Everyone in the class turned to look as the door slid open. Even Shikamaru, who had gotten pretty good at impromptu naps over the past several years, hadn't had time to fade out for his morning 'me time'.
Naruto Uzumaki walked in, almost an hour late.
"Naruto! You're…" Iruka trailed off. "Late," he finished lamely.
Naruto paused on the way to his desk, visibly struggling for a moment before offering up a weak smile and an insincere 'sorry'.
He looked like hell. Leaves in his hair, dark circles under his eyes, dirt on his clothes, and dried blood here and there. He sat in his seat with none of his usual energy and propped his head up in his hands.
It was far from the first time he'd ever been late to class. There had been days where he'd never shown up at all. But it was the first time he'd shown up to class looking like someone had systematically beaten the crap out of him. Usually he was, if not stylish, at least clean and well groomed. No one could ever really be considered stylish wearing outlandish orange pants and a white t-shirt, often with an orange jacket thrown over it.
"Ah, I assume you have a good reason for being late?" Iruka hazarded. Naruto was great at making up unusual excuses, usually just to get a laugh from the class and a thrown bit of chalk from Iruka or Mizuki. Today, whatever Naruto said had happened, Iruka was prepared to believe him.
Naruto seemed slightly taken aback by the question, like it hadn't occurred to him. "Huh?" he said cleverly.
Iruka walked closer, real concern creeping into his voice. "Naruto? Are you alright? I asked if you had a good reason for being late."
Naruto considered it quietly, his eyes wandering away from Iruka's like he felt guilty about something. Finally, he sighed.
"No. No, I don't have a good reason."
Iruka wasn't sure, but it sounded like that depressed him.
Several of his classmates looked at him in concern, just as shocked by that as Iruka.
"Well, uh, okay. We were discussing the techniques for coded messages, Naruto. If you don't understand, be sure and ask me after class, okay?"
Naruto nodded tiredly, then, over the course of the next thirty minutes, quietly faded into a haze.
Days passed, as they usually do. Today was a Tuesday, which meant a lecture day. Two hours of lectures in the morning, two hours of ninja equipment, lunch, then another three hours of lecture, followed by an hour of stealth.
Hinata didn't like Tuesdays.
Tuesdays were kind of sad, because Naruto didn't seem to do very good on Tuesdays, or really, any lecture day. All that energy, all that drive that he showed in everything else he did, just disappeared. Sometimes there'd be little flashes, funny comments Naruto would make.
But they were rare. Getting rarer. Since the day he'd shown up late, looking tired and injured, Naruto hadn't been himself. He didn't joke like he used to, didn't play pranks like he used to, and after school, every time Hinata had followed him, he'd gone out to a training ground and beaten himself senseless against the target poles. Naruto trained pretty often, but never like that.
Today, he hadn't even laughed with the rest of the class when Komiko got her wires tangled and her kunai toss pulled a snarl of wire and kunai halfway across the hall. Though, he had at least looked pretty alert when it came to his turn, and Hinata secretly cheered when he'd managed to wrap the wire attached to the handle of his kunai around the wooden beam and thunked it securely into the target on just the third try. He hadn't eaten lunch, apparently because he didn't have any, and Hinata was tempted to offer him some of hers, but he'd sat off by himself like he didn't want to talk to anyone and she'd been afraid to approach him. And now, now he was asleep. And Iruka, who'd been pretty considerate about Naruto for the most part, had lost patience in the middle of his lecture on the uses of chakra absorbing ink.
So he threw an eraser at him, bouncing it with the accuracy of long practice off the boy's head.
Naruto, who had been well and truly asleep, jerked awake with a snort, much to the laughter of the class. "Huh? Wazzat?"
"So glad you could join us, Naruto," Iruka said irritatedly. "I asked you a question."
Naruto blinked sleepily and rubbed his eyes, looking around. "Sorry, I didn't hear it. Could you, uh, repeat the question?"
More snickers came from here and there.
"I asked you what the character on the board was, Naruto."
Naruto squinted at the board and scratched himself. "Ah, looks like a tora."
Iruka nodded, surprised. Maybe Naruto had paid a little attention. But he still shouldn't be sleeping in class, no matter how tired he was, so Iruka decided to ask something a little more difficult.
"So, what's it used for?"
"Adding a fire element to a seal," he replied, yawning behind a hand. Abruptly he sat bolt upright and looked around, surprise on his face.
Iruka looked at him like he'd grown a second head. For that matter, so did Sakura, the only other person there who'd known that, and that was because she'd read ahead in their textbook. Hinata just stared.
"Uh, yeah," Naruto added lamely.
Giving him a look, Iruka nodded. "Yes, that's right, Naruto. It is a fire element character, something you might add to an explosive note if you want flame in addition to concussion." Iruka paused. "See me after school, Naruto."
"Aww, man," Naruto complained, much to the amusement of the class.
"Yo, Iruka-sensei!" Naruto yelled as the class dispersed, stealth training with Mizuki and Iruka over for the day. "I'm kinda busy, so could you just yell at me here so I can get going? I got plans."
"Just what kind of plans?"
"I got a bucket of permanent dye and a shop keeper who really has it com-err, nothing?" Naruto said with an embarrassed chuckle.
Iruka raised one eyebrow. "Well, it'll have to wait. I want to show you something."
"Aww, man, school is OVER, Iruka-sensei. I haven't done anything to deserve detention." He paused. "Today."
"Just come with me, Naruto."
They went back into the school, to the small office Iruka shared with Mizuki and another chunin instructor. Unlocking a drawer with a small key, Iruka pulled out a thick notebook, his grade notebook, then gave Naruto a warning look when he saw the boy's eyes widen. "This isn't where I usually keep it, and even if you do manage to find it, if you touch it, I will personally break both of your arms."
"I'm shocked! Simply shocked that you don't trust me, Iruka-sensei! I would never dream of cheating!" Naruto proclaimed, all wounded dignity.
"I'm serious, Naruto, I will break your arms in three places and cover you in itching powder."
"I'll be good," he replied meekly. "I really only thought that Kiba needed to be held back a year, anyway."
Iruka's stern expression relaxed. "Now, before I open this, who is the worst student in class?"
"I'm sorry, alright? It's just your lessons are BORING. How can you expect me to pay attention when you just drone on and on..." Seeing the look on his teacher's face, Naruto trailed off.
Iruka looked at him for a moment, then opened the book with a ribbon bookmark. Finding Naruto's name, he held it up so the kid could see and tapped it with his finger. "Do you see these scores, Naruto?"
"I was...," Naruto paused, thought for a moment, then shrugged. "What about it?"
Iruka blinked. "Naruto, your grades are all over the place. Yeah, there are some bad scores, but some of them are really good."
He shrugged again. "I study when things interest me."
Iruka paused, thinking. "Yes, that may well be true. I know you like taijutsu better than history. But, your grades really are all over the place. I'd expect your taijutsu to be always better than your knowledge of seals. Instead, six months ago, you scored near the top of the class on seals."
Naruto looked like he'd bitten into something sour. "How was I supposed to know that everyone in the class was going to suck on that test?"
"And then your grades dropped to the very bottom of the class. Way below what I know you're capable of."
"How do you know what I'm capable of?"
Iruka nodded. "That's it, I don't. But I have a feeling that you do. And I think you're lying to me."
Abruptly, Naruto's face blossomed into a grin. "Iruka-sensei, why would I lie to you?"
"I don't know. At first I didn't know what to think. Maybe you're a plant from another village?"
"Sensei, you must be confused," he said, patting his teacher on the shoulder. "I'm people, not a plant."
Iruka closed his eyes in irritation. "Yeah, I know you're not a plant." He paused. "Or from another village. But I wish you'd be honest with me. You're not the worst student in class. You could even be one of the best. But you're deliberately not trying, and," Iruka's voice rose, "you're only hurting yourself!" Iruka grabbed his shirt in both hands. "Can't you see? You're eleven years old! Academy students have to graduate by thirteen, and you've only got two more years to learn the things you HAVE to know! Maybe you have a reason to not try, I don't know, but you say you want to be a shinobi! You can't do that without graduating the academy! And at the rate you're going, you're going to fail!"
Naruto's stomach growled and he gave an embarrassed chuckle, scratching the back of his head. "Sorry, Iruka-sensei."
But he didn't say what he was sorry for.
Iruka stared at him, then sighed. "Come on, Naruto. I'll buy you dinner."
Naruto brightened. "Really? Thanks!"
"Under one condition. You have to try."
Then, for one moment, Iruka swore he saw the real Naruto, looking cold and serious.
"I am trying, Iruka-sensei. I get it wrong sometimes, but I am trying."
Once, when Naruto was younger, he made a mistake. He trusted someone.
That someone was talking to a pretty little pink haired girl that Naruto wanted to be friends with. So Naruto had talked to the both for a while. Then the girl's mother had shown up and taken her home. Disappointed, the man had talked to Naruto for a while. Then he'd taken Naruto home.
It was that night before an ANBU realized he was missing. He searched for the boy for a while. Then he alerted other ANBU, and they searched for the boy. Then the Hokage was informed, and lots of people searched for the boy.
This went on over about a week.
Then the boy staggered out of the forest in front of a traveling couple, crying, covered in blood, and was turned over to ANBU and the doctors.
Though he was crying, when asked what had happened, his voice didn't waver. He gave clear, concise details. Then the doctors gave him something that put him into a nightmare filled sleep that lasted two days. He woke up screaming.
There was a time of jumbled images and voices, with people talking to him, at him, and around him. It was all very confusing.
Then they had carried him to a big building and asked him to look at a man in a cell. It was someone he'd trusted. He told them so.
They all looked really mad and mean, and he'd started to get upset, but the Hokage had hugged him, told him he was very brave, and turned to a big man dressed all in black wearing a funny cloth over his head.
Naruto could still remember exactly what the old man had said.
"Ibiki, make sure he regrets it."
Naruto had asked some questions, as they were leading him away, and at some length, as they were exiting the building, he'd understood. They were going to hurt the man he'd trusted.
Naruto wanted to watch.
Everyone, who'd been all smiles and jokes at that point, though Naruto could tell they didn't really mean it, got real quiet and mad.
Naruto had apologized for making them mad, and they'd assured him that they weren't mad at him.
So, if they weren't mad at him, Naruto wanted to know if he could stay and watch. The Hokage had tried to talk him out of it. Someone else liked the idea. They argued. Naruto argued. Naruto insisted.
And, at some length, he'd been introduced to the scary looking man with the black rag on his head.
Ibiki was big and scary looking with marks on his face.
Ibiki had tried to convince him he really didn't want to see what was going to happen. It was going to be scary and gross.
Naruto didn't mind that. He'd done scary and gross things before. Recently. And it wouldn't be happening to him.
Ibiki had said it would be loud.
Naruto had insisted he wouldn't mind, of course. He really did want to see.
And Ibiki had agreed. And smiled.
A lot of people left looking mad at Ibiki. Some left looking sick.
Ibiki gave Naruto a stool in the corner. He didn't look mad, or sick. He looked pleased.
Naruto decided he liked Ibiki, even though he looked scary.
The man in the cell didn't like Ibiki at all.
Naruto decided he liked Iruka. The ramen he'd bought him for dinner was just about the best thing ever.
"So, Naruto, you've never talked about it, but what is your goal? Why do you want to be a shinobi?"
Naruto shrugged. "I dunno. Just seems like a good idea."
"Liar," Iruka said without hesitation, then realized Naruto was pulling his chain.
Naruto grinned. "There's something I want to do. But I won't tell just anyone."
"Come on, Naruto. What is it with you? I've finally decided that you just don't trust anyone, and that's why you're always lying."
He slurped more ramen and waved to the owner. Ichiraku ramen. This stuff was pretty damned good. Not very close to his apartment, but worth the walk.
"Why don't you trust anyone?" Iruka pressed.
Naruto stopped for a second, looked at him, looked away. "People lie," he said after a moment.
After a little while, he looked back. Iruka was staring at him with a sad look on his face. It made Naruto uncomfortable. He looked away again.
"Yes, people do lie," Iruka said finally. "You can't trust everyone."
"No!" Iruka said, grabbing Naruto's arm. "You can't trust everyone. But you have to trust someone."
Naruto looked at the hand on his arm, but Iruka didn't remove it.
"I'm serious, Naruto. Don't you trust your friends?"
"I don't have any friends."
Iruka blinked, and finally released his arm. "But, what about your classmates?"
Naruto snorted in contempt. And then he noticed Iruka was giving him that look again.
That sad look, like he was seeing something Naruto didn't. Naruto had only ever seen one person look like that before.
"Stop looking at me like that. The Hokage looks like that sometimes, and I can't stand it."
Iruka nodded slowly. "I suppose he would look at you like that, because he knows."
Naruto looked angry for a moment. "Knows what? He never says what he means, just stands there and gives me that damned look. What?! What does he know that you know that I don't know?"
"How important friends are."
Naruto looked like he'd been slapped.
"Ibiki said that," he whispered. Then he got up, politely thanked Iruka and the old man behind the counter for the meal, and got the hell out of there.
When Naruto first met Ibiki, they spent the whole day together. Naruto asked questions, Ibiki provided answers, and the man in the cell got very nervous. Then Ibiki did a few things, and the man screamed for a while. Ibiki watched Naruto more than he paid attention to the man.
Naruto's attention was on everything.
When Naruto's stomach growled, Ibiki took him out to a nearby restaurant and bought him dinner. They both ate well, and the waitress praised Naruto's appetite, told him he was cute but 'too serious' and asked some questions. Naruto answered at first, but then Ibiki told him he shouldn't tell people some things, that he liked this restaurant, and the waitress would be scared by what had been done to the man.
Naruto paused, thought about it for a bit, then asked what she would think about what had been done to him.
Ibiki told him that if she knew that, she'd cry and probably not sleep well.
Naruto agreed that he didn't want to make her cry, since she was so nice, and he wouldn't tell her.
Ibiki told him that was the right thing to do, that it was usually best not to tell people anything more than they needed to know, and asked if he was tired of watching.
Naruto shook his head.
So they went back to the building with the cell with the man in it. Around midnight, Ibiki draped his coat around Naruto and carried him to a couch in his office.
The man in the cell didn't get any sleep that night.
Naruto had the best night's sleep ever.
For nearly a month, Naruto didn't sleep much. At first he'd tried, laying down, prepared to sleep, then tossing and turning for a few hours before giving up and reading scrolls and books for most of the night. He took to training, hard physical training all throughout the Konoha training grounds as a way of exhausting himself, but that just meant he was extra tired while he lay in bed awake.
The thing was, he had the answer, now. Ibiki-san hadn't given it to him. The Hokage had mentioned it. And Iruka had come right out and told him.
But it still didn't make any damned sense.
Yeah, okay, having skilled team members supporting you meant you could take on more powerful enemies and win. He could see that. But what would it matter if they were friends or not? Shinobi were tools. If Naruto was told to work with someone to complete a job, he would damned well give it everything he had.
But friends? No one wanted to be friends with Naruto. They hadn't ever. Ibiki was the first person to ever look at him with approval. There were a couple other adults who seemed to like him and treated him like an adult. Naruto understood that sort of behavior. None of them were friends, but they made some great role models, something the Hokage had explained once.
But friends? Among people his own age? They were immature. They were irrational, for crying out loud. They did things that made no damned sense whatsoever. Most of the girls in class fawned over that Uchiha, when he clearly did not like them, and made complete fools of themselves. Most of the boys either spent their time in pointless pissing contests, or absorbed in weird little obsessions of their own.
Only the Uchiha, Sasuke, made any sort of sense at all to Naruto, but he was such a showoff it kind of irritated him. What kind of idiot demonstrates his skills to their fullest and draws attention to himself?
Naruto might, just might, could handle being friends with some of the students, except for one thing.
They made lousy friends. He'd overheard girls spreading lies and rumors about their supposed 'friends' behind their backs. The boys would follow some obscure schedule of their own, best friends one day, bitter enemies the next.
Who in the hell would want people like that at his back?
Yet, people he respected told him it was important. So it probably was. He just didn't understand it. None of the books he'd read on it had yielded anything useful. Apparently, this was yet another thing he couldn't learn by himself by reading about it.
What a pain in the ass.
After some thought, and being sorely tempted to go ask Ibiki, though afraid of what the man might say after the disastrous confrontation last time, he concluded that he didn't understand people yet. He knew how to tell when they lied, he knew how to read the signals they gave off when in distress, and how to predict their actions, but, going over his lessons in his head, he concluded that nothing applied, because now he was trying to deal with people in their everyday lives.
So, if he had the answer and it didn't make any sense, he clearly needed to learn more about the problem.
He needed to gather intel.
Iruka pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to fend off the onrushing headache as he stared at the embarrassed looking boy giving him a pleading look.
The irate looking chunin kunoichi holding a kunai gave him an expectant one. "So you're the one who gave him the homework assignment of watching me bathe?" she asked, clearly skeptical, but also clearly willing to gut the party responsible, as soon as she figured out who it was.
Pinching his nose wasn't working. Iruka sighed. Naruto hadn't been the same since their little chat over ramen, though his grades had improved, marginally, and he'd started clowning around in class again, but Iruka, who watched him a lot more closely now, could tell his heart wasn't in it.
And now this. At least the kid was showing some initiative, albeit of the perverted kind. Iruka had to admit, he had good taste. The kunoichi was stacked.
"Come on, all you have to admit is that you never gave him any such assignment and I can get on with carving him into cutlets."
Ah, well, time to save the kid's hide.
"No, it wasn't my idea for Naruto to watch you bathe."
The kunoichi smirked and turned towards Naruto, who, Iruka was somewhat alarmed to note, had murder in his eyes for an instant. But no matter.
"The assignment was to practice following a ninja throughout their daily routine," Iruka continued smoothly, not giving either a chance to interrupt. "He was supposed to pick a fresh genin, someone with a non combat specialty, someone that a student like him would have a good chance of observing without being seen. Not a chunin."
For a moment, the chunin looked crestfallen, then turned back to Iruka in anger. Iruka held up his hands placatingly, noticing as he did so the look of relief, and something else on Naruto's face.
"I suppose I should have been more specific about who he followed and allowing private time. I'll make a male to male rule next time. I'm training shinobi, not peepers, I swear!"
She glared at him. "Well you can't prove it by me. The little bastard is lucky I didn't just kill him first and ask questions later."
"Naruto…" Iruka began.
"I wasn't trying to see her naked, I just wanted to catch any conversations she had in the bathhouse! People talk to each other all the time, and I didn't want to miss anything."
"But why did you pick a chunin of all people?" This, Iruka was genuinely curious about.
"Cause I thought I could."
Ah. Apparently, he did have some pride in his skills, for all that he carefully avoided seeming competent in class.
Iruka gave an embarrassed chuckle of his own to the woman. "I'm really sorry, Naruto is one of my best students and I've encouraged him to challenge himself, but I had no idea he would do something like this."
The chunin shook her head for a moment, then shrugged. "Well, okay, brat, you're off the hook for now. But if you perv on me again, I'm gonna cut your balls off, okay?" Seeing Naruto's frantic nod, she laughed quietly, then leaned in close to Iruka. "The really embarrassing thing is, I almost didn't catch him. You're going to need to keep an eye on this one."
Dumbfounded, Iruka managed to murmur something appropriate, and the young woman left, putting a distinct sway to her walk. He and Naruto watched in surprise.
Finally, Naruto turned to him.
Iruka raised an eyebrow.
"Okay, that one, I didn't see coming," he admitted.
Iruka stared for a few more moments. Finally, he said, "A chunin?"
"She barely paid any attention to her surroundings, and people treat her different. I was curious." He frowned. "Apparently, girls' situational awareness increase when they're in the bath. Strange."
Iruka laughed. "No, Naruto, not strange, once you understand why."
Naruto frowned deeper, with a look of such concentration on his face Iruka wondered if this really was the same troublemaking student he'd dealt with for the past two years.
"Then what is the reason?"
Iruka opened his mouth… then shut it again, a twinkle in his eye. This was a student he wouldn't mind teaching. "Well," he drawled, "there are a lot of reasons, but they all boil down to one main principle." He paused for a bit, working out what he was going to say in his head.
"Well?" Naruto asked intently.
"Ah, well, the basic idea is that some men like to spy on women whenever they're naked. So women have learned to be more watchful during those times."
Naruto nodded slowly. "That explains it," he said slowly.
"Ah, but does it?" Iruka replied.
"…No, not completely." He nodded again, more firmly. "I see your point."
"There's also the privacy issue, no one likes to be spied on in their private moments," he added.
"But this is a ninja village," Naruto protested suddenly. "We're watched all the time."
Iruka smiled gently, started to pat the kid on the shoulder, then thought better of it. "Naruto, that just makes us value the privacy we have all the more."
"So privacy is that important."
"Yes, it is. Like the way you play the fool in class, so that the other students won't notice the real you." He paused, considering. "You're probably the most private person I know."
Naruto took a moment to digest that, but Iruka pressed on.
"So have you thought any more about friends?"
His expression hardened. "Yes. But I still don't understand it. A friend is more than an ally, right? Someone who you can trust and rely on, who you have a close relationship with. But I'm not blind or deaf. I see these people around me who claim to be friends, then turn around and fight with each other, or spread lies about each other in secret. What the hell?"
Poor kid, Iruka thought. What happened that broke him inside? This time he did put his hand on Naruto's shoulder, ignoring the almost imperceptible flinch it brought. "Well, not everyone who claims to be a friend is. You probably know that better than most. But some are, and just because two people argue or hurt each other doesn't mean they don't care about each other. And when you find someone who does become a true friend, you'll understand what I mean."
Naruto shrugged. "So, in order to understand it, I have to experience it." He sighed. "And apparently, people say one thing, and honestly believe it," he said ironically, "but they do something else. Is a little consistency too damned much to ask?"
Iruka winced, then chuckled. "Yes, Naruto. When you're dealing with people, it really is."
Another two weeks passed. Naruto's class performance remained the same, getting quite a bit of frustration out of Iruka. He spoke with him several times after school, and Naruto had dropped all pretense of not being smart as hell around Iruka, but when he was in class, it was snores, goofy comments, and pranking that seemed mischievous to everyone but Iruka, who was really beginning to understand just how afraid of people Naruto was.
He brought it up to Mizuki, his fellow teacher for the group. At first Mizuki didn't want to believe him, but a quiet word with Naruto about some one on one advanced techniques had tempted the boy into a secret late night class with he and Mizuki. After seeing Naruto unleash some of his best on Iruka, Mizuki had to admit that his reputation was a complete fake, though he scoffed at the notion that Naruto was still holding back. And he still didn't offer any useful advice on how to get Naruto to try in class.
So, one day, he decided to take it up the chain.
All the way to the top.
Naruto had mentioned talking to the Hokage before, which didn't really surprise Iruka. He'd never lived in any other village, but he'd heard stories, and he understood just how incredible it was that the Sandaime seemed to take a deep and personal interest in every person in the village. Keeping a closer eye on Naruto, given the boy's secrets and hidden abilities, was something he would do.
So he made an appointment. It only took two days before he found himself in the Hokage's office exchanging brief pleasantries.
"So I understand that you have some concerns about Naruto Uzumaki," the Hokage said after the preamble. "I know he has quite the reputation as the trickster, is he making trouble again?"
Iruka shook his head. "I'm not here to complain about Naruto, Hokage-sama. I'm actually quite concerned about him. He's very bright, and, despite his grades, seems to be well ahead of most of the rest of the class. I actually don't know how smart he is, because he refuses to show it, though he doesn't fake being stupid with me anymore. I know he could be one of the best students in the class, if he'd just try, but no matter what I say, he won't." Iruka took a moment to calm himself down, his voice was rising, and he did not want to shout at the Hokage, no matter how frustrated he was.
Sarutobi nodded, tapping his fingers thoughtfully. "I see. It's encouraging to meet a teacher who sees past the façade that Naruto has created, and who doesn't blame him for it. As I'm sure you know, there are plenty in the village who bear animosity towards the boy due to what he contains. Why do you think he puts up such a front?"
"From things he's said and my own observations, I think he's holding back so that his classmates will underestimate him, and he's put an incredible amount of work into it. And it's working. I've asked a few of his classmates what they think of him, and the general opinion is that he's funny sometimes, but not very bright, and he'll never amount to much. Just from one real conversation with him, I can tell that he's serious to a fault and smarter that most, if not all, of his classmates. Just maintaining his attitude of a clown would take a focus very few people could ever keep up for that length of time." Iruka shrugged helplessly. "It would be a very valuable skill if he used it against an enemy village, but these are his peers! These are the people who should be his friends, yet he treats them like an enemy he's preparing to fight."
The Hokage nodded. "Yes, that's it, exactly. Though, from what I have seen of Naruto myself, I would say 'fight' is too soft a word. Naruto is preparing himself to destroy all his enemies."
Iruka paled. "But, does that mean that the Kyubi…"
Sarutobi shook his head swiftly. "No, you can rest assured on that. The seal holds fine, and the beast sleeps within him. No, what we're dealing with here is a demon of our own making." His eyes looked sad.
"But, I don't understand, Hokage-sama," Iruka protested. "I can see that someone must have hurt him in the past, you don't get like that with a healthy childhood, but to call him a demon-"
He waved a hand placatingly. "True, Iruka, the boy is not a demon. Naruto is actually very moral, and cares about other people more than he realizes, I think. But, due to a mistake on our part when he was young, he was hurt, and hurt badly. And," he continued, his voice heavy with regret, "due to my own guilt I may have compounded the issue by allowing something against my better judgment."
"Hokage-sama," Iruka replied, then trailed off.
The Hokage shook his head. "No, this is not my story to tell. In a way, I gave up that right. But there is a reason Naruto only trusts a few people."
Surprise and relief flitted across Iruka's face. "So he does trust someone? That's a huge relief, because the main reason I came here was because he doesn't seem to have any friends. Actually, it'd be more true to say that he doesn't understand what it means to have a friend. He's asked several questions about that, and once mentioned something you had told him."
"Yes, Naruto doesn't have much of a knack for making friends. He doesn't let himself trust easily, but, fortunately, he does have his supporters in the village. Not many people know this, but there are a number of ANBU who are quite fond of the boy."
Iruka's eyebrows raised. "ANBU? But why?"
He was rewarded by a piercing look from the old man. "Yes, I'd intended to tell you, since you do have Naruto's best interests at heart. You're a good man, Iruka. One of Konoha's finest."
His ears tinged pink at the compliment.
"After the trauma that happened to him when he was six, Naruto ended up spending some time at ANBU headquarters by his own insistence. I didn't have the heart to tell him no, though I should have. While he was there… Well, I'll let Morino Ibiki tell the rest. He's the closest thing to a father Naruto has."
Iruka's flush of pleasure turned white.
Morino Ibiki. Hardly the most well known ninja in Konoha. But, among the shinobi, he was known, more so than almost any other ANBU. He was feared, and justly so, for being the most brutally effective interrogator and torturer in the country of Fire.
And Naruto saw him as a father?
"Morino Ibiki?" Iruka squeaked. "How in the f-"
"Not just Ibiki, but several current and former ANBU are as close to being friends with Naruto as it is possible for them. In a way, you could think of them as fond older cousins he doesn't see very often."
Iruka's mind reeled in shock. "But Ibiki? How? WHY?"
Sarutobi grimaced. "Call it a weakness on an old man's part, to not deny a very brave young man the only thing he insisted he wanted, despite it being harmful to him. Ibiki is very fond of him, and takes his duties as role model very seriously. Though, I happen to know that neither has spoken to the other for nearly two months for much the same reason you are here, Iruka. Naruto doesn't understand friends, not just because he's never had one, but because he's never been one. And though Ibiki has little patience for people who do not value their friends, he's not a very good source of advice on friendship for a young boy."
Iruka's eyes widened in surprise. Of course. That was the answer.
Sarutobi smiled at the obvious revelation Iruka had just came to. "I can see you're well on your way to helping Naruto overcome his difficulties. Ibiki-san might be Naruto's father, but you are the brother he needs."
"T-thank you, Hokage-sama. I will think about what you have said, and I will try my best to help Naruto."
He nodded, but as Iruka turned to leave, apparently feeling dismissed, he added, "Ibiki is usually at the ANBU headquarters, though he can sometimes be found at the Mao Che restaurant nearby. If anyone asks, I sent you."
Iruka bowed. "Thank you, Hokage-sama."
After some research, this time on the far less aware civilian girls of the village, Naruto had come to some important conclusions.
First, people treat beautiful girls differently than normal people.
At first he didn't pick up on it. He tended to follow the more exaggerated girls, the ones everyone said were beautiful. Curvy, pretty girls with very characteristic outfits. His reasoning was, they seemed to get the most extreme reactions from the people they interacted with, be it good, or bad. It was easier to spot trends with more pronounced reactions.
Men and boys, almost without exception, treated them better than anyone else. They got discounts in stores. Men bought them things. Doors were held open for them. People smiled at them.
Women were a little harder to figure. At first, he was ready to conclude that women were just like men, but there was something… off about the way they were nice to the pretty girls. It took him a little bit to figure it out, but gradually he noticed that, some of the time, when they were being nice to the pretty girls, they were actually being mean. And the pretty girls knew it, too, and they were nice, but mean, right back. Sometimes it seemed to get pretty vicious, but almost never physical, like males. Which brought him to another realization.
Girls lied more about their intentions than he did.
It was sort of humbling.
Men and boys, well, that was practically a no brainer in comparison. Yes, some of the prettier males seemed to get the same kind of attention from women that they got from men, just look at the last Uchiha. But that sort of thing was rare. Usually, the only advantage the prettier men had was that women seemed more receptive to their sexual advances. And, much like with the women but more so, other men were pretty vicious to their prettier counterparts.
That was worth a night's pondering.
Gradually, a plan formed. And, with it, a new application of an old jutsu. But it needed a little polish. And there was only one person he knew that could offer advice on that sort of thing.
He hadn't seen her in a long time. He'd better bring an offering. So, before he stopped by her apartment one night, he bought two boxes of dango.
The first time Naruto met Anko was the second day after he met Ibiki-san. They were returning from a nearby restaurant with bento, and Ibiki was explaining to Naruto the importance of good nutrition. How he should try to eat healthy meals at home as often as possible, but it was okay every now and then, when he was really busy, to buy meals from vendors for a while if he had the money. Ibiki had bought him lunch, of course.
"Hey, Ibiki, where you taking the shrimp?" a voice called.
Naruto looked up to see a huge, tall woman with a really fat chest coming towards them, waving. She had dark hair and wore dark clothes, but unlike many of the other people in the building, didn't wear a funny mask.
"Hi, Anko," Ibiki replied, just as Naruto interrupted.
"We're going to the torture cells," he replied very seriously. "And I am not a shrimp."
Ibiki smiled thinly. "Anko, this is Naruto Uzumaki. Naruto, this is Anko Mitarashi."
"Hello, Mitarashi-san," Naruto said politely.
Anko raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow. "A little young to be a spy, ain't he?" She paused as the name hit her. "Or is it about, you know."
Ibiki smiled, and though Naruto wouldn't know it, she was actually a little unnerved by that smile. "Naruto isn't the subject of today's lesson, he's the student. He makes a pretty good assistant."
"…Really." She squatted to be at eye level with him. "Well, hello, Naruto-kun. You can call me Anko."
Naruto looked at the big man beside him. "Ibiki-san? Is Anko-san one of the people who can know about what we're doing?"
Ibiki smiled at him, and even gave him a kind of awkward pat on the head. "Yes, Naruto-kun. Anko would understand. Do you want to tell her?"
Naruto nodded and turned back to the woman. "We're hurting the man who hurt me. Hokage-sama said to make him really regret it. I think he regrets it, but I don't think he really regrets it yet, so we have some more work to do." He sounded oddly pleased.
Anko looked a little nonplussed. "And the sacks?"
"Ibiki-san bought me a bento!" Naruto proclaimed.
"Naruto is a growing boy, he needs his nutrition," Ibiki answered to Anko's silent question. "And we decided to make it a working lunch."
At first, Anko looked at the boy with pity. For the man to have been turned over to Ibiki's tender mercies, his crimes must have been horrible indeed. But Naruto looked back at her with a cool, serious look terribly out of place on his young face, and Anko realized she was fighting a smile. So she didn't fight it, and gave the kid one of her best feral grins. He didn't look intimidated. He smiled back the way kids will. She looked up at Ibiki.
"I think I like this kid."
Ibiki inclined his head, wordlessly agreeing.
"Do you think I could…?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Naruto? Would you mind if Anko came along?"
Naruto looked at her inscrutably. "You really want to come along? Ibiki-san warned that it gets kind of gross."
"It's okay," she assured him. "I like gross."
"Well, okay. I guess I could share my bento."
Anko patted him on the head. "Thank you, Naruto-kun, but I'll go get my own lunch. Tell me, do you like dango?"