Disclaimer: I have a magic marker, and everywhere I go, I write a little white lie, proclaiming MY NARUTO! But marker fades, and time decays, and little lies will never be true. I guess what I'm really trying to say is, I don't own Naruto.

Once upon a time I said this was a boring topic to write about. Seriously, there are only so many times you can be moved by the trauma of Naruto discovering the identity of his parents. ("What?! My dad was the Yondaime Hokage who made my life miserable?! See me angst!")

But then I was painfully mauled by a hybrid plot-bunkin (which, naturally, is the brutal combination of your average bunny and a large, metal trashkin... sort of like a trash can, only spelt differently). The bunkin assaulted me with a second run-of-the-mill plot, in which Naruto's mother is alive. However, that nasty little hybrid plot-bunkin scarred me with its long teeth and demanded that I stick the two plots together to make a parental revelation like I've never seen before.

The Yondaime is old news. Well... not exactly. But that's a helluva lot less traumatizing than the realization that he's been lied to all his life. Uzumaki Naruto is no orphan, and his mother is someone he's known since he was young. Why was he forced to grow up all alone when his mother was still alive all along? How will Naruto take the news? Will Tsunade survive the night? And how will things move from there?

There... aren't really any spoilers in this. It takes place after the current manga plot, presuming Naruto returns to the village at some point. I kind of think this would be something that happens just after he passes the Chuunin exams, otherwise it would be a pretty random conversation Tsunade started. In which case, you have to presume that he does take and pass the exams before his sixteenth birthday.

This is a one-shot, meaning I don't really have plans to write more onto the end. If you ask for more, it will have absolutely no effect on whether or not I do write more. If you really want to see more, throw out ideas about what else you'd like to see in this plot continuation. I probably won't use any of them, but it would get my creative juices flowing in the direction of this story. Still, even if you do that, I make no promises.

Hope you enjoy the story!


R. Winters

Naruto stares at the woman in shock. He's trembling a little as he looks down at the photograph on her desk. The couple smiling back at him are excruciatingly familiar.

The one on the left—his left, not theirs—is a shock, even though he looked at him almost every day of his childhood. Long blond spikes hang haphazardly around his face, and his teeth are showing in a grin the boy is unaccustomed to, but there can be no mistaking that coat, or the glistening crystals hanging around his neck.

The other figure hurts more. The red-haired woman wears a wicked grin, vibrant green eyes sparkling with happiness, and skin glowing with joy. One hand is on her own rounded stomach, and the other seems to be tugging playfully at one of her companion's blond locks.

He recognizes her, too.

"Faster, faster!" A little brunette encouraged as she climbed up the steps of the slide behind him.

Naruto grinned over his shoulder at the girl as he positioned himself at the top of the slide, before turning forward again and giving himself a good shove, laughing as the wind rushed through his hair and tugged at his clothes. The ride was over too soon, and he heard the girl's giggling laughter behind him.

He turned to look again, expecting to see the girl at the top of the slide, only to suddenly be hit from behind as the brunette ran into him, sending them both tumbling in a laughing heap to the ground. The grass right in front of the slide is battered and torn from so many children landing in the same place.

The six-year-old collected himself at length, unsteadily climbing to his feet before offering the girl his hand to help her up.

She took it, her dark eyes bright and shining, a wide grin painted across her face, and a few breathless laughs still escaping her.

"Do you... want to play?" Naruto asked hopefully, his own eyes shining at the prospect of a friend.

The girl nodded and raised an arm to point at the swing set nearby.

Naruto looked and grinned, nodding, "Okay, let's go!"

They ran towards the swings together, but the girl came to an abrupt halt halfway there, turning towards the edge of the playground. Naruto stopped a second later, turning back to see what had distracted his newfound friend.

"Komiko!" A woman was hurrying over to them, and quickly collected the little girl's arm, tugging her back towards the edge of the playground, "What do you think you're doing?"

"Ah... jus' playin', mommy," the girl stammered in reply, her legs swinging quickly to keep up with her mother's long strides.

"We're going home," the woman said sternly, "I don't want you playing with that... boy anymore."

The girl looked back over her shoulder, but Naruto wasn't watching, his head lowered to stare at the grass between his feet. At his sides, his small hands curled into fists.

He shouldn't be disappointed. Things like this happened all of the time. But every time he can't help but let his hopes rise.

This time, he would think. This time, they'll let me be.

This time I'll get to play, too.

This time...

Instead it would always turn out just like last time. The boy raised his head again, looking around to see that other parents were following that woman's example, quickly collecting their own children before he could have a chance of... what? Asking them to play? Contaminating them? What did they think he would do?

Naruto watched silently as the park emptied around him. Only once everything was still again did he start to move.

With slow, shuffling steps, the boy resignedly headed to the edge of the park himself.

He had just stepped onto the dirt path that went by the playground when he stopped, surprised blue eyes meeting green.

A woman—he thought it was a woman—sat on a bench not far from him. She just sat there, staring calmly back at him.

She was dressed in loose, billowing material that was dark blue, with a layer of yellow underneath it, just peeking out at the sleeves. It was a baggy kimono that looked better suited for a man than the petite frame of a woman—Naruto couldn't be certain, as he'd never worn anything so fancy in his entire life. Her hair was a fiery red, with loose, windblown locks falling all around her and contrasting sharply against her dark clothing.

Mostly he noticed her eyes. They were green, bright and clear, and they looked at him in a way he'd never seen before.

What was it? Naruto wasn't sure. They weren't cold or angry, but they made him feel bad all the same.

His leg felt heavy when he moved it to take another step, eyes still locked with the woman's. The next step was a little easier and he began to walk. Towards her, at first, until he drew even with her bench, their eyes still locked.

With an immense effort, the little boy tore his eyes away and his feet started to hit the ground in quicker and quicker succession. His pace slowly increased until he was running.

He ran without pausing. Once he was out of the park he wove his way through crowds and ducked around obstacles, once veering off the main road to take a shortcut he knew of through some small tunnels.

He continued to run until, finally, he arrived at his apartment, panting and sweating and unable to get the memory of those eyes out of his mind.

The teen's fingers curl into fists, resting on the desk on either side of the photograph. Confused blue eyes rise to meet with the brown of the woman across from him.

Is this some kind of joke?! He wants to snarl.

It has to be.

It can't be.

Granny Tsunade wouldn't lie to him. Not about something like this.

"Hey, Naruto!"

The seven-year-old turned at the friendly voice calling out to him, and a large grin crossed his face at the sight of Ichiraku, beckoning him towards his stand. The boy complied, running over and climbing awkwardly onto one of the tall stools.

"Hey, old man Ichiraku!" He chirped in reply, completely smitten with the man's attention. It was the one place he could always count on finding a friendly face waiting for him.

"Care for some ramen?" The man invited, moving around behind the counter, "I just finished a fresh batch."

"Yeah!" The young blond agreed enthusiastically, nearly falling off his stool as his movements caused it to rock violently. The boy caught himself on the counter, steadying his stool again before his face abruptly fell.

"Naruto...?" The man questioned with concern, pausing halfway through dishing up a large serving.

"Eh... heh heh," the boy forced a laugh and rubbed the back of his head, "Sorry, old man... I... don't really have any money right now..."

Ichiraku just laughed, "That's no problem, Naruto. This one's already paid for."

"Eh?!" The blond blurted in surprise, lighting up again, "Really?! That's great! Then, if that's the case, then can I have an extra egg, too?"

The man laughed again and continued to dish out the steaming soup, "Sure thing, Naruto-kun. One miso ramen with an extra egg coming right up." He'd barely finished saying as much before he placed the huge, steaming bowl in front of the small boy.

Naruto stared with eyes as wide as his stomach, taking a moment to appreciate the sight before quickly snatching up a set of chopsticks and getting to work.

"Thanks, old man," the boy said quickly, his words rushed as he dove at his meal.

It was only after he'd finished, and was nursing a slightly swelled stomach, that the young blond noticed he wasn't alone at the ramen booth.

At the far side, on the corner stool, sat a woman. Her red hair flowed down her back, almost to the point where it met the top of the stool, and her loose clothing almost swamped her completely.

There was a bowl of ramen in front of her, but she was making no move to eat it, chopsticks hovering frozen above the bowl's rim. Her head was tilted ever so slightly towards him, and he could just see a sliver of her green eyes watching him.

Unnerved, the boy tore his eyes away and leaned over the counter a little when Ichiraku came to collect his bowl.

"Hey, old man," the boy hissed nervously, making a point of not looking at the woman, "Who's the lady?"

"Hmm?" The man looked across at his only other customer and for some reason his expression changed completely. Everything went blank. Naruto had never seen the friendly Ichiraku look so emotionless. "Oh... her."

Naruto watched the man's face as he worked out what exactly to say, and after a minute of deliberation the man seemed to come to a decision.

"You don't need to worry, Naruto," he said, a little warmth returning to his eyes as he turned back to the blue-eyed child, "She won't hurt you."

"Yeah, but... who is she?" Naruto pressed. That she wouldn't hurt him seemed obvious, somehow. She didn't look at him in that way. But it wasn't a normal look, either.

"She's..." Ichiraku shifted uncomfortably, not looking in the woman's direction again, "Well... she's a bit of an eccentric, really. It's best to keep your distance, Naruto."

"But... you said she won't hurt me," Naruto replied in confusion.

"And she won't," the man agreed, "But she's a bit off... and it would be best if you didn't bother her."

Slowly, the boy nodded, staring at the woman again.

Ichiraku straightened, removing the bowl from in front of him and speaking loudly to regain his customer's attention, "How are your classes at the Academy coming along?" He questioned abruptly, "You're working hard, I bet."

Naruto tore his eyes away from the strange woman again and grinned up at the man, "Really hard!" He confirmed eagerly, "Kurosagi-sensei says I'll probably change classes again soon. They don't want to keep a guy like me confined to just one class, of course..."

"What..." His voice is raspy when he finally forces it to work. He looks up from the picture again, tears making his eyes glitter unnaturally. "What do you mean...?"

The woman doesn't say anything.

She doesn't need to. He knows what she meant.

"How?" He asks hoarsely.

Again, there is no answer. Naruto can't seem to be able to form the questions he wants to ask.

How is it possible that he'd gone all these years without knowing? Why hadn't someone said something to him earlier? Why hadn't he been told?

The eight-year-old ran full speed around another corner, glancing over his shoulder and laughing maniacally at the Chuunin he'd managed to evade.

People in this village just couldn't take a joke. Of course, it wouldn't be nearly as much fun if they could.

He turned his attention forward again, just in time to see a flash of black before he ran into an unyielding surface and fell back.

The blond lifted wide, blue eyes to find what he'd run into.

The woman's clothes were black, with a light blue obi circling her middle. Her voluminous sleeves hung at her sides, and she stared down at him with an expression of mild surprise, her green eyes slightly wider than usual.

Naruto's head turned at the sound of shouting voices drawing near around the corner and his eyes widened. He had to get out of there or they'd catch him!

The boy started to push himself up when he felt hands touching his arms. His head whipped around again, eyes wide with panic only to find the woman crouched in front of him.

Her expression was blank, but her eyes were soft, gentle hands slowly guiding him to his feet.

Naruto did nothing. He couldn't do anything. He stood, dumbfounded, as the woman pulled him close.

His face brushed against the rough material of her kimono, and he felt her arms fold around his back, the heavy folds of cloth draping around of him.

And the voices were on him. The stomping of feet all around him. To the boy's surprise, though, no one grabbed him, and the voices grew fainter again and the stomping disappeared.

When everything was quiet again the woman's hands drew away from his back, falling to her sides again.

Naruto craned his head back, staring at the woman with amazement.

"Hu-who are you?" He asked at last, unable to keep quiet.

This woman. She was different from everyone else.

The woman said nothing, but her expression changed for the first time that he'd seen. The edges of her lips turned up into a slight smile.

Naruto took a step back, staring.

It wasn't right, that smile. Her eyes... There was still that something lurking there. That something that left a guilty pain in the gut of his stomach. The smile made it worse, and his insides wrenched painfully inside of him.

"I..." The boy faltered momentarily before pulling himself together enough to blurt out, "I have to go!"

He stared a moment longer and then moved, running in the opposite direction of his pursuers.

He didn't look back, but the woman's expression hung in his mind like a ghost.

Why would she do that?

She had helped him escape from those men. Why?

Why did she look at him like that?

Who was this mysterious red-haired woman?

"How long have you known?!" He finally blurts. It comes out angry and accusing because that's all he can feel all of a sudden.

A hot, all-consuming anger because he should have known! All those times she looked at him—even if he'd never been told, he should have known who she was!

His fists curl tighter until he can feel his nails pressing painfully against his palms.

"Naruto..." The woman starts softly. She can't bring herself to say any more.

"Why didn't anyone tell me?!" Naruto demands because he can't quite wrap his mind around the concept that somewhere out there, he'd had family all along, and no one had thought it was important enough to tell him.

It was raining.

The small eight-year-old sat by himself, high above the village. His knees were drawn up to his chest, skinny arms encircling them tightly. His whole body shook and shivered, but he didn't move, staring desperately into the rain.

He didn't understand anything!

He didn't understand why everybody seemed to hate him, even when he didn't do anything.

He didn't understand why his new teacher at the Academy liked to pick on him, asking him for answers to question he didn't—couldn't—know.

He didn't understand how a place that looked so beautiful could be so ugly inside.

A massive shudder shook his body and Naruto curled in on himself more tightly, teeth chattering together and forehead falling on his knees. He was high above the village, sitting on the head of the Fourth Hokage.

It was an ideal vantage point. He could see everything from up here, and no one could see him.

More than once, the boy had contemplated what would happen if he slipped. Or what would happen if he fell asleep on his precarious perch, all alone. Or what would happen if he simply walked to the edge of the Yondaime's brow and stepped off.

A sudden weight enveloped him and the boy's head shot up in surprise.

On his right, the woman was slowly settling down on her knees. The large, oversized kimono he'd always seen her in before was gone—draped over his back, Naruto realized with surprise half a second later.

She wasn't what he'd expected.

The exposed skin on her forearms was pale, and her wrists were thin enough that he could see the bones in stark definition. She wore a much lighter version of the kimono he usually saw her in. It was pale blue, and fit much more closely to the contours of her body.

She looked sick. There were shadows under her green eyes, and her face was tinted a strange yellow.

Slowly, the boy relaxed, and pulled the covering a little tighter over himself, feeling much better with the added warmth.

"... Do you know who this is?"

The woman's voice startled him, and he looked up at her again in surprise. It was soft, and a little hoarse, but bright and sure, without the slightest tremor.

Naruto couldn't find his voice to answer.

"Minato..." The faint smile that he'd seen once before appeared again, and her eyes seemed a little nicer.

"Y'mean... Yondaime-sama?" Naruto blurted, finally finding his voice.

He blushed a little when she glanced at him, green eyes soft and searching. He was relieved when she turned away to stare blankly into the rain again.

"Yes... of course you would call him that."

The eight-year-old frowned slightly. She was a little odd, but she wasn't as scary like this. Sitting next to each other like this... it was almost comfortable in a strange way.

There was another long silence. Naruto listened to the rain, pattering loudly on the stone head. The raindrops were cold as they hit his face, but he didn't mind so much now.

"He was a great man," the woman said at last, breaking the silence once again.

Naruto glanced at her, but she wasn't looking at him. She was looking out over the village. He turned to look, too.

"Generous... and caring..." She wasn't smiling, but there was a strange tone to her voice.

Naruto liked it.

"Funny, too... Charming."

It was the first time he'd thought about those faces as people. To him they'd always been legends. The four great Hokage of Konoha. He'd never thought about what they were really like. Even the Sandaime—who he saw often... That old man was so different from the head on the cliff that it had seldom even occurred to him that they were the same person.

"And strong," the woman added, and her voice had gained another tone. It was stronger now, louder, and he didn't have to strain at all to hear it over the storm. "He was very strong."

Admiration stirred inside of the boy at the way she said it.

Respect. Naruto recognized it at last. That's what had changed in her voice and Naruto was further amazed.

It wasn't something he heard often—and certainly it was never directed at him.

But he wanted it. All of a sudden. He wanted to hear this woman speak that way about him. He wanted to hear everyone speak that way about him.

"I want to be strong," he heard himself whisper, not fully realizing he was speaking aloud until she replied.

She was looking at him again, and there was something else again in her eyes. In her voice. Something so foreign Naruto couldn't even begin to find a name for it.

But he liked it.

"Then become strong, Naruto."

The boy stared, wide-eyed.

It didn't seem odd to him that she knew his name, even though he didn't know hers. Lots of people knew his name. But she spoke with such faith in him, like it was really that easy. Like if he really wanted something, he could just reach out and take it, and he would succeed.

Like she really believed he could do it. He could really become strong.

Who are you? Naruto wanted to ask again. But he forced himself to keep quiet, not wanting to ruin the moment.

They sat together until the storm died down. It wasn't until the last drops had been wrung from the clouds that they stirred again.

The woman stood slowly, gracefully. Naruto watched her the entire time.

That look was back in her eyes when she looked at him, and she smiled the smile that made his gut wrench before gently removing her clothing from his back and silently walking away.

Naruto watched until she disappeared, then turned back to the tiny village below him.

He shivered again as a cold gust of wind blew over his damp clothing.

"... It wasn't safe," Tsunade's reply startles him out of his thoughts and he looks up again.

Her expression is carefully constructed not to give away the regret he can see in her eyes. She can't allow herself to break down.

"Please understand, Naruto... if people found out you were his son..."

It took the teen a few seconds to process what she'd said. His son. He looks down at the other smiling face in the photo and doesn't know what to think.

A bizarre maelstrom of emotions spins inside of him in a fury at the very idea. The Fourth Hokage.

The warrior who led his village to victory in the Rock-Leaf War. The hero who saved the entire village again by stopping the unbeatable might of the Nine-Tailed Fox. The legend who'd sacrificed himself, and then sealed the monstrous force inside a tiny infant.

A good man. Smart and wise and funny. Someone who was truly strong.

Someone who left him at the mercy of an angry, grieving village alone.

He began to look for her face after that. In the crowded supermarket as he hurried to school in the morning. In the faces of parents arriving to pick up their children after classes. In the midst of the civilians, staring after him as he was chased through town after playing a dirty trick.

He began seeing her everywhere he looked.

She wasn't always there, but he could pick out her green eyes or red hair more often than he'd ever imagined. Their eyes would lock, for a moment, that strange emotion shimmering in her stare.

She never approached him, and he didn't approach her, but they saw each other and Naruto thought that might be enough.

The nine-year-old pushed the woman from his mind as he trained, determined not to be at the bottom of his class this year. Determined to become strong.

He beat his limbs against the unforgiving hardness of one of the logs set up in the training grounds for just that purpose. It was worn from all the people who had used it for target practice, but there was still plenty of wood for the boy to beat.



Over and over until he thought his legs would fall off and his knuckles were scraped and bleeding. Until his breath came in ragged gasps and his lungs ached and his muscles burned.

I will become strong. He swore to himself, putting everything he had into the exercise. I will become someone they respect.

It was his dream, and it was quickly becoming an obsession. He wanted it more than anything. For people to look at him and talk to him with that tone of respect and those affectionate eyes. For the cold glares and the bitter words to finally end.

He worked until he collapsed.

Naruto lay on his back, staring up at the blue sky overhead, his limbs stretched out around him, barely able to move. His chest heaved with his breaths, and his heart thudded loudly in his rib cage.

The only way he could become strong was to work as hard as he could.

At last, his breaths began to slow, and the beating of his heart receded from his mind, resuming its usual quiet rhythm within him. Every part of him still felt heavy, but he found the energy to drag himself into a sitting position.

Then he promptly fell over again, a startled yelp leaving his lips as a kunai soared just over his head and thumped into his training log. The air displaced by the weapon was close enough to tickle his hair.

Splayed on his back again, the boy stared at the kunai for a moment longer before flipping over and scrambling to his hands and knees as he searched for the assailant.

His mouth fell open when he saw her, standing on the edge of the clearing.

She was unlike he'd ever seen her before. Her skinny frame was tightly clothed in the standard Jounin uniform, a heavy green vest weighing down on her chest and a familiar metal plate tied across her forehead.

She smiled at him softly and held out a hand.

Naruto scrambled to his feet, taking a moment to pull the kunai from the tree trunk. He had to use both hands to get it out.

He then hurried over to the woman, depositing the kunai in her waiting hand.

"You're a ninja?" The nine-year-old asked in surprise. He'd never imagined the frail looking woman as the type of person who could fight and win battles.

"Now and again," the woman answered evasively.

"Why are you always watching me?" Naruto asked, the question almost bursting out of him, his blue eyes sparkling with curiosity.

Her smile disappeared, serious eyes flitting away from the boy to look past him. Naruto twisted his head around to look, as well, but there was nothing there other than the empty training grounds.

Slowly the boy turned back, confused, but the woman was still looking past him.

"Hey, um..." the boy faltered, feeling the need to fill the empty silence, but not sure what to say.

Abruptly, the woman's green eyes turned down to him again, still serious, but softer again. "You have strong hands," she told him, and Naruto looked down at his battered hands in wonder. "You'll be able to protect all of your precious people with hands like those."

The boy looked up again, blue eyes wide and sincere. "I'll protect you," he offered eagerly, raising one of his bloodied fists to accentuate his promise.

The woman's lips curved up again and she let out a solitary laugh. It was a beautiful, musical sound, but Naruto was too thrown to really appreciate it. He hadn't been trying to be funny.

Her hands reached out, closing around his fist, calluses rough against his skin, and thin fingers curling over his hand firmly. She gently pushed his hand in towards his chest.

"Become strong, Naruto," she said, and slowly drew her hands back, allowing them to fall by her sides again.

Naruto didn't say anything. He stared until she had disappeared once more into the forest, hidden among the trees.

"I—I will!" He called out belatedly, "I'll become the strongest ninja ever! You'll see! I'll be even stronger than the Yondaime!"

The teen shakes his head. He doesn't know what he feels about the Yondaime—about him being his...

And it doesn't matter so much. She's the one that matters now.

"I don't mean him," he corrects, and thrusts a finger down at the young woman in the photograph. His blue eyes are wide and pained as he asks, "How come no one told me she was my mother?"

Tsunade looks down at the picture as well, even though she already knows the woman standing beside her predecessor.

"Naruto..." The Godaime sounds hurt, and her honey-brown eyes reflect only a fraction of his pain, "You know how... unusual the circumstances around your birth were... it was thought to be for the best if you didn't..." She shakes her head, blond hair swaying a bit with the motion. "If we'd known then what we know now..."

Naruto is silent for a long moment, staring at the woman across from him. Then, slowly, his head drops, and he's looking at the photograph again.

"I want to see her."

He looked for her face in the bustle of parents and relatives crowded in the Academy grounds. He looked for a lock of long red hair, or the long, loose clothing she wore that looked like it belonged to a man.

He hadn't graduated, but he still looked for her, almost desperately.

She wasn't there.

Naruto was disappointed, of course, but he tried to hide it. To bury the questions echoing in his mind.

Where is she? Why didn't she come? Doesn't she care?

But he was sure she did. That emotion that was always in her soft green eyes when she looked at him... It wasn't hate or fear or anger. Sometimes it made him feel sad, but he longed to see them again. He wanted to see her. He wanted her to tell him that he could still do it. That he was strong, even though he'd failed again.

The boy bowed his head, pressing his forehead against the rough fibers of the thick rope that held up the swing he sat on.

She wouldn't be there.

"She's... probably busy," he whispered to no one, the empty air in front of him swallowing his words before they could reach human ears.

He didn't want to stay there if she wasn't going to be around. Abruptly, the boy stood, sending the wooden swing he'd been sitting on swaying on its ropes. He ignored it and walked away, as fast as he could.

"I don't..."

"She's still alive, isn't she?" Naruto demands, his voice rising emphatically as he suddenly slams his hands down on the Hokage's desk.

Anger leaks into his voice as he says again, "I want to see her! I want to see my mother!"

Tsunade stares back at him silently for a long time. Naruto holds her eyes, his own blue dark and intense with the emotions roiling just under the surface.

She sighs.

"A-alright," the Godaime concedes with a reluctant nod, and reaches for a pad of paper on her desk.

Her sculpted fingers wrap around an ink brush, and she dips the tip into an open bottle of ink before applying graceful loops of writing to the paper.

"But... Naruto," she hesitates as she sets down the brush, looking over what she's written.

At last, she tears off the top sheet and holds it out to the teen, "Don't get your hopes up too much, she's... well, she's not completely sane."

Naruto doesn't reply. He silently takes the paper and glances once at the address before swiftly leaving the room.

It wasn't raining.

The twelve-year-old sat on top of the large stone head of the Fourth Hokage, staring blankly out across the village, his expression slack.

He couldn't quite get over what had happened, and his thoughts were chasing themselves in circles through his head.

He tried to kill me... Why... Why would he do that?

Unconsciously, his right hand clenched into the material of his jacket, over his stomach.

He knew why. But he didn't understand.

Where does hate like that come from? Did someone he cared about die?

He'd betrayed everyone, too. The entire village. How could someone who'd sworn his loyalty to protect this place simply cast it aside so easily?

Naruto didn't understand.

He sucked his lower lip between his teeth, worrying it slightly as he fought back tears of confusion, the fight fresh in his mind.

He closed his eyes and saw red behind the lids. Blood.



His own.

His shoulders shook slightly and Naruto bit his lower lip a bit more firmly. He wouldn't cry. This was stupid. He should be happy—Iruka-sensei had let him graduate.

But he couldn't get over what Mizuki-sensei had done.

A heavy weight suddenly settled on his back and the boy turned his head in surprise, blue eyes flying open.

He relaxed when he saw her, green eyes soft and... and sad. He recognized it now, and he almost wished he didn't.

There was such a deep sorrow in her eyes that it almost made him sick, and he turned his head back towards the village, listening as she settled down beside like they'd done before.

They sat in silence together, side by side, for a long while, and Naruto's thoughts turned once again to his traitorous teacher. To the man who'd tried to kill him. Tried to kill Iruka-sensei. To everything that had happened and all the secrets he had learned.

"There is hate in this world," the woman said abruptly, and Naruto's head snapped up in surprise.

"Such... hate..."

Naruto stared silently at the horizon, expression somber and understanding.

"It... eats at men from the inside," the woman intoned, "And... it turns their hearts dark until all they want is to hurt others."

Naruto thought of the insane grin that had been on Mizuki's face. The glint of madness in his cold eyes.

"Isn't there anything..." Naruto started, not sure what he was going to say until the words left his mouth, "Isn't there anything that can... stop it?"

The woman looked at him, a soft smile on her lips again, "You can stop it, Naruto. Just... continue to be yourself."

The boy stared in wonder. Could something like that really work? Could he really leach the hate out of people's hearts? Just by being himself?

Slowly, he turned his eyes back to the view, his thoughts slowly sorting themselves out.

He would become a shinobi. The best shinobi Konoha had ever seen. And everywhere he went, he'd do his best to keep people from turning out like Mizuki-sensei.

On the very edge of town stands a small, broken down hovel. It's nestled in the shadows of the forest, lonely and foreboding. Naruto stops in front of it, staring.

This is it.

Slowly, he moves forward again, steeling himself over for what he's about to do. All of that time, and he didn't know, but he'll make up for it, somehow.

Stopping again in front of the door, the teen knocks tentatively, and pushes the door open.

"Hello...?" He calls out uncertainly.

It's dark inside, and he can barely make out the large features of the room. It looks nicer on the inside, than it did on the outside, Naruto thinks, squinting a little to see through the dim lighting.

Even though he's fifteen, and should know better by now, he doesn't see her coming. She's suddenly right there, in front of him.

Her cheeks are sunken and bone thin, her eyes set back in darkened sockets. Her red hair is still long, and tidily brushed, although it appears greasy. She's dressed in one of the huge kimono he's used to seeing.

She stares at him silently, and he stares back, not sure where to go from here.

"M-mom...?" He starts at last. The word feels strange falling off his tongue, and he can't recall a time he's ever used it before.

She doesn't look surprised, and she says nothing. But she steps forward, closing the distance between them, and wraps her arms around her grown son, pulling him close against her chest.

Naruto is too surprised to respond for a moment, but when he breaks out of his stupor, he tentatively returns the gesture, his arms raising uncertainly to wrap across her back.

Her head dips down, so her face is pressed into his hair, and she holds him tight.

He hears her whisper, so softly he's not even sure if it's real.

"My... strong Naruto..."

The affection and respect mingled in her voice hit him like a kunai, and he hugs her tighter, almost clinging to the woman he'd always known, but never knew existed. He feels tears welling in his eyes as he gains something he always wanted. Something he's had all along.

And he thinks of all the times they'd been together. Her standing quietly beside him, giving him exactly what he needed exactly when he needed it.

And he thinks maybe he did know, somewhere deep inside of him, maybe he's always known, because this affection... this love that's tugging at his heart is so familiar that he thinks he's always known it.