Chapter 1

A young woman walked up the unmarked path, her head held high and her hands gripping the straps of her backpack firmly. Today was the day. The day she would leave the small village where she had been born. The village she had grown up in and spent her entire life within. Just knowing that she would be leaving it and everyone she knew filled her with mixed emotions.

This was something she had been longing for since she was a little girl. Since her father had lifted her onto his lap and told her stories of the outside world. She had been fascinated by his tales. She had hoped that one day she would get to travel with him to explore new places and see new people, but fate had other plans.

Finally, she made it to the end of the path. A small clearing on the edge of a cliff that overlooked her village and the vast ocean before her. A strong gust of wind took her by surprise, causing her short auburn hair to fly crazily around her face. Her hand clamped down on the top of her head, holding the wide brimmed hat in place so it wouldn't fly away.

Once the wind had slowed down, she sighed and walked closer to two large stones, each with a small ceramic dish in front of them. She took off her backpack with a huff and sat down, "You guys chose a real nice spot to be buried."

She reached into her bag, pulling out two necklaces decorated with small shells and hung them over the top of the unmarked gravestones. Then she took out an orange and began to peel it.

"I shouldn't complain though. This will be my last time visiting you guys."

The earth she sat on was between the two graves. To her left the earth looked undisturbed, grass and a few stray flowers blooming over the slightly raised earth. To her right the soil was barren and upturned. A sobering reminder of what had happened only a handful of days ago.

Freeing the first slice of orange from its peel she turned to her right and placed the slice in the offering dish. "Here mom, yours first." Then with the second she turned to the left, "And for you dad."

While she worked to finish peeling the rest of the orange she spoke, "The oranges have been really good this year. And, I wanted to share one last one with you guys before I left." Slipping a slice into her mouth she closed her eyes and sighed, letting the sweet citrus envelope her senses for a moment. She continued speaking, eating the orange between phrases.

"Remember that trip I told you about mom? Well, I'm going, and I don't think I'll come back. Not for a long time anyway. I want you to know that I don't blame you for anything, really. Even if it was hard, I learned a lot because of it. Nothing that happened was your fault and I'm happy to have gotten the time with you that I did."

Her throat tightened. She cleared her throat, blinking the tears away. She thought she was past the water works.

She lifted her head and forced a smile, "It's time for me to see if Konoha is as great as dad always said."

~ One Month Later ~

"This is the best! Your ramen always hits the spot, old man!"

Teuchi sighed while his daughter giggled to herself. "Ya know, I'm really not that old, Naruto."

The bowl was slammed on the table as Naruto sighed in satisfaction. He grinned and scratched the back of his head, "Sorry, at this point it's just a habit. Like with Granny Tsunade."

The chef and many others still couldn't make sense of how Naruto got away with calling her that. "We'll see how you like it when you get to be my age and some kid calls you an old man." Teuchi said with a laugh. He raised another bowl in question, "More?"

Naruto's grin broke out into a full smile. "You bet!"

Teuchi laughed as his most loyal customer slurped down the ramen with the same vigor as he always did. "I can always count on you to enjoy my cooking."

"Who wouldn't?" Naruto said through a mouth full of noodles. Swallowing them he cleared his throat, "Your ramen is the best, hands down! That's why I come here every chance I get!"

Ayame hummed to herself, "But, ya know, Naruto, we really haven't seen you much lately."

Naruto's slurping abruptly stopped. He sat the bowl down and scratched the back of his head, "Well, about that…"

"Could it be anything to do with the weird time of day you've decided to visit us?" The chef looked behind the young man to find the outside completely dark. It was just before closing time.

A sly smile crept across Ayame's face. "Think it could be because of all those girls looking for him during the day?"

"Huh?" Her father looked up in thought then slowly began to nod, "That would make sense. Word on the street is that Naruto is Konoha's most eligible bachelor." The man couldn't help but chuckle, poking fun at his customer.

Naruto clutched his head with his hands and groaned. "I don't wanna hear it," he mumbled.

The father daughter duo shared a curious glance with one another. "I would've thought a young man would like the attention." Ayame mused.

While Naruto shook his head, it was true. Naruto had become the center of some undesired attention. He noticed it a little after his fight with Pein. Just a few girls staring at him and blushing. He didn't think anything of it at the time. It wasn't until after the war that things started to heat up.

Once the village was back on its feet for the most part, random women would introduce themselves to him and not leave him alone. At first it was pretty weird, but cool to have some admirers and he would just lump them in with everyone else. After saving the village everyone recognized him and he was greeted with smiles and waves almost everywhere he went. That alone took him a long time to fathom. After years of being shunned by these people they so easily accepted him. He had the acceptance he craved for so long, and more. His jubilation at the new acceptance was seen by all and he was thankful to have his new normal.

While the change in attitude was more than he had ever dreamed it came at a cost he never thought possible. It all started to make sense when Tsunade told him about a sudden string of marriage proposals from Clan Heads and other wealthy individuals wanting him to marry their daughters. Each one going on about how their own daughter would produce the most powerful offspring for their future Hokage. Some speaking of the political gain that would occur from some of those marriages.

There were times he thought he could hear Jiraiya from beyond the grave telling him how proud he was that he had all these women wanting to be with him. But, none of them wanted to be with him for anything other than status. It was all fake and disingenuous. And that put a sour taste in his mouth.

Even after refusing every offer given to him, some of those women still sought him out. Cornering him and asking him for dates, trying to press themselves against him and just hounding him at all times of the day. There were times it was a complete breach of privacy and he was convinced some of them were insane. Some of them reminded him of how Sakura and Ino were with Sasuke when they were all younger. It sent a weird chill up his spin thinking about it. Now that he was in Sasuke's shoes he no longer envied the guy. He didn't need women fighting over him. Sometimes he couldn't wait to get out of the village for a mission just so he could escape it all.

Unfortunately, the ramen shop was a place everyone knew he frequented. So, if he wanted to avoid the awkward encounters he had to go late at night like this or watch his surroundings during the day. At first it was manageable and he would talk to them and even buy them a meal on occasion as a group to show his good faith. It had been months by this point, and he was beginning to become burnt out from the lack of genuine emotion from those encounters. Even Kiba had started to tease him about how he avoided it.

Finally, he looked up at the two of them, "How can I be interested in any of them when they don't even know me?"

Silence fell over them and Naruto began to eat again, finishing the bowl as Teuchi spoke again. "What about that Hyuga girl? Hinata, wasn't it?"

Naruto wiped his face and reached for his wallet. He looked into the eyes of the cute frog pouch as he opened it and reached inside. He shrugged, "Well, she would be better than all the others if I had to choose, but she's like a sister to me." He placed enough for the meal on the table plus a tip and stood up, "Thanks for the meal, I'll try to come by a little more often!"

He flashed his brilliant smile and waved before beginning to head home. It was late enough at night that there weren't many people out and about and he enjoyed the cool night breeze as he walked through the streets. While he loved to spend time with his friends it was nice to have a little alone time to recharge. During the day, if he wasn't on a mission, he would be training or helping out with odds and ends around the village. He was nearly constantly around the hustle and bustle of people to the point he forgot what silence felt like sometimes.

Teuchi's words echoed in his head, 'Hinata, wasn't it?'

Naruto shook his head to clear the thought. He had enough guilt when it came to Hinata. In truth, he really did view her as a sister. She was always there for him and he did genuinely love and care for her, but not in the way she wanted. After her confession in front of Pein he had been stunned into silence. He had felt obligated to try and reciprocate her feelings when the war ended but it felt wrong. Like he was ruining something precious. Naruto couldn't bring himself to put up with that charade and let her go. They were on speaking terms now, but he couldn't bring himself to look her in the eye.

He supposed if he was in a relationship then maybe all the flirting and borderline harassment would stop. But, he couldn't even picture himself in a relationship. Romance had never been his strong suit and as an adult he still had trouble navigating the complexities of those kinds of relationships. It seemed so easy when he was little.

Now, he realized just how hard it was. To find someone compatible and who genuinely cared about him. Someone who didn't put on a false face and who accepted him as a person and not some status symbol.

He had to laugh at that. Maybe he would be like Kakashi Sensei? A single man, dedicated to his work and to the village.

Or, maybe he just had to wait for the right girl to come along.

As he rounded a corner he stopped. A street lamp illuminated just enough for him to make out what appeared to be a woman laying on the ground, her arm reaching down inside of a sewer grate. From where he stood he could hear her muttering under her breath and clicking her tongue. While he couldn't make out the words, he could tell it was meant to be soothing.

Curiosity drove him closer until he crouched down only a few feet away from her, "What are you doing?"

The woman shrieked and bolted upright, falling onto her butt as she came to realize that there was suddenly a man crouched down right beside her. "Do you always sneak up on people like that?" She demanded with a huff and narrowed eyes.

"No?" He answered with uncertainty. He didn't think he had been sneaking around at least. He took a moment to note her appearance. She was wearing a dark purple yukata that was void of designs or flare and her hair was pulled into a neat bun on the top of her head. As the light above them flickered he noticed her hair was a dark auburn. In the dark he could have mistaken it for brown, yet it shined red in the light. It was her eyes that captured his attention. Like two drops of warm honey looking back at him.

Seeing his headband she sighed, "I'm not sure if I'll ever get used to ninjas and their stealthy ways." She got back onto all fours and looked down into the grate again, lips set in a frown.

"What's wrong?"

"Don't you hear it?" She asked him, genuinely surprised. "There's a kitten down there and I've been trying to reach him."

He blinked, scooting closer until he too could hear the small cries. "Oh man, how'd he get down there?"

"Well, I'm no scientist but I would assume he fell." She took her hand and reached it through the grate to emphasize the gaping opening any small animal could fall down.

Naruto was taken off guard by the sarcastic remark. Other than his close friends no one talked to him like that. It was endless praise or respect from everyone else and he wasn't sure how to counter such a snarky comment from this stranger.

After a moment she realized he was staring at her and she realized her comment had been taken the wrong way. She rushed to try and correct it, "God, I'm sorry, I'm just a little stressed cause I've been trying to get him out for close to twenty minutes now. He's scared and if I could get him to come just a little closer I could get him out. Do you think you could help me? Your arms gotta be longer than mine, right?"

"Yeah, I can help ya." Naruto smiled then and laughed, "This is the easiest mission I've had in a while."

She returned his smile and watched as he got down and reached through the grate. Sure enough, he felt the small ball of fuzz and grabbed it by the scruff of the neck, easily lifting it out and into the open. It was a small kitten, fuzzy and gray with white paws in the front.

As he lifted it the woman gasped and her face broke out into a smile. She reached for the crying ball of fuzz and held it to her chest in an attempt to warm it up. As if sensing this, the shivering kitten quieted and snuggled up to the welcoming warmth. She turned her smile toward him, "Thank you so much. I hate to think what would've happened if you hadn't come along."

Naruto grinned and scratched the back of his neck, "Don't mention it. I'm just happy I happened to be walking by."

He watched as she stood and he quickly followed her lead. Once she was done repositioning the kitten in her arms she sighed in satisfaction, "So, who do I have to thank for saving this little guy?"

Wait, did she not know his name? Maybe he was starting to get a little full of himself because he thought everyone knew him. "Naruto." He waited to see if there was any recognition in her eyes at all but he saw none.

She paused, as if waiting for him to continue. When he didn't she reached out her hand, "Well, Naruto, I'm Eimi. Nice to meet you."

He reached out to shake her hand and he noticed immediately how soft it was. No calluses or roughness at all. It wasn't the hand of a shinobi. "Yeah, nice to meet you too, Eimi." He said with a grin.

Eimi nodded and gave a small wave, "I should be on my way. I'll have to take care of this little guy before I can go to bed. Thanks again, Naruto."

Once again, she had taken him by surprise. She didn't seem to know who he was, and even after hearing his name she didn't change how she acted. She didn't try to butter him up or shower him with praise. As strange as it was to think, she treated him like a normal person. No special treatment.

It took him a second to realize she was walking away, "Hey!"

Eimi stopped and turned around, eyeing him strangely. "Yes?"

"Um, do you want me to walk you home?" He asked awkwardly. He hadn't meant to call out to her and panicked when she turned around to face him.

Eyeing him again, she shook her head and gave him a reassuring smile, "No, I'll be fine. I don't live too far from here. But, maybe I'll see you around."

Naruto was left standing there for several minutes as she walked out of view. He wasn't sure how to feel. It wasn't everyday that he came across someone who had no idea who he was. Someone that treated him as if he was normal.

"Yeah, see you around."

And, for the first time in a long time, he hoped he would.

This is my first time writing a Naruto/OC story, so please be kind to me, lol. I usually write Kakashi/OC so this is a little out of my wheelhouse. Hope you liked it and I'll see you guys around for another chapter! I'm working on multiple stories, if you let me know you like it I generally get more motivated and update faster. Not uncommon for a fanfiction writer like myself, haha.

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Posted - 6/7/2022