Partway in Iruka's POV, and partway in Naruto's, this fic is angst-laden (unusually so for me), but hopefully not OOC (which is why all the action is inside someone's head).  It follows Naruto's progress up through the end of the chuunin exam, I suppose (although the ending could be open to interpretation).  Pretty much spoiler-free.

Empty House

A short Naruto fanfiction by Victoria

Disclaimer: All characters, etc. of this story are the property of Kishimoto-sensei, my plot-writing hero.

*   *   *

                Sometimes, I'm amazed by his resilience.  He is ignored and even hated, but he never seems to lose his sense of self-worth.

                But surely I'm deluding myself.  Who could ever stand up to an entire village's distaste without wavering?  Without wondering if maybe everyone else was right?  Without fearing that perhaps you were a dream that could never be seen by anyone but yourself?

                What lurks behind that close-eyed smile?

*   *   *

                Sometimes I see it – a moment of desperation, a second of despair.  Sometimes, I say something and the flash of pain in his face makes me grimace.  He's a person too, you know, not just a demon's prison.

                Sometimes, he sits on his swing and longs.

                Sometimes, he doesn't move for hours.

                Sometimes, I wonder.

*   *   *

                He dreams that he has a mother and a father, and those are the best dreams, because the dream mother and the dream father love him and hug him and kiss him on the cheek for no reason at all, and do not have to see amazing feats of chakra to acknowledge him.

                And he wakes up to an empty house and says 'good morning'.

*   *   *

                He's a different person now than he once was, and different from what he might have been.  I worry about him, you know—it's not the same, not having him in my class day after day, knowing that he'll be there at the back of the classroom snoring, or staring out the window.

                He's only a genin. I shouldn't worry so much, I think.  The hardest job he might get would be a C-rank mission, and Kakashi-senpai is with him.

                I'm relieved, I think, when I look up at that corner he always sat in and see another student there.  I worry, but I'm glad.

                He was so stifled, and now he is so much more free.

*   *   *

                He takes my breath away, you know.  He was my worst student.  Can you possibly understand that?  How much different he is now?  Does anyone notice?  Doesn't someone care?

                He bends over his ramen and slurps it like there's no tomorrow.  The determination in his face is old, but the scratches on his forehead protector are new.  He was always self-assured, but now he fairly radiates confidence.

                Did he ever doubt that someday he would be so strong? Already I can see how much he's changed.  And it's not just the chakra, or the scratches on that forehead protector he longed for and earned.

                He knows he will be acknowledged.  That he is being acknowledged.

                That the day will come when he is acknowledged above all others.

                He is the rising star.

*   *   *

                He goes to eat ramen with Iruka-sensei, and those are the best nights, because Sensei listens to his stories and always wants to know more, and Sensei buys him more ramen so they can stay longer and talk about everything and nothing.

                And he comes home to an empty house and says 'good night'.

*   *   *

                He is different now, again.  And again, and again.  He is maturing before my eyes, and I wonder, sometimes, when he will surpass me, and what he will do then.

                I wonder, sometimes, if he knows he has already surpassed me in so many ways.

                He is sadder, I think, and tougher, because he has seen more pain, and the pain of others, than he once had.  Does he look beyond himself more, now, I wonder?  He aspires to be the Hokage; does he understand the care the Hokage must give to the village?

                I watch his eyes, and how they look about him, and I wonder.

*   *   *

                A little taller, a little thinner.  A face that is a little more long than before.  A bigger appetite, and a bigger smile.  A wistful look for Haruno-san whenever she passes by.

                Darker eyes.  Deeper thoughts.  A forehead protector that has seen more wear and tear than it should have.  A thoughtful glance.  A lower laugh.  A moment longer spent answering questions.

                And I know …

                Naruto Uzumaki's day is coming.

*   *   *

                He sits on his swing and thinks, and those are the worst times, because there is no one there to listen to his stories or buy him ramen, or love him and hug him and kiss him for no reason at all, and there is no one to tease and no one to be teased by, and no one to make fun of or be made fun of by.  His family is not  on his swing.

                But he knows that tomorrow they will see him, and he will laugh, because he is seen.

                And he comes home to an empty house and says 'good night'.