A/N: This work was inspired by a Naruto-themed omake in "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" by Eliezer Yudkowsky/Less Wrong. If you are unaware of HPMOR, I recommend it regardless of your knowledge of/attitude towards the Harry Potter Books.
The Demon Fox's name and nature are among this work's primary departure points. Please don't message me to tell me I've got them wrong.
"There you are, Naruto."
Mizuki struck an effortlessly elegant pose as he looked down at the oblivious fool from the tallest tree bordering the clearing.
"I see you managed to steal the Hokage's scroll of forbidden techniques. Impressive work. Now hand it over to me, and we can move on to your… graduation."
Naruto grinned. "Sure. I was just about done with it anyway."
Mizuki suppressed a sneer. The brat had obviously given it his all—the grass was barely visible beneath a carpet of discarded shuriken, kunai, scrolls and other training paraphernalia. But given the dropout—less than a genin—could barely conjure up a clone on a good day, pigs would fly before he mastered even the simplest forbidden technique.
"Don't do it, Naruto!"
Mizuki cursed his invariably rotten luck as he recognised Iruka's voice even before the man came into sight.
Naruto spun to face Iruka. "But I've just finished that secret second way of graduating Mizuki-sensei told me about. What am I supposed to do with the scroll now, keep it?"
"Second way of graduating?!" Iruka's eyes, wide with horrified realisation, flickered to Mizuki, then back to Naruto. "Mizuki's lying to you! There's no such thing! No loyal shinobi would ever ask you to steal from the Hokage. Naruto, no matter what you do, don't give him the scroll!"
Mizuki could feel control of the situation slipping through his fingers. Fortunately, a fine strategist like him could adapt to handle any setback. Time for Plan B: kill them all and come up with a plausible story afterwards. He reached for the enormous Fūma shuriken strapped to his back.
Before he could touch it, yet another figure burst into the clearing.
"Mizuki, you get the scroll! I'll go signal our allies!"
Mizuki having allies was news to him more than anyone.
He opened his mouth, but the man in a chūnin jacket—whom he had never seen before in his life—was already gone.
"Quick, Iruka-sensei, you have to stop him!" Naruto shouted. "Go! I'll keep the scroll away from Mizuki-sensei!"
But Iruka was rooted to the spot. "You're my student, Naruto, and I can't leave you in danger."
"Please just go! I can buy some time here—you of all people know how hard I am to catch! But if he gets backup, they'll kill us both and take the scroll anyway!"
Iruka stood there like the indecisive fool he was.
"Please, Iruka-sensei." Naruto's voice turned uncharacteristically serious. "I know what your instincts must be telling you. But if you've ever trusted me as one of your students, please trust me now."
Iruka said a few words under his breath that even Mizuki wasn't prepared to use in front of young Academy trainees. "Be careful, Naruto."
As soon as their little soap opera was over and Iruka was out of the way, it was time for Mizuki to take centre stage again.
"Well, that was interesting," he drawled. "You sent him chasing after a clone under the Transformation Technique, didn't you? Are you really so arrogant you think you can take me on your own?"
"That and there was something I wanted to ask you one-on-one."
"You're the one who framed me for cheating in the written test, aren't you? Even though I pulled off all the ninjutsu, I got disqualified because someone saw 'me' reading the test papers in the teachers' lounge. That must have been you, but why?"
"Oh, so you figured it out," Mizuki said indifferently. "I was always going to throw one of the failed students at the scroll's defences and see if I got lucky. But then I was struck by this brilliant idea for how to screw you over at the same time. And you fell for it like a complete sucker."
"But why me? I know this is probably part of some big plot to betray the village, but that doesn't mean it has to get personal. What did I ever do to you?"
Mizuki laughed. "Oh, this is rich. I suppose I may as well tell you before you die."
"Tell me what?"
Mizuki leaned forward. "They've all been lying to you, Naruto. For your entire life. Lying about what you are and what you've done."
He raised his voice dramatically. "You're not human. You're a monster. You're Kyubey, the Nine-Brained Demon Fox that attacked Leaf Village twelve years ago!"
Naruto shrugged. "Yeah, I know."
"It doesn't take a genius to figure out. The Nine-Brained Demon Fox attacks the village around my birthday. Then it disappears, and nobody talks about what happened to it. Not 'The Fourth Hokage killed it'. Not 'The Fourth Hokage drove it away'. He does something heroic to it, and it's gone. And then everyone in the village hates me, really hates me, for as long as I can remember, and they never ever say why."
"Oh, come on." Mizuki couldn't decide whether he was more bewildered or outraged by the words coming out of Naruto's mouth. "There's no way you could work it out from just that!"
"Well, after I made that connection, I did some digging through the registers in the Civic Library. You'd be amazed how little attention people pay you if you show them a few ryō and tell them an overworked jōnin paid you to spend the day looking up boring facts for him. So did you know that back then, there was exactly one other person in Leaf Village called Uzumaki? And that she died on the Night of Tragedy? And that she was the host for the Nine-Brains at the time?"
Mizuki did his best to replace his jaw. "Uh... well, that's why," he concluded, more lamely than intended. "No one was going to take the Demon Fox's word over mine, not if you said you'd been framed for cheating, and not if you tried to spill the beans about me and the scroll. It's perfect. That, and you just piss me off."
"Fair enough," Naruto accepted the explanation with eerie stoicism. "Now what?"
"Now... you die!" Mizuki finally grabbed the Fūma shuriken from his back, and hurled it full-strength at Naruto.
Predictably, the incompetent brat failed to dodge. Less predictably, he didn't try. He sat motionless, watching with interest as the huge blade flew right at his head. He vanished as it made contact.
"Oh, for fuck's sake!" Mizuki snapped. "I've been talking to a clone?"
But much though he wanted to find the little twerp and give him a taste of hell, Mizuki was a pro who always kept his eyes on the prize. He jumped down to ground level and began to make his way towards the scroll, taking care not to cut himself on the battlefield's worth of ninja tools littering the clearing.
"Let's play a game," said a new Naruto, appearing next to the scroll in a lazy lounging pose.
Mizuki gave him a condescending look. "Trying to buy time? Don't bother. I'm taking the scroll, and then I'll have all the time in the world to find you and gut you."
The arrogant fool ignored him. "Round One is called Let's Guess Which Lethal Forbidden Technique Naruto Learned Today."
Mizuki stopped. The idea was ridiculous, but…
"If you win, you get to advance to Round Two. If you lose… you die."
There was a soft popping sound, and then something flashed in Mizuki's peripheral vision. He whirled around to see a kunai coming at him fast.
But he wasn't a chūnin for nothing. His own kunai was up within a fraction of a second.
The two touched... and then the attacking blade disappeared in a puff of smoke.
"You almost had me going for a second, you little monster." Mizuki started to turn back towards Naruto, then reflexively moved to block a second kunai. This one came from the edge of his vision as well, but Mizuki deflected it with contemptuous ease.
"This has to be the feeblest delaying tactic I've seen in my life. So some of this trash on the ground is clones in disguise. So they transform back and throw kunai at me when I'm not looking. What are they going to do, annoy me to death?"
Mizuki didn't even bother stopping the third kunai. Then it drew a sharp line of pain across his cheek.
He shifted into defensive stance. He didn't know what Naruto's game was, but the dropout was about to find out there was a gap of skill between them that he could never hope to overcome.
A fourth kunai exploded into clone mist on touching Mizuki's guard.
A fifth bounced off. That one was from the real Naruto… or so Mizuki thought until he saw it vanish as it hit the ground. Wait… what?
"Shadow clones?!" he screamed. "How the hell can you make shadow clones?!"
The brat gave him the thumbs-up. "All right! You pass Round One. Now it's time for Round Two, the ever-popular Find and Destroy All the Shadow Clones Before Iruka-sensei Comes Back and Kicks Your Ass round!"
Discarding his instincts as a teacher, Mizuki spat his foulest curses at the little brat.
"Thanks," Naruto said off-handedly. "I'll look those up afterwards.
"Anyway, Round Two. If you win, you get to take the scroll and escape. If you lose, or if you try to grab the scroll and run while you're still surrounded by shadow clones… you die."
Tension was spreading through Mizuki's muscles, as if he was in a real combat situation and not facing the most pathetic twelve-year-old in the village.
"You're bluffing," he insisted. "So you've got four or five shadow clones hidden in this clearing. They're still clones of an incompetent dropout, and I'm practically a jōnin. What do you think they can do to me?"
Naruto cracked up with laughter. "Four or five? Oh, that's good. Oh, man, you really know how to tell 'em, Mizuki-sensei."
"Wh-What's so funny?"
"You said it yourself: I'm the Nine-Brained Demon Fox. And what's the Nine-Brained Demon Fox famous for, apart from its amazing intelligence and devilish good looks?"
Mizuki was starting to sweat. Somewhere along the line he'd forgotten what it meant that Naruto was a village-destroying monster.
"Its incredible chakra control, duh. I can sit here making shadow clones all day long with the amount of chakra you'd need just to scratch your nose.
"Now, let's get on with the game. I've got a bet going with Naruto Prime on how many wounds you're going to take before Iruka-sensei comes back and finishes you off."
Mizuki made to reply, but a flying kunai cut him off. It was a clone. The next one wasn't. Nor the next.
Blades came at Mizuki from every direction. Always from outside his line of sight, so he had to spin on the spot. His movements grew frantic. The kunai struck faster and faster. Shadow kunai. Harmless kunai. There was no pattern. His breath came in short bursts. The clones exploded into fog that obscured his vision. He wanted to fight back. He wanted to run. He had to keep blocking.
Mizuki lay whimpering on the ground, too tired and traumatised to move, and bleeding from dozens of small cuts.
"Looks like you're done," Naruto said cheerfully. "Guess I can stop leading Iruka-sensei on a wild goose chase now."
There was a pop, and the forbidden technique scroll transformed into the original Naruto.
"I know, right?" the clone said modestly. "I win the real bet, though. It took minutes before he went down."
"Yeah, yeah. We should clean up—Iruka-sensei's gonna be here any second."
Naruto snapped his fingers and the entire clearing was covered in mist. When it faded a second later, all of the litter was gone, as was the bet-winning clone. Naruto walked past the trees at the edge of the clearing, reached into a hollow under some roots, and pulled out the real scroll. As an afterthought, he also dug the Fūma shuriken out of the ground and tossed it next to Mizuki's semi-comatose form.
"Oh, by the way..." he whispered in Mizuki's ear. "You were right. There were only five shadow clones."
Iruka-sensei made his appearance a couple of minutes later, moisture gathering in his eyes as he saw Naruto alive and unharmed.
"You're all right! Oh, thank goodness you're all right! I was so scared…"
Naruto felt a flash of guilt. But he reminded himself that the whole thing had been for Iruka-sensei's own protection. At least aside from the part where he wanted to test his exciting new technique. And the part where he wanted revenge on a bastard who'd been one smart choice away from murdering some random classmate of Naruto's.
Iruka-sensei stared at Mizuki, who was lying in the foetal position snivelling, "No more... please, no more..."
"What the heck happened, Naruto?!"
"He tried to throw his giant shuriken thing at me, but forgot to let go," Naruto said matter-of-factly. "After he got over the pain of stabbing himself with all the corners, he had a nervous breakdown over what a miserable failure of a ninja he was. That made him collapse on top of the shuriken, which is how he got all those other injuries."
"Uh-huh," Iruka-sensei said. "And what really happened?"
"Fine," Naruto pouted. "I outsmarted him and took him out with an A-rank forbidden technique I'd learned from the scroll in the couple of hours before he turned up."
Iruka-sensei stared fixedly at Naruto for several seconds.
"Nervous breakdown over being a miserable failure of a ninja. Got it."