Disclaimer: Naruto and AQUA/ARIA belong to their respective creators and licensing/publishing companies. I've love to have a complete set of ARIA DVDs, CDs, Manga, Artbooks and all, but I only have a single copy of Amano Kozue's ALPHA.
A five year old Naruto glanced over his shoulder, making sure that he was no longer being trailed. The older children had chased him off the playground, calling him names and throwing stones and other projectiles at him as they did.
Now he had gotten far away that they had lost interest in him, he began walking with hands stuck in his pockets. He hated it. He hated the way people would look at him coldly, whispering behind his back. He hated the way the other children would smile and laugh, and the adults would look upon them with smiles.
Why wouldn't they do the same for him? why won't they allow him to be like the other kids? All his life, the only person who had ever bestowed anything like it upon him was the Hokage.
What made him so different, he often wondered. Oft times he tried to eavesdrop on the whispering adults, but they would always notice him, and give him another of the cold looks, and distance themselves from him.
Naruto was jerked out of his deliberation, looking up at the source of the voice. It was from a teenage girl sitting on a stone bench, a mass of cats curled up around, and on her.
Glancing around, he realised that his feet had taken him to a place he did not recognise. In fact, it was completely devoid of people save the girl. Around him was buildings in various states of disrepair, the shop fronts boarded up and cobwebbed, with many a window shutter hanging on one hinge.
"Sorry, I'll be going now," the young boy muttered, intending to leave before he got chased away again. Turning away, he nearly tripped however, as he felt a weight on his foot.
"Hahi, he likes you," the girl chirped. "Why don't you play with him a bit before leaving? It's not like you're disturbing me," she beamed at him.
Naruto paused in his attempt to get the cat out of his way at her words. Looking at the girl, his eyes widened, and he felt his heart tighten. Was she smiling at him? She was! But why would she...
'Oh, she must not have recognised me yet,' Naruto thought to himself. 'Of course if she did, she would be looking angry at me already.'
"Nah, it's okay, I don't want to disturb you," he replied and tried running around the cat at his feet.
Only to have another can run between his legs and trip him.
"Oww, that hurt you stupid cat!" he yelled at the new cat who was now happily rubbing itself against his legs.
"Hehehe. They really like you."
The girl was now standing over him, hand outstretched and beatific smile still present. "They don't look like they want you to go yet. Why don't you join me for a while instead?"
Naruto hesitated, then took her hand. "Okay."
"Hahi! My name's Mizunashi Akari," she introduced.
"I'm- I'm Uzumaki Naruto," the boy replied, expecting a screech of anger.
"Nice to meet you, Naruto-kun," Akari acknowledged, her smile never fading.
Shooing the cats which had stolen her seat off the bench, Akari sat back down with the blond following suit.
"What is this place?" the boy asked. He had never heard any mention of a place like this before.
"This used to be called Spinner's Alley. Back then, they used to make yarn here using a method called Spinning, so that's what they named it. But the people who lived here used to call this place 'Cat's Cradle' too," Akari told him cheerfully.
"Because of the cats?" he looked at the clowder which had once again congregated around them.
"And because Cat's Cradle is a game played with strings. The shops would sometimes keep strings around to keep the children entertained, and they'd play Cat's Cradle with it."
Discreetly, Naruto took a peek the older girl as she spoke. She had short pink hair, with a pair of long pigtails framing the side of her face. Dressed in a white sleeveless square necked lace trimmed blouse, light brown short pants with the hems rolled up past her knees and casual heels and a thin floor length coat, she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen.
Then again, being five, he had no previous interest in girls, and the only woman he would come into close contact with was the orphanage matron.
"Nyao!" a cat insistently pressed its head against his arm, asking for the boy to pamper it in the manner cats do.
Naruto gingerly obliged it, placing his hand atop its head and rubbing between its ears. It was the first time he had ever touched an animal, and he was astounded at the softness of the cat's fur. It purred, the trembling sensation was transferred to the boys hand causing him to gasp in pleasure as well.
Overcome by the new experience, he went on to trying to stroke the cat's back, which elicited a louder vocalization of the cat's pleasure, which then spurned the boy to try to find other ways of making the cat feel good.
So caught up by playing with the cats which had began crowding him, it wasn't until sometime later that he remembered that he wasn't alone.
Glancing to his side, he saw Akari with her head tilted back, eyes closed, lips stilled curled at the corners and hand stroking a cat which had claimed a place on her lap.
"Why were you looking so sad when you came here?" the pink haired girl asked out of the blue, startling him.
"No reason," he answered quickly, shrinking slightly when he saw that Akari had turned to look him, eyes wide and inquiring.
"Hmm?" she leaned forward slightly, making him avert his eyes but stay quiet.
"Hmm?" she tried again, bringing her face a little bit closer...
"Uh..." he mumbled, drawing back yet some more.
"Hmmmmm...?" she leaned in close to him, drawing out her inquiry.
"Okay, fine!" Naruto finally broke down, unable to fight off the cute way she kept pushing, or the doe-like eyes she unleashed upon him. "The other kids chased me away from the playground," he confessed, mentally prepared for her to tell him that it was his fault or something similarly deriding.
"Eh~ That's not very nice of them," Akari pouted as she sat back.
Naruto shrugged. "I'm used to it. It's been like that since I could remember..." he trailed off, watching her out the corner of his eyes. "Why are you being nice to me?"
"Why are you being nice to me? Everywhere I go, people always yell at me to get lost. The adults don't like me in their stores, the older kids don't talk to me, and the other children don't want to play with me. But you didn't look at me like them, and you asked me to sit down with you. Why?" Naruto looked down in trepidation as he told her.
There was no immediate answer from the girl, prompting Naruto to fidget and wonder if he had said something wrong. And when she began, he felt his stomach drop.
"It's not much of a secret that your birthday is October 10th. On that day, the Kyuubi appeared, and rampaged toward the village. The death toll was high, and many people lost friends and families, and the village lost our leader, the Yondaime Hokage."
Naruto kept his eyes down, his hands clenched tightly on his knees. He knew all that! Why did she have to bring it up? So she was just pretending to be nice to him?
"But on that dark day, amidst the death and destruction, you were born. To all those who had no longer had their loved ones, they wonder: 'Why does this child get to live, when mine was taken away?' With those thoughts, they turn upon you in anger, for each time they laid eyes on you, they are reminded of those who are no longer here."
She was using so many words he didn't understand, but he knew what she meant. And it saddened him.
"But one of my mentors had a saying, a philosophy. 'Happy memories are in abundance, and they soon become part of daily life. But if one bad thing happens, we take it terribly seriously. People simply take good things for granted, then take the bad incidents even more seriously,' she had once told me. 'I can't take either happy things or unpleasant things for granted; I need to take both seriously.'"
Naruto furrowed his brows as he muddled through the girl's words. It felt like she was telling him something important, but what did she mean?
"You see, Naruto-kun, even though we forget lots of things, we never truly throw them away. We can't throw away what's important to us, instead keeping them deep within the drawer in our hearts, sleeping within us. And with a small trigger, they show their faces again, allowing us to remember those memories."
As though nature itself knew that something important was taking place, there was absolutely no movement, no sound, save for the words Akari was telling him. The leaves did not rustle, the cats were all still, the world was in a standstill.
"For many people, when they see you, a drawer is opened. But what they remember is the lost of the people close to their hearts. That is why they look at you so coldly. It is as my mentor said, the bad things are remembered more seriously. But when that happens..."
A gentle hand landed lightly atop his head as she trailed off, slowly ruffling his hair. Startled, Naruto looked up at her.
Her eyes were half lidded, accompanied by a serene smile. The sun made her luscious pink hair shine, the pair of jades which posed as her eyes glimmered, as she seemed to bestow an aura of peace upon him.
"People will forget that there are other drawers which can be opened by the same key. When there is death, there is also birth. And a birth of a new life is always a beautiful thing. In remembering that their loved ones die, they forget that times change. Getting stuck on the things of the past, and losing sight of the happy things of now... is such a waste."
"It is because of the lessons of my mentors that when I look at you, I don't think 'Why is he alive when they had to die?'. Instead, I wonder 'What would they have done if they saw a sad child?'"
Her eyes closed, and her smile grew a little.
" You are a reminder of what was, but the past cannot be changed. You are also a symbol of hope, to stand back up in the face of loss and destruction. And to me... You are but a child, who represents our future that we will shape, based on our actions."
Despite that she was still using words that were too deep for a five year old to figure out, Naruto discovered that he comprehended her.
Looking her in the eyes, he saw her tranquil countenance. Wordlessly, he threw his arm around her waist, quiet sobs wrecking his body as he felt his sadness flow from his young body at the fact that he had found acceptance after enduring the cold stares and thinly veiled hostility for as long as memory served.
He felt warm arms wrapping around him, holding him in quiet embrace as he released years of pent up tears, tears he dared not show in front of other people, tears that the adults had declared something like him shouldn't be able to shed.
Akari stayed with him as he cried, her hand running up and down his back. Naruto did not know how long they stayed that way, but she never made to move either him or herself. That was the longest time he spend in someone's embrace, the first time he felt unconditional love.
"Thank you, Akari-nee-chan," Naruto mumbled into the material of her jacket after the tears had stopped and his body calmed.
"You're welcome," she replied tenderly.
"Will I see you again?" the boy asked hopefully as he finally disentangled himself from the girl.
When Akari turned her face away from him, he felt his heart drop. "I don't know. I will be leaving on a long term mission tomorrow. I don't know when I will return, or if I ever will."
"What? Why?" Naruto exclaimed, eyes wide in shock.
"Because I am a ninja, Naruto-kun. It is a dangerous job. You never know what can happen on a mission, or when you encounter an enemy ninja stronger than you. But we do this to keep Konoha safe. To keep the villagers safe. To keep you and the children of the village safe," she explained, looking deeply into his eyes. "Remember. You children are the hope for the future," she gave him a smile. "And it is up to us to protect you until you can bring about that future."
"B-but I only just met you!" he whined, his voice cracking, betraying his distress. "I don't want you to go, and die, and never come back. Who will talk to me like you did?"
Offering a soft chuckle, Akari poked at his forehead, and then his chest where his heart was. "Open your heart and mind, Naruto-kun. You found me today. You might find someone else tomorrow. As long as you're willing to open yourself to people you meet, you will definitely be able to find someone like me. And maybe one day, you might even let them understand that you what who you are, not what they think you are."
Naruto wiped away his tears as he nodded at her words, sure that she wouldn't lie to him. "Okay... Take good care of yourself, Akari-nee-chan! Promise me that you'll look for me when you get back, okay?"
"I will," she promised. "But I also want you to promise me that you'll try to be happy, okay?" she asked, holding out her pinky finger. "I know it's not possible to be happy all the time, but do your best, alright?"
He had never done this before, but he had seen it done many times. "Un!" the blond quickly hooked his own pinky around hers, completing the ritual. "I'll never break my promises!" he declared.
"Oh, it's getting dark," Akari suddenly noted.
"Yeah, it is... Oh no!" Naruto cried. "I need to get back to the orphanage before sunset or the lady's going to yell at me again!" Careful not to step on any cats, he jumped off the bench they had occupied for most of the day. "Are you going to go home yet, nee-chan?"
Akari shook her head. "I'm going to stay here a little longer. It's probably going to a long time before I'll get to see this place again..." she explained.
Naruto stood there a little longer, ignoring the cats that were rubbing themselves against his legs. "Okay. Good night, Akari-nee-chan. remember to take care of yourself!" he reminded, then gave her a small, sincere grin. His first true smile since he ran into her.
Akari blinked, then broke into a large smile. "Hahi! Take care of yourself too!"
"Bye bye!" Naruto waved, then started for the way he had came from, periodically turning back to wave at the first person who appeared to have completely accepted him.
As he turned the final corner, the alley no longer visible, the tears started again. Naruto would always hold her words close to his heart. As he reflected on what she had said, he wondered why no one else seem to have thought about it like that. But now it didn't matter as much to him. To take things both good and bad equally seriously...
His grin grew wider and he wiped his tears away, before he exited into a road he recognised.
"Watch where you're going, brat!" a man hollered as he was nearly knocked over by a small blond.
"Sorry, old man! But you should be paying attention to people around you!" said blond retorted.
Yes, other people can continue to yell at him, chase him away, do all the things they always, but he will never let it get him down again!
Many thanks to Nee-chan, Imoto-chan, and Optimus Magnus. Their many inputs, comments and suggestions helped me shape this story to its current standard.
This is actually an idea which spawned off my original idea for a Naruto/ARIA fanfiction. I was really taken by Akari, the main character of ARIA, and her personality. However, if there are any ARIA fans out there, you can probably tell that this Akari isn't like that of the original series. Personally, I don't think I can ever capture the carefree attitude of Akari completely. I can try, but my mind is a cluttered place that's constantly turning, compared to her who's more spontaneous.
Anyway, I felt like I crossed her with Alicia's personality a bit. Hope people won't really mind though.
The idea first came about reading the second volume of AQUA, page 31, the leftmost panel. The look of immense concentration on her face, and the way she held her oar... It looked like she was preparing to engage in a battle. And I thought, a girl using oars as a weapon would be interesting to write, especially with her personality.
The second thought that came to mind was, what if Sasuke and Naruto had a teacher like that? Would they have turned out differently, especially Sasuke?
And that idea lead to brainstorming, which lead to this story. Unfortunately, I don't see any continuation in the near future, but if any of you have suggestions about how I can carry on with this, I'd be really interested in hearing them!
Hope you enjoyed this piece!