Disclaimer: Naruto is the intellectual property of Masashi Kishimoto and various companies. No profit is being made from this story, and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: This was the first Naruto story I wrote, and was something of an accident. I never meant to fall into a new fandom, and I thought I was writing a short one-shot. Then I thought I could finish the story in 7 chapters. Hah. I'm currently in the middle of chapter 12 and I have at least two more to go after that.
In any case, this is an AU story. I am pretending that in canon, Yukiko was one of the many victims of the Kyuubi's attack... but in this story she lives. And everything changes.
Summary: Chapter the First, in which Yukiko meets a demon, the Third Hokage is blithely manipulative, Naruto doesn't actually manage to douse people with buckets of water, and the author drives herself slightly crazy trying to sketch architectural blueprints of an apartment building.
The Way of the Apartment Manager: Chapter 1
This, Ayakawa Yukiko thought, staring blankly at the scowling, blond boy in front of her, was not what she'd expected from a summons to the Third Hokage.
She hadn't really been a ninja for years, and even then she'd never been more than a genin; her ninjutsu was terrible, her taijutsu wasn't much better, and genjutsu alone didn't get you very far if you couldn't get out of the way when enemies broke your illusions. But she was still technically available for missions and she'd thought that somebody might have been desperate enough to want a washed-up illusionist.
Being summoned because of her other job - managing the apartment building she'd inherited - had never crossed her mind.
"I have a one-room efficiency with an attached bathroom available, Hokage-sama," Yukiko said slowly. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, trying to control her hands and look nonchalant despite being shut in a small room with both the Hokage and a demon. "It's on the top floor, in the back, and it catches the wind during storms, but the insulation is up to code and the appliances work. The bathroom's tiny, but I don't think that'll be a problem." She eyed the blond boy again. He was so small to be a demon, and yet...
"Good," the Hokage said. "He'll move in tomorrow. I'll have the orphans' fund transfer payments to you, which should cover his rent and food. Thank you, Yukiko-san."
The boy's scowl deepened, stretching the whisker marks on his face. Yukiko suppressed a shiver, suddenly wishing she still carried more than two hidden kunai. He's sealed, she told herself. He couldn't hurt her as long as he was sealed.
"She doesn't like me," the boy said. "I don't want to live with her."
The Hokage sighed. "You won't be living with her, Naruto, just in the same building. You're getting your own apartment. Didn't you tell me just last week that you wanted to leave Midori-san's house?"
"Yeah, yeah, but I still don't like her!" The boy pointed at Yukiko, blue eyes narrowed. "She's just like everyone else. I bet she turns off the heat in my room like Midori-san does."
Yukiko scowled back at him. "I don't play favorites. If you pay the rent, you get the same services as everyone else, whether I like you or not." And whether he was a demon or not. She might not be much of a ninja, but she still had her pride.
"So, so, you won't turn off the heat, and forget to unlock my door, and tell me dinner's an hour after it really is?"
Yukiko looked sidelong at the Hokage. Even if the boy was the demon who'd nearly destroyed Konoha, the village of Hidden Leaf, couldn't the old man have found someone a little less vindictive to care for him while he was in this body? And while he was at it, couldn't he have explained the difference between living under somebody's care and living on your own?
"When you have your own apartment, you have your own keys," she told the boy. "I can't lock you out. And you'll have to make your own meals, so you get to decide when to eat. All I do is make sure you have water, heat, and electricity, and repair any major problems. If something breaks down normally, I'll fix it. But!" she added, frowning at his sudden grin, "if it breaks because you did something stupid, that's your own problem. So don't jump on the bed and then complain to me when it cracks."
The boy scrunched up his face, pondering.
"Well, Naruto?" the Hokage asked. "Do you still want to leave Midori-san?"
"Yeah!" the boy decided. He thrust his hand out toward Yukiko. "And I'm gonna be the best person you've ever had in your apartments! Can I have my keys?"
Yukiko smiled despite herself, but nodded rather than risk shaking the boy's hand. "Not now. Hokage-sama will bring you to the building tomorrow and you'll get them then. Is three o'clock good?"
The Hokage nodded. "Yes. Thank you again, Yukiko-san. Naruto, please return to Midori-san; she's waiting outside my office. I'll see you again tomorrow."
The boy grimaced and stuck out his tongue, but obediently trudged out the door.
The Hokage watched him go with a small smile, and then turned back to Yukiko. "Yukiko-san, you are a shinobi, correct?"
She nodded. "I was. I never passed the chuunin exam, but I'm still decent at genjutsu. Why?" A sudden thought struck her. "Is he dangerous? I know he's sealed, but what if-"
"No." The Hokage held up his hand firmly. "Uzumaki Naruto is not dangerous. And he is not the Kyuubi. The fox is sealed within him, true, but Naruto himself is as human as any other six year old boy." He sighed. "I'd hoped people would let go of their hatred over the years, but it seems that nobody bothers to watch him closely enough to see him for himself."
He fixed Yukiko with a stern look. "I came to you for his apartment because I knew you were a ninja. You understand duty, and how duty comes above personal likes and dislikes. I'm not asking you to like Naruto, but I will hold you to your claim of impartial service. Consider this a mission, if you like; you'll be paid extra along with his rent."
What? "I may not have been much use as a ninja," Yukiko began, feeling her voice rise despite herself, "but I have honor. I've agreed to rent him an apartment. End of story. Don't you dare insult me by making it a mission and paying me extra as if I'd try to weasel out! I don't care if he's the Kyuubi or not; if I say he gets the apartment and fair treatment, he gets the apartment and fair treatment. That's a promise, and I don't go back on my word!"
The Hokage smiled, and Yukiko suddenly realized that she was leaning over his desk, hands planted on the stacks of papers and a snarl on her face. She was yelling at the Third Hokage! What was she thinking? Any second now guards would pop in from nowhere and drag her away to interrogation...
The Hokage was smiling.
"I'm sorry about that, Yukiko-san, but I needed to make sure," he said. "As you may have realized, Tani Midori can be somewhat... inconsiderate... of Naruto, and I hoped to avoid that sort of problem in his new home. I will bring him by at three tomorrow. And yet again, thank you for agreeing to this."
The Hokage motioned toward the door. After an embarrassed bow, Yukiko left.
It was nearly three. Yukiko had spent the morning dusting the tiny, top-floor apartment, patching cracks in the plaster, and scrubbing the bathroom with bleach. She didn't normally go to all that effort for new tenants, but she didn't want to give the Hokage a bad impression after her promise yesterday. Besides, there was no telling just how secure the boy's seal was, and she'd really rather not deal with an offended demon. She trusted the old man - he was Sarutobi-sama, teacher of the legendary Three, chosen two separate times as the Hokage of Konoha! - but still, better safe than sorry.
There. She'd spotted three figures walking down the street - the Hokage, a masked Anbu guard carrying several packages, and the fox-boy, who was skipping and running excitedly around the two ninja, darting aside to jump in piles of fallen leaves, and making faces at other pedestrians. Yukiko straightened her old forehead-protector, which she'd dusted off and used to pull her hair back from her face. She might not be much of a shinobi, but she had managed to graduate from the academy and pass the final exam her old jounin-sensei had set for her team, and she felt a need to visibly remind the Hokage of that.
"Good afternoon, Yukiko-san," the Hokage called.
She bowed and was about to return the greeting when the boy barreled up to her. "Hi, Yukiko-san! Can I have my keys now? Hey, hey, this is a really tall building - do I really live all the way on the top floor? Can you see the Hokage monument from my apartment?"
Yukiko suppressed a grin and made a few surreptitious seals behind her back before reaching into the pockets of her windbreaker. "Keys? Well, if you can guess which hand they're in, I'll give them to you."
She held out her hands, both apparently empty.
The boy's face fell. "I knew you'd be like everyone else. You don't have any keys!"
This time she smiled openly. "Oh, really? Watch!" She snapped her fingers, releasing the genjutsu and letting the keys appear in her right hand. "There! One set of keys for you - don't lose them!"
"Wow! That was so cool! Was that ninpou? You're a ninja? I didn't know you were a ninja. I'm gonna be a ninja too! Can you show me how to do that?"
The boy, Yukiko thought with a wince, was certainly as loud as any other six year old boy, and he talked just as fast as the other children in her building. Maybe he really was as safe as the Hokage seemed to think... but she'd wait and see, just to be careful.
"You need a bit more regular school before you can pass the ninja academy entrance tests, Naruto," the Hokage said. "For now, let's follow Yukiko-san to your new apartment."
Yukiko led them to the door. "Okay. You have three keys. One is for the building entrance - it only opens this door, not the back door, so don't try to get in that way. The next is for your mailbox - that's the really small key. And the third is for your apartment itself - that's the key with the round head instead of the square head. So, which key unlocks this door?"
The boy squinted at the key ring, tongue stuck between his teeth in concentration, and then held out the square-headed key. "This one!"
"Right. Why don't you unlock the door and let us in?"
"Cool!" The boy unlocked the door with minimal fiddling, and Yukiko led the small party into the lobby of her building.
"This is an old building, so I don't have an elevator. There are two sets of stairs - this set goes to the front apartments, and down that hallway is a set that leads to the back apartments. That doesn't matter for most of the floors, but the last two floors are divided by a small courtyard for the water towers. So you'll have to take the back stairs."
They walked up to the top floor, and Yukiko pointed out which of the four doors led to the boy's new apartment. "That's your new home, Naruto," the Hokage said. "So... will you invite us in?"
The boy cocked his head, eyes twinkling. "Hmm... nope! Hehehe."
"Yeah, yeah, just kidding! Come in, old man, Yukiko-san, creepy guy with the mask."
Yukiko snickered at the Anbu's startled posture before following the boy into his new apartment. "It's all one room," she said, "except for the bathroom. Bed's over there, kitchen along this wall, and that end of the room is for whatever you want to put there. You have a range, an oven, a microwave, and a refrigerator. If you need to clean, I have mops, brooms, and one vacuum cleaner in the storage closet next to my office, but you'll have to buy your own soap. I think that's everything."
The boy looked around the tiny apartment with an expression of awe. "This is all mine?"
Yukiko had a feeling that he hadn't heard a word of her spiel. "Yes, it's all yours."
"My own kitchen. My own bathroom. My own closet. Wow. And a real bed, not just a futon." He was quieter than she'd yet heard him, not scowling or grinning, just looking around as if he wasn't sure he was really awake.
A single-room apartment shouldn't be that special to anyone. Yukiko glared subtly at the Hokage. Demon fox or no demon fox, no six year old boy should be this excited to have his own bed. No boy should want to live on his own at that age either, rather than let someone else take care of him.
"Well then," the Hokage said, blithely ignoring her glare, "I'll leave you here, Naruto, and let you put away the things Midori-san gave you. Someone will stop by this evening with some food to get you started in the kitchen. Thank you again, Yukiko-san."
The Anbu dropped his packages on the mattress and followed the Hokage out, his posture speaking of contempt and relief. Yukiko frowned. They expected a civilian boy to know how to set up a room, make his bed, and cook his own meals?
"Hey, kid," she said.
He frowned at her. "Yeah?"
"Do you know how to cook?"
He looked embarrassed. "Um..."
Yukiko leaned back and beat her head against the door frame. Maybe she should have taken the extra pay - she couldn't let any of her tenants starve, and she was sure cooking lessons weren't part of her normal rent charges.
"Naruto, right?" she asked. The boy nodded. "Okay. There's a buzzer that will sound when somebody is here for you - you'll have to go downstairs and let them in. When someone comes by with food this evening, come to my office and I'll teach you how to cook."
"Really? Cool!" The boy dashed over and hugged her. "Thanks, Yukiko-san! I promise I'll be your best tenant ever! And when I'm a ninja, I'll make sure nobody ever knocks your building down."
Yukiko looked down at his arms around her waist, and blinked. What exactly had she gotten herself into?
One handy thing about being a ninja, even a failed ninja, was knowing how to set tripwires. When the penholder on her desk quivered, Yukiko glanced at the mirror in the ceiling corner and groaned.
"Kid, put the bucket down."
The fox-boy, Naruto, pouted. "Hey, hey, Yukiko-san, how'd you know it was me? Is that a ninja thing? Midori-san never caught me, not even when I dyed her hair purple! Hehehe."
Never caught him? Dyed her hair purple? Oh, no. She hadn't just rented an apartment to the demon fox, she'd rented an apartment to a practical joker. And he seemed to have decided that she was his new target. How was she going to deal with this?
"Yes, it's a ninja thing," she said. "And because I caught you, we're going to set up some rules right now. First of all, you see all these papers?" She pointed at her desk.
"Okay. These are very important papers. Now, I don't care if you get my clothes wet or do anything that's easy to fix - it serves me right if I can't see you coming - but if you got the papers wet, the ink would run and that's not easy to fix. And I'd be very angry. So, first rule: think before you play a joke on me, kid, and make sure it's harmless."
The boy scrunched his face up as if thinking was a painful chore. "I guess so, Yukiko-san."
"Good. Second rule: don't play jokes on any of the other tenants. I don't mind but they probably will. And third rule: don't do anything to public areas like the lobby and the stairs. That's almost like playing jokes on the other tenants, since they have to use those areas as well."
"But that's boring!"
Yukiko shrugged. "Tough. That's just how it is. But let's make a deal." She crouched down to his level and caught his eyes; they were a clear, open blue, not at all what she'd expected from a demon... or someone holding a demon, she added, remembering the Hokage's conviction. "You want to be a ninja, right?"
"Yeah! I'm gonna be the best ninja ever, and someday I'm gonna be Hokage! And then everyone will recognize me and stop being mean and yelling and stuff."
Oh. She hadn't realized people would actively bother him - she'd mostly forgotten the fox-boy existed since he'd had no impact on her daily life, but apparently people he saw more often had longer memories than she did. And they didn't take him as he was now, or simply avoid him if they were uncomfortable; they must treat him as if he were still the Kyuubi in full attack. Yukiko frowned. That was unworthy of a hidden village. It was also cowardly; had they not believed the Fourth Hokage when he said he'd sealed the demon forever? He'd given his life in that fight. Did they think a Hokage would die for nothing?
"Well, kid," she said, "I don't know if you'll be Hokage, but you might make a decent ninja. Playing jokes on ordinary people won't teach you much, though - they're too easy to surprise. But playing jokes on shinobi will help you get sneaky and fast, and teach you to think around corners. I'm not much of a ninja, but I'm better than no one. So you leave my other tenants alone and I'll help you out, okay?"
Naruto's face lit up and he lunged forward to hug her. "Really? You're so cool, Yukiko-san!"
Cool? She, a wash-out genin, was cool? That was a new one. Nobody had thought her ninja skills were anything special since her parents died, since she'd given up her old dreams in order to manage their apartment building, since her teammates died when she wasn't there to watch their backs...
Bad thoughts, those. Think of something else. "Hey, kid, did anyone come by with your food yet?"
Naruto let go of her waist and grinned. "Yeah! I was gonna just tell you, but I thought it'd be more fun to surprise you first."
"Huh. Kid, you're something else. Let me give you a little advice: if you want people to be nice to you, it's not a good idea to play jokes on them first. That usually makes people angry, and then they won't want to help."
Naruto's eyes widened. "There are people who'd want to help me?"
What in the name of the kami was wrong with this village, Yukiko wondered. How could people go out of their way to be cruel to a face so hurt and hopeful? Yes, maybe it was just a mask over a demon... but then wouldn't it be a good idea not to make the demon angry? If people were kind, then even if the Kyuubi broke free someday it might not hurt the ones who'd cared for it. That was basic strategy, right out of the academy textbooks. Right now, though, it sounded like the boy had nothing tying him to Konoha except the Third Hokage.
"Well, I'm helping you and I'm a person, aren't I?" she said.
"Yeah, yeah, but you're special, Yukiko-san."
Yukiko blinked. "...Oh. Thanks, kid. Let's go start that cooking lesson." And get out of this conversation. Special? Her? This kid was even more mixed up than she'd thought.
The Hokage looked up from his paperwork as Yukiko stormed into his office. "Ah, Ayakawa Yukiko-san. You're a little early for your appointment."
"I don't care," Yukiko hissed, slamming her hands down on the edge of his desk. "I want to know what on earth you were thinking, letting that kid live on his own. He's six years old! He can't cook, can't clean, can't manage money - are you trying to get him killed?"
The Hokage blinked. "Hmm. It's that bad? Naruto promised me that he already knew how to cook and that he'd learn the rest within a week."
"What he knows how to cook - and I use the term loosely - is instant ramen. Period. I've tried teaching him other dishes for a week now, and he's come this close to burning water. He can barely even make salad, and then he refuses to eat it because 'vegetables are yucky.'" Yukiko glared at the old man. "I don't have time to watch over him all day, not to mention it's not my job, but I'm not having any of my tenants starve to death or bury themselves in filth. There is no way that kid can keep living in my building.
"This was your idea. Fix it." Yukiko realized she'd been yelling at the Hokage again, and flushed. "Please," she added.
The Hokage ignored her for several seconds, signing his name to a scroll, sealing it, and handing it to a chuunin he called in from outside. Then he turned back to Yukiko. "Perhaps you should have accepted the extra pay, since Naruto is demanding more of your time than your other tenants. He thinks very highly of you, by the way; it was all he spoke of the last time I saw him."
Yukiko folded her arms and stared stonily across the Hokage's desk.
"There is also a slight problem in removing Naruto from your supervision," the Hokage continued. "Tani Midori refuses to take him back, and none of the other orphanages or foster homes are willing to care for him on an extended basis. If he leaves your building, I'm honestly not sure what will become of him."
Oh. "People hate him that much?"
"Some do. Others are simply worried about the effect he might have on their own social status. If a foster parent took him in, she might gain a reputation as a bad influence and lose the support of her neighbors." The Hokage sighed. "You haven't encountered that disapproval yet since you're not actively caring for him, but you may find yourself having trouble renting the other apartments on his floor. I apologize for that, Yukiko-san."
Yukiko thought silently for a minute. "You're saying that if he leaves, he won't have anywhere to go. Why can't you take him in yourself, Hokage-sama? You don't have any problem with him and nobody's going to question you."
The Hokage gestured aimlessly with his pipe. "You might be surprised about that, Yukiko-san. As Hokage I have great authority, but I live and work under corresponding restrictions. The people of Konoha must trust my judgment or the village will fall apart. If I associate too closely with Naruto, they will think I've been corrupted by the Kyuubi. As it is, I can pass off my interest as keeping an eye on him, but even now I'm walking close to the edge of what the people will tolerate."
Well, that was something she'd never thought about. Yukiko had always assumed that as the strongest and wisest ninja in Konoha, the Hokage could do whatever he wanted. Apparently he couldn't. His job sounded a lot like hers, actually, only instead of managing one building - setting rules and fixing problems - he managed the whole village. And there were limits to a manager's power, especially if the tenants all agreed on something.
"...You're saying that it's me or the streets, aren't you."
The Hokage nodded sadly. "Yes."
"Huh." Yukiko thought back over her past week with the fox-boy. He was loud, irritating, rash, and everything she disliked in a tenant. He was also desperately lonely, and more driven than she'd ever seen a kid that young, even the prodigies in the ninja academy. "He has no grasp of money whatsoever," she said. "I suppose I'll have to teach him about budgets, starting tomorrow. If he stops by my office for lessons, I can make sure he gets at least one decent meal each day."
"Then you'll let him stay?"
"I must be losing my mind, but yes. The kid can stay."
As she left the Hokage's office, Yukiko wondered what had come over her. She was willingly giving the demon fox a roof over its head. Not only that, she was helping keep its host alive, and teaching it to defeat ninja - how else could she construe that deal over Naruto's practical jokes? And now she'd agreed to be something like a parent to a hyperactive six year old boy who'd probably drive away half her potential tenants because of what was sealed inside him.
"This really wasn't what I expected from my life. Really, really, really."
But she'd given her word. And while she wasn't much of a shinobi anymore, that had been her nindo - to never go back on her word. It was a point of honor that served her equally well in business deals.
She couldn't help thinking, though, that maybe this time she'd gotten in a bit over her head.
AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.
Additional Note, 7/11/10: I feel I ought to clarify a few points before anyone gets farther into the story.
1) THIS IS AN AU STORY. (Apparently I cannot say that enough.) The idea is that in canon Yukiko is one of the many nameless victims of the Kyuubi's attack, but in this story she makes a slightly different choice and survives. When she meets Naruto six years later, things began to change. Events will not converge back to canon; in fact, in the sequel ("The Guardian in Spite of Herself") they spiral futher away from the manga's path.
2) A couple ages and implied dates are not in compliance with Kishimoto's official timeline. This is because I started writing before I knew there were official timelines, so I guessed people's ages based on evidence from the manga itself and my knowledge of child developmental psychology. I was pretty accurate on Iruka's age (though apparently not on his promotion to chuunin?), but I assumed Kakashi was four or five years older than he is in canon. Normally I would go back and fix that, since I try to stay as canon-compliant as possible, but by the time anyone told me about the official timelines, Kakashi's age had become integral to the way the other characters interact with him and it would have been too much work to change. So that's another way the story is AU.
3) Aside from those two points, if you see something that seems to clash with canon, it's probably because I wrote the story before Kishimoto revealed the point in question, because I screwed up, or because I didn't explain myself properly. Feel free to tell me. If it's one of the latter two options, I will try to fix the problem or make my reasoning clearer in-story. Even if it's the first option, I may tweak the story back into line with canon if the change isn't too drastic.
4) Finally, lighten up! "The Way of the Apartment Manager" is, to borrow a phrase from TV Tropes, all about Crowning Moments of Heartwarming - interspersed with occasional action scenes and my personal obsession with world-building. Approach it from that perspective and we should all have maximum entertainment. Okay? Good. Now go read the rest of the story. :-)