigning myself to heading back to my apartment and trying to get my TV to work when I heard someone call out behind me. "Naruto."

I turned, startled that someone would have something to say to me, especially in such civil tones. It was Mizuki-sensei, Iruka's assistant teacher. My mood soured again at the reminder of the Jutsu test.

"Yes?" My tone was rude and sullen, but Mizuki didn't seem to notice. Instead, he was regarding me with an almost pitying look. I resented this, but was careful to keep my face childishly sullen and pouting. Pity was still better than contempt or derision, so I wasn't going to call him on it.

"Will you walk with me?" he finally said. "I'd like to talk to you about something."

I nodded cautiously. He waved me toward a nearby rooftop, using high-level shinobi skills to leap up there himself. I followed by shimmying up the fire escape. No one in the nearby street commented on this, possibly because I was with a chuunin-level instructor.

Despite my mood, I made a mental note to remember that for future pranks.

Once I had climbed up there to join him, he said, "… I know you're mad at Iruka."

Well, I was kind of ticked off, but not nearly as much as I had been the first time he'd failed my entire Exam by a slim margin because I couldn't perfect one technique. This time around, I'd kind of resigned myself to it. Instead of telling Mizuki all this, I just shrugged and looked away.

He must have taken my reaction as confirmation, because he continued, "I'm not saying not to be upset, but try to look at it from Iruka's point of view. He sends out all of his graduating class every year to become shinobi, and a lot of them will probably never make it through their first year at genin level… they'll either quit or, well, die. That's a heavy burden. So he has to make sure every student is as well-prepared as possible before they get sent out there. It's all he can do. It may seem unfair, but trust me, every technique counts. He couldn't have rightfully passed you, even for just one technique."

I didn't say anything. I had never really looked at it that way before, but I had figured that I couldn't exactly blame Iruka for being a teacher. I could blame him for a lot of things. Being a teacher wasn't one of them.

Even in the silence that followed his one-sided argument, Mizuki didn't seem to get the hint that I didn't feel like being lectured at. Instead, he tried a different tact.

I hadn't met anyone this stubborn since Iruka. Maybe he was rubbing off.

"Look, did you know Iruka grew up an orphan?" I was so stunned that I actually let my surprise show. I hadn't known that. "Yeah, he did. His parents died in the demon attack twelve years ago. He was ten. He grew up alone, just like you. I think Iruka sees a lot of his younger self in you. He knows certain people look down on you because of your lack of family, and I think he wants to see you prove them all wrong."

There was a long pause. Finally, I took the bait and asked the obvious question. "Then why didn't he pass me?"

"Because," Mizuki paused dramatically, like he was about to impart some great pearl of wisdom, "he wants to see you prove them wrong the right way. He doesn't want you to just scrape through; he wants you to blow everyone else out of the water."

I thought about pointing out that even if Mizuki was privy to his superior's private thoughts and personal wishes, that became redundant after a certain period of time. After so many extra years of training, only a retarded or disabled kid wouldn't be able to pass with good scores eventually. The impressiveness would be taken out of it.

I didn't bother saying this, though.

I appreciated that he had tried, but not much could cheer me up or get me motivated at this point. Oh sure, I'd go back for another year. I'd get through the Academy if it killed me. But I wasn't gonna walk back in with a great big smile on my face, no matter what anyone said.

He'd read me wrong anyway. I wasn't really pissed at Iruka. I was more pissed at the prejudice of the village in general, and at myself.

He was staring at me, like he was waiting for some sort of response to his amazing lecture. I shrugged again. "Okay," I said simply. "But he still could've passed me. I did well enough at everything else, and it was my third try."

I did my best to sound like I was presenting a reasonable argument, and not like I was whining.

Without waiting for him to reply, I stood and walked to the edge of the roof, intending to shimmy back down. "Wait, Naruto!"

I paused and turned around. Mizuki was smiling. "I didn't say Iruka's test was the only way you could graduate."

Something in my chest gave a wild leap, but I squashed it down ruthlessly, suspicion taking over instead. "How else could I?" I asked cautiously. I'd never heard of something like this.

Mizuki looked around conspiratorially and then beckoned me closer, like a child telling playground secrets to a good friend. I moved until I was two feet away from him, and then stopped.

He beckoned me closer, almost impatiently.

I stayed where I was. I hated people getting too close to me. It made me jumpy. Nothing personal, just a habit.

Finally, Mizuki sighed again and started, "I know you're not very good at history." It… made sense that he would think that, actually. He'd only been at the Academy six months, all during which I'd slacked off in history. He probably thought I'd just scraped through the written examination. Obviously, he hadn't seen or heard of my second high B in that portion of the test.

Or maybe he just thought I'd cheated.

"But once, before the Academy was founded, there was another way people were inducted into the ranks. The potential shinobi," he took a moment to smile at me almost condescendingly, "in other words, you," he didn't think I knew what 'potential' meant, "would steal a heavily guarded object from a specific location. They would then go, without being detected, to another specific location, where they would wait for one of their superiors," another condescending smile, "in this case, me, to take the object, unharmed, from them. This was back during the time when shinobi were solely ninjas, thieves and stealth specialists, and not the soldiers of their Hidden Village and country that they are today."

I had read about that. I had also read that it was outlawed after the Ninja Academy was founded more than fifty years ago.

Mizuki apparently didn't think I knew that, because he gave me that same annoying smile and said, "This is what you're going to have to do to graduate."

I gave him a searching look, as if trying to decide whether or not he was kidding. Inside, my mind was reeling.

This little shit. This little shit was going to try to get me to steal something for him, either because he wanted it or because he wanted to see me arrested and finally out of the Konoha Ninja Academy. I couldn't think of anything I had ever done to Mizuki to make him want that… but I could think of plenty of other teachers who would throw parties if I was not only out of their hair, but arrested.

Had they offered him a higher position? Or more money? He was only an assistant teacher. And that also meant he was disposable of he was caught in the lie.

Abruptly, anger welled inside of me, anger that was almost too difficult to hide. Couldn't I ever get a fucking break? It was their own fucking fault I hadn't graduated. Most of them had sabotaged my education every chance they got!

But no, they couldn't admit that. They were the high and mighty instructors and they were never wrong. Well, fuck them. I'd steal whatever it was anyway and then I'd… I didn't know what I'd do. But I'd get away with it. I would.

My train of thought was dangerous, and if I hadn't been so frustrated and hadn't had such a shitty day and then hadn't been hit with this right at the end of it, this reminder that nothing I did was ever good enough, I wouldn't have ever thought about doing what I did. I would never have jeopardized my chances of becoming a shinobi, and Hokage.

If I was caught, I would have to run away and never come back. I would lose my chance of proving them wrong about me. I knew that.

But in my furious mindset, I thought maybe I could prove them wrong in a different way. I didn't know quite what yet, but I was going to let my anger control me, for the first time ever, and let the chips fall where they may. I was really going to do this.

It was a split-second decision, and quite possibly the stupidest one I've ever made. Well… not the stupidest. The second-stupidest.

Don't ask. That's another story.

Finally, after I thought it was safe to relax my searching look, the tension seemed to drain out of my body. I allowed myself to look excited. Mizuki smiled confidently. He thought he had me. I wondered in the back of my mind what he would think if he knew what I was really excited about.

I didn't even have to say anything. He continued, "I know the Hokage likes you, and that's why he agreed to this, despite how… unconventional it is." Clever, I thought privately to myself. Despite whatever I did and whatever I pulled, the Hokage did seem rather fond of me on the rare occasions we came face-to-face. He had ever since I'd been that loud, indignant little six-year-old who burst into his office and demanded entrance into his Academy, harried shinobi officials running in behind me with panicked expressions. The Hokage thought I had "spirit", quote on quote.

But it wasn't anything more than that. In the end, I was still just another student. He didn't give me private tutoring or anything. He wouldn't make an exception that was against the law just for me. Old Man Hokage didn't strike me as that type of guy, anyway.

Mizuki was acting under the assumption that I was the arrogant, obnoxious idiot I pretended to be. The person I pretended to be wouldn't even have blinked twice at the idea that a special make-up test was being made just for him.

Situations like this were why I pretended to be that person.

Outwardly, I grinned and nodded along. "So," Mizuki continued, "he agreed to let us use his study in the Hokage Tower as the place to set up the object you're supposed to get. It's a certain scroll, about five feet long and a foot wide, with a purple wax seal on it. Your job is to break into his study, get the scroll, get out, and head out to the point I'll be meeting you at." I knew he wouldn't be waiting. ANBU might be, but he wouldn't. So I didn't bother to listen to the place he described, where I was supposed to meet him.

I grinned and nodded some more. He smiled back at me, told me I had until eight in the evening, and wished me a fake good luck. Then he leaped away off the rooftop and left me there, angrier than I'd ever been in my life and smiling like my birthday was tomorrow... and actually worth celebrating.

I thought that was the last I'd ever see of Takahiro Mizuki.

I was wrong.

As I leaped across rooftops toward the tall, proud Hokage Tower, I still couldn't believe I was doing this. A part of me didn't want to listen to what the anger roiling inside of me was telling me to do. That part of me considered that to be 'giving in.' The rest of me told that part of me that we'd already tried things that way and it hadn't worked.

I knew where the Hokage's study was. I knew you could only get to it through the Hokage's personal office, on the very top floor of the Tower. I'd been to his office after a couple more virulent pranks, and I'd seen the door open a tiny crack once. I hadn't thought much of it.

I stayed on a rooftop nearby, close enough to see the Tower, but far enough away that I wasn't immediately detectable to the shinobi guarding it. The roof had a ledge, and I stayed lying behind the ledge, where I couldn't be seen. I watched the guard for a long time. It rotated, and I watched the guards come out from behind to the front, and the guards in front go around to the back. It took me a couple of rotations and all my concentration to calculate where approximately the shinobi in front rotated to and how and when they rotated.

By that time, I'd already wasted half an hour.

Then, by some miracle, I saw the Hokage leave the building. I didn't know if he was going to dinner or going home for the night. But he was leaving. I had to use that time.

As soon as I could no longer see him, I started eyeing the nearby rooftops, looking for the best place to jump from one of them to the window of the office itself. A place that was at an angle where the guards wouldn't catch sight of me.

I memorized the appearance and placement of what I figured was the best one. Then I crawled carefully across the rooftop and slid down into the alley below. I didn't go for the Tower. I sprinted back toward my apartment instead.

I needed some materials.

Ten minutes later, I skidded back into a nearby alley, panting for breath. In my pocket was a chakra sensor, which were issued to all Academy teachers to see how much chakra reserves and potential new students had. I'd nicked one off of Iruka-sensei last year with my pickpocket fingers. I'd wanted to see if it could help me get the Bunshin right, but I knew he couldn't issue one out to me if I asked him. They were for instructors only. So I saved him the trouble and just made it seem like he'd lost it instead.

It did help me get the Bunshin to the point where I actually made something when I formed my chakra, but that obviously wasn't what I was using it for that night.

In my hand was a piece of wire broken off of some part of my dishwasher. I didn't know if what I'd broken was important, but my dishwasher had never worked anyway, so I didn't think it mattered.

Armed with these, I slipped through alleyways to the roof I'd memorized. This too had a ledge, luckily for me, so after I went up the fire escape (which actually took a couple minutes; this was a tall building), I immediately flattened myself below it. I stayed across the roof, where I could still partially see the guard below. It didn't look like it was time for rotation, and just as I'd thought, from the angle I was at, they couldn't see me. I waited until the next rotation had passed, just to be sure.

In about five minutes, it did.

Now I just had to get from the roof to the window. It was still quite a jump, despite all my planning. If I fell halfway through, I didn't know how many bones I'd break.

But I'd gone into my prank mode, and in prank mode, the consequences haven't happened yet, so you don't worry about them. I'd decided to do this and I was going to.

So I took off my neon orange jacket. I wore a plain black T-shirt below it, which wasn't nearly as eye-catching. I carefully pulled myself up into a crouch, so low that my bright orange pants wouldn't be visible. I tensed, and then I ran all the way to the edge of the roof, and jumped.

Oh, and by the way, that's not even close to the third-stupidest decision I've ever made.

I almost didn't make it. I caught the ledge with my fingertips and pulled myself up onto it with upper body strength. I looked down. All was well. No one appeared to have caught that.

The window was locked. I picked the lock with the wire and pushed it up, praying it didn't squeak like my window did. It didn't.

I made sure the room was empty, then crawled in, carefully shutting the window behind me. I got away from the window as quickly as possible, just in case someone actually did come around and looked up to see me.

I took the chakra sensor out of my pocket and looked around. The Hokage's office was just as it had always been. There was a couch off to the side of the room, maybe for the all nighters. There was a large desk in the center of the room with a comfy-looking chair behind it, and two more chairs stood on the other side of the desk. Large stacks of official-looking papers were piled on the desk for the Hokage's stamp of approval. Quiet watercolors hung on the walls, and to the side of the room was a door. This door led to my destination.

I wasn't stupid enough to just walk up to it and expect to waltz in. That was why I had brought the chakra sensor. I used it to scan the place in general, looking for any illusions on the room itself. There weren't any, but there were traces of chakra in the air, like someone had been in the room just a minute ago. Had he left a type of Bunshin or something to check up on the office every so often? If he had, I had to work quickly.

I walked up until I was a few feet away from the door, then I stopped. I scanned the specific area in front of the door, and… bingo.

Made visible and highlighted blue by the sensor was an entire web of chakra strings that covered the door completely. If a person got too close to it, they'd catch on one of the chakra strings, which probably raised some sort of alarm.

The only real problem? Any holes between the strings, any margins in the net, were too small for any human to fit through, no matter how they climbed.

Getting worried, I walked over to the Hokage's desk and started going through drawers, looking for anything that remotely looked like it could turn off the chakra net. Predictably, most of the drawers were locked. That was where the wire came in. I picked more locks, going through the drawers, being careful to put everything back exactly the way I found it.

I didn't find anything, and I was just starting to panic when I came across something I would never have expected to find in a Kage's desk. There in a bottom drawer, hidden under a pile of papers… was porn.

This actually gave me an idea.

I put everything back the way I'd found it and carefully twiddled the locks until they clicked back into place. Then I stood, put the sensor and the wire in my pocket, and did the Oiroke no Jutsu.

The naked woman I'd mentally named Naruko calmly waited for the Bunshin to walk in.

It took maybe ten minutes for this to happen. The door to the waiting room outside clicked as it was unlocked, and then the Bunshin of Old Man Hokage walked into the room, did a quick scan, and saw Naruko standing there beaming at him.

It was the first time I'd ever seen him lose his cool, and it was pretty awesome. His eyes went as wide as dinner platters and his mouth fell open in shock. Quickly, before he could regain control of himself, Naruko flew at him, shrieking, "Oh, Hokage-sama!" She wrapped her arms around him to embrace him… and tapped a point on his shoulder ever-so-lightly.

He definitely would have been able to see that coming though, if he hadn't been so busy thinking, OMG BOOBS! That was where Naruko came in.

Anyway, he passed out. The Henge broke, and after I changed back into Naruto, I looked him over.

I'd hit the right point, and it felt much more satisfying than acing the anatomy portion of my written exam. I dragged him over to the chakra net (this was a more advanced type of Bunshin that actually was corporeal, something I'd been counting on) and took out the chakra sensor to see the net. I left it on, but set it on the floor to prop up Old Man Hokage's elbow. Then I took his finger and used it to push a chakra string up.

I tensed and waited, but no alarm went off, no ANBU Black Ops came crashing through any windows, and I didn't die. So I figured my gamble had paid off. Old Man Hokage was probably the only person who could manipulate the net without getting hurt or raising the alarm.

I used his finger to push the string up farther, enough for a hole big enough for a Naruto-sized person to slip through. I took my hand off, leaving his finger there, held there by the sensor under his elbow.

I climbed carefully through the hole and to the door. It was locked. I jimmied yet another lock, and I was in.

The scroll Mizuki had described was fairly obvious. It was the biggest one in the study by far, so it wasn't too hard to find. I stared at it for a moment, trying to figure out how I was going to carry it. Finally, I took off my belt (strapping the equipment pouch attached to it on my leg instead) and created a sort of harness that would snap around at the front, strapping the scroll to my back. I didn't actually strap it on. Instead, I went back out and put it carefully through the hole in the net first. Then I turned back around, shut the door, re-jimmied the lock so it locked itself, and slipped back out through the net.

I turned off the chakra sensor and dragged the Bunshin away from the net before carefully putting the sensor back in my pocket. I was definitely keeping it. Then I peeked out into the waiting room. No one was there. As I had suspected, at this time of the evening, everyone had already gone home, which meant no one would notice the Bunshin hadn't come back out. I closed the main door and used the wire to lock it. Then I put the key the Bunshin had dropped safely in a pocket of his robes.

I strapped the scroll on, climbed out onto the window ledge, and locked the window behind me too for good measure. I stood back on the ledge and glanced around, listening hard. No bodies moving beneath me, no shuffling feet. Not a rotation, and I couldn't afford to wait. I jumped.

Maybe because of the nervous excitement that was coursing through me by now, I made it to the roof fine. I flattened myself immediately, and slipped the scroll off next to me so it wouldn't pop up above the ledge. I crept across to where my jacket was still lying, and took a moment to tie it around my waist.

Then I slid down into the alley below, carrying the scroll with me.

I have no idea how I made it across all those roofs and all those alleys without someone crying, "Stop, thief!" It helped that I'd memorized the patrol routes of the shinobi on guard long ago, for my pranks. Still, I couldn't believe it when I made it to the great wall surrounding Konoha.

I couldn't stay in the village. I knew that from the moment I realized I'd need the Hokage's Bunshin to get past the chakra net. The Bunshin would eventually wake up and tell the Hokage what had happened, and there was only one person it could be. Everyone knew that, because everyone knew I'd used that same thing in my prank on Iruka. It was practically my trademark, partially because it was so distinctive.

I knew I'd need to leave the village with whatever I stole, but that hadn't bothered me as much as it probably should have.

It was why I was at the wall surrounding Konoha now.

I didn't go to any of the gates. I went to a bare stretch of wall far from any of the gates. It was completely smooth, obviously man-made. But it didn't matter.

I was nervous; I hadn't done this since I was little.

My fingernails were really, unusually tough and sharp. I had no idea why; it was just some weird quirk about me. But when I was little, Grandma used to complain about me climbing up the walls and onto the ceiling when other parents were complaining about their children running all over the house. I would use my fingernails to pierce into the wall and climb, hand-over-hand, that way.

I did it then. It took me a minute to remember how to do it correctly, but once I got a good hold, it was actually pretty easy. It was a long way up and my arms were shaking with tiredness by the time I got there, but I made it. I stood at the top and looked down to the ground far below me.

This was it. For the first time since I'd made it, I questioned my decision.

Did I really want to do this?

What was waiting for me if I didn't?

That was what cemented my decision. Because there was nothing waiting for me back there except a village full of people who refused to see past their own prejudices and misconceptions long enough to admit they were wrong. I couldn't prove myself as Hokage if they wouldn't even let me graduate into the shinobi ranks.

It was their loss, I thought in a rush of anger. It was their loss.

I still had my shinobi equipment with me. I took a spool of ninja wire from inside my equipment pouch and attached it to the ledge before sliding down it and to the ground. I pulled the wire back down, strapped the scroll more securely to my back, and took off for the forest surrounding Konoha.

My only regret was that I hadn't had enough time to go back and get my picture of Grandma.

After a couple of hours of running as hard as I could, I had to stop and take a break. Night was coming in earnest, and the moon already shone down through the leaves. I was at least a few miles from Konoha, I knew, but I was still in forestry. Konoha is the Hidden Village of the Leaf for a reason.

I stopped in a small clearing and set the scroll down beside me.

As I keeled over to put my hands on my knees, I reflected that this couldn't go on forever. Sooner or later, the scroll was going to be discovered missing. Then they would send out shinobi after me who were more talented than I was. And my advantage of knowing the terrain better would be nullified.

I had to have something to fight them off with.

I decided to check the scroll. I still didn't actually know what it was.

I ran the chakra sensor over it. No chakra-based traps there. I put the chakra sensor in my equipment pouch - by then it actually qualified as shinobi equipment - and broke open the seal.

It was a scroll of jutsus.

At the top of it was a technique called the Kage Bunshin.

"Ha ha, very funny, Universe," I muttered into the silence.

Still, it didn't actually look all that complicated. It only required one hand seal, and the explanation was simple enough.

I might just be able to do this. And it created solid clones!

I decided I could take a couple of minutes to see how hard it was.

That quickly turned into fifteen minutes, which turned out to be all it took for me to make something corporeal out of the Kage Bunshin technique. The Universe had given me a block with one little crappy technique only to give me a natural talent for its tough big brother instead.

Suddenly, I liked the Universe again.

I was so excited, I just had to get the technique right. Fifteen minutes turned into half an hour, but I got it. I really got it!

For the first time in a while, I was feeling pretty good about myself.

Of course, it didn't last. I had just finished catching my breath and rolling the scroll back up when a voice sounded behind me. "Naruto!"

I jumped about three feet in the air and whirled around, kunai in hand… only to pause. It just had to be Iruka-sensei. The one person who could find me that I wasn't sure about.

And the thing was, he wasn't attacking me. He didn't even look ready to attack me. He was just standing there with his arms folded across his chest, giving me his 'are you stupid?' look, like I'd just graffitiied the Hokage Monument again.

"… Iruka-sensei?"

Iruka sighed and unfolded his arms. "Do you have any idea of the mess you've caused?"

I frowned, honestly confused by the fact that he would refer to it as a mess and not a panic or a man-hunt.

"You stole a scroll of forbidden techniques that were restricted from common access by the First Hokage himself!" Iruka shouted. "Naruto… what could possibly possess you to do something like that?"

His voice was almost pleading, like he wanted to hear an answer that meant he wouldn't have to kill me. Was there even an answer like that in this situation?

Yes… yes, there was.

"What are you talking about?" I said, sounding confused. "Mizuki just told me that if I stole this thing and brought it to him, I could graduate. You don't have any idea where he is, do you?"

Iruka froze, eyes going wide. Clearly, if there was some sort of Academy teacher conspiracy, he wasn't in on it. I was glad. I kind of liked Iruka-sensei, even if I didn't always know what to think of him.

Before I could say anything else, though, Iruka suddenly charged at me faster than I'd ever seen a shinobi move, even when chasing after me. I tensed and half-brought my hands up to protect myself, but that was all I had time to do before he slammed into me, knocking me to the ground. I expected an attack, but one never came… at least, not for me.

Iruka fell against the nearest tree with a thump, a brace of shuriken sticking out of his chest. The shuriken had come from across the clearing. In that split second, I realized what had happened.

We had been ambushed. And Iruka had pushed me out of the way and taken the attack himself.

I was more confused than I had ever been in my life. And that was saying something.

Why would someone save me? Especially at the risk of their own life? The only person who had ever bothered was Grandma.

I didn't have time to ponder it, though, because a moment later I heard soft laughter across the clearing. I stood and whirled around in time to see Mizuki stride into the moonlight, looking highly amused.

"Oh, Iruka, you really are a fool," he murmured, to himself, I thought. But then I heard a grunt from Iruka's direction and he started trying to sit himself up! The shuriken must have gotten caught in his heavy green vest. All shinobi of Iruka's rank wore them, but it was the first time I'd ever really understood why.

"Hey, what the hell's going on?" I asked the world at large. It was a genuine question. What was Mizuki doing here? More to the point, what was Mizuki doing here, laughing at a seriously wounded Iruka?

Mizuki turned to look at me, his eyes hard. "I finally found you, you pathetic moron," he said coldly. "Couldn't even follow my simple directions on where to go, could you?" He sneered. "Give me the scroll."

"NO! Naruto, don't!" Iruka yelled, blood welling up in his mouth as he struggled to move. Maybe those shuriken had dug a little deeper than I'd thought. "Mizuki tricked you! That scroll is forbidden! He just wants it for himself!"

I turned my gaze back to Mizuki, who just rolled his eyes at the dramatics. So he'd been working on his own? What was he going to do, kill me, take the scroll, and go missing-nin himself?

Probably, I realized as he smirked down at me. And if I'd been angry at him before, it was nothing compared to how I felt now. I could hardly see straight.

"Oh, don't look at me like that, little brat," Mizuki said casually. "Look, just because you've been such a good boy and gotten the scroll for me, I'll give you a present." I snarled at him. He laughed.

"Haven't you ever wondered why everyone around you treats you with such hatred and contempt?" he asked, seeming to enjoy the way my face froze.

I absently noted that Iruka was struggling harder to stand upright, as if wanting to prevent Mizuki from doing what he was about to do.

"Because of where I came from?" I replied slowly, questioningly.

Mizuki laughed again. "What, do you think you're the only child enrolled in the Konoha Ninja Academy who's from the poor districts? Do you honestly think that most of the shinobi of our esteemed village," the way he said it was almost sarcastic, "care where the child comes from as long as they're willing to do the job correctly? Of course not, you silly brat. It's only you they hate. Now," Mizuki gave me a sweet smile, "do you want to know why?"

"Mizuki, stop!" Iruka choked, swaying where he stood. Had Mizuki poisoned him or something?

But I couldn't spare enough of my mind to worry too much about that at the moment. "Yeah," I demanded, "Yeah, tell me."

Mizuki looked almost triumphant. "You know the story of the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox, I presume? Of course, everyone knows about how the great and powerful demon appeared out of the blue, and the valiant Fourth Hokage gave his very life to kill it and save the village." Mizuki shrugged. "Of course, that's not really what happened, but it's a good story, you have to admit. Oh no, what really happened was that the Fourth realized even he couldn't kill the Nine-Tails, and so he gave his life to seal it away instead. He chose to imprison it within the body of a baby, born that very night and orphaned that very same night." Mizuki's eyes widened innocently. "What night were you born, little brat?"

My insides had been twisting and writhing with anger and fear… but suddenly, I didn't seem to have any insides at all. I was born on October 10. The date of the demon attack.

Suddenly, everything made sense. The way my adopted Grandma never let me go outside as a child. The way the man who killed her seemed to be looking specifically for me. The way he called me bakemono – monster – right before he tried to kill me. The way I blacked out and then, when I woke up, someone or something had stuck his own sword through him. The way ANBU Black Ops were sent to guard me for so long after that. The way the matron of the orphanage seemed almost wary of me. The way the people with shinobi connections – the people who had lost ninja relatives to the demon – seemed to hate me so much.

The way I could climb up walls with my claw-like fingernails.

Everything. Grandma's death, the Academy's prejudice, everything. It was all because of the day I was born.

Mizuki could see the realization dawning in my face. His face twisted into something ugly. "That's right, demon. You killed all those people! That's why everyone hates you so much! You even killed Iruka's parents! And the only reason no one your age knows about it is because the Third Hokage, fool that he is, refused to kill you. Instead, he passed a decree stating that no one was allowed to talk about your involvement in the attack." Mizuki sneered. "But that ends now, because I'm going to do what should have been done years ago. I'm going to kill you tonight."

He reached into his pocket and unsealed something with a flash of chakra. Out of his pocket came a fuuma shuriken, easily taller than I was. Mizuki gave me the same icy cold glare I was so used to. "Die," he said simply, and threw the fuuma shuriken at me.

For the split second it was coming at me, something probably should have happened. Everything should have suddenly slowed down, or I should have felt regret, or seen my life flash before my eyes. I didn't. I was numb.

Then, before I could even think, something hit me… but not from the direction I was expecting.

Iruka slammed into me, knocking me to the ground and putting himself in the path of the attack for the second time that night. He screamed as the shuriken pierced into his back.

Shock doesn't even begin to cover what I felt.

Iruka, miraculously still conscious, coughed as he spurted up more blood. He was kneeled over me, looking into my face, and I couldn't tell if the tears in his eyes were because of the pain or not.

There was quiet in the clearing except for Iruka's ragged breathing. Even Mizuki seemed to have been stunned into silence.

My only thought finally reached my mouth. "Why…?"

"Because," Iruka choked out after a moment, "you're like me." He gave a bittersweet smile. "I used to hate you, you know… just like everyone else. But… the more I tried to hate you, the more I couldn't help remembering myself at your age. I used to act out all the time in class… play pranks on everyone... play the part of the fool… because I wanted attention. I wanted the attention, the acknowledgement, I didn't have anymore, the acknowledgment that usually comes from parents. Being seen as an idiot was better than being forgotten… or ignored. But… I realized that's what you were doing too late. I didn't know how to approach you… and so now it's come to this. That's my fault. I know it probably won't mean much after all this, but… I'm sorry."

I think that was the first time in my life I was ever struck speechless.

Right when I'd given up all hope on ever changing anyone's mind enough for them to care about me… someone had.

I looked up at this guy who was, at this very moment, dying for me… and for the first time in I don't know how long, I allowed myself to trust. I allowed myself to care.

I remembered why I'd ever gotten the idea of becoming a shinobi in the first place. So I could be strong enough to protect the people I cared about. Nothing more ambitious than that, nothing more sinister… I'd just wanted to be able to help people.

Mizuki broke the silence with a derisive snort, reminding the two of us of his presence. "Cute," he said, "very touching. But it doesn't change the fact that one of you can't even stand up, the other is a talentless Academy student, and I'm about to kill you. Sorry."

Iruka glared up at him, but I was a bit more optimistic. Iruka still thought I'd stolen the scroll because Mizuki had duped me. Hell, even Mizuki thought I'd stolen the scroll because he'd duped me. That meant I still had time to fix this. I still had time to use the Kage Bunshin they didn't know I knew, fight Mizuki long enough for someone else to find us, give the scroll back to the Hokage, let Mizuki get in trouble for ordering me to steal the scroll in the first place, and become a shinobi for Iruka.

With a little luck, we'd both be okay and some good would come out of all of this.

And if I could convince Iruka I wasn't a monster, maybe I could still become Hokage too. Just taking it one person, one victory at a time.

It sounded like a plan to me.

I jumped to my feet. Iruka blinked up at me in weary surprise. "Alright, Mizuki-teme, here's the deal," I said matter-of-factly. "I ain't letting you have this scroll. Since you want this scroll to do whatever you crazy folks do with super-powerful scrolls, we're gonna have to fight." I looked up at him expectantly, waiting for the inevitable reaction.

Mizuki stared at me for a moment, and then laughed. Hard. Jeez, and they called me obnoxious. "YOU? You're going to fight me?" Mizuki-teme apparently thought this was pretty funny, because he doubled over, laughing even harder.

I know an opportunity when it dances naked in front of me, doing the can-can.

I needed to make an entire Kage Bunshin army and overwhelm him with sheer numbers for this to work. In order to create an entire Kage Bunshin army, I'd need a couple of seconds to work up my chakra. Mizuki-teme gave me more than a couple of seconds. He was laughing so hard, I was probably going to get more like half a minute.


I put my hands in the seal and gathered up all my chakra. My thoughts went in the direction of thousand-strong Kage Bunshin army. Iruka's eyes widened as my chakra started to become visible around me. Mizuki's didn't. He was still laughing.

And seriously, he sounded kind of hysterical. Nothing is that funny.

When I was sure I would make a pretty big boom, I let go of my chakra. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"

Orange surrounded Mizuki-teme from all sides, even above. I'd gotten pretty close to my thousand-strong goal, and I was actually tired. I'd never tired myself out from using too much chakra before.

Slowly, Mizuki stopped laughing… looked up… and got this expression on his face like 'oh my God, I'm about to piss myself.'

It was pretty amazing.

Through my tiredness, I grinned ferally. "Charge!" I shouted, and as one, they did.

Mizuki-teme disappeared in a seething mass of screaming orange. I stood there for a couple of minutes to make sure he wasn't getting away, then started to walk over to Iruka. He was gaping at the Kage Bunshin army behind me from his place on the ground.

I grinned. He smiled back weakly, and then said, "Well, I think it's safe to say you now have what it takes to become a shin…"

He was cut off by a sudden, vicious burst of chakra from inside the swarm of orange, so vicious that all the Bunshins burst as one.

I whirled back around and had just enough time to register Mizuki standing there, bloody and bruised and beaten, panting and glaring death at me, before I suddenly blacked out.

I was six years old.

It was my birthday.

I woke up thinking about last year at this time. Last year at this time, I was waking up to the smell of waffles and Grandma humming to herself in the kitchen. Last year at this time, Grandma was making me a cake and singing me happy birthday and giving me presents she had made for me. Last year at this time, someone told me they loved me every day.

Now, a year later, I was lying in an alleyway, curled up behind a garbage can. I hadn't eaten in almost two days and I hated it when that happened, because I always had to convince myself not to go back to the orphanage and beg them to let me in. Some drunk guy had tried to beat the crap out of me last night and I was still kind of sore.

It was a great start to the day.

I spent all day begging for food. People in the street seemed to be particularly nasty that day, and I didn't get any. A couple of people tried to hit me when I asked.

I didn't even want to think about what would happen if I tried to beg for food in the richer districts.

I curled up in that same alley, faint with hunger, and tried to convince myself it wasn't bad enough to start picking through the garbage next to me yet.

I was still telling myself that when night fell.

I tried all sorts of different things to get my mind off of it.

I tried drawing letters in the dirt, sounding out different words and spelling them how I thought they should be spelled.

I counted stars. I even tried to look for pictures in them, like Grandma and I used to do.

I sang myself happy birthday.

I tried to do the mind over matter thing, and told my stomach it was already full of yummy food and there was no need to get anymore. That didn't work at all. I think you have to believe what you're saying yourself for the mind over matter thing to work.

Eventually, I moved myself away from the temptation of the garbage can and started wandering around dark, empty back alleys.

I pretended they were the halls of my palace.

I was so focused on my hunger that I didn't hear them until they were right behind me.

"Hey," someone whispered right next to my ear.

I gasped and whirled around. There were four of them. All were men. One was smoking a cigarette.

The one who had spoken leered at me.

That was all I needed for my Get the Hell Out of There senses to start tingling. I turned and ran.

I didn't get very far. They eventually caught up with me and managed to pin me to the ground. "Please," I pleaded, "please just leave me alone."

They ignored me.

One muttered something about finally finishing it off. He held me down and the rest took turns hitting and kicking me. They didn't seem to care where as long as they hit something. One put his cigarette to very creative uses.

I screamed.

They laughed.

I'll spare you the gory details.

Eventually, the one holding me pulled out a knife. He slashed down at me viciously.

I don't know what it was. Maybe fear and adrenaline made me stronger than I should have been. Maybe it was… well… the thing they were really aiming for… giving me a little help.

I'm more inclined to believe the latter because, after I'd suddenly yanked my arms out from under the one man's grip and caught the knife between my hands, my voice came out as more of a growl than an actual human voice. "Get the fuck away from me," I hissed.

They must have seen something in my face, because they left very quickly after that.

I lay there in the alley, aching everywhere more than I ever had in my life and bleeding in several places, after they left.

I was six years old.

Eventually, I became aware of the knife, lying there loose in my hand where they'd left it.

My hands were bleeding.

What point was there, really? I found myself thinking. What point was there left to anything?

It was eerily reminiscent of the way I would think about leaving the village six years later.

There wasn't any point to life.

I tried to kill myself.

For the record, that is the single stupidest decision I have ever made.

I'm not sure when my view changed from slashing at myself, screaming, to slashing at Mizuki's bloody, mangled face, screaming.

My vision was red again, just like when my grandmother's murderer slashed down at me with his sword.

A pair of hands pulled me away from Mizuki's body, and then there was blackness.

Author's Notes: 29,811 words. 29,811 fucking words. And what am I doing? I'm adding more to it.

Naruto's character has always fascinated me. Some think he's a moron. Some think he has ADHD. Some think he simply doesn't make any sense. I just see him as a very intriguing character. To live in total isolation from everyone in the world for your entire childhood... to grow up with the idea firmly implanted and accepted in your mind that everyone in the world hates you and that's just the way it is... I can't even imagine what that would be like. Even Gaara, during his earlier childhood, had Yashamaru there to show him what affection was, even if it turned out to be false and embittered in the end. Naruto's never had anything like that. I don't think the Sandaime counts. Sure, he's nice to him, but from the way Naruto acts toward him... I've just never gotten the feeling they were ever as close as I think Naruto would have been to a "Yashamaru." But, more than that, to come out on the other side of all of this as good a person as Naruto is... and to act in the seemingly contradictory ways he sometimes does... and to have the goals he has, and the kind of familial background that he does... I've always thought there has to be some pretty interesting cogs turning somewhere in there.

This is a two-part "What if?" scenario revolving around how Naruto could grow up with someone who loved him and still be fucked up. Part two will cover his psychological treatment into the aftermath, delving into what makes this character tick.

Any reviews are greatly appreciated.