Disclaimer: Naruto is a Shonen Jump publication written by Masashi Kishimoto. I am neither Shonen Jump nor Masashi Kishimoto. If that doesn't say it all, I pity you for your lack of perceptive prowess, and strongly advise that you not pursue the way of the ninja.


- Chapter Twenty-Two -
"Over a Tray of Strawberry Cupcakes"


It was some time later, as the sun sank low in the sky, that Naruto realized he had neglected to eat anything for dinner. In fact, he had neglected to do much of anything at all. The hour-and-a-half spanning the gulf between that moment and the end of Naruto's meeting with Kakashi and the Third Hokage had been filled by a lot of thinking, staring at the framed picture of his parents, more thinking, more staring, and yet more thinking. It wasn't until a low, growling vibration in the pit of his own stomach shook him from his meditations that he lifted himself from his bed and, with one last, longing look at the smiling faces of the loving parents he'd never had a chance to know, Naruto fished a small home-made storage scroll from his supply pack and sealed the framed photo away.

He dearly wished he could put it at his bedside, along with his team photo, but the Hokage had impressed on him before he'd left that the picture would have to remain carefully hidden—even now, nearly thirteen years after the man's death, there would undoubtedly be those who sought some form of retribution against the man who had almost single-handedly ended the Third Shinobi World War. This storage scroll was slightly special: only Naruto's personal chakra could open it. That was one basic advantage of making one's own storage seals; buying pre-made storage scrolls was infinitely pricier and lacked the advantage of personalization. Naruto's storage scrolls weren't quite as good as he would like just yet—he could store, maybe, fifteen or sixteen kunai knives in a single small-sized scroll—but Kakashi had said that for a self-taught fuinjutsu enthusiast who'd been at it for less than half a year, it was remarkable progress. The books on fuinjutsu that Iruka had loaned him during his final year at the Academy hadn't actually outlined the specifics of how to make such storage scrolls... he had more or less worked them out himself. It was a fact he was rather proud of.

But there was some food for thought: was his skill with seals a case of natural genius, a holdover of his Uzumaki lineage? The idea seemed ludicrous to him—fuinjutsu wasn't some kind of kekkei genkai bloodline inheritance like the Sharingan or Byakugan, it was all theory and calligraphy and so on and so forth. Sealmasters were made, not born... right?

Without really thinking about it, Naruto flicked a finger over to one of the other storage seals on this same scroll, placed that finger onto it, and in a small poof of smoke, another scroll materialized—ironically, larger than the scroll in which it was contained. Fuinjutsu was awesome like that. Unraveling this scroll, Naruto skimmed over its contents, and thought back to the day when he'd first decided to take up this particular shinobi discipline.

The scroll detailed a complex sealing technique called Fuja Hoin, the "Evil-Sealing Method." He had nagged Kakashi for days in the hope that he could learn this technique, and Kakashi, while reluctant at first to dispense instruction on such high-level fuinjutsu to one so young, had eventually relented in the face of Naruto's logic: knowing a way to counter curse-techniques that the enemy might place on one's comrades might never come into play at any point, but on the off-chance that such a situation did arise, Naruto knew himself to be both competent enough in the sealing arts and possessed of sufficient chakra to make use of this peculiar brand of First Aid. It was a role that only Naruto was presently equipped to play; by allowing Naruto to practice this seal, Kakashi would be giving his team one of the tools they'd need to work on covering all of the bases, rather than simply most of them.

Naruto had to wonder whether or not Kakashi suspected the boy's ulterior motive for pursuing this technique... he'd been hesitant to ask at all in the first place, because he'd thought it might be obvious what he was really after. Mastering the basics of the Evil-Sealing Method, after all, was the most likely first step on the road to finding a way to counter the Hyuga Clan's inhumane juinjutsu...

...which burned Naruto the hell up whenever he thought about the specifics of it; best not to go there.

Naruto knew that the Evil-Sealing Method by itself would prove no match for the curse seal that adorned Hinata's forehead, and that he would likely need Jonin-level Archive clearance before he could study fuinjutsu theory thoroughly enough to create a variation of the technique tailored to that particular brand. He also knew that even if he could create such a counter-seal, the mere existence of a technique custom-made to render the Hyuga curse-seal inoperable would open a whole other can of worms that Naruto hadn't the foggiest clue how to deal with... but knowing how to plan ahead, that was another thing Naruto prided himself on. He would figure something out, one way or another. Perhaps some way to use the technique on Hinata, and Hinata alone, without letting the Hyuga in on the who and how behind it all... if it meant his Hina-chan could make her own fate without the interference of those infernal stick-in-the-shit Main Branch goonies, anything was worth it. But all the same: the less severe the backlash that the village had to endure because of it, the better.

And now he was off on another mental tangent. Spectacular. Naruto rolled the Fuja Hoin scroll back up and stowed it in its storage seal once more. He'd practiced the calligraphy and committed the seal and all nineteen hand-signs to perfect memory already. The trouble with learning this technique was that there was no way to really practice it. He supposed if one of his teammates ever got cursed by something, he'd just have to do the best he could and pray to whatever deity might be listening that he didn't fudge it up.

Stop spacing out. Stand up. Put the storage scroll back in its pocket. And cook. Yourself. Some dinner. You moron.

In response to his own internal urging, Naruto felt himself (in an oddly distant sort of way) stand up, put the storage scroll back in the supply pack on his bedside table, and stroll out of his bedroom toward the kitchen. He was halfway through the doorway when three knocks at the apartment's front door startled him out of auto-pilot.

Turning 'round on one heel, he strode the three paces between kitchen and locked door, peeked through the peek-hole, smiled, and unlocked his apartment door.

"Good evening, Naruto-kun!" said Hanare, smiling brightly and lifting the covered tray in her arms for his examination. "I come bearing cupcakes! I hope you like strawberry."

"Either you can read minds from half a mile away, or you have stupidly lucky timing," Naruto chuckled, ushering the woman into his apartment. "I haven't even eaten dinner yet. I was just thinking about how famished I am."

"'Stupidly lucky timing,' then," admitted Hanare as she made her way to the kitchen table and set the small tray of cupcakes down. "Although I wasn't nearly that far away... I've actually rented an apartment on the first floor of this very building. Room eight, in fact."

"Of all the places you could've chosen to live, you picked this one?" sighed Naruto with an incredulous shake of his head. "This is one step short of the dingiest place in the village—the only reason I live here is 'cause the landlord was the only one who was willing to let me rent a place... I found out a couple weeks ago that he came to the village two years after the Nine-Tails attacked, so he's probably also the only landlord in the village who doesn't hate my guts. You can do better than this place."

"I could if I wanted to," Hanare said with an uncaring half-shrug of her shoulders. She pulled up a chair and collapsed into it, lightly rubbing at the bridge of her nose. "But you're one of the only people I really trust right now, Naruto-kun. And I know you're nearly as short on friends as I am..."

Naruto heaved a disgruntled sigh as he retrieved a pair of glasses from the cabinet above the sink and a carton of milk from his undersized refrigerator. "Yeah," was all he said, then he poured two glasses of milk and returned the carton to its home. Putting one glass in front of Hanare, which she thanked him for, he sat down opposite her and lifted the tray's cover, snatched up a strawberry cupcake, and nibbled at it absently. After a moment he blinked a few times, glanced at the confection appreciatively, and said, "This is one of the best things I've ever eaten. Where'd you learn to bake like this?"

"I'm nothing special. Kunoichi tend to learn how to do just about everything women are stereotypically expected to do," Hanare said modestly. "That's not even limited to spies. I imagine the girls in your Ninja Academy were required to attend kunoichi-only classes, yes?"

"Yeah, I remember some of them bitching about how flower-arranging was like algebra: totally useless in the real world," said Naruto. "Coincidentally, I was reading up on the language of flowers at the time."

Hanare raised an eyebrow.

"Someone made a joke about cactus flowers, and I wanted to know what the fuck they meant," Naruto said flatly.


Naruto shrugged. "Knowing random, seemingly useless things can be handy at times. At least I know enough about flowers not to screw the pooch on my first date by giving the girl an impression I don't actually mean... or giving her father an impression he might kill me for." Then, with a mischievous smirk: "It was also a fun way to mess with Ino. She still has no idea who put that electric bouquet on her desk that day—confronted all the girls about it, but I guess it never occurred to her that the red-haired 'flake' could possibly have enough culture to declare 'Vengeance!' with flowers and a sealing tag." He popped the rest of the cupcake whole into his mouth, chewed it, swallowed it. After a sip of milk to wash it down, he added: "She was more concerned about frizzy hair than the fact that she'd been electrocuted and possibly needed medical attention. I still can't decide if that's funny or sad."

Hanare bit her bottom lip to stifle a laugh. "'Vengeance' for what, exactly?" she asked. At the same time, she skimmed through the many memories she had acquired when she'd read Naruto's mind the previous week. If it was significant to him, she probably already knew it...

"Ino Yamanaka was one of the many, many insane fangirls that pestered Sasuke at the Academy," Naruto said, helping himself to a second cupcake. Hanare nodded, knowing of the fangirl epidemic that Naruto had often worked to shield his friend from, as much to pester the fangirls as to lessen the daily annoyances that Sasuke would have to deal with. "I also had a slight crush on her for a while, but what I was really getting revenge for was the time she bashed me on the head and yanked me out of my chair so that she could sit next to Sasuke. I didn't have the chance to retaliate at the time because, as luck would have it, Iruka-sensei walked in two seconds later and he hadn't really started paying attention to me yet at the time, so when I tried to get his attention so I could complain, he just flat-out ignored me. I got Ino back in the sparring ring a couple of times, but I wanted to test out my first custom piece of fuinjutsu on someone and thought it'd be funny to pull it on Ino."

Having found the memories that Naruto spoke of, Hanare gradually shook harder and harder with giggles, one of her eyes weaving signs almost automatically as she did—and looking inward, upon a slightly hazy flashback involving an irate blond-haired fangirl, what essentially amounted to a bouquet-shaped hand-buzzer, and the five-way catfight that had ensued. Collecting herself and clearing her throat, she cut off the Ocular Mind-Reading technique and picked up a cupcake of her own, taking a sizable bite out of it and swallowing hastily to still the laughter. The image of a certain pinkette responding to the name "Billboard Brow" with a full-on headbutt and a flurry of fingernail swipes was not an easy one to dispel from the mind.

Naruto shrugged. "Hey, it got a few of them to take their training a little more seriously. For all the wrong reasons, mind, but a competent ninja is a competent ninja no matter the motive behind it, no?"

"So it's all in the name of saving lives, is that it, Naruto-kun?" Hanare asked coyly. Naruto nodded seriously and took another bite of his strawberry cupcake.

"Absolutely. That extra two minutes of daily training will save their lives and their virtue one day, I guaran-fucking-tee it. Well, it'll save their lives, at least. I have slightly less faith in Kyoko-san's virtue. She was already almost as trashy as Anko at the age of eleven, which is both impressive and slightly disturbing."

Conversation lapsed into a comfortable silence as the two finished their latest cupcakes, and then Naruto, casually, said, "So, uh, Hanare. I hear I have you to thank for the Hokage finally telling me who my parents are."

Hanare smiled sheepishly. "Yes, I'm sorry about that. It just kind of... slipped out."

"I'm not sorry," said Naruto, looking up at the ceiling thoughtfully as he spoke. "I learned a lot... and I'll be learning one of my dad's techniques tomorrow, too. I wonder what it'll be like... it'll probably crazy-hard to master..."

Hanare watched him carefully, and saw it—only for an instant, a hint of wistfulness to his smile.

"Naruto-kun," she said, "do you... want to talk about it?"

Naruto's smile faded, and he opened his mouth to say no, but then closed it again. He didn't say anything for a few more seconds, then suddenly blurted out, "I'm not sure whether or not I really forgive sensei for leaving me alone all this time."

Hanare had been afraid of that. When Kakashi had told her earlier of how the talk had gone, he'd been clearly, visibly relieved that Naruto wasn't holding the man's negligence against him. She waited in silence for Naruto to elaborate.

When he did, he looked Hanare square in the eye, his expression one of confusion.

"I mean that literally," he said. "I don't know whether or not I really forgive him. It's like, one side of my brain knows it's pointless to hold a grudge, but another part of me can't let go of the bitterness. When I think about how much easier it would have been if I'd had some kind of older-brother figure to... to talk to when I was feeling down, or... I mean, Sasuke's always been kind of like a brother to me, but not in the way I mean. Someone who could... I dunno..."

"Be an example?" Hanare suggested. Naruto tilted his head slightly to one side, pondered this, and nodded.

"Yeah, that's one thing I'm thinking," he said. Then, frowning: "Like Itachi was to Sasuke, I guess... that kind of big brother."

Hanare smiled a soft, knowing smile—for she knew him better than perhaps even his closest friends, having relived most of his life several times in her head over the past few days.

"Kakashi knows that," she said. "He knows he failed you that way, and he regrets it almost as much as the first time he failed to care for his precious people."

Naruto blinked. "The first time?"

"It's not my place to say," Hanare replied. "Maybe someday he'll open up to you as well. Have you ever asked him how he got his Sharingan?"

"He wouldn't say."

Hanare sighed. "Maybe someday he'll tell you. Just try to understand how he feels now—he's made mistakes, terrible mistakes, and he blames himself for each of them. It would kill him inside if you blamed him, too..."

"I won't blame him," Naruto said quickly, fiercely—almost as if it were an order, rather than a statement. "It's just that part of me really wants to, even if I don't agree with it. I... know how to keep that part of me quiet, though. It won't be a problem."

"I'm glad..."

Silence followed, as Naruto seemed to be working up the courage to say something more. Then, in almost a single breath:

"There's something else that's really bugging me, though." He took a deep breath, and added, calmly: "Something that happened before I spoke with Kakashi-sensei and Hokage-sama."

Naruto was now so obviously unsure of himself that Hanare wasn't able to respond right away. All of the boy's previous composure seemed to vanish or evaporate, his eyes glancing to the left and the right. One arm rubbed briefly at the opposite forearm in a classic show of anxiety.

"What is it, Naruto-kun...?"

"I was practicing chakra-enhanced hearing earlier," he said, his voice barely above a mumble. "You know, the art of increasing the sensitivity of your ears by channeling chakra into your eardrums. I still can't do it at the same time as my nose, but it shouldn't take too long to get to the point where I can. Sensei thinks that my chakra pool is deep enough that I could keep both up non-stop even in most combat situations, since it doesn't take a whole lot of chakra. It's good for tracking and recon, and even better for not being blindsided like that time I almost got killed by a crazy-woman."

Naruto abruptly stopped rambling about the advantages of superhuman senses, and then said steadily:

"A few times I overheard people who passed me by say kinda nasty things about me. I was ready for that. Or I thought I was. Then I overheard this guy talking to his girlfriend about how the Nine-Tails destroyed his uncle's shop when it attacked. He was one of the ones who upped the prices on anything I would buy in his store..."

Hanare's mouth had become a thin, grim line; beneath the table, her fingernails dug slightly into the palm of her hands, and she forced herself to open her fists before she had a chance to draw blood.

"I was ready for that," Naruto went on. "I was past caring about that. But then his girlfriend said something I wasn't ready for."

"What did she say?"

"That maybe—" his voice faltered for a moment, "—I'm not the same as the Nine-Tails. That I've never caused trouble for anyone. She talked about the rumors that I'd stopped an Academy teacher who'd turned traitor from stealing an important scroll, and the rumor that I'd... heh..." A slight hint of apologetic humor crossed his face. "...That'd I'd helped 'take down a spy from a foreign village.'"

"But... Naruto-kun, that's good, isn't it?" Hanare said, baldly and for all the world utterly nonplussed by Naruto's confused tone. Naruto kept speaking as if he hadn't heard her.

"Then," he said, "her boyfriend asked her if she was taking my side over hers, and she said maybe she was, and he stormed off and she stormed off and I thought I was past caring!"

It was a sharp, sudden rise in volume. Naruto forced his eyes shut, and took several calming breaths. Hanare gaped at him, uncomprehending.

"I don't understand..."

"I thought I was past caring what the villagers think," Naruto muttered bitterly, snatching up another cupcake—this, he shoved unceremoniously into his mouth, roughly wiping the icing off his lips with a single swipe of his thumb. Swallowing roughly after minimal chewing, he gulped down a mouthful of milk and went on: "They've never done anything for me. Whether they acknowledge me or not, it doesn't change who I am. I had a good friend, or brother, or sparring buddy, or whatever Sasuke happened to be at the time, and that was enough. I could focus on just taking pride in my own hard work, on being a true shinobi. Then Hina-chan came along—"

Naruto stopped, took another calming breath, and set his glass down.

"Then Hina-chan came along, and of all the guys she could have been crushing on, she'd picked me. Me. The 'flaky-looking girly-man' with the weird whisker birthmarks. Do you have any idea what I felt when I realized she'd been stalking me instead of Sasuke? It was like..." Naruto trailed off, eyebrows crunching up a bit as he considered an appropriate metaphor. "...like I'd been wandering a tundra and just happened to stumble over a random space-heater that someone'd left lieing around for no good reason. It was warm, it was random, it was breath of fresh air and it was almost like I hadn't realized I was about to freeze to death until I noticed how comfortable the hot air felt. This is kind of like that."

"Isn't that a good thing?" Hanare asked, and Naruto ground his teeth together slightly.

"...Yes. No. It's awesome, and it's annoying. I shouldn't care. I shouldn't need to know that someone out there gives a shit about the demon brat everyone hates so much. But someone does, and I do care. I thought I was past that, but I guess I was just fooling myself."

"Naruto-kun, you've been hated by the village for most of your life," Hanare said, raising her hands in a placating gesture. "Of course you're going to feel something when they start to see the real you—"

"I shouldn't have to be some kind of hero just so a few random pedestrians might take a few seconds to think about whether I deserve it before they throw stones at me, Hanare."

And there it was, right out there in the open. His voice was low and even as he said it, the moment it came out he grimaced as if embarrassed with himself. He clicked his tongue, took another sip of milk, and stared at the refrigerator for a bit. It might have occurred to him, if he'd had a chance to look on himself from an outside perspective at that moment, that his expression was most appropriate for one Sasuke Uchiha: the cool, broody kind of look that the prodigy always wore while staring at absolutely nothing at all.

For Hanare's part, she could now completely comprehend the reason for Naruto's bitterness.

"You're happy that someone's starting to see you for you," she murmured, "and angry at yourself because you can't let go of how much it took to make them look past the demon you contain."

"Yeah," said Naruto flatly. "...Yeah, I think that's more or less it..."

"Naruto-kun, I can't say I know what that feels like, but you have to let it go..."

"I'm not sure how I'm supposed to do that."

"I can't tell you how to come to terms with your own heart."

"I know, I know," said Naruto with a wave of his hand that said, 'tis nothing, 'tis nothing. And it was gone, the bitter self-reprimanding unease, filed away in that locked cabinet at the back of his mind and replaced by Naruto's customary good humor. "Thanks for listening, though, Hanare. I think I just needed to let that air itself out a little to really get a handle on what's eating me."

Hanare smiled, plucked one last strawberry cupcake off the tray, and said, "It's nothing. I mean, what're friends for? Decoration?"

"I see what you did there," said Naruto flatly, snatching up a cupcake of his own with a mockingly irate swipe of one arm. "But seriously, thanks. I feel better now, I think."

Hanare took a small bite out of her final cupcake, swallowed, and smiled a sisterly smile at the red-haired boy across from her. "You don't need to be afraid to tell me these things, you know. I'll always be willing to listen, if you need advice or an ear for your troubles."

Naruto's face twitched momentarily into an expression Hanare had no time to register or recognize, then it was merely appreciative.

"I'll keep that in mind, Hanare," he said sincerely.

When Hanare returned to her own apartment shortly after that, when the door had closed behind her, Naruto just stood in front of it, staring at it but not really paying attention to it at all, trying to comprehend the familiar feeling of comfort and warmth that had overtaken him just then. It was a feeling he remembered from before, one he associated mostly with Ayame Ichiraku and, to a somewhat lesser extent, with Anko Mitarashi. He hadn't given it much thought before now, but it was...

It's nice, this feeling. Like, I dunno... maybe this is what it feels like to have a big sister looking out for you, or something?

Naruto decided not to overthink it, and to just savor the feeling. And savor it is what he did—right on into his sleep, and an unusually comfortable sleep it was. Somehow his cheap, springy mattress just felt softer than usual that night, and his blanket might have been swapped out with an electric one while he wasn't looking...

It felt soft, warm, and safe. Naruto knew enough about ninja life by now to know better than to look that particular gift horse in the mouth.


Author's Note: Naruto's Rasengan training begins next chapter, and within the next two or three, the Whirlpool Arc will kick off, marking the beginning of the first major story arc in this timeline. It will be a largely original arc with entirely original villains. Won't say any more here... except that the changes in the timeline during this arc will pretty much define the entire series from this book on.

I'm looking forward to this next arc; I've been planning it for a while, and I'm anxious to get a move on. I probably won't touch either of my other two stories until I've finished it.