Chapter 7

Naruto had long known that his apartment wasn't the best in Konoha. It wasn't the worst in Konoha, though, and that's what counted. Well, to him at least. When he first ran away from the orphanage, he'd lived on the street for a few weeks. Most of the time, he'd be caught again by ANBU in a matter of hours, then deposited in one foster home after another. The most he lasted in one of those, however, had been seven hours and fifteen minutes. After that, his caretaker finally got free of her ropes and reported to the Hokage, but by that time, Naruto was already long gone, back to the deep set, hidden archway he'd taken as a home.

The Hokage had eventually gotten the hint that Naruto didn't want to be in the orphanage (which was true), didn't want to be in foster care (which was also true), and just preferred to be on his own (which was a filthy, dirty lie that Naruto was sure everyone knew). It was with that realization that the Hokage arranged for this apartment, which was at the time the only one which would accept him. It was a godsend.

For a one room apartment, it was actually rather large. His full-size bed was in one corner of the room, while a large table, well-worn and with a glued-on leg, sat in the center, last seen covered in a mound of paperwork, ramen cups, and odd articles of clothing a foot deep. A small partition separated the cooking space from the living area. It didn't quite qualify as a real kitchen because it only had a two-burner range and an oven that Naruto had, on occasion, used to toast clothing in when the building's dryer broke. The fridge was, quite possibly, an artifact from the Shodaime, and he was almost positive that the green, furry growth in the vegetable crisper predated even Konoha. The small bathroom was the most luxurious part of the entire apartment, a bit larger than his bed, with a large bathtub that had a fairly regular supply of hot water.

There were small knick knacks that were spread throughout the apartment. Beside his bed, there was a bookshelf with a few scattered training manuals, a potted plant, and a layer of dust that had three different layers of shinobi symbols on it. These included "clean?", "tomorrow", and "what color was this originally?", with the small long-hand written calender that had "Ramen with Iruka-sensei!" circled twice. A few pictures of Iruka were framed and deposited in odd corners, while one of Sasuke, Sakura-chan, and Kakashi-sensei was taped to the fridge. It had been taken shortly after Kakashi had passed them, months ago. There was even a candid shot of the Sandaime, one that the ANBU hadn't caught and confiscated for "security purposes". Sarutobi sat at the counter of Ichiraku, the dignified "Professor" of Konoha forever immortalized with noodles hanging out past his chin, mouth half-open in the midst of a stern lecture. Naruto had framed it and propped it up against the window sill that had the single best view of the Hokage Memorial in Konoha. At dusk, the Fourth's face looked golden, and on occasion, Naruto could see what could almost be lights near the Nidaime's face.

He had a small work desk against the partition to the kitchen where he regularly polished his well-worn, second-hand kunai and shuriken. The best part about missions was that, at the end of the battle, everyone seemed to lose count of who threw how many of which weapon, and Naruto found that, quite remarkably, a lot of his equipment was now better than when he bought it. On the desk, there were a few half-empty bottles of polish, some spare leather to bind the handles of his kunai with, and a few sharpening stones that never seemed to do the job right.

Among the other odds and ends in his apartment were his mission supplies, which took up the corner next to his door, his small closet full of t-shirts, shorts, and a few spare sets of shinobi gear that didn't quite fit him right anymore, and, most noticeably at that moment, a high-pitched, constantly ringing alarm clock.

Naruto cursed, and found that the sound was muffled. He tried to crack open his eyes, but only one chose to respond while the other was coated with something like sand. Using all his shinobi willpower and restraint, he resisted bashing the infernal, hell-born device with his fist. Instead, he dug beside him for the small, secret stash of kunai he kept for emergencies (and for the alarm clock, of which he'd gone through nine since making genin).

His mind registered first the fact that he couldn't find any kunai. He looked around, and realized he wasn't on his bed. Instead of being softly caressed by the boundless comfort of his well-worn, patch-covered mattress, he was laying off to the side of it, wrapped in his sleeping bag and on top of the bed roll that he used on missions. The fact that the alarm was still ringing seemed like a secondary consideration to the fact that Naruto had finally glanced around.

It didn't look like his house.

He stumbled up, only getting caught in the bag three times before gaining enough feeling in his fingers to unzip it enough for him to roll out. He swayed uneasily on the floor, half-expecting it to sweep out under him. He ran into the alarm clock with one foot, "accidentally" flinging it into the wall. It rang a few more times, persistent to the end, before trailing off in the middle of one, as if it finally got the point.

Part of him glanced towards the bed, and he felt nothing short of absolute longing to go there and be with his one true love. The other part of him, the part that usually kept him alive on missions, noticed that the bed was made. He saw the edges of sheets thought long since missing in the Great Crack Beyond the Mattress peaking out of a comforter that was smoothly spread over the top of the bed. Incredulous, he stumbled over, swearing twice as his toes got caught on the flat, level ground. That alone gave him pause, because while the accumulated mess that had served as a carpet for him for more than half his life was, at points, level, it was never smooth.

He glanced down, and were it not for the fact that his jaw felt like it'd been soldered on, he would've screamed. As it was, the attempt came out as "Grmmmgh.". Naruto leaned against the edge of the bed, astonishment slowly pumping enough adrenaline into his system to allow his eyes to open the entire way.

He had hard wood floors.

He found himself frozen completely for a moment, his eyes only seeming to focus on the unnatural gleam and sparkle of the yellow wood. He glanced up just an inch, but an inch was more than he needed for his eyes to focus on the strange, alien-looking table in the center of his apartment.

It was dark brown, and it seemed to audibly shine in a way he hadn't seen since the last time Maito Gai did his "nice guy" pose. It had the same eerie sheen as kunai or shuriken when they were coming straight at him. It wasn't ever a good sign. Gone was the foot deep, familiar mound. Instead, there were straight, orderly piles of papers, envelopes, and, as his feet subconsciously drew him closer, he saw a basket of what could only be wax fruit, because no fruit he'd ever seen had such a polished shine to it.

Everything was clean.

He was clearly in the wrong house. Then again, he reasoned, that was his table, and those had been his pattern of sheets on the bed. It was his apartment, but it was clean. It had to be an alternate dimension. Any moment now, it would turn out that he was the only ninja in Konoha, because the rest of the people he knew were pirates in this dimension. Somehow, the idea of Kakashi wearing an eye patch, a high collared jacket covering his face, with a rapier at his side seemed to fit way too easily. The rest of the scene came together easily. Sakura might have pretended to be a boy, except that everyone saw her pink hair and just humored her. Sasuke would be a broody, bad-tempered son of a (and he searched for an equivalent to the big clans in Konoha) Navy captain, but ran away with pirates anyway.

"But, how can I be a pirate?," he found his mouth mumbling while his mind strained to catch up, "I have two legs and I don't have a parrot."

"That," came a female voice, and Naruto jolted to a fully conscious state immediately in response to it, "was quite possibly the strangest thing I've ever heard someone say, even when considering that you're only now getting awake." He saw Makoto snicker behind the back of her hand as she stepped out from behind the kitchen partition.

It was like seeing her for the first time all over again.

She was wearing a freshly laundered, plain blue dress with a white apron over it. Naruto was sure he'd seen the apron somewhere before. A few stunned seconds later, he realized that he'd been using as a curtain for the minuscule window in the kitchen. She'd obviously slept and bathed, because gone were most of the weary, dark circles under her eyes, and her skin was left a gold color, not brown, but obviously sun worn. Her hair was actually even on both sides, reaching just under her ears, and he wondered when she'd found time to cut it. Her eyes were still the same blue he dreamed about for years. She had a smile on her face, and Naruto's heart stopped beating.

It was a smile meant for him.

"It... wasn't a dream?" he managed, half-breathless, tongue fumbling and teeth doing nothing but getting in the way. It felt like he'd been asleep for years, and that still didn't seem to be enough.

"No, Naruto-kun, I'm quite sure that it was a dream. There aren't any seas around here for pirates. None that I've seen, anyway." She shook her head, and Naruto could see that, if it weren't for the fact that it was still damp, it might have spiked.

"I mean, you're here." He paused. "Wow." He couldn't help but feel the greatest grin of his life sneak onto his face. It was even better than the time that he won the 10,000th customer contest at Ichiraku's. It was more powerful than when Iruka gave him his hitai-ite. Hell, it was larger than the time he finally found hair dye that would work on (what was left of) Sarutobi's hair, and the Sandaime had to wear his pointy hat for a week straight to hide the green.

Finally awake, Naruto glanced around, trying to figure out what else was different around his house. The workbench now looked crowded with dozens and dozens of kunai and shuriken, split between two buckets. His bookshelf was dusted, and apparently was originally bright blue, which was quite surprising. The curtains even looked different - they really were yellow, and not just from the dust. The windows sparkled, the floor shimmered, and there was a sweet, lingering smell he couldn't immediately name in the air. Normally, he tried to completely ignore his sense of smell and taste when in his apartment. "It's clean," he murmured, and Makoto behind him laughed. He glanced towards her. "How did I get here? Seriously, I don't remember anything after the park conversation."

Makoto looked surprised. "Well, your "clones", I believe, picked Haruka and I up, shouldered our packs, and scared half the life out of me. Naruto, I don't care if ninja use the roof tops of Konohagakure as their own highways. I, for one, was never meant to travel airborne." She shook her head. "Haruka enjoyed it, I think. She might ask you for a ride, one of these days. But, you carried us here, and gave us a brief tour, and told us to make ourselves at home." Her smile was the sort to pulled dimples to her cheeks. "And, you pretty much pulled out some of the things from your mission things and collapsed on the floor. You slept for," she paused, "oh, a good eight hours."

"...eight?" Naruto whimpered. The last time he only slept eight hours had been when he'd had to get a wisdom tooth pulled, and they put him in the hospital because the damn thing grew back. The nurses there refused to let him sleep his usual twelve to fourteen. He glanced around, and noticed that the sky was still dark outside the windows. "You mean," and his lips tried to mouth the unfamiliar sentence, "I'm up before sunrise?"

His grandmother blinked, then raised her hand to rest on her lips. "Oh, so I take it that's unusual for you? But then, why was your alarm clock set for that time?"

He had to think about that for a moment, but finally came up with an answer. "Ah, crap. I guess it's because it's a wind up clock. I remembered that Kakashi-sensei said he was training us today at 4." At her blank look, he continued. "He's always late, so setting the clock for six and showing up at seven is a bit optimistic. But, because it's a wind-up clock, it just rang at the first "six" it encountered. Guess I was too exhausted to think about that."

Makoto nodded, apparently satisfied with the explanation. "You asked about how miraculously clean this apartment became? I'm afraid that was my doing. You were so kind to us all day, and even before I knew for certain that you were Arashi's son, I felt the need to repay you. I wondered all through the night about how to do just that, and I must admit that it bothered me. I had no idea what I, a simple housewife, could do to help a ninja." She smirked. "Then I came here."

Naruto bowed his head and hunched his shoulders. "Eh, yeah. Well, I guess I see that." He looked around. "It looks better now. I mean, I kinda miss the way the carpet used to crunch when you walked on it...". Makoto made a noise of disapproval. "...but I guess it'll be nice to walk around barefoot." He finished quickly, glancing up to watch Makoto's eyes. At that moment, she somehow looked needy, as if she were the one starved for affection and now him. "I really don't know how you did this." He paused. "You did sleep last night and all, right? You can't do bunshins or nothing, because you're not a ninja, so are you sure you didn't hire a cleaning squad or something? Geez, where's Haruka anyway? Hey!" he started, nose crinkling, "what's that smell, anyway?"

Makoto's smirk turned into a wry laugh. "Yes, I slept. I just wake up rather early. There's a rather large time difference between when I woke up back home and when this village wakes up. It was the same for me even in the caravan. Yes, I'm not a ninja, no I didn't hire a ninja cleaning squad." She paused. "Wait, those actually exist?" Her eyebrows raised further at Nartuo's enthusiastic nod. "Interesting. Haruka's out in the village, looking for work. I actually wanted to speak with you about that. Finally, that smell," and it was her turn to look sheepish, "is breakfast. I wasn't sure what kind of meal you preferred, but I decided to make Western-style, because it's what I'm most proficient with." She turned her head for a moment, and spared him a small, almost sickly smile. "I'm afraid that I have to go check on it. It might be ready, actually. Please, wait here."

Before Naruto could even open his mouth, she shifted awkwardly, and Naruto hadn't even realized that they'd seated themselves across from each other at the eerily clean kitchen table until she moved away from it. He saw, with no small amount of shock, that she'd somehow rigged what looked to be an actual curtain as a partition between the kitchen and his living area. He looked around again, trying to figure out not so much his surroundings, but what would come of them.

It wasn't that the clean was unwelcome. Hell, he hadn't been lying when he said that he could walk barefoot now and not expect to be stabbed by weapons, food items, and long forgotten layers of crusty clothes so old that they actually resented him. It was a complete surprise to look out the window and not see "Clean your windows!" and "get better blinds!" in haphazard, shinobi symbols, probably written by the Creepy Mask Guys (which he thought really did sound better than "ANBU") who used to watch him, and probably still did. The fact that his apartment didn't smell like it could be used as a harmful inhalant to deter enemy invasions was a new, exciting concept that most of his senses completely celebrated. Hell, if he concentrated hard enough, he could feel the Fox inside of him writhing around in approval, which differed from his normal "writhing around in anger" in that he was churning in a different direction.

What was making the genin tense was the fact that Makoto's act of cleaning meant something, and he wasn't sure what it was. She said that she was a housewife, and he figured that any woman who spent most of her life tending her own house couldn't take more than two steps into his without feeling the almost hypnotic compulsion to scrub it spotless and kill all invaders. What was troubling was the idea that if his grandfather was away as a mercenary half as much as Naruto was away from being a ninja, Makoto really had been the ruler of her own house. Haruka seemed to follow with whatever Makoto said, and the two obviously could live together if Haruka hadn't left her mother, despite being in her twenties. The problem with that revelation was the fact that Naruto had been on his own for the last eight years (though, really, it'd been twelve), and he was used to running things his way.

He glanced around at the clean table, at the workbench scattered around with more weapons than he used in five ninja battles, the closet door that actually could shut, the glistening windows and the organized bookshelf. In less than eight hours, as she had obviously slept a bit less than Naruto had, being awake before him, she had scrubbed, peeled, hammered, and chiseled away all the dirt and grime he'd come to live with. On top of that, she was in the kitchen, making breakfast.

He could live like this. The problem was that he didn't want to.

Naruto didn't know much about grandmothers. Hell, he didn't know much about old people in general. The huge discrepancy between Makoto's estimated age and her real age showed just how unused to them he was. Even though Sarutobi had to be the oldest ninja in the village, possibly the oldest one in the village, Naruto knew that the Hokage couldn't be held in the same regard as a houswife. With that having been stated, Naruto had no idea what it was that grandmothers were supposed to do. He had a feeling, though, that they shouldn't have to do as much work as Makoto obviously did in a single night.

From reading, he knew that they sat in rocking chairs and told their grandchildren stories. Naruto didn't mind the "stories" aspect of it, because he had so many questions about her, about Toppu, and about Arashi that he felt like he would burst every time one thought gave birth to twins. He had no idea where he'd find a rocking chair, though, and the idea of Makoto, who seemed almost fidgety this morning, doing nothing but sitting seemed wrong. Grandmothers were also supposed to knit a lot, gossip over fences, and make houses out of candy and then eat children, and he somehow couldn't see Makoto's long, spindly fingers threaded with yarn, and couldn't imagine her abiding gossip. He didn't want to think about the last one too hard because it made his brain hurt.

Konohamaru was a horrible, mean-spirited brat. He was ill-mannered, ill-tempered, and it seemed that all he ever wanted was the attention of everyone in a ten foot radius of him. Naruto was incredibly glad he was nothing like that. The blonde couldn't use Konohamaru as an example of how to act because, despite being part of the only grandparent/child set Naruto knew, the kyuubi-vessel somehow knew that whatever their relationship was, it wasn't typical.

Naruto had no example of how a grandparent was supposed to act, no example of how a grandchild was supposed to act, and had absolutely no prior experience at all with parents. Haruka seemed like someone he could get along with, so "Aunt" just seemed like a superfluous prefix, like "Honorable Hokage Sarutobi", where the first two parts just fell away in conversation with him. But, with Makoto, he didn't want to think of her as anything but a grandmother, and he suddenly felt awkward because honestly, he didn't even know what to call her anymore. Calling her "Makoto" seemed like he was talking to a stranger, and "Grandmother" seemed so formal, and completely unlike him.

The only option before him was winging it

In one way or another, he'd made it up on his way his entire life. It wasn't as if he'd had a plan when he left the orphanage, but he found an archway and a discarded box, and the two together worked well as "Home". He didn't have any idea where to go from there, but every time the ANBU captured him, and every time he came back, he learned a bit more about how to evade them, how to make his time stretch a bit more. Eventually, he proved his point, got his apartment, and achieved his goal. The first real lesson he learned about winging it was to actually learn a lesson from winging it. He learned to avoid certain pathways because ANBU were always staked there. He learned that showering occasionally really did make him less noticeable. He learned that, most importantly, he was going to screw up, but that it was really the ability to screw up in a new, unexpected way that eventually accomplished his goal.

School was the same way. Before Iruka, and even after, he learned that what was on the syllabus or what was in the book was probably not even close to what he'd be called on about in class, so he'd have to stretch out what he learned. Sometimes he got lucky and made a connection that surprised the entire class. Unfortunately, that only made the teachers look for more impressive ways to cut him down. From that, he learned the lesson that, no matter how good he was in one fight, there was no guarantee he'd win the next one. It was either be prepared for the fight, or be prepared to lose. Of course, knowing what the moral was and actually going through with it were two separate challenges, and following that mantra at the academy always seemed fairly fruitless. It did come in handy in fights, though.

Training with Sasuke had really drilled in the last real rule of improvisation. The dark-haired bastard had been dominating a quick sparing match, the two boys going all out in a spar that was only loosely watched by Kakashi-sensei. Sakura had been on the sidelines, rooting for Sasuke, and Naruto had been completely out of options.

The objective of the match had been simple, merely to push the opponent out of a medium-sized ring. It limited Naruto's techniques quite a bit because if even one of his Bunshins stepped out of bounds, he lost. Meanwhile, Sasuke had better aerial skills than he did even without using the Sharinghan, and Naruto was being pummeled by that damn fireball jutsu of the Uchiha's, trying to duck away from the faster boy in a ring without any ground cover.

Naruto knew for a fact that his ninjitsu was incredibly limited, his genjutsu bordered on complete failure, and his taijutsu was a complete mess. Usually, his good strength, otherworldly endurance, and limitless chakra capacity made up for his abysmal speed, agility, and chakra control. The rules of this match were completely against him, but the reward was too steep to loss for.

A free week of Ichiraku's ramen for the entire team on whoever lost.

The third rule of winging it really was the most important to him and was, on a day-to-day basis, the only one he remembered consistently. When it came to something precious to Naruto, whether it was a precious person, a precious belief, or a precious, steaming, hot bowl of Ichiraku ramen, it was better to risk it all than do nothing.

Naruto quickly saw a pattern in Sasuke's attacks. The Uchiha would scour the area with a fire jutsu, forcing Naruto to take to the air, where Sasuke would quickly kick the crap out of him with aerial taijutsu. The next time that Sasuke attacked, however, Naruto didn't dodge the jutsu, instead using a pile of bunshins to take the blast for him. They didn't block the flames very well because they did dissipate with one good hit, but the smoke was the real goal, and as the clones dissipated, Sasuke quickly leaped forward to push the crouching blonde out of the ring.

Just as Sasuke started with the predictable scathing remarks about Naruto's lack of skill, the real Naruto attacked from behind, using Sasuke's own momentum to push him over the crouching clone, and out of the ring. While Sasuke had been in midair, the real Naruto had used the smoke from his dissolving clones as cover, rolling under the dark-haired boy and preparing his final move.

Ramen hadn't ever tasted so sweet.

Naruto rubbed his chin as he considered how to apply these to Makoto and Haruka. He'd have to learn from his mistakes, learn about why those mistakes happened, and then move on before he made that same mistake again. It seemed so very simple, but Naruto already knew better.

"Here," Makoto interrupted, and Naruto blinked as she set a mug of something steaming in front of him, "you look to still be half-asleep." There was a small smile on her face, but Naruto saw that her eyes almost looked red. He wondered if she had been crying in the kitchen, and wondered further at how in the world he had missed it. He frowned, one fang peeking over his lip absently.

"You didn't need to do that," he began, and Makoto waved her hands in front of her.

"No, no! I wanted to." She glanced around, and Naruto really didn't know what she was looking for. Then, he realized that it wasn't what she was looking for, but what she was looking away from. Him.

His hands reached for the mug in front of him reflexively, because he knew that if he didn't have anything in them they would clench. In one swift motion, he gulped down half the mug of the strange, pungent drink.

He quickly regretted it.

"It's called coffee." she began, and Naruto could tell that she was resisting laughter. He couldn't tell if that was nice of her, or very mean-spirited. "It's popular where I'm from, but it was rather hard to find here." Naruto's cheeks puffed out as he contemplated spitting the foul, evil liquid back into the mug. He took one more look at Makoto's almost vulnerable expression, and swallowed. At once, his eyelids shot open of their own accord. He felt like someone kicked in his gut, and despite himself, he sat up straighter.

"No, I know what coffee is. I used to have it in the Hokage's tower when I was a kid. Scared the hell out of the older ninja. The "rare" part is kinda because I got it banned for a while. Long story, though. What I meant was "What the hell was in that?"." He clarified. He wondered if his eyelids were ever going to close, and tried to figure out if his hand was shaking, or if his foot was vibrating the table.

"Half a mug of milk, five scoops of sugar, and a splash of coffee." Her smile could've been called evil by some, but at that moment, Naruto felt nothing but awe for her. He chugged the rest of the mug. "Haruka won't take it any other way, and I needed to brew up half a pot just to get her out the door this morning to help me shop."

He frowned. "Wait, shopping? I didn't have any coffee last night, and I don't have anything to make breakfast with either..." His head shot up, and he glared her at accusingly. "You spent money on me, didn't you? You didn't have to do th-"

"No,", she interrupted, holding up one hand to forestall his speech. Reflexively, he shut up. He hated how the civilian "Wait" gesture synced up with the shinobi "Shut up - danger!" sign, and decided that he was going to change one of the two when he became Hokage, just to make things easier. "I really did have to. Last night, you paid for our food, and letting us stay in this apartment saved us the cost of a hotel room." She glanced at him. "I did notice that there were a few twenty-four hour hotels about here, and they seemed rather friendly towards us. You were lying last night, weren't you?"

Her sharp gaze cut right through him and sank all the way into the wall behind him. He gulped. "Well, I mean, not really. It's not like I really knew..." He glanced around, sincerely hoping for a ninja to miss a step and fall through his roof. Any distraction would be very welcomed by him. "Er, hell. I just wanted you to be where I knew you'd be safe."

"Safe?" Makoto murmured to herself, her expression thoughtful. "Safe from what?"

He stared out the window. The clouds were just starting to turn pink, and most of the Hokage's Monument was still in shadow, with only the pointy noses of the Nidaime and Shodaime catching illumination. "I'm not liked around here. It's not something I did, really. I mean, if it were just the pranks, I'd understand it all, except it's not." His fang bit into his lip, and he didn't realize that his voice had gotten lower until Makoto slid close to him. "The villagers here...they hate me. One day, they won't, you know? I'll become Hokage, and I'll be respected. Acknowledged." He paused, and had to start again quickly because he knew that if he let that sentence drop there would be a silence that would last for days, or worse, questions that he couldn't answer. "But, right now they stare at me, and whisper under their breath, and just...just..." He looked up sharply.

Makoto had an actual handkerchief twisted in one hand, and was raising up Naruto's chin with the other. With deliberate slowness, she dabbed at a small trail of blood that Naruto hadn't even noticed. Her fingers were long, and rough from wear. Despite the blisters, despite the calluses, and despite the roughly cut (or chewed) fingernails, her touch was soft and light on his skin, barely pressing on it. He couldn't stop from staring at her, not with the way she was holding him, and he tried to figure out why her lips were pressed into a thin line and why her eyebrows were furrowed when, at the same time, her eyes towards him were soft.

"Here," she said, and brought his hand to the handkerchief (he noted that it had embroidered red flowers at the edges), "keep that still while I get breakfast. It'll burn if I'm not quick."

She stood up, striding out to the kitchen with long steps. Naruto, despite himself, drew the linen back. It was only a tiny amount of blood. Honestly, it was next to nothing for a regular shinobi, let alone one with his accelerated healing powers. He'd never particularly thought about his fangs, or the whisker markings that were set into his skin like incisions that never bled, but never healed. Now, all he could think about was what she thought about them.

The genin couldn't help but wonder at how he'd been singled out as a child because of his markings and his teeth when, at the very same time, any given Inuzuka could prance around with tattoos and claws and not get more than a second glance. Despite the fact that any Akimichi ninja was built like a bank vault and covered in red, spiral tattoos (that he always wanted to have, too) they were known as some of Konoha's nicest people, and none of their markings (or Choji's strange hat) ever were pointed out in the street. He wondered what his life would've been like if he didn't have any visible markings of the Kyuubi on him. Somehow, he didn't think it would be that different from the life he led now.

"Eat," Makoto ordered, and he followed the clang of plates being set down on the table. Plates, as in plural. Plural plates loaded with food. Naruto's eyes widened in shock, and he nearly dropped Makoto's cloth as he realized that it was more food than he could eat.

His grandmother began pointing out dishes as she loaded his plate with mounds of each individual delicacy. There was a huge pyramid of thick sausages, a mountain of hash browns, a plate stacked high with pancakes (in blueberry, banana, and chocolate chip), an endless supply of bacon, enough eggs to last him the rest of his life, cooked in grease in what Makoto called "dippy style", and a small serving of what Makoto called "scrapple", which was made of indeterminable ingredients but smelled fantastic. She sat out a huge bottle of maple syrup, another pot of coffee, and a glass of orange juice in less time than it took Naruto to wake up on a normal day.

She watched him, and Naruto didn't know why until he realized that his hands weren't moving. "Damn! I mean, thank you for the food!" With that, he sat to work. The eggs were covered in salt and pepper, and tasted fantastic. Makoto showed him how to use lightly buttered pieces of toast to scoop up the runny yolks. She dowsed the scrapple (which he internally dubbed "meat stuff") into maple syrup and proved that God did exist, and his sole contribution to Naruto's life was scrapple, a fact which Naruto was completely okay with. He worked his way through the perfectly juicy sausages (which Makoto showed him could also be dipped in pure sugar), lingered lovingly on the pancakes, watching as Makoto slathered huge tabs of butter between each plate-sized delight, and realized somewhere between the fourth egg and the third jam-covered english muffin that he couldn't get up.

He could swear that Makoto was smirking as she gathered up the plates. "That," he paused, and leaned back in his chair, feeling for once completely, utterly full to the point of discomfort, "was the most amazing meal I've ever had. Seriously!" he protested as he saw her snort, "it was even better than Ichiraku. You can't ever tell 'em I said that, by the way. Where in Hell did you learn to cook like that?" Despite himself, he stood, groaning as his stomach felt like lead. He stetched his joints, cracked his neck, and gathered a large armful of plates, trying to figure out if he could just roll himself to the kitchen instead of walking the whole way.

She looked thoughtful for a moment, cupping her chin. "Well, I suppose that I learned from watching and helping my grandmother and mother cook for all of us, when I was younger." Anticipating something, she smiled at Naruto. "I was the youngest girl in my family."

"Oh? You had siblings?" He leaned forward, trying to concentrate on balancing the dishes and walk at the same time. It was difficult, because most of his attention was sepnt on watching Makoto smile at him. "How many?"

"Eleven."

Naruto's plates fell to within a half inch of the ground before he caught them, a handful in his hands, but most in his mouth or on his head. He stood, ordered them again, and stared at Makoto. "...ELEVEN?" He winced, and half expected a chorus of "Rule Number Eight!" to ring out. "Are you kidding me? HOW?"

She laughed. "My mother had three daughters, then three sons. Her first husband died, and she remarried my father. He had five children from his previous marriage - all sons - and then I was born." She shook her head as she caught Naruto's dropped jaw. "Oh, it really wasn't that bad. My older sisters were all married and out of the house by the time that I could walk. My older brothers stayed longer, but eventually found wives, or work outside the town."

"Are they still around, too? Do I have some uncles and aunts...well, great-uncles and great-aunts around? What about cousins? Hey! What about your parents? Are they..." He realized he grabbed onto the wrong topic the minute he saw Makoto's face collapse. It was like someone jabbed a kunai into her gut, because at once all the air seemed to escape her, and the smile she had on her face was replaced by one of utter pain. "Crap. Okay, I didn't mean to bring it up. Really! You don't need to talk about it."

She walked to the kitchen, and Naruto followed her. "It's not your fault, Naruto. You couldn't have known. Maybe one day, I'll be able to talk about it, but I don't think this is the time." She sat her load of dishes into a sink Naruto only barely recognized as his (the last time he'd actually seen the bottom of his sink had been when he was nine, and he used all his plates as kunai targets). She turned around, and seemed surprised that Naruto had brought dishes as well, but cleared way for Naruto to set his dishes down, before turning on the faucet and squirting strange smelling liquid Naruto vaguely remembered as dish soap in with the steaming water.

"Will you help me dry these when I'm done with them?" She rolled up the sleeves of her dress past her elbows, glancing at the wall behind the sink instead of Naruto. "I wasn't sure where to put them, either. Where do you normally keep your dishes?"

"The sink." She did shoot him a look, one eyebrow cocked. He shrugged. "Hey, I'm being honest."

"Honesty." she stated. Naruto waited, and she didn't seem to want to finish her thought. Instead, she furiously scrubbed at one of Naruto's plates, attacking left over gobs of maple syrup with the intent to kill. When she handed him the first completely spotless, almost boiling hot plate, he didn't know where to put it. Finally, he shrugged, and walked up the wall, carefully crouching on the ceiling as he fought the highest cupboard's door open. From his angle, he could see a pack of crackers and two granola bars that were probably older than he was, half devoured by a caccoon of spider webs.

"Hey, could you spare a rag?" He glanced down, and saw Makoto staring up at him with wide eyes. He looked around, trying to see what was odd. He paused. "Oh, it's the ceiling thing, right? If it bugs you, I can stop." She mutely shook her head, and walked to one side, retrieving a cloth that she reached up to pass to him. "Thanks." He bunched up the crackers and the bar, reaching the back corners with ease, and tossed the whole mess into the trashcan, which was only fifteen feet away and hidden in a corner.

His grandmother made quick work of the dishes, while he found himself struggling to find places to put dishes he had no idea he owned. He vaguely remembered having a gravy boat serving as a planter somewhere, while he had no clue how he got five different sizes of bowls, or where to put them. After passing the last few sopping dishes up to Naruto, Makoto untied her apron and hung it on a row of small hooks Naruto swore he never saw before. Naruto leaped down from the ceiling, doing a quick somersault to land in an easy crouch in front of Makoto who, to her credit, only stifled a gasp and stepped back a few inches. Naruto grinned at her, and she shook her head with a short laugh. Naruto could hear he breathe something like "Boys." under her breath.

She cracked her knuckles, and led the way back into the living area, where she pulled out a chair and beckoned Naruto to do the same. "Thank you," she said, and the smile on her face was genuine. "I've always enjoyed working with someone, when it comes to small chores like that." She paused. "I've been meaning to speak with you about this, Naruto, but I've been putting it off. I don't believe that it's fair to either of us." She forced herself into something resembling the same regal posture Naruto saw the night before. He noted that this time, her hands seemed to shake, and her jaw almost seemed clenched. "Haruka and I, as you've noted, are refugees. Our village was sacked not a year ago, and my daughter and I are among the only survivors. My daughter and I have suffered our fair share of troubles, and I must admit that, in coming to Konoha, it was less about finding out about my son and more of finding a way to move on. Haruka and I," she started, and she leaned forward against the table, hands wringing nervously as she pleaded with Naruto, "we only want to find a life for ourselves. I mentioned earlier than Haruka is out looking for a job. That's true. I'm not sure what kind of jobs there are in Konoha, but we'll both do whatever we need to, and whatever we can. But, I've checked the math, and by what she and I have saved, it would put too much stress on her, on me, to afford even a hotel room on a regular basis. What I ask," she started, the words coming out more firmly than she herself intended them, because she glanced down again almost demurely, "no, 'ask' isn't the right word. What Haruka and I beg of you is just to stay here a bit longer."

Naruto felt something weighing a thousand times more than his heart sink through his chest, beating against his ribs to the point of breaking them, and crushing his stomach so that he thought he would throw up. He watched his grandmother swallow, her chest nearly heaving as she struggled to keep her tone level.

"Haruka's willing to work two jobs, and I hope to pick up another soon. But, to live here, I'll gladly clean and cook, and-"

"Absolutely not." He hadn't been aware of how icy his tone was until he saw her draw back as if slapped. He hadn't realized that he had leaned forward, his hands clenched around the table so tightly that his fingers left divots until he heard the wood creak beneath him. His fangs bit into his lip, and he actually meant it this time because the pain control the fury that had spread over him like a genjutsu. Naruto felt anger, a rage fueled by that same weight in his stomach, as if it was slowly dissolving like acid inside of him. "I will not let you work yourself to death while staying here." He was snarling, and he didn't care. "You're family."

The word hung in the air like thick smoke between them, and Naruto felt his breathing even out. Makoto was still arched in the chair, frozen in motion. "Family," he continued, and it might have just been the blood that made the word taste bitter, "means that you never have to beg. Never say that word in front of me again." He stopped, and he laughed, though it sounded like a choke. It might have been. "Please." He couldn't tell if Makoto only needed to breathe, or if she laughed-choked in return. "I was lying last night. You're right." He caught Makoto's gaze and refused to let his own waver, even though he felt like shaking. "There were motels, hotels you could've gone to. Konoha's not a bad place, really. You probably would've been served for the night, or more. But, I was selfish. I didn't want you," and he had to blink, he had to close his eyes for a moment, then a minute, before continuing, "I didn't want you to go. I still don't."

"I won't let you."

Makoto gasped, but he didn't allow himself that luxury because he was sure that if he took even a single breath, all the words he meant to say would escape. "I'm not going to lie to you. I'm not sure I have yet, but, if I have, I'm sorry. I'm just so sick of lies, and deceit, and all the damn pretending."

There was a pause. "...and you're a ninja?"

He laughed, and it was caught between a bitter snort and a near-hysterical guffaw. "Yeah. Can't say I'm too good at that part of it." He risked a smile, and Makoto was crying. "Oh, Hell. I made you cry. Shit. I'm sorry."

She reached out to touch her own face, and had an expression of utter confusion for a moment. With a quick motion, she wiped away the few forming droplets in the corners of her eyes. She reached in her pocket for something, and Naruto didn't realize what it was until her eyes fell on his lip again. "Oh! Your handkerchief!" He glanced around, realizing that it'd dropped to the floor. He ducked down to get it, and stood up out of his chair, moving towards his grandmother.

She didn't flinch, and he realized at that very moment that he loved her.

He twisted the linen around until he found a clean area, dabbing gently at the wet tracks on her cheeks. "I'm sorry that I made you cry. Really. I just suck with people, you know? They hate me."

"Why?" One of her hands wrapped around his wrist, and he let her dog it down. "You said earlier that your teachers, well, I believe you called them "bastards". You say the villagers hate you so much that you're afraid for us. You've said that you trust easily, and I can tell that it's a desperate trust. Why?"

"I can't tell you." He managed, and he licked his lips when he saw the disappointment in her eyes. It was so much worse up close. "Seriously. I can't tell you. There's a law about it." One eyebrow arched in confusion. "Hell, I didn't know about it until a couple months ago. I'll tell you anything you want to know, Grandma, as long as I actually can."

"'Grandma'?" She breathed, and Naruto didn't realize how loudly his heart beat until it was thudding in his own ears. She smiled up at Naruto, dimples on her cheeks. "I like that."

He exhaled.

"I'm not used to begging. I won't, if you won't listen to it. But, you say that you will keep Haruka and I close?" Naruto nodded quickly, trying to remember how to breathe and speak at the same time. "I refuse to allow you to let me stay idle. I want to work. Haruka needs to work. Of all the things that we've lost through the years, our pride is among the last relics we had from the start. I'm too proud to do nothing, Naruto. You might be a ninja, and you might be a fighter, but you're still a boy, and I won't let you live like this." Her last few words were almost spat, and her head twisted around to glance at the apartment. Naruto followed her glance in confusion, still trying to figure out what to say. "You say that you lived on your own from an absurd age. I can only believe you, and that only makes this village lower in my esteem. No one taught you how to clean, or how to wash dishes, or how to wash your own clothes. You just had to figure it out on the way."

She whipped her head back at him, and Naruto suddenly realized that Makoto, despite being old, despite being a civilian, was a fighter. The expression in her eyes was the same look of determination that Kakashi had in his when in battle. It was the same look that Sakura faded into during training, a sight that was becoming more common with every passing month. It was an expression that Sasuke seemed born with, one that took all but the apocalypse to wipe away. Naruto knew at that moment that, if circumstances had been different, if Makoto had some secret bloodline limit, that she would be plowing a straight line from his apartment straight to the Hokage's tower, and anyone in her way was damned from the start.

"You didn't deserve that. You say that there's a reason why everyone hates you. If you were the Devil himself, I don't think that would be enough of a cause for what's been done to you."

A chill sank through him. She was so damn close to the truth that he wanted to speak out, to say that it wasn't the Devil, but a nine-tailed being of pure hatred. He was stopped, though, by the way her hand covered his. He inhaled again, and her hand actually clenched around his, like she was trying to comfort him. "What I mean to say," she began, "is that I will work. I'll work to teach you these things, these simple things like cleaning your floors and buying groceries because no one else ever seemed to care."

"Hey! I know how to clean fine!"

There was a pause. Makoto actually turned around in her chair to face him, and after a small staring contest, he glanced away. "Okay. Got your point. But, you shouldn't need to do this for me. You're family. Hell, you're more than that. You're a grandmother. Work should be the last of your worries."

Makoto blinked. "Why is that?"

"Well, because you're old." He emphasized the last part, pulling his hands from under hers to spread them out. "Old people aren't supposed to work. They're supposed to, I don't know, knit and gossip and stuff."

The older woman opened her mouth a few times, nothing escaping her lips but air. He appeared torn between a scream and a sigh. Finally, one hand pinched the bridge of her nose, and she fell into familiar, hysterical snickers. "Old doesn't mean dead, Naruto. I'm only fifty two. I don't think I'll ever be as "old" as you think I should be. I've never gossiped, I only know how to knit scarves, and both of those are rather boring." She looked at him again, and snorted. "Naruto, if something happened, and you were told that you couldn't be a ninja anymore, what would you do?"

He blinked. "Well, duh. I'd be a ninja anyway. Screw them."

"Exactly!" She crowed. "I can't be a wife anymore. Toppu is nearly a decade gone. I can't be the head of my household, because my household has been naught but ash for longer than I would care to remember. But, when I see you, I see the fact that I am still needed. I suppose that, through all these years, and through all of my troubles, I have been and still am a teacher. I taught my husband to dance, I taught my son how to sew, and I taught my daughter how to win in a bar fight."

"...Wait, you've been in bar fights?" His eyes must've been too wide, because Makoto laughed again. taking the handkerchief from his hand and pocketing it again.

"Naruto, if you're willing, I could use some help with the rest of the laundry. I could tell you the story on the way down?" Her tone was so hopeful at the end that, even if she was suggesting cutting off his hand and selling it as a dog toy, he would've followed her all the way and loaned her the knife.

He nodded dumbly, and she beamed back at him as she stood.

"So, I was eighteen, and Arashi was, at that point two. Toppu gained favor from a local lord who invited us to..."


Sweet heavens. This chapter was supposed to be shorter than the last two. It was also supposed to be relatively angst free. It was also supposed to be about Team 7.

Guess what? It's not.

Despite that, I'm pretty proud of this one. I hope I managed to write about half of it in one day, which, of course, gives no excuse as to why the earlier part of it took so long to get out. I blame the ten hour work days, and the fact that I've sworn off soda completely since the last update. I feel that it's semi-coherent, and I'm almost positive that this chapter has a purpose. Oh, bonus points to anyone who can guess where I'm from by the breakfast.

Anyway, I want to thank everyone for all the reviews so far. It's an amazing response, and I'm floored every time I get feedback becasue I know from experience that it takes a lot of effort to actually say something.

I can say that in the next chapter, there's going to be Team 7 interaction. Honestly, I'm not quite sure what's going to happen because I've just recently figured out that my initial time line is going at a rather slow pace. To point, this is now chapter seven, and in my initial time line, it's almost at the end of chapter three. Also, if Word Count keeps increasing like it has been, the next chapter will also be eighty pages long.

But, hope you enjoyed reading this chapter, and I want to thank you for reading the fic so far. ...Have a nice day?

Man, I even suck at keeping the A/N short. That's a new low.

9/17 - Clarified "coffee" issue. Thanks for pointing it out!