Her parents stay home so the family can strategize.
A war meeting, like those of their ancestors.
She tells them of the paradox that is Naruto, and they tell her that there’s a gag order which prevents them from ferreting out the reason behind the universal hatred of the village.
She tells them about the white masks. Her father frowns and smooths a hand across her bruised arm. “That’s the way of ninja, my girl. Spying even on their weakest and gentlest.”
“Should we continue to associate with the boy? We risk our acceptance in the village, or deportation if the village council believe that we are a threat to him.” Her mother argues.
“But if Mayu-chan reneges on her promise, Hokage-sama could take the rejection as an insult to his hospitality and have us deported anyway.” Her father counters. “Or...”
He tries to make a discreet slicing motion across his neck. It’d work better if he didn’t do the noise too. Okaa-sama covers her face with her hands and lets out a little sob.
“I want to feed him.”
Her parents turn to her.
She fidgets. “Otou-sama, Okaa-sama, he’s—he’s hungry. And alone. He doesn’t know that he needs vitamins to grow up strong, or that he’ll get sick from rotten food, or that too many sweet or greasy foods are bad for him. No one was feeding him. Letting that continue...it’s dishonorable. If—if it would ease things for Otou-sama and Okaa-sama, we could act like I was being bad by doing this? So you could tell everyone that you didn’t support my behavior while I did it, so the council and the Hokage-sama couldn’t deport us?”
She squirms as they stare down at her.
Then squeaks as both envelop her in a fierce hug.
“When did my little girl get so grown up?” Her mother asks, sounding choked up.
“We’re not doing it.” Her father says before she can reply. “Our family stays together, damn what the tree-huggers may think. Even if we have enemies on all sides, the Ketsugi clan will weather any blows. Invite the boy round here for meals—he could likely use the company.”
It’s not that simple, of course.
Naruto freezes up when her mother arrives with her to invite him for breakfast. He won’t stop pinching himself once they insist he stay for lunch and to play in the afternoon. He starts crying outright once they suggest he sleepover on the spare futon after Ichiraku’s (which was delicious and she had to stop herself from whining at Teuchi-sama for the recipe).
He’s not the problem in this equation.
Everyone else is.
The masks appear just as they’re getting ready for bed, and insist Naruto has to go back to his apartment, no matter how much he pleads or her father cajoles or her mother negotiates.
They tell him it’s “not healthy to spend so much time with foreigners to the village”.
Her parents go red at that, arguing that they’ve worked hard for the good of Konoha since they arrived, that Mayu-chan has never known any other home, she’s practically a native.
They still take Naruto away.
People begin to whisper openly about “iron-hearted immigrants jeopardizing village safety”.
She delivers Naruto his food, but there’s a masked person outside the door who goes through her cooking, destroying the now-almost-triangular onigiri, saying she could’ve poisoned it, like that wouldn’t ruin the meal.
It takes all of her willpower not to kick the stupid mask in her stupid shin.
The dark-haired police knock on their door several times throughout the week to query numerous complaints called in about them.
A man spits on her mother at work, and her coworkers just pretend nothing’s happened.
Her father comes home with a black eye that he laughs off, but he makes her wear different, nondescript clothes when she delivers Naruto’s dinner.
Another mask inspects that too.
The next day, someone’s daubed “GO BACK TO IRON” on their house.
Or they’ve tried to at any rate.
She’s woken early by an indignant shriek of rage.
There’s a black streak covering her window.
When she pushes it up and sticks her head out, she sees Naruto dumping the contents of a black can of paint over a woman’s head, red in the face and yelling incoherently.
The woman staggers, shrieking and spluttering and trying to pull off the paint can where it’s become wedged over her ears.
There’s a man who grabs Naruto’s collar and shakes him until he goes limp, snarling about monsters and demons and ungratefulness.
He’s right under her window.
She lands on him like a sack of bricks.
They end up in front of the Hokage again, this time covered in paint.
She doesn’t know where Otou-sama and Okaa-sama are. There’s masks everywhere.
The Hokage sighs. “So all this fuss is over a few meals and a sleepover?”
“Yes, Hokage-sama.” She says, bowing deeply, channelling as much of Nico Robin as she can into her movements and speech. “My family and I are very sorry if we have broken any rules of the village. We didn’t know, and...I thought Naruto would like to eat with us, and maybe stay over. Because food tastes better when you share it together.”
“Yeah, they were just being nice, believe it!” Naruto yells, fists clenched, hair splotched black.
The Hokage rubs the space between his eyes, and looks very tired. “I appreciate your intentions, Mayu-kun. However, as Naruto-kun’s apartment is paid for by the village, he needs to spend more time there than he can at his friends’ houses. Otherwise we would worry he’d been kidnapped.”
“I understand, Hokage-sama.” She says, not understanding in the slightest. Surely adult supervision was better for that rather than staying in a state-subsidized apartment alone?
From the way Naruto’s mouth twists unhappily, he doesn’t get it either.
The old man takes a deep inhale on his pipe, blowing out an impressive cloud. “Well, how about a compromise?”
And so it is decided that Naruto may eat with the Ketsugi family twice a day if he so chooses, and sleep over once a month.
These visits are non-obligatory for him, and there are no dispensations for village holidays.
If her family decides to gift Naruto with necessities outside of food, that is at their discretion. These items must bear the Uzumaki spiral. The presence of the Ketsugi symbol is forbidden.
Mayu can deliver him meals, and they can play together during the day, but he has to go home by sundown every evening and eat one meal on his own.
If not, the masks and the police will come and get him again.
It’s not perfect.
It’s not even that good, which her parents agree after hugging her so tightly that paint smears on their pajamas as well when they’re finally allowed to see her.
But if it makes Naruto smile so widely that his eyes go all squinty and hold her hand all the way back, then she’ll make do.
Even if they do have to help scrub the graffiti off of her house.
The next week, a letter arrives to say that she will be attending the Village Academy.
She does not want to attend the Academy. It’s ninja school and she doesn’t want to be a ninja.
“But why do you want to be a pirate?” Her mother asks, despairing.
“Because they’re free.” She answers. “They’re the freest people in the world.”
“So are bandits.” Her father replies, wiping miso off Naruto’s chin. “But sleeping in the dirt and being attacked by ninja and samurai isn’t much fun, is it?”
Naruto laughs as she pouts. “It’s okay, Mayu-chan! Bein’ a ninja will be WAY better than a dumb ol’ pirate, believe it!”
She tries to kick him under the table and misses. “Better a pirate with comrades and treasure than a lonely old hokage with paperwork.”
He lets out a cry and is off a mile a minute, jabbering that hokages aren’t lonely, everyone’s their comrade, and when he becomes hokage he’ll set any dumb paperwork on fire, believe it!
She hates the Academy even more once they arrive.
There’s dozens of children there, all squabbling, laughing, talking. Yet not a one of them is willing to sit next to Naruto. When he tries to make friends, they push and scramble to get away like he’s somehow diseased.
She squeezes his hand, but he still looks crushed.
She doesn’t get it. In the anime stills of her last life he was always smiling, always happy. Luffy had Ace and Sabo, Shanks and Makino, Garp and Dandan at least. How could this boy have nobody and still be made to smile?
The teacher’s even worse.
The woman goes around the room and has people introduce themselves, but skips over Naruto. He doesn’t get the handout she passes out. It’s like she’s pretending he doesn't exist.
So she gives her handout to him, and relays his questions when the teacher ignores his raised hand.
She’s not the one who wants to be a ninja, after all.
She and Naruto go to the teacher’s lounge when lunch rolls around.
A man with a scar across his nose answers the door, and lets them in to reheat their thermoses of broth in an old microwave. He’s awkward, but at least he tries to be nice to Naruto.
They get back to the classroom, and she watches, worrying her lower lip, as he pours the boiling liquid over the tofu, seaweed, green onions and pre-cooked noodles.
“How is it?” She bursts out when he takes the first bite. “I know it’s not going to be as good as Ichiraku’s, but did I get the seasoning right? Are the noodles okay?”
He slurps, and chews contemplatively.
She leans forward.
He opens his mouth—
And promptly shoves another serving of noodles and toppings into it, grinning at her indignant shriek.
“I’m never cooking for you again.” She grumps as he laughs at her. They both know that’s a lie.
The Academy gets better and worse.
On the “better” side, their classmates begin approaching Naruto more, seeing him interact and eat with her.
He doesn’t become Mr. Popular overnight, but they’ll ask him if he has an extra pencil, tell him to be quiet if he’s getting overexcited without cowering. Some even say “hello” to him.
Guess it’s hard to see a boy who whines for a solid forty-five minutes about how he needed her pudding cup to survive afternoon classes after eating his own as a demon.
The goofy victory dance he does when she gives in is also helps.
In his defense the Academy is making them do long division and fractions in afternoon classes. In a world without calculators, so everything must be done by hand.
It’s hard for her and she’s done this shit once already. For Naruto, who she suspects has some form of dyslexia more and more with each passing day...well, he deserves the pudding cup.
The first to approach is a brown-haired boy with red markings on his cheeks called “Kiba”.
He comes up to them in the schoolyard and sniffs Naruto. “You smell more like a dumb fox than a demon. I bet you’re really weak.”
Naruto bristles like a cat, fists clenching. She grabs one of them. The teachers actively look for any opportunity to punish him, and she isn’t going to let them have the satisfaction.
“Why don’t you and your dumb nose go away then?” She snaps.
The boy snarls and his teeth look like they’ve been sharpened. “Nobody was talking to you, dead fish eyes!”
“Hey!” Naruto yells, lunging for the boy, “Don’t call Mayu-chan that!”
“Try to stop me!” He jeers, looking far happier than he has any right to when Naruto jumps on him for the insult and the two begin wrestling in the dirt despite her attempts to separate them.
Somehow this leads to Kiba eating bits of their lunches, alternating between joking around with Naruto and pulling pranks on him. It’s a weird frenemy thing she’s not sure how to dissect.
Next there’s a sweet, rotund boy named “Chouji”, who must come from a family of cooks.
His lunchboxes are tiered masterpieces that make her green with envy— perfectly cooked rice making up expertly formed onigiri and sushi, braised pork, duck and beef that’s so tender it practically falls apart at the slightest brush, fruit and vegetables cut into intricate shapes.
He tentatively approaches them to ask about the french onion soup that Naruto’s eyeing dubiously, perplexed by the bread and cheese in place of noodles.
“Is it just onions, or are there other vegetables?” He asks in a break in her cajoling.
“Ah, it’s a mixture of white onions, shallots, and leeks.” She says, pleasantly surprised. “It’s not traditional, but I figured the more variety the better, right?”
The boy nods solemnly. “Could I try some?”
“Sure!” She passes over her own untouched bowl. He picks up some onions and cheese with his chopsticks and bites into it.
He puts the chopsticks down. She worries her lower lip. Did he not like it?
“Ketsugi-chan. If I trade you my cutlets, can I have this?”
She blinks and begins grinning like a loon. Naruto begins whining about how he wants a cutlet too.
So she gains a friend who she can trade cooking tips and tricks with. It’s surprisingly nice.
On the “worse” side of Academy life, people being less scared of Naruto means bullies begin to try their luck.
They’re just overconfident brats, playing at having a semblance of “power” by picking on adult-sanctioned targets.
Their little quibbles have nothing on the abuses adults have heaped on both Naruto and her. Unsurprisingly, her family is now quasi-reviled in the village even with the Hokage’s sanction of their friendship with Naruto and they get charged more for goods and paid less for their services. Even the shopkeeps who used to coo when she was younger watch her warily now.
It’s easier to ruin a reputation than it is to repair it after all. But she digresses.
It’s standard bullying fare, almost cliche in its predictability. Verbal taunting in the hallway and bathrooms, their stuff going missing, framings for petty thefts, sharp or messy substances in their seats, attacks that don’t go in their favor.
One did attempt to ruin their food once.
They don’t try that anymore.
The teachers still refuse to acknowledge Naruto. It’s getting a bit ridiculous.
At this point he could dance naked on the tables and if the other students kept quiet about it the teacher would probably do her best to pretend it wasn’t happening.
She should probably learn the woman’s name at some point. Otou-sama and Okaa-sama get bemused looks whenever she just refers to her as “the teacher”.
She’ll do so when the teacher stops glaring at her for conveying Naruto’s input.
The white masks have begun watching her more often.
It feels like there’s one in every tree she looks at, silent and waiting for the excuse to hurt.
Nobody else ever seems to see them as frequently she does, not even Naruto who has a literal cohort of masks shadowing him at all times.
Some of them large enough to be adults, others...worryingly small.
She tries her best not to look.
They’re walking home one Friday when they meet one of the other “main characters”.
She’s grumbling because she got into an argument with the teacher over the story of Usagi-hime. Apparently a tyrant on the level of the World Government is a “benevolent goddess” here.
Naruto just snickers when she makes wordless growls as she mimes choking their teacher.
His head snaps up at the sound of ugly laughter.
He frowns and tugs her to follow him off the path towards the sound of taunting.
There are three girls holding a fourth with pink hair and an red ribbon down, while a fifth laughs.
The fifth girl holds up a round object. “That forehead is so monstrously huge, I bet we could fry an egg on it, couldn’t we? Teach you to play ninja, hiding behind Yamanaka-chan!”
“Hey!” Yells Naruto. “Stop being mean to her!”
“Stop playing with food.” She adds. “It’s a waste.”
The fifth girl sneers, trying to hide a flinch at that word. “Oh yeah? And what are you going to do about it? You’re just a moronic demon and an iron-hearted slant!”
“Well.” She says. “At least the egg didn’t break.”
Her knuckles are scraped and stinging and one of her teeth feels wobbly. Naruto’s got a rapidly healing black eye. The pink-haired girl who seems to be universally hated has a bloody nose.
She inspects the egg, sniffs it. It seems to be perfectly fresh. But what to do with it?
Rice omelet, scotch egg, boiled egg in ramen, spaghetti carbonara, meringue—
The hated girl sniffles, trembling. Naruto frowns at her distress, then turns puppy-eyes on her.
No. Nope, nope, nope. Naruto’s enough. She’s already befriended the main character when she was supposed to just feed him. She can’t be more involved in this dumb story than this—
The pink haired girl’s stomach growls.
“Hey.” She holds the egg up. “Wanna bake a cake with this?”
Mixing the batter and the buttercream makes her scrapes sting and crack, and she scowls furiously when they bleed and she has to stop what she’s doing to go wash her hands again.
Naruto’s eager to pick up where she leaves off, whisking so fast he almost spatters both mixtures all over the countertop in spite of her protests.
Thank god Pinky has the good sense to keep her eyes on the jam, carefully mixing in the sugar so it doesn’t burn.
The cakes come out slightly lopsided, but they’re cooked through, so she tries to cut them more evenly. Then she slathers buttercream on one, the set raspberry jam on the other, and presses them together, covering the top in the last of the buttercream.
It’s not the best Victoria Sponge she’s ever made, but Naruto and Pinky seem to like it.
They send Pinky home with half the cake and the rest of the jam. She made it, after all.
Okaa-sama declares that she’ll be making their lunches until her hands are healed at dinner, partly as a punishment for fighting. Her knuckles keep bleeding too much for her to safely prepare food anyway.
She frowns at her hands. They’re her tools. She can’t let this happen again
“Otou-sama.” She asks, while her mother tells Naruto to sit up straight and keep his elbows tucked in. “Do you know anybody who can teach me to fight with just my feet?”
Her father tilts his head to the side, contemplating.
“I’ll ask around at work and see.” He says.
Monday morning, she and Naruto (who said he wanted in on training) are at a training ground at 5AM.
It’s early even by the standards of their old food delivery system.
Her father had seemed weirdly excited the night before and told her that it was a matter of clan honor to make a good impression on her new teacher.
There’s a faint yell echoing in the morning mist.
A man in green spandex bursts out of the undergrowth, executing a series of flawless backflips to land in front of them in the center of the training field.
“GOOOD MORNING BLOSSOMING YOUTHS!!” He shoots them a thumbs up and the rising sun glints off his teeth. “I am Konoha’s Beautiful Green Beast, MAITO GAI!! It is my HONOR to train you into blossoming in THE SPRINGTIME OF YOUR YOUTH!!”
She gets the feeling she’s going to regret this.
She regrets this so much. So, so much.
Naruto groans beside her, face down on the desk. “‘M not doing this anymore, believe it.”
She limply aims a swat at him. “You’re not allowed to abandon me. Jumping ship is bad.”
“M not a pirate.” He grumbles. “M gonna be Hokage, believe it.”
She’s about to reply that a Hokage shouldn’t abandon his people either, when a bright voice goes, “Wow, you guys look dead!”
She lifts her face from the desk to see the blond girl Chouji hangs out with a lot. She looks far too pleased with her assessment.
“Sakura said you guys helped her out yesterday.” The blond girl continues after a minute of uncomprehending staring. “And Chouji says you cook good food. Wanna eat lunch with us?”
“I can’t feel my legs.” She tells her honestly. Naruto mumbles in agreement.
The blonde girl laughs like she’s told the world’s best joke.
They end up getting scolded for sleeping in class.
When lunch rolls around, her legs tremble when she walks over to where Blondie and Pinky and Chouji are eating. Naruto wobbles into a seat, and nearly falls on top of a sleeping boy.
“You didn’t cook today?” Chouji asks, looking concerned.
She snorts and holds up her scabbed hands. “Unsanitary. Okaa-sama put me on probation until they’re healed. It’s my fault anyway—I shouldn’t have been careless with them.”
“I—I’m sorry, Mayu-san!” Pinky squeaks. “If I’d stood up to Ami...”
Naruto snorts, cheeks slightly red. “That’s not your fault! Those girls were jerks, believe it!”
Blondie nods, throwing an arm around Pinky. “Yeah! We’ll make them regret messing with you!”
She accepts a conciliatory tempura from Chouji, and is struck by a thought. “Ah, what were your names again?”
A disbelieving silence. Blondie wordlessly gestures to herself and Pinky, going red when she nods.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON'T KNOW OUR NAMES, WE'VE BEEN CLASSMATES FOR OVER A YEAR!!”
The sleeping boy snorts when she topples out of her chair at the force of Blondie’s yell, while Naruto groans and munches on an octopus sausage.