Scattered Leaf Piles: Mystery & Shadows

BY : Cha's Aegis
Category: Naruto > General
Dragon prints: 825
Disclaimer: Don't own anything in the Naruto universe. Some dude in Japan does. Make no money on my stories either.

Everything seems to glow the bright sunshine. Maybe the pride and happiness swirling within the schoolyard isn't reflecting the sun at all but it appears that way. With nary a cloud in the deep, blue sky the happy atmosphere is picture perfect for a graduation.

For the select, unlucky few, the day is despairing and gloomy as a winter storm. This isn't the way things are supposed to be. They should be milling among the throng, sharing the joy.

Naruto obsesses over trying to figure out what went wrong while moodily resenting the obnoxiously cheerful scene in front of her from her favorite swing across the yard. She tries glaring hatefully at the phony ninja-wannabes who are now her former classmates only to drop her gaze morosely to the ground, wondering how in the hell she fucked up royally. Again.

Her brooding is interrupted when a shadow falls over her and she gapes stupidly up into the gently smiling face of Mizuki-sensei.

"Of all the stupid, fucking luck!" Naruto's voice spits into the darkness.

"Mizuki-sensei must've been sniffing his dirty underwear or something!" she continues, digging her hands in her fiery hair in frustration. "I get the scroll from the Old Man like he wanted, but why the fuck do I have to learn the stupid ass Kage Bunshin of all jutsu?"

Taking a deep breath, she slowly exhales.

"It's just a jutsu," she calmly tells herself. "You can do this, Naruto. Mizuki-sensei wouldn't have said to learn as many jutsu as possible from the scroll if he didn't think you could pull it off. He's being awesome by giving you this second chance to graduate. Keep trying."

Bolstered by her pep talk, Naruto resumes practicing the Kage Bunshin. She's tired, but determined to get it before Mizuki-sensei arrives. Whenever the hell that'll be. She vaguely wonders why he hasn't shown up yet. She's been out in the woods by one of the old storage sheds for hours and thought he would've checked on her by now. She doesn't dwell too long on it since she's used to no one bothering to check on her for any reason.

Taking a break an hour later, Naruto's head snaps up in surprise when a shadow falls over her, blocking the moonlight.

"Mizuki-sensei!" she cries happily, jumping to her feet. "I was startin' to think you weren't showing up anytime soon!"

"Sorry, Naruto, something came up and I couldn't come sooner," Mizuki smiles warmly. He gestures at the large scroll leaning off to the side against the shed. "I see you succeeded in half your task. Were you able to learn any jutsu from the scroll?"

"Yeah, Mizuki-sensei!" Naruto declares proudly before sourly admitting, "But only one 'cause it was really hard. You wanna see?" she eagerly asks.

She grins expectantly while he merely stands and smiles. Slowly her grin melts away in confusion because something feels off about Mizuki-sensei.

Her mind sluggishly registers the odd look in his eyes when he's on her instantly. She instinctively reacts when her back slams against the ground and struggles against the body pinning her down, desperately trying to tug her wrists out of the vice-like grip holding them above her head.

Terrified blue snaps up into familiar eyes coldly staring down at her.

"Your graduation test isn't quite done yet, Naruto," Mizuki sneers, leaning in uncomfortably close and causing her to turn her face away. She shivers when he whispers, "There's one other requirement you have to fulfill."

Naruto's blood runs cold when she hears her jacket zipper opening. Her eyes widen in horror when both her pants and underwear are tugged down, causing her to struggle in earnest. Tears leak from her eyes as she manages to pull her wrists free to push, scratch and hit Mizuki.

"Stop it, Mizuki-sensei! Let me go!" she screams.

She squirms, twists and tries wiggling out from under him, especially when she feels his hands touching places she doesn't want him to. Clambering to her feet and ignoring his mocking laughter she shrugs free of her jacket, which he clutches tightly while simultaneously trying to pull up her pants.

Freedom is fleeting as strong arms encircled her waist, jerking her hard back onto the ground as his hands resumed painfully molesting her.

"Help! Somebody hel..!" she screams until a rough palm slams over her mouth and nose while another constricts around her throat.

Struggling to breathe, her hands scrabble at his, futilely trying to loosen his grip.

"You think too much of yourself, you fucking monster!" he hoarsely sneers, leaning in close enough to kiss. "Like I'd have you that way. I'd never dream of defiling myself with filth!"

Straightening up, his face distorts into an ugly rage as he straddles her hips to relentlessly pound on her head and torso while she futilely tries deflecting the blows with her arms.

She blocks some, but can't block out his ugly words.

"You don't deserve to breathe the same air as me, you goddamn cunt!" he shouts. "I'm doing the entire village a favor by putting you down! All rabid animals should be destroyed!"

Naruto can't stop the tears. She doesn't understand where all this hatred is coming from. Mizuki-sensei has always been nice to her, like Iruka-sensei. Actually, nicer at times. Not like the other sensei.

She keeps trying to figure it out until her world mercifully fades to black.

A light breeze whispers through the deserted clearing as a lone figure silently lands outside the perimeter, taking a few moments to carefully observe the area.

Iruka frowns in concern at the unnervingly peaceful scene. His eyes fall on an abandoned object on the ground near the shed. Stepping closer his eyes widen in recognition at the familiar orange jacket.

Bending down he picks it up when he senses others rapidly approaching from behind. Turning around, he's surprised to see the Sandaime Hokage entering the clearing accompanied by a squad of ANBU.

"Hokage-sama!" Iruka bows in greeting.

"I take it we arrived too late, Iruka?" Hiruzen nods at the jacket hanging limply from the brunet's hand before gesturing for the ANBU to check the immediate area.

"Hai, Hokage-sama," Iruka solemnly replies. "Naruto did a much better job covering up her trail this time and it took longer to track her. I just arrived and only found her jacket. It appears she's been gone for at least an hour, maybe longer."

Clasping his hands behind his back, the Third solemnly nods.

"That seems about right," he muses softly, confusing Iruka. Before the chuunin can reply, he gravely adds, "Naruto has been abducted by Mizuki." Not giving the flabbergasted sensei a chance to reply he continues. "The entire incident was too well planned for a simple prank pulled by an academy student, Iruka. Other than her jacket, you have not found any other trace of her, have you?"

"No, sir," Iruka quietly replies. "But how can you say Mizuki kidnapped her? He's been out searching with the rest of us."

"Mizuki is now missing as well and there is strong evidence supporting the claim. I'm sorry to say he has turned traitor and kidnapped her."

Giving an overwhelmed Iruka a moment to process his words Hiruzen shifts his focus to the ANBU squad.

"Hound-taichou, report."

The dog-masked ANBU with wild silver hair poking out along the edges snaps to attention.

"Evidence indicates there's been a struggle and one subject subdued the other. All indications support the theory both have been gone for over an hour."

The aged Hokage nods again. Clasping his hands behind his back he paces a few steps before facing the assembled ninja.

"Hound, your squad is to retrieve Naruto and the scroll. I want Mizuki brought in alive. Iruka will accompany you."

Iruka blinks in confusion before finding his voice.

"Sir, you're sending me along? How can I be of any help to ANBU?"

The Third pins him with his gaze.

"Because Naruto will likely be just as traumatized, possibly more so, than the last time she was kidnapped." He pauses as remembrance lights up Iruka's eyes. "She will recognize and react better to you than to the ANBU squad alone, even if they present her with the safe code. I will send another trusted ANBU squad as backup once they become available." Turning back to Hound, he asks, "Have you picked up a trail?"

"Hai, Hokage-sama," Hound nods. "The perpetrator didn't bother covering his trail very well. They are heading northeast."

"Dismissed," Hiruzen orders, prompting the four shinobi to disappear immediately.

Hound sets a hard pace against the ticking clock. Glancing over at Iruka, he's impressed by how well he's keeping up, but isn't surprised. He's familiar with the chuunin's relationship with Naruto and knows their strong bond is driving the younger man.

He's certain that bond will be unbreakable after this incident.

Her head hurt. Big time.

Naruto doesn't want to open her eyes. The bright sunlight burns uncomfortably through her eyelids, heightening her misery.

Wait, sunlight?

Carefully cracking open an eye, Naruto peeks to see it's indeed daytime and she's flying through the treetops. Opening both eyes wider, she recognizes the back of Mizuki's head, noting his hitai-ate is conspicuously absent. Looking over his shoulder then around the area she realizes they're no longer within the boundaries of Konoha.

Judging by the tingling, numb sensation in her fingertips he tied the rope binding her hands behind her back too tightly. He carries her with her legs wrapped around his waist as he races through the trees. Needing to alleviate the numbness, Naruto wiggles her wrists to try loosening up the ropes a little, maybe even to escape.

Feeling her moving, Mizuki sneers over his shoulder.

"You might as well get used to being tied up because your new owners aren't likely to let you move about on your own."

Confused, Naruto stops struggling.

"What the fuck are you talking about, Traitor-teme?"

Mizuki throws back his head and laughs, annoying her further.

"You're so incredibly stupid and pathetic! It's any wonder no one has buried you before to spare the world of your idiocy." Leaping off another branch, he continues. "Sure, I could just kill you. Easy enough to do, but what's the value in that besides the satisfaction of knowing you're dead and bragging rights? If I'm going to profit from the Forbidden Scroll then I might as well profit from you."

Naruto hears the smirk in the smug bastard's voice when he continues.

"You're going to make some sadistic pedophile very happy when you're sold as a slave on the black market."

Appalled, Naruto struggles harder, prompting him to laugh harder. Leaping off another branch, he reaches over his shoulder, burying his fingers in her hair before yanking as hard as he could to fling her in front of him.

She barely has time to register his uproarious laughter through the agony of impact against something solid before her world blacks out again.

Racing through the trees, Hound's squad maintains a steady pace, hoping to catch up to Mizuki and Naruto. Fortunately, Mizuki continues being careless, making it easy to track him.

Their temporary teammate neither complains nor requests a break to rest, impressing the ANBU further. Hound has him flanking to the right opposite Cat as Raccoon brings up the rear in their diamond formation. He thought he'd have to slow their pace if Iruka lagged, but the chuunin held his position perfectly.

Cat breaks into Hound's musings.

"Taichou, it looks like the suspect is heading toward the eastern black market."

"Yeah, it does," Hound agrees thoughtfully.

"The eastern black market?" Iruka asks in confusion.

"Mizuki won't want to get caught with the Forbidden Scroll, so he'll want to sell it fast and take the money to disappear," Raccoon explains. "There are several black markets and all float from location to location to evade prosecution. However, the four largest ones operate within certain areas. The eastern black market is the closest one to Konoha and being among the four largest they're likely to pay Mizuki well for the Forbidden Scroll."

Iruka falls silent the rest of the way, lost in thought wondering how his best friend could betray the village and, even worse, kidnap Naruto. Silently he prays she's all right as he reluctantly relives memories of her disappearance years ago.

Hound stops the team when they near the boundaries of the current black market location. They spread out to do some reconnaissance to determine how many guards there are, their location and possibly sight Mizuki and Naruto.

Within a half hour they reconvene at a clearing well outside of the patrol radius of the market guards.

"Report," Hound ordered, looking at Cat.

"I counted two, two-man patrols running a concentric pattern approximately sixty meters from the old livestock barn."

"I don't think they're dealing with any sensitive exchanges today, taichou," Raccoon states. "There seems to be only four guards inside the building."

"I overheard two people walking near my location say they're holding a slave auction today," Iruka adds quietly, feeling sick to his stomach at what that could mean for Naruto.

"That explains the low number of guards. The operators aren't likely to encounter trouble at a slave auction," Hound muses. "I didn't observe mercenaries or anyone who are more interested in buying weapons or sensitive information entering the premises."

"It looks like Mizuki is trying to kill two birds with one stone," Raccoon reasons.

"To sell both Naruto and the Forbidden Scroll?" Cat asks doubtfully.

"It would've been easier for Mizuki to kill Naruto and take the scroll," Hound explains. "He's not going to go through the effort of ransoming her. That only leaves selling her at a slave auction."

"Meaning more money to disappear with. The bastard," Cat spits venomously.

"Iruka," Hound breaks into Iruka's painful reverie. "You will infiltrate the black market under a henge as a buyer. We will sneak in separately. If we're correct that Naruto will be put up for auction, you are to initiate a distraction. This will focus the attention of any guards hidden among the buyers on you, making it easier for us to take them out. You are to grab Naruto and get her to safety while we shut down the operation. Understood?"

"Understood," Iruka nods, his face set with determination.

Hound nods back and signals them to disperse back into the trees.

The smell is the first thing Naruto noticed.

In fact, she's pretty sure that woke her up. It's an old, dank scent. She isn't sure, but thinks it's of livestock.

Finally opening her eyes, she looks around. The room is empty save for three other girls. Two brunettes huddle together in a far corner, while the third, a blonde, cowers alone against another wall. Two appear close to her age with one being maybe eight.

"Where are we?" she asks, sitting up with a groan.

"Don't talk," the blonde hisses. "They threatened to hurt us if we talk."

Naruto's only half listening as she gawks down at herself, wondering what the hell happened to her clothes. She's wearing a simple, shapeless cotton sack dress and can tell it's really short because she can feel her bare butt on the floor.

Wait, bare butt?

Tugging her collar away, Naruto stares down into the dress in horror and is scared to realize she isn't wearing any underwear. She glances at the other girls, finally noticing they're wearing the same dress.

She doesn't have long to think about it when the door slams open and three men enter the room. One grabs the two girls huddling together as another drags the blonde out of the room, causing all three to whimper and start crying.

The third reaches down and yanks Naruto to her feet. She struggles, hitting and biting to get loose. Next thing she knows she's gasping for air. The jerk carries her out against his body in a tight chokehold. Her hands scrabble at his forearm, trying to get him to loosen his grip.

Soon all four girls stand side by side in the brightly lit center of a large, crowded room. The ass who carried Naruto stands behind her and keeps a firm grip on the back of her neck, sending a shiver down her spine since it reminds her of her captivity years ago.

Another dark haired man dressed in a fancy, silk yukata stands nearby. Naruto can't see the faces in the crowd very well since they're in deep shadows and she struggles to keep from panicking from the reminder of another time and place.

"Now that everyone is ready, let's get the auction started!" the fancy dressed man cheerfully announces with a clap of his hands before gesturing at the girls.

Naruto watches in shock as the blonde girl is forced onto an overturned crate. The man herding her yanks her dress up to her chin, exposing her to the jeering crowd. The girl tries pulling her dress back down, but her handler slaps her as the announcer addresses the crowd.

"Do I have any bids for this one?"

Murmurs ripple through the crowd, but no one speaks up. Outraged, Naruto steps forward to help the struggling blonde girl who keeps getting hit and slapped, but is viciously yanked back by her hair and a large hand wraps around her throat, making it difficult to breathe.

"Shut up and stay put," her handler's voice growls threateningly in her ear.

"Anyone? Are there any bids?" the announcer bellows over the crowd. "Last chance!"

Seeing no one is interested, the announcer nods to the blonde's handler.

Naruto watches in horrified disbelief as the thug yanks the blonde's hair back, forcing her to look up before dragging a sharp knife firmly across her throat from ear to ear. Jeers and cheers emanated from the crowd as her limp, bloody corpse is carried off.

Naruto feels sick and numb watching each crying brunette take their turn and meet their death in the same grisly fashion.

'Please wake up! Please wake up!' her mind repeatedly echoes as a mantra.

She barely registers it's her turn when she's forced onto the crate. The crowd falls silent when a blue haired man dressed in a formal kimono steps forward to address the announcer.

"Fifty million ryo," the blue haired man solemnly declares.

"Is that an opening bid?" the auctioneer asks hopefully.

"No. It is my offer for outright purchase," the man calmly replies. "It is pointless to ask for other bids as I will match any offer. I will not be outbid."

"Do I hear any objections?" the auctioneer asks the crowd. Seeing there were none, he nods to the blue haired man with a smile. "Sold, for fifty million ryo!"

Applause erupts around the room as two other men emerge from the crowd to flank the buyer.

Naruto feels her handler's hand close tightly around her throat when she shifts her stance to try making a break for it.

"You aren't going anywhere except with your buyer," his voice growls in her ear as she gasps for breath and claws at his arm.

Smiling, Mizuki joins the small group.

"Congratulations on your purchase, Masashi-sama," he bows in greeting to the blue haired man. "I'd like to ask for my commission off the sale since I brought her to the auction."

Masashi arches a blue brow.

"That is between you and the auctioneer. I'm merely a buyer who has completed a sale."

Mizuki's hand flashes out at Naruto's handler, stabbing him between the eyes.

She only has enough time to register his grip loosened from her throat when she's roughly yanked off the crate against another body, feeling the sharp edge of kunai against her neck.

"I'm sorry for including you in this, Masashi-sama, but this fool," Mizuki explains pleasantly, nodding at the auctioneer. "Has cheated me before. I just want to make sure I get my cut, the right amount too, in front of witnesses."

Naruto tunes out the vehement denial of the auctioneer when she feels the heavy weight of someone staring at her. Her eyes lock on the man called Masashi. She doesn't like the look in his unwavering gaze. She can't figure out what it means, but the way he stares, almost into her soul, shakes her to the core.

Without warning Mizuki releases her and she feels several kunai whooshing close by her head. Shocked, she watches hell break loose around her. Her mind sluggishly notes a couple of ANBU fighting with the guards as the crowd around them panics and runs screaming for the exits.

The sudden presence of another body next to her and a hand grabbing her upper arm snaps her out of her stupor. She twists and struggles in their grip when a wonderfully familiar voice breaks through her panic.

"It's okay, Naruto, it's me," Iruka soothes as her startled blue eyes snaps to him. "Just stay close while I get you out of here."

Naruto nods as he shifts his attention to Masashi's two men rushing up to them. Iruka roughly pushes her behind him while drawing two kunai.

Naruto watches Iruka duck the short blades slashing at him. He effectively dodges a fatal strike to come up behind one of the men to deftly snap his neck.

Iruka immediately defends against the remaining attacker, but is nearly sliced wide open when the sight of Mizuki in his peripheral vision momentarily distracts him. Stabbing his opponent in the shoulder, he barely has time to helplessly watch his former friend grab Naruto and disappear into the chaos.

Iruka isn't the only one to notice Mizuki's escape with Naruto.

Hound frowns behind his mask before incapacitating another guard. As suspected, there was a couple hidden in the crowd. He orders his squad not to kill all the guards, but to capture a couple, especially the auctioneer.

Cat already has the auctioneer trussed up while Raccoon is busy taking care of his opponents. They'll certainly have a couple worthwhile guests for Ibiki.

None of them worried about the crowd, knowing chances are good the auctioneer will name everyone in attendance. They can arrest them later.

Hound steps up his efforts to finish things. They need to help Iruka apprehend Mizuki and free Naruto.

Mizuki races deeper into the forest while Naruto struggles to get out of his grip. When they emerged from the building, Mizuki only took a moment to sloppily bind her arms to her body with nin wire. Her forearms and hands are free and she tries to free herself as he carries her with one arm around her waist.

Without warning he viciously flings her ahead. She hits the ground hard and skids for a few meters. She barely registers the nin wire loosened from her arms as Mizuki shifts her onto her back to sit on her hips and pin her wrists together above her head again with one hand.

"You're nothing but trouble!" he shouts before spitting into her face. "You'll suffer!"

Naruto watches him reach behind his back with his free hand and feels something, cold, sharp and metallic slide painfully up her thigh towards her crotch. Her eyes widen in horror as his intention becomes clear. Snapping her legs closed she twists, bucks and struggles to get out from under him. She ignores the pain from the razor sharp blade knowing getting sliced up is better than the alternative.

Suddenly Mizuki's weight disappears. Looking over she watches him land in an awkward heap across the clearing. Easing upright onto one hand, her eyes drop to her lap as her other hand gently examines the deep cuts all over her bloody thighs.

Her eyes snap up when Iruka appears next to her. Wincing at the damage, he supports her back with one hand while the other gently touches one of her knees.

"Are you all right, Naruto?"

"Y-yeah, I'll be okay, Iruka-sensei," she answers shakily.

Iruka smiles reassuringly. His eyes constantly flick over to where Mizuki lies groaning.

"Do you think you can walk?"

Naruto briefly considers it before nodding.

"Yeah, I think so."

"Good," he nods before pointing over his left shoulder behind him. "Head that way. You'll meet up with an ANBU squad." His gaze intensifies as he growls, "I'll take care of things here."

"It doesn't matter what you do!" Mizuki shouts, struggling awkwardly to his feet. "You both are dead!"

With a primal yell he charges Iruka who rushes from Naruto with a kunai drawn to clash against Mizuki's.

Stunned, she watches both sensei furiously battle. She's impressed at Iruka-sensei because he's obviously a very capable fighter. However, she notices that Mizuki's a very dirty fighter, keeping Iruka constantly on the defensive.

Heeding Iruka's orders Naruto eases to her bare feet and staggers in the direction he indicated.

"No you don't, bitch!" Mizuki yells, kicking Iruka away to hurl several kunai at her back.

Iruka rushes Naruto, knocking her to the ground. He spins around to try deflecting the kunai, but is too slow, ending up pinned against the broad trunk of a tree.

Mizuki takes advantage of Iruka's momentary distraction to laugh uproariously.

"You're such an idiot, Iruka! Why are you bothering with this monster who killed your parents?"

"Naruto didn't kill my parents," Iruka grunts, yanking a kunai from his shoulder. "The fox demon did."

"Of course, she did! They're one in the same!" Mizuki notices Naruto sitting on the ground, leaning back on her hands, watching them in morbid fascination and sneers at her, "Oh, didn't you know? Let me enlighten you. Consider it my last lesson to you, my dear student. The Kyuubi that nearly destroyed the village and killed all those shinobi years ago is sealed inside you!"

The silence stretches out and Mizuki's mocking grin melts off when Naruto merely arches a brow.

"So? That's old news, you half-baked traitor. The fox was sealed inside me by the Yondaime to save the village. I didn't attack the village because everyone says it was the Kyuubi, not a fifteen meter tall infant."

Pulling the last kunai from his body, Iruka can't resist snorting in laughter at the absurd image Naruto's comment conjures and at Mizuki's gobsmacked expression. His own switches from amusement to horror as he watches Mizuki angrily whip out a storage scroll and summon a giant shuriken.

"I'll be hailed for finally killing the monster! Die bitch!" Mizuki snarls, lobbing the shuriken at her with all his might.

Naruto tries scrambling to her feet, but only manages a desperate crawl. The wind is knocked out of her as a blow to her side sends her rolling. Coming to rest on her side, she eases herself onto an elbow to stare in shock at Iruka lying face down in the dirt with a giant shuriken stuck in his back. The laugh she's growing to hate with a passion draws her attention back to Mizuki.

"A fool to the end, eh, Iruka?" he asks before shrugging. "A little out of order, but I was going to kill you anyway."

"Kage Bunshin!"

Mizuki blinks stupidly at the sudden crowd of seething redheads clenching their fists or cracking their knuckles around him.

"You're dead," echoes ominously throughout the clearing.

Mizuki screams as the horde overwhelms him, pulling his hair in random directions to meet another kick or blow. The clones don't give him a chance to defend himself as they relentlessly assault him until he lies in a crumpled pile on the ground, struggling to breathe. He's roughly yanked up to his knees to stare into Naruto's cold, angry face. He then confuses her by chuckling.

"Yes, show the world your true self! Now everyone will see what a true demon you are!" he goads. "I can die honorably because I was able to reveal the truth and show everyone what a monster you are! Everyone will honor my sacrifice and efforts to rid Konoha of you!"

Naruto gapes at his stupid, smirking face.

"Go on! Kill me!" he dares.

The smirk morphs into a wheezing grimace when her foot nails home right in the balls.

"They always need falsettos in the prison choir, Traitor-teme," Naruto muses while he crumples onto himself into unconsciousness.

She then limps over to where Iruka lies. Kneeling next to him, she reaches out and gently touches his neck. She lets out a loud sigh of relief when she feels his pulse. Dropping her hand back to her side, she grimaces at the shuriken sticking out of his back and tries to remember the first aid lessons at the academy.

Panic erupts through her body as old memories mix with new horrors, overwhelming her to the point she can't think straight. Gasping for breath and feeling lightheaded, she struggles against the bile surging dangerously in her stomach and tries not to throw up on Iruka's unconscious form.

Unable to walk, she crawls over to a nearby tree. She tries leaning back against it with her eyes closed, waiting for the sick feeling to pass before she gives up in frustration and leans her forehead against her knees.

Securing the location of the black market takes a lot longer than Hound liked. They had to check every inch of the premises for any other suspects before they can follow Iruka. Had they not checked, they wouldn't have found one of the organizers hiding in a back room, waiting for the coast to clear before escaping.

Once they gather all the surviving suspects into one room and lock it, Hound sends a message to intercept the back up squad that should be en route by now before racing to find Iruka.

They find the location easily enough and Hound takes in what evidently was the scene of a battle.

A dazed Mizuki lies curled on his side at the far side of the clearing, clutching at his crotch and whimpering. Iruka lies closer to their position facedown with a giant shuriken in his back.

He scans the rest of the clearing and it isn't long before he locates Naruto off to his right. She sits against a tree, clutching her knees. Her violent shaking and unfocused eyes stare out at the clearing, clearly telling him that she's in shock.

"Racoon, check on Iruka. Cat, see if you can bring Naruto out of her shock."

Both nod as Hound walks over to Mizuki. With zero consideration or gentleness, he roughly yanks Mizuki up by the hair. Ignoring his pained yelps, Hound removes Mizuki's flak jacket and disarms him of all weapons before securely binding his hands behind his back. His sadistic side surfaces as he attaches nin wire to Mizuki's wrists and threads it between his legs to tie it in front to the rope encircling his waist to keep his bound wrists close to his back. Hound then carelessly shoves Mizuki by the shoulder, toppling him over onto the ground with another yelp.

Hound then walks over to Raccoon who has removed the shuriken and is pressing a compress into Iruka's back.

"How's Iruka?"

"He's alive, Taichou," Raccoon answers. "His wounds are serious, but not life threatening. He should be able to walk on his own back to the village, but we'll have to allow him breaks to rest."


Both Raccoon and Hound look over toward Cat just in time to watch Naruto smack her arm away before cowering further into the tree.

"Naruto," Cat soothes. "Crimson Sky."

Naruto doesn't answer. Her irregular breathing echoes throughout the clearing as she stares warily at Cat while her shaking intensifies.

"You're safe, Naruto. No one is going to hurt you. Remember, Crimson Sky," Cat continues, trying to break through the girl's hysteria.

Iruka grunts and shifts under Raccoon's hand, drawing Hound and Raccoon's attention back to him. Opening his eyes, he sighs in relief when he sees them.

"It went well at the black market?" his rough voice asks.

"Yes," Raccoon answers. "We secured the suspects until they can be escorted back to Konoha and turned over to T&I."

"How's Naruto?"

"Hysterical," Hound admits honestly. "Cat hasn't been able to calm her down. We need you to calm her down or we're going to have to sedate her."

Nodding, Iruka slowly pushes himself up with a pain filled grunt as Raccoon and Hound help him to his feet. Leaning heavily on Raccoon, Iruka limps over to Cat and Naruto.

Hound muses on how the Sandaime's intuitive foresight still manages to amaze him after all these years. Had Iruka not accompanied their team, they would've had to knock her unconscious for the trip home. Hound is certain that'd be psychologically damaging to the already traumatized girl.

He observes Iruka speaking quietly to Naruto. She eventually focuses her glassy eyes on him until recognition lights up her eyes and she begins sobbing in his arms.

Raccoon returns to stand by Hound's side to watch.

"Aside from what she witnessed earlier, Mizuki must've inflicted some serious harm to cause Naruto to break down this badly," he observes.

Hound merely nods as Iruka gradually calms Naruto down.

"Iruka." When the battered chuunin looks over, Hound continues. "We have to treat yours and Naruto's wounds before returning to the village."

Iruka curtly nods and murmurs into Naruto's ear. Raccoon steps forward as Cat digs out a first aid kit. Together they treat their injuries, making sure to move slowly as to not startle Naruto back into hysterics. Iruka continues reassuring the young redhead until they're finished.

"Are you feeling up to walking, Iruka, or do you need one of us to carry you?" Raccoon asks.

"I can walk," Iruka smiles briefly. "But I don't know about Naruto," he frowns in concern.

"Since she's barefoot, Raccoon and I will alternate carrying her. When we do, we'll have to remain close to you in case she becomes agitated again," Hound explains.

"All right," Iruka reluctantly agrees, knowing the wound on his back won't allow him to carry Naruto instead.

"If everyone's ready, let's go," Hound orders.

Cat and Raccoon helps Iruka to his feet. With Iruka's help, they coax her onto Raccoon's back.

Hound walks back over to Mizuki. Bending over he grabs his wrists and hauled him to his feet, eliciting a howl of pain from the nin wire digging into his nether regions. Ignoring the noise, Hound yanks on his forearm to get him walking, ignoring Mizuki's moans and whimpers.

The trek back is slow going. They remain on high alert and walk in silence for the next two hours.

Hound disappears for a few minutes when they pass in the vicinity of the black market. He meets up with the captains of the two ANBU squads sent by the Hokage as back up. They received his message regarding the location of the black market and about Hound's squad having to further pursue Mizuki.

Once both teams finish debriefing each other, two members from the back up squads are sent to accompany Hound's team. Their captain orders them to remain out of sight to prevent Naruto from getting agitated by their presence.

Hound easily catches up to his squad and debriefs them via hand signals.

"I wish we could give him a traitor's death," Cat hisses later in the day just loud enough for Hound to hear.

Having refused Hound's suggestion to take his turn carrying Naruto, Raccoon continues walking ahead of them with Naruto and Iruka.

She can hear the smile in his voice as he reminds her, "Hokage's orders."

"Just as well," she sighs heavily. "We would've happily gotten into a brawl over who got to grant the traitor a slow and agonizing death."

"Hey! I was doing everyone a favor by offing that demon bitch!" Mizuki protests over his shoulder.

Cat roughly yanks his wrists away from his body, tearing another howl from him that's abruptly cut off by the sharp smack she gives him to the back of the head.

"Shut up or you'll disturb Naruto, traitor!" Cat snaps. Noticing Hound looking at her, she innocently asks, "What? The Hokage's orders do not exclude reasonable force to keep the prisoner in line."

She can tell Hound is grinning behind his mask when he asks, "How's Naruto?"

Iruka glances over his shoulder to answer.

"Unconscious. I don't know if that's any better than her unresponsive stupor."

"It's better," Raccoon assures him. "She's exhausted and it keeps her from getting agitated by sudden noises or movement."

Iruka reluctantly nods as they continue walking.

Hound and his squad don't arrive in Konoha until after dark. They keep their arrival low key by entering through one of several obscure gates only used by ANBU.

Carrying Naruto, Hound takes her and Iruka to the hospital while Cat and Raccoon deliver Mizuki to Ibiki.

While Naruto and Iruka are getting treated, Hound meets with the Hokage and delivers his report. When finished, he waits patiently as the Hokage remains in thoughtful silence.

"I fear there will be a lot more for Naruto to deal with than her last kidnapping," the old man sighs wearily after a few minutes. His gaze snaps onto Hound. "Thank you for your hard work. Your mission is complete. Go and get some rest."

Hound uncharacteristically shifts in place.

"Won't my team be needed for guard detail should you have Naruto stay in the secured ward while in the hospital for treatment, Hokage-sama?"

Hiruzen smiles at him.

"Probably. However, your team needs the rest and I do have other trusted squads available to guard Naruto at the moment. Depending on how long she stays in the hospital, I may assign your team to her detail."

Hound reluctantly nods before bowing and disappearing from the Hokage's sight.

Iruka's certain boredom has to be the leading cause of death among ninjas. Glaring up at the blank ceiling above his bed, he figures boredom either drives ninjas to suicide or to do something crazy to alleviate it, which invariably leads to their deaths.

His theorizing is interrupted when Hiruzen enters his hospital room and cheerfully greets him.

"Good morning, Iruka, how are you feeling today?"

"Good morning, Hokage-sama," Iruka greets back before smirking. "I've only been in here for three days, but I feel that if I don't get out of this hospital soon I'm going to unleash my old pranking habits on the medics and nurses."

"That would certainly make things lively around here," Hiruzen laughs.

Iruka's smile fades.

"Have you visited Naruto yet this morning?"

"Yes," Hiruzen sighs, easing into a chair next to the bed. "I'm not an expert in psychology, but I'd say Mizuki attacking and kidnapping her has significantly affected her."

"She's still refusing all other visitors aside from us?"

"Yes," he nods. "However, the medics and counselors still have to see her and neither of us can be present all the time. She remains emotionless and hyper vigilant to them, watching anyone entering her room like a hawk. I finally had to order her ANBU guards to remain outside her room. Despite hiding in the shadows, she can still sense them and refuses to relax her guard and rest when alone."

Iruka sighs heavily as his head falls back against the pillows.

"She's been that way to me too. I had hoped that maybe she was only that way with me out of fear I might turn on her like Mizuki."

"It's not just you, Iruka," Hiruzen gently reassures him. "It's also not her simply being overly wary either. I asked her to tell me what happened that night when I visited her this morning."

Iruka's head snaps up to gape at him.

"I needed to know and the medic treating her said she was up for it," Hiruzen explains. "She gave a very succinct report, leaving out a lot of details."

Leaning back in the chair, the aged Hokage sighs again heavily.

"I kept trying to coax more details out of her, but she remained evasive." He pauses as his gaze bores into Iruka's. "I know she was holding back on many details because when she described the attack near the shed, she didn't say anything about Mizuki molesting her."

Iruka gasps in shock.

"Mizuki molested her?" he softly asks in horror. "H-how do you know?"

"Because I bore witness when I used my crystal ball to locate Naruto." Hiruzen's eyes closed briefly and his head drops slightly forward before meeting Iruka's horrified gaze. "Once Mizuki left the range of the crystal ball, I called upon that ANBU squad because they specialize in tracking. When Naruto continued being evasive, I told her what I witnessed. That is when she finally admitted to what really happened, showing me there is something seriously wrong with her."

"What do you mean?" Iruka hesitantly asks, almost afraid of the answer.

"She was too emotionless and detached," the older man explains. "She appeared unaffected by what Mizuki did. We both know that's a sign of residual trauma." Iruka nods in agreement as he continues. "As I prodded for more details, especially regarding any part that was particularly traumatic, she became colder and distant."

"Hokage-sama," Iruka interrupts. "Naruto is too caring to be unaffected. I know she had to have been horrified witnessing those other girls being killed when they didn't sell."

"Normally, you'd be correct, but she treated that part like she was discussing the weather. She behaved the same way when she described Mizuki's attempt to rape her with a kunai after escaping from the slave market. I finally asked why she was behaving that way and she replied she was only efficiently reporting the facts as any proper shinobi should. Any extra emotion would distort those facts. As far as she's concerned it happened, she survived and it's time to move on."

"Combine that with her past experiences and it's not really surprising she's behaving that way, is it, Hokage-sama?" Iruka asks in dismay.

"No, it is not," Hiruzen agrees, shaking his head. "She is at least going along with the counseling so far."

"Good," Iruka sighs in relief. Smiling he adds, "We need to restore some of her old spark or the village will get too boring.

The two men chuckle and continue chatting before Hiruzen excuses himself to return to duty.

Stealing as fast as he can down the hospital corridors in a medical yukata, Iruka contemplates designing a lesson on escaping captivity while injured. Sneaking around for an unauthorized visit with Naruto in the secured ward is not easy.

He didn't want to go through the hassle of notifying a nurse of his intention because they'd insist on accompanying him. Having another person in the room makes Naruto even more uncomfortable. Besides, there's no reason for the nurse to stay during his visit since he and Naruto are both in the secured ward. The Hokage took his usual precaution of insisting Naruto remain there and made a special allowance for Iruka to keep him nearby in case they need him.

Iruka figures he must be amusing the ANBU guards, but he he's not bothering to try hiding from them. He just isn't interested in dealing with an overly curious nurse.

Reaching his destination, he slips inside Naruto's room. He isn't surprised she's alert and watching his every move.

"Hi, Naruto," Iruka greets warmly. He calmly and slowly walks towards her bed. "Sorry for barging in, but I wanted to see you."

He ignores her tensing up to ease into the chair next to her bed with a relieved sigh.

"How are you feeling?" he asks.

"I'm fine."

"Not feeling any discomfort or pain?"


"I'm surprised you're not climbing the walls to get out of here or pranking the medics and nurses into hysterics," Iruka prods.

"It doesn't get me out any sooner, Iruka-sensei," Naruto replies dully.

"Naruto," Iruka begins seriously. "You know you can talk to me about anything, right?"

Naruto doesn't answer. She just continues serenely watching him. Tamping down the urge to shout at her, Iruka tries again.

"Naruto, I'm not Mizuki." He notices her body stiffen even more, but continues anyway. "He put you through hell…"

"I'm tired, Iruka-sensei," Naruto declares, refusing to look him directly in the eyes as she slides down further into the bed. "Sorry, but I should sleep."

Naruto curls on her side, but doesn't close her eyes. Catching the blatant hint, he knows he should leave, but desperately wants to try breaking through to her one last time.

"I just wanted to come by and tell you that you graduated. You're a genin," he states quietly while pulling a hitai-ate out of the pocket of his yukata. "I haven't been able to get out of the hospital to get you a new one, so I hope you don't mind if I give you mine."

He lays it on the bed near her knee. He watches her gaze reluctantly shift to the dirty headband before easing into a sitting position to gently take it into her hands.

"Why?" she asks, staring down at the swirling leaf pattern.

"Because you persevered under extreme conditions, demonstrating your grasp of what you learned in the academy," Iruka gently explains.

"No I didn't," Naruto slowly shakes her head while still staring at the headband. "I was failed 'cause I didn't learn anything. I'm a risk out in the field. You were right to fail me all those times and I should've just accepted it." She pauses before quietly adding, "I probably should go back to the academy."

Iruka gapes in shock before gazing steadily at her despite her refusal to look him in the eye.

"Naruto, I'm not graduating you for any other reason than I know you earned it."

Naruto sets the headband back on the bed near him.

"I'm tired, Iruka-sensei."

Making no move to take the headband, Iruka slowly rises to his feet.

"Get some rest, Naruto. I'll visit again later."

Iruka lies on his back, brooding over Naruto when the Sandaime enters the room.

"Good evening, Iruka," he greets warmly, taking a seat next to the bed.

"Good evening, Hokage-sama," Iruka greets back, easing into a sitting position.

"I understand you took the opportunity to stretch your legs all the way to Naruto's room for the past two days without a nurse accompanying you."

"I wish I could say they were productive visits," Iruka sighs heavily.

"Well, it had more of an impact than you might believe." Iruka's gaze snaps to Sarutobi who merely pulls out his pipe and, without lighting it, places it in his mouth. "She was acting normal when I visited her a little while ago. She wanted to know when the medics were going to let her out because she's missing out on valuable training time and old man Teuchi is going start thinking she gave up completely on his ramen."

Ignoring Iruka's stunned expression, Sarutobi chews on his pipe for a few moments.

"I don't believe her for one minute. I know she was closed off with you again during your visit and the turnaround since then is too extreme for me to accept."

"She's only doing what she thinks we want her to," Iruka solemnly reasons.

Hiruzen nods.

"She's been doing the same with the counselors who've tried working with her. None so far have been successful in coaxing her into opening up. Because of her behavior I asked the medics to create as many excuses as possible to keep her in the hospital until the counselor's efforts succeed, but they can't. Even the counselors have advised it would be damaging to her to keep her confined to the hospital any longer."

Overwhelmed, Iruka takes a few moments to absorb the Sandaime's words.

"The moment she's released she's going to go into hiding. She won't be able to deal with what's happened if she runs from this."

"It is the less destructive of our options," Hiruzen gently counters. "However, it's a risk we have to take. I will try to assign an ANBU team to track her, but that depends on availability. She will have to continue meeting with a therapist or I will be forced to have her committed to the psyche ward."

Iruka stares at the older man in shock before sagging in defeat.

"We really don't have a choice, do we?"

"No, we don't."

"Can you get the medics to release me? You'll need me to be available to her."

Hiruzen smiles.

"It's already done. You can go home. The medics aren't too happy with me, but they usually aren't anyway."

"They'll get over it," Iruka grins.

A week later a knock on the door captures Hiruzen's attention as he diligently scribbles his life away through paperwork. Sighing softly in irritation, he sets down his pen and reaches for his pipe, wondering who was coming to bitch at him for allowing Naruto's sudden graduation and joining the ranks.

"Come in," he orders around his pipe.

He's pleased it's Iruka and not one of his seething former teammates.

"Ah, Iruka, please have a seat," he gestures at the empty chair.

"Afternoon, Hokage-sama," the bandaged chuunin greets as he settles in the chair. "I stopped by hoping that Naruto has been easier for you to keep track of than she has been for me."

"No, she hasn't," the older man admits wearily. "As suspected, Naruto basically went into hiding once she was released. She does show up for her counseling appointments, but is hard to find any other time. By all indications, she is staying within the village, so I'm not overly concerned by her low profile."

"It's still not normal behavior," Iruka frowns. "How have her therapy sessions been going? Any improvement there?"

"Not at all. She either gives the therapists a hard time by sticking to severely limited answers or says what she thinks they want to hear." The Third pauses to tap out his pipe and spent a few moments refilling it and lighting it before continuing. "I'm going to ask Yamanaka Inoichi to step in and work with her."

Iruka blinks in surprise.

"Inoichi-san? I didn't know he was a therapist."

"He isn't," Hiruzen states matter of factly, stunning Iruka further. "He's well trained in his clan abilities and has studied psychology, but has no experience as a counselor. However, due to his assignment in T&I he has considerable analytical experience, but instead of using his skill to break Naruto, he will try to break through to her. I believe he can connect to Naruto far better than any of the other counselors."

The uncertain young chuunin rubs at his scar while considering his leader's words.

"You know Inoichi-san and his abilities far better than I, so it's probably what Naruto needs most right now since she's going out of her way to avoid the two of us and is refusing all other help."

"We're running out of options," Hiruzen reluctantly admits. "Having Inoichi work with her is potentially the most successful and least damaging choice I have left."

"I hope it works," Iruka worriedly murmurs.

"So do I," the Sandaime solemnly agrees.

Two weeks later another knock distracts Hiruzen from his work. Tamping down his irritation, he barely manages a civil sounding, "Come in."

He relaxes upon seeing Iruka step into the office.

"Ah, Iruka, have a seat," he invites more warmly.

"Are you sure, Hokage-sama?" Iruka hesitantly asks. "You sound like you're very busy."

"Just the usual frustrations accompanying this office," Hiruzen explains wearily. "What brings you on by? Checking up on Naruto?"

"Yes. I'm hoping I'm wrong by saying I haven't noticed any improvement with her. By all appearances she's meshing well enough with Team 7, but it still doesn't seem right. I'm wondering if Inoichi-san has made any progress with her and I'm just not seeing it."

"Unfortunately, no," Hiruzen solemnly replies. "Even Inoichi has become frustrated by her stubbornness. After a particularly combative session he came to me and suggested Ibiki take a crack at her to get her to open up since he's always up for a challenge."

"Combative?" Iruka asks in surprised confusion.

"Apparently she questioned his credentials, asking if Inoichi bought them on the Black Market." Hiruzen pauses to watch Iruka wince. "She then questioned if he were even a shinobi or if Ino was making it up."

Iruka blows out a frustrated breath.

"Yeah, I see why that didn't go over well with Inoichi-san." Reluctantly he adds, "I've been after her to open up to me and she lashed out today. She yelled at me to stop bugging her because she didn't want to be a ninja anymore and then ripped off her headband and threw it at me before taking off."

Hiruzen studies the young man sitting before him, seeing how much Naruto's actions hurt him.

"This puts me in a very difficult position, Iruka." Grabbing his pipe he takes a drag. "It's too risky let her continue this way. Even her jounin-sensei is worried about her mental health, which means it had to be bad for Kakashi to tear his nose from his Icha Icha long enough to notice."

Iruka can't resist sharing a chuckle with Hiruzen over his joke. Becoming serious again, the aged Hokage continues.

"I may have to have her confined to the psyche ward."

"You can't do that! It'll destroy her if you do!" Iruka protests.

"Don't you think she's doing an effective job of that all on her own?" Hiruzen asks, his keen eyes boring into Iruka.

Iruka blows out a harsh breath before reluctantly nodding.

"You're right, but please give me one last chance to get through to her."

Hiruzen studies the young man before finally conceding.

"You have three days, counting today." At Iruka's confused expression he elaborates further. "Her level of agitation and mental health worries me a great deal. I want to see her recover, but I also have to worry about the village if she loses control. If you don't find her and get through to her, I will send out a search detail. Understood?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Iruka nods grimly and rises from his seat, leaving his Hokage to brood alone.

Iruka spends the rest of the day and every minute of the next trying to find Naruto. He hoped to ambush her at her counseling appointment the next day, but she didn't even show up.

He literally looks everywhere and is really starting to worry by noon on the third day. Desperate, he decides to search the forest again. He doesn't even set one foot inside the tree line when he sees her emerge from the shadows.

"Iruka-sensei?" she asks curiously.

"Naruto!" he calls out in relief.

He has to restrain himself from grabbing her into a hug. Since they got back to Konoha she reacted badly to all physical contact.

"I was getting worried about you."

"Why?" she asks feigning surprise.

Tamping down his annoyance, Iruka takes a deep breath.

"I've been looking for you for three days," he patiently explains. "No one has seen you, so of course I got worried."

Not meeting his gaze, Naruto nervously scratches behind her ear.

"I knew you'd be looking for me, but I thought the Old Man would've had a search party out for me already. I thought it's better to come in before I got dragged back by ANBU."

Iruka only nods, deciding to let it go since she's calm and walks with her back into the village in silence.

"Well, since it's still early, how about we go for some ramen?" he suggests minutes later.

Out of the corner of his eye Iruka sees her hesitate.

"I don't have any money," she feebly protests.

"You know it's always my treat, Naruto," he playfully admonishes, rolling his eyes for emphasis. "Not unless you've got a hot date you have to get to."

He watches her inwardly struggle.

"Okay," she quietly relents.

Iruka smiles at her reassuringly as he leads them to Ichiraku Ramen. He plans to have lunch then go for a long walk. However, he notices how uncomfortable she is. Since their backs are to the street he observes her out of the corner of his eye fidgeting and repeatedly glancing over her shoulder at every noise and voice that passes by.

"Hi, you two!" Ayame greets as she steps forward to take their orders. "Long time no see!"

"Hey, Ayame," Naruto quietly greets.

"Hi, Ayame, how are you?" Iruka cheerfully greets back.

"Good," the brunette answers before excitedly focusing on Naruto. "I hear you graduated! Congratulations!"

At Naruto's uncertain expression he answers instead.

"That she has," he smiles proudly.

"Congratulations, Naruto!" Teuchi calls out from his usual spot at the back of the stand.

Naruto smiles and waves, but Iruka can tell she's really anxious and uncomfortable with their attention. Deciding things are getting too stressful for her, he mentally scraps his original plans.

"I thought we'd celebrate with a ramen picnic, so I need two bowls to go."

"Great idea," Ayame agrees. "It's a beautiful day for it. The usual?"

"Yes, thank you."

After paying for their orders, Iruka leads a still tense Naruto through the crowds towards the park several minutes later. He doesn't fail to notice she relaxes considerably when they step within the boundaries as they head deeper into the surrounding woods.

They settle on a couple of large boulders in a small clearing as a large stream burbles noisily nearby. The area is far enough off the beaten path to ensure privacy and the boulders afford a nice 360-degree view of the area surrounding them. It seems to be a good spot as Naruto climbs onto one while he settles onto the other one. She appears more relaxed than he's seen her in days. However, he knows she's still wound tight because he finished eating his bowl long before she got halfway through hers.

He debates on badgering her about what's wrong or just waiting patiently for her to come to him. He decides to compromise between the two.

"I'm not going to push you to talk," he quietly states, breaking the serene silence. "When you're ready, I'm here to listen." Out of the corner of his eye he sees she stopped eating and is listening. "Despite what you think, you've more than earned the right to wear the Konoha leaf. I'm proud of how well you handled yourself throughout Mizuki's plot, but I'm sorry for not being there for you when you needed it."

Naruto looks at him confused.

"Why are you sorry? You're one of the few who cared, much less bothered to come rescue me."

"I'm sorry for not being there for you while you attended the academy," Iruka smiles warmly. "When I lost my parents during the Kyuubi attack everyone sympathized with me, but then eventually forgot I was there as they moved on with their own lives. My grades dropped and I became the class clown to get their attention. You're just like me and I remember how lonely it was and should've been there for you more. If I had, then maybe Mizuki wouldn't of had the chance to hurt you like he did. I'm so sorry you had to go through that," he apologizes emphatically. "I hope you'll reconsider becoming a shinobi because after seeing you in action against Mizuki I believe you'll surpass all the Hokage before you."

Naruto stares in shock.

"I thought you were unconscious."

"I kept going in and out of consciousness," he explains. "I was awake long enough to see your reaction to Mizuki's goading. I'm proud of how you took the high road and incapacitated him rather than go for the kill even though you would've been more than justified. That would've been a difficult decision even for the most seasoned shinobi."

Iruka sighs heavily, looking out at the beautiful scenery surrounding them before continuing.

"What Mizuki put you through is what shinobi are more likely to encounter on higher ranked missions. I won't to lie to you. As a shinobi going out into the field every mission has the potential of turning out that way or worse. It's difficult to overcome a mission that has gone south that badly, but it's not impossible. Even if you still don't want to become a ninja, I hope you won't let Mizuki win by allowing what he did destroy you. You're a lot stronger than you think."

Iruka watches in concern when Naruto remains still. She sits quietly for the longest time and doesn't move or react when he gently removes the unfinished ramen bowl from her grasp. He waits patiently for her reaction and is immensely relieved when he sees the first silent teardrops dampen her lap. At her first sob he pulls her into his arms.

Through her tears she hoarsely admits, "I don't know what do to or how to fix this."

"You don't have to figure it out alone, Naruto," he assures her, rubbing soothing circles on her back. "We can help and want to help you, but you have to give us a chance."

"I'm scared of getting hurt again. I trusted Mizuki. Who else is gonna to turn on me?"

"It's a tough call," Iruka reluctantly admits. "But you have to remember not everyone is out to hurt you. There are people like me who care for you and love you. I don't want to see you deny others the opportunity and honor of getting to know you because of Mizuki's treachery."

Naruto doesn't answer, but continues crying into his chest. Iruka keeps soothing her, giving her time to cry it out.

"Are you ready to return with me to the village and see the Third?" he asks when her crying finally subsides. "He's very worried about you."

Naruto's only answer is to nod numbly and slide off the boulder. She allows him to guide her by shoulder all the way to the Hokage tower.

It's another long day and Iruka is grateful to be free for the rest of the evening. He loves his duties as both an academy sensei and working as an administrator in the tower, but there are days like today where he's more than eager to leave the grind behind for a relaxing afternoon.

Exiting through the main doors, he stops when he hears someone calling out his name. Looking off to his left he's surprised to see Yamanaka Inoichi strolling up.

"Haven't seen you in awhile, Iruka, how've you been?"

"I'm good, Inoichi-san," Iruka greets back. "The last time we saw each other was when Ino graduated from the academy."

"Which feels like the last time I saw Ino myself since she became a genin," Inoichi rolls his eyes, prompting Iruka to laugh.

"I know you can't breach patient confidentiality, but I'd like to know how Naruto is doing?" Iruka asks becoming serious. "She tells me her sessions are going well, but I need to know if that's genuinely true."

"If Naruto didn't trust you, I probably wouldn't answer that question at all," Inoichi replies honestly. "But since I'm not going into specifics I can honestly say she's doing much better and improving."

"She's no longer fighting you in her sessions?" Iruka asks, unable to curb his disbelief.

"No," Inoichi smiles. "She's become more cooperative and from what she says it's all thanks to you. I think we would've had to commit her to the psyche ward if you hadn't gotten through to her, Iruka," he admits seriously.

"It almost didn't work, so all the credit really goes to Naruto."

"She had to want to reach out for help," Inoichi agrees, crossing his arms across his chest. "She's really impressed me with her determination to overcome this. I had no real opinion of Naruto one way or other prior to this. I didn't hate her for being the container, but I didn't think much of her either," the older blond shrugs. "But she definitely won me over."

"I wish more people thought the way you do, Inoichi-san," Iruka sighs heavily.

"Given time, they will because Naruto will win them over with her efforts," he reassures the younger man. "They just need a forceful nudge to get them to take the time to really see her, which is why I've even gone so far as to take her home to have dinner with my family."

At Iruka's arched brow and incredulous expression, Inoichi laughs.

"I know it's unusual, but unusual seems to work best with Naruto."

"I can't argue with that," Iruka concedes. "But what about Ino? She's never been friendly toward Naruto."

"Well, that hasn't exactly been going very smoothly," Inoichi wearily sighs. "Ino is definitely jealous. I'm not about to break Naruto's trust by clueing Ino in on her situation to get her to be more accepting. However, I'm trying to show Naruto that it's okay to risk forming relationships outside her current, albeit small, circle of trusted people. She needs to know not everyone is like Mizuki. I feel a friendship between the girls would be mutually beneficial. Ino needs to learn to be more tolerant and accepting of others while Naruto needs friends her own age." He pauses to roll his eyes. "After evaluating her teammates and listening to Naruto, I know she won't ever get that friendship with them."

"I hated having to assign her to the same team as Sakura and Sasuke, but the guidelines we use leave no room to be flexible," Iruka explains apologetically.

"It's not such a bad thing because it's made Naruto more determined to do her best and improve," Inoichi reassures the brunet. "I've had to scold Ino a couple of times for her comments to Naruto. Ino behaves better towards her, but that only lasts as long as my wife or I are in the room."

"What has Naruto said about that?" Iruka asks before he immediately realizes he's being too invasive. "I'm sorry! That's breaching patient confidentiality!"

"I don't think this is breaching it too much. It's not related to her attack and isn't too personal either," Inoichi thoughtfully reasons. "Naruto tries avoiding discussing it, but I keep annoying her by tricking her into it," he grins, causing Iruka to smirk. "She admits it hurts for Ino to be like that because she really wants to become friends. To me, that's a great sign. Naruto isn't cutting herself off from people and has the desire to connect with others."

Iruka briefly closes his eyes and sighs in relief.

"That's really good to hear. I hardly get to see her interacting with anyone else, so I can't judge whether she's deliberately closing herself off from others or if it's the usual attitudes she encounters because of her situation."

"The important thing is that Naruto isn't giving up," Inoichi points out. "Sooner or later Ino will have to open her eyes to reality as opposed to what she thinks is true. And that's something she can only learn the hard way," he shrugs.

"The best lessons are the most painful ones," Iruka muses thoughtfully, rubbing at his scar.

"True," the older man agrees. "I won't keep you any longer, Iruka, and I have to see the Hokage."

"Thank you for sharing that with me. It was nice seeing you again, Inoichi-san," Iruka waves and continues down the path as the blond disappears into the building.

A week later Ino is wondering why she got saddled with the most annoying parents on the planet. It doesn't make sense why her mother would send her on a mediocre errand to deliver some documents related to their flower shop to her father at the T&I building. She's a genin! She has more important things to do!

It's a concept her mother just stubbornly refuses to understand.

Her father isn't any better. Doesn't matter how many ways she looks at the situation, she just can't understand why he recently began bringing Naruto over to their house and force her to socialize with the baka. All the years she had to endure her at the academy in the same class and now her father wants to socialize with the dead last? It just doesn't make sense and all he says is he's trying to reach out to their fellow shinobi like true leaf nin should.

Ino wonders if the strain of working in T&I is getting to him.

What makes the situation worse is her mother is going along with it and allowing Naruto to invade their private life. Ino thought she was free of the annoying redhead's nonsense forever, but it seems her parents want to punish her for some imagined slight.

So not only is Ino forced to waste her time on mediocre errands, but also she's got to play nice to the baka in her off time. She really wishes she knew what she did to piss off her parents.

As she turns a corner in the corridors of the T&I building, Ino's brooding thoughts are interrupted when she sees Naruto leaving her father's office up ahead. The redhead turns to go the opposite direction, too lost in her thoughts to notice Ino rounding the corner.

Ino's eyes narrow in annoyance. It's time to figure out what game the baka is running on her dad. It has to be some sort of prank or scam because why else is he bothering with a loser like Naruto?

Rushing forward, Ino barges into Inoichi's office.

"Hi, daddy! Mom asked me to drop these off. Gotta go meet up with my team. Bye!" she says in a rush.

Inoichi doesn't even get the chance to greet Ino as she rushes his desk to drop a file on top before disappearing out the door.

"What the hell?" he mutters.

Shaking his head, he reaches for the folder, dismissing his daughter's odd behavior as another quirk he'll never figure out.

Meanwhile, Ino races through the building to catch up with Naruto. Emerging back outside into the bright sunshine, she searches the area before determining which direction her quarry went. She's lucky the redhead is walking at a leisurely pace and catches up quickly.

"Hey, Naruto!" the blonde calls, causing Naruto to stop and turn to her in surprise. "What are you doing bothering my dad at work?"

Naruto's happy expression at seeing Ino drops. She hoped to have a friendly encounter with her for a change. Sighing softly in sad resignation, she turns and continues on without a word, knowing Ino will only continue being a royal pain in the ass if given half a chance.

"Hey!" Ino protests. "Where are you going?" Not receiving an answer, she grits her teeth. "I'm serious. I want to know why you're leaving my dad's office? I know T&I clients are never out patients."

Ino trails after the redhead.

"Don't ignore me!" she demands. "He's my dad and doesn't know you like I do. I want to know what kind of scam you're running that has him convinced it's a good idea to bring you over so much."

Naruto continues ignoring Ino. She knows there's no point in answering the blonde because it'll only give her more fodder to dump back on her. She makes a mental note to convince Inoichi it's a bad idea to keep coming over for dinner at their house since Ino obviously isn't changing her attitude toward her at all.

Ino considers giving up, but realizes if she doesn't get to the bottom of things her dad will keep bringing the loser over. She then remembers hearing a couple of rumors involving Naruto and wonders if that might have something to do with her dad.

"Hey, Naruto," she nearly sings. "I heard something about you getting Mizuki-sensei into trouble and now he's no longer teaching." She notices Naruto's shoulders tense and believes she's on the right track. "It's funny how you failed the genin exam, again, then suddenly passed."

Ino unrelentingly follows Naruto through a twisting alleyway towards the training grounds.

"I wondered how a baka like you managed to graduate when everyone knows you failed. Did you want to get at Sasuke so bad that you found a way to get Mizuki-sensei fired?" she asks.

Ino's words drip with venomous contempt and she's so focused on Naruto, who continues ignoring her, that she doesn't notice when they leave the alley and pass Shikamaru and Choji.

"What's Ino doing?" Choji asks as they watch the two girls walk on.

"It doesn't look like a friendly chat and Ino is going to be late to our team meeting," Shikamaru muses.

"Asuma-sensei is going to be pissed if she's late again."

"We also won't get out on time, how troublesome," Shikamaru grouses sullenly. "C'mon, Choji, lets' see what's going on."

Choji obediently follows his best friend as they hurry to catch up.

Naruto leads the strange looking parade of genin across a training ground while Ino continues badgering her.

"So what happened, loser?" the blonde goads. "I never believed you didn't have a crush on Sasuke-kun like the rest of us. Mizuki-sensei isn't bad looking either. So did you get pissed at the missed chance to be on Sasuke-kun's team and took it out on Mizuki-sensei?"

Despite the silence, Ino grows more vindictive.

"Maybe you had a crush on Mizuki-sensei too. Hate to tell you this, driftwood, but he'd never return your feelings in a million years. Don't blame him for your failure to graduate. He tried helping you out. You shouldn't have lied to get him fired just because he was too good to return your pathetic feelings," she sneers.

Ino's too caught up in her spew that she fails to react when Naruto whirls around and slams a fist into her jaw. The stunned blonde lies on her back but doesn't react until she feels someone on top of her and they start punching and slapping her.

Growing even more pissed, she reaches up and buries her hands in red hair. Yanking down hard, she manages to draw her legs up and position her feet against Naruto's belly to push up and roll back onto her shoulders. The redhead rolls headfirst over Ino who then reaches up over her own shoulders to place her hands against the ground while flinging her legs backward then forward to flip back onto her feet.

Choji grabs Naruto around the waist, struggling to hold her back.

"Knock it off, Naruto!"

Ino smirks maliciously as she raises her hands into position for one of her clan jutsu. Her smirk drops away as she struggles to move her hands closer together.

"That's enough, Ino," Shikamaru warns.

Ino angles her head enough to glare heatedly at him over her shoulder.

"Let me go, Shikamaru!" she snarls.

"Not a chance. Now calm down."

"She started it!"

"Really?" he dryly asks. "Funny since you were following Naruto and doing all the talking."

"You don't get it, so stay out of it," Ino growls menacingly.

Their argument is cut off by the sound of crying. Surprised, both look over and see Naruto sobbing in Choji's arms.

"She just started crying," Choji helplessly explains at Shikamaru's questioning expression.

"Alright, Ino," Shikamaru begins, returning his attention back to his blonde teammate. "I'm going to release you. Don't do anything."

"Shut up," Ino snaps. "I'm not that cruel."

"After what I just saw, I'm not so sure," he mutters, earning another glare as he releases her and straightens up.

The two cautiously approach Choji and Naruto. Ino hangs back in confusion while Shikamaru drops to one knee in front of a still crying Naruto.

"What's wrong, Naruto?" he asks.

"Nothing," Naruto manages to croak through her tears.

Frowning, Shikamaru thinks back to the part of the exchange he and Choji witnessed. Realization lights up his eyes.

"What did Mizuki-sensei do to you?"

Stunned Naruto raises her head to stare at him in shock. Tears continue dripping down her cheeks as they watch her inwardly struggle.

"C'mon, Naruto," Choji gently prods, giving her shoulders a slight squeeze. "What did Mizuki-sensei do?"

Naruto takes a deep breath.

"He tricked me into committing a crime against the village," she begins reluctantly. "I'm forbidden to tell the details, but he said it was my last chance to graduate or I'd have to go back to the academy for another year. I did what he said and then he revealed his hoax and attacked me."

Naruto falls silent again and her gaze drops the ground.

"Mizuki-sensei would never attack a student," Ino begins protesting.

The words catch in her throat when Naruto looks up at her. The pain in her eyes is undeniable. Naruto isn't lying.

"What did he do?" she finally whispers hesitantly while slowly dropping to her knees next to Shikamaru.

Naruto hesitantly looks at all three of them. They won't drop it even if she keeps saying she's forbidden to talk about it. Swallowing thickly, she reluctantly details exactly what happened.

For several minutes Team 10 listens in horrified silence. When Naruto finishes, she closes her eyes, waiting for the inevitable protest or blow since Mizuki was a fairly popular teacher like Iruka. She tenses when she's engulfed in a hug and then surprised to hear Ino's voice in her ear.

"I'm sorry for being a stupid idiot, Naruto," Ino sincerely apologizes, her voice thick with emotion. "I jumped to all the wrong conclusions and shouldn't have been such a bitch to you. I'm so sorry for what that traitorous asshole did to you."

Naruto doesn't answer. Instead, she gratefully returns the hug, relieved and happy Ino finally accepted her.

"I was wondering where you guys were," a deep voice startles them.

The four teens turn to see Asuma approaching them.

"I went looking for you three when none of you showed up at the training ground," he explains.

He scrutinizes the scene before him. He notes the expressions on their faces, especially Naruto's irritated eyes.

"What's wrong?" he asks, with a frown.

Shikamaru briefly explains what happened between the two girls, but deliberately leaves out Naruto's story. He figures Asuma already knows about that, but feels it's her choice to mention it.

"Are you all right?" he asks Naruto.

"Yeah," she replies uncomfortably, rubbing the tears from her eyes. "Sorry for making Team 10 late."

"Don't worry about it. Besides it's really too late to do any training today and I'm hungry, so let's all go for some barbeque. Why don't you join us, Naruto?"

They all watch her silently struggle before Asuma drops to one knee before her.

"Not everyone shares the same attitude as Mizuki," he gently points out. "I don't deny there are some who do, but those who are true Leaf shinobi do not. Please give us a chance to show you that truth."

Eyeing him warily, Naruto hesitates.

"Why are you all being nice to me now?"

Shikamaru immediately realizes what she means.

"We're all genin now, not selfish little academy students focused on our own interests," he points out. "As genin we're comrades with every shinobi in the village and comrades take care of each other."

"C'mon, Naruto," Ino urged. "Please give me a chance to make up for my stupidity."

Naruto studies all of them before deciding they're being truthful.

"Okay," she agrees a soft smile.

Allowing Choji to help her to her feet, she joins them for what turned out to be the first great afternoon she had in a long time.

Hiruzen wearily sighs at the knock on his office door. He sincerely hopes it's not one of his old teammates or it is going to get very ugly between them.


He's pleasantly surprised when Iruka pokes his head in.

"Is now a bad time to visit? Or should I come back later, Hokage-sama?"

"Not at all, Iruka. Come on in," he beckons before reaching for his pipe and lighting it up.

"Sorry for bothering you, but I wanted to touch base regarding Naruto," the younger man explains while walking over to take a seat in front of the desk.

"You're giving me a needed break," Hiruzen grins. "Besides, it's been awhile since we've discussed Naruto. She's been doing much better and seems to be recovering from Mizuki's treachery, hasn't she?"

"I don't know if she'll ever fully recover from that, but she'll grow stronger from it," Iruka softly admits.

Hiruzen's eyes grow distant with memory.

"It's difficult to accept the betrayal of someone you trust wholeheartedly. Time allows us to eventually accept it, but we can never understand it." He focuses back on Iruka to shrewdly remark, "At least Mizuki's betrayal is a shared experience you can honestly say you understand exactly what Naruto is going through."

Iruka blinks in surprise as if smacked before recovering.

"True, but I really wish I didn't have to share this experience with her," he solemnly replies. "I'd give anything to go back and spare her all of it. But since I can't do that then I'll just have to do what I can to help her through it while trying to figure out why in the hell Mizuki would betray the village and do that to her."

"Greed seemed to be Mizuki's driving force," Hiruzen muses around his pipe. "He apparently wasn't satisfied with his life and career. Instead of striving to achieve his own level success and greatness, he decided to make a small fortune quickly and rebuild his life elsewhere."

Pipe smoke drifts lazily in the air while the older man watches Iruka struggle to control his fiery temper.

"Don't torture yourself or waste your anger on Mizuki, Iruka," Hiruzen soothes. "I know you were a good friend to him, but even the best friendships can't win out against intense greed. Take some comfort in knowing he didn't get away with what he's done."

Iruka takes a deep breath.

"Was T&I able to find out why he chose to trick Naruto? That still doesn't make sense to me because I failed her for a damn good reason, yet he had her break into a highly secure section of the tower to steal the Forbidden scroll of all things. He knew chances were good she'd fail and reveal he set her up to do it."

"I agree," Hiruzen nods. "The risks were too high and Naruto never demonstrated a sufficient enough skill set to lead anyone to believe her capable of accomplishing such a feat. Mizuki's only explanation was he thought everyone would believe Naruto solely responsible for stealing the scroll and would focus on looking for her within Konoha."

Iruka angrily shakes his head.

"He's an idiot. I can't believe we didn't catch onto how stupid he really was."

Hiruzen chuckles.

"Well, if it's any consolation he's paying dearly before being turned over to the prison." At Iruka's confused expression he continues. "T&I hasn't turned him over yet. They've got everything they're going to get out of him, but because of what he did to Naruto and his later revelations he sold other orphans before on the black market, Ibiki particularly enjoyed breaking Mizuki." The older man leans back in chair with a grin, "It's not common knowledge, but Ibiki hates child molesters and kidnappers as much as he hates traitors."

The aged Hokage trails off, allowing the implications to sink in and light up Iruka's face.

"And Mizuki fits all three categories," he murmurs before breaking into a wicked grin.

"Feel better, Iruka?" he chuckles.

"Yes, I do," Iruka nods before rising to his feet to bow. "I have to go meet Naruto, but now I feel better about everything. Thank you, Hokage-sama."

The aged man watches the young chuunin leave in amusement before sighing heavily and refocusing on his work.

I often neglect defining the non-English terms I use in my stories, but since I need to convert the metric measurements I used, I might as well take care of that:



Sixty meters-about 65 yards

Ryo-formerly used form of Japanese money.

Fifteen meters-about 16 yards

Kage bunshin-Shadow clone.

You need to be logged in to leave a review for this story.
Report Story