A/N: Oh boy. I never thought I would write for the Naruto fandom…although I am a fan, it's just so ridiculous sometimes…! I suppose Naruto just provides me the perfect environment for an angsty/cute fic, since in no other fandom (except perhaps Harry Potter) can people realistically HATE a completely innocent child for something that's not their fault. Thus, this fic was born…from a dream I had, actually. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

As far as he knew, he didn't have a name. Even his earliest memories provided no hint, since he had been called 'freak,' 'demon,' and 'monster' as far back as he could remember. At first, in his childish innocence, he had glowed with pride at the variety he was given. No other child had so many names, and he learned quickly that he was special. He had reveled in this discovery before it happened. A raised fist, a burning face. He had been silly then, for he had cried out in pain and been rewarded with no dinner. It had confused him. He thought he was special. But apparently being special meant that he was the only one not allowed to eat, that he was the only one the other children were encouraged to mock, that he was the only one to be beaten and tossed aside like nothing.

He had been very young then, and had had no strength with which to fight back. Even now at the ripe age of six years old, he hadn't really found a way to resist what happened to him. Now he accepted his specialness, and when those names reserved especially for him were called, he responded. Despite the pain that usually ensued, he felt better knowing that at least he had a place in this world and that he was someone.

Although he still lived in the orphanage, he avoided it as much as possible. This arrangement seemed to work best for the woman in charge. He didn't know her real name, but all the children called her 'Mama-san.' In the beginning, he had thought she was a mean person since she liked to hit people, but then he realized that the only one she hit was him. It had caused him to think about what was wrong with him, since he tried to copy the others but was always time and time again singled out. He finally guessed that it had something to do with the weird markings on his body: the whiskers on his face and the strange tattoo-like thing on his stomach.

Once, when he had taken off his shirt in the summer heat, Mama-san's eyes had fixed on his abdomen and he had witnessed true hate manifested there. Immediately, she ordered him to cover up and had forced several sweaters over his skinny frame to hide the strange marking. Then, she had dragged him up the stairs and shoved him in the attic, telling him before she left that if he so much as thought about taking off the sweaters, that he would never eat again. He had gulped in fear since she barely fed him as is, and he really disliked the rumbling of an empty and desperate stomach.

He didn't know how long he had stayed in that attic. Gaps appeared in his memory whenever he blacked out from the heat, and there were no windows or indicators of time passing. He only knew when Mama-san returned, yanked off all but one sweater, pulled him downstairs into a bedroom, and told him to make himself presentable. Dizzy and famished, he had swayed on the spot but nodded complacently, wondering if he had won a victory when she didn't strike him. The thought had filled him with warmth before a knock came on the door and in entered an old man wearing white robes. He was surprised when the old man came directly over to him, and he mentally prepared to be hit. Instead, the man simply knelt before him.

"Hello, Naruto."

Naruto? What was that? Was the old man talking to him? Didn't he know that he was special?

"Hello," he answered shyly, staring at his feet.

"Do you remember me, Naruto? I came and visited you a while ago."

He decided that he liked the man's voice. It was soft and gentle, unlike the jeering and spitting he experienced from nearly everyone else.

"Umm," he murmured, trying to think. Unfortunately, his brain was rather fuzzy and he couldn't really keep anything straight. "I dunno."

The old man smiled. "That's alright. You were a little younger, so perhaps not. Anyway—"

"Who are you?" he burst out. He could hear a hiss from the doorway where Mama-san was obviously eavesdropping on their conversation.

"Well, Naruto, I'm the Hokage. I'm the leader of all of Konoha," the Hokage stated patiently.

Naruto racked his mind and thought of all the people he had seen on only his brief excursions into town.

"Wow, you lead lots of people!" he exclaimed.

The Hokage chuckled. "I suppose I do."

"So who's that guy over there in the dog mask? Is he a friend of yours? Do you play with him?"

The Hokage laughed again. "He is part of the ANBU, a secret class of shinobi, some of whom protect me. I guess we are friends, but we don't play together very often."

"Who does he protect you from?"

"Bad guys," the Hokage answered simply. The old man's wrinkled face creased into a frown when Naruto grew downcast. "What's wrong, Naruto?"

"You came to get rid of me."

The Hokage was horrified. "No, not at all! What makes you think that?"

"I'm a bad guy," Naruto said to his feet. "You came to get rid of me and that's why you're talking to me."

The Hokage put a bracing hand on Naruto's shoulder and recoiled slightly when he brushed across the boy's neck. "Naruto, you're burning up! Here, let's get this off you." The Hokage helped Naruto ease out of the enlarged sweater, cursing that he had not noticed it earlier. On Naruto's torso, he saw the telltale signs of a rash and wondered why Naruto had worn such a piece of clothing. He thought he knew the answer, and it only made his scowl deepen.

"Naruto, why were you wearing such a sweater in this heat?"

"Because I'm a bad person," he mumbled.

"Naruto, listen to me. You are not a bad person. Do you understand?"

He gazed up at the old man with such a bewildered expression that the Hokage had to swallow a painful lump in his throat.

"But…" Naruto protested feebly, trying to make sense of what the old man had told him. "I have to be a bad person. I'm special." He gasped suddenly. "A-are you special too? Is that why you're talking to me?" His brightened face grew grim as he corrected himself. "No, you're not. You have friends."

The Hokage blanched and squeezed his eyes shut in pain. When he reopened them, he carefully scrutinized the boy before him and saw that Naruto's eyes were glazed, and that his ribs were showing.

"Naruto, when's the last time you ate anything? I want you to tell me truthfully."

Naruto bit his lip, trying to think. That's when the dots appeared, and he began to blink rapidly. The next thing he knew was absolute nothingness.

The Hokage rushed forward to catch Naruto in his arms, aware of what an answer that was. As he gently planted Naruto on the bed, he barked at Mama-san to feed him better and that if she ever tried to harm Naruto like that again, she would pay for it dearly. Mama-san nodded fearfully, but knew that nothing would change (at least in her demeanor toward the boy) and even the Hokage couldn't do a thing about it.

Naruto felt strange as he slowly regained consciousness. He was shivering and yet things were poking him all over. When he opened his eyes, he found himself lying outside of the orphanage in the pouring rain. As he tried to sit up, he saw that leftover food was smeared all over his stomach, and could imagine that Mama-san had simply dumped it there. He had to admit that, even though it was soaked through, it was more than he had ever been given before, so he ate as much of it as he could. He didn't even know what it was, but his stomach was satisfied for the moment.

That night, it rained unabated until the early hours of the morning. Humidity was still in the air, but the rain was cold and he was forced to endure it. The orphanage had been locked and he tried to huddle underneath the eaves of the building to escape the torrents, but it was a futile process. He still got drenched anyway. Despite this, though, he felt a strange sense of freedom outside of the building that had housed him since he could remember. He was no longer confined in those walls. Even though he was a bad person, suddenly the night seemed like it was his to own and cherish, and he stood to dance in the rain and celebrate. His elation was brief but enough to give him an idea: he wanted to explore ALL of Konoha.

His first escapades into the village were memorable, to say the least. The first occurred the very next morning after he stole through a small window in the orphanage to grab a shirt. It was a hand-me-down, worn thing, but it effectively covered his abdomen and the weird marking there. After that was completed, he wandered into the center of Konoha. Due to the weather and early hour, there were barely any people to scoff at his presence, and the few who did did not escape his notice. He had wondered if he was considered special everywhere, and at least now he knew the truth. He was indeed a bad person and would be treated as such no matter where he went.

As he strolled down the length of Konoha, darting down side streets and gawking unabashedly at buildings, he couldn't help but feel happy. Even though he was special, bad people like him could still be happy, couldn't they? He watched in fascination as shops opened and he was allowed to stare momentarily into their windows. There were so many things he saw that he had never seen before, and all of them were interesting in their own right. He wished that he could try some of them out, but the cold glares of shopkeepers and even a woman's broom prevented him from entering nearly all of the shops. Still, this did not depress him. Even when he was literally kicked out of one of the places, the bruise only served to remind him what a wonderful and enlightening day this had been. He was indeed so enthralled that the insults and curses thrown in his direction bounced right off.

His day was going very well until he opened his big, stupid mouth. Everything was so new and his curiosity was so piqued that he couldn't help it. There were these people walking through town that massively intrigued him. Everyone seemed to part in order to give them room, and they walked in this large group with something in the center which he knew was what they were trying to protect. What he didn't understand was how they could see when they didn't have eyes. All he could see was white and no pupil. It was very weird and he couldn't help but voice that aloud. Unfortunately, one of the men on the outside of the group heard him and whipped around to glare at him. Apparently he could see after all.

"You!" the man seethed. He grabbed him roughly and shook him. "How dare you defile the Hyuuga name, you despicable demon child! You should be taught your place!" The man then began to kick him in the ribs. His only reaction to this was to curl into a ball. He felt himself be picked up and thrown again, then another foot connected and he was hurled into a small stand that smelled delicious. His back hit one of the barstools sharply and he let out a whimper as another voice boomed out.

"What is the meaning of this? Leave this child alone!"

"I would watch who you're defending, Teuchi-san! This is the demon!"

"Demon? All I see is a kid getting pummeled for no reason. Now leave my stand immediately or I'll report you to the Hokage!"

The other man scoffed but left, spitting curses.

"Are you okay?" came another voice, and he glanced up dazedly to see a very pretty girl with brown hair gazing down at him concernedly.

"Uh-huh," he murmured through broken lips. He was glad that he was able to heal, for he knew that some of his ribs had been broken but were already being repaired. He didn't want to worry this nice girl and who he assumed her father anymore. He didn't want people to associate them with a bad person like him.

"My name is Ayame. Here, come sit down. Father—?"

"Already on it. Say, boy, how would you like some ramen?"

He eyed the kind old man and blinked. In that instant he decided that he liked him, and the smells wafting around the place certainly helped. Even if he only got to taste a bit of whatever they were preparing for him, he knew he'd be happy. That's when he glanced over at another customer and saw him glaring in disgust. The man slapped some money on the counter and left, leaving his meal only partly finished.

Suddenly, he felt very sick.

"I don't…I don't have any money so…" he spoke feebly as the girl, Ayame, returned from the back and began to wipe off his face with a small cloth.

"Bah, no problem," Teuchi waved dismissively. "I'm just worried that you got hurt."

"Oh, I'm fine. I heal pretty fast so I'm fine," he stammered, not meeting their gazes. "I don't have any money," he repeated. He had never really had any money ever, and even when he mysteriously got some one day, he was forced to pay one of the older children all of it just so he could use the bathroom.

"Don't worry about it. Here, enjoy. Oh," Teuchi laughed as he went around and hoisted Naruto up so he was sitting on the counter. The barstool had been too far away for the little boy that he was. He grew nervous up there but then a steaming bowl of food was brought before him. He sucked in a huge breath at the sumptuous amount.

"That's all…for me?" he breathed.

"Yup. Now eat up! Put some meat on those bones of yours!" Ayame grinned.

"Itadakimasu!" he cried out as he broke apart his chopsticks and dug in. It was the most delicious meal he had ever tasted.

He learned a lot while meandering through Konoha, and there was one particular thing that was the most important: people. He learned which people were good, and which were bad. Most of the people he encountered were logged away into his mind as those who were cruel to him, but there were a select few who seemed to forgive his specialness. They didn't seem to mind that he was a bad person.

The first two that made that list were Teuchi and his daughter Ayame, whom he nicknamed Ramen-ojii-san and Ramen-onee-san. Whenever he stopped by, they had a warm meal ready for him and they even talked to him. They asked him questions, he answered, and then he asked them questions. He found that it was a very enjoyable experience to just talk to someone that didn't have hard eyes and even harder fists. He was also able to get a lot of questions answered, although he made sure not to ask the tough ones that even eluded him. He didn't know why he was a bad person, and he discovered that when he brought that up, Ramen-ojii-san and Ramen-onee-san got very sad. He hated to see them like that, so he kept his questions shallow from that point on and decided to only enjoy their wonderfully delicious charity. Of course, he also made sure to help out whenever they needed it. He had asked to have a job in order to pay them back, but Ramen-ojii-san shook his head and said that all was well. He still wanted to help, so he did when he could.

A few others made that list as well. Once, when he got lost down one of the side streets, the man in the dog mask from before helped him. He decided to call him Inu-san, and was always happy when he caught him following. He wondered why Inu-san would want to trail him, but it was nice to know that he had someone there if he needed them.

Then, of course, there was Scar-san. He first met him at Ichiraku's, and he was the first customer to not leave when he arrived. He didn't like to take away from their business, but Ramen-ojii-san and Ramen-onee-san insisted that he come to the front instead of sneaking around the back for food like some beggar. The man that he thus came to meet called himself Umino Iruka, although he always remembered him due to the scar that split his face.

One day, he and Scar-san were eating when Scar-san spoke up.

"Naruto, how are you doing?"

"Umm, good!" Naruto answered with a grin. He really had never been happier. Even these few people were enough to make him smile like he never had before. It especially helped that he had begun to formulate a list in his head of the people to avoid. It contained most of the town, and the No-Eye People were highlighted very darkly so he made sure to steer clear of them. With this list in his head, he was able to navigate through the village without too many problems.

"Hokage-sama has been worried about you lately," Scar-san continued. "He's talked to Hisae-san at the orphanage and she says that she hasn't seen much of you. Where are you staying?"

The question was innocent enough, but it made Naruto squirm to know that he had been caught. The truth was that he had been sleeping under a bridge just so that he wouldn't have to go back to that awful place. It was still summer, so it wasn't like it got too cold during the night…

"Naruto, you can't continue to sleep under that bridge anymore," Scar-san continued, looking very serious.

Naruto looked down, ashamed. "But…" he protested weakly, realizing that Inu-san must have tattled on him.

Scar-san wore a sad expression. "I understand that it might not be the most fun place to stay, but—"

"No!" Naruto interjected. "I don't wanna stay there!" He glared at Scar-san and ran out of Ichiraku's. Blinded by tears, he didn't really see where he was going. He saw some stairs and ran up them. His pumping legs helped distract him from the millions of questions he had.

Why was it that when he was finally happy, they were going to take it away from him? It was then that he had to remind himself that he was a bad person, a special person, so maybe he wasn't allowed to be happy. That must've been the reason. It didn't make him feel any better to think like that, though.

"Hey, this is my place."

He jumped at the voice and looked around. He had gotten to the roof of a building, and he could see the whole of Konoha from it. It was an impressive view, but who had spoken? His eyes widened when he saw that a kid not much older than himself was reclining on a wooden platform. The kid had spiky black hair that reminded him of a pineapple.

"What're you doing here?" the kid asked as he propped himself up on his elbows to get a better look at him.

Naruto hung his head. "I'm sorry," he murmured.

"For what?" the kid laughed. "I was just kidding. This is my special place to look at the sky, but it's not like it's mine. I don't own this whole building!"

Naruto glanced up and peered at this strange kid, hurriedly wiping his nose and eyes.

"What's your name? I'm Nara Shikamaru. I haven't seen you around here."

"I'm…" What was that name some people called him? "I'm Uzumaki Naruto."

"Naruto, huh? Where you from?"

"Konoha," Naruto said immediately.

Shikamaru sighed wearily. "I gathered that. But I thought I would've seen you somewhere by now."

"Oh well I've just started coming to town," Naruto explained, standing rigidly. He was surprised that this Shikamaru didn't seem to know that he was talking to a bad person.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm not gonna bite you know. Come sit over here. You can join me in indulging a passion of mine."

Naruto stared at him. "What?"

"Just come over here!"

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, why not? You don't bite, do you?" Shikamaru asked, fixing him a curious expression.

Naruto giggled. "No, I don't!" He jogged over to where Shikamaru was relaxing and sat on the edge of the wooden stage. "What'cha doin'?"

"I like watching the clouds. You still didn't answer my question, by the way," Shikamaru pointed out snidely.

"Clouds? Isn't that kind of boring?"

Shikamaru scoffed. "First you ignore me, then you insult my favorite pastime!"

Naruto sniffed and stood up. "I'm sorry. I'll go—"

"What? Naw, I'm just joking! Lighten up, Naruto! I'm just curious. I usually remember all the faces I see and I haven't ever seen yours."

Naruto sat back down a little hesitantly and decided to answer honestly. "I used to live in the orphanage on the edge of town."

"Used to?"

"I don't live there anymore," Naruto added, avoiding Shikamaru's questioning gaze as if fearing that everything would be exposed.

"So where do you live now?"

"Somewhere," Naruto said defensively.

"Hmm," Shikamaru hummed thoughtfully before changing the subject. "Must be hard being an orphan. My parents annoy me a lot, but not having them at all would be awful. Oh, sorry." He cast a sheepish look in Naruto's direction. "My mom says I have a talent of sticking my foot in my mouth, so don't take what I say too personally."

Naruto eyed him strangely. "You stick your foot in your mouth?" he repeated incredulously.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "Never mind. Just lay back and look at the clouds. Today's a great day to do that."

Naruto obeyed and watched as the clouds began to slowly drift by overhead.

"Look," Shikamaru cried suddenly, pointing. "That one looks like a dog lying down, doesn't it?"

Naruto followed his gaze and squinted fiercely. "Looks more to me like a cup of ramen fell over and noodles are spilling out."

"What?" Shikamaru said laughingly. Shikamaru turned to Naruto only to see that the blond had become shame-faced. Shikamaru returned his gaze to the sky. "Yeah, I guess it does look like that," he agreed, grinning as Naruto cracked a small smile.

The next day, Naruto arrived at Ichiraku's just as it was opening with a huge grin on his face. Ramen-ojii-san laughed as Naruto related the events leading up to meeting Shikamaru. He jumped all over the place, waving his arms dramatically, as he exclaimed that Shikamaru asked if they could meet again the next day.

"I take it you're going to go see him, then?" Teuchi chuckled as Naruto nodded so vigorously that his head threatened to fly off. He was glad that Naruto had finally found someone his own age to play with that wouldn't cast him aside like so many of the others had been told to do.

"Is Scar-san coming?" Naruto piped up, fidgeting on the barstool as he reached up to the counter.

"You mean Iruka-san?" Ayame corrected him automatically.

Naruto's face clouded slightly, but his smile remained intact. "Yeah, Iruka-san. Is he coming?"

"I can't say," Teuchi spoke up. "We did just open up! Do you realize what time it is?"

"I know, I was just too excited!" Naruto exclaimed happily. His expression darkened as his grin faded. "I suppose he's mad at me for running out yesterday."

"He's just worried about you," Ayame said. "You want your usual for breakfast?"

He sighed. "I…I want to pay for it, but…"

"Don't worry. Iruka talked to us and the Hokage is compensating us for your meals. We just need to fill you with more than ramen, young man! You need to grow up big and strong, after all," Teuchi said.

Naruto looked relieved after that. "But what is there besides ramen?"

"What is there besides ramen? A lot of things!" Teuchi laughed. "Here, let me show you something." Naruto watched with wide eyes as Teuchi cracked some eggs into a rectangular pan and began to cook it. When it started to set, he rolled it up and then added another layer, rolling them into each other until he was satisfied. Then, carefully topping it with fish paste and soy sauce, he handed it to Naruto with a grin.

"You're the best cook ever!" Naruto exclaimed upon taking a bite of what Teuchi called tamagoyaki. Teuchi just laughed.

After Naruto finished his breakfast and thanked Ramen-ojii-san and Ramen-onee-san he stood up to leave, suddenly nervous about meeting Shikamaru. Had yesterday just been a fluke? Did Shikamaru really want to play with him as he had said? No one had ever wanted to before because they knew he was bad… Maybe he should tell Shikamaru? He didn't want him to get hurt. In all honesty, as excited as he was, this same doubt had kept him awake for most of the night.

"Naruto, you okay?" Teuchi asked, noticing his sudden crestfallenness.

"Uh…yeah. I guess."

"Well then, go have fun with your friend!"

He was just about to turn and leave when that word made him freeze in place.

"Friend?" he repeated fearfully, pivoting to lock gazes with the old man.

"Yeah. That kid, what's his name, Shikamaru," Teuchi clarified, nodding.

Naruto stared at him fully with unabashed shock. "He could be my friend," he breathed. "Really?" He dared think it was possible. He wasn't allowed to be happy, to have friends. But would Shikamaru feel the same way?

"Of course! Now go run along!" Teuchi encouraged, smiling reassuredly.

Naruto's eyes sparkled as he pumped a fist in the air. "Yeah! Okay! Bye!" he called over his shoulder as he raced out of Ichiraku's. Teuchi watched him go and sadly shook his head, praying that this Shikamaru wouldn't reject Naruto. Naruto had such fragile trust in people, and he feared the poor boy would break if Shikamaru did even the tiniest thing wrong.

Teuchi's worries were for naught, though, as Naruto enjoyed the best day in his life. Shikamaru was a really fun and cool person, as Naruto quickly discovered. After meeting in the same location as the previous day, Shikamaru commenced showing Naruto other favorite spots of his to cloud-gaze. Naruto had to admit that he was rather relieved that these places were obscure and off the beaten path, since he didn't know how Shikamaru would react to his usual treatment by the townspeople. He was still afraid that Shikamaru wouldn't want to play with him after learning that he was a bad person, but luckily that issue did not come up. Together, they explored the remotest areas of Konoha and ended up on a grassy knoll on the outskirts of town. It was a private sanctuary where both boys simply lazed around in silence. Naruto was mostly pleased by this activity not only because Shikamaru didn't ask any more demanding, personal questions but also because he had never shared camaraderie with anyone his age before, and it was a novel experience.

After a little while, they got hungry and Shikamaru shared with him a bento his mother had packed. Shikamaru complained and grimaced as he removed some very feline onigiri, but Naruto just thought they were cute. At that comment, Shikamaru scoffed and told Naruto that maybe he was lucky he didn't have a mom because his was the worst at embarrassing her only son.

"Have you ever gotten something on your face but didn't know it, and you were just walking around looking dumb? Well, that's happened to me, but a hundred times worse since my mom always notices, takes out a handkerchief, spits on it and wipes it off my face. In front of everyone!" Shikamaru exclaimed. "I am almost seven years old! I think I can take care of that myself! But she's just so annoying!"

Naruto was thoughtful. "That was kind of nice of her, though," he mused aloud before ducking his head in embarrassment.

Shikamaru frowned at him and then shrugged. "Yeah, I guess," he consented.

The next few days passed much in the same way, although Naruto never had more fun before in his life. He wondered if maybe he and Shikamaru were becoming friends! Even though he wanted desperately to believe that, it was growing more and more difficult since he knew that eventually, Shikamaru would realize that he was a bad person and then it would be up to him whether to join the good list or the bad. Naruto really hoped that Shikamaru wouldn't end up on the list of people he had to avoid, because just the thought of that made his heart ache. Unfortunately, he couldn't completely rule out that possibility, no matter how badly he desired otherwise.

Later that week, Shikamaru led Naruto to a spot where another boy stood. Proudly, Shikamaru went and clapped a hand on the chubby boy's shoulder.

"Naruto, this here is my friend Akimichi Choji. He and his family just got back from vacation. His father and my father go way back."

Naruto put a smile on his face but inside felt like crying. So he had just been a replacement. He felt like he had gotten kicked in the gut.

"I'm…" he faltered, wondering if he should introduce himself accurately this time as 'demon' or 'monster.' When he glanced up, though, he saw that Choji looked nervous and shy too. "Nice to meet you," he corrected himself as he smiled at the other boy.

Choji awkwardly grinned back, and held out a bag of something which he offered to Naruto.

"Want some potato chips?"

Naruto blinked. "Potato chips? What're those?" He wondered if he had said something wrong when Choji's eyes began to blaze fiercely.

"You've never had potato chips before?" Choji demanded, all traces of his previous demeanor forgotten in his outrage. "That is…that's crazy! You don't know what you're missing!"

"Really?" Naruto whispered, slightly taken aback. He glanced fearfully at Shikamaru, but the spiky-haired boy was muffling laughter behind his hand. Naruto calmed slightly and asked if he could try a potato chip. As he crunched into his first one, he let the taste fill his mouth and he exclaimed that they were delicious. After that, Choji settled down and the three of them went off to play together.

That night, as Naruto returned to the underside of his bridge, he thought of all the wonderful things he had done with his…friends? Were they his friends? His heart said yes, and that was enough for him to be happy for the rest of his life, even if he was sleeping in the dirt and eating only one meal a day. Naruto had seen his effect on Ichiraku's customers and knew that Ramen-ojii-san was losing money thanks to him, so he forced himself to a limit of one Ichiraku's meal a day. Any other food he found would complement this diet, whether it was snacks from Shikamaru or Choji or things he foraged for on his own. While this was certainly more food than he was used to, and of course far better company, he was still hungry at times.

The only bad thing was that he had to avoid Scar-san. It was hard because Naruto liked him a lot, and he had so few people that actually accepted him. It was just that he didn't want to go back to the orphanage. He really didn't mind this bridge or sleeping outdoors, and he could deal with the chill. He had suffered worse elsewhere.

Thinking about Scar-san made Naruto him that he had skipped out on dinner at Ichiraku's because he had seen him there. His stomach also reminded him as it growled menacingly. Rummaging through a small bag he had found, he pulled out some mushrooms he had picked. They looked delicious, and without any hesitation, he stuffed them in his mouth. He grimaced. They may have looked delicious, but they tasted disgusting! It was even hard to swallow! Still, it was food, so he finished what he had and settled down for a good night's sleep.

Naruto was awakened in the middle of the night by a severe pain in his stomach, followed by an urge to vomit. He leaped out of the bridge and retched, puking up his previous meal. Even when his dry heaves faded, he still felt awful. His head ached and he felt abruptly dizzy. He crawled back into his spot and tried to fall back asleep, but the nausea and headache continued, allowing him no respite. By the time the sun came up, he was in even worse condition. He could barely process anything beside the muscle spasms and cramps that ripped through his body. Something was wrong and he was scared, so he forced himself to lurch to his feet and stagger into town. He could barely see where he was going and stumbled often, trying to make his way to Ichiraku's since they had been able to help him before. Of course, what worried him most was that he had never been this sick before. Usually he had healed…what was going on?

He had barely made it into the town limits before a stitch cut through him and he collapsed to the ground, trembling in agony. Pain erupted in his stomach and he clutched it desperately as his body began to shake of its own accord. Naruto shuddered and whimpered as people glanced at him and kept going. Would no one stop? Wait, of course they wouldn't. They thought it would be better to let a bad person die, for surely this is what was happening.

Naruto clenched his fists and began to cry, thinking over his recently found happiness and wishing that he had gotten more of a chance to enjoy it. But maybe it was better this way, better for him to die. He vaguely wondered if his treasured people would miss him before a violent seizure overcame him and he saw nothing more.

The first thing he was aware of was his desperate desire to purge his stomach. Beneath him was soft and he sensed a presence beside him. Unfortunately, he couldn't ponder on this for long since his body demanded release. He sat up blindly, wincing as he turned and vomited into a seemingly projected bucket. A person came over behind him and rubbed his back gently. At this, Naruto blearily opened his eyes and leaned back.

"Who…?" he breathed, blinking to regain focus.

"How are you feeling?"

He knew that voice, and although he was happy to hear it, his belly also squirmed.


"I told you to call me Iruka," Iruka corrected teasingly as he eased Naruto back into some pillows. "Now what's going on? I was making some early rounds this morning and I found you lying on the side of the road, unconscious." The worry in his voice was evident, and Naruto couldn't help but feel warm at that.

"I don't know. I got sick last night. What is this place?"

"This is my apartment," Iruka explained. "You seemed to be doing better and I figured you'd rather avoid the hospital."

Naruto grinned. "Yeah, I feel lots better."

Iruka let out a relieved breath. "That's good. You were pretty pale. Why did you pass out?"

"Umm…" Naruto scrunched up his face as he tried to remember. "Well, I ate some mushrooms—"

"Mushrooms?" Iruka repeated in astonishment. "Naruto!" He seemed to want to lecture about something but realized that he couldn't in this case. Instead, he sighed. "This is what the Hokage and I are worried about! You can't keep living on your own! What would have happened to you if I hadn't found you?"

"I would've gotten better," he mumbled unhappily.

Iruka stared at Naruto, frowning. "Naruto, you know better than me that there are people that could have hurt you when you were like that, and you wouldn't have been able to defend yourself. I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if something happened to you!"

Naruto hung his head ashamedly.

"I wish that I could make you see that this is for the best," Iruka continued softly. "You have to go back to the orphanage. It's the safest place for you."

"Safest place?" Naruto exploded suddenly. "But Mama-san hurts me and locks me up and never feeds me and and…I'm happier outside under my bridge!"

Iruka was stunned as Naruto began to sniffle.

"Mama-san hates me, everyone hates me! Why am I such a bad person?" he whispered, hugging himself. Suddenly, he was engulfed in a massive hug by stronger, warmer arms.

"Naruto, you could never be a bad person. You don't deserve any of their hatred. They are just ignorant people who want something to blame. It's not your fault and it will never be your fault. Do you understand me? I don't want you to think like that ever again!"

Naruto turned and buried himself in Iruka's chest, sobbing brokenly. Iruka held him tightly and didn't let go until Naruto himself gently pulled away. He stared up at Iruka and saw reflected in the older man's eyes his own pain.

"Why am I…different?" he asked timidly, pleadingly.

Iruka swallowed thickly. "I wish I could tell you, but per the Hokage's orders, anyone that reveals that…will not be allowed to live much longer." He prayed that Naruto wouldn't take that news in the wrong way.

Naruto looked thoughtful. "So…not everyone knows?"

Iruka nodded.

"And you…you know?" Naruto continued.

Again, Iruka nodded and held his breath.

Naruto sighed and then cracked a small smile. "Must be pretty important."

Iruka chuckled. "Yes. You are very important."

Naruto rolled his eyes, or at least tried to. He couldn't quite imitate Shikamaru perfectly yet.

"That's not what I meant!"

Iruka ignored his petulance and raised his hand to ruffle Naruto's hair affectionately. His heart seized when the boy winced despite himself. His mind began to turn and he froze when a thought occurred to him.

"Naruto, would you mind waiting here? I need to go talk to the Hokage for a moment."

"Okay," Naruto agreed obediently. He watched Iruka's back as the Chuunin stepped out of the bedroom and disappeared around the corner.

"Hopefully this won't take too long. Feel free to look around while I'm gone," Iruka called out from an unknown location as the sound of a door closing echoed out moments later.

Naruto sat on the bed for a moment and decided that he wanted to roll in the blankets. It had been a while since he had slept on real bed…actually, had he ever slept on a real bed? Iruka's huge, double-sized one felt amazingly comfortable and despite his curiosity, sleep tugged at his eyelids.

A few hours later, Naruto woke up upon hearing his name. He sat up and rubbed his eyes blearily.

"Naruto, I have great news!" Iruka sat upon the bed and eyed Naruto anxiously. "Well, I guess I should ask you first. This is a bit random, and I'm not sure if I can do it… I mean, I barely make enough money to support myself but… Anyway, I was wondering if you'd like to live with me."

Throughout Iruka's fragmented speech, Naruto had stared at him, utterly perplexed and still drowsy from sleep. By the end, though, he was wide awake and his mouth was wide open.

"You…mean…" he breathed in wonder. At first, he was gripped by elation and wanted to cheer to the world. But then reality set in and his shoulders slumped as he shook his head. "I can't," he choked out.

Iruka swallowed, his jaw tight. "I know, it was too forward of me. I'm sorry—"

"No, I want to live with you but…" Naruto jumped in, trying to explain himself. Before he could stop himself, he blurted, "I just don't want you to become bad too." He hid his face as Iruka inhaled a sharp breath. After a few moments, the Chuunin spoke up, his voice full of emotion.

"I thought I told you to never think like that again."

Naruto huddled deeper into himself.

"But I want you to know that I don't care. We'll be bad together if that's what it takes."

Naruto glanced up, his eyes shining. "But—"

"No buts!" Iruka interrupted sternly. Although his voice was cold, his eyes sparkled.

Naruto blinked up at him. "Is this a dream?" he asked in the quietest of voices.

Iruka smiled warmly. "No, but I know a place whose food brings you close to one. I'll treat you at Ichiraku's. Wanna come?"

Naruto nodded vigorously and bounded after him.

A/N: Well, I hope you liked the first chapter! I've been in the mood to write this recently, but I must admit that I will soon be heading back to college, so I can't guarantee that the next update will be soon. However, reviews are always inspiring! I would love to hear your thoughts about this story, and I apologize if some details seem inaccurate, seeing as Naruto is definitely NOT my favorite Anime out there. Of course, picking out mistakes is the job of my completely Narutarded beta (her words, not mine!), iheartmwpp, so thanks to her for helping me out!