Disclaimer: Naruto is the intellectual property of Masashi Kishimoto, Shueisha, VIZ Media, et al. No money is being made from this story and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Author's Note: This story is an expansion of a comment!fic for Aishuu, who asked for a sequel to "The Way of the Apartment Manager." Since I was already writing an official sequel - "The Guardian in Spite of Herself" - this fic is set between those two novels. My timeline is a little fishy since I was thinking in terms of American school years rather than Japanese ones when I wrote the "Apartment Manager" epilogue and also Kishimoto's depiction of Konoha's climate is kind of weird in general (which is to say, it is the Land of No Seasons, where people can be equally comfortable wearing thick winter coats or wearing shorts and mesh t-shirts O_o), but I think this story works best if it falls in early spring, half a year after Naruto enters the ninja academy and roughly a year and a half after he moved into Yukiko's building. ("Guardian" starts several months later, in late summer.)

Aishuu, I am sorry it took me so ridiculously long to finish. Hopefully the length makes up somewhat for the delay.

Summary: An object lesson in ninja tactics as applied to civilian social relationships - aka the fic in which Naruto and Shinnin adopt Sakura before she attracts Ino's attention, but Sakura's parents are not so keen on their daughter's new friends.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o
Friends and Neighbors
o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"Hey, hey, Yukiko-neechan, can I have friends over tomorrow?"

Yukiko looked up from the mission report she was writing for Heika-san, and frowned. Naruto was dancing from foot to foot in an almost perfect imitation of excitement, but there was something wary and nervous in his eyes and posture. It was over a year and a half since he'd moved in to his top floor apartment. By this point he had to know that the building was his home as much as hers, right?

"Of course you can," she told him, "and if Yusuke tried to tell you anything else while I was gone last week, I'll go yell at him until he remembers to leave you alone. Now spill - what's wrong?"

"Nothing!" Naruto said. Yukiko's frown deepened, and the kid looked aside, guiltily. "Really, it's nothing."

"'Nothing' doesn't make you look like it's still you against the whole damn world," Yukiko said. She set her half-finished report aside and walked around the desk, dropping into one of the tall-backed chairs so she was more on a level with the kid. "Seriously, what's wrong? I thought you and Shinnin - that is who you wanted to invite, right? - were getting along really well."

"Yeah, me and Shinnin are great," Naruto agreed, still not meeting Yukiko's eyes. "It's just... there's another girl in class, and she's really pretty and smart and stuff, but the other girls pick on her so she doesn't have any friends anymore. So I said to Shinnin that we ought to be her friends 'cause picking on people is mean and stupid, but when Sakura-chan's mom and dad - her name's Haruno Sakura, isn't that a pretty name? When her mom and dad picked her up from the park yesterday, they were talking to Shinnin's dad and then they all looked at me..." He trailed off, dejected. "Yukiko-neechan, why don't people like me? I'm not a bad person, right?"

"Absolutely not," Yukiko said. "You're a good person. A bad person wouldn't try to be Sakura's friend."

Naruto brightened slightly. "Yeah, I guess. But if I'm a good person, why does everyone look at me like- like I'm covered in dog poop?"

Damn the Third Hokage and his laws. It didn't help to keep the reason for Naruto's outcast status secret if everyone kept ostracizing him anyway. Fortunately she had a perfectly true explanation ready, but she'd have to distract Naruto out of this conversation before he started asking for any details.

"The people who act like you're a missing-nin are idiots who've heard malicious rumors about you and who haven't bothered to check how accurate the stories are," Yukiko said. She leaned forward and poked Naruto's nose, making him scrunch his face up indignantly. "Hey. I know they're wrong to dislike you, you know they're wrong to dislike you, and anyone who goes around judging people without getting to know them first is too stupid to care about. Got it?" She poked him in the nose again for emphasis.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever, Yukiko-neechan," Naruto said, staring cross-eyed at the tip of his nose. "Stop poking me!"

Yukiko grinned. "Make me." She jabbed her finger forward, then laughed as the kid ducked under her hand and lunged to wrap his arms around her shins.

"Got you, Yukiko-neechan!" Naruto said. "Now you're trapped."

Yukiko twitched her feet experimentally, tapping her toes against Naruto's thighs. "Oh, really?" She tapped his legs again. As he looked down, she bent over and tickled the back of his neck. Naruto shrieked in startled laughter and rolled away.

"No fair!" he yelled. "Cheater! I didn't tickle you, did I?"

Yukiko stood from her chair. "So? We're ninja; anything that works is fair play. If you want payback, come and catch me," she said, and dashed out into the corridor. Her mission report could wait until the morning.

The afternoon degenerated into an unstructured game of tag and Naruto smiled all through dinner, his worries banished for now. Mission accomplished.

o-o-o-o-o

The next day was one of two weekly half days at the academy, a program intended to give clan children a chance to train in their family techniques without overworking themselves. Civilian children were left at loose ends unless they'd found a mentor. It was a subtle way to reinforce the status quo that the best ninja came from ninja families.

Naruto and Shinnin tended to spend their free afternoons running around Yukiko's back yard like hooligans, which was better training than it sounded - the traps made a decent obstacle course and tree climbing practice never went amiss. Yukiko figured she could start offering Shinnin more formal training come autumn and her second year at the academy, when her parents had grown more familiar with Naruto and realized that Shinnin was serious about her career choice. It wouldn't do for the kid's best friend to die from a simple lack of training.

This day, rather than head straight out back, Naruto and Shinnin came inside and knocked on Yukiko's office door with their new friend sandwiched between them.

"Yukiko-neechan? This is Haruno Sakura-chan, my new friend," Naruto said. "Me and Shinnin invited her over today and we're gonna have a picnic and stuff. Do you want to join us?"

Yukiko looked at the three kids in her doorway, wondering at the mismatched picture. Naruto was all in-your-face bravado and Shinnin's skinned knees and loud voice belied her delicate prettiness. Haruno Sakura had none of the others' confidence. She clung to the doorframe, ducking her head to let her pink hair hang in front of her face, and refused to meet Yukiko's eyes.

"You don't have to be scared, Sakura. Yukiko-san's really nice," Shinnin said to the other girl in what was apparently meant as a whisper. She grabbed Sakura's hand and tugged her forward into the office. "Come on, say hi."

"Hi," Sakura whispered, still not meeting anyone's eyes.

"Nice to meet you, Sakura," Yukiko said. "If these two brats give you any trouble, just tell me and I'll straighten them out, okay? Naruto, if you don't clean up my kitchen after yourself, no ramen for a week."

"You're mean, Yukiko-neechan," Naruto grumbled, but amazingly he didn't go off into a rant about the wonders of ramen. He just grabbed Sakura's other hand and led her across the hall into Yukiko's apartment. "Come on, Sakura-chan, tell us what's your favorite food so Shinnin can make it."

"Just because I know how to cook doesn't mean you get out of helping!" Shinnin said.

The apartment door slammed before Yukiko heard Sakura or Naruto answer. She looked down at her book of monthly rent tallies, debated whether to go bother Tsubume Emi about her perennially late payment, and picked up the telephone instead.

"What do you know about Haruno Sakura?" she asked when Iruka answered. "And do you want to come over for lunch? I might need some moral support when her parents pick her up this evening."

o-o-o-o-o

"I knew Sakura was having trouble with some of the more popular girls, but I wasn't aware it had gotten to the point where she was completely isolated," Iruka said. He sipped his tea and frowned as he watched Shinnin pull Sakura away from the picnic blanket and cajole her into playing some kind of running-and-chasing game. "Unfortunately, I think part of the problem is her intelligence - the other children see her as a teacher's pet - so if I step in, I may only make things worse."

"Huh. And here I thought being smart was a good thing," Yukiko said. Naruto glanced toward the tree where she and Iruka were sitting. Yukiko wound a little more chakra into the concealing genjutsu just in case. She still wasn't good enough to hold full invisibility during a fight, but trying to keep ahead of Naruto was very useful motivation for improving her skills. So far as the outside world was concerned, she and Iruka didn't exist right now.

"Any knife can become a weapon in your enemy's hand. Unless you have social skills or you genuinely don't care what other people think of you - well." Iruka shrugged. "Still, if she's willing to accept Naruto and Shinnin as friends, the problem seems solved."

Yukiko studied Sakura's face as the girl crouched behind a tree and watched Shinnin chase Naruto around the yard. "What do you mean, 'if she's willing to accept' them? Look at her - she's trying to convince herself this isn't a dream and that they're not playing tricks on her. That's not the problem. The problem is whether her parents will let her be friends with Naruto."

"Oh. Right." Iruka sighed. "Shinnin's parents have come around somewhat. Surely Sakura's won't be too unreasonable?"

Yukiko snorted. "Optimist."

"There's no harm in believing the best of people," Iruka said.

Yukiko stared at him. "Really."

"Really," Iruka confirmed. "So long as you also plan for less fortunate outcomes." At Yukiko's wry laugh, he smiled. "I am a ninja, as you may recall. I know perfectly well how dark human nature can be. I just choose to think we can all rise above that darkness."

"You and Naruto. I think you're both insane, but whatever makes you happy." Yukiko drained the last of her tea and jumped down from her branch, closing her eyes as she landed to make sure she didn't lose her grip on the genjutsu. "Come inside and let's make some plans."

o-o-o-o-o

They ended up discarding ninety percent of their ideas several hours later, when Naruto explained that Sakura's parents wouldn't be picking her up because they didn't know where she was.

"What?" Yukiko said.

Sakura turned pink and stared at the floor. Shinnin had the grace to look slightly uncomfortable, but she didn't seem ashamed. Naruto just shrugged. "Sakura-chan told them she was going to a friend's house for the afternoon, and she did go to a friend's house. Her parents just don't know which house. We didn't lie - we were sneaky. Anything that works is fair play, right?"

Yukiko turned and thumped her forehead against the doorframe of her apartment. "Yeah. You learn fast, kid." Too fast, sometimes.

Naruto beamed.

"Be that as it may, it's time for you to get home for dinner," Iruka said, resting his hand on Naruto's shoulder and smiling at the three children. "Shall we all go to Sakura's house together, or would you like me to take you home separately, Shinnin?"

Shinnin and Naruto exchanged a fidgety stare followed by surreptitious poking gestures - probably wondering which option would result in the fewest adults yelling at them and the greatest chance of being allowed to spend time with Sakura in the future. Before they descended into outright shoving, Sakura raised her head. "I want everyone to meet my parents," she said, an unexpected note of steel in her voice. "I want them to see what real friends are like, and that it's wrong to let other people tell them what to think about people instead of making up their own minds." She reached sideways and grabbed Naruto's hand. "If it's wrong for Haruka to make everyone hate me, it's wrong for people to hate Naruto-kun, too."

Naruto looked as if she'd hit him over the head with a wheelbarrow full of bricks.

"I told you she was too smart to be a jerk!" Shinnin said, jumping up and down in excitement. "Didn't I tell you? I don't care what your parents say, Sakura - they can't make us not be friends at school, and we can just be sneaky the rest of the time. We won't let Haruka hurt you anymore."

She hugged Sakura from behind, making the other girl squeak in surprise. "Oh. Um. Thanks?" Sakura said, still clinging to Naruto's hand.

"It's a promise!" Naruto said, turning to add his free arm to the hug. "Hey, hey, and when we pass the academy, we'll all be on a team together, 'cause teams are like family and we're gonna be best friends forever."

"Ah, about that," Iruka started, clearly wondering how to explain that genin teams were assigned on the basis of talents and clan affiliations, not childhood friendships. Yukiko reached over the kids' heads and tapped him on the arm. She shook her head, then shaped a tiger seal.

Let them have their illusions for now, she whispered into Iruka's mind.

He blinked. "Shouldn't I be saying that to you?" he whispered.

Yukiko shrugged, embarrassed. "The kid gets to me now and then. I think turning people's opinions around is his secret bloodline limit or something. And speaking of opinionated people, shouldn't we be taking Sakura back to her family?"

"Right, of course," Iruka said, and began carefully untangling the group hug and wiping grass stains and dirt off the kids' faces and limbs. Yukiko watched for a moment, then went to fetch her chuunin vest from the back of her closet. The more authority she and Iruka could project toward Sakura's parents, the better.

o-o-o-o-o

Sakura lived halfway across town in one of the civilian-majority districts near the heart of the village, well away from the walls. Her house was small and neat, a whitewashed two story affair with wide bamboo eaves, sandwiched in a row of nearly identical buildings. The roof was lined with planters, half filled with small fruit trees covered in spring blossom, half with decorative grasses - an attractive way of creating a bit of privacy and green space for the family to relax. More flowerboxes graced the front windows and the narrow strip of ground between the street and the house was groomed into a tiny rock garden.

One of Sakura's parents clearly worked from home or had no paying job if she or he had the time to put that much care into appearances. Yukiko thought about her own buildings with their haphazard surroundings, and wondered if it might break the ice to ask Sakura's parents if they could recommend a good landscaper to fix up her properties.

Probably not, but she ought to look into that anyway.

Naruto and Shinnin hung back around her legs as Iruka led Sakura forward and pressed a button beside a cheerful blue door with a glass panel at head-height - obvious civilian construction. After a minute, a thin woman with white-blonde hair and an artist's smock over her clothes opened the door wide, not bothering with even a chain lock. "Welcome home, Sakura! Who's your guest?" she said, wiping her paint-daubed hands on a cloth she then tossed carelessly onto a mail table.

"Mom, the lock," Sakura said, sounding mortified. "Don't just open the door for strangers!"

Yukiko stifled a laugh.

"We live in the middle of the best-defended city in Fire Country," Haruno-san said, bending down to tuck a strand of pink hair behind her daughter's ear. "Besides, you'll protect your father and me now that you're learning to be a ninja."

"Mom!" Sakura said. She squirmed away. "Um, this is Iruka-sensei, but he's not important. I wanted you to meet my new friends." She pointed down the walk to where Yukiko and the other kids were waiting. "That's Kigaru Shinnin-chan and that's Uzumaki Naruto-kun. They stopped Haruka from picking on me at lunch and invited me over this afternoon. I want to have them come here after school tomorrow."

Shinnin dashed forward to meet Sakura's mother. Naruto didn't move for a second, uncharacteristically shy. Yukiko walked forward, pressing between the kid's shoulders to move him along with her.

Haruno-san's pleasant smile had frozen into a sort of polite grimace. "Ah. Hello, Shinnin-chan. And you," she added, nodding awkwardly at Yukiko. She made no move to acknowledge Naruto.

"I'm Ayakawa Yukiko, Naruto's guardian," Yukiko said, trying desperately to keep her tone polite. "I wanted to compliment you on your daughter - she's a wonderfully intelligent, friendly, and open-minded person. Naruto and Shinnin like her very much and I would be happy to let her come over to my building any time."

"Ah," Haruno-san said again. She glanced down at Naruto, and reached out to grab Sakura's shoulder and tug her daughter toward her. "I'm not certain that will be possible. I don't like Sakura wandering the streets alone, and I think it's better for her to socialize with a larger group of children in the public parks, not isolate herself with only one or two."

Naruto pressed closer to Yukiko's legs. Shinnin scowled and grabbed hold of Sakura's arm, tugging the other girl away from her mother. "She wouldn't be alone! She'd be with us! And it's not better for her to be around the other kids when Haruka hates her and makes them all pick on her until she cries. If you don't like Naruto, just say so - don't pretend and talk around him like he isn't here."

Haruno-san flushed. "Watch your mouth, young lady!"

Shinnin lunged forward, clearly preparing to kick Haruno-san's legs. Before Haruno-san or Sakura could react, Iruka swooped down and picked Shinnin up, one arm wrapped around her shoulders and the other sweeping up to catch the backs of her knees and remove her leverage. "Remember your manners, Shinnin," he said calmly. "We don't use taijutsu on our own civilians. It's dishonorable when they've trusted their safety to our protection."

Haruno-san gaped in shock. "What?" Her hand groped helplessly toward Sakura's shoulder.

Sakura sidestepped neatly. "This is why you use the lock, Mom," she said. "It keeps the door between you and anyone you want to argue with." She looked back at Shinnin and frowned. "And don't hit my mom! Only jerks do stuff like that."

Shinnin, cradled in Iruka's arms like a worn-out toddler, turned bright red and mumbled an apology.

Behind Yukiko's legs, Naruto giggled.

Yukiko looked at Iruka, hoping he had some idea - any idea - for detangling themselves from social awkwardness. He dealt with kids and parents for a living; surely he could think of something.

"Haruno-san, I apologize for my students," Iruka said, setting Shinnin back on her feet but keeping his hands tight on her shoulders. "I did want to speak to you about Sakura's excellent performance at the academy, among other things. Would you mind if Yukiko takes your daughter and her friends to get a snack while we talk?"

Haruno-san blinked and seemed to settle at Iruka's calm tone and the wave of neutral intent he projected. Her hand dropped to her side. "I suppose not," she said slowly. Then she glanced down at Naruto and frowned. "But only if they stay in the house and out of my studio and my husband's study. Sakura, why don't you show your guests the rooftop garden?"

As Sakura hesitated, Yukiko snagged Shinnin's hand and tugged the girl forward to stand beside Naruto. She tilted her head toward the open door and said, "Will you show us around? You've seen my place, but I bet yours is nicer." It was certainly less utilitarian.

Sakura glanced from Iruka to her mother, checking for signs of imminent explosions. Then she smiled at Naruto and Shinnin. "Sure. Come on in and I'll show you our garden - it's the best! We have oranges in the greenhouse and I have two rabbits. If you're careful, you can pick them up and pet them and stuff."

"Really? Cool!" Naruto said, abandoning Yukiko's side and darting into Sakura's house without bothering to take off his sandals. Sakura charged after him, yelling about the floors. Yukiko and Shinnin followed more slowly. As Shinnin pried off her sandals and tossed them in the general direction of the shoe stand, Yukiko closed the door.

Naruto and Sakura had already vanished up the narrow staircase, but their voices were clearly audible from the second floor, along with the clatter of a ladder dropping from the ceiling.

"Don't break anything," Yukiko told Shinnin. The girl nodded and chased after her friends, bare feet silent on the polished wooden floorboards.

She ought to follow and keep an eye on the kids, but Yukiko hesitated, glancing back at the closed door with an itchy need to know what Iruka and Haruno-san were saying. And really, how much trouble could three kids and a pair of rabbits get into in under ten minutes?

Stupid question, of course - especially when two of the kids were Naruto and Shinnin - but if she didn't trust them on their own, how could she ask Haruno-san to do the same?

Rationalization firmly in place, Yukiko wove a quick genjutsu to silence her steps and blur her chakra. Then she edged up to the door and pressed her ear to the painted wood.

o-o-o-o-o

"-score in the class on the latest geography test," Iruka was saying. "Her math and reading skills are equally good, and she shows an excellent grasp of basic chakra theory as well."

"Thank you for telling me," Haruno-san said, sounding both proud and vaguely bewildered. "But what do Sakura's accomplishments have to do with- with-"

"With Naruto?" Iruka finished. He sighed. "I don't know what Sakura has told you, but Zenryou Haruka, one of the students she outshines in theoretical work, hasn't taken well to being upstaged by a civilian. Haruka is very popular. She's used her position to turn the rest of the class against Sakura, whether by actively tormenting her or simply by stepping back to let the bullying occur unhindered. You said that you'd prefer your daughter to socialize with a larger group of her peers? That isn't an option. Her choices are friendship with Naruto and Shinnin - who are kind enough and brave enough to ignore Haruka's anger - or complete isolation."

Silence.

Yukiko pressed her lips together, uncomfortable at the way Iruka was manipulating the conversation. Yes, almost everything he said was true, and yes, this was the best way to shake Haruno-san out of her reflexive rejection of Naruto, but that was a terrible thing to drop on a parent. Iruka had almost made it sound as if Sakura's isolation were her own fault. He certainly hadn't mentioned any other potential solutions, such as having a private meeting with the Zenryou clan and requiring them to discipline their daughter.

Sarutobi Hokage-sama had done the same to her when he'd dumped Naruto into her care - made her think the only two options were keeping the kid or turning him out onto the street - but that was never true. There were always other options. Ninja found other options as a matter of professional pride, even when they didn't need to be roundabout.

"I'm sorry, Haruno-san," Iruka said, breaking the silence. "Because Haruka is jealous of Sakura's academic performance, I can't speak to either of them without Haruka interpreting my intervention as a further sign of favor to Sakura. Shinnin and Naruto, on the other hand, are already isolated. If Sakura joins them, Haruka may take that as a sign of victory and switch to ignoring your daughter."

"Being shunned is the good option?" Haruno-san said, her voice thin and sharp.

"In this case it's the lesser of two evils," Iruka said. "Besides, I've seen Sakura smile more times this afternoon than in the past month. Two true friends who will guard her back through Haruka's wrath are more valuable than any number of casual friends who abandoned her at the first sign of trouble."

Silence again. Yukiko held her breath.

"You are a very lucky young man," Haruno-san said eventually, each word careful and precise. "If I had ever attended your academy, you would be on the ground screaming now."

Amazingly, Iruka laughed.

After a second, Haruno-san snorted. "As I said, a very lucky young man. I'll admit that you may - may - have a point about Sakura's old friends. But I still don't trust that Uzumaki boy, and I suspect that if I gave this Zenryou Haruka's parents a piece of my mind, Sakura's troubles might ease a lot faster than you're insinuating."

Behind the door, Yukiko smiled. Sakura clearly got her brains from her mother. And if Haruno-san was thinking instead of simply reacting, Iruka's work was done. Time to stop eavesdropping and make sure the kids hadn't destroyed the garden or lost control of Sakura's pet rabbits.

She toed off her sandals and hurried away from the door, unraveling her genjutsu as she went. She needed to be safely out of sight before Haruno-san asked Iruka inside.

Yukiko was halfway up the narrow stairs when a massive crash echoed down from the roof.

o-o-o-o-o

She was never sure, afterwards, how she'd gotten to the rooftop. Logically a ladder must have been involved, but Yukiko had no memory of climbing it. If she didn't know her ninjutsu limitations she would have suspected herself of teleportation.

Her first thought, as she stared at the remains of the greenhouse, was that she shouldn't have taken off her sandals downstairs. Broken glass littered the roof, razor edges and sand-like fragments glittering in the slanted rays of the evening sun. Naruto lay sprawled in the middle of the chaos, arms gripping a squirming brown rabbit and legs held very still as Sakura crouched over him, brushing shards off his clothes. Shinnin was off to the side, having sensibly climbed onto the wickerwork table to keep her feet safe.

Shinnin noticed Yukiko first, and winced. "We can explain, Yukiko-san!" she blurted. "It was the rabbits' fault."

"Rabbits broke the greenhouse," Yukiko said skeptically, looking around for some way to protect her feet. She spotted a broom and dustpan leaning against the little curved shelter over the trap door entrance, and a stack of empty plastic flowerpots on the other side of the shelter. She grabbed the broom and pulled two pots off the top. They weren't very big, but her feet were fairly small and she only needed them for a minute.

Shinnin winced again as Yukiko tipped the pots on their sides, slid her feet into them, and shuffled toward the disaster area, sweeping as she went. "Kind of? We were petting them, except the rabbit bit me, and I dropped it, and it tried to run away, and Sakura said we had to catch it before it jumped off the roof, and Naruto tripped on the hose, and... um... fell." She waved her hand toward the other two kids, who stared nervously at Yukiko.

The rabbit squirmed again. Naruto tightened his arms around it, pressing the animal to his chest. "I kept Tsuki-chan safe!" he said, as if that were the important thing. Sakura nodded in fervent agreement.

Yukiko didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Someone coughed behind her. "I'll go back downstairs and fetch shoes for those who need them. Please excuse me," Iruka said. A tiny breeze marked him vanishing faster than any civilian could manage.

Yukiko turned, hoping against hope that Haruno-san hadn't followed Iruka up.

Luck was not with her.

Sakura's mother stood on the ladder, her arms resting on the lip of the trap door as she surveyed the ruins of her greenhouse. The far wall and half the roof were intact, and the metal frame of the two sides still stood, but glass littered the dwarf orange trees and the exotic Water Country flowers it had sheltered. The pots next to Naruto and Sakura were shoved sideways from impact and the near wall of the greenhouse was bent and broken beyond easy repair, even if replacement glass panels had been right at hand.

Haruno-san bent her head down to rest on her arms for a moment. "I told Senzai I wasn't cut out to be a mother," she muttered, too quietly for the kids to overhear. Then she raised her head and frowned at her daughter. "Haruno Sakura. What happened here?"

Sakura flushed, but amazingly kept her head upright and met her mother's eyes. "We were petting the rabbits, but Tsuki-chan bit Shinnin-chan and jumped off her lap. I dropped Niji-chan in the hutch and we all tried to catch Tsuki-chan before he could jump the wall. Naruto-kun grabbed him, but he tripped on the hose and fell into the greenhouse. It's not his fault! It just happened. So punish me instead of him. I should've remembered to tell Shinnin-chan that Tsuki-chan can get mean."

"It wasn't Sakura-chan's fault! I dropped the rabbit," Shinnin said before Haruno-san could respond.

"Because he bit you," Sakura said, turning to frown at her. "Look, your thumb's bleeding. Mom, can you open the medicine cabinet? We should get Shinnin-chan a bandage."

"Yeah, and you too, Sakura-chan!" Naruto chimed in, sitting up with his arms still locked around the squirming rabbit. "See, see, you've got scratches all up your arms." Then he turned to look at Haruno-san, his expression gone serious. "You can't be mad at Sakura-chan, 'cause none of this was her fault. I'm the one who ran up here and didn't wait for her to tell us about the rabbits, and I fell on your greenhouse and broke it. You can yell at me, 'cause I'm used to it, but if you yell at Sakura-chan you're stupid and mean just like Haruka, and me and Shinnin won't let you. We're friends with Sakura-chan now and we won't let anyone make her sad anymore."

Naruto nodded firmly, as if agreeing with himself, and jumped to his feet. "I'll go put Tsuki-chan back now. You should make sure Shinnin and Sakura-chan are okay." Sakura clambered upright and followed him. Shinnin trailed after, edging on tiptoe around the scatter of broken glass and vanishing behind the curved shelter that guarded the trap door.

Yukiko watched them go in bemusement. She'd always known the kid was weird, but volunteering to get yelled at? When she knew how much he hated the way people jumped to the worst possible interpretation of anything he did? Yeah, he was trying to protect his friends - and it was cute that they were all trying to take the fall for each other - but still.

Behind her, Haruno-san made a peculiar strangled noise, as if stifling something halfway between laughter and a scream. "Are they always like this?" she murmured.

Yukiko thought about the conversation she'd eavesdropped on and decided a white lie would be counterproductive. "I can't speak for Sakura, but for the other two? Yes. They're a handful. I think it comes naturally at that age." She looked at the worst of the glass, then down at her flowerpot shoes, and started shuffling back toward the clear ground by the trap door.

"I wouldn't know. Sakura has never brought friends home before," Haruno-san said.

Oh.

"This is an awful first impression, isn't it?" Yukiko said. "I'm sorry. I should have gotten up here faster to keep an eye on the kids. I know what they're like, after all. I promise I'm usually much better at keeping things unbroken. Sakura was perfectly safe at my building today - the kids had a picnic and ran around outside, that's all. I can make sure she's never around Naruto unsupervised, if you'd prefer." It would be beyond frustrating for the kid not to be allowed to invite his new friend over when Yukiko was out of town on missions, but half a meal was better than nothing, right?

Haruno-san pressed her forehead into her arms again, taking a deep breath. "I'm beginning to suspect that leaving any group of children unsupervised is a bad idea. Sakura on her own is well-behaved. She likes to read and help me garden. There's not much scope for trouble there."

Yukiko pictured what Naruto could get up to with garden implements or one of Kakashi's little books. She bit her tongue.

"But Sakura shouldn't always be on her own," Haruno-san continued. "It occurs to me that I should have wondered why she hasn't ever brought friends home or run around breaking things. That's what I did at her age. I can't say I like her choice in friends, but she's terribly stubborn once she makes up her mind. If I forbid her from spending time with them, she'll only learn to disobey me."

Yukiko made a noncommittal noise and restacked her borrowed flowerpots.

Haruno-san sighed and lifted her head. "I give my daughter permission to visit your home, but only so long as an adult is present to supervise. Furthermore, I want her home by five o'clock every day. If those requirements aren't met, or if something unacceptable happens on your watch, I will come pick her up from the academy and take her straight home myself every day. I don't want her alone with that boy."

"Hey! I'd be there too!" Shinnin said, leaning around the shelter.

"Yeah! What if we go to Shinnin's house? Are you gonna be all weird about that too?" Naruto said, appearing unexpectedly at Yukiko's side. He frowned at Haruno-san. "I don't get into as much trouble as Kiba and his stupid dog and I'm lots nicer than Haruka or that jerk Sasuke, but nobody looks at them like they look at me. Yukiko-neechan says people who go around thinking bad stuff about people without getting to know them are just stupid, but Sakura-chan's not stupid. You're her mom, so you shouldn't be stupid either. So why don't you like me?"

Shinnin and Sakura lined up beside him and stared at Haruno-san, waiting for an answer. Yukiko clapped a hand over her eyes and wondered if she could use genjutsu to erase the entire afternoon and start over. The demolished greenhouse could be written off as a freak accident caused by genin on a cat-retrieval mission, right?

...No, that was too much cheating even for a ninja to rationalize. Damn.

Haruno-san was silent for a long moment, frowning. Yukiko could guess what she was thinking: the Third Hokage's law made it impossible for her to explain the true reason for her dislike of Naruto, and what other reason would seem sensible and fair to a trio of seven-year-old kids? Not that Yukiko thought fear of the Kyuubi was fair or sensible either, but at least it was a reason instead of what might as well be complete insanity from the kids' perspective.

"I won't tell you why I distrust you," Haruno-san said eventually. "The reason is complicated and tied up in things that happened before you were born, and is also forbidden to talk about with people who don't already know. You're training to be a ninja. You should understand the need for secrets. As for why I don't like you - would you like someone who came into your home without warning, broke your things, and told you that someone you care about-"

"Like Yukiko-neechan? And I said I was sorry about the greenhouse, and you invited us in, so that's not fair," Naruto interrupted.

"You still shouldn't have run up here with your shoes on," Haruno-san said. "And yes, suppose someone told you that your guardian had been lying to you when she said everything was fine. Would you be happy to hear that?"

Sakura flinched. Shinnin grabbed her arm and leaned in to whisper something in her ear.

Naruto frowned at Haruno-san. "Of course I wouldn't be happy! But I'd go talk to Yukiko-neechan, not get mad at other people. You should stop making Sakura-chan sad. Moms aren't supposed to do that."

Despite herself, Yukiko laughed. "Oh, kid, you have no idea. Parents make their kids sad and angry all the time. It's in the job description." She reached down and ruffled his spiky yellow hair. "Being family doesn't make everything perfect. It just means you care enough to keep forgiving each other and trying to do better. Speaking of which, how about we go downstairs and get everyone cleaned up?"

"Yes, let's," said Haruno-san hastily. She climbed back down the ladder into the upstairs hallway and waited while Yukiko sent the three kids down one by one - first Sakura, then Shinnin, then Naruto.

Yukiko swung the trap door shut as she followed them inside. "Where do you keep bandages and disinfectant?" she asked.

"The large kit is downstairs. Sakura practices in the back garden," Haruno-san said, and led the way along the hallway to the switchback staircase against the wall.

"-history quiz," Iruka was saying from the ground floor. "She has an excellent memory for facts and a gift for integrating information. She also has very good physical coordination for someone not raised in a family with a strong ninja tradition, though she can't match most of her classmates in stamina and agility."

"Can't match yet," an unfamiliar male voice broke in. Sakura's father?

"Well, yes and no," Iruka said. "Conditioning and stretches will certainly help, but some people will always be stronger or more limber than others - those are their talents - just as Sakura's particular gift is her mind. We want all the children to have a decent grounding in all the basics by the time they graduate, but it's also good if they put in extra work in one or two areas where they especially shine. We try to balance teams so one genin's weakness is offset by a partner's strength. That's easier if each child has a specialty. Clan children come by their specialties naturally, but those from civilian families need to put more thought into it. I'd advise Sakura to focus on something that requires control and thought rather than something that requires deep chakra reserves or brute physical talent."

Haruno-san was frowning as she started down the stairs, stepping on several slightly creaky boards with what looked like deliberate intent. "Senzai, welcome home. I see you've encountered one of our unexpected guests," she said as she reached the landing.

"So I have," Sakura's father said, looking up with a wide smile. He had deep red hair, so dark it looked nearly like arterial blood in the slanted afternoon sunlight. "Umino-sensei, I presume you've already met Tanrei, who does me the honor of pretending to be my wife, and Sakura-chan, who does me the favor of being my chief joy and delight."

"Dad," Sakura said, sounding mortified.

Her father simply laughed. Then he caught sight of Naruto and his smile faded into a puzzled almost-frown. "Hello, who are you?" he said.

"Uzumaki Naruto!" the kid proclaimed. "I don't care if you don't like me. Sakura-chan's my friend and that's that. But she got scratched by the glass, so me and Shinnin and Yukiko-neechan and her mom are gonna get her fixed up and stuff."

Yukiko hurried the kids the rest of the way down the stairs and offered Haruno Senzai a falsely cheerful smile. "Sorry about the mess. I'm Ayakawa Yukiko, Naruto's guardian. I own and manage two apartment buildings near the northeast wall."

"Pleased to meet you," Haruno Senzai said. His gaze caught on her chuunin vest for a moment, then slid to his wife in obvious confusion.

"Sakura spent the afternoon at Ayakawa-san's home, with her new friends," Haruno Tanrei said, giving her husband a significant look. "I've agreed that they can spend time together, with adult supervision, until five o'clock in the afternoon on school days."

"I see," said Senzai, which was a blatant lie.

Iruka glanced at Yukiko and twitched his fingers in a tiny, abbreviated question. Yukiko stifled a frustrated sigh. "If our kids are going to spend a lot of time at each other's places, we should get to know each other and hash out some rules," she said. "Iruka, would you mind bandaging the kids? Tanrei-san said the first aid kit is downstairs, in-" Wait. Where downstairs?

"-in the kitchen," Tanrei said, filling in the pause so smoothly anyone else might never have noticed it forming. "Please, there's no need. You are guests in our house. Let us take care of our own mishaps."

"Oh, it won't be a problem!" Iruka said cheerfully, and whisked his three students away before either of Sakura's parents could protest.

Senzai was still clearly off balance and Yukiko didn't want to give Tanrei a chance to retract the limited permission she'd already given. It seemed a bit unfair to treat Konoha civilians as if they were foreigners she was trying to turn from obstacles to assets, but she was a ninja, cheating only counted if she got caught, and this was for their daughter's good anyway.

Yukiko sat down on the nearby couch, folded her hands in her lap, and offered the Harunos her best contract-negotiation smile. "I guess it's just us, huh. So. Hi. Again. I'm Ayakawa Yukiko, Naruto's big sister. Our kids have both been lonely for a long time, but now they've decided to be friends. Let's talk about how we're going to help them do that."

o-o-o-o-o

"What'd Sakura-chan's mom and dad say?" Naruto asked as he and Yukiko walked away from the Haruno house half an hour later, parting ways with Iruka and Shinnin. "They didn't do any take-backs, right? Sakura-chan can still come over to our place, right? Or we can all go to Shinnin's house, right? Right?" He slowed down, dragging his steps and hanging on Yukiko's hand like a deadweight.

"Hey. Would I let you down, kid?" Yukiko asked.

"Nooooo, but sometimes people just kinda stink," Naruto said. "So? Come on, tell me!"

"Sakura is still allowed over to our building," Yukiko said, squeezing Naruto's hand. "With restrictions! And I don't know about you guys going to Shinnin's house because Tanrei-san and Senzai-san said they needed to discuss that with her family. But yeah, no take-backs."

Naruto dropped Yukiko's hand and stood motionless for a long second. Then he leapt and punched the air. "Ha! Yeah! Take that! I knew they couldn't be stupid 'cause Sakura-chan's not stupid. We're gonna be the best friends ever, and the best ninja ever, and we'll show everyone that we're awesome. So there!"

"Sounds like a plan," Yukiko said, reaching down to ruffle the kid's hair.

Naruto made an awful face and flailed his hands until he caught her wrist. "Ugh, stop it, no fair! Just 'cause I'm shorter than you..."

Yukiko grinned and relented, dropping her trapped hand to her side. "The world's not fair, kid. If you want me to stop, learn to stop me. Or get taller."

"I'm gonna be so much taller than you someday. Taller than everyone!" Naruto grumbled as he let go with one hand and shifted the other into a more normal grip.

They walked in silence for several minutes through increasingly crowded streets, the pretty houses of the civilian district giving way to taller, more crowded buildings with shops of all kinds on their ground floors, people spilling into and out of doorways in noisy clumps. Neon signs were starting to turn on as the shadows grew and the air darkened through gold and blue into purple dusk. The scent of a hundred restaurants and food stalls swirled through the air in a mouth-watering jumble, reminding Yukiko that she and Iruka had forgotten to eat lunch.

Nrgh. She turned down a narrow side-street, heading for the nearest park. Better to avoid temptation if she wanted to set a good example for the kid.

The crowd thinned as they left the press of buildings, sounds and scents receding as they walked toward the river that meandered its carefully channeled way through the village. Yukiko slowed as they crossed a painted bridge, tipping her head back to catch the first evening stars.

"So how'd you do it?" Naruto asked.

Yukiko stopped and looked down. "Do what?"

"Talk them into it. Sakura-chan's parents still don't like me, and I bet they wish she'd be friends with Shinnin and forget about me. I bet Shinnin's parents'd like that too. It'd probably be better for Shinnin and Sakura-chan, even, since they'd still have each other and I wouldn't be around making problems."

"It would've been rude for Tanrei-san to go back on her word," Yukiko temporized.

"Really, really, really rude!" Naruto agreed. "But life's not fair. You said people who don't like me are just being stupid and I shouldn't care about them, but... I dunno, there's lots of people who don't like me and they can't all be bad people. If they shouldn't judge me before they know me, I shouldn't judge them either, right? And Tanrei-san said she had a reason not to like me, just that it was a secret, and... um..."

Yukiko scooped the kid up to sit on the bridge railing, and wrapped him in a hug. Naruto flailed. Then he flung his arms around her neck and buried his face in her shoulder.

"I don't want to be alone," he whispered.

Oh, help. Yukiko patted Naruto's back and groped awkwardly for the right words. "Hey. Kid. You're not alone. You have me. You have Iruka. You have Naga and Taizen-san. You have Shinnin, and now Sakura as well. You're making new friends all the time. Yeah, it's hard, but you're a fighter. I believe in you. So do all your other friends, and you know the best thing? We'll all fight with you, so every time you make a new friend it'll be easier to make the next."

"What's fighting got to do with it? You can't make friends by hitting people," Naruto said.

"Maybe not with civilians, but it's a time-honored tradition among ninja," Yukiko assured him. Naruto pulled back and gave her a disbelieving look. "I swear by all the kami, that's how I got to be friends with my old genin team. Hoshi-sensei made us fight in three-way melee battles until we got sick of them and teamed up on him instead. And then we were friends."

"If you say so, Yukiko-neechan," Naruto said. "But Sakura-chan's parents aren't ninja. How'd you make them keep their word?"

Yukiko swung herself up onto the bridge railing beside Naruto and kicked her heels lightly against the wood of the lower rail. "Honestly? I didn't need to do much. Tanrei-san made an implicit promise, Senzai-san agreed it was okay to at least try out the arrangement, and that was that. I just reminded them that parents are supposed to set good examples for their kids, which they wanted to do anyway because they're basically good people."

Naruto elbowed her in the side. "Yeah, yeah, but what else? You were smiling your sneaky smile when we left! You can't fool me."

"I may have offered to give Sakura supplemental practical training on half-day afternoons, since she doesn't have any clan relatives to teach her," Yukiko said, looking up at the darkening sky. "Which conveniently requires her to come over to our place and hang out with you. But that was only icing on the cake - her parents probably would have agreed without that. Once they get to know you, I'm sure they wouldn't try to keep you away from Sakura even if I never teach her a thing."

"Oh," Naruto said. "Hey, hey, does that mean you'll teach Shinnin too? 'Cause none of her family's a ninja either and it's not fair to teach Sakura-chan and not Shinnin."

"I thought we agreed that life isn't fair," Yukiko said, tapping the kid on his nose.

Naruto elbowed her again. "We should try to make it fair! Unfair stinks. That's what I'm going to fight for when I'm a ninja - to make the world stop being unfair."

Yukiko closed her eyes, remembering herself at his age. "I want to be the best ninja in Konoha so I can protect everyone," she'd told her mother. "Our clan always builds things and fixes things - I want to keep them from getting broken. That's my dream, to protect Konoha!" She'd had no idea how hard it was to protect a single person, let alone an entire city. Kids had no sense of scale. They dreamed such impossible, beautiful dreams.

"You can't change the world by hitting things, kid," Yukiko said, wrapping her arm around Naruto's shoulders.

"Why not? If you can make friends by fighting, why can't you change people's minds by hitting them? Besides, I'm gonna be a ninja! That means I can fight as sneaky as I want, 'cause it's only cheating if it doesn't work or you get caught," Naruto said. He nodded firmly. "Yeah. Ninjutsu and taijutsu are awesome, but you can hit people with words and it hurts just as bad. That's what Haruka did to Sakura-chan, what some of Shinnin's old friends did to her, and what all kinds of people do to me. I'm gonna learn how to do that too. That's how I'll change the world."

"But also with a bunch of traps and blowing stuff up, right?"

"Well, yeah," Naruto agreed. "'Cause sometimes you've gotta knock people down before you can make them listen. And explosions are awesome! Duh."

"Explosions can be pretty cool," Yukiko agreed, struggling to keep laughter out of her voice.

"You know what else is cool? Ramen! Ramen is cool and awesome and delicious and also I cleaned your kitchen today so you should buy us some for dinner." Naruto slid down from the railing and bounced on his toes, turning back to face the center of town that blazed with neon signs and window-lights like an oasis in the newborn night. "Ichiraku-san said if we eat at his stand at least twice a week he might give us a frequent customer discount. You like discounts! It's, um, fishally responsible and everything! Please, Yukiko-neechan? Pleeeeeease?"

Yukiko gave up on stifling her laughter. "Yeah, okay, you've had a big day. We can celebrate with ramen, but it's salad tomorrow and the next day. Or else!"

"I'll just have to make you change your mind," Naruto said with a blinding grin, and grabbed her hand as she slid off the railing. "Come on, let's get dinner!"

They headed into town together.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

End of Story

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AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.