Chapter 1

Of the five great ninja Villages, the Village Hidden in the Leaves was undoubtedly the greatest.

“Please excuse me!” Iruka pressed his way through the mass of bodies, bowing beneath the disapproving glares of the pale-eyed men and women that made up the branch house of the Noble Hyūga Clan. “Has anyone seen my student? Blond hair, wears orange? Excuse me; I really am terribly sorry about all this…”

In order to bring an end to the senseless conflict of the Warring Clans era, the legendary First Hokage Senju Hashirama united the many clans in the Land of Fire by founding Konohagakure, and in doing so introduced the unique concept of one shinobi Village per country. Having a central base of operations for the nation’s entire military presented a level of organisation entirely unlike the chaotic clan warfare that had given the Warring Clans Era its dark name.

Iruka found his student flickering rapidly between the rooftops of the Hyūga clan’s compound, to which entry was strictly forbidden even to respectable outsiders, let alone the orphan boy that had just invaded their territory. “Uzumaki Naruto!” he cried out. “Just what do you think you are doing?”

The boy let out a surprised yelp at the sound of Iruka’s voice, and promptly fell from the roof, only to land right on top of the white marble statue of Hyūga Hiashi, the esteemed head of Konoha’s greatest remaining noble clan. Iruka winced internally at the sight, knowing full well who would receive the blame for this debacle in the end.

“It’s okay!” the boy chirped out. “Bruises heal quickly!”

After the First Hokage’s death his younger brother Senju Tobirama took up the title of Second Hokage, founding the Ninja Academy and the Anbu as well as establishing the rules and regulations that came to dominate Shinobi life. So successful were these organisations that the other countries had no choice but to follow suit: In each and every case, Konoha led the way, and the rest followed in their footsteps.

“Oh, Iruka-sensei!” the boy exclaimed, noticing him for the first time. He clambered down from the statue, leaving it covered with muddy footprints. “I was just gonna figure out how the body-flicker technique worked, but then I kept going to see how many times I could cast it in a row, and I was just starting to run out of chakra when suddenly all these people started yelling at me and chasing after me –like it’s my fault these buildings all look the same from above!” The boy stood up and dusted himself off, smearing more dirt onto his worn orange pants and jacket while a whole army of frantic Hyūga branch members rushed to investigate the statue’s damages. “So what are you doing here, Iruka-sensei? Aren’t you supposed to be teaching or something?”

Iruka stared at his student in disbelief. “It’s your class I’m supposed to be teaching, Uzumaki Naruto!”

Oh… right.” The boy scratched the back of his head awkwardly. “I guess I must’ve forgot.”

Of course, no great nation is without its enemies, and so it has been for Konoha. Three times the Land of Fire was embroiled in a Ninja World War, when the jealous countries of Stone, Sand, Mist, and Lightning sought to encroach upon Konoha’s territory. However, Konoha’s shinobi fought back valiantly, and under the leadership of its heroic Hokages they emerged triumphant every time. Yet after not even three years of hard-fought peace, the unsuspecting Village was once again faced with an enemy, one more terrible than all those that had come before… 

“…for in the Village there had appeared a mighty daemon fox, a monstrous mass of pure chakra and malevolence that lashed out at all living things without reason or purpose, and its size was so great that its shadow cast all of Konoha into darkness. One swing of its nine tails was enough to crumble mountains or cause tsunamis to rise up from the oceans. In order to fight-”

“Excuse me, Iruka-sensei?” A familiar student in the back row of the class was holding up his right hand to indicate a question, though since he continued speaking right away he seemed to have missed the intended purpose of the gesture. “If the Kyūbi was so big it could destroy mountains and stuff with its tails, and it was inside Konoha for almost an hour… how come the Village is still here?”

“The Village survived,” Iruka explained irritably, “because of the actions of the Fourth Hokage, who nobly sacrificed himself in order to defeat the rampaging beast. You would have known that, Uzumaki Naruto, if you had been paying attention at all in class this year!”

The blond troublemaker was originally an orphan from the Land of Whirlpools, which had been destroyed shortly before the Kyūbi’s attack on Konoha, and it was clear to Iruka that the boy had never quite managed to fit in. Moreover, there was something off about him, like a subtle underlying foulness to his chakra that instantly put Iruka on guard.

“About that…” Naruto said. “Uhm. Did he really defeat the Kyūbi all by himself? I mean, he had a whole army with him. Is it possible that some of the other ninja maybe helped him a little bit?”

“You would discredit the Fourth Hokage’s legacy?” Iruka was more astonished than angry, but even so, it was clear he would never become fond of this particular student. That infuriatingly cautious tone the boy used, that said ‘I don’t think I’m smarter than you, honest,’ was not exactly helping, either. Iruka slammed his hand onto the table. “The Fourth Hokage was a great hero who sacrificed himself so that you might live, yet you deface his memory by questioning his heroism!” The whole class was shooting dirty looks at Naruto now, and the boy rightly shrunk back in his seat in shame. Iruka turned back to reading from his history scroll, satisfied that his student had been sufficiently rebuked. Hopefully this means I can actually finish the day’s lesson plan for once.

It was just another day in peaceful Konoha, in the Land of Fire, where the sun always shines.

-o-

“Today we are going to focus on our taijutsu,” Iruka-sensei declared. “Everyone pair up and practice sparring together.”

The ordinary looking man – Naruto would have trouble distinguishing him from any other black-and-green clad chūnin-rank shinobi if not for the horizontal scar running across his face – read from his lesson plan as he spoke. Naruto was not entirely sure why he needed the scroll, since ‘tell students to practice hand-to-hand combat’ seemed pretty easy even for him to remember, but it was probably safer not to ask.

The class of thirty students and one teacher had gathered on an open field of dirt, an area which had been set up next to the massive round and red Academy building for the physical part of their ninja training. Usually there was more in the way of training equipment, but they had put that in the storage closet for today’s exercise. The morning sun was shining brightly as it always did, and all around Naruto drowsy classmates were huddling together and pairing up.

Naruto blinked, suddenly remembering that he was supposed to find a partner, and hastily looked around to see who was still unaccounted for. He walked up to one of the rougher looking boys, Kiba –most noticeable for the white dog he kept around wherever he went – and pulled on his jacket as he walked past.

“Hey. Hey, Kiba! Wanna spar?”

“Beat it, Naruto.” The taller boy wrinkled his nose at him before walking away, which Naruto thought was terribly unfair: He had bathed only two days ago, so he could hardly smell worse than the Inuzuka – a ninja clan that was said to sleep with their own dogs. Whenever he mentioned this fact some of the older students would burst out in laughter, but when Naruto asked why he never received any reply.

Undaunted, he turned his attention to the next classmate he saw.

“Hey Ino!” He waved at the heir of the Yamanaka clan, but the most popular girl of the class barely even looked at him, only frowning slightly as if examining a particularly curious insect before turning away.

Thinking of insects, Naruto looked towards Shino, but the insect-controlling Aburame clan member was already teaming up with Kiba. He turned his hopes to Shikamaru, but the Nara clan heir was with the rotund Choji as always. The two of them were pretending to train together, but in reality they were just chatting and gazing at the sparse clouds that drifted lazily along the sky.

Ever since Iruka’s outburst a few weeks ago, the other students had treated Naruto with even more disdain than before. Naruto was unsure what he had done that was so terrible to deserve this, but whatever it was, he resolved not to do it again. It was difficult to learn from your mistakes, however, when people got angry at you just for asking what you did wrong.

He brightened up when he saw Sakura, a pretty girl with pink hair and a pink dress. Well, he thought she was pretty, anyway: Ino teased her for her large forehead, while others teased her for spending her free time in the library, peering over old scrolls. She could be mean sometimes, but she was one of the only people who talked to Naruto on any regular basis, which earned her a special place in his heart.

“Sakura-chan!” he called out. “Do you wanna-?”

“Out of the way, I have to get to Sasuke-kun before Ino does!” She pushed past Naruto with such haste that he fell on his backside, squealing Sasuke’s name as she ran up to him and began fawning over her one-sided crush. The last member of the Uchiha clan seemed content with practicing alone, yet both Sakura and Ino were oblivious to the fact. He noticed that some of the other students were shooting envious looks at Sasuke as well.

What’s so special about that guy? My clan is gone too, but nobody ever seems to care about that. Yet even as he thought that, there was a part of Naruto that knew perfectly well that the ‘genius’ heir of the Uchiha Clan was rich and handsome, and that he himself was not.

As Naruto stood up and shook the dirt from his clothes, an idea occurred to him, and he walked up to the boy with a renewed sense of purpose. “Sasuke!” he yelled at the Uchiha’s back. “Spar with me!”

The others immediately told him to bugger off, but Sasuke, surprisingly, did not. The taller boy calmly turned around, and when Naruto saw his eyes he almost stumbled again in shock: There was none of the contempt there that he had expected, only a cool expression of perfect emptiness. Those black eyes calmly looked him over, and then turned away without as much as a single word.

Naruto’s mouth slowly opened and closed again. He stood there wordlessly as Sasuke went back to practicing his taijutsu moves, while the others went back to fawning over him. It was one thing to be ignored, Naruto thought, but being looked at like that and then dismissed as nothing was somehow even worse. Without pausing to think about it, he kneeled down and scooped up a handful of muddy dirt, and flung it directly at the back of Sasuke’s head. It impacted his sparkly-clean jet-black hair with a wet splorch, a sound which was immediately followed by deathly silence.

“Fight me,” Naruto said, repeating his challenge.

“Naruto!” yelled Sakura, and Ino and the others echoed her as well. “How dare you ruin Sasuke-kun’s lustrous hair!” She started to advance upon Naruto with rage writ on her face, but was shocked to see Sasuke hold out an arm to stop her.

“No, Sakura. Naruto clearly wants his duel very badly.” Uchiha Sasuke turned around to face him, and Naruto ground his teeth in frustration when he saw that his expression was exactly the same as it was before. The only difference was the mud in his hair, which he left there untouched, apparently not bothered by it in the slightest. “I shall give it to him.”

Naruto hesitated, unsure where to go from there. “Uhm. First to hit the ground loses?”

“Sure,” said Sasuke, putting both of his hands in his pockets. “Ready when you are.”

“…okay,” said Naruto, who felt his confidence drain by the second. “Uhm. Go!”

He lunged at Sasuke, but the Uchiha simply stepped sideways and Naruto missed him by a mile. The second punch was thrust at Sasuke’s face, but his opponent merely titled his head sideways to dodge.

“I’m sorry,” said Sasuke. “Did you say go yet? I think I might have missed it.”

There was cruel laughter coming from all around him, and Naruto felt his face turn red with building pressure. “Shut up!” he yelled, as Sasuke dodged a high kick. “Stand still, and fight back!”

“You are very demanding,” said Sasuke, “but as you wish.” When Naruto’s next blow came, he pulled one hand out of his pocket and grabbed Naruto’s wrist, twisting it sideways. Naruto shrieked in pain, a high-pitched sound that only elicited more laughter, and then Sasuke gave a sharp pull that yanked Naruto forwards until his mouth tasted dirt. “This means I win, right?”

The laughter seemed to continue forever, lasting deep into eternity. As it went on the sound became distorted: Their scorn pressed in on Naruto from all sides, their ridicule burrowing through his ears like worms and penetrating deep into his body, and there in the darkness it awakened a smouldering anger. The training grounds vanished: The space around him twisted and bent, the air pulsating as though with heat until only the narrow figure of Uchiha Sasuke remained within his field of vision.

Naruto launched himself at him right as Sasuke walked away, and the Uchiha only barely turned in time to defend against the ferocious assault. This time Sasuke had to take both hands from his pockets, but still he fended Naruto off easily, knocking each of his punches away with the flat of his palms. He’s more skilled than me, gotta catch him off guard and use his instincts against him. Naruto yelled at the top of his lungs and launched a sweeping kick towards Sasuke in a round arc. Right when Sasuke made to grab for the proffered leg, Naruto threw his full weight backwards and pulled the limb back in, even as he kicked his other foot upwards towards the enemy’s face. There was the briefest satisfying moment where Naruto could see Sasuke’s eyes widen in shock and spinning-

“Interesting,” he remembered him saying, and then Naruto was lying flat on his back, pain flaring through his body where his spine struck the ground.

What the… what just..? What the heck was that? For just one moment he had seen Sasuke’s eyes change, becoming the colour of blood and growing a second pupil shaped like a comma in each eye. Naruto tried to scramble away, but he was immediately kicked in the side, pain surging through his ribs as he collapsed back onto the soil.

“No, you’re not getting off that easily.” Sasuke was idly fingering a kunai, which he had pulled from nowhere. Naruto looked at the knife in fear, his anger draining away only to be replaced with raw terror.

“That’s enough,” said the voice of Sakura, worry permeating her voice. “Sasuke-kun, you’ve won the duel. You don’t have to go any further.”

“Oh, but I do.” Sasuke’s foot came down hard on Naruto’s shoulder, and he cried out in pain even as Sasuke clutched his kunai and drove it downwards. Naruto shut his eyes in horror, but he only felt cold iron brush against the skin of his arm. He stabbed the knife through the sleeve of my jacket, he realized with faint relief.

“You see, Sakura,” Sasuke continued, “What you just saw was no duel. This boy attacked me, the last member of the noblest clan of the greatest country, while my back was turned.” He slammed his foot onto Naruto’s left shoulder and repeated the procedure of before. “A crime that, I think you’ll agree, should not go unpunished.”

“He’s only a kid,” Sakura protested feebly. “I’m sure he’s learned his lesson.”

“I’m sure he has, but that’s not really enough, now is it?” Sasuke aimed for Naruto’s legs and did the same there, pinning his right pant leg to the ground with another kunai. Naruto did not even dare kick out at him, terrified as he was that Sasuke would accidently stab him as a result. “This boy attacked me out of pure jealousy: He saw that I had something which he lacked, and like a common brigand he sought to take it from me.” The last kunai was driven in, leaving Naruto completely pinned to the ground and helpless. “It is only appropriate that I take something equally valuable from him instead,” he finished, as he produced a fifth and final kunai from the pouch on his hip.

“Enough,” said Sakura, sounding as though it took all of her courage just to say that one word. When Naruto craned his neck he saw that she was holding Sasuke by one arm, stopping him from going any further, a dangerous look on her face. “You’ve made your point… now let him go.”

The last of the Uchiha stared at Sakura for a moment, but then a small smile appeared on his face and he visibly relaxed. “…as you wish. I did not realize that he mattered so much to you, Sakura.”

There was some scattered laughter, and Sakura’s cheeks flushed crimson. “He most certainly does not!”

“Oh?” Sasuke shrugged and, holding the tip of his knife between two fingers, flicked it high up into the air. “Well, I’m glad to hear it.”

Time seemed to stop as the blade arced higher, and higher, until it hung still directly above Naruto’s prone form. Then it started falling. He tried to move out of the way, but only succeeded in cutting his arms and legs on the daggers that held him in place. Sakura tried to intercept the knife, but the last he saw before he closed his eyes was Sasuke holding her back. I’m gonna die I’m gonna die I’m gonna die…

There was a thunk, and Naruto slowly opened his eyes, dreading to see which body part had been impaled. Instead, when he raised his head to look, he found the blade lying on the ground between his legs, right below his groin. It was a practice kunai, the kind that was used by students to spar – blunt and light and less dangerous than your average stick. The warm wetness pooling inside his pants wasn’t blood then, he concluded faintly.

There was more laughter then, hesitant at first but growing ever louder as the built-up tension was released. Even Sasuke was smirking, and in his black eyes there was a twinkle of mirth. “I was only joking around, Naruto. You didn’t really think I was going to hurt you, did you?”

-o-

“… and honestly, you’re lucky you got off so lightly,” Sakura continued unabated. “I mean: Once Sasuke comes of age he’ll be the Lord Uchiha, and you attacked him out of petty spite. They could have executed you, for that!”

Naruto stared at the empty scroll on his desk and said nothing. After the first few times having Sakura scold him he had gotten too tired to argue with her. The worst part was that he really could have gotten into serious trouble if not for Sasuke assuring Iruka-sensei that it had only been an intense sparring session which had gotten ‘slightly out of hand’. Somehow, Naruto only hated him more for doing that.

“And anyway, you have to bear in mind his childhood,” Sakura went on, her voice dropping to a whisper as she spoke. “Anybody would have been… affected, by what happened to him, and to his entire clan…”

Naruto glumly looked at the back of the Uchiha heir, who was sitting next to Ino today, much to Sakura’s chagrin. In truth, Naruto did not really know what had happened to Sasuke’s clan, though of course he had heard all the rumours by now: The most common story that went around – and the one that was repeated by officials – was that Sasuke’s now-infamous brother Uchiha Itachi had gone mad and killed everybody in the middle of the night, murdering an entire clan of elite shinobi singlehandedly despite how unlikely that seemed. Then there were those who claimed it had been the ghost of Uchiha Madara, returned from the grave to punish his clan for turning their backs on him. Others insisted that the entire clan had been cursed by the spirits for their sins, or that they had been involved in a daemonic blood ritual that ended up consuming their lives – and the stories only grew more incredible from there.

His thoughts were disturbed by the opening of the classroom door, through which stepped a young chūnin with shoulder-length white hair. The man softly closed the door behind him and walked up to the teacher’s desk, looking for all the world like he belonged there.

“Who are you?” Inuzuka Kiba demanded. “Where’s Iruka-sensei?”

“My name is Mizuki, and I am your substitute teacher,” the man replied calmly. “I’m afraid Iruka-sensei has taken some well-deserved time off; it seems he has been working very hard lately, and teaching this class has been quite stressful to him.” A smile flitted across his face. “Although, if I’m perfectly honest… I suspect it’s mostly one specific blond student who has been giving him difficulty as of late.”

There was some scattered laughter then, and Naruto felt blood rushing to his face. He’s just the same as all the others, he thought bitterly. Kiba did not appear to be placated either, as he huffed and turned around in his seat, facing away from this substitute teacher. Naruto couldn’t blame him: Iruka might not have been a great teacher, but at least he had been their bad teacher.

“I have been reviewing Iruka-sensei’s lesson plans with interest,” Mizuki went on. “I believe I see room for changes to better fit my personal approach to teaching. From now on, I intend to adjust lessons to your individual abilities, letting go of the more conventional approach in order to-”

“So I was thinking of going out to the Yakiniku Q tonight,” Kiba proclaimed loudly. “I hear their salted beef tongue hits the spot, but anything with red meat will do. Ain’t that right, Akamaru?” His white canine yapped happily in response.

The teacher paused, looking at Kiba as though waiting for him to stop talking to his dog. Naruto winced internally. The Inuzuka were half-feral themselves: They acted almost entirely on instinct, and challenging the alpha was both first and second nature to them. If this new teacher did not prove himself somehow, there would not be much done in the way of teaching before the final academy exams arrived.

The man cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, but I really cannot allow any discussion in the classroom while I teach. A single remark may seem harmless enough, but each comment invites further discussion from the others until the entire class becomes disrupted as a result. Since I cannot realistically enforce a limit to noise, my only option is to forbid conversation entirely. I trust you understand.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever.” Kiba waved his hand in a vague gesture that might have been anything from a polite greeting to a mortal insult. The white-haired man was apparently satisfied with this response, because he turned back to the class and continued his lecture from where he left off. Not even ten second later, Kiba started talking again, louder than before. The Inuzuka were not a clan particularly given to subtlety, Naruto reflected.

The entire class was watching the new teacher now, waiting with baited breath to see how he would react. Mizuki’s face twitched, and Naruto knew what was coming next: Any second now the teacher would blow up, screaming in frustration just like Iruka-sensei always did when he lost control of the class.

But instead Mizuki visibly relaxed, and calmly walked up to where Kiba sat.

“I am truly very sorry,” he said, his voice now dripping with honey. “I realize this is my fault – I should have remembered to get to know my students better before starting the lesson. Your name is Inuzuka Kiba, isn’t it?” The feral-looking boy said nothing, but Naruto could see him tense up. “You know, I met your mother earlier this week: She seemed a very lively woman. She had quite some good advice to give on dog-rearing, too – along the lines of how a timely clip around the ears can help keep an unruly pup in line.” Laughter rose up around the classroom as Kiba sputtered something inaudible and his face turned a dark shade of red, but the teacher was not done yet. “Then she invited me into her room for a late-night drink, but I had to politely refuse, since I’m allergic and I was worried I’d get a nasty rash…”

There was a moment of silence as those words sank in, and then the entire room exploded into raucous laughter. Kiba meanwhile was turning purple, and Naruto half expected him to leap out of his seat and attack the teacher then and there, but to his amazement Kiba sat back down and gave the white-haired man a look of almost grudging respect.

Mizuki waited patiently for the laughter to die down, but when it became clear that was not going to happen, he picked up a glass of water from his desk and threw it down onto the floor. Shards of glass flew in every direction, and the class hurriedly ducked behind their desks, instantly falling silent with shock.

The teacher coughed politely, as though that was all it had taken to get their attention. “…I realize it’s easy to underestimate the gap in knowledge between what is assumed and what is actually known, but I would hope that a class of ninjas is at least familiar with the basic concept of subterfuge. There are more places to hide than in the shadows: The most powerful sensing techniques may be foiled by suppressing your chakra and dressing like a common servant, and some of the greatest assassinations performed in the history of the Leaf might as well have been executed by a mere civilian.” There was a pause as his gaze went over the speechless class. “In short, if you wish to be strong you must be able to pretend to weakness, and you need to be able to recognize this quality in others as well. If I am to be your teacher I will make sure you learn at least that much.”

The entire class was hanging on his lips now, and what followed was the most intense classroom lecture Naruto had ever experienced. In truth, what Mizuki discussed was not all that different from Iruka’s usual material, and many of the things he said were things Naruto already knew. But when Mizuki-sensei spoke, it was as though everything he said had meaning: Instead of reading from a book, he seemed to choose every word with a specific intention and purpose, and every single student sat upright in their seats and listened. And so it was that when the lecture ended, Naruto was still there after all the other students had left, standing alone before the teacher’s unadorned wooden desk.

The man smiled congenially at him. “Naruto, was it? What can I do for you?”

Naruto scratched the back of his head. “I just wanna ask… that thing you did, making fun of Kiba to get everyone’s attention. Uhm. How did you know that was gonna work?”

“It’s just a matter of instinct.” The man shrugged. “I knew Kiba was the biggest trouble maker, so by making an example of him I could get the rest to fall in line.”

“Right,” said Naruto, nodding along. “Only… I tried to imagine someone like Iruka-sensei doing the same, and I just can’t see it working for him. Like, he always yelled and threatened to punish us a lot, but then he’d turn around and everyone would just go back to doing what they wanted. So how come it works when you do it?”

“Oh, so you want to know my secret, eh?” Naruto nodded eagerly, and the man leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “It’s intent. You see, people can usually tell when you’re bluffing, so the trick to get them to listen to you is simple: Never bluff. Always make sure that you have a backup plan, and never hesitate to carry it out if you have to.”

Naruto frowned. “But, then… what would you have done if Kiba had just ignored you?”

“Ah. Well, I suppose in that case I would’ve had to throw Kiba out of the window.” Naruto recoiled, and the man chuckled at his shocked reaction. “Oh, don’t act so alarmed. Ninja are not that fragile, and even if he had gotten hurt the Inuzuka would not have made a big deal out of it – they handle their own disputes in much the same way, after all. In fact, Kiba would probably have respected me more for it.

“But, but, wouldn’t that have gotten you in trouble with the other teachers? And, uhm, everybody else?”

The corners of Mizuki’s lips twitched. “Oh, probably! Most likely, yes, they would have talked ill of me behind my back and tried to have me dismissed. But I’ve already acquired a certain reputation, and the alternative would have been a very unpleasant school year where you don’t actually learn anything, and you’ll notice I didn’t actually have to go through with it to make it work. I find that people are often far more troubled by a small immediate loss than long-term failure, while the opposite should be the case.” Mizuki paused for a moment, as if considering something. Then, he smiled conspiratorially. “Listen, Naruto-kun. I can tell you a story to help explain what I mean, if you like, but you have to promise to keep it a secret. Can you do that for me?”

Naruto nodded. “I promise.”

The man leaned back in his seat, his grey eyes glistening over in remembrance. “Many years ago, before I became a teacher, I was sent on a mission along with an old friend of mine and another Konoha Shinobi. We had to deliver very sensitive information to a certain location, and I was told that the task was of vital importance. I can’t give you the details, but suffice to say that the enemy got wind of it and they ambushed us. Since our mission was to deliver the information no matter what, we decided to make a break for it. At first it seemed that we’d get away, but at the last moment a shuriken struck our new team member in the leg and he collapsed. I told my friend that we had to keep going to fulfil our mission, but he insisted on carrying him while we ran. How well do you think that worked out, Naruto-kun?”

Naruto considered this. Ninjas were very strong and fast while flaring their chakra, but it seemed unlikely that they could keep that up for very long. “Not well?”

“Not well indeed! The enemy was catching up to us, and it was becoming increasingly clear that we wouldn’t be getting away with him slowing us down like that. I told my friend as much, but he yelled at me that I should take over carrying the wounded man, even though this would result in us all being captured and tortured by the enemy. So what do you think I did?”

“You convinced your friend that he didn’t have a choice? You made him leave the man behind?”

Mizuki smiled again, though it no longer reached his eyes. “That’s right; I convinced him the only way I knew how. I agreed to take over, then took my kunai and slit the wounded man’s throat before leaving him behind. My friend had no choice but to face reality then, and we both slipped away and completed the mission safely – but even so he never forgave me for it. He told everyone in the Village what I did, and after that nobody ever really trusted me again. I saved my friend, I completed the mission, and all I had to give up for it was a man who was already dead… but even though I followed the Shinobi rules and did exactly what I was supposed to, everyone acted like it was my fault he died. As if the fact that I was the one holding the kunai made me responsible for his death, while my friend was innocent simply because he refused to accept responsibility. Afterwards, nobody trusted me on their team again, and it took me years to even get this teacher’s position. Does that seem fair to you, Naruto?”

Naruto felt himself turning pale. “No… no, it doesn’t.”

Mizuki stared out of the window, a morose expression on his face. “There are two types of ninja in this Village,” he said at last. “The first like to act nice and speak of lofty ideals like the ‘Will of Fire’, but they never assume responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The second group has a certain quality that lets them handle the unpleasant tasks that the others don’t want to be associated with – a quality known as Darkness – and they do this even though they know they will always be hated for it.”

Naruto followed Mizuki’s gaze through the window, to see if he could perhaps find this darkness his teacher spoke of. But outside, the sun was shining as brightly as it always had, and the birds were singing with not a care in the world.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 1

  1. Pingback: Prologue | The Need to Become Stronger

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