Chapter Two: In Hindsight

The world hurt to look at.

But the world had hurt to look at before, and when had that stopped me from staring it right in the face?

I opened my eyes. I was in a hospital room. Mine was the only bed in the room. I wasn't hooked up to any machines. In fact, I didn't even appear to be injured.

Everything was white. I was unsure how to feel about this.

I groaned and sat myself up, trying to remember what I'd been doing last. It took a minute. When I finally did remember, I froze.

What had happened?

My head shot up and I stared wildly around, as if expecting the room to have changed after my realization. It stayed empty.

I sighed, resigning myself to waiting until someone came into the room and asking them.

Instead, my mind turned to what I'd learned.

So… demon container, huh? Well, it explained a lot, I had to admit.

It explained the little things. The little things that I couldn't believe I'd never noticed before.

I had noticed a scar on my grandmother's finger once. It was pretty big. I asked her where she'd gotten it. She told me that when my teeth were first growing in, they were so tough and sharp that she stuck her finger in my mouth once and I nearly bit it off. She had to get stitches. I felt really bad, but she laughed and joked it off like it was nothing. Looking back, I was starting to realize just how much that meant.

I remembered her once bringing a slab of raw meat home to cook for dinner. She left it on the kitchen counter and went to do something in another part of the house. When she came back, I had ripped the packaging open with my fingernails and was tearing into the meat with my teeth, ripping off big chunks and just eating it raw, with the blood from the raw meat dripping down my chin. Even she had looked a little disturbed by this, and I felt so bad about seeing her look at me that way that I was always very careful to wait until after she had cooked the meat to eat it from then on. She compromised by always cooking our meat so little that it was still bleeding when it came off the stove.

To that very day, that was the only way I would eat my meat when it was the only thing on the plate, and not just flavoring something, like ramen.

Of course, there was the climbing thing. She only got me to stop playing on the ceiling and play on the floor instead with great difficulty.

There was even the fact that I could never sleep on the full moon. In legends, demons were said to be creatures of the night, and full moon was said to be when they were at their most powerful.

The fact that I never needed much sleep, my aches never lasted very long, and I almost never drained enough of my chakra to feel tired could also be a result of extra energy from the demon.

And when I thought about it, I could not remember one single instance when Grandma had ever needed to give me so much as a band-aid during my childhood. Also, I never developed calluses on my hands like the other shinobi-in-training in my class did. The first few times I had to hold a kunai or do a taijutsu spar, my hands bled, and then after that they just never hurt again... like my skin hardened to accommodate the new pressure, becoming more resistant to those particular things.

There was even the fact that I could eat so much at once without hurting my stomach, and then eat almost nothing for the next few days and feel nothing but faint hunger pangs. Didn't foxes in nature do something like that, to stock up on food they wouldn't get during the winter? Did that apply to demon foxes too?

How had I never realized any of this? In hindsight, it all seemed pathetically obvious.

I wondered if that was what the red clouding my vision had been. First against the prejudiced murderer, and then later… with Mizuki.

The vague images I had of Mizuki's bloody, mangled body filled me with a savage satisfaction, especially since whatever he'd done was probably what made me relive that memory… the memory of my weakest, most pathetic moment; the memory I'd successfully forgotten for so many years… but what disturbed me was that those were all I had. Vague images.

I wasn't the one who had stuck the assassin's own sword through him. I wasn't the one who had torn Mizuki to pieces. Those times, I hadn't been in control… and it frightened me. I controlled my own actions. I wasn't going to be at the beck and call of some demon, no matter how powerful it could make me. That wasn't how I worked.

So I would accept that I couldn't do anything about the demon's presence… but I would ignore it as best I could. Fight its control every time I felt it try to take advantage of my emotions. The seal seemed to prevent it from interfering in all but the most extreme cases, and that was a comfort.

I would not give in to my demons… literally or metaphorically.

Which was why I determinedly pushed the memory Mizuki had forced me through to the back of my mind.

I realized now that the demon was probably what kept me from killing myself, no matter what I cut or how hard I cut it. I had woken up in that alleyway the next morning, covered in my own dried blood, weak and achy and drained, but perfectly fine. I had been disgusted with myself and my own moment of weakness. I had thrown the knife away and made sure not to think about the experience since.

There was no need to, I told myself firmly. I would just have to make sure not to think like that again, that was all. I had tripped, but I'd caught myself before I could fall.

I'd just had a bad day. That was all it was. Just a bad day.

I had not thought about the experience since, and I had been quite happy with that… and then Mizuki-teme had brought it all up again.

The crazy, prejudiced bastard deserved what the demon had done to him.

Still, the memory didn't mean any more than it had six years ago. It was just a moment of weakness, a moment of uncertainty, that no one needed to know about. I hadn't tried to kill myself since, so it wasn't important.

The only reason I even needed to bring it up was to ask the details of what had happened after Mizuki dispersed my clones. And to make sure Iruka was okay.

Iruka. I remembered the good parts of that night, and amazing warmth filled me, warmth that I never thought I'd feel again. Iruka had given me hope. He'd given me hope for my future, he'd given me compassion and care that I hadn't felt in so long, and he'd given me the ability to trust again.

I decided right then that Iruka was my very favorite person in the whole entire world, and my new big brother. It didn't hurt that he was also a good person. He was worth becoming a strong shinobi to protect… and so were the Ichirakus. And so was Sakura, even if she still didn't like me.

And maybe if I could find people worth protecting after all of this, I could find more people worth protecting too. Maybe one day I'd get to the point where my whole village was worth protecting with everything I had, and then I'd be a true Hokage.

But first I had to find out what happened. Then I had to get out of that hospital room and back to the Academy, where I'd definitely pass that time because I now knew a Bunshin technique that was actually higher-level than the one the Academy taught! I would graduate to become a shinobi, and I'd work hard and prove myself to all of Konoha, and one day I'd be Hokage.

One day, maybe I'd even be strong enough to show Sakura my true self, and show her that I wasn't just an annoying ass and that I really was in love with her.

And I could do all of this, because I now had someone on my side, in my corner. I had Iruka. It was amazing how much difference that made.

Despite everything that had happened recently, I was practically walking on air.

The only worry I had was how the battle had ended.

I felt a lot better after reconfirming my beliefs to myself. More stable, somehow. So I was a lot calmer as I sat and I waited for someone to come in to my hospital room.

But I wasn't exactly the most patient person in the world, and in about ten minutes, I started getting antsy again. Finally, in fifteen minutes, a nurse walked into the room. She saw me and looked so shocked, I had to wonder how long I'd been out of it.

"Oh! Uzumaki-san!" she said breathlessly. "Excuse me!" And she ran back out of the room before I could say anything. I sighed and slumped back into the pillows, hoping she'd gone to get someone who could explain what the hell was going on.

She had. It was the Hokage himself who walked into the room next, wearing his usual official red and white robes.

A nervous feeling crept into the pit of my stomach at how solemn he looked. Old Man Hokage usually resembled a kindly grandfather. Now he looked like the war-hardened old soldier he was.

But, first things first. "Iruka's okay, right?" was the first thing out of my mouth.

He looked up, seeming genuinely startled. Then he smiled and seemed to relax slightly. "He's just fine. In fact, he's more worried about you."

I was confused. "Me? Why? I'm okay."

The Hokage's expression turned solemn again. My stomach dropped.

"… Aren't I?" I added, unusually hesitant.

The Hokage stared at me for a long moment. I fidgeted just a little, not quite able to help myself. With anyone else and at any other time, I would never have shown such hesitance, but something about being alone with the Hokage had always seemed to put me off my act. His gaze was always so… piercing, especially now. Like he already knew everything and was waiting for me to figure that out myself.

Finally, he said, "Naruto, how much do you remember of last night?"

My brow furrowed. "I remember Mizuki dispersing my clones with something, and then I blacked out." I paused, considering whether or not to tell him. In the end, I decided he didn't need to know. "The next thing I remember, I have these vague images of tearing at him, and… and everything's red." I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the answer. "It was the demon Mizuki told me was inside me, wasn't it?"

The wrinkles in the Hokage's face deepened. "Yes… he is being suitably punished for that."

"He's still alive?" I blurted out in honest surprise.

"He barely was when we brought him in. He won't be soon enough." I nodded, privately wondering at the darkness in Old Man Hokage's voice. I'd never heard anything like it before.

"The seal that holds the Kyuubi no Kitsune, the Nine-Tailed Fox, has been checked. It is still intact. We believe you may have been trying to subconsciously call on the demon's power in the great stress Mizuki's genjutsu put you under."

My ears perked up at this. Mizuki used an illusionary technique on me? That was what that was?

"The genjutsu he used calls on your own worst memory, your lowest point, and uses it against you." He gave me a shrewd look. "And Naruto, it broadcasts the memory to the people around you, to add humiliation to pain. It's no good for multiple or direct combat, but it does have its uses." I froze, totally and completely. "Naruto," the Hokage continued in a lower tone, "Iruka told me what he saw. He is very worried about your mental health. And, because I know how much you appreciate frank honesty, so am I."

No. No, that couldn't be. No one was ever supposed to see. No one was ever supposed to know. It just wasn't possible.

No one could know how weak I was.

"Naruto, why didn't you try to go to someone for help?" the Hokage asked softly, pleadingly. "Why didn't you go to the Tower, or to me?"

Suddenly, I was irrationally angry. Almost as angry as I had been at Mizuki. How dare these people try to play the high horse?

"Because until a few hours ago, I was just another person!" I shouted, forgetting for a moment who I was talking to. "Until a few hours ago, I was just some kid with a dream! My entire life wasn't a conspiracy! I wasn't some sort of feared village weapon! No one would have helped me just because I needed help! As far as I knew, I WAS JUST SOME GUY!" I sat there panting after my rant, the anger and fear roiling under my skin.

I felt like I was backed into a corner, with four guys much bigger than me surrounding me, about to take my hard-earned food for the day right out of my hands. I felt betrayed. And I felt stupid.

I hated feeling stupid almost as much as I hated feeling helpless.

The Hokage was looking at me long and hard. Suddenly, I hated his scrutiny. I turned my head away to stare at the opposite wall.

There was a heavy silence.

"You were not created as a weapon," the Hokage said finally. "You were created out of necessity. The Fourth only chose you because you were alone in the world, and he only chose a newborn human vessel as a last resort."

I hoped he didn't think that made me feel better.

"… But I got the feared part right," I finally muttered.

The Hokage sighed, sounding tired. "For the most part, yes. The adults around you fear what you could become." He paused. "I'm sorry." I didn't turn back to let him see, but my face was stunned. I didn't think I'd ever heard the Hokage apologize to anyone.

"I tried, but you can only lead the horse to water. You can't make it drink. Konoha is more liberal than most Hidden Villages, but that isn't always a good thing. It means that even I can't force them to listen to my viewpoint and treat you well. No matter what I tell them about you, you will be a symbol of fear and loss until you prove you are something more." He sounded… old.

I reminded myself that the only reason I wasn't dead and my own peers didn't completely despise me too was because of this man. "… Sorry," I finally muttered.

"It's… alright." He sounded surprised.

"… Why?" I finally said. "Why didn't you tell me? Why, if I was so important, would you let me go on believing that I wasn't?"

I heard him sigh again. "Because I thought that you were safe, and if you were safe, there wasn't any reason for you to be disturbed by such knowledge… Stupid of me, I suppose. I should have checked up on you more often. I should have checked on you at the orphanage. I shouldn't have relied on the matron so heavily to inform me if you went missing, not when I knew she disliked you. That is my fault. But I didn't want to be in your life too heavily. I wanted you to grow up as normally as possible."

I said nothing to this. I didn't know what there was to say. He had been trying to do what was best; I knew that. That meant I would forgive him, because so many people had never cared about that. He might even be on my list of people I trusted, at least in part. There were multiple people like that now. It actually qualified as a list.

The silent tension that overtook the room was heavy. I cast around for something to break it.

"So," I finally said, turning back around to give him my best prankster grin. "Porn, huh?"

The Hokage's heavy face broke. "You little brat," he growled, looking highly annoyed. "Remember that I can and will do almost anything I want to you as your commander-in-chief if you ever think of telling anyone about that."

I snickered, and then paused as his words hit me. "Commander-in-chief? But I'm not a shinobi…"

The Hokage smiled. "Yes you are. Your final instructor passed you." He reached into an inside pocket of his robes. "He wanted me to give you this."

I was struck speechless for the second time in my life.

It was a hitai-ate.

My hand trembling, I reached out to take it. Finally, after all this time, I reached up and tied it around my forehead. The heavy weight on my head almost brought tears to my eyes. Only my long training in not crying prevented it.

I just sat there for a long time, reveling in the knowledge that I was a shinobi.

I was a shinobi.

The Hokage finally cleared his throat, breaking me out of my reverie. He looked… uncomfortable.

Little warning bells went off in the back of my mind.

"Now," he began, "we have already separated you and all the other graduates into three-man teams. Each team will be headed by an elite jonin-level shinobi, who will be teaching all you new shinobi the ropes." I shrugged. That sounded pretty cool to me, actually.

"You are not going to like your team." The flat declaration surprised me.

"Is that normal?"

"No. But we felt that certain of your abilities would balance each other out." He still looked uncomfortable. "Naruto, one of your teammates is Haruno Sakura."

He paused.

I would have started celebrating, except that couldn't be all there was to it. But who could ruin a placement with Sakura-chan except the one person who could ruin any team placement for me, which was…

Oh no.

I could feel my face changing slowly to horror. "You didn't…" was all I could say.

He actually winced. "Your other teammate is Uchiha Sasuke."

I was struck speechless for the third time in my life. That seemed to be happening a lot lately.

This time, though, it wasn't a good kind of speechless.

He hurriedly plowed on before I could get my voice back. "Now, normally, the three of you would be tested by your jonin head. If he felt you were unready to become a full-fledged shinobi, he either would have you demoted to the rank of 'special genin', which would mean that you would not get to take any missions until you improved your abilties and were promoted to the regular rank of 'genin', or he would have you sent back to the Academy completely."

Now, this was too much. I opened my mouth to protest, but he cut me off. "I said normally. Your team has been given an automatic pass to the rank of 'genin', by order of the Hokage."

I was immediately suspicious. This couldn't be a free pass. "What's the catch?" I asked slowly.

He stared at me for a long moment. His expression was once again unreadable. "That your team does not go active-duty immediately. It will instead be postponed until you heal from the wounds inflicted on you from the attack by the rogue traitor, Takahiro Mizuki."

I opened my mouth to tell him I didn't have any wounds, then caught on and closed it again. "What will I really be doing?"

He took a deep breath. "Going through psychological therapy from Konoha's finest psychological experts right here in this facility."

I was stunned. I shouldn't have been. He'd already told me he was worried for me. But I still managed to feel betrayed.

He thought I was crazy.

… Well, I wasn't!

"I don't need that." I hated how childishly mulish I sounded.

His eyes were almost sad. I hated that, because it meant I couldn't hate them. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I no longer believe that."

I opened my mouth to argue, but then realized I'd never convince them I was okay. The Hokage or Iruka. Because they thought they were doing what was best for me.


So I would go through all this meaningless shit for them. I would pretend to be all okay and fine and then I'd go on to become a shinobi. I could handle this. It was just a little detour, no big deal.

"Who knows what I'll really be doing?" I finally asked. He looked kind of relieved that I wasn't arguing more.

"Me, Iruka, your jonin-sensei, and ANBU's psych department," he answered promptly.

That… wasn't too bad. I could handle that.

He apparently took my silence for assent because he said, "You'll have a regular, daily psychologist, and then another, more experienced one that you'll see once a week. You will stay here in a set of rooms being prepared for you and the only people who will have clearance into it are the people who know what is really going on. This shouldn't last for more than a month."

The more he spoke, the more confident I felt. I could handle this. I could definitely handle this. All I had to do was act.

I'd been doing that most of my life.

[Scene Break]

The rooms were better than any place I had ever lived in before.

There was a separate kitchen, and a separate dining room, and a separate living room, and a separate bedroom, and a separate bathroom. They were all very large and well-furnished. The only things I didn't like were that there weren't any windows, everything was pretty much the same vaguely light color, and it still smelled like a hospital.

I was actually left to my own devices. That surprised me.

The front door was locked from the outside. That didn't.

The people at the hospital had left my clothes and shinobi equipment on me, possibly at Old Man Hokage's orders. Whatever the reason, I was glad they had. It was a comfort to have my jacket and equipment still with me.

The scroll wasn't, obviously. It was probably under a way better security system by now. I wasn't too concerned over the loss.

I set my equipment in one of the little drawers in the bedside table, then put my clothes in the washing machine and went to take a shower. The shower was much nicer than mine, and I reveled in the open space and hot water for a while.

Finally, I got out and toweled myself off. My clothes were still washing and there weren't any others anywhere, so I walked around naked as I sifted through the cupboards for something to eat.

It wasn't like there was anyone there to see me. And if there were cameras hidden somewhere or something… well, that was what they got for trying to spy on me anyway.

There was food, luckily for me. I hadn't eaten much in a few days. There was no ramen, though, not even the instant-made kind. I wondered vaguely if that was purposeful and their way of getting back at me for all the trouble I caused as I sat down to munch on a granola bar.

I considered what I was going to do while dealing with all of this psychology shit. If I was really stuck in here for a month, I would have to find some way to pass my free time.

There was a TV (which looked like it actually worked!) but something about sitting around for an entire month didn't sit well with me. I was a shinobi now; had the hitai-ate sitting in my new room and everything. I was supposed to be training to get stronger!

Maybe I could weasel training out of my supposedly ANBU-level psychologists under the pretense that it would improve my overall state of mental well-being and contentment.

I did actually know big words, contrary to the beliefs of most people. I'd had to teach myself all kinds of words while teaching myself how to read. I could talk psycho-babble if I wanted to.

The thought of training from an ANBU almost made the whole thing worth it.

[Scene Break]

The next morning was my first day with my regular psychologist. I still hated that. "Psychologists" were for screwed-up nutcases…

… Which I wasn't. Of course.

I put on my clothes, now free of Mizuki-teme's blood stains, and ran a brush through my hair. I rarely bothered with this, what with how short and messy my hair usually was. To my surprise, my hair was actually being semi-cooperative today. It straightened out some under the brush, falling messily into my eyes instead of sticking out weirdly like it normally did. The marks on my cheeks made me pause when I caught them in the mirror.

I had to wonder if they weren't birthmarks at all, but marks of the Kyuubi. They did look an awful lot like whiskers… or scars shaped like whiskers.

I would ask my psychologist.

I had breakfast (still no ramen) and sat to wait for whoever it was to show up. Would they even be allowed to tell me their name or show me their face? Most ANBU had masks and code names on duty.

I remembered my plan as I was sitting there, waiting… to make them see everything was okay. I couldn't act like the idiot I usually did. They would probably see through that right away.

I would act strong. I would act like none of it bothered me anymore, like I'd moved on and Mizuki-teme's genjutsu had just screwed with me momentarily. Nothing to be worried about.

That shouldn't be too hard. Forgetting something was almost the same as moving past it, and I'd forgotten a lot of it for the most part. It was in the past.

She had pale, sharp features and dark hair tied back in a clip on the top of her head. Her eyes were almond-shaped and hazel, and she had a Konoha hitai-ate on her forehead and a stick of half-eaten dango in her hand.

These were the most normal things about her.

She wore a khaki, knee-length trench coat, its many pockets bulging with things that could probably kill me before I could blink. Underneath the open coat, she was dressed in a very short, very form-fitting dress that seemed to be made entirely of steel mesh armor. The dress gave off the impression of revealing everything, while at the same time giving away nothing from her neck all the way down to her shapely lower thighs. Strapped to her legs were the usual kunai and shuriken holsters and equipment pouch. On her feet, she actually wore heels.

My incredulous eyes roved back up to her face as she noticed my examination and smirked. "Like what you see, brat?" she asked in a low, slightly mocking tone as she sauntered into the room with cat-like grace and slammed the door behind her.

I voiced my thoughts. "You're my psychologist?"

She smirked wider, plunked herself down in the kitchen chair across from me, and slung her feet up on the table. The small, sharp points of her heels were covered in steel. "Yup. My name's Mitarashi Anko. Nice to meet'cha."

"No way, really?" she said in a highly sarcastic voice. "I'd never have known that if you hadn't graced me with the knowledge. Thanks so much." She ripped off a piece of dango casually with her teeth.

I probably should have been offended at this. Instead, I relaxed and grinned. A psychologist who not only had a sense of humor, but seemed to have my sense of humor, could only be a good thing. Even if the idea was kind of scary. "Sorry," I said sheepishly.

Anko shrugged. "Eh," she said eloquently, and then reached into one of her pockets. I couldn't help but tense slightly, but she pulled out… a camera?

"First things first. We have to get all your Shinobi Archives Registration shit filled out," she said, the coarse word coming out far too normally. "So you've got five minutes to get yourself ready and then stand in front of that blank white wall for your photo ID." She waved the camera in front of my nose.

I blinked, almost annoyed. Couldn't I have gotten a little warning? Still, I didn't think I looked hideously gross or disgusting, so I shrugged. "I'm ready now, I guess," I said.

She stared at me for a long moment. "What?" I finally asked. "It's not like I have any other clothes with me. And my hair always looks like this. I guess I should get my hitai-ate," I added thoughtfully.

"Definitely. And brat?"

"Naruto." I refused to be called "brat" non-stop for the next month.

"Naruto," she repeated. "As your psychologist, the first piece of advice I am going to give you is this: toss the jacket."

I looked down at my neon orange jacket, then glared back up at her. "What's wrong with my jacket?" I asked, a little insulted.

"You really want a list? Well, okay: first, it's so baggy that it makes you look skinny, even though you're probably not skinny. Same goes for the pants. The next thing on the list also goes for the pants: the color is hideous. Burningly hideous. It's also not very appropriate for a ninja. In fact, it's kind of like walking around with a giant target on your back. Fourth, and finally, it detracts from people taking you seriously. Everyone's going to see this picture, br… Naruto."

I opened my mouth to argue… and closed it again.

I liked my clothes. They got me attention. They were eye-catching and drew stares like a house on fire. They also gave off a mocking sort of aura to all those stuffy Academy bastards. The goggles, now slung around my neck, added a quirky touch.

But arguing would either make me seem childish, which would make her suspicious, or it would make it seem like there was something wrong. I definitely didn't want to give out any hint that I might have any issues about anything. I reminded myself that I only had to follow her orders for a month, and then I could wear whatever I wanted to.

Besides, I admitted grudgingly to myself that even though my natural reaction was to stick out and try to attract attention as much as possible, maybe being taken seriously was a good thing in my photo ID.

Without a word, I closed my face up and removed my jacket, setting it on my chair as I stood. "I'm getting my hitai-ate," I told her without preamble, and walked into the bedroom.

I wrapped my hitai-ate around my forehead and walked into the bathroom to admire myself in the mirror for a moment.

She had a point. In just my black T-shirt, I did look less scrawny. The lean muscles in my arms were noticeable and my form was more noticeably lithe. And between that, my golden hair flopping unusually evenly into my wide blue eyes, and my hitai-ate wrapped around my forehead, I actually looked almost… imposing. Serious.

As a final touch, I took off the goggles. Now it looked complete.

Rather pleased with this, I stood in front of the mirror for a moment, practicing my smile for the camera. I couldn't just give my stupid, obnoxious grin… but I realized after a few moments of futilely trying to rearrange my face that I wasn't sure how to smile any other way. They all came out more like pained grimaces.

When was the last time I had just naturally smiled, simply because I was happy or amused? I realized I couldn't remember. Maybe since Grandma had died.

No, it couldn't be that far back! I strained my memory, trying to think of some other time… I'd smiled when I'd been entered into the Academy! The Hokage had told me he could grant me special permission to enter, and I'd beamed. I hadn't been able to help myself.

… Six years ago.

Whoa, this psychology shit wasn't supposed to get me to actually think about stuff like that.

I pushed the disturbing thought to the back of my mind and settled for a steady, determined look instead.

Finally, I walked back out to Anko, who was still sitting in the kitchen and fiddling boredly with the camera. The look in the mirror had reminded me of something. "Hey, Anko?"

She actually started a little before looking up. "Yeah?"

"The marks on my face… are they from the Kyuubi?"

She gave me an odd look. "What else would they be for?"

I shrugged, sheepish again. "I always kind of thought they were birthmarks."

She snorted, but her lips twitched a little as she stood up. "Some birthmarks, brat… Naruto. Damn, that's gonna take some getting used to."

I had to wonder if my supposedly understanding psychologist referred to all children as "brat."

I went over to stand in front of the white wall. She put the camera up to her eye to snap the picture. I thought, Just one month of this... and then I'll be a shinobi. And then I'll become Hokage.

I could feel my face set in determination… just in time for the flash of the camera.

Anko stood there for a moment before lowering the camera. "Not bad," she commented. "You looked almost intimidating there for a second."

"Thanks. I do try," I quipped without missing a beat. So far, this actually wasn't so bad.

Of course, it didn't last.

Anko reached into an inside pocket of her coat and pulled out a sheaf of papers, which she slapped on the table. "I thought we'd start off easy today."

"Magnanimous of you," I commented, surprising myself. I usually wasn't this sarcastic around others. Anko just talked a lot like I thought. Had they picked her because of that? I couldn't imagine her sitting around, helping kids with their problems on a regular basis. She didn't seem the type. Too… abrasive. How had Iruka and Old Man Hokage known I'd feel most comfortable around that?

"Hey," she said, smirking at me, "we could always get to the fun stuff right away." Something in her darkly gleeful tone made me shiver a little.

"No, that's okay," I said quickly. "Unless it's training," I added as an afterthought. "Then I'm all for it."

She laughed, still in that dark tone. "Oh, I highly doubt you'd be all for my kind of training, br… Naruto."

I bristled a little at the insinuation. "Try me," I shot back.

She smirked and looked me in the eye. I knew what she was doing. People did this all the time. She was measuring me. I lifted my chin and gave her the same look I'd given the Hokage six years ago, the one that let me into the Academy two years earlier than I should have been.

"... We'll see," she finally said, and sat down at the table without another word.

Well, it was better than no.

I sat down across from her. "I'm going to ask you some questions about yourself. Nothing very personal or earth-shattering, just some basic questions. Answer honestly, but don't take your sweet time about it. If you think you know the answer, just say it. Pretty simple, right?"

I nodded cautiously. It sounded okay.

"Okay. Got any hobbies?"

There was a rather lengthy pause. Hobbies? Oh right, most people had teachers who didn't hate them, and therefore had time for hobbies. "Training," I finally said.

Anko stared at me.

Inwardly wincing, I realized that didn't sound very good. I strained my mind to think of something else. "I don't know if it counts as a hobby, but… I take care of animals. Like, if I come across some kind of animal or bird or something while training, and it seems hurt, sometimes I'll take care of it in my apartment for a while."

I shrugged uncomfortably, a little embarrassed. No one knew about this. It made me seem kind of… soft.

The Smirk returned. "Aww," Anko replied. "Cute."

"Hey, shut it," I snapped back, my face burning despite myself. "At least it's something."

Anko was still smirking when she scribbled something on the papers. Their backs were to me, so I couldn't read her writing. That was probably very much purposeful.

"How about favorite foods?" she asked eventually.

"Ramen!" was my automatic, enthusiastic answer.

Her lips twitched a little as she raised an eyebrow. "Anything else?"

I thought about it for a moment. "Meat," I finally said. "And Italian food."

"Lots of noodles and dead animal?" she asked as she started writing.

"And pizza," I added. "Can't forget pizza."

"What about stuff that's good for you?"

"I eat cereal… and granola… and milk." She seemed like she was waiting for something more. "Occasionally a piece of fruit?" I added questioningly.

She stared at me for a moment longer… and then sighed. "God, I feel like a mother already." She sounded kind of annoyed about it, too.

"If you don't eat right, it will stunt your growth," she said in a high voice, almost like she was mimicking some finicky old lady.

Well, I knew that, in a vague sort of way, but… I looked down at myself. "I don't like what you're insinuating here," I said in a dangerous voice.

She looked almost pleased. "I've checked the stats, kid," she said airily. "The fact remains that you're one of the smallest boys in your class, no matter what you say."

I'm not sure if she meant the double meaning in her words or not. Not that either of us could know something like that, but…

My eyes narrowed. "Don't you guys control what comes into my kitchen? I've noticed the distinct lack of ramen already."

"Yeah," she said dismissively. "Get used to it."

This was going to be a long month.

"Favorite colors?" she said abruptly. I was so caught off-guard that I didn't answer immediately… and she laid into me at once.

"What? No immediate, resounding answer of 'orange'? So you don't wear it because you like the color?"

I cursed myself for walking into that one.

"Is that part of the questionnaire?" I asked pointedly.

"You seem defensive, brat."



"Not whatever, it's my fucking name!" I snapped the words without thinking.

She looked at me. "People don't call you Naruto much, do they?" It didn't sound sympathetic, merely matter-of-fact. "It's either Uzumaki or a bunch of stuff I don't want to hear because it's that bad."

Iruka called me Naruto. So did the Hokage. So did the Ichirakus. I realized that was it. Frowning to hide the fact that she was right on the money, I said, "Don't assume things."

"I'm going to think I'm right unless you tell me I'm not," she said evenly. Her face was serious now.

There was a moment of silence. I would have been relieved when she dropped it if I hadn't know those questions were probably coming back some time in the following weeks.

After a few minutes of scribbling, she said, "Favorite place to go?"

"Ichiraku's Ramen," was my immediate answer.

"Why?" was her just-as-immediate response.

I figured saying that much couldn't hurt. So I told her. I described Ichiraku's and the people who worked there, the atmosphere and the food, waving my hands to make certain points. It was only when I finally stopped that I realized how long I'd been talking.

Anko was Looking at me again. "Really like that place, don't you?"

I shrugged. "It's a good place."

Her next question was, "Goals?"

"To be Hokage." Another immediate response.

"Why?" Another immediate response.

I was honestly taken aback for a moment. No one had ever asked me that before, like they seriously thought I could do it. I rallied quickly, though.

"To prove to people that I'm more than they think I am. That I could be their greatest protector, if they'd let me. And to best protect the people who already care about me, the people I care about too." The last one was a recent addition. I was kind of proud of it.

She Looked at me again. "If you're so bent on making people think you're something worth respecting, why do you act like a dumb shit?" The question was so blunt, it was like being hit in the face with a dead weight.

I opened my mouth… and closed it again.

She got up and left without another word.

I was left having to seriously consider the idea that this woman might know what she was talking about. Who knew?

[Scene Break]

The next few days were exactly the same. Somehow, our conversations (AKA: arguments and sarcastic quips) always came back to the same point.

Why act like you have when it's so against your goals?

It was because I didn't trust anyone, of course, but I couldn't tell her that. The more she asked me, though... the more I wondered why I'd forced myself to act exactly the way I had.

Why the idiot act? Why that, exactly, out of all the ways to hide your true feeings? It was good to make people underestimate you, but that wasn't the only way to get that affect. Besides, the underestimation point was kind of undermined by all the shit I'd pulled on the people of Konoha over the years, so I couldn't even really use that excuse.

There was the excuse that it got me attention. But being a juvenile delinquent didn't necessitate acting retarded, did it?

So why...? Why retard myself like that, keep myself from learning any other kind of mask or act? It became obvious to me that I didn't know how to hide my emotions when I wasn't in my idiot act. Anko just kept getting rises out of me.

In hindsight, it seemed kind of stupid. For the life of me, I couldn't think of a good, solid reason why acting that way was a good idea. It bugged me to the point where I was just wandering around, distracted, even when Anko wasn't in my rooms. The thought wouldn't stop bothering me.

Out of all the things I could have pretended to be, why had I chosen the one I did?

I wasn't going to ask Anko. She made a fair point, but I doubted even she could tell me what had been going on in my head years before she'd ever met me, especially when I gave out as little personal information as possible.

I couldn't figure out what else to do about the questions bothering me at first. But then I remembered something Iruka had told me the night this whole mess had started. "I used to act out all the time in class... play pranks on everyone... play the part of the fool..."

Maybe Iruka could shed some light on the situation.

"Anko," I said one day, a few days after my start at the clinic, as she was leaving my rooms, "do you think Umino Iruka could come in to visit me?" She turned to look at me flatly. We hadn't had a good session. She'd tried to dig into my past again, and I responded by alternating between sarcasm, arguments, distracting questions, and unresponsive silence. Anko, who I was starting to learn was surprisingly blunt and impatient for a psychologist, hadn't taken this very well, and the session had ended when we were just snapping at each other and not getting anywhere.

She stared at me now as she processed my request, and then her face slowly went blank. I was a bit suspicious at this reaction, but all she said in the end was, "I'll ask." She walked out and closed the door behind her before I could respond.

The next morning, to my surprise, there was a knock on my door. I looked up from where I was waiting for today's session to start, my eyebrows raising. Anko never knocked. After a moment, I realized who it could be, and felt a mixture of hope, excitement, and nervousness settle in the pit of my stomach. "Come in," I called out.

There was a buzz and a click outside, and sure enough, it was Iruka who walked in, looking around him. He was perfectly fine, already recovered from all of his wounds in a way that spoke of supernatural shinobi-medic healing. Before I knew it, a wide, genuine smile had spread across my face and some of the past few days' tension had drained from my shoulders. "Iruka!" It felt odd leaving off the "sensei" at the end. But Iruka was my big brother now, not my teacher.

As such, after just a moment's hesitation, I ran over and hugged him. I felt him stiffen, but before I could pull away, he relaxed and carefully reached down to hug me back. It felt so foreign, hugging again after all this time. But... it was nice, too. Warm and comforting. Iruka's body was small and lean and muscled, kind of like mine, completely different from Grandma's big, cushiony frame. I reveled in the sensation of touching another human like this for a while.

Eventually, I pulled away and looked up to see his face. He was gazing at me with something close to concern, and I realized abruptly that I'd just been standing there holding him for the past couple of minutes. My face burned with embarrassment, and I pulled away completely and turned away. "So," I said in a carefully casual voice, "you want to sit down?"

We sat down on the couch in the living room without a word, both pretending absolutely nothing had happened. There was a moment of silence as I crossed and uncrossed my fingers and Iruka pretended to examine the utterly normal room in fascination. I hadn't expected this to be so... awkward.

Eventually, I cleared my throat. He turned to look at me. "It's kind of boring," came out of my mouth before I could stop it. "And there's no sunlight. I miss going outside."

Well, it was true enough. It sounded kind of like I was whining, though. Not to mention, I had generally tried to avoid telling the truth since I'd been sent here.

Iruka just nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I heard from Anko that you enjoy nature." I should have known he'd be checking up on me. I felt a mixture of exasperation and fondness at the thought. "But... boring?" he added, raising an eyebrow questioningly. "It was built specifically for patient comfort."

"Yeah. It's comfortable and everything, but..." I contemplated the merits of whining. Finally, I decided that he had asked. "There's too much white. Not enough color. And the design and creativity are severely lacking." ... Did I just say 'severely lacking' out loud?

From the way Iruka was staring at me, he was thinking something similar.

I hurried to explain, "I mean: four white walls, plain beige couch, rectangular wooden coffee table in front of it, square black TV in front of that, commercial carpet. That's it. Wow, that's creative. A ten-year-old could have come up with that." Iruka was staring at me again. I realized that I had gotten so used to being around Anko, I had forgotten to vet my words for the sarcasm I only used to think in.

Damn. That woman was screwing me up already.

Giving my attempt to appear my usual self up in annoyance as a lost cause (Besides, did it really matter that much anyway? It was only Iruka, after all), I threw up my hands and said. "There aren't even any pictures on the walls. What are you trying to do, loosen my tongue through insanity-induced boredom?"

He blinked once more, and then a slow, strange smile spread across his face. "Damn," he said, "you caught us."

I stared at him for a moment, and then I couldn't help but laugh. I couldn't remember the last time I'd laughed like that, either. It was... freeing. Iruka's smile widened.

There was another moment of silence, this one more peaceful. Iruka was the one who broke it this time. "I must admit, I was surprised when you asked for me. Pleased, but surprised. Especially after this time gap." He paused. "... Not that I'm not happy to be here, Naruto, but I don't think this is just a social visit. Is there something you want to talk about?"

As shrewd as ever. His perception could sometimes be annoyingly prying, but it was also nice to have in an adult I trusted. I kind of wished he was my jonin-sensei.

I took a deep breath and said, "I was wondering... if we could talk about masks." He raised both eyebrows, looking startled at the topic. "If, off the records, we could talk about... pretending to be something you're not. I'm just... I'm kind of confused right now." The words were painful, mildly pathetic sounding. I struggled to maintain a sober expression.

"Okay," he said softly after a moment's pause. The gentle way he gave his acceptance hit something close to home, something I never would have let it hit with anyone else. Abruptly, there was a lump forming in my throat.

What was happening to me? I was falling apart.

My breath was a little shakier this time, and I damned myself for it. "Why... why would I... if my goal was always to make people see me as something great, why would I act like I'm... not smart?" There was a longer pause, in which I realized two things:

A) I'd just admitted out loud for the first time that a lot of my face around other people for the past six years had been an act.

B) I'd just asked someone else what was going through my head when I couldn't even figure out what was going on in there myself.

Damn, I hate feeling stupid. "Look, I'm sorry," I continued hurriedly, "I just thought that since you said you'd dealt with this... I'm sorry, I shouldn't have..."

"No, no, it's alright, it's just..." Iruka trailed off. "I'm trying to figure out exactly what you're asking me."

I explained to him all the reasons I'd come up with why acting like an idiot went against everything I was working toward. His brow puckered in thought as I finished, his brown eyes intense as they stared at a far wall.

"Well..." he finally replied slowly, "I don't know if you're necessarily giving yourself enough credit." At my confused look, he elaborated, "For one thing, there are many ways to get people to underestimate you and there are many ways to gain attention. There are also many ways to anger people you don't like. But your way got you all three at the same time, a goal which could have been entirely subconscious. You with me so far?"

I nodded quickly. I... honestly hadn't thought of that, actually.

"Also, the underestimation point did work, in a way. Think about it. The pranks didn't really detract from that. In a way, they just added to the way people saw you as very immature. And pranks are hardly dangerous... physically, I mean," he added sternly at my mischievous look. "They made people see you as more of a delinquent and less of a demon. You sort of removed a lot of the threat you presented in our eyes. Do you think you could have tried to make yourself appear less dangerous, therefore theoretically making people like you more, out of instinct? Without even realizing it?" He sounded almost burningly curious as he looked over at me. It was an honest question.

I was stuck between two feelings. I was stunned at the amount of insight he could put into that on the spot, and I was also thoughtful. He made some good points.

I looked back over my previous experience with prejudiced demon haters. I didn't know if Iruka had it exactly right... it was more like I was trying to make myself seem more harmless... as less of a target, and more of an annoyance. I'd just wanted to stop being a target for demon attacks, I guessed, physical or not. Like a porcupine trying to make itself look like a pincushion, I'd been hiding. Cowering, in a sense.

Ugh. I hated that thought. Was that really what it came down to all along? Fear?

I didn't want to hide, I realized. I didn't want to act. I wanted people to like me on my own merits.

This meant I'd have to let go of my act for good. The thought was so stunning, it almost bowled me over. Just like that, I could simply be myself again. Just like that. It was surprisingly exhilerating. Dangerously, wonderfully reckless. Frightening. New. Just be myself.

"But," I said desperately aloud, grasping at straws, "but I don't want to hide myself like that... But then again, I can't just trust everyone. I'll need to be able to act for some things. Wh-what about infiltration missions, what about -" My voice was slowly rising.

"Naruto, calm down." Despite his firm tone, Iruka looked almost amused. "It's not like you'll be walking around naked. Just don't give away too much information about yourself, that's all. You don't have to tell everyone you meet you whole life story... It's not that hard." He paused. "I know it seems hard. Trust me; I've been there. I know it seems impossible. But it's as natural as breathing once you get used to it... Being yourself. As for infiltration missions, assuming you get any anytime soon..." I couldn't help but glare at him balefully at this reminder that I was a rookie. He chuckled. "I'd fix yourself, then worry about your acting skills. How does that sound?"

Weird. Terrifying. Stop being a baby. I swallowed. "That sounds okay," I said cautiously, nodding.

I still couldn't believe I was considering this.

And I still couldn't help but see the irony of ninjas encouraging a rookie not to hide his true feelings.

I mentioned this to Iruka. "Yes," he replied, nodding, "a lot of things in the shinobi world aren't going to be anything like they appear to be, Naruto. I'd get used to it. Expect the unexpected. You're a bit of a living example of that."

I felt a swell of pride despite myself.

"Speaking of which, I'd like to talk to you about your final Exam grades."

And just like that, all my emotions went plunging down again. "It's not bad, is it?" were the first words out of my mouth. There was a foreboding feeling in my stomach.

He chuckled again. "No, on the contrary, they were very good. That's what I wanted to ask you about. Naruto, you got failing grades in all of your actual written classes, and yet you tested in the top third of your class on the written test. The proctor of the exam said she was watching you very carefully, and she could not detect you cheating. None of us at the Academy can figure it out."

I wasn't surprised. I'd already guessed that I'd been the subject of many a teachers' lounge conversation ages before this. By this point, even the walls of the Academy's teachers' lounge probably knew my name. And I was pretty damn proud of it, too.

"And," Iruka continued, the curiosity in his voice unmistakable, "if you are so intelligent, why have you always done so poorly in certain physical subjects across the board?"

Oh, I got it. He was finally making the connection that I wasn't just another immature wannabe. Despite my recent connection to him, I still couldn't help but think privately, Took you long enough.

Seriously, chuunin-level ninja teachers couldn't figure out when one of their students-in-training was trying to pull one over on them? Then again, they had always completely ignored me. Even Iruka had admitted to doing so at first.

"Well, first," I said, keeping (most of) the irritation out of my voice, "I don't think intelligence directly equates to skill level in the first place. In a lot of cases it does," I felt a surge of warmth when I thought of Sakura, and a surge of 'I-want-to-forcibly-stick-your-head-up-your-ass' when I thought of Sasuke, "but not in all. I don't think skilled ninja should be called geniuses, or vice versa. The question, 'if you're so intelligent, why have you done so crappy in physical subjects?' doesn't even make sense. Intelligence and physical skill have little to do with each other in most cases."

That automatic labeling had always bugged me.

"Second, all my teachers besides you hated me. That is the answer to every single question you just asked me. Period."

I sat back, letting out a deep breath. I had put as much frustration as I'd wanted to in the words, and it had felt good.

Iruka was sitting there, gaping at me. For a moment, I was frantic, wondering if I had offended him and he was going to leave. But then he recovered and said, "Wait, what?"

... I decided to rephrase that. In more detail this time. "Look Iruka, I respect your skills as a shinobi, but... you're being kind of naive when it comes to your colleagues. They hate me. They've never answered my questions, they've never wanted me to pass, and they've done everything they could do to avoid helping me with absolutely anything. They didn't want me to be a shinobi. They pitted themselves against me. A lot of them actually tried to fail me, okay? I could tell. So I just scraped through all my classes to piss them off. I could have done better, but I didn't think they deserved it."

Iruka just kept gaping at me for a long while. Finally, he said, "... I can't believe I never noticed."

"I can't believe no one ever noticed," I pointed out.

"Alright then," Iruka sighed, sitting back and running his fingers distractedly through his hair. He seemed like he was thinking very hard about something. "What about my class?"

"I always got pretty good grades in your class," I reminded him. "I would have gotten really good grades if it weren't for the damn Bunshin jutsu." I muttered the last part irritably to myself. At least I had a better version now.

"I have a theory about that," Iruka announced, and I looked over at him in surprise.

"Really? What is it?" I asked curiously.

"If you have enough chakra to create hundreds of Kage Bunshins, you have an amount of chakra approaching that of a jonin," he announced. I could feel my eyebrows raising.

"Is it because of Kyuubi?" were the first words out of my mouth.

"It could have something to do with it, yes," Iruka sighed. "My point is that since you have that amount of chakra naturally, you haven't gained the amount of chakra control a jonin has along with it. You have a lot of chakra, but no way to control it.

"For most Academy students, it's the opposite. They have very little chakra, so it's easier for them to control their own chakra and learn the basics of chakra control from the ground up. You don't have that luxury. You'd have to start with the big stuff first and then work your way back down to the little stuff in order to gain finer chakra control. And since the Bunshin technique requires the least chakra and therefore, for you, the most control, it would naturally be infinitely harder for you than it would be for a normal Academy student," he finished succinctly.

I stared at him for a while. "... Damn furry," I finally muttered. He gave me an exasperated smile.

"Naruto, I do feel bad about not noticing any of this earlier," he admitted sheepishly. "Is there anything I can do to help you get back up to par physically?"

I felt a spark of excitement. My first training offer. Gotcha. "Well..." I pretended to think about it for a minute. "My taijutsu needs a lot of work. And you could start me on some of those bigger chakra control exercises you were talking about. And you could bring me some books to help explain all this better." I ended with a hopeful, winning smile.

He looked thoughtful, which I took as a good sign. "Alright," he finally said. "That sounds like a plan. If Hokage-sama gives the okay, I'll start coming in for training three times a week. How does that sound?"

I sighed in relief, feeling happier about my stay here already. "Great," I assured him.

He smiled.

The next morning when Anko came to visit, the first thing she said was, "So, you finally weaseled training out of someone, did you, brat?"

"Yep." I grinned unrepentantly. Then, belatedly, I frowned. "And it's Naruto," I added, although I'd already halfway resigned myself to the fact that she was never going to remember not to call me brat.

She snorted and began our session. She showed that she had, in fact, hit Iruka up for everything he had on me by asking me to talk about my other teachers at the Academy.

I was quite okay with this, and waxed rhapsodic for damn near two hours about how crappy all my other teachers had been. This psychology shit actually wasn't so bad in some cases. I'd never had someone ask if they could sit and hear me rant about all the things that pissed me off before. It was kind of fun.

After I'd finished my "explanation" by reciting to her My List of Reasons Why When I'm In Charge I'm Going to Fire Damn Near Every Teacher At the Academy (yeah, I had a list) I sat back and watched her reaction. She gazed at me for a while, looking mildly impressed. "You done?" she finally asked.

I nodded happily.

She let out a low whistle, smirking. "Damn, kid. If and when you do make it to Hokage, I'd like to see the High Council try to stop you. I'm impressed. Not even I can usually put that much passionate hatred into a dissertation on anyone."

I decided to take it as a compliment.

"Now," she said, "this is the part where I'm supposed to tell you to look at it from their point of view, and prove them wrong instead of punish them for their actions. But personally, I think that's crap. You know their point of view: they lost relatives to the Kyuubi. Boo-hoo, poor them. They still dealt with it in a really bad way and decided to take everything out on a kid. Just don't go overboard on them, okay? Don't make yourself as bad as them, and don't bring yourself down to their level. It's not worth it. Moving on."

I was starting to like my psychologist.

[Scene Break]

True to his word, Iruka came in at the end of the week to talk to me about training. "I have a few books about taijutsu, ninjutsu, and chakra for you to read in your spare time," he announced, slamming the books down on the living room table. "And I also have this."

He held up what looked like an index card, except it was completely blank.

"This is called an affinity card," Iruka told me. "Do you know what a chakra affinity is?"

"It sounds familiar," I replied. "Doesn't it have something to do with jutsus that use one of the five elements to attack?"

"Exactly," he said, nodding, taking on his teacher persona again. "And those jutsus make up the majority of all jutsus, especially the bigger ones. Now, everyone's chakra is different. Everyone's chakra moves and acts in a way unique to them, sort of like a fingerprint. A lot of shinobi with really sensitive chakra can use this to track people down, by using their chakra senses to hone in on a person's specific chakra signature.

"But, unlike ordinary fingerprints, chakra signatures also give hints of what chakra abilities the person is best at. One facet of this is called the person's elemental chakra affinity. All this means is what elements a person's chakra is naturally inclined to form into. Which elemental jutsus would come easiest to them. Which elements they, their personality, and their abilities adhere best to out of all five of the elements."

I had to admit, he had me interested. So I bit. "And what does that card have to do with elemental affinities?"

He smirked, holding up the card. "This card can read how well you are attuned to each of the five main elements. And of course there are other, simpler, cheaper cards that just tell a person's main chakra affinity. But I decided to get you the best."

"I'm flattered," I told him, grinning.

"You should be," he said evenly, and held out the card. "Just channel some of your chakra into this. Little colored bars should appear on the paper when you're done."

Obediently, I threw out some chakra carelessly into the paper. I felt the paper suck it in, almost as if it were a magnet and the chakra was metal, and then sure enough, little colored bars appeared on the paper. I handed it back to Iruka to read.

He took it, and his eyebrows rose. "Your main chakra affinity is wind," he finally said.

"You sound surprised," I noted, trying not to sound accusatory.

"Yes, I am. Wind is the single rarest affinity for any shinobi born in the Fire Country to have. Only one other shinobi in our ranks currently has it, and he's a jonin. The last one to have it was the Yondaime Hokage." I felt something jump in the pit of my stomach. I had the same chakra affinity as the Yondaime (who was still my hero, despite everything).

Iruka smiled. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, though. That's just like you."

"What do you mean?"

"Wind," he said simply. "It's moody, and it can change in a second. It can be your best friend or your worst enemy, depending entirely on what it wants to do. Its power is sometimes hard to see, but can always be felt. People sometimes take it for granted because it's that invisible element, but at the same time, we couldn't live without it. We couldn't live without air. It is the only element that can't be entirely stopped by any physical, man-made barrier, not if it's really determined to ram through it. And it can whip up any of the other elements to cause damage if it feels fierce enough." I stared at him, speechless... and strangely honored. "And it is the pure weapon element. Wind chakra simply cuts through its enemies," he explained.

Before I could get my voice back enough to respond, he moved on to my next element. "The other element you're very much attuned to is water, which has that same tone of moodiness to it. Water is whatever it wants to be and it never stops moving, never stops flowing onward somewhere. It's adaptable and can squeeze through the tiniest of cracks, or at times overpower its barrier with sheer force. Out of all the elements, it's probably the one that can both help the most and hurt the most. For example, when wind cuts hard enough and fast enough, the death is relatively quick. But water drowns... suffocates its enemies. It's meaner, more painful. But at the same time, just as with wind, who could survive without water?"

Iruka paused thoughtfully. "... Together, wind and water make a whirlpool. Uzumaki. What a strangely apt name for you. Do you know where it came from?"

"Umm... no," I finally forced out hoarsely. "I just know it was my parents' surname. I've kind of always had it. I've never really thought about where it came from," I admitted. I had always thought of Grandma as my family, and I didn't prefer to dwell too much on the past in any case.

Iruka hummed thoughtfully. "Anyway," he finally said, "your other three elements are relatively minor. You are fairly good with earth-based jutsus. At the very least, you shouldn't have undue trouble with them. But the last two are a different story." He looked at me squarely over the paper. "You have little to no talent with the elements of fire or lightning."

I was a little disappointed. After all, those were the explosion elements, and explosions were really cool. But after hearing Iruka explain my two main elements, I was too proud of them to be very bothered by the fact that I didn't have others.

"Okay," I said after a moment, as I digested all the information he'd given me. "Does that mean I can't do fire or lightning jutsus?"

"Not at all," Iruka replied, shaking his head. "It just means they'd be harder for you to learn than any other type of jutsu."

Well, what was that but a challenge? I made a mental note to learn at least one fire jutsu and one lightning jutsu at some point.

"So, now what?" I asked after a moment. Then I had a thought and asked eagerly, "Are you teaching me to control my affinities?"

"Oh no," Iruka said, shaking his head. "You need to learn much better chakra control before you get to that level. I just thought it would be good to know, and motivation for learning good chakra control."

"Well then, what are we waiting for?" I said immediately, jumping up. "Let's get started!"

He had motivated me, all right. But he needn't have bothered. Just the thought of finally mastering that fucking Bunshin jutsu would have been enough to make me follow the exercises he showed me to the letter.

Iruka was a very good teacher, something I'd never truly appreciated during my rebellious phase back at the Academy. He showed me a chakra control exercise called the wall-climbing exercise, wherein the user poured chakra into the soles of their feet and then kept it controlled there in that specific area for long enough to be able to stick the soles of their feet to the wall and walk all the way up the wall and back. This was how ninja did many seemingly "supernatural" things, such as walking up walls and ceilings and staying stuck sideways to surfaces for unusual amounts of time. They could even jump amazingly high just by jumping, and pushing a great spurt of chakra into the soles of their feet as they went upward, which propelled them harder, faster, and higher than they could normally go. They weren't actually that strong or fast or supernatural; it was all in the chakra tricks.

I listened carefully as Iruka explained this to me. The idea of being able to do it myself was exciting and intriguing, all chakra control benefits aside. I also couldn't help but think, I should have figured it was all subterfuge. We are ninjas after all.

"How do you do the exercise if you're wearing shoes?" I asked him as I thought about it. "Wouldn't the soles of your feet just stick to the bottoms of your shoes?"

He stared at me. "What?" I asked defensively, self-conscious.

"That's a very good question."

"You sound surprised," I said flatly. I was trying to be accusatory this time.

Iruka blinked, and then realized what that had sounded like and recovered his composure. He gave another of the sheepish, open smiles that were still so new to me. "Sorry. I guess I'm still getting used to this."

"... It's okay. I am too," I finally admitted.

"Anyway, in answer to your question, doing it with shoes is a bit harder in some cases because you have to extend chakra through the soles of your feet and into the bottoms of your shoes as well." He looked me in the eye. "If you can, I'd like for you to try that method right away."

I nodded. "Probably would have even if you hadn't asked," I informed him, rather proudly.

"But I don't want you to do it now. Do it on your own time, and don't expect to get it immediately. I know how impatient you can be," he informed me sternly. I gave him an innocent look.

He sighed. "Now, let's have you run through some taijutsu and I can see where you're going wrong."

I did the moves and katas he told me to reluctantly. I knew I sucked at taijutsu, and I knew I needed to improve. That didn't mean I exactly appreciated having to show it. Iruka was very calm and straight-faced as he examined what I was doing, however. Then he would show me exactly what I was doing wrong and how to do it correctly. He'd walk me through each individual move and kata the right way so I could see how it felt. Finally, we'd move on to the next thing. He only corrected a few different things before he called it a night.

"I want you to get those moves engraved in your memory," he told me. "Make sure you practice them the right way a lot."

I couldn't help but think, Well, duh.

[Scene Break]

When Anko came in the next day, she didn't waste time beating around the bush any more than she usually did. "You've seemed different the last couple of days, brat," she said, in a tone that would have sounded thoughtful, except it was Anko. So it just kind of came out flatly instead.

I gave her a slightly annoyed look. "Naruto," I reminded her.

"Naruto. And, by the way, there was a question implied in the whole 'you've seemed different' statement. You can't exactly claim to be able to miss obvious implications anymore, brat. Us here have got you figured out." She Smirked at me over her papers, in what I'd mentally termed her 'God, I love being evil' expression. She used that expression a lot.

I sighed. "I've decided to stop pretending so damn much," I replied.

"Aww, did I do that?" She gave me a very disturbing look of wide-eyed innocence.

"No. Iruka did most of it," I shot back. Her innocent look dropped off her face like a dead fly.

"I'm crushed," she deadpanned.

"I'm sure you are."

"Really, I don't know how I'll go on."

"My psychologist needs a psychologist? You do realize you just gave me legal grounds for being a screwed-up nutcase, right?"

"Oh, quit threatening me with veiled legal references. Like any court in Konoha would touch me." She gave me that dark, gleeful grin that still made me shudder. "I'm very well-known."

"I can imagine," I told her honestly.

She regular-smirked. "Damn right." There was a long pause. "So what did change your mind?" she finally asked, in a (rare) serious voice.

I thought about what to tell her... finally, I decided on the truth.

Which was still a weird thing to decide to tell someone, so I tried not to think about it too much.

"... The realization that I was wearing the mask to hide. Because I was frightened," I admitted, gazing carefully down at the even grains of the cherry oak table. "I don't want to be frightened of anything."

She was quiet for a long time. When I finally looked up to her, she was staring at me, for once inscrutable. "I don't see why," she said at last. My eyebrows rose in surprise. "Don't get me wrong, I agree with your decision. I just don't see why you'd never want to be scared of anything."

"... Why not?" I asked, confused and suddenly almost angry. "Fear is weakness..."

"Therefore the lack of it is strength?" she finished, her almond-shaped eyes staring at me intensely. "You're wrong." Her voice was hard, almost bitter. "Hundreds of shinobi believe that, and they're all wrong. Courage isn't the absence of fear. It's the decision that something else is more important than fear. Without fear, there would be no courage. To erase fear from yourself wouldn't make you strong or brave. It would make you insane and heartless."

For once, it was she who looked down. "It has made many insane and heartless," she said, in a quieter voice.

I stared at her. She seemed to feel my inquisitive gaze, because she she looked back up to me. "Sometimes," she said, her eyes filled with that strange intensity, "fear is necessary. Fear of repercussions. Fear of loss of morality. Fear of self. Fear of your own hatred. Fear of your own anger. Fear of fear itself. All necessary.

"... Not all fear is necessary. But to completely take fear away from yourself would only create more problems."

I just continued staring at her, unsure where this had come from all of a sudden. I'd never seen Anko so serious before. And I'd never heard of a lack of fear described as a bad thing before.

"... Life is impossible, kid," she told me after a moment, her smile bitter... and for the first time, I realized, it seemed very genuine. It made her look like a woman instead of a sadist. "You're supposed to live with recklessness and caution at the same time. If you ever figure out how to do that, you'll be the one teaching me. Not the other way around."

She seemed so sad. For the first time, I felt a connection to Anko. I got the sudden impression of a woman who life hadn't been a lot kinder to than it had been to me. I cast around for something to say to break the tension that had taken hold of the room.

"... Well, if I ever figure out the secret to life," I said in a cheeky voice, "after I patent it, you'll be the first to know. I might even give you a discount as my very first customer." She stared up at me, startled. I grinned.

She finally snorted, smiling reluctantly. "Deal."

That was probably the most important thing Anko made me consider in my month with her. The idea that weaker emotions weren't always a bad thing.

The fact that the idea first came to me from her has always filled me with a sense of irony.

[Scene Break]

The first time I ever went to see my weekly psychologist, I knew immediately that I was dealing with someone who paid attention to every last insignificant detail.

Instead of the person coming to me, instead I was led to a room where the person was waiting for me. Anko took me out of my room one morning and kept her hand in an iron grip around my shoulder as she led me down a completely uninteresting white corridor. At the end of the corridor was a door. She turned me away so I couldn't see what she was doing, but I heard her pushing a code into the key pad beside all the doors in this place. The door whooshed open, and I heard her stick her head inside and say, "He's here," in a low voice. Then she turned me back around by the shoulder and shoved me inside the room. The door whooshed shut again behind me.

This man had been following my comments and movements all week. The thought was automatic, and kind of eerie to consider. But I couldn't deny it. The room had been tailor-made to make me feel comfortable.

Greenery and plant-life covered every wall. The place smelled bright and fresh, like soil and herbs, like the forest. It was very bright, with bright lighting all over the place, not just on the ceiling. There was a little fountain of water tinkling somewhere quietly in the background, adding to the peaceful atmosphere. Paintings and colorful furniture were everywhere, adding splashes of color to finish off the whole thing.

Sitting in a chair in the middle of the room, watching me examine the decorations, was a middle-aged man. He was obviously a shinobi, thick and broad-shouldered and muscular, with scars slashed across a rugged face. His long blond hair was held up in a high ponytail and his blue eyes were intense. He was different, I could see immediately, but not in the same way that Anko was.

I tilted my chin up reflexively. "You listen well." The arrogance was more defensive than anything, and I fought back the inclination to retreat into a shell.

His calm expression never wavered. "I had a lot to work with," he replied.

My lips twitched. "You mean I talk a lot?"

He shook his head. "Nah. Stuff like that's the only thing you talk about."

So he'd noticed. In a rare moment of uncertainty, I didn't know how to respond. There was a nervous silence. "Sit down," he finally said, still gazing at me consideringly. He gestured to the comfy chair in front of him. I sank down into the seat, gratefully stretching my sore leg muscles. I'd spent a lot of time practicing taijutsu last night. Even more than usual.

"My name is Yamanaka Inoichi," he informed me, and the name caught my attention.

"Like Yamanaka Ino?" I asked immediately, remembering the bossy blonde girl always fighting with Sakura-chan over Sasuke.

Inoichi nodded. "She's my daughter," he said, to my surprise. "You know her?"

I shrugged. "Not very well."

"I expected as much," Inoichi replied matter-of-factly. "She spends much of her time around the Uchiha boy you don't seem to like."

I snorted. "You could say that," I said, trying to keep the dry irony out of my voice.

"You sound contemptuous." Apparently, it didn't work.

"Look," I sighed, not wanting to piss this guy off over his daughter, "it's nothing personal, it's just... Sasuke is... I don't get it."

"Girls find him attractive," Inoichi pointed out.

"Yeah," I said slowly, wondering why we were even talking about this, "but... He's also an asshole." I needed to work on that whole 'tact' thing.

"In what ways?" Inoichi sounded vaguely curious.

So I talked to him about Sasuke. Sasuke and his arrogance and the way everyone seemed to feed it. Sasuke and the way he dwelled in the past. Sasuke and the way he took for granted everything he had in the present.

"You are jealous of him," Inoichi noted simply.

"Yeah, but I think I'm allowed to be a little jealous," I noted defensively. "And that's not the only reason I dislike him."

"I never said it was." He seemed sincere. I considered him for a moment before relaxing. "And," Inoichi continued, "although your jealousy is allowed, I do not believe it is warranted. I would not want to be Uchiha Sasuke for the world."

"Because of his past," I noted flatly. "I hardly think that's worse than mine..."

"I am aware of your past," Inoichi said, giving me a level stare that quieted me. "But Uchiha Sasuke's is not better or worse. Simply different. He came home from the Academy one afternoon and found his revered older brother, dripping with blood, standing over the mutilated remains of their parents, the rest of the clan already dead and blood running through the clan compound's streets."

The cold, clinical way he said this gave me a chill. I never knew it was Sasuke's brother who killed everyone.

"His brother then used their clan's doujutsu, the Sharingan, to put Sasuke's mind through a torture of the virtual version of three straight days of watching his relatives' murders over and over again. It has left him mentally scarred and more than slightly disturbed."

I stared at Inoichi's serious face, feeling slightly nauseated. That was... No wonder he was trying to kill himself. I thought back to what I'd done by the lake to snap him out of it. I gave his anger toward what had happened to him an outlet, I realized. No wonder he lashes out at me. It was odd. It was a long time since I'd seen Sasuke in such a sympathetic, human light.

Then I was reminded of how he treated everyone else, and it was over. "That's still selfish of him," I said, looking back to Inoichi.

He raised an eyebrow. "What is?"

I backtracked quickly and realized he had no idea what I was talking about. I'd just been sitting there, thinking for the past couple of minutes. "The way he lashes out at me... and a lot of other people... just because of what happened to him."

"Is what you do so different?" he asked pointedly. The question annoyed me.

"Yes," I answered honestly. "I don't do my pranks because of what happened to me in the past. I do them because of how people treat me in the present."

There was a moment of silence. His considering stare was starting to frustrate me.

"It also doesn't change how arrogant he is for taking advantage of all that's been given to him after the fact," I continued, leaning forward to stare at Inoichi defiantly. "I wish I was given half of what he is." I didn't mean for my voice to sound so... bitter. "In that matter, he's just another rich, spoiled brat."

"... So your main quarrel with him is that he throws away things you would give anything to have given to you? That he has things you would give anything to have?" Inoichi finally clarified.

There was nothing judging in his tone, which was the only reason I could answer. I stared down at the floor, ignoring the lump in my throat. "Yeah," I said quietly. "Maybe."

"Like Haruno Sakura?"

I jumped and stared up at him again, truly startled. "You've done your homework."

He shrugged. "My daughter talks," he said simply.

I smirked before I could help myself. That she did. Abruptly, I realized that gave Inoichi an advantage over almost anyone else who could have been assigned this case.

"Yeah," I finally said. "Like Haruno Sakura."

He nodded thoughtfully. "Have you ever considered the idea that Sasuke does not believe himself to be lucky because he thinks the girls chasing after him like him only because of his looks... or his money... or his past?" Inoichi asks. "I take it you haven't," he adds dryly at my expression.

"S-Sakura-chan's not shallow!" I immediately said defensively. Inoichi looked genuinely startled.

"I had not even considered such a thing," he told me. "But apparently, you have."

I opened and closed my mouth silently for a few times. Sakura-chan wasn't shallow! How dare he get me to try to think she was! "She's not!" I finally insisted, knowing that was about the crappiest argument known to mankind.

He nodded. "Alright," he conceded. "You probably know more about her than I do."

"Of course I do!" I shot back, slamming my back into the seat in a fit of temper. I knew that she was just like me. She'd been bullied as a kid, but she'd overcome it to become a confident and smart young kunoichi. I knew that she liked Sasuke. I knew...

I knew...

Inoichi was staring at me almost knowingly. The bastard had done this on purpose. He'd fostered the thought...

What did I really know about Sakura-chan?

Why did Inoichi think it so important to get me to realize what I did?

[Scene Break]

Around the time I started to visit Yamanaka Inoichi, Anko started to step up her efforts to get me to talk to her as well. It didn't take me long to figure out what they were doing. Anko started asking me to talk about my time on the streets and my motivations behind becoming a shinobi. Inoichi started asking me to talk about my relationships with Sasuke and Sakura.

Anko got my past and me individually. Inoichi got my present and my relationships with other people. Had they actually talked this over beforehand?

My newfound resolve to stop pretending made things more complicated.

It meant Anko got the impression that my life had been such a piece of shit that I'd become a child soldier to get away from it. It meant she got the impression that I did the things I did at the Academy out of a mix of anger at the people who treated me badly and fear that horrible things would happen to me again if I let my guard down. It meant that she got the impression that the fear had started with the murder of my grandmother. It meant that she got the impression that I was just realizing all of this and trying to get over my anger and fear, trying to let go of my mask. It meant she knew my life had made me want to change things for the better and desperately made me want to protect the few people who actually did care about me... which was the true reason I wanted to become the Hokage.

I should know. She told me about all of it in our discussions together.

Inoichi was less blunt, and much harder to read. He already knew about my main reasons for my anger and jealousy against Sasuke. I actually thought he'd given me a bit of a better understanding of them too, and an understanding of the fact that Sasuke was, in the end, just one very screwed up and disillusioned human being. So that part, I was alright with.

It was Sakura-chan. The more he spoke of her, the more pointed questions he asked, the more he stared at me in that infuriating way that made me feel like he saw right through me... the more I began to think. What did I know about Sakura-chan, besides the very bare basics I'd already considered?

I had a basic outline of this perfect girl, that I'd created by watching from a distance... but I had nothing to fill in the lines with. I didn't know why Sakura-chan liked Sasuke, or if her reasons were indeed... shallow. I'd thought Sakura-chan always treated me with contempt or annoyance because I got in her way of Sasuke, but did that mean she treated everyone else around her with contempt and annoyance as well? Had Sakura-chan reacted to bullying by becoming one? By becoming one of the popular girls who had bullied her? If she was just as rich and sheltered as Sasuke, did that mean she took her family for granted as much as Sasuke took for granted his special priveleges? I claimed that Sakura-chan was an excellent kunoichi in everything, but did I have any proof that she was good at anything besides natural control over her own chakra, book smarts, and basic aim? How was she at taijutsu, for example? I'd never seen her fight; was she afraid of getting dirty or hurt, like I'd seen in a lot of other popular girls or Sasuke fangirls? Could I respect someone like that in the way that I respected Sakura now?

Inoichi asked me all these questions and more. The more questions he asked me, the more rises he got out of me. The more rises he got out of me, the more I revealed to him. I became aware of this cycle after a certain point, but I couldn't help it. It was like the whole point of my meetings with Inoichi was to piss me off... especially because he was usually right. I didn't really know anything about Sakura-chan.

I had an outlet for my anger, thankfully. I worked on my taijutsu and my chakra control.

The taijutsu went fairly quickly. I already knew most of what it was supposed to look and feel like; I just needed a little push in the right direction. As the days went by, Iruka came in several times to check on my progress and see how I was doing, giving me some new katas to work on. As we got into the more advanced forms, I was starting to notice, the taijutsu started differing more and more from the taijutsu I'd seen civilian kids use at the Academy. It felt good to use, natural, but it was definitely... different. I pointed this out to Iruka once when he came in to check on me, and he said that he was making some modifications to the standard Academy taijutsu for me, to fit my smaller, lither, more agile and speed-based body build. That was about when I realized that Iruka was probably the unrivaled best teacher at the Academy.

Chakra control was a lot slower, and I had reason to curse the damn furry sealed in my stomach several times in the following days. Because while it was really cool to have huge chakra reserves and potent chakra, it was a bitch to have the crappy chakra control that went along with it. The wall climbing exercise became my three-hour nightly ritual. Slowly, surely, I could climb the wall higher and go at the exercise longer, but it was frustrating how long it was taking.

Other than that, the only real training I could do was some basic exercising to keep up my body strength and endurance, and some work with my Kage Bunshins.

It was Iruka (of course) who mentioned to me that I probably wanted to work on synchronizing my Kage Bunshins to use them to their best possible effectiveness. So the other thing I worked on in the privacy of my rooms was Kage Bunshin synchronization. I'd spread a group of them out around a tackle dummy I had Anko bring me, and take turns planning out moves on the dummy. Sometimes, I'd even have my Bunshins fight each other. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it at least got me... us?... thinking and planning and figuring out how we were supposed to work together.

Honestly, the most annoying part about the whole process was that whenever she visited, Anko would give me annoying little Smirking hints and pointed remarks, as if to show off the fact that she was watching me with private cameras. Damn was I going to be glad to get my crappy little apartment back.

"Look," I snapped at the end of the second week, interrupting her the fifth time she mentioned something I had done wrong during training. "If you're that eager to help me, why don't you help me? Why don't you train me like I asked you to?"

Her Smirk faded. She eyed me as a cat would a canary, tilting her head to the side. "You've learned all this about me, and you still want me to train you?" she asked, sounding idly curious.

I nodded resolutely.

She gave a barking laugh. "Damn, kid, you're stupid. But it's okay, I was going to have to anyway. It turns out, I've decided to go the 'tough love' route, and bar you against something like this happening again by putting you through genjutsu sensing and breaking traumatization training." She grinned viciously. "Sounds like fun, huh?"

I gave her a slightly disturbed look. "Wouldn't that just make my problems worse?" I asked.

She shrugged, sitting back in her chair to chew on one of her favorite dango sticks. "Honestly, brat, I don't know what else to tell you. I've told you not to purge yourself of emotion. I've told you not to let your fear or anger control you. And I've told you why. And, amazingly," here, she rolled her eyes, "you seem to have listened. You've realized your own problems and you're trying to let go of them. You're trying to give life another chance. Now it's time to toughen you up against all the psychological challenges you'll face in the big, bad world out there. It's time for some practical application." She sighed blissfully. "My favorite kind."

... Okay, that nervousness I'd felt when I'd first met her?

It was back.

[Scene Break]

My sessions with Inoichi took a turning point around that time, too.

We were in the middle of another Sakura argument. I was in the middle of trying to tell him that my subconscious connection between Sakura and a victim of bullying was not the entire reason I was attracted to her, and he was in the middle of trying to tell me that it was a possibility, when I finally broke off and shoved my face into my hands in frustration.

"Inoichi-san!" I shouted, louder than I meant to, and he fell silent to fucking stare at me again. I could feel it through my hands.

I sighed and said quieter, "I get it. I need to re-evaluate the way I see my future teammates. But I can't actually do that until I leave this," damn prison, "place. So can we just leave it at that? I don't know how much more you're supposed to be able to convince me of." I tried to make it sound like he'd just gotten an unreasonable assignment. I couldn't tell if it worked, but then, I never could.

I finally looked up to see him... smiling slightly, his scars lifting. I was surprised despite myself, and I lowered my hands.

"You're right," he said abruptly. "Let's talk about something else."

And just like that, it was like he'd done a complete one-eighty. That was it?

"... Okay," I said cautiously. "Let's talk about something else."

"Yes," he agreed, nodding cheefully. "Let's talk about bright colors instead."

I blinked. "... What?"

[Scene Break]

I'd honestly expected Anko to start out with showing me a genjutsu of my memory of my dying grandmother, the very first session. Which was why I was infinitely surprised when she didn't even show me any genjutsu during our first training session. Instead, Anko devoted almost the entire two-hour session to helping me sense genjutsu themselves.

"Sadism is useless if there's no point to it, gaki -"


She continued on like she hadn't even heard me. "If I'm going to show you genjutsu, you need to have a fighting chance against them first."

So instead, our first few nightly training sessions were spent on observational details of the world around me, and chakra sensing. The first was fairly simple. She spent the first session explaining what we'd do to me, and then the following sessions, I'd walk out of the room the minute she came in, standing right outside my door. She'd change one thing about the room, and when she called me back in, I'd have to pick out what it was. That was fairly easy, once I got into the habit of scanning carefully every time I entered a room. I even practiced by doing it with the clinic hallways and Inoichi's room as well. But after a while, she started timing me, with a shorter time limit during every session. I had to pick it out in 30 seconds tops, she said, or it didn't count. "That's the maximum amount of time you'll ever have in the shinobi world, gaki," she said grimly, when she ordered this to be done.

The second phase - chakra sensing - was a bit more difficult. Anko started helping me with my chakra control exercise, making it go faster, as well, because she said that the better chakra control I had, the easier chakra sensing was going to be... and genjutsu breaking as well, when we got to that portion.

Chakra sensing was used for all kinds of purposes, not just genjutsu breaking. I'd already known that before I'd even come into the clinic. It was basically nothing more than sensing the chakra in the air and people around you, and sensing enough to be able to differentiate between certain types and styles of chakra. Anko wanted me to reach out my chakra senses, flex them, and learn to sense the chakra in the world around me. But before I could do that, I'd have to master the wall-walking exercise... and the Bunshin no Jutsu.

[Scene Break]

This... was officially the best therapy session ever.

I took another brush full of paint, raised it up over my head, and whipped it at the canvas eagerly. Red paint splattered all over the mess of rainbow colors I already had there, and I grinned at the utter chaos of the "painting" I was creating. Inoichi claimed this qualified as 'fine art.' I wasn't sure if I believed him, but I wasn't about to refuse such a fun assignment. Throwing different colors of paint at a piece of paper was not only therapeutic, but beneficial, because I got to take the canvas back to my (previously boring) rooms with me afterward to hang up. I had not only been doing this, but I'd also been experimenting with other kinds of art over the past week with Inoichi: charcoal, ink, sketching, and watercolors were all on our usual curriculum by now, too. It had taken me a while to dare ask Inoichi why he was qualifying this as a 'therapy session.' What if, in examining his own scruples on the subject, he should change his mind? But finally my curiosity got the better of me, and for once, Inoichi was surprisingly willing to satisfy it. He said he wanted me to find fulfilling hobbies that I could continue on after I was let out of the clinic.

"This is an important skill for a shinobi, just as important as any of the physical skills or the mental acuity," he explained to me. I opened my mouth to argue, but he raised a hand and cut me off. "No, it's true. Finding interests outside of this violent lifestyle is vital to any well-rounded, mentally healthy shinobi." At his emphasis on the last words, I winced and fell silent. If there was one thing I'd learned over my time here, it was that I still had a few things to learn about being happy. "So," Inoichi continued, smiling pleasantly, "I decided your interest in bright color and design was a good place to start looking for things you might like to do. I've decided to try you out in art."

Moreover, to my surprise, he turned out to be quite right. Our time, and our sessions, flew by as I grew immersed in the different forms of art he gave me beginning tutorials for. I even started making time for it in between my informational reading and training in my set of rooms. It was relaxing... calming. Drawing visions of my emotions, or of the way I viewed the world around me, helped me get the feelings out there in an easier form, a more natural form, one that didn't involve direct contact with any people I might be admitting the feelings to. The practice became a nightly ritual for me, to help me wind down.

Not quite as unexpected was my interest in the other hobby Inoichi introduced to me: gardening. I'd always liked nature, and I'd always liked taking care of things. Inoichi just combined the two. I'd kneel down among the plants Inoichi kept in his counseling office, feeling them, seeing what they still needed, what I could give them to help then thrive. And I watched them grow under my care, and knew that they couldn't survive without me. That was... a very emotional realization for me. Much more than I had expected it to be. I spent time learning about each individual small tree or potted plant or group of flowers I cared for. Inoichi was great help with these in particular because, as he told me, to my mild surprise, his wife ran a flower shop.

While I was working on my plants or on my art, Inoichi and I rarely talked. There was no particular reason why; that was just... how we interacted. There was nothing uncomfortable about it, certainly nothing close to what I had expected there to be. It was funny. I usually hated silence when I knew I wasn't... alone. But I felt perfectly fine working for hours in silence, knowing he was doing the exact same thing at his desk just across the room.

One day, though, Inoichi turned on a radio sitting behind his desk to fill the room with music. I perked up where I was sitting in a comfy orange chair, interested almost despite myself. The only time I'd ever really heard music before was at Ichiraku's, whose atmosphere was usually too loud for me to actually hear much at all.

The music that filled the room was low and thrilling, but with deep bass and drums pounding through it, which made the whole thing seem loud enough that I could appreciate its anarchy. The singer's voice cut stridently through the music, flowing up and down independent of the instruments' rhythms. "What is this?" I asked Inoichi out of the blue.

He looked up from a form he'd been filling out, for his work, I presumed. "Some rock station," he said vaguely, sounding distracted. "Are you okay with it being on?"

"Yeah," I said quickly, nodding. "Yeah, I actually really like it."

"Well, I'll start putting it on more often," he said, shrugging and returning to his work.

Cheered at this thought, I turned back to my messy charcoal drawing. But I kept an ear out for the music, which filled the room pleasantly, erasing the silence I had always hated. Before I knew it, I was drawing to the beat.

[Scene Break]

Anko stood in front of me, her arms folded. "Alright, gaki -"


"Are you just going to keep saying that every time I call you gaki?"


We stared at each other for a long moment. Finally, Anko sighed. "Naruto, then. Okay, Naruto, you can now walk up and down the wall using chakra at least ten times."

I grinned triumphantly. I'd just mastered the exercise earlier this afternoon.

"Now let's try you on the Bunshin no Jutsu."

My grin died.

Anko rolled her eyes. "Oh, stop looking at me like that. Look, you should be able to do it fine now. You know the seals, you know what to do, try it."

I nodded and took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and made the seal. I formed all of my chakra up in my body, carefully regulating it. I threw a small amount of chakra into the atmosphere on either side of me, twisting it carefully into the normal Bunshin style. Then I let go.

There was silence in the room for so long that I finally let my eyes peep open.

And there they were. Two perfectly formed normal Bunshins. I'd done it.

"... YATTA!" I screamed at the top of my lungs, jumping up and down in a wild victory dance before I could stop myself. I'd done it. I'd really done it! I laughed freely, in that way that was still so new to me.

I made a mental note to give Iruka a giant hug later.

Anko's lips were twitching despite herself. "Yeah, yeah, that's great. You're finally at the relative level of a genin with some hope of living past twenty. But now the real fun begins."

She grinned viciously. "Now we get to start on genjutsu sensing."

[Scene Break]

Genjutsu sensing started out relatively simply. I would have to leave the room temporarily, just like before. When I came back in, using my observational skills and my newfound controllable questing chakra senses, I would have to find where exactly in the room the subtle genjutsu was. Once I found it, I'd point it out to Anko and she'd let it go if I'd gotten it right. She promised to take me to unfamiliar surroundings to try to sense genjutsu, and even to start using genjutsu on me outside of the prescribed training sessions to see if I could sense it, when I was better at sensing the basics.

"Genjutsu sensing is just like art, gaki," she said. "You have to get good enough to be able to look at your own work, or someone else's, and find the flaws in it automatically."

So we did that same exercise, over and over again, as the days went by. The paint on the walls was the wrong shade; my kitchen wasn't shaped correctly; her shirt wasn't designed the same as it had been when I'd first walked in; my painting on the wall didn't have the grey and black undertones to it. My time limits got shorter and shorter, and the mistakes harder and harder to spot, as I went along. But I loved the unacknowledged tenseness pregnant in the air after the timer started, the feeling of being on edge, of racing the clock. I loved being mentally challenged; I'd never really experienced that feeling before. I worked on it a lot alongside my taijutsu and my informational reading: training my observation and my chakra senses every time I could, every time I entered a new space. My mastery of both kinds of Bunshins, and of the wall climbing exercise, improved as the weeks went by, too.

Anko was very smug about this. "Just you wait, gaki," she said in satisfaction, lounging back in her chair like a sunbathing cat. "Someday you'll be owing it all to me, Yamanaka Inoichi, and that Umino shmuck."

I rolled my eyes, my lips twitching in exasperated amusement. But internally, I believed her.

[Scene Break]

Suddenly everything seemed to be going by very fast. Iruka was coming in and congratulating me proudly on how far I had come in the past week, then giving me the final modifications to my taijutsu and asking me to finish the last chapters of the books on shinobi information that he had given me. My Bunshins and Kage Bunshins were impossible to tell from one another, and they flowed together in fighting smoothly. I tried out my Kawarimi and Henge just to keep myself up to par; they were good. My aim was as great as it had always been. My speed, my strength, my reflexes were at their peak from all the individual training I had done in the past few weeks. I could now add observation, chakra sensing, and minor genjutsu sensing to my list of skills. Anko wasn't telling me I was an idiot, which most likely meant she was also pleased with how I was coming along. Furthermore, I was happier; I was more optimistic about life in general and my ability to move through it than I had been when I'd first entered the clinic. Which, I supposed, had been the point - how did Grandpa Hokage always just know everything? I was more willing to re-evaluate my future teammates, and my chances of getting to know people better in general. I was dedicated to proving myself to the people of Konoha without my mask - dedicated to becoming their Hokage and gaining a better life as myself, not as a bitter, whacked-out crazy with a grudge hiding behind a creepy mask of happy-go-lucky smiles and a stupid manner.

The only major hurdle left, typically, was Inoichi.

I was grateful to Inoichi, despite everything, for some of the things he had pointed out to me. They were useful, I could admit to myself. I had needed to hear them, even if I didn't particularly appreciate them. I also loved art and gardening, and I wanted to learn more about music. He was right; those probably were things that I would continue doing and being interested in outside of shinobi life after I left the clinic. But... he kept looking at me like that. With that reserved, blank stare, made even eerier by his heavy, scarred, calm face. That was his thinking face, and it was far too close to prejudiced Kyuubi-haters' cold stares for my comfort. He wasn't done, I could tell. He had something else he wanted to address with me.

It took a while for him to come out and say what it was.

We were sitting in our chairs near my art desk, and I was raving to him about a new piece I was working on while he listened in bemusement. "And the brightness in the foreground really emphasizes the darkness in the background -"

"Yeah," he said. "Kind of like your jumpsuit."

I stopped and blinked at him. He gazed calmly back at me.

"You do realize that with your personality, wearing an outfit like that just screams 'psychopathy', don't you?"

I frowned down at my clothes. "Why does everyone hate on my jumpsuit?" I complained.

"Because it's ridiculous, it doesn't suit you, and the main reason you wear it is to piss people off. We generally frown on behavior like that in a psychological treatment clinic," Inoichi explained.

I rolled my eyes. "Well, since you all just know everything, what do you recommend I wear?" I asked pointedly. "Some boring old standard uniform?" I wrinkled my nose. "No thanks."

In response, he reached into a folder lying next to him and silently handed a magazine to me. Taking it, I smirked and sat back as I began to page through it flippantly. "Boring... and, boring... and, boring..."

"You're supposed to mix and match," Inoichi sighed, adding in a muttered undertone, "I don't know anything about any of this... I swear, they had to bring in the only picky boy..." I magnanimously chose to ignore this.

Reluctantly, I flipped back to the beginning of the magazine and began taking a closer look. The colors weren't all black and brown, but they were all rich or muted colors, and easy to move around in, made of tough fabrics. "There's shinobi fashion?" I asked with perplexed skepticism, raising an eyebrow questioningly as I stared down at the page.

"Yes. That's my wife's magazine. The clinic will fund you if you decide to buy anything," he added quickly.

I stared up at him, raising my eyebrows in disbelief. "Anything?"

"Hokage-sama has allowed it," he confirmed, nodding.

"So all I have to do is order some of this crap and wear it to a few training sessions, and people will stop bothering me about how I look?" I asked, checking to make sure I was right. It couldn't be that easy.

Inoichi's lips twitched. "Yes, that's it."

My eyes widened in excitement. "Gimme that freaking pen, I need to start circling!" I demanded.

[Scene Break]

I was walking back out of that session with Anko the first time it happened.

She was taking me back to my rooms, her hand tight around my shoulder as she led me. I was silent, as usual, still reflecting over all the clothes I had ordered in my mind... so it took me a while to realize that we'd been walking for an awfully long time. My room was just down the hall from Inoichi's.

Narrowing my eyes suspiciously, I looked up and watched, waiting for it. Sure enough, after a moment I could tell that no matter how long we walked, we weren't getting any closer to my room. My senses reached out into the air - it was thick with chakra presence. "Hey!" I said suddenly, stopping where I was. "Get rid of the genjutsu!"

Smirking, Anko let go of me, and reached her hands up in the dispelling hand sign. "Not bad," she said, looking me over appraisingly. Then she turned and began walking down the hall again. "Get faster at it!" she tossed back over her shoulder.

And so it began. Over the following week, Anko tested me with unexpected genjutsu every chance she could. It got to the point where I'd just automatically check for a genjutsu whenever I saw her, which made getting fast at sensing genjutsu a lot easier. When it got to the point where I didn't entirely consciously do it, my senses were simply always questing passively in the air around me for unexpected chakra presence, and my eyes always did a quick sweep over a place I entered for unusual things, I decided by myself that it was time for me to move on to the next exercise.

One day, when she walked into my rooms and I sensed her quickly weaving a genjutsu, I smirked and reached my hands up, putting them into the dispelling seal myself and exploding my chakra throughout the room. The genjutsu unweaved and slipped from her grasp before she even had time to finish it.

She started and stopped for a moment, and I cherished the rare look of shock on her face. Then her eyes narrowed and she glared at me.

I smirked and gave her a cheery little wave in greeting.

But suddenly, before I could even savor my satisfaction, the shock was disappearing from her face again, only to be replaced by The Smirk.

My grin faded.

"Congratulations, gaki," she said gleefully. "Now comes the 'trauma' part."

... Oops.

There were no tricks this time, no surprises. "The unexpected part is over, gaki -"

"If I get out of this without snapping, will you finally call me Naruto?"

She eyed me speculatively for a moment. Then she shrugged. "Deal."

She sounded sincere, but I wasn't entirely sure if I believed her. You never really knew with Anko.

"Anyway, as I was saying, the unexpected part is over. You already know how to sense genjutsu. Now we're just testing to see if you can experience a traumatic genjutsu, and keep your presence of mind enough to dispel it once it has control of you. So you get to stand there in the middle of the room and let me do it to you!" she finished, beaming and spreading her arms grandly. On her, it looked kind of disturbing.

"Great," I said, very enthusiastically.

"Eh, don't be a baby. Now go stand there in the middle of your living room and shut up."

Sighing and grumbling - for show - I went to stand in the middle of the room, by the couch. Inwardly, though, I was nervous. What was she going to make me experience? Surely I could last through it. Right?

I was about to turn and ask her what now, when I felt it beginning to form through the chakra in the air around me. I hadn't even seen her form a hand sign. As I fought against all my shinobi instincts screaming at me, determinedly holding still and doing nothing, the genjutsu fell over me like a heavy blanket.

... 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...

And it wasn't real.

And it wasn't real.

Heaving in a great breath like a drowning man breaking through the surface of the water, I reached my hand up, made the seal, and forced out my chakra in a great wave around me. Grandma's bedroom rippled as the current of my energy passed through it, and then it broke into a million little pieces.

It was gone. In its place was my recovery room.

I gasped again, unaware of when I had sunk to the floor or when I had actually started crying, only aware that I was doing it now. Suddenly, I realized Anko was standing there staring at me, and I quickly ducked my head away to wipe furiously at my eyes. "Shit," I muttered, and it was the least of what I wanted to say.

"It's hard, isn't it?" I raised my head. Anko's face was unusually solemn, her eyes carrying something like sad understanding. She looked tired, and human, again. Something she rarely ever did.

I looked away again, still breathing heavily, saying nothing. "... It was the same genjutsu," I commented after a moment, as if for confirmation.

There was silence behind me. Anko didn't reply. She didn't need to.

[Scene Break]

None of the other practices scattered over the next few days were as bad as the first session. I learned that whenever something weird or bad was happening, I should scan the surrounding environment, look for little flaws in the illusion. They were always there, and they were comforting. They solidified that what was happening wasn't real, and then I could shut out my emotions and purely focus on pushing out my chakra to dispel the genjutsu. Every session, my reaction time was faster.

Anko was impressed. "You have a lot of willpower, gaki," she told me grinning. "And getting hit by your chakra is like getting hit with a hangover. Immediate, vicious, impressive, and debilitating."

Despite myself, I grinned back. Compliments like that were the highest ones Anko could give out.

A similar test of my final abilities came from Iruka next.

"Well, Naruto, how do you think you're doing?" he asked when we sat down to talk about my training in the clinic (hopefully, for the last time).

"Kicking ass and taking names," I said plainly. "Let's do this."

He looked at me for a moment, and then he smiled. "Okay," he said. "Let's go."

So we began. He asked me a series of questions about the basics of chakra information and shinobi history, he made me demonstrate the entire set of completed Academy taijutsu with revisions for him, he made me show him the three main Academy jutsus and my Kage Bunshin coordination, and he made me demonstrate for him the wall walking exercise.

The questions were easy - I'd already known a lot of them before I'd even started reading, though Iruka hadn't known that, so he seemed pretty impressed. This was a positive; I didn't exactly bother to correct him. The taijutsu, too, actually turned out to be fairly easy. The katas I'd practiced thousands of times, and when he lashed out at me occasionally unexpectedly to see if I'd ingrained the moves enough into my muscle memory that I'd be able to counter, I performed at least fairly well every time. I switched through all three Academy jutsus in turn quickly in front of him as I panted and tried to catch my breath, with him nodding along the entire time. Finally I did the wall-walking exercise, up and back in front of him ten times.

"Alright," Iruka said, sounding pleased, as I finally stood there before him. I was sweating and tired, but I was finished, and it was unbelievable how good that felt. "Naruto, I am extremely proud of you." I glowed, mostly because it sounded like he meant it. Kind of sappy, but there you go. "Now, I have a few exercises you might want to work on while you're beginning with your team. One of them is a large-scale chakra control exercise called water walking, and once you have that down you should be able to move on to final chakra control. I also have a few recommendations on what more advanced secondary taijutsu styles you should specialize in. You can find information on these at the genin section of the general shinobi library at the Tower."

He handed me some scrolls. "And, of course, you're allowed to keep the books I gave you and your chakra element card as well."

"Thanks," I say curiously, eyeing the things he's handing me. He places his hands on my shoulders abruptly, and I look up.

"Naruto," he says, sounding very sincere and concerned, "I know you didn't want to be doing this. But I'm glad you did anyway."

My lips twitch a little at these words. "I know, Iruka-sensei," I admit. "I am, too."

[Scene Break]

Author's Notes: The way I see it, there is only a certain point even Konoha can accept possible instability in its forces. They're protecting the entire village. Psychological watch-lists for Konoha shinobi isn't as crazy as it first sounds. And Naruto just tried to tear at someone's face until he got to their brain matter, screaming incoherently and going all Kyuubi.I think the Sandaime would see this as an important opportunity to give Naruto some much-needed extra help, and delay the reaction time of Team Unstable actually going into the forces. Rest assured, Sasuke's very happy right now.

The only reason Sasuke didn't get the same psychological treatment that Naruto has on a more extensive level is that, in my world at least, the shinobi and shinobi-in-training have to do some sort of physical act or reveal something about themselves that clearly indicates psychological instability before it is legal to give them treatment like this. I figure that with the kind of lifestyle they have, shinobi would feel much better with privacy rights like that. So, from the High Council's point of view, Sasuke got out on a legal fluke and former clan kudos.

Because there were some questions, I don't think the majority of the civilian population will know about this. The whole situation, from Naruto to Mizuki, just screams 'needed cover-up' on some many levels.

And yes, before anyone asks, there were hidden cameras watching Naruto twenty-four seven, just in case he tried something. I don't see any other way they would have left weapons on him, no matter how reassuring to him their presence might have been.

Any reviews are greatly appreciated.