The release of his own breath surprised Naruto and brought him back to reality. It had happened again, but it had been different this time.
Naruto’s frantic, heavy breaths had nothing to do with physical exertion. His shoulders trembled with terror, the overwhelming dread of impending death. The shrill anguished screams of a doomed race echoed in his ears.
The difference in his inexorable nightmare this time was that he hadn’t fought back against the traitors. He had felt no hatred or rage. Not even the death of his—no, the creations, touched his numbness. Naruto couldn’t explain why, but he had accepted defeat before the destroyers had even arrived.
For some reason, the numbness was even more disturbing to Naruto.
The destroyers had committed the same atrocities. Naruto vividly remembered their faces, adorned with demonic horns and delighted smiles. They had lifted entire cities into the sky with child-like glee, hurling them at the surface below. Why didn’t I care? The deaths of creatures I had never seen before enraged me, but this time, I just..accepted it?
Naruto’s breathing slowly evened, and he finally focused on his surroundings. Beneath him was a plain white tatami mat, and he was half-covered by a smooth blanket. His usual attire of an alabaster silk kimono and white haori was replaced with a simplistic beige cotton kimono.
He was in a large, spacious, and mostly empty room. The four walls were made of nearly translucent paper on lattice frames. From the light coming through two, Naruto suspected the outside was in that direction.
The style of walls was another blow to Naruto. He wasn’t in the Land of Wind anymore. It was called shoji and had never caught on because it couldn’t withstand the sandstorms.
What happened to my… Naruto paused, his hand habitually reaching for a blindfold by his pillow that wasn’t there. He turned to look, and his breath caught as he imagined the length of his arm covered in jet-black liquid.
There was nothing there, of course, just his own anemic skin.
Naruto struggled to remember what had happened. He’d been running. Fleeing the creature that claimed to have been created by his mother—a painful knot formed in his throat.
There was no resisting the tears that poured down his face, and he didn’t try. He had always wished his mother had lived through her illness, that he could have known what it was like to have a mother. His father had said she had loved him dearly. Naruto had missed her, longed for her, despite not even remembering her voice.
Had his father lied to him? Had his mother ever really loved him? Naruto’s hands tightened into fists on the thin tear-stained blanket. Does my father even…
Naruto choked on his sob. The creature, Zetsu, had claimed his parents had acted under its orders. It had controlled him, moved his arm, spoken in his mind. Had it forced his father to care for him?
He didn’t want to believe it. He wanted to believe his father did truly love him. But Naruto could not ignore what he had seen himself. He looked nothing like his father, in more ways than one. He didn’t even look like the other children.
The nagging doubt had grown as he’d learned of the Hyūga clan and the Byakugan in Sunagakure. He had refused to think about it, to wonder why such information was so plentiful in Suna but not his father’s library.
Naruto had only to look at his life, and the creature’s words rang painfully true. But I chose to ignore everything and blindly believe my father wouldn’t lie to me.
The sound of footsteps made Naruto look up sharply, his eyes wide. He scrambled out of the blanket and got to his feet, backing up against the wall behind him. He tried to wipe the tears free, his vision blurry.
A shadow loomed through the translucent wall, and Naruto’s breathing quickened. His body was strung tight, prepared to fight or flee.
One of the paper lattice panels slid sideways and revealed a man in the hallway beyond. He looked utterly unlike anyone Naruto had ever seen. Due to his abnormal height, he had to duck slightly to enter the room. His extensive beard was braided six different ways along his jawline, and his dark hair was tied in a ponytail with a strip of red ribbon.
The most baffling was his bizarre armor. Naruto had seen Shinobi wear armor, but it was generally light and only along the arms and legs. The herculean man wore an unadorned chest plate of small metal scales, laced into plates with innumerable cords. Several skirt-like pieces of leather hung from the hem, each covered with metal veneer that clinked as the man entered the room. Lastly, beneath the armor was a gray hakama-shita top and legs that tapered in at the man’s knees.
“Ohayou gozaimasu,” The man punctuated his greeting with a short bow, which Naruto hesitated to return. There was a smile on the man’s face, and he didn’t sense any malice in it. “I am Ringorou.”
Naruto pulled his gaze from Ringorou’s hand, resting on the handle of the katana fastened to his hip. He met Ringorou’s gaze and realized the man had seen his eyes. What had happened to his blindfold?
“Where am I?” Naruto asked cautiously. He’d slowly stood as it had become evident that Ringorou didn’t intend him any immediate harm. He didn’t trust the man, but it was rather rude to express that so openly.
“You are in Kakunodate village,” Ringorou answered, and when Naruto didn’t respond, he continued. “You’re safe now.”
Naruto nodded slowly, striving to remember anything about such a village. He had been required to memorize the name of every town and city in his country. He didn’t even slightly recognize the name, which confirmed his earlier suspicion. He wasn’t in the Land of Wind.
How did I here? How did Gaara… How… Naruto’s thoughts trailed off. He felt himself start to panic and concentrated on keeping his breathing steady. He had left Gaara behind when he had run away from the creature. He could remember being scared, but what had happened after that?
Naruto’s voice was shakier than he’d hoped. “How did I get here?”
Ringorou’s armor clinked as he turned and gestured to the wall to Naruto’s right. It was one of the two that glowed brighter than the others. As he spoke, the scales continued to clash, and Naruto decided the man couldn’t be a Shinobi. His armor was too heavy for that, and it made far too much noise.
“A few of the villagers were fishing late last night and saw you floating down the river,” Ringorou said, “They called for help, and luckily some others, and I were nearby.”
The giant of a man smiled ruefully, although it was hard to make out through his thick beard. “We almost didn’t get you out in time.”
Naruto looked confused, “What do you mean?”
Ringorou thumbed over his shoulder toward what Naruto assumed was the river. “There’s a waterfall further downstream. You were thirty feet from the drop by the time we got hold of you.”
Naruto stared at Ringorou, struggling to believe him. His eyes widened, the memories rushing back. He had come across a river and tried to cross with chakra… and then fell in.
Two destroyers had appeared on the river, and he’d lost control over his chakra. Naruto looked away from Ringorou, trying to hide his horrified expression. He had sunk into the biting cold, his mouth filling with water as he tried desperately to scream.
Naruto bowed deeply, trying to subdue his overwhelming emotions. “Thank you, Ringorou-san, for saving my life.”
Ringorou nodded understandingly and took a step toward Naruto. “Are you hurt?”
He barely stopped himself from backing up as Ringorou approached. Naruto shook his head. The burly man observed him for a moment before turning and walking to the open door.
“You’re welcome to come and eat with us.”
Naruto had mistakenly thought he understood what hunger felt like. Baki had prohibited him from eating for three days as part of a training exercise. During which his sensei had mercilessly pushed him to the limit and then forced him to keep training. Naruto had hated it by the second day, and on the third, he genuinely believed he would die.
It had been effective, if not cruel, and the first meal after the fast had felt like heaven itself. But it was nothing compared to the ravaging hunger that had overwhelmed Naruto at the sight of the banquet table. It was overflowing with food, most of it simple meat and fruits, but he didn’t care. The manners and proper etiquette as royalty drilled into him by his father were abandoned in an instant.
It was only after several moments, during which Naruto wolfed down whatever was in reach, that he realized there were others at the table. Aside from Ringorou — who was sitting to Naruto’s left — there were twelve others in the room. All of them were similar in stature to Ringorou, and several had on armor. The rest wore only pebble-gray hakama-shita.
Wearing leather armor coated in metal scales probably wasn’t all that comfortable.
Naruto tried to recover what dignity he could, noticing the grins of several men around the table. Thankfully they seemed to find his lack of manners humorous rather than offensive. He forced himself to eat slower regardless, the hunger in his stomach seemingly insatiable.
Still, he was able to spare some attention to listening to the conversation. It seemed that the men were off duty and waiting for orders? His earlier certainty that these men were not Shinobi redoubled. Perhaps civilian mercenaries?
His hunger carried him through another few minutes, although much slower than before. Naruto felt his stomach cramp, and despite his ardent desire to continue eating, he forced himself to quit.
Naruto glanced at Ringorou, who caught his look. He looked away in embarrassment at the amused expression on the man’s face.
“What’s your name, kid?” Ringorou asked, setting down the pork rib he’d been eating. Naruto hesitated, unsure whether or not to reply truthfully. He decided on a mix of both.
Ringorou reached across the banquet and picked up a small bowl full of red sauce. Naruto didn’t recognize it, but Ringorou poured a copious amount over his teriyaki.
He set the bowl back in its place before turning to Naruto. “If you don’t mind my asking. How did you come to be in that river?”
Naruto briefly considered telling the man the truth. Ringorou would never believe him. He didn’t even believe it. Demonic creatures from another world had attacked him. He’d woken up in a forest, run away from a black liquid creature claiming to be from his mother, and then fell in a river when the demons returned to kill him again?
“I don’t remember,” Naruto said after a moment’s silence.
Ringorou raised an eyebrow, and Naruto feared he would press the matter, but he didn’t say anything. It was obvious Ringorou didn’t believe him.
Naruto turned back to his plate, piled with food he no longer wanted to eat. He needed time to think, the turbulent storm of questions and fears returning in force now that his hunger had lessened.
However, the chaotic noise of the room didn’t permit it, and Naruto turned toward uproarious laughter. Two of the men were jostling, rearing back and slamming against the other with their shoulders. It was evidently some game, as each had a cup full of saké in hand.
Several of the other men around the table cheered them on while the rest had various conversations that Naruto couldn’t make out over the jubilant shouting. If he hadn’t appreciated the distraction, Naruto might have found the commotion irritating.
Naruto turned to Ringorou, a slight smile on his face. One of the battling men had won and was triumphantly drinking his saké—much to the comical dismay of his companion. The troubled look in Ringorou’s coal-black eyes made Naruto paused, suddenly confused.
“You’re welcome to stay here for as long as you desire,” Ringorou said, his tone reassuring. “However, we don’t stay anywhere for long. In a few days, we will leave Kakunodate Village.”
Naruto nodded, understanding. He looked down at his folded hands in his lap, thinking. He needed to find Gaara and return to Sunagakure. But he wasn’t sure where either was. He didn’t even know what country this was. He needed answers, but to do so required revealing that he wasn’t from here. For all he knew, this could be a country that hated the Land of Wind.
“Ringorou-san, are you a Shinobi?” Naruto asked. He was sure the man wasn’t, but if he was wrong somehow, then perhaps Ringorou would reveal what country he was loyal to.
Ringorou shook his head and lifted a cup of saké to his lips. “No, we’re Samurai.”
He downed the liquor in two gulps. “The boys and I are just traveling around, protecting the land from bandits and the like.”
“I’ve read about Samurai!” Naruto exclaimed, forgetting his earlier plan to conceal his status as a nonnative.
Naruto had only read brief mentions and explanations of Samurai in the Daimyō’s library, as most was about politics between Shinobi, countries, and various groups within the Land of Wind. However, Sunagakure’s archives had been more informative. According to the scrolls, Samurai had been peacekeepers during the Warring States Era, defeating Ninja — as Shinobi were known then — with greater numbers and superior organization.
Today there were significantly fewer Samurai. With the birth of the Shinobi, the Samurai were no longer the dominant force, and thousands had been ruthlessly wiped out by Shinobi.
Ringorou’s expression was amused, “What have you read about Samurai?
Naruto didn’t get a chance to explain, a shout from the doorway drawing Ringorou’s attention. Another man, wearing almost identical clothes to the rest of the Samurai, stood in the door. His hands cupped the large grin on his face.
“We got one! A big one!”
His unexplained announcement complete, the Samurai turned and disappeared down the hall. Naruto’s eyes widened as scores of chairs hit the floor, and Samurai began pushing each other to reach the door first. The air was filled with good-humored laughter. Naruto tried to stand but was forced to wait until the tide passed.
“What’s going on?” Naruto asked, but no one replied.
Seconds later, the whole dining room was empty, the Samurai’s laughter fading down the hall. Ringorou stood just beyond the doorway. He gestured for Naruto to follow.
“Come see for yourself.”
Naruto followed the beefy Samurai and was surprised to find it challenging to keep up. Despite his noisy and supposedly heavy armor, Ringorou was quick. A moment later, Naruto saw the outside for the first time.
The front was shoji and exited onto a wide veranda that ended at a flight of stone stairs. At the foot was a small courtyard garden with moss-like grass, smoot rocks, blooms, a bamboo fountain, and a single slender sakura tree. Tall and thick bamboo blocked Naruto’s view beyond the courtyard walls.
The crunch of gravel beneath a boot snapped Naruto back to his surroundings, and he turned to see Ringorou exiting the courtyard. He hurried down the stairs and along the gravel path, only to immediately stop as he passed the gate.
Despite being born in the Land of Wind, a veritable desert, verdure wasn’t an unfamiliar sight to Naruto. It was, in fact, one of his favorite things. That was why he had put so much care into restoring the dilapidated palace gardens. For some reason, the presence of plant life soothed him. The more there were, the calmer he felt.
However, Naruto had never before seen so much green, so much life. A sea of trees stretched on for miles, and everywhere was lush green grass that swayed in the slight breeze. Naruto’s awed gaze followed the gravel path before him, which split off in two directions a hundred paces away.
To the right was what Naruto assumed to be Kakunodate village. It was almost impossible to distinguish from the forest it was nestled into, with some buildings seemingly using the trees as part of the foundation. He could see people moving in the shade, children chasing each other through the trees.
Hearing the familiar shouts of the Samurai, Naruto turned his attention to the other path. He rushed down the gentle hill, seeing Ringorou merging with a large crowd at the edge of the river.
Naruto pushed his way through the crowd toward what sounded like someone being congratulated for something. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to find, but a fish larger than his entire body hadn’t been it. One of the Samurai was holding the tail of the beautiful maroon fish, assisting an older villager.
The man struggled to hold onto the fish’s head as several Samurai slapped him on the back, praising him and suggesting various ideas for how the incredible catch could be cooked.
Naruto looked around for Ringorou, but the crowd was too thick to spot the Samurai. He started fighting his way out and barely heard the fisherman say the Samurai should have the fish; he wouldn’t have been able to catch it without their help.
Ringorou was standing a few paces from the edge of the crowd, watching as he stroked one of the braids of his beard. He noticed Naruto approach and saw the confused look on the boy’s face.
“I don’t understand,” Naruto said, gesturing toward the crowd. It was a massive fish and an impressive catch, but why was everyone celebrating like it was the Shogatsu?
Ringorou chuckled, “Mashimo-san has been trying to catch that fish for over four years, but he could never wrestle it to shore before his line broke.”
Naruto just nodded.
He was still hungry, or at least he thought he was. His stomach still ached from devouring plates of food a few hours before, and Naruto was afraid to eat anymore. However, the salivating smell of cooked fish had won out in the end.
Naruto had gleaned from listening to the conversation that the fish was an abnormally large carp, a rare delicacy, and he gratefully accepted the slice of meat the Samurai handed him.
Of course, Naruto had eaten seafood in his father’s palace before, but it was a far cry from the taste of such fresh meat.
The distraction didn’t last for long, and with the conversation dying out as the Samurai feasted around the fire pit, his unanswered questions returned to torment him. And the exquisite flavor in his mouth turned to ash.
He lowered his head, long unkempt hair falling about his face. One question screamed louder than the rest, demanding an answer he was afraid to learn.
What am I?
Warm liquid ran down his hand, and Naruto realized he’d crushed the meat beneath his fingers. He stared at it blankly. Zetsu had said Torio and Yura weren’t his real parents, and Naruto couldn’t disprove it. He was different.
The protrusions…the horns growing from the sides of his head, currently hidden by his hair, weren’t exactly typical. What’s more, his Byakugan was biologically impossible. The Sunagakure archives had been quite clear. The Kekkai Genkai of the Hyūga clan was not recessive.
Am I a Hyūga? Naruto wondered. There was a pain in his chest, one that wasn’t physical. He couldn’t deny that he was accepting the truth of Zetsu’s words by asking that question. Torio and Yura were not his parents.
Naruto crushed the last of the meat, not feeling the liquid that splattered his face. He had known, he had always known. Anger coiled within Naruto, lacking direction. Had Zetsu controlled Torio? Could the creature make someone pretend to love someone, to care for them?
Naruto’s throat constricted as he struggled to hold back his tears. I need answers. I need to know!
Someone coughed in the way that was meant to draw attention. Naruto blinked rapidly as he looked up, eager for any distraction from the torture of his thoughts. One of the Samurai on the opposite side of the campfire had stood up. His taut and bearded face illuminated by the fierce light of the campfire.
The Samurai waited until everyone was focused on him before speaking, “I would like to share a haiku, one that I finished just today.”
One of the men to Naruto’s right answered.
Shirai nodded and cleared his throat. Naruto stared at the mam, racking his brain. He had heard of a haiku before, but the meaning of it eluded him at first.
Naruto brushed his hair out of his face with his left hand, his right soaked in meat. He dumped what little was left on the ground, where the rest laid. A haiku was a short, three-line poem that usually followed a five, seven, five syllable structure if he remembered correctly. They were meant to be spoken in one breath, for impact.
He had never heard one before, and he readily used his curiosity as a shield against the tumultuous emotions threatening to drown him.
“You going to wait until the fire dies out?”
Shirai ignored his companion’s ribbing, and after rolling his shoulders, he began.
“Light of the moon
Moves west, flowers’ shadows
Once finished, Shirai sat back down and waited. Naruto looked around, seeing several of the Samurai mull over the haiku. No one said anything for a few moments.
The man to Shirai’s right got to his feet, and without preamble, recited a haiku of his own before again sitting down. Another brief moment of silence and the following Samurai in line stood up. It was Ringorou’s turn a few minutes later. Naruto heard the barrel-chested man sigh as he stood and turned to look at him. There had been sadness in Ringorou’s voice.
Once more, there was silence.
“The dewdrop world
Is the dewdrop world
Yet it is.“
Ringorou sat back down and closed his eyes, his expression unreadable. Naruto tried to understand the haiku, but it didn’t make any sense to him. He could only tell it spoke of some tragedy from the grief in Ringorou’s voice. A glance around the campfire confirmed his guess. Every Samurai had a gloomy expression.
“Same as always, eh, Ringorou?”
Ringorou shook his head and turned to Naruto, who stared back in confusion. Realization flooded in as all of the Samurai looked at him. It was his turn.
Naruto stood, wishing he had something to clean his meat-covered hand with. He replayed the Samurai’s haiku’s in his mind, trying to conceive his own as he stared into the flames of the campfire. He was afraid of doing it wrong, but he didn’t want to offend the Samurai by not even trying. They had been nothing but kind to him.
Not wanting to keep the Samurai waiting, Naruto went with the first thing that came to mind.
“The voices of gods
And the waves of death.
- Yosa Buson (First Haiku)
- Kobayashi Issa (Second Haiku)
- Inspired by Jayachandran Chakrapany (Naruto’s Haiku)