Hello All! To let you all know, To Really Know Someone is still being worked on, and an update is coming soon, but…this was a story that just wouldn't leave me alone, so I had to start on it. I've already got several chapters of it written, and I will post them within a reasonable time frame. I'm honestly not sure where the idea for this one came from, but as far as I know, it's an original idea in the world of Naruto fandom, so please enjoy: this is Naruto/Tsubaki (one of the two mothers that was glad Naruto didn't graduate at the beginning of the manga/anime).
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto!
Chapter 1: The First Few Glances – What's Really There? (Part 1)
Naruto Uzumaki was sitting by himself on his usual swing in the Academy playground, staring down sadly. Heartbroken and frustrated at yet his third failed attempt to complete the Genin Graduation Exam, the blonde whisker-faced youth didn't have the energy or the enthusiasm to do anything else.
'Why? Why does that one jutsu trip me up every time?' he asked himself in his frustration. As he sat there sadly, he couldn't help but overhear the conversations that the other kids in his class were having with their parents and families.
"Ha ha…passed it with flying colors."
"They called me first."
"I'm a genin!"
"I wish your grandma were here to see this. I'm proud of you son, we all are."
"Congratulations! I'm going to cook all your favorites tonight. We'll have a feast!"
This only served to remind Naruto of just how lonely he was. There was no family there to comfort him or let him know that everything would be OK. What made him even sadder was that even if he had passed, there would be nobody there to congratulate him, either. It was with these thoughts in mind that a particular conversation found its way into Naruto's ears.
"There, do you see him?" asked a feminine voice that was laced with a spiteful edge.
"It's that boy. I hear he's the only one who failed," another female voice responded, this one with not as sharp an edge, but rather laced with what seemed to be nervous fascination. Naruto now knew that they were talking about him. He raised his glance to see who they were.
"Hmph! Well, it serves him right," the spiteful woman responded back. Naruto noticed that this woman had the darker hair of the two, and had what appeared to be some kind of shawl wrapped around her forehead. She, like her companion, was dressed in the garb of a typical housewife: simple utilitarian dress with a shirt on underneath it. The scowl on her face gave one the impression that it was the usual expression she wore.
The other woman responded, "Just imagine if he became a ninja…I mean, he's the boy who-"
"Shhh!" the spiteful woman interrupted quickly, "We're not allowed to talk about that!"
'What are they talking about? What did I do? Why do people keep staring and glaring at me like that?' he thought to himself at what he overheard, his frustration now giving way to hurt and anger at the unfairness of it all. He picked his gaze up and looked directly at the two women who were quietly deriding him, making direct eye-contact with one of them.
He noticed that this woman was the prettier of the two. It was clear that she was a civilian, but given her slender build, one couldn't help but wonder if she might have at one time been a kunoichi. Her hair was brown also, but of a lighter shade than her companion's, and her head was unadorned. She wore a scowl that was similar to the spiteful woman's scowl, but wasn't quite so pronounced. Unlike the other woman, the nervous woman's scowl looked like it didn't belong there. As he continued looking right at her, he noticed a change in her posture and expression when they made eye-contact…
Tsubaki Kenpi kept her piece at her friend Ibara's sharp reminder about the law regarding that boy. She knew what he was. She knew what he carried inside him, and she, like so many others, was content to act as though he didn't exist. Every time she saw that boy in the village, she was reminded of that horrible night: the night that she, like so many others, had lost so many loved ones to the Nine-Tailed Fox's horrific attack. She had married young, as many kunoichi were wont to do. At the tender age of thirteen, her husband, who had been five years older than her, was a newly-promoted Jounin on the night the Nine-Tailed Fox had attacked.
The attack left her husband dead, and her alone to raise her two-month-old daughter Kasumi by herself. She had just made chunin at that time after four years in the Shinobi program; she had been a member of the last class to graduate early due to war. She'd had to retire so that she could raise her child, and her life had not been easy. Fortunately for her, when Sarutobi retook the mantle of Hokage, he had set up a fund for those who had been orphaned or widowed and made into single parents as a result of the catastrophe that struck the village.
Tsubaki knew Ibara had it just as bad, but Ibara had become much more embittered about how her life had turned out since that night. Ibara had never been particularly compassionate anyway, having been a bit of a bully during her Academy years – a path that her daughter, Ami, seemed to follow her in. As much as it saddened Tsubaki, she knew that Ibara would likely never change…and probably didn't want to.
She, on the other hand, had always wanted to be a medical field ninja, as she preferred helping people to hurting them. She remembered reading about the legendary Lady Tsunade's illustrious career as a genius medic and ninja during her time in the Academy, but what had intrigued her the most was Tsunade's proposal during the Second Great Shinobi War to institute a medical ninja in every squad. Tsubaki, herself, thought that this was an ingenious idea, and she never really understood why the idea was never adopted. If it had been, who knows how many lives could have been saved on the night of the Nine-Tails' attack.
It was shortly after this last thought that she noticed Naruto looking right at her. Her first impulse was to glare at him, but after a moment of looking directly into his eyes, she saw something she'd never seen before. Those blue eyes were so full of…sadness…pain…loneliness, to the point of almost complete isolation. Then she saw even more: frustration and anger that stemmed from the sadness, pain and loneliness that he felt. She'd seen those things in her own eyes so many times when she looked into a mirror. It was terrible to feel those things; it was even worse to recognize them when you looked into your own eyes…it made you wonder what others saw when they really looked at you. She always felt exposed when she saw those things in herself…but this was different.
She never saw those feelings to such an immense degree in her own eyes. Her face morphed into a confused, saddened frown, before settling into an ashamed one. She averted her eyes from the boy, unable to continue meeting his gaze anymore before she decided to look around for her own daughter. When Kasumi had come up to her, she gave her a phony smile and congratulated her, Kasumi being none the wiser as to what was really going on in her mother's heart and mind. Ibara had done the same with Ami when she had approached, although her smile and praise seemed more genuine than Tsubaki's had been. They all walked away to celebrate their daughters' accomplishment, but Tsubaki sent one last look Naruto's way, making eye-contact briefly once more, seeing something different this time: confusion and recognition? She quickly put it aside as she saw Mizuki-sensei making his way to Naruto, intent on talking to him about something…
Naruto became confused as the woman's face seemed to change. It started with a glare, but then turned into a frown…she became confused…then sad…then she seemed to avert her gaze.
'Is she ashamed? And of what? She can't be ashamed of what she just said about me, can she? Nobody's ever been ashamed of that…' he thought to himself in genuine confusion, trying to solve the puzzle just presented before him.
'She's probably just ashamed of acknowledging my existence. The rest of the village would rather I wasn't around, so that's got to be it…' he thought bitterly, believing he had solved his mystery.
Some prompting within him, however, told him to continue watching this woman…he didn't know what it was, and looking back, he could only chalk it up to her abnormal reaction to making eye-contact with him – when most made eye-contact with him, they usually glared icily, or angrily, but never guiltily. What made this woman so different?
Naruto watched with confused interest as one of his classmates, Kasumi, made her way to the woman, telling her "mom" how she graduated and how well she did on the Genin exam. She was with her friend Ami, who made her way to the spiteful woman and had the same conversation with her.
'So that's where Ami gets it, huh?' Naruto thought rhetorically. Returning his attention to Kasumi and her mother, Naruto just continued watching. Mom's smile and praise of her daughter seemed forced…as though her guilt was really bothering her. Naruto couldn't wrap his head around it – why would that be?
As they left the grounds, Mom glanced back Naruto's way once more. Naruto's interest gave way to recognition. He could see it in her eyes – she knew how he felt, and it was that realization that made her feel ashamed. He was still a bit confused: after all, how many others looked him in the eye and didn't care? How many others reacted the same way Ami's mother did, believing that it served him right to fail and be alone?
His attention was diverted by his silver-haired chunin instructor's voice calling his name…
It was a fact that word spread quickly throughout the Hidden Leaf Village about…well, anything of interest to anybody. It became widely-known throughout adult circles that Naruto had been tricked by Mizuki that night into stealing the Forbidden Scroll of Sealing. If some rumors were to be believed, he had learned an A-Rank Forbidden Kinjutsu from the scroll before being caught…and eventually used it to save Iruka-sensei's life.
As a result, he had been allowed to graduate…and for some reason, this had made Tsubaki smile. It made her smile even further when she heard that he was on the first Genin squad that Kakashi Hatake, of all people, had passed and taken on. It was as though Kami herself was giving the boy a break, as well as some vindication, from the labels and the treatment that people had given him…people like herself. Shame and guilt would come anew when she remembered how she used to treat him. She just couldn't get those haunted, lonely eyes out her mind.
As it was right now, she was going to and fro within the village, running errands here and there. Kasumi hadn't passed her Jounin sensei's test, and was now currently repeating her final year at the Academy with her best friend Ami. Since Sasuke Uchiha had graduated, Kasumi no longer seemed as focused as she was before…as though her reason for being there was now gone. Tsubaki feared for her daughter, and for Ami. She knew all too well that fangirls usually didn't last long as kunoichi; time and time again, she had seen or heard tale of fangirls being captured, abused, raped and killed…all the while, expecting and praying that their "knight in shining armor" would come and rescue them. She certainly didn't want Kasumi or Ami to end up like that. She only hoped that she and Ibara could talk their daughters out of this phase they were going through before it was too late.
Right now, the chances of that happening looked pretty bleak, mostly because Ibara and Ami weren't really on good talking terms since she failed her Genin test. Kasumi usually went in whatever direction Ami went. Ami just had that kind of presence – if she could focus her efforts and attentions constructively towards becoming a true kunoichi, she would likely do very well, becoming Chunin quickly. Ami could lead people, of that there was little doubt; it was just that she usually led them in bullying others.
There he was again…that boy, Naruto. She just watched as he and his two teammates suffered through a D-Rank mission: walking the Inuzuka Dogs. It would seem that whenever Naruto got involved in something, he jumped in with both feet. He was walking four dogs at once…all of which were as big as him or bigger. Now that she thought about it, any time she had seen him around in the month since he graduated, he always seemed to work that hard. He would use shadow clones to help with clean-up work, he would pull a greater load in each mission than the other two, he would also work with more enthusiasm and energy. It was as though he had something to prove…
She gasped at that, 'Is this what we've driven him to? Does he work so hard to prove himself, just so we'll acknowledge his existence?'
It was with that question in mind that she began looking around, seeing if anyone was paying him any mind or attention. She saw that they were paying him more attention than they were his teammates, but it was the kind of attention that they were paying him that struck her. People were looking at him with cold, icy glares, the occasional exception being a hate-filled, scornful glare from someone who felt more strongly towards him than most.
'This just feels so wrong…he's just a kid. He doesn't deserve this – he's never done anything to hurt any of these people…' this thought led to another guilt-filled realization, '…and not too long ago, I was no different. How would I feel in his shoes, with everyone in the village glaring at me like that day in and day out? How can he stand it?'
She took a few moments to observe him a little more closely. She saw his posture and the look in his eyes, even through the goofy grin followed by the occasional teeth-gritting grunt as he was walking several very strong dogs. She could see that Naruto was aware of every glare and every ill intention being sent his way. And yet…he wasn't reacting. Curious as to why this was, she continued to observe and watch him.
At that moment, Naruto's gaze caught her own once more. That same flicker of recognition was there in his eyes. He remembered her. She almost averted her gaze as she felt her guilt and shame rising to the surface once more, but she squelched it, and offered him a weak smile and a small nod instead. Naruto frowned in what seemed to be confusion at this before being taken off his feet by his current mission and dragged through the streets, both his teammates yelling at him all the while…
'I wonder why she smiled at me this time…' Naruto mused to himself after the dogs he was walking had finally stopped dragging him. Sakura had already bonked him on the head for being his typical knuckleheaded self and making their mission take longer, while Sasuke just smirked and gave him the typical barbs: loser, dead-last, idiot. Thinking about her smile, which he found to be quite becoming, now that he thought about it, brought a genuine smile to his face. It wasn't often that he received smiles from the villagers, and he found the experience to be quite…pleasant, to say the least.
Upon hearing his teammates calling his name, he pasted his phony grin back on his face before turning his attention to them and running in their direction so that they could get paid…
Tsubaki had heard the most astonishing rumor, and was dying to verify the truth of it. That Naruto boy was involved in the defeat of an A-Rank rogue ninja, and one of the Seven Ninja Swordsmen to boot? Apparently, he played a pretty major role in it, too! As she talked with people and listened in on others, there was one thing that she noticed, and she was noticing it more and more these days: whenever there was a rumor of Naruto doing something good or performing some great deed, the almost-habitual response was disbelief. It was annoying her to no end; these people couldn't claim to know Naruto any better than she did! But here they were, jumping to the conclusion that Naruto couldn't have had anything to do with performing a service for the village – it was always about how he was a loser, or no good, or whatever the current nonsense happened to be.
When Tsubaki had gotten home from running her day-to-day errands, she sat down in her living room and thought to herself, 'Is that how I used to be? Was I that bad? Did I talk about him the same way? I don't remember saying too much about him, and I used to avoid talking about him or thinking about him, but…when I did, was I saying the kinds of things that these people are saying, now?'
As she pondered this, she found she didn't like the idea of having been that judgmental. Any time she saw him out and about now, she would offer a smile to him…and that simple gesture seemed to make his day. While grateful that she could be of such help to him, the wrongness of the whole situation bothered her – if a warm, friendly smile did that much for him…she was reminded of the hard truth that he didn't get that many friendly smiles, and from what she could see, he was a very friendly young man. She would see him spending time with the Honorable Grandson and his two friends, and even giving them some training in the form of "playing ninja". She had a few chances to listen to some of the advice that Naruto offered them from time to time, and was rather astounded at how wise his advice was.
The villagers were wrong about him! She had been wrong about him, and it was time that she did her part to try to put things right, or to at least clear up the labels and misconceptions that he had been unfairly given. She would make it a point from here on to either avoid such conversation, or in situations where it was unavoidable, to attempt to correct such errant viewpoints where she could…
'This kid's amazing! Time and time again, he seems to pull major upsets and accomplish the impossible!' Tsubaki thought to herself as she just heard the latest: Naruto, the major underdog in the Chunin Exam preliminaries, had defeated his opponent Kiba Inuzuka. It would seem that Naruto always would be the Number One Unpredictable Ninja in the Hidden Leaf Village, whether for good or ill, whether because of his ability to pull off the most insane pranks imaginable or to make seemingly-impossible situations reality! It was with this in mind that her eye caught the boy once more, eating lunch at Ichiraku's ramen stand, and he was with someone.
'Wait a minute…isn't that Master Jiraiya, the Toad Sage? I wonder what Naruto's doing with him…' she mused, intrigued by what she saw.
Apparently, the two of them were just finishing lunch as she saw them paying their bill.
"Alright, kid. Back to it!" she heard Jiraiya exclaim with gusto.
Naruto groaned in response, muttering something about lazy perverts being no help in training at all. It then occurred to Tsubaki – Jiraiya was training Naruto. This brought an astonished, yet grateful smile to her lips. It was great for Naruto that someone finally seemed to be taking a positive proactive interest in him, and it was even better that the interested party was none other than Master Jiraiya, arguably the strongest Hidden Leaf ninja alive! As she walked off, she once again made eye contact with Naruto…and once again, there was that flicker of recognition in his eyes, but this time a small smile followed.
She smiled back, and this time offered him a shy wave with the fingers of her right hand. Naruto's smile widened as he waved back before leaving to catch up with Jiraiya…
Tsubaki and Ibara were sitting together at the Chunin Exam Finals. Things had become a bit tense between the two of them in the past few months, over a couple of sensitive topics: their daughters' lack of proper preparation for the shinobi world, and Naruto Uzumaki. It was Naruto that was the focus of their thoughts right now, as they were both watching him fight Neji Hyuuga…and he was once again the underdog.
"I still don't get why they let that…punk…graduate and be a Genin!" Ibara said in her usual spiteful tone, this time with a darker, almost hateful edge.
"You know, I really don't get you anymore, Ibara!" Tsubaki exclaimed, her frustration finally reaching its limit, "What do you have against him? He's never done anything to you! He's never done anything hurtful or bad to anyone in this village! The most he's done that might be considered trouble is pull off harmless pranks, and since he's been a ninja, he's done nothing but serve this village! He works harder at his missions than any other Genin I've ever seen! So…answer me: what do you have against him?"
Ibara looked at her friend in shock. Where had this come from? She always agreed with her before about that good-for-nothing punk!
"What do you mean, 'what do I have against him?'? You were there that night. You lost your husband, too!" Ibara responded in indignation, fortunately being drowned out by the noise of the crowd.
"And just how is that Naruto's fault, huh? Did he ask to be born that night? Did he ask to have his…resident…sealed inside of him? Has Naruto ever shown that he's anything like his resident at any time?" Tsubaki asked indignantly, taking care to use certain catchwords to make her point while not breaking the law, "Does Naruto behave like that in any way? Have you ever taken just a few moments to watch him? Or is it just easier for you to blame him for what your life is like right now instead of taking responsibility and moving on?"
Ibara looked stricken at that. Not having an answer, Ibara grew sullen and angry, bringing her attention back to the match. Tsubaki did the same, only to watch as Neji got into stance for his next attack – the Gentle Fist Art: Eight Trigrams, Sixty-Four Palms.
"Hmph! Let's see that punk get himself out of this one…" Ibara said, in her usual spiteful tone as Neji opened up on Naruto, striking him with precision and closing off his tenketsu points, cutting him off from his chakra. Tsubaki gritted her teeth angrily at her friend's unwarranted spite. As Naruto went down, Ibara seemed to smirk in satisfaction, only to grit her teeth as he got up again!
Tsubaki, on the other hand, began to worry for the boy. She breathed a sigh of relief when Naruto got to his feet and showed that he intended to continue fighting. Both she and her companion began to get nervous, however, when Naruto seemed to start drawing on the Nine-Tails' chakra.
'What's going to happen now?' Tsubaki thought worriedly. Ibara simply sat there, glaring at Naruto in fearful anger.
They both continued watching as Naruto maintained control of himself, continuing his fight with Neji, which ultimately ended with both of them knocking each other across the stadium with enough force to make craters in the stadium grounds. As Neji got out of his crater and stumbled over to Naruto, Ibara chuckled darkly, while Tsubaki worried for Naruto while at the same time hoping that Naruto would get back up. After hearing Neji's diatribe about the reality of a failure, and then watching Naruto explode from the ground and connect with a strong uppercut, knocking Neji into the air and backwards about thirty feet, she grinned ecstatically. Somehow, she knew that Naruto would pull off a victory, and she was happy beyond words to be proven right. It was what happened next, however, that would burn itself into her memory forever…and begin to awaken feelings she never thought she would have toward the boy.
Naruto responded to Neji's embittered acknowledgment of his defeat, "For the record, I failed the graduation exam three times…cuz there was this one jutsu…that was always on the exam…and it tripped me up every time. It was the one jutsu…that I just couldn't master."
Tsubaki was listening intently, hanging on every word that came out of his mouth. She didn't know why, but for some reason, she had to know what he would say.
Naruto continued, "My clones were pathetic…that's right, I flunked the Shadow Clone Jutsu every time. So don't come whining to me with this destiny stuff…and stop trying to tell me you can't change what you are. You can do it, too, cuz after all, unlike me, you're not a failure."
The proctor called the match, declaring Naruto the winner. The crowd erupted in applause, giving Naruto the standing ovation he greatly deserved. Tsubaki, one of the very first to stand, began to cry, overwhelmed with admiration towards Naruto, and still feeling a bit ashamed of herself at how she once agreed with Ibara about him.
She clapped fervently, grinning widely, and lost in her own thoughts, 'Naruto…how could I have been so blind? How could I have looked down my nose at someone who has such incredible strength of character? Who are you, Naruto Uzumaki? I don't know…but I mean to find out.'
With this, she resolved to seek him out after the Chunin Exams were over. She still didn't know why, nor did she even know what she would say to him once she found him, but for some reason, she felt compelled to seek him out. She found herself evaluating the fight between Naruto and Neji, and what struck her the most were the differences between their characters, perspectives and viewpoints.
Neji had been callous, cruel and arrogant, looking down his nose at Naruto, never bothering to even call him by his name, instead using names such as "loser", "failure", "worthless", and "impudent little brat". What made it worse was that Neji's arrogance had drawn the rest of the audience in, as well. Naruto had been completely written off as the loser of the fight by this crowd, simply because Neji's overconfidence had drawn the crowd to this conclusion.
Naruto, on the other hand, didn't back down, but never did he respond even in kind to Neji. Even now, when Naruto had more than earned the right to gloat over his clearly defeated opponent, he wasn't doing so! There was no disrespect or condescension in his voice at all; he was a gracious winner, and even went so far as to try to spur Neji on to change and better himself.
Tsubaki looked over at Ibara once more, and her smile dropped at what she saw. Ibara hadn't gotten up with everyone else. She hadn't even applauded Naruto's hard-earned victory, but rather just sat there with her arms folded on front of her and the same ever-present scowl on her face. This time, though, she could see a trace of shame in Ibara's eyes as well. Ibara was looking downward slightly, as though she knew she was wrong to have such hateful anger towards Naruto, but was still unwilling to let it go.
'Maybe it's time that I reevaluate my friendship with Ibara,' Tsubaki thought to herself, disappointed that Ibara could hate someone…a child, no less…that much, especially knowing that she had no right to hate him at all. Again, this was accompanied by her own feelings of guilt, not having realized it sooner, or even paying attention to this aspect of her friend's nature that she now found quite unsettling.
After sitting down, Ibara growled out sullenly, "Why do you like him so much?"
Tsubaki turned to Ibara and responded plainly, "Because I actually dared to look him in the eye…and I saw a hurt, anguished, lonely and confused young boy. I saw the same things in his eyes that I often see in my own eyes every time I look in the mirror, except that they were magnified in his. I know how he feels because of the things that have been done to him, and I'm amazed at how well he stands up under them! Neither of us would have survived in his place, Ibara – Remember that!"
Ibara glared at her friend for a moment longer before once more sullenly looking downward. Both of them sat there in silence throughout the rest of the matches until Sasuke Uchiha's chidori struck Gaara of the Desert through his sand shield, and a genjutsu was cast upon the stadium, causing both of them to fall asleep…
Tsubaki and her daughter Kasumi were both dressed in black, the expected attire for mourning in public at a funeral. Both of them were shedding silent tears…so much damage, so many losses. So much had happened in the Leaf in the three days since the Chunin Exams. The village had been invaded by both the Hidden Sand and the Hidden Sound. The invasion had been repelled, with Naruto himself taking out the most dangerous opponent in a fully-transformed Gaara…by summoning none other than the Chief Toad Gamabunta himself! The cost, however, was high: so many Leaf shinobi were killed in the battle, foremost among the casualties being Third Hokage Hiruzen Sarutobi.
The only event that Tsubaki could even compare it to was the aftermath of the Nine-Tails' Attack, there was that much destruction. The funeral service for all of those shinobi who had fallen during the invasion was in full swing, but Tsubaki was distracted by thoughts of a certain blond boy that she'd caught sight of as he arrived with his teammates and went to the roof of Hokage Tower, where shinobi in the village and the Third's family and friends were mourning in a reserved area. Her heart nearly broke when she saw the state he was in, and she couldn't get that image out of her mind.
This was the first time she'd ever seen him injured, as he had gauze taped to his forehead and both of his cheeks, as well as a few other bandages on his body, but it was his expression that struck her more than anything else. He looked sadder and more heartbroken than she could ever remember seeing him…even when she made eye-contact with him at the Academy. It was a look that she just wanted to take away from him.
It was with these thoughts preoccupying her that she suddenly noticed that the service was over. She saw Naruto with his teammates and sensei leaving the tower together. Tsubaki thought for a moment to approach Naruto as she had resolved to do during the Chunin Exam Finals, but decided not to as she saw him comforting and being comforted by some friends and comrades.
'It wouldn't be appropriate right now. Kasumi needs me more, and his friends need him more as well. I can approach him later,' she thought as she attended to her and her daughter's grief.
After the ceremony had ended, Kasumi had returned home on her own, while Naruto and his team had already left in order to get back to duty. As Team Seven walked away, she saw that Iruka hadn't yet left.
'I have seen Naruto and Iruka together a lot. They're pretty close from what I can gather…maybe Iruka can tell me a little bit about him,' she mused before walking up to Iruka to indulge her curiosity about Naruto.
"Excuse me…Iruka?" she asked in order to garner the Chunin instructor's attention.
He turned his head in her direction, "Tsubaki? Tsubaki Kenpi?" he asked before smiling, "Wow, it's certainly been a while. How are you…all things considered?"
Tsubaki smiled in response, "I'm doing OK. How are you?"
"I'm alright, all in all."
Tsubaki nodded, "That's good to hear. Ermm…listen, I was wondering…how well do you know Naruto Uzumaki?"
Iruka frowned curiously, "Hmm…that's pretty random."
"Well, maybe…but I…well, I was just hoping I could learn a little more about him beyond what most people here in the village have to say."
Iruka's frown went from curious to saddened, "Yeah, it's true that generally people in the village aren't fair to him. But why not just ask him yourself?"
"A couple of reasons: one is that either of us or both of us are too busy for me to be able to approach him and have a conversation of any length with him. But…the truth is that…even if I did have the chance to talk to him…" Tsubaki paused, a dejected frown adorning her own features as she finished, "…I wouldn't even know what to say."
Iruka's curiosity made itself known once more, both across his face and in his voice, "Tsubaki, what prompted you to want to learn more about him? I'm guessing that there's more to this than the Chunin Exams and the invasion…"
Tsubaki told him her story, beginning from when she and Ibara saw him on the swing by himself after he had failed the Academy for the third time, continuing through the other times she had encountered him and seen him, and ending with her decision to seek him out and try to talk to him. Iruka seemed grateful that at least one person had changed their opinion of Naruto without him having to do something to change it. There were those in the village who had never been unfair to Naruto, such as the Ichiraku Family, Hiruzen Sarutobi, Kakashi, and most recently, Jiraiya. Sadly, though, they were very few, and very far between.
Even Iruka had been unfair to him at first, not wanting anything to do with him because, like so many, he was reminded of what happened with his parents on that horrible night some thirteen years ago. He couldn't help but think on how he and Naruto had bonded once he had first seen just how truly lonely and anguished the boy was that night in the cemetery…the words that Naruto had yelled at him sometimes still echoed in his mind…
"I'm not a nuisance…and I'm not some kind of germ! I have a name! My name is Naruto Uzumaki!"
Tsubaki was the first person he had talked to who had changed her opinion of Naruto simply because she saw a lonely human being, not because he did something spectacular, confrontational, or anything like that.
"You know, it's funny…" Iruka began in response to her, "…as close as Naruto and I are now, it took Naruto getting in my face and yelling at me before I saw him as more than a simple reminder of the Nine-Tails. Did you know that I was assigned as a teacher originally by the Third because he wanted someone in Naruto's life that could help him?"
Tsubaki frowned in curious surprise, shaking her head, "No, I didn't know that."
Iruka smiled nostalgically, relaying the tale of how he and Naruto grew close: how at first, he ignored him and acted like he didn't matter, how Kakashi told him that the reason he needed to somehow reach Naruto was because he was the only one who could, the night at the graveyard where Naruto had told him that he was no longer going to attend classes, and how Naruto had gone out on a dare from one of his peers into a combat zone and had almost gotten killed.
"The only reason he accepted that dare was because he was so lonely…and they told him they'd be his friends if he did it. It's amazing how you saw it and he didn't even need to say anything to you…" he finished as he turned his gaze back towards her, intent on telling Tsubaki what she wanted to know, "…he's lonely, still. I only wish I had more time to give to him, now. I love him like a little brother…" he smiled at the thought before continuing, "…Naruto's a truly unique and amazing person. He never gives up, either on himself, or on anyone else. Once he sets his mind to something, he'll stop at nothing to achieve it…and his goals are so…lofty and noble. Of course, you know that he's determined to one day be Hokage, right?"
"Well, let me tell you…" Iruka continued, "…the more I see him, and the more I watch him grow…I can't help but think that one day he's going to do it."
Tsubaki's eyebrows shot up in surprise upon hearing this.
Iruka pressed on, "The truth is that so many people write him off at best, or outright hate him at worst, but he has this strange…power, for lack of a better word…but it seems to fit because he's the only person I've ever known who's like this: You can't get to truly know Naruto and not eventually come to like or love him; he can become friends with anyone, it doesn't matter who they are, or where they're from. He's also fiercely protective and loyal towards his friends and loved ones."
Iruka turned his gaze in the direction that Naruto had walked off in as he finished, "Tsubaki…if you want to know what to say to him, just…say whatever comes to mind. If you can't think of anything to say, knowing Naruto the way I do and judging from what you've told me, he'll somehow find a way to start a conversation."
Tsubaki pondered his words for a while before nodding, "Iruka, thank you…for your advice. I think I'll do that."
Before long, both of them said their farewells to each other, Iruka leaving to prepare for class the following day, Tsubaki on her way home to begin preparing dinner for herself and her daughter. Thoughts of just what she might say to Naruto once she encountered him racing through her mind…
And that's Chapter 1. As you've likely noticed, I'm trying to write chapters of a more reasonable length as well. Please review. Do you like it so far? Do you think the idea has potential? I'd love to know! So please, please, please review!