17 Dec 2011 No Comments
I wonder in what field today
wanders my little dragonfly chaser.
—haiku by Lady Chiyo, on the death of her only son at age 9
From Chapter 27:
He closed his eyes. The only sound now was of his own blood thrumming in ears. His breathing began to modulate. Then slowly, slowly, the hand knotted in his shirt relaxed its grip.
“Konoha…” his mind whispered. But thankfully no more terrifying images of destruction came rushing forth.
Instead, only the pulsing of blood continued. It pounded softly in his ears, like distant footsteps.
Another picture appeared, carried in on a cloud of swirling, suffocating yellow dust.
A gust of wind ruffled Katsuro’s hair, flicked up the edges of his cloak around where he had fallen asleep on the dark hillside. But he didn’t feel it. He was no longer Katsuro. He was no longer there.
He was in Konoha, back where it all started.
The dust puffed and swirled, and for a moment, everything was lost behind it’s yellow haze. Only the steady thrum remained. Then, slowly, the cloud lifted.
Sun streaked down in front of the old orphanage, warming the dusty sidewalk. Sickly trees sprouted from two large planters, peppering the ground with shade. And it was there, tucked into the angled blue shadow at the base of one of the planters, that a slip of boy crouched excitedly.
He wiped the shaggy blond locks from his eyes and listened hard. The steady pounding grew closer. He grinned.
Even at that distance he could tell the people approaching were ninjas by their distinctive pattern of walk. It wasn’t the hurrying shuffle of villagers, the relentless clopping of the teachers or the jerky patter of the other children. This smooth, uniform gait was always a giveaway. And the boy had studied enough ninjas from the low windows of the orphanage to know the sound of one passing by, even at night.
He leaned his head against the planter, a fat stick clutched to his chest. His trusty kunai. As a spy on a secret mission, he couldn’t be without it. And the rhythmic grind of footsteps was nearly upon him.
Pretending it was of the utmost importance, he took his best guess as to how many were approaching. He curled out three chubby fingers and waited. The sound passed behind him. Slowly, he tipped his head out, watching the road to see if he was right.
Sure enough, three men strode by, real kunai jingling in their pouches. Their laughter was low and masculine, and their whispered voices conveyed all manner of interesting things. He wished he could hear it. Probably about missions, and who’s the strongest, and how many enemies they defeated, and—
“Oi! Sneaking around like that will get you in trouble.”
A fourth shinobi’s face materialized above the planter through a ring of smoke. He was tall and silver haired, and looked mildly irritated. He took one last drag off his cigarette before stamping it out in the planter, eyes never leaving the child’s face.
The boy scrambled to his feet and stared open-mouthed at the shinobi. It was the closest he’d ever been to one.
The shinobi, however, was unimpressed. His eyes flicked from the kid to the small red plaque by the door that read “Children’s Home.” He snorted.
“Take off runt. You’ll get me in trouble if your caught out here.”
But the boy finally found his voice. “No I won’t. Cause they don’t know I’m out here.” His face shone with delight. “I snuck out!”
The shinobi rolled his eyes, glancing around for his companions. He looked again at the door in exasperation. Didn’t they care that a child had escaped?
“Hey, hey are you going on a mission?” The boy looked him up and down, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Have you ever fought anyone? Where are your weapons?” He clutched the stick — his trusty kunai — proudly to his chest. “I’m going to be a ninja too!”
But the shinobi only scoffed distractedly. “Get lost kid. You’ll never be a ninja.” He craned his neck toward the door. Still no one. He’d have to drag the little ankle-biter back inside himself. Then he’d give them a piece of his mind—
“Yeah I am,” the boy kept on, undeterred. “I’ll go to ninja school, then I’ll go on missions, and then—”
The shinobi laughed outright, really looking at the kid for the first time. Just an unkempt scrap of a boy with a mop of dirty-blond hair. “You? At the academy? They don’t let riffraff in there. And you’re nothing special….”
But even as the words left his mouth, his careless expression sharpened. There was something on the boy’s cheeks. Something unmistakeable.
The shinobi leaned down to grab the child’s face. But before he could get him, the boy kicked out as hard as he could. Shooting pain eclipsed everything. The ninja clutched his shin, swearing savagely, while the kid skittered back out of reach.
At a safe distance, the boy watched the shinobi. His face was firm with childish determination, and his hands balled into fists.
It had been the same when some of the older boys picked on him about his “silly dream.” He wanted to be a ninja, more than anything. And he wouldn’t give it up, not even when the kids started to pummel him. He fought back, swinging and kicking. It must have worked too, because now those boys barely looked at him.
And whether it was those stupid boys or even a real, live ninja, he wouldn’t give it up. He’d find a way. Wasn’t that what being a ninja was all about?
The boy harrumphed his determination, tightening the fist around his stick-kunai until his knuckles were white.
“I’m going to be a ninja! And I’ll go to the ninja school! Just you wait!”
Still clutching his leg, the silver-haired shinobi leveled a ferocious look at the kid.
“You little shit,” he growled. “You’re not going to be a ninja.”
Then, before the boy could blink, the shinobi lunged forward and caught his face, squeezing it painfully.
The boy’s blue eyes went wide with shock, then fear. The man was closely inspecting his cheeks. The three lines on each side that were getting darker each year. They marked him as different, and he didn’t know why.
But somehow, this man did.
“I can’t believe it….” He turned the boy’s head from side to side, roughly thumbing the marked skin.
The boy squirmed, trying to free his head from the painful vice-grip. His eyes were watering. He was starting to panic. Desperately he turned his face into the fleshy hand and sank his teeth into anything he could get.
The shinobi yelped and let go in an instant. The boy leapt back, unsure if he could make it to the safety of the fenced in yard or the front doors before the man could—
“You can’t fool me,” the shinobi said, straightening. He rubbed his hand, eyes flashing angrily at the boy. “I know who you are…Na-ru-to.”
Fists still tight, little Naruto watched the man warily. But any thought of running was forgotten. How did he know his name? No one called him by his name…. No one called him by anything….
The shinobi snorted at kid’s stubborn resilience. He half-expected the brat to scamper off when he had the chance. But now, he’d teach him a lesson.
“They’ll never let you near the academy,” the man taunted, eyes narrowing. “Why would they? I know your little secret…. You’re the demon child.”
He rubbed his hand significantly before continuing. “And I am a teacher at the academy. So, I’ll be watching for you. And I will personally make sure you don’t even get near…uh, the school….”
The shinobi’s voice thinned. He wanted to punish the kid, wipe that defiant look off his scruffy little face. But the boy looked up as if he’d spoken another language.
Blinking, Naruto gaped like a fish. His small fists loosened, the will to fight forgotten. He shook his head in utter confusion.
“Wh-What? What do you mean? I don’t understand…. ”
The silver-haired shinobi threw his head back with laughter. “You mean…no one’s told you? What a joke!”
“Told me what?!”
The man leaned closer. His voice was low and poisonous.
“That you’re the container for a demon.” His eyes glinted with wicked delight. “I’ve seen the scroll with my own eyes. That’s why you’re hidden away here.” He waved a hand at the orphanage. “And these people were forced to take you. No one wanted that burden. Who would?”
He glanced back at the kid, slack-faced under the weight of the revelation.
“You’re lucky you’re here, though,” the shinobi continued, rubbing his sore hand and looking the kid up and down. “You ought to be locked in a cell,” he sneered.
The uniform grind of another set of footsteps echoed around the corner. This time, Naruto didn’t hear it.
However the man in front of him did. And as much as he hated kids, he hated getting caught even more. He massaged the sore spot, pissed that this little upstart managed to injure him twice. Demon or not, he’d killed men for less than that.
“You’ll never be a Konoha ninja,” he declared, jabbing a finger into Naruto’s lifeless shoulder, rocking the boy. “Now fuck off.”
The other shinobi jogged up behind him, never hearing the parting shot. He gave the silver-haired man a good-natured shove.
“Leave him alone, Mizuki,” the newcomer said, shooting a squinty smile at the object of Mizuki’s badgering. “Don’t listen to him, kid,” he said, nodding back at his teammate. “You can be whatever you want.”
He gave the kid a quick thumbs up, his broad grin wrinkling the bandage that stretched across his face.
But behind him, Mizuki shook his head ruthlessly.
His companion didn’t notice. “Come on,” he said, tugging Mizuki’s arm. “The others are already there. And if we’re late, the good students will already be assigned….”
The conversation faded away with the thudding of their footsteps. They turned out of the lane, never looking back.
Numbed to his core, Naruto stood frozen on the sidewalk. Blond hair gently ruffled across his forehead.
It couldn’t be true…. Could it?
Just then, a hot wind pushed down the lane, flapping his clothes, rattling the dead leaves at his feet and stirring up clouds of yellow dust from the road. He blinked against it and closed his dry mouth.
Was this why he was here? In an orphanage? No one wanted him because he was…he was…a demon?
He swallowed hard.
An old woman scuttled by, clutching a small package, the breeze blowing at her back. She cut a wary glance at the boy, brought the parcel protectively to her chest and continued briskly down the lane.
He stared into the dull quiet left in the wake of the breeze. He felt…wounded. But he knew he couldn’t be because the ninja had barely touched him.
Slowly he opened his palm, staring at the fat stick clutched there. It was no longer his trusty kunai.
It was as if the shinobi had infected him with these new thoughts. Nothing made sense to him now. He opened his fingers and let the stick clatter to the ground.
Slowly he turned, went up the steps and slipped back through the front door. He didn’t even try to hide the obvious fact that he’d been outside the compound.
And that was when he first noticed it….
The teacher who surely saw him coming through the door, but turned her back, ignoring him instead of punishing him. The darkly suspicious looks of the older boys in the hall, the same ones who had pummeled him, but now avoided him completely. The children scattering into the rooms almost as soon as they caught his eye. Their laughter continued beyond the closed doors, but no one ever stepped out to include him in their play.
It had always been this way, he thought, turning down a long empty hall.
But now, the brutal words of the shinobi came back to him. They were forced to take him. No one wanted him.
No. It couldn’t be true, he thought fiercely. He pushed back the door to the play yard, more determined than ever to rejoin his class.
Yet as the weeks passed, the words haunted him.
He tried harder to play with the children in the dusty yard. But they stayed away from him. He tried to ignore it, sitting silently under the lone tree, picking up one of the toys they’d left behind. He watched them go, knowing that if he followed to join their game of tag they would only decamp to somewhere else. They always did. He looked down at the toys, barely seeing them through his tears.
Some injustices, however, couldn’t be ignored.
The teachers often supplemented their normal rations with some little sweets. Yet no matter how hard he tried, Naruto never seemed to be able to push to the front in time. The bag of candy was forever running out. And hopeful child that he was, he never once thought it was intentional.
This time, at the outer perimeter of the group, watching the waving hands begging to be filled with treats, Naruto forced himself to stay put. If the teacher ever noticed him, he didn’t see it. She swept her eyes over the group then twisted the sack closed and moved on to other lessons, never once looking at the sad blond child in the back. He bit his lip, trying to still his wobbling chin.
A ninja wouldn’t cry, he told himself, dragging his sleeve over face. A ninja wouldn’t care about the teacher, or the other kids…or their stupid candy. And as they went off to play, he sat on the step and buried his head in his arms. If they didn’t want him, then he would just stay away, he muttered to himself despite the hot tears.
But he discovered the more he distanced himself from the teachers, the children, everyone, the more desperate he became for any scrap of attention.
And sometimes he just couldn’t take it anymore.
Like the day when Naruto decided he’d force the kids to accept him, no matter what. He plopped down in the the dust beneath the tree, right in the center of their make-believe world. Some of the kids shifted their things, glancing nervously at him and backing away. Naruto scooted closer, grabbing some of the favorite toys to keep the children from leaving. It didn’t work. Their big eyes met his for only a moment before drifting to the dark lines on his cheeks. Something like fear always twisted their round faces when they looked at those lines, those strange lines, that no one else had. And that decided it. The children abandoned their toys to him.
“Play with me,” he yelled at their retreating backs. But the padding feet never stopped. Their little heads never looked back. Left alone in splotched shade with their playthings, Naruto sobbed quietly.
After that, his blue eyes dulled. No longer did they sparkle with hope, with his irrepressible good nature. No longer did he lift his eyes to the children or the teachers. He couldn’t stand to see their expressions change as their gaze moved, inevitably, to his marked cheeks.
What did they feel? Fear? Hatred? It was like they knew what they ninja had said…that there was something wrong with him. He didn’t want to think about it. He kept his eyes on the floor and told himself it didn’t matter.
He knew it was lie though. And the troubled feelings refused to stay buried.
Waiting in front of the last bed, at the end of the long line of identical beds, Naruto was the last child in a long line of children. They all stood politely, hands extended, waiting for their weekly parcel of laundry and clothes. He slid his gaze down the line, watching the woman drop the neatly folded garments, stopping to chat with each beaming child. Sometimes it was a kind word, sometimes a pat on the head. Even for the boy who hid tacks in everyones shoes. Everyone’s except his, of course.
As she slowly drew closer, he could make out her quiet words of encouragement. But this time for Naruto, the praises kindled a little fire inside. He knew her kindness only went so far.
Holding out his hands dutifully, she dropped the parcel without a word, without even a glance. But instead of staring at the pile of folded whites until his tears blurred everything together, Naruto looked up at her face defiantly.
She stepped away faster than she normally did, as if sensing his eyes boring into her.
“Speak to me,” he demanded.
At this, she slowly lifted her head to meet his gaze. Down the line the children watched in wide-eyed silence.
“Ungrateful thing,” she hissed and fixed him with a devastating frown.
Naruto blinked in confusion. He wasn’t ungrateful. He just wanted…just wanted….
The burn of anger left him. He stared down at his stack of laundry, actually sorry for speaking out. The parcel dissolved beyond his tears. The woman turned and left, her shoes clacking loudly down the length of the room.
After that, Naruto decided it must have been the mean ninja. It all started with him. He snuck out of the orphanage several more times, hoping to catch just a glimpse of the man. Naruto saw himself jabbing the stick-kunai into his chest, demanding to be released from this curse he’d been placed under. But all the times he crouched behind the planter, sat at the edge of the steps, or sprawled out behind the low decorative walls at either side of the entrance, no one ever passed by. He never saw the man again.
And strangely, no one from the orphanage ever bothered him either. At first he thought no one saw him. But one day, lining up sticks in a row, pleased with how many “kunai” he’d managed to forage from under a tree, he realized he’d been out in the open for at least an hour. Maybe two. Surely someone should have noticed him missing. And the front hall was busy enough someone would have seen a kid playing in front of the building, not behind it.
But maybe no one was watching. He reordered the sticks, shortest to longest, mind wandering. Right now, the other kids might be at lunch or doing an activity. He looked at the dark door of the building. Wouldn’t they have seen his empty seat?
Another thought occurred, sinking into him like a stone. Maybe it’s worse…maybe they didn’t care. Maybe they really didn’t want him. Maybe one day they hoped he’d be gone for good.
The words of the shinobi echoed back to him. He was a demon. No one wanted him.
He looked over the line of sticks. It meant nothing to him now. Standing quickly he knocked them into disarray, but it didn’t matter anymore. He felt as worthless as they were. Quietly he slipped back inside and returned to his group.
The children were just gathering for scrolls practice. Naruto folded himself into the back of the line and held out his hand for a scroll. There was still a flutter of hope that his absence was noticed, but the scroll was dropped heavily into his hand without remark.
Without a word, Naruto took his seat at the end of the long table.
The teacher walked around, nodding and checking the progress, listening to recitations and quietly correcting mistakes. She busily attended to the others, her back was always turned to the small blond boy at the far end of the table.
Naruto stared unseeing at the scroll in front of him, little fingers rolling the tubed end back and forth.
What if the teacher knew what the ninja knew. What if everyone else did too. They knew there was something wrong with him. All this time. And he was the only one who didn’t.
The injustice of it burned within him. He wouldn’t accept the words of the ninja. He wasn’t any different. He was just like all the rest. He wanted to scream it at the others, at the teacher. If only she would just turn around…. But she wouldn’t. She’d would not come to his end of the table because she was ignoring him completely.
It was only when she turned, moving back down the line of children and away from him, that Naruto’s anger propelled him to his feet.
A few children glanced over warily. The teacher’s soft voice broke off. Her hand stilled at the scroll on the table. Under her arm, the round, dark eyes of the student she was helping peered back at him. Slowly she straightened, smoothing down the sides of her clothes.
“Return to your studies,” she said in a hard voice. “There is nothing to see.”
Naruto stared at her rigid back, the frustration and fear of the past weeks coalescing to a blaze within him.
“Look at me!” This time there were no tears.
The teacher turned finally, looking severe, ready to lash out at him as she did any insolent child. But her gaze fell on his cheeks. The sharp reprimand died on her tongue. Coldly, she turned away.
Naruto couldn’t take it anymore. With one heaving breath, he crushed his eyes shut and screamed the words that had plagued him.
“I am not a monster!”
There was barely enough time for the gasps to echo around the room before he was rocked by an open-handed slap across the face.
Naruto teetered against the table in absolute shock. And in that moment of blinking uncertainty, when his face stung and his eyes burned and he didn’t know whether he was standing or falling…something crackled to life within him.
Then, everything slowed. The teacher looked directly into his face, mouth opening and closing, but her voice never reached him. The children leaned away, faces wrought with fear. His ears pounded and his gut ached. But the room…the room…. The edges of the room were beginning to bleed. A strange red color seeped across everything, surrounding him. Naruto knew with deep certainty it wanted to drown him. He could feel it’s tug as it slipped over his shoes, pulling him under—
Naruto clutched his head, wishing it would stop…begging it to stop….
“Stop it! Do you hear me?”
Suddenly, the teacher’s shrieking filled the air in front of him. Naruto opened his eyes slowly. Everything was back. Or, he was back. The tide had receded and left him alive. He nearly cried with relief.
But the look on the teacher’s pale face squelched his little flicker of happiness. She was afraid. Terrified.
Naruto rubbed a small hand over the spot on his belly that still hurt. Like he’d been burned there. He didn’t understand. Why was she looking at him? Didn’t it happen to them too?
Without another word, the teacher herded the children out of the room. Naruto was left standing there, alone.
He wasn’t sure what to do. But something in the teacher’s look made him feel that he was not to follow.
Were they afraid of…of…him?
A fierce clack of shoes ricocheted down the hall. Naruto knew the sound: It was the headmistress of the orphanage. He’d only seen her a few times, but it was enough. She was quite stern and seemed to have a special hard spot for him. He nervously squeezed his hands together, hoping the footsteps would turn off.
But it didn’t. The large woman wheeled around the corner, never looking at the boy, snatched up his arm and hauled him back down the hall. He struggled to keep up. Turning corner after corner, passing glossy halls until he was nearly dizzy, Naruto had a good guess where they were going.
“Silent time” was reserved for the older boys, the ones who had been there the longest. They had no hope of leaving, so they filled their days making trouble and pulling pranks. Naruto was once a prime target of their torment, but it stopped suddenly. He suspected it was the “silent time” that did it. They must have learned how to be quiet, although they were just as unmerciful as ever to the other children.
Still, the thought of being punished for something he didn’t do — something that had scared him too — filled his small chest with fear.
The stopped at a narrow door on a hallway he’d never seen. He would have thought he was in another building, if not for the musty closed-in smell that clung to everything in the orphanage.
Letting go of his arm for a moment, the headmistress jostled through her keys. She cut a mean look down at him, threatening him not to run. But Naruto would not run. There was no where to run to….
“Never should have happened” she muttered to herself, throwing back the door. A dank smell rushed out. Peering around her into the narrow room, Naruto saw a single low cot and nothing else. The only light came from a thin window at the top of the wall. And that was covered with a metal grate. Was this where they learned how to be quiet? It looked more like a jail cell to him. He bit his lip nervously.
Shuffling in, the woman propped out the window, shoving an old stick through one of the holes in the grate. She smacked the bed once, sending up dust into the single slant of light, then bustled out.
She gave the boy a shove into the room, and Naruto thought that was to be all. He would just wait here until he was quiet enough, when to his surprise she spoke.
“I don’t know how you found out, but it didn’t come from me,” she whispered harshly, pulling the door closed. “I told him I’d only take you until something more,” she paused, her sharp eyes falling on his cheeks, “suitable could be found. This was never supposed to be your home.” The door shut with a click.
He heard the faint jingle of keys, the receding clack of her shoes, and then there was nothing.
Standing unmoving in the little room, Naruto wished for the second time in his little life that he hadn’t listened, that he hadn’t heard. Because it was the same as what the ninja had said.
They didn’t want him. They never did. There was something wrong with him.
He didn’t know how long he’d stood in the same spot before finally staggering over to the little bed. Falling back, tears welling, he desperately wished it wasn’t true. He wished he could just disappear, like the bed or some other piece of furniture that no one saw. Something that people liked and didn’t have marks on its face. Marks that wouldn’t go away, no matter how hard he scrubbed.
He rubbed his cheeks till they were red. But he knew the lines would still be there. Hopeless and sore, he flopped out his arms. Tears streaked down into his pale yellow hair, but he didn’t try to stop them. What the man said…it must be true….
Later that night, someone left a tray with food. But Naruto was to weary to eat it. He was tired from crying, and the lingering ache at his midsection robbed him of hunger. He watched the window until sleep claimed him. By morning, however, his hunger had returned, and he ate the whole bowl.
The following night, since no one else had ever come, except to slide in meals, he decided this wasn’t the room where you were taught how to be quiet. It was where you went to be quiet. They shut you up in there so you wouldn’t bother anyone.
He flung his arm over his eyes, trying to keep out the awful thought of being cooped up. Locked away, as the ninja had said. He turned on the rough cot, burying himself under the pillow, and cried until he was exhausted.
But the thoughts preyed on him. Even in dreams….
Years later, it would be the heartbeat — the deep, relentless pounding — that he would remember. But at that moment, in the terrifying black expanse of his nightmare, Naruto was more aware of the water lapping over at shoes than anything else. It was so dark in the cavernous room he could barely see it. But he could feel the warmth seeping over his feet.
Where was he? He couldn’t remember anything….yet he knew he shouldn’t be here.
It was only when he sloshed toward the dim light ahead of him that the dreadful noise started. A deep, resonant thudding came from everywhere at once. It reaching into the black heights of the room and thrummed right through him.
In a panic, he ran towards the flickering light. The pounding filled his ears, growing louder with each splashing step. The water grew deeper. By the time he stopped, it pooled at his ankles.
There was no point in going on. At the end of the long hall was a gate. Light bent and jumped off the gold bars.
He sobbed once at the sight of it, utterly defeated. Had they really locked him up?
“Help,” he wailed. “Someone! Anyone! Help me!”
He listened hard, but there was no response. Only the steady thrum in his ears and the slow dripping of water. But beneath that was another sound: a constant, low rattling. Like breathing. He fought the urge to shudder. At his feet the water was growing uncomfortably warm.
Naruto staggered toward the bars, certain now he was behind them. He stopped, looking up at the lock mechanism with despair. It was so high, and he was so, so small.
Naruto peered through the bars into the darkness. Had everyone forgotten about him? Thrown him away? But he had done nothing wrong….
A low growl drowned out the pounding. Terror twisted his gut. He wasn’t alone. He peered over his shoulder into the darkness.
Something was behind him. They’d locked him in here with a monster.
There was another deep growl, then the water surged. Searing heat rushed through the bars, blasting his face. Naruto squinted against it, blocking the scalding air with his hands.
Miraculously, he heard a sound that made his heart leap. The slow whine of a door swinging open filled the space. Someone had found him!
Throwing his arm up against the blinding heat, Naruto slogged wildly toward the bars. Black waves slapped against him, dragging on his legs, trying to pull him down. He pitched forward as hard as he could, but it felt like the water had turned to tar.
Suddenly, the door swung back with a long, slow scrape.
No! It was closing!
Naruto screamed vainly at it to stop, but his voice was drowned out by the relentless pounding that seemed to be everywhere now. It was pulsing through the water, closing in on him. He knew if he didn’t get out now, he was going to be trapped in there with a monster. Locking him away like he was the monster.
No! If they didn’t hear him, then he’d just have to make it out before the door closed!
Eyes crushed shut, Naruto summoned all his strength and threw himself at the gate. The thrumming stopped, and the water released him from its grip. And for a stab of a second, Naruto thought he’d made it through.
But suddenly the door clanged shut. The fall of the lock echoed heavily through the darkness.
Naruto knew before he even connected with the bars that he was too late. He didn’t make it. He was trapped, thrown away, lost…forever.
He crashed into the gate, face, shoulders and chest crumpling against it.
It was cold…and hard…. And flat.
And it really, really hurt.
Slowly, Naruto cracked open his eyes. Grey light filled his vision. He blinked at the blurry image until he realized it was the disorienting angle of where the wall met the floor.
Sucking in a breath, Naruto pushed off the floor in groggy confusion. Sheets tumbled from the bed, tangled around his ankles. He was drenched in sweat.
Beside the door was a tray of food. Curls of steam wound up in the early morning light.
He pulled his feet out and sat on the floor for a moment, just staring.
Was it really just a dream?
He patted down his clothes. There were no traces of anything he’d experienced. His feet and legs were dry, and his arms were surprisingly cool to the touch. It wasn’t real, he thought with no small amount of relief. It couldn’t be.
Cautiously happy, Naruto was just standing to retrieve his food when an ache shot through his gut. He clenched his stomach and hunched over. It was as if he’d been wrung in the middle like an old towel. Slowly, carefully, he straightened. Lifting his shirt, he inspected his pale little belly, but there was nothing there. Not a mark. He let the shirt fall, he couldn’t understand it.
The scent of food wafted in the shifting air, and his stomach suddenly growled. Strangely, that made him feel more like himself again. One thing he did know, he was always hungry.
Moving gingerly, he took up the food and sat back down to eat, doing his best to forget the terrifying dream.
The rest of his time in the room passed uneventfully. He never had another dream, and the most exciting thing to happen was when a nest of baby spiders erupted in the window frame.
He laid in the cot, watching their slow progress, and thought about everything that had happened to him. He thought and thought and thought. When the last spider flew, carried off on one of the little breezes that never quite reached down into the room, Naruto turned on his side. Alone again, he stared at the wall until the light faded.
The next morning, the headmistress brought his bowl and a stern message: He may rejoin his class, but another outburst and she would go to the Hokage himself to find another place for him.
He never lifted his head. He complied without a word. And before he knew it, he was marching back down the halls of the orphanage to the wing that was the only home he’d ever known.
Naruto may have returned to the life he knew before, but he came back a different child. The silence of the room clung to him.
The teachers no longer made any effort to include him or scold him when he didn’t keep up. And for the children, being punished whether he deserved it or not, proved that there was something wrong with the blond boy no one seemed to like. It wasn’t just the whispers of the adults.
Naruto said nothing. He no longer hoped for a scrap of attention. He ate silently, followed the class without participating, accepted his clothing parcels without issue. Before long, the drama and punishment were forgotten. He was forgotten. He floated through his days. He may as well have been a ghost.
In the evenings, Naruto sat in the lone swing under the play-yard tree. Dragging out little arcs in the dust with his feet, he watched as the lights went off one by one in the building. He’d press his forehead against the cold metal chain. No one ever came to bring him in.
Hours after nightly stories he would pad down the long room, past the rows of beds on either side, each one rumpled and full. The last bed in the corner was empty and untouched. It never looked slept in anyway. And truly, it wasn’t.
Never changing clothes, Naruto crawled into the top of the bed, sliding under the covers. If anyone had cared to look, there wouldn’t have been much to see: Just a little ball, perfectly still, curled at the top of the otherwise untouched bed.
Occasional tremors shook the messy hair that poked above the blanket edge. It was the only sign that the boy beneath cried himself to sleep every night. Cried until his stomach hurt, until his eyes burned, until sheer exhaustion would claim him.
He hated the night time, when he was powerless to stop his racing thoughts. He’d remember what the ninja said, what the teacher said. He’d remembered that horrifying dream and the very real ache at his gut. Sometimes he thought he could still feel it, if he cried hard enough.
He tried his hardest not to think that. But the confusing words of the ninja melded with the terrifying dream. Was he to be locked away with a monster? Or was he the monster…the demon-child like the man said. There was always the looming thought that tomorrow might be the day, the day when they came for him, locking him away just like in his dream. And if not tomorrow, then surely the next day. He shook his head, desperate to rid himself of these ideas.
Sometimes the children would still be awake long after lights out. To keep the nightmarish thoughts at bay, Naruto would sometimes listen to their chattering. But it didn’t make him feel much better. Little sing-song voices would rippled through the night air, sharing their hopes and dreams, wishing for toys or sweets…or parents.
But under the suffocating darkness of the blanket, Naruto had nothing to wish for. He wanted none of those things. They wouldn’t make him happy. The one thing he wanted was gone. He’d never be a ninja. The silver-haired man said he’d make sure of it.
So instead, he wished that the orphanage was gone. Through his tears, he wished that the world was gone.
In this way his days and weeks blurred together. The days of numbed silence would end with him balled at the top of his bed, just wishing that the world would sweep over him, forgetting he was there.
But sniffling into his pillow late one night, Naruto wished that he was gone, instead of the orphanage. He imagined running through the front doors and never turning back. He’d just run and run.
Naruto lifted his head and blinked into the darkness. The thought broke through his haze of tears. He didn’t even know what else was out there. Beyond the orphanage it was just a great big nothing.
The next evening, feet dangling under the swing, Naruto turned his head away from the glowing lights of the building and looked at the section of metal fence that separated the orphanage from the buildings around it. Naruto looked at the world outside as if seeing it for the first time. And really, he was.
The open side of the courtyard was blocked in by other buildings, the backs of which were windowless and decrepit. Only a narrow lane and the old fence marked the boundary of the orphanage play yard. And the children were strictly forbidden to go near the fence.
But now, rocking back and forth on the swing, Naruto looked at his surroundings as if a blindfold had been removed. He studied every crack in the walls, every sagging roof tile. Thin, ink-black alleys disappeared between the buildings, and he strained to make out shapes in the darkness.
Swinging out again Naruto thought he saw a crack of light at the end of one of the alleys. He kicked off the ground, pushing the swing out a little farther. There it was!
At just the right angle, a ribbon of golden light clung to the edge of a building. A soft smile crept up Naruto’s face, dimpling his round cheeks. He felt like he’d discovered some hidden treasure.
Night after night he he would watch the light dip in and out of his vision. He would swing until he forgot all about the orphanage, the children and the teachers, the ninja and the dream. It was only him and that little slip of light, triumphing over the dark edge of an unforgiving building.
Sometimes, if he fixed his eyes on the spot long enough, he could just make out little glittering objects zinging through the darkness. They lit up like shooting stars in the golden light. Hair swaying gently in the breeze from the swing, he felt like he got a breath of fresh air when he saw the little scrap of light.
The front of the orphanage was not his, with its big dusty road and the heat-scorched trees in the planters. It was the realm of cruel ninjas and unforgivable secrets.
But this little blue-black world was all his. Naruto liked to imagine that he could tumble down between those inky walls and disappear into that golden light at the end. It disappeared during the day, but at night it shone like a gateway. Naruto thought if he could just slip through that crack, he would keep running and no one would ever stop him, ever find him. He’d be free.
And one night, desperate to escape the sounds of a party for the children inside the main building, he stepped off the swing and took a few tentative steps in the direction of the fence. He paused and glanced back at the building, the discomfort of disobedience weighed on him. But of course, no one appeared to scold him. They didn’t care what he did. Taking a breath, he steeled his resolve and walked in a straight line from the swing toward the source of the light.
Curling chubby fingers around the metal fence, Naruto peered down the alley. Where the two blue-black buildings melted together there was a line of light streaking through. But he couldn’t see it’s source. Naruto bit his lip, bobbed his head, but he still couldn’t get a better view.
He wanted to see more. Just a little more. He wanted to claim more of that shimmering golden light for himself. Naruto looked down at the rusted wire, readjusting his grip. And really, going out into this lane would be no different than sneaking out the front of the orphanage.
Satisfied, Naruto began toeing his way over the creaking old fence. Would he really fall through the crack as he had imagined, or would it open up onto a shiny new city that would not see him as the enemy? Whatever was over there, he was sure it would be better than where he was.
Feet slapped firmly on the pavement beyond the wire fence. Naruto rose up, nervous and exhilarated. A last quick glance around, and then he crossed the dim lane into the black alley way. He picked past wooden crates, rusted cans and other junk, avoiding the long streaks of puddles. He kept his eyes focused on the end of the alley, at the ever-widening crack of blue space between the two buildings. He was so close the edge of the building gleamed gold. Whatever was there, it must be wonderful. He hurriedly splashed down the alley through the rest of the puddles.
But rounding the corner dashed all his hopes. The golden light was just a faded old lantern, hanging limply beside a decrepit doorway. The faded design of a cherry branch arched across the lantern, its petals endlessly scattering around it. The golden light was from the yellowed paper, and the shooting stars were nothing more than bugs, incessantly hurling themselves at the cold light.
Naruto felt betrayed. His face fell into a deep wobbly frown and, trying not to cry, he kicked a rusted old can out onto the sidewalk in front of him. He wished he hadn’t come. He liked the way he’d imagined it better than this harsh reality.
He refused to look at that light ever again. Heartbroken and not really thinking about what he was doing, Naruto stepped out from between the two buildings to retrieve the can. He leaned to pick it up, stubbornly wrenching his head away from the light and looking the opposite direction down the lane.
That’s when he saw it. Gray and huge and looming between the break in the buildings at the end of the road. Naruto’s little fingers never reached the rusted can. As if in a trance, he stood slowly and walked down the sidewalk, eyes riveted to the huge mass.
He turned with the lane, then down another, losing sight of it a few times. But it would always come back into view. Finally after going a few blocks, he rounded a corner into a narrow quiet lane and the sight filled his vision. Flat stones the seemed to grow out of the ground and stretched to the sky. He tipped his head back, looking all the way to the top. It was the wall.
Naruto moved toward it, remembering a fleeting mention of a walled village. But he always thought that was somewhere else. Not here. Then again, what did he know. Up until an hour ago, his world ended at the rusty metal fence.
Naruto stopped at the base and was nearly hidden in its cool shadow. He reached out a hand, running his palm over the smooth gray stones. Little plants grew from the cracks between the low stones, but they fell away as wall climbed higher. Looking up, Naruto saw bats flitting up the great expanse, twisting and turning, then soaring over the top and disappearing.
He put his cheek to the cold stone wall and closed his eyes, imagining what lay just beyond the wall. Just like at the end of the alley, he had no idea. It was all a dark expanse to him. He had no pictures in his mind to fill in the empty spaces.
Naruto spread out his fingers on the stone. He wished he were a bat. Then he could rise up, soar to the top and just fly away. No one would ever know.
Reluctantly he left the wall and made his way back to the orphanage. He kept to the shadows of buildings and avoided the gold light altogether. But it didn’t trouble him as much as before. His mind was consumed with the wall.
Naruto dropped into bed and stretched out, yawning. He couldn’t wait until tomorrow night when he could go back again. It was only in the last throes of wakefulness that he realized he hasn’t cried himself to sleep. It was the first time in months. Mouth curled into a soft, sleepy smile, he nuzzled his head into the pillow and dropped immediately off into a deep sleep.
Every night, Naruto waited until the lights went down then snuck off for the wall. He liked to sit at the base of it, leaning back and looking straight up, pretending he could climb up over it and imagining what amazing things were on the other side. And the longer he sat there, the more an idea took hold. A terrifying, exciting idea. And when he returns to the orphanage long after the children have fallen asleep, he now he has something of his own to wish for. Deep down, this is what he wants more than anything….
Each night, instead of crying himself to sleep, he actively plans his escape.
It’s too smooth to climb, so he doesn’t even try. But there’s got to be another way…. One night he drags a long metal pike from the alley, intent on digging his way out, but it’s too unwieldy and the hole is too small. The next night he brings a stout stick, but the end eventually splinters away. And he can only get one foot in the hole.
The next night he found a flat wooden plank. It was sturdy and manageable. Naruto set to work immediately, digging and scraping with the stick. It was just the thing. He leaned in, enjoying the work. He’d have the hold dug in no time—
Naruto jumped back against the wall, looking breathlessly at the man who just cleared his throat so loudly behind him. How could someone get so close to him without making a sound?
Only then did he realize he still held the plank. It slide from his fingers and clattered loudly to the ground.
“I knew I’d find you,” the man chuckled. “You were working so hard you didn’t even hear me coming up.” His fatigues, pouches and holster clearly marked him as a shinobi.
Naruto was in a panic. His eyes darted from side to side. Maybe he should run, but then the ninja could catch him—
“You shouldn’t be out here this late. Just be glad it’s me on guard detail tonight and not one of the others,” he said, stepping to the hole and kicking in little clods of dirt.
“Come on. Fill in the hole, and I’ll take you home,” he continued. “Do you live around here? I’ll probably need to tell your parents—”
“Oh, no! Please don’t!” Naruto said with a gulp. He stepped away from the wall towards the man. “I mean, uh, I…” Think, think, think. “If they find out at the orphanage, I’ll get into so much trouble! They’ll, they’ll lock me up…and starve me…and beat me…and….”
It was a lie, of course. A ridiculous lie. They wouldn’t care what he did and would probably be happy for him to leave. But Naruto was terrified that they might do something to keep him away from the wall. He knew now he wanted to leave. And if they found out what he was doing, maybe they’d lock him up for good.
He looked up at the man with big pleading eyes. The shadow robbed all color from his appearance, making both his eyes and hair look brown. But Naruto was surprised to discover that he knew the man that was smiling down at him.
It was the shinobi who came up behind the mean ninja. In the dim light Naruto couldn’t make out much. But where the bandage had been was now a broad scar, cutting across his cheeks and nose. Naruto stared at it. It must have hurt him at the time. But it couldn’t hurt anymore by the way he was grinning.
“Okay, okay” the shinobi said with a hearty laugh. “Life in there can’t be easy. But stay away from the wall.” He put a palm against it. “When you touch it, the chakra disturbance registers with the night guard.”
Naruto frowned. “H-How? I’ve leaned against it tons of times and nobody’s ever come here before!”
Still smiling, the ninja rolled his eyes good-naturedly, as if he knew exactly what the kid was doing
“Sitting is fine. It’s breaking in or out that’s the problem.” He put a hand on his shoulder, intent on steering him away. “Now go home.”
Naruto dug in his heels. “Um…what’s chakra?”
“Don’t they teach you anything in there? Alright, look little guy, everyone has a different chakra signature. Me, you, everyone.”
He squatted and drew a long line in the dirt with a figure sitting beneath it. Naruto squatted as well.
“When we sit and act normal we use a very low level of chakra. So we have a low chakra signature.” He continued drawing while he spoke, adding a little stick man bent forward, shovel in hand, to the picture.
“But if you are fighting, like me, or digging — like you….” He tapped the picture and grinned knowingly. Naruto looked sheepish. “Well, then you give off a high chakra signature. That’s how I knew you were here.”
Naruto scrunched up his face and rubbed the back of his head. “But then how did you know I was—”
“Trying to break out? Because of Konoha’s impervious chakra defense. There is a chakra barrier underneath the wall,” he said, sweeping his hand in a low arc.
“Uh-huh. And above.” He continued the arc up high. Naruto followed his hand, looking up to the top of the impossibly high wall. His stomach sank.
His disappointment must have shown, because the shinobi chuckled at his upturned face.
“Go home,” he said kindly. He reached out and ruffled the boy’s hair. “I won’t turn you in this time, but don’t try it again.”
Naruto’s head rocked under the gentle hand, but he was only distantly aware of the kindness. The words may as well have been a death blow for Naruto. If what he’d said was true, then there was no hope for him.
Naruto stood then slowly headed back to the orphanage. The shinobi watched him for a moment then, certain he was really going back, turned in the opposite direction and left, gravel crunching under his feet.
Across the road, a figure melted back into the shadows.
In a heartbroken daze, Naruto hopped back over the fence, slipped back into the building and curled himself up at the top of his bed. Tears burned at the corners of his eyes. A building with walls, in a city with walls — he felt like he’d been locked away already. He cried himself to sleep.
After that, Naruto didn’t leave the orphanage yard again. There was no point. He no longer sat on the swing, he didn’t want to be reminded of the golden light or the wall. They were both lost to him. Sprawled on top of a picnic table, staring up at the leaves in the dark tree, he just laid there and waited. Sooner or later they were going to come and haul him off.
Hope had abandoned him. And having lived with it, just for a little while, made it so much worse.
No one in the orphanage wanted him. If he left, no one would care. But his one wish — to escape, to leave — just burst like a bubble on his fingertips. He closed his small hand into a fist.
Even the terrible ache in his gut had left him. Naruto rubbed his stomach, wondering if that was even real or just a byproduct of his nightmare. But he remembered how angry he was at the teacher. That was real. He wasn’t dreaming then.
Naruto tried to make himself so angry he’d feel that strange crackling feeling again. He rolled on his side and stared at the orphanage, remembering every injustice he’d ever felt there. He squinted his eyes until he saw spots, but it never turned to the bleeding red edges. He flopped onto his back with a sigh.
Each night was the same. No one ever bothered him, no one ever came out from the orphanage.
A few times, he felt like someone was watching him. Which was strange, because no one ever looked at him. Ever. But when he scanned the building for the silhouette of an adult or child, he saw none. Naruto just shrugged and flopped back on the table.
But one night, the feeling was particularly strong. He couldn’t ignore it. Propped up on an elbow, Naruto looked back at the building. It was quite late, so most of the lights were already out. Nothing stirred at all. He eased back down to the table.
He had just gotten comfortable again when heard a soft crush of shoes on gravel. It sounded like someone was walking up the alleyway. Naruto sat up and squinted into the darkness, but again there was nothing.
He watched for a few moments longer, until he was satisfied he was hearing things. He was about to lay back down when the soft thudding resumed. Naruto looked hard at the alley, determined to find the source of the noise.
This time, someone did come out of the darkness. And the patterned gait was unmistakeable. Naruto’s stomach flipped.
Another shinobi? That couldn’t be good. He scrambled around, swung his feet off the table and looked for the quickest, straightest way back to the building. He hoped to scoot away before the man noticed him.
But Naruto glanced back at the alley only to find, to his horror, that the shinobi was much closer than he ever expected. The lean man had cleared the fence without a sound and now was calmly, silently walking straight toward him.
Naruto was in an absolute panic. He wildly thought that maybe the ninja was just taking a shortcut. Yeah. That was it.
He jammed his trembling hands under his legs and sat as still as he could, hoping, praying, the man wouldn’t notice him. Looking away from the approaching man, Naruto stared hard at a stray leaf on the ground.
A long shadow stretched out in front of him, drawing closer until it engulfed the leaf. Naruto gulped, but didn’t move. Strangely, the shadow stopped moving as well.
Everything was frozen for a long moment. It was so silent that Naruto thought maybe, maybe it could still work. Once the guy saw that he was just a kid, then he would keep on going. This was just a waste of his time, and he’d keep right on—
“Are you Uzumaki Naruto?”
Naruto cleared his throat. “Uh…yeah?” His gaze flickered between the leaf and the man’s black shoes.
“They leave you out here alone?”
Naruto frowned then looked away. “They don’t want me in there,” he said quietly.
Suddenly Naruto slanted him another glance. “What do you want?” This time his eyes made it to the knees of his black fatigues.
The shinobi paused for a moment. “And was it you who tried to break out of the wall near here a few weeks ago?”
Naruto turned back to the leaf. “Umm…no….”
A smile ghosted across the man’s face. “Why would you want to leave here?”
“I hate it here,” Naruto grumbled. “No one cares about me. No one speaks to me or looks at me.” His gaze snagged on the glint of a kunai tucked into his belt. “What do you care?
The shinobi opened his hands in front waist, spreading out long elegant fingers. “Did you do anything wrong?”
“No!” Naruto eye’s darted to his face in indignation. The shinobi looked mildly amused. He cocked an eyebrow and tipped his head, causing his sleek black ponytail to slip around his neck.
Naruto looked down. “No, I didn’t do anything wrong,” he repeated softly to himself. He pulled his hands out from under his legs and plunked them into his lap.
“May I sit down?”
Naruto shrugged but didn’t move. The man quietly sat down beside him on the table. It wasn’t close, but it wasn’t so far that Naruto couldn’t shift his eyes to study the white wrap around one thigh.
The shinobi was silent for a moment before sitting forward, dropping his elbows to his knees and steepling his fingers comfortably in front of him. Naruto dragged his gaze back to the leaf, unable to bear the silence.
“So did someone send you to take me to away? Take me to jail?”
“Is that what you think is going to happen to you?”
“That’s what the other ninja told me. That I’d never be a ninja. I should be locked up. Like in jail or something.”
“Because of something you didn’t do?” There was a sympathetic note to the man’s smooth voice.
Naruto sniffed. “Yeah.”
“That doesn’t sound very fair to me.”
Naruto sniffed again and shook his head.
The shinobi seemed to rethink something. He dropped his steepled fingers, propped his hands back on the table and leaned back.
“So…you want to be a ninja?”
“Yeah,” Naruto said quietly, never looking up. “I did.”
“But not any more?”
“No. I can’t.” He frowned deeply. “What do you care? Just leave me alone.”
The ninja was unfazed. “Why can’t you? You seem fit and smart. You are quite aware of your surroundings, and you have a great desire to become a shinobi. There is nothing to stop you.”
“I’m not allowed. They won’t let me.” Naruto pulled his knees up and hugged them to his chest.
“Because you have the kyuubi sealed inside you?” the man said quietly. He watched the boy closely.
“Huh?” Naruto sniffled.
“Because they think there’s a monster inside you?”
Naruto closed his eyes and put his head back down. “Go away,” he said through his knees.
“Well, I happen to think the only monsters are the ones who locked you away in here.” The shinobi sat forward and turned to the boy. “What if I told you that you were special, you had an amazing power inside that the people here didn’t want you to know about?”
Blue eyes peeked over kneecaps. “W-What?”
“A power that only you have and only you can control? Something so strong it could wipe away this whole building, probably this whole village if you wanted to?”
Naruto shook his head, his eyes wide. Was this guy crazy? But he looked into his black eyes, studied his pale face and decided that this guy at least believed in what he was saying. So Naruto didn’t turn away.
“And what if I told you that the people here keep you locked away so they can have your special powers all to themselves. So that they can use it when they want to, like a weapon, like a knife, and then lock you up again when they don’t need it.”
Naruto frowned at him. He didn’t like the sound of that.
The shinobi smiled. “Do you feel special? Do you feel different?”
Naruto shrugged suspiciously.
“Because I have special powers too.” He tapped his cheek just under his eye. “My eyes. And this village wants to use me to hurt people, kill people. Do things I don’t want to do. So I’ve got to escape before they lock me up too.”
Naruto’s round face went slack. The man’s smile widened a bit.
He made a big show of looking around, checking that they were alone, then tilted his head closer to whisper something important.
“I am planning on leaving, but I wanted to know, since you were trying to escape this village as well….” Black eyes watched him closely. “Would like to—”
Naruto scrunched up his face suddenly. “Hey mister, who are you? What’s your name?
“I am Uchiha Itachi, Naruto-san,” he said patiently. “So what do you say? Do you want to stay here and be locked away by the village, a monster and a weapon to be used only for their bidding?” He waited till he saw an expression of horror flit across the boy’s face. Then he leaned closer, his voice warm and full of hope. “Or do you want to come with me and become a shinobi, strong and powerful, in control of your own special power? Free to do whatever you choose?”
Naruto’s eyes were wide and glassy. He nodded his head slowly. He thought it might be a dream. And he finally gasped out “Y-Yes!” just to hear his own voice.
“Good.” Itachi sat back. “Then this is your first mission: Tell no one of our meeting, and be ready to leave the night of the full moon. Be at this spot at midnight. We’ll leave then.”
“Okay,” Naruto said, still in a daze. “But that’s just in a few days!”
Itachi nodded and stood.
“But wait, what about getting over the wall? Doesn’t Konoha have an ’emperor’s chakra defense?'”
“Impervious,” he corrected. “I have already prepared for that, and I should thank you for it. It’s how I knew you were here. Since you tried to break out a few weeks ago, the guards are now going over the wall to check for imperfections. There will be several slight chakra anomalies just after midnight, too many for the guards to handle all at once. It will give us enough time to slip through.”
The corner of Itachi’s mouth curved up into a smile. He turned to go.
“Wait,” Naruto called out to him. “Should I bring anything…like my clothes? I don’t have a lot, but I have a few shirts….”
“Let them keep your things,” Itachi said over his shoulder, still smiling. “A shinobi like you will have no use for orphanage rags.” Then he took a step and disappeared in a wisp of smoke.
Naruto’s heart pounded in his ears. He didn’t know how long he sat out there, replaying what had happened and pinching himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. And when he finally left the courtyard, he didn’t remember going through the quiet building or creeping past all the sleeping children. He just knew that he laid in the bed for most of the night staring at the ceiling. He was too excited to sleep.