Naruto was drawn out of his morning trance by the shrill call of a bird he didn’t recognize. It might have been an hour before he finally lifted his gaze from the calm river surface. He stiffly brushed his long hair out of his face as he looked up, trying to spot the bird in the woods on the other side of the river bank.
The sun was just starting to peek over the distant mountain tops. He frowned, staring at the light blankly. The nightmares had woken him again, feeling like he couldn’t breathe.
The need to get outside, to escape, had been overwhelming. Naruto had rushed out of the minka toward the river, where he had been since. The small ripples across the water’s surface were pleasantly calming, as were the grass and trees swaying in the breeze.
Naruto exhaled slowly, trying to let the tension in his body go with it. He couldn’t even remember the nightmare clearly, although what he could remember was enough to confirm it was similar to the others.
He gave up his search for the unfamiliar bird, its call now sounding further away, and returned to staring at the water. As the sun had risen, he’d noticed a variety of fish he had never seen before.
His pale pupil-less eyes slowly glazed over, Naruto returning to running over the memories he could recall. As usual now, this nightmare had been similar to previous ones yet different. He had been angry again, enraged beyond imagination, but it hadn’t affected him as much. He had held onto the knowledge that it wasn’t him. It wasn’t his anger.
Regardless of that small victory, he had been just as trapped as before. Breaking free was impossible; he couldn’t wake up until the nightmare was over. So he had been forced to fight the destroyers, who felt both familiar and hated.
At least, that’s the most sense I can make of it. Naruto thought bitterly. He’d seriously considered the idea that he was crazy, mentally unstable. The horrors he saw were perhaps caused by some physical trauma in Suna or a drug from Kumo. Nothing more than his own imagination going wild.
Naruto wanted to just give in and accept that it was true, that he was crazy. But he couldn’t because he knew it wasn’t true. His mind was clear; his thoughts flowed easily, fluidly. If anything, he felt more focused than he ever had before. It was like he had lived his entire life with a wool pillowcase pulled over his head, and now it had been ripped off.
Zetsu wasn’t a figment of my imagination. I didn’t imagine that.
Among several reasons, the most important one was that Naruto knew he could never have imagined something so terrifying.
Naruto hadn’t felt any fear in this most recent nightmare either, something he’d only realized some time after waking up. Like every time, he had intrinsically known he couldn’t win, but he hadn’t been afraid of losing and dying.
It wasn’t me.
I can’t think like it was me.
Naruto shook his head, causing his long, slowly-whitening hair to fall about his face again. He didn’t notice it.
There had been another difference this time. His… creatures, the creatures, had fought alongside Naruto against the destroyers. He couldn’t remember what they looked like, only the ships that had flown through the air. Metal balls had been blasted at the destroyers. It had been heroic, if ultimately short-lived.
Anger flared from within, unbidden, and Naruto clenched his fists. With just a casual wave of one of the destroyer’s pale white hands, the traitor had sent hundreds of his… the creation’s vessels ablaze. There had been nothing he could do but feel thousands of bright lights vanish from within him.
It was a nightmare!
It wasn’t real!
Yet, the memories felt real, and Naruto could still feel the missing parts of him, as minuscule as they might be, that had died with the valiant creatures.
Why do I care?!
Anger seethed inside of him, but Naruto wasn’t even sure what or who he was angry at. He couldn’t help the feeling, though, the heat and rage. He’d gone to sleep last night, begging he would be spared another nightmare.
Trapped, unable to question how he knew the things he knew or how he could use such powers, was maddening. It was like he had lived his entire life as this other being, and for some reason, in the moment, that made sense.
The tension would build, the pressure, the desperation to escape, and upon waking up, it would all come free. That was the cause of the terror, panic, and anger he would feel when he woke up. All the questions he’d been thinking the whole time would burst like a dam in his head.
He was helpless.
At the same time, he was terrified. Because he knew it was true, that what he saw was real. Of course, how it was real, Naruto couldn’t even begin to fathom. But it was undeniably real.
Naruto blinked and looked up, feeling the stiffness in his limbs. Someone was walking toward him, and from the crunch of gravel under a boot, it was probably a Samurai. The civilians wore sandals or leather shoes.
It was Ringorou, although he wasn’t wearing his armor now. Naruto peered at the Samurai through his hair for a moment before turning back to the river. Ringorou said nothing, simply sitting down on the ground beside him.
The tall man took a moment to get himself situated, crossing one leg over the other as he stretched out across the grass. It was completely different from how Naruto was sitting, with his legs crossed. Naruto continued to wait but realized that Ringorou was watching the fish and turned away.
The Samurai’s presence had reminded Naruto of what he’d said yesterday.
I can’t stay with the Samurai for much longer.
Father will be worried about me, but I can’t return yet.
I need to find Gaara… but how?
Naruto had no idea how he was going to find Gaara. He didn’t doubt Ringorou’s words, so it meant that he just had to go upstream. However, he’d run quite a ways before reaching the river if he remembered correctly, and there was no way to know how long he’d been carried by the currents.
I should not have run away.
I should have ripped off the seal, regardless of what Zetsu said.
It wasn’t the first time Naruto had thought that.
His only option now was to go upstream and hope he could spot Gaara in the forest around him with his Byakugan. Naruto was somewhat fearful of what he might find. After all, he had left Gaara behind, defenseless, sealed, and lying in a pool of mud in the rain.
That’d been at least two days ago.
Naruto stirred and opened his eyes, turning to look at Ringorou. The tall Samurai hadn’t diverted his gaze from the river. Naruto felt an urge to tell the man everything. The nightmares, the attack in Kumo, Zetsu, Gaara, everything. The impulse didn’t last long, though.
Ringorou looked at him, staring at him through his hair. He seemed to be searching for something, and Naruto didn’t resist. He actually hoped that Ringorou would be able to tell, maybe reassure him that he wasn’t actually crazy.
He turned back to the river, stroking his beard thoughtfully. Several minutes passed in peaceful silence before Ringorou spoke again.
“There is a turmoil in your eyes, Naruto-san,” Ringorou said. Naruto didn’t reply. He hadn’t been trying to hide it. “I’ve seen that look in others before.”
Ringorou sighed, surprising Naruto.
“Whatever it is that you are struggling with is none of my business, but I am willing to guess it has something to do with you floating down this river.”
Naruto nodded quietly. It wasn’t a far-fetched guess, but the way the Samurai had spoken, his tone, had made Naruto feel like Ringorou could see right through him. He felt like turning away, hiding. He wanted to keep secret everything that had happened to him, and at the same time, tell Ringorou everything. Rid himself of the weight on his shoulders.
In the end, he did nothing.
Ringorou got to his feet and surprised Naruto by offering his hand. Naruto hesitated for a moment before accepting, allowing the tall man to pull him to his feet. Ringorou turned toward the minka building all the Samurai stayed in.
Naruto followed close behind as they walked up the gravel path and into the courtyard bordering the front of the house. He expected Ringorou to ascend the stairs, but instead, the Samurai turned toward a small clearing under the pink sakura tree.
Ringorou gestured for him to stop at the edge of the clearing, and Naruto did so. He wasn’t sure what Ringorou wanted, but the man had been nothing but kind to him. The Samurai walked to the other side of the clearing and firmly planted his boots in the grass. He stared at Naruto with coal-black eyes for a moment, his arms crossed in front of him like he was sizing Naruto up.
He shifted uncomfortably, suddenly unsure of what Ringorou wanted of him.
“The Art of Kendo, Naruto-san, helps one sharpen their mind, and hone their spirit.”
Naruto brushed his long wavy hair to the side, briefly missing the bandage he used to tie around it. He looked at Ringorou, confused.
“I believe it will help you.” Ringorou asserted, sounding completely confident.
“Kendo, Ringorou-san?” Naruto asked, his voice hesitant. The years he’d spent cooped up in his father’s palace had often been spent in the library. There were many things he’d learned in Suna that he had never read about, but Kendo wasn’t one of them.
Ringorou nodded sagely, and Naruto was reminded of his father teaching him about Shinobi Arts.
“Kendo is the art of the sword.”
“That sounds like Kenjutsu?” Naruto asked without thinking. Immediately after asking his question, Naruto realized he’d revealed knowing Shinobi Arts.
He wasn’t exactly trying to act like a civilian, and he doubted that Ringorou would buy it if he was. However, Naruto knew that many Samurai disdained Shinobi. Ringorou probably didn’t care, but Naruto didn’t know about the others.
Naruto tried to read Ringorou’s expression, but he didn’t find anything negative in it.
Ringorou scoffed, “Kenjutsu is a poor knock-off of Kendo. Shinobi created it in a pitiful attempt to replicate what Samurai have honed over thousands of years.”
Naruto just nodded.
“Kendo was created to shape the mind and body, to cultivate a vigorous spirit.” Ringorou began, taking a tone similar to the one Kanade would take with him when teaching a Jutsu. “Through proper and rigid training, strive for improvement in the art of Kendo; To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor. To associate with others with sincerity, and to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.”
Ringorou casually rested his right hand on the butt of the katana strapped to his side.
“Thus, will one be able to love his country and society, to contribute to the development of the culture, and to promote peace and prosperity among all people.” Ringorou finished, and Naruto slowly nodded, mulling over Ringorou’s words. If he was honest, it didn’t sound like the Samurai was talking about using a sword.
Ringorou seemed to pick up on his thoughts.
“The Shinobi took the art of the blade, which was created to defend the innocent and helpless, and turned it into nothing more than a mere weapon. They used that weapon to harm the very ones it was built to protect.”
The heat in Ringorou’s words surprised Naruto, and he noticed the white-knuckled grip the man had on his katana. It seemed that Ringorou did have some disdain for Shinobi, although Naruto wasn’t sure if that would apply to him or not.
He carefully scanned the nearby eight Samurai spaced out around the courtyard. Some were reading scrolls, one was seemingly napping, and two were sparring with wooden blades. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Ringorou, but his training with Baki had taught him many things.
Sasori had visited him training once and told him how his Sensei was kicked out of the academy for being too harsh. Naruto believed it, but he also appreciated it. His only regret was how much time had been wasted trying to solve his apparent inability to get physically stronger. Baki was adamant that it had to be resolved before moving on, and they had tried everything.
Naruto couldn’t stop himself from stepping back instinctively as Ringorou drew his katana. The movement was smooth, impossibly so. Seemingly unbothered by his reaction, Ringorou flipped his grip on the blade and held it out to Naruto.
He walked across the little clearing, uncertainly reaching out and taking the handle with one hand. It felt sturdy beneath his fingers, the wood painted black. Several symbols were carved into the handle, which Naruto didn’t recognize. Probably the sigil of some clan or house in this country.
Once sure that Naruto had a strong grip on the blade, Ringorou released his two-fingered hold. Naruto nearly fell to his knees in surprise, the katana yanking on his arm. The edge hit the lush green grass with a dull thud, and Naruto stared at it in astonishment.
It was a large weapon, nearly as long as he was tall, so he’d expected it to be heavy. But he hadn’t expected it to be this heavy. What’s more, Ringorou had been holding onto it with just two fingers.
Naruto shook his head and tightened his grip, using both hands as he attempted to lift the blade. While he managed to hoist the katana into the air, it was with obvious difficulty, and he wanted nothing more than to drop it. His arms began shaking violently. He could see the concern in Ringorou’s eyes and immediately became irritated at himself.
Naruto could feel his grip weakening, and Baki wasn’t around to chide him. At his mere thought, chakra flooded through his pathways and into his limbs.
Instantly, the katana was light as a feather. Naruto nearly dropped it in shock. Immediately afterward, he realized he’d just revealed he was a Shinobi. Several of the Samurai were watching him curiously, some even getting up to walk over. Naruto forced himself to remain still, to not react.
He tried to think of an explanation, an excuse, but nothing came to mind.
Ringorou drew the wakizashi strapped to his other hip in yet another smooth and practiced movement.
Naruto forced himself to remain still.
The sharp blade barely reached a foot and a half in length, significantly shorter than the katana Naruto was holding. Ringorou took a stance, holding the wakizashi at the ready. Naruto stared at him blankly for a moment before realizing the Samurai wanted him to do the same.
Naruto forced the concerns, misgivings, and worries he felt into a box. He did his best to mimic Ringorou’s pose, wielding the heavy katana in front of him, hunkering down slightly.
He placed his left leg a little further back, allowing some of his weight to rest on it, ready to sprint forward and attack. Due to the chakra flowing through his limbs, it was child’s play to hold the previously unobtainable katana with one hand. He tilted the weapon until it was parallel with his shoulders and waited.
Ringorou shook his head and relaxed his stance as he walked over to Naruto. With the flat of his wakizashi, he began pushing and prodding Naruto’s arms, legs, and chest. Naruto didn’t resist. It was similar to what Kanade used to do.
He was surprised when Ringorou suddenly pushed his back leg forward a half step, ridding him of the support. He nearly stumbled but caught himself. Seemingly satisfied with his stance, Ringorou went to work on the katana.
Naruto now held the katana with both hands, directly in front of him, parallel to his body. His back was pushed forward, forcing him to put weight on both legs evenly. Naruto didn’t voice his confusion. This was an entirely different stance from what Ringorou had done.
The Samurai answered his unspoken question as he double-checked Naruto’s stance. “Using a wakizashi and a katana is very different. You cannot use the same pose for both.”
Naruto nodded silently, and a moment later, Ringorou finished and walked back to his side of the clearing. Resuming his previous position, Ringorou stared at Naruto with cold, emotionless eyes. Naruto tried to mimic the look.
The moment held its breath.
“Cut me down, Naruto!”
Naruto exploded forward, dashing across the clearing at full speed. The katana glinted in the sunlight as he prepared to swing.
It had taken him longer than it should have, but Naruto finally understood what Ringorou wanted from him. He intended to take full advantage of it.
The anger, the fear, the uncertainty, and pain he had felt ever since waking up in an unfamiliar forest, far from home, his friend lying unconscious in the mud beside him, finally broke free. And it didn’t break free gently.
The katana streamed through the air at a speed that wouldn’t process for a civilian, and Naruto appeared in front of Ringorou a second later.
His suddenly newfound speed didn’t even register before Naruto had covered the distance and was forced to swing far sooner than he’d expected. It was sloppy, lacking discipline, something Baki would berate him for.
Regardless, there was still considerable power behind the blow.
Ringorou sidestepped casually, evading Naruto’s haphazard swing entirely. The wakizashi sliced through the air with wicked speed, meeting Naruto’s blade. The sound unique to two weapons clashing filled the courtyard.
Yet again unprepared, Naruto lost his grip on the katana as it rebounded off the immovable wakizashi in Ringorou’s hand. It flew through the air for a few feet before landing in the grass with a thud.
The impact also threw Naruto off balance, and he stumbled backward for several feet before regaining his footing. Immediately afterward, he froze, feeling the cold sensation of Ringorou’s short blade against his neck.
Ringorou said nothing, the only sound Naruto’s heavy breathing. Several of the Samurai were watching, unreadable expressions on their faces.
“You’ve been trained in the use of chakra,” Ringorou said, and Naruto felt his breath catch in his throat. If the Samurai wanted to kill him, there was nothing he could do now. Ringorou was faster than he was.
Ringorou withdrew the blade, sheathing it. “Your use of chakra is unrefined. You lack focus, Naruto-san.”
The unexpected admonishment left Naruto shocked, but he bowed in thanks regardless. He wanted to give voice to his disagreement. His father, Kanade, and Baki all said he had phenomenal control over his chakra. However, he was rarely allowed to use it in conjunction with Taijutsu.
In fact, the number of times he’d been given permission to do so could be counted on one hand. The most notable being his spar with Rasa in his father’s palace.
“You need to refine your chakra. Hone it like a sharp blade.”
Naruto nodded and began looking around for the katana as he rubbed the spot on his neck where the wakizashi had pressed.
Ringorou’s sudden movement drew Naruto’s attention back to him. The Samurai was holding the wakizashi at arm’s length to his side, completely rigid. Naruto was utterly confused for a moment before he saw the pink sakura leaf slowly twirling through the air.
It barely touched Ringorou’s blade and was cleanly split in two. Naruto didn’t have to activate his Byakugan to know what had happened. He’d seen this technique before, but he was surprised that Ringorou was using it.
“You can use chakra…” Naruto murmured, although he wasn’t sure why he was surprised. Ringorou nodded and sheathed the short sword once again.
“Chakra is far more than just a tool of the Shinobi, Naruto-san. All humans possess chakra. Although most never have enough to use it for anything more than simple existence.”
Ringorou gestured toward something on Naruto’s left, and he turned to see the katana lying in the grass. Picking it up, he again marveled at how easy it was to lift the heavy blade.
The weapon in hand, he turned to Ringorou to see the Samurai gesturing toward the branches of the sakura tree above. Several leaves were slowly slipping through the air, and Naruto immediately understood.
“Use your chakra to cut a leaf, not the blade. The katana is but a conduit for your own power.” Ringorou instructed, and Naruto nodded.
He held the large blade in front of him with both hands, the sharp edge pointed up. Chakra surged through both of his arms and into the weapon. To both his and Ringorou’s surprise, the metal glowed faintly with white light. He looked up at Ringorou in concern, but the Samurai simply gestured for him to continue.
One leaf had floated down toward the upturned blade, and Naruto drove the chakra to circulate within the katana faster. He tried to force it to extend beyond the edge of the metal as much as possible.
He was to be disappointed, however. Upon nearing his chakra, the leaf was gently pushed aside, unharmed.
Hours sped by before Ringorou finally gave permission for a break. Naruto gratefully accepted the chance to sit down.
His legs felt like jelly, and he managed to stumble over to the sakura tree’s trunk before collapsing next to it. His breath came in heavy bursts, and his hair was horribly matted from perspiration.
However, despite the exhaustion of his body, he actually felt utterly awake, which shocked him.
He had thrown himself with abandon into every exercise Ringorou had given him. Numerous Kata had been explained to him, demonstrated, and then performed repeatedly. He hadn’t complained once and had refused to ask for a break himself.
Naruto had gotten the sense that Ringorou was surprised, perhaps even a bit impressed. He hadn’t been driving himself so hard to impress Ringorou, though. The training was the perfect cure to the torturous thoughts in his head.
Even this slight respite threatened to bring them all crashing back in, and Naruto nearly leaped to his feet to beg to continue training. He was stopped by a boot appearing on the grass in front of him, however.
He looked up to find a Samurai whose name he didn’t yet know offering him a wineskin. He bowed his head in thanks and accepted the offered drink. It was refreshingly cool, and he did his best to not look desperate. Of course, it was water inside, not actual saké.
Once he’d drunk his fill, Naruto leaned the skin against the trunk and got to his feet. Ringorou looked at him with a raised eyebrow as he turned and bowed deeply.
When he lifted his head, Naruto saw a sparkle of amusement in the Samurai’s eyes.
“Thank you, Ringorou-sensei,” Naruto said. Ringorou laughed and gestured for him to sit back down. He happily obeyed, joining the man in watching the three-colored koi-fish in the pond not far from the sakura tree.
Naruto smiled a genuine natural smile. Despite the tsunami of questions, worries, and doubt roaring in his thoughts, he felt at peace. Content to just enjoy the shade of the sakura tree.
Several minutes passed by. Naruto closed his eyes, enjoying the slight breeze as it blew through his hair.
“What did I teach you today, Naruto-san?” Ringorou asked suddenly, and Naruto opened his eyes.
“You taught me the kiai, and the okuri-ashi, as well as the do-uchi.” Naruto replied immediately. All of which were various Kata, which was basically combinations of moves in a set pattern. Ringorou had said that in actual combat, you would never use a known kata. However, it was an excellent way to get used to moving in such a way. “I was overeager in our spars, often attacking when I ought to have defended, and therefore leaving myself open.” Naruto continued.
Ringorou nodded and raised a hand, pausing Naruto mid explanation. “What did I say before our first spar, Naruto-san?”
Naruto looked down at the ground for a moment, recalling the conversation they’d had. It had been less than twelve hours ago, but it felt like days ago.
“About the true purpose of Kendo?” Naruto asked, and Ringorou nodded.
“Kendo was created to mold the mind and body, to cultivate a vigorous spirit and through correct and structured training, strive for improvement in the art of Kendo,” Naruto recited, not struggling to keep his tone respectful. At first, he’d doubted Kendo, but that had changed rather quickly. “To hold in esteem courtesy and honor. To associate with others with sincerity, and to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.”
Ringorou didn’t say anything, and Naruto began mulling over his own words. It was obvious that his new sensei wanted him to understand something. However, after a few moments, he was forced to admit defeat.
The burly and heavily-built Samurai smiled. Naruto saw past that, though, picking up on the pain in Ringorou’s eyes.
“Let me tell you a story, Naruto.”
Naruto listened intently.
“Many years ago, I worked for one of the Lords. My job was to protect the Lord’s son, a boy named Noboru.” Ringorou said. He paused. “You remind me a lot of Noboru.”
“What do you mean, Ringorou-sensei?” Naruto asked, and Ringorou gestured for him to be quiet.
“Like you, Naruto, this boy was struggling with who he was and what he wanted to be. He’d never been allowed to make a choice for himself. His father decided everything.”
Naruto stared at Ringorou in shock, not needing to force himself to stay quiet.
“Against his father’s wishes, Noboru badly wanted to be a Samurai. I believe in many ways, this came from his natural desire to protect others. However, I feel it was also fueled by his need to decide something for himself, regardless of what it might be.
“His father wanted him to remain noble and forbade him from training to become a Samurai. Myself, and the rest of the guards, were ordered to never give any training to Noburu.”
Ringorou sighed, “However, Noboru implored me repeatedly to train him, and I couldn’t ignore the passion in his eyes. In secret, I trained him for months in the art of Kendo, and he learned quickly.”
“How could he train without his father discovering him?” Naruto inquired curiously. Ringorou shook his head, not admonishing him for interrupting again.
“With difficulty, but he persevered and trained without his father’s knowledge. At the same time, he continued to train under his father to eventually inherit his lands, power, and responsibility in running his father’s cities and villages.
“When it came time for him to make a decision, to stay a noble, or become a Samurai, which do you think he chose?”
Naruto immediately began to reply and then paused, uncertain.
“Become a Samurai,” Naruto said after a few moments. Ringorou chuckled but shook his head. Naruto was surprised.
“No, despite the two years I trained the boy, Noboru chose to take his father’s place. He told me that through Kendo and the refinement and peace it brought him, he was able to see he could better help people as a lord.”
Naruto couldn’t make sense of the sadness in Ringorou’s voice, which almost sounded bitter, regretful. The story seemed like it had a happy ending, but Naruto got the sense that Ringorou wasn’t telling him everything.
He watched the Samurai get to his feet and begin walking away, desperately trying to understand.
Kakunodate Village, Land of Storms, EN.
When one grew up in the desert, where the weather is either burning sunlight or sandstorms, it was a rare gift to see rain. Now though, Naruto was over it. He hadn’t really processed it when he’d woken up next to Gaara.
Since then, he’d managed to run away from knowing the truth, fall in a river, and then float for who knew how long. It had been nearly three weeks since he’d woken up in the room Ringorou had given him.
For the last four of those days, it had been constantly raining, and sunlight had returned a few hours ago. Wanting to enjoy the respite from the storms while he could, Naruto had clambered up onto the roof of the Samurai’s home and enjoyed the warmth.
Pale pupil-less eyes gazed across the landscape sprawled out before him, miles upon miles of sea-like green forests that terminated at a distant, unfamiliar mountain range.
The hour he’d spent up here so far had been needed. The warm sunshine on his ashen, unblemished skin was nice, although it kept reminding him of home. Naruto frowned, pulling his sleeves down further.
Every day since Ringorou had offered to teach him Kendo, Naruto had thrown himself into it without hesitation. From waking until he went to sleep, he trained, only stopping to eat. It had gotten to the point that Ringorou was forced to pass him off to some of the other Samurai just so he could do other things.
Naruto wasn’t bothered. While he knew he had to get stronger, he was training so hard because it kept the nightmares at bay. Nothing he did could stop them at night, but during the day, if he was focused on his training, they couldn’t torture him.
Another benefit was that due to the intensity of his training, all he had to do to fall asleep was stop channeling chakra. He would immediately collapse, and if he didn’t fight it, pass out. Naruto shook his head, looking at his own hand, seeing the chakra coursing through it with his Byakugan.
He didn’t know what was happening to his body. Every day, his reliance on his chakra to function got steadily more prominent. It took considerable effort to even get out of bed in the morning now without chakra.
A horrible realization had come to him over a week ago, one that Naruto had been trying to ignore. It was quite possible that he was dying, somehow. He didn’t want to believe it, but he couldn’t think of any other way to understand it.
Sighing, Naruto brushed his unkempt hair out of his face and cast his eyes upward. He didn’t need his Byakugan to see the roiling storm clouds in the distance. Having finally learned the name of the country he was in, Naruto could admit it was aptly named.
The Land of Storms could be a very dreary place.
It wouldn’t be long before the latest storm arrived, at which point he would have to go inside or be drenched. The land would be cast into shadow once again, and rainwater would race down the hills and collect in the rivers.
Naruto supposed that was why all the life here was so vibrant. Everything that couldn’t survive the constant deluge was ripped out by the roots, and any loose mud that could be moved had long since been.
Wanting to get the most out of the sunlight, Naruto leaned back on the large shingled roof and closed his eyes. The last few weeks had been almost a blur, but one that was heavily saturated with guilt.
Every night, he had debated setting out and looking for Gaara. He nearly left five days after waking up in Kakunodate village, but Ringorou had stopped him and asked where he was going. When he’d explained he was going upriver to find someone, Ringorou had inadvertently crushed the idea.
Ringorou explained that eight different rivers connected with the one he had floated down, and all of them went on for miles, nearly spanning the entire country. Essentially, saying that Gaara was near one of the rivers was about as meaningful as saying he was in the Land of Storms. It really didn’t narrow it down at all.
The country wasn’t even an eighth the size of the Land of Wind. However, that was still a massive area to cover by himself, even with the Byakugan.
The guilt hadn’t faded in the slightest, of course, and Naruto knew he would have to leave soon. Regardless of how unlikely it was that he’d find Gaara, he had to at least try.
What’s more, as Ringorou had warned him early on, the Samurai wouldn’t be staying in Kaunodate village for much longer. From listening in at dinners and lip-reading various conversations, Naruto had pieced together who the Samurai really were.
Ronin, waiting for orders from leaders of some sort of resistance. Apparently, the Shogun of the Land of Storms was somehow corrupt, but Naruto couldn’t precisely figure out what he’d done.
At least, Naruto was relieved to learn he wasn’t as far from his home country as he’d been afraid he was. The Land of Storms directly bordered the Land of Wind, which Naruto found hard to believe. The countries were polar opposites when it came to terrain and weather.
Naruto winced, stifling a pained cry as his vision exploded. He saw an uncountable number of images flashed by; flames, pain, destroyers floating above an apocalyptic world. Just as quickly, the images vanished, and Naruto was left heavily breathing on the roof, gripping his head.
The nightmares were getting worse, although they weren’t really nightmares. Naruto didn’t imagine them. He was forcefully shown them, dragged into them, although by who or why he didn’t have a clue. His instincts had made him hold back from revealing to anyone else the torture he endured.
The villagers he sometimes saw already gave him strange looks once they noticed his eyes and pale skin. Naruto’s hair was so unkempt and long that it was relatively easy to keep hidden what he had come to accept were horns. Of course, even his hair was starting to betray him. The brown dye he had regularly applied for the better part of his life was wearing out, and the actual color, white, was being revealed.
For some reason, none of the Samurai seemed to notice or care about his oddities, for which Naruto was thankful. There had only been a few cases where he’d failed to suppress a scream upon waking up from a nightmare, but Ringorou hadn’t pressed him about it.
Naruto sighed again, trying to let go of the tension and uncertainty he felt. Ringorou’s lessons had been equal parts physical training and lectures about the mindset of Kendo. It had been highly confusing at first, but Naruto felt like he was beginning to understand.
Opening his eyes, Naruto stared at the colossal dark clouds surging across the sky. He didn’t see them, though, still buried in his own thoughts.
Naruto wasn’t sure when it had happened, but sometime over the past few weeks, he had finally accepted the truth. At least partially. He was different, not human, and there was no denying it.
Several questions were born of that acceptance, but the most important was quite simple, if not terrifying.
Naruto breathed in deeply and sat up, ignoring the turmoil of emotions and thoughts. There would be time later to figure it all out. He needed to return to Sunagakure, but before that, he needed answers. To get the answers he wanted, he had to leave the Samurai and find Gaara. Zetsu wasn’t dead, which meant the creature was most likely with the Jinchūriki somewhere.
After going over his memories of waking up in the forest, Naruto had realized that Zetsu, whatever it was, probably hadn’t been lying. He got the sense that it had been following him for a very long time. Quite possibly his entire life.
A thunderous clap of lightning broke Naruto from his rumination, and he hurriedly got to his feet. He’d gotten soaked numerous times while training, but it was still an unpleasant sensation. He walked over the peak of the large roof and began making his way down the other side toward the courtyard. The minka all of the Samurai lived in was three stories tall, so it was quite a drop to the ground below.
However, Naruto didn’t make it that far. His attention was drawn to a Samurai sprinting at full-tilt from the tree-line several hundred paces beyond the courtyard. Chakra surged into Naruto’s eyes, and his Byakugan activated as he honed in on the Samurai.
Naruto felt his blood run cold as he noticed the look in the herculean man’s eyes. Something was wrong, something that could scare even a Samurai that was a giant among Shinobi.
“We’ve been found!”
Shifting his gaze, Naruto poured more chakra into his Byakugan, his vision phasing through layer after layer of trees behind the Samurai.
“The Shogun’s men are here!”
At almost the exact moment the Samurai shouted out his warning, Naruto located the approaching battalion. Sixty Samurai, all wearing armor that was much higher quality than the ronin’s armor, were marching through the trees in formation. They were lead by one man, whose armor was more extravagant than the others.
Naruto was shocked at the speed of the enemy Samurai’s approach, and he realized all of them were channeling chakra. It wasn’t how Shinobi used chakra, but it had some similarities. By his estimate, they would arrive in less than ten minutes.
The ronin’s loud shout had drawn the attention of the Samurai in the courtyard, who had run inside the building immediately. Naruto’s powerful Byakugan swept across the floors beneath him, seeing the ronin wrapping themselves in armor, strapping on swords. It took him a few seconds to locate Ringorou, and then he dropped off the roof.
Naruto dashed through the maze of hallways at a speed that would have looked like nothing more than a blur to a civilian. Narrowly avoiding several Samurai, Naruto reached Ringorou’s room and stopped in the open doorway.
The man he’d come to consider his sensei was strapping down his armor, his katana and wakizashi already tied to his hips. Ringorou didn’t notice him for a second.
“Get out of here, Naruto!” Ringorou ordered, “Go to the village. They will hide you.” Naruto nodded sluggishly, his eyes glued to Ringorou’s armor as the man donned layer after layer. He didn’t move.
“Move, Naruto!” Ringorou shouted, and Naruto jolted. Swallowing the knot in his throat, Naruto dashed down the hallway, heading toward the back of the building, toward the village.
He quickly slowed to a stop, his Byakugan surging through walls, hills, and trees to stop on the approaching Samurai. Every one of them was carrying a katana and some sort of secondary short sword. A brief glance at each revealed that they had chakra above, or equal to a Jōnin Shinobi in the Land of Wind.
Naruto’s Byakugan changed again, retreating toward him until Ringorou and the rest of ronin came into view. There were nearly thirty, and they were lining up in front of the house, facing the woods. They were outnumbered.
Blinking, Naruto deactivated his Byakugan and continued out the back of the minka house. Instead of heading toward the village, however, he used chakra to propel himself up the back of the building. The storms had arrived, and rain was already beginning to slick the shingles. The chakra coursing through the soles of his feet negated any lack of friction.
By the time he got on the roof, the thunder had grown in strength, and the newly arrived Samurai had broken free of the trees. Naruto watched them dash up the hill toward the ronin at breakneck speed.
However, neither the Samurai nor the ronin had drawn any weapons. The Samurai stopped thirty paces in front of the ronin, arranged in four rows of ten each behind their leader.
His Byakugan activated, but there was no conversation had that he could see. Ringorou was the ronin leader and thus stood at the forefront, meeting the Samurai commander’s stare. His Sensei’s status among the rest of the ronin hadn’t been evident initially, but Naruto had picked up on it over time.
Lightning thundered above, and the rain grew more intense. If not for his Byakugan, Naruto would have a hard time seeing the scene playing out below. On the flip side, he was nearly invisible on the roof.
There wasn’t any signal that Naruto saw, but all of the Samurai drew their weapons simultaneously as if planned. Ringorou and the ronin drew their own blades, and as one, charged forward.
Naruto stared blankly, watching a battle play out that he didn’t understand. He seemed numb, which seemed true given he couldn’t feel the rain that was battering him. Ronin after ronin fell to the ground, but most of them managed to take two or more Samurai with them.
It was utterly different from watching Shinobi fight. No one jumped, no one cast jutsu. It was simply sword against sword, speed and strength enhanced by chakra. There were techniques, of course, but they were all reliant on a weapon to use.
He realized he was crying.
Ronin after ronin dropped, either from lack of blood, decapitation or simply being run through by a sword. But yet the ronin refused to yield.
Naruto’s eyes widened as he saw Ringorou backing up after cleaving a Samurai’s head from his shoulders. Without the aid of his Byakugan, his sensei’s wounds wouldn’t be apparent, but he could see all of them. Gripping his katana in one hand and his wakizashi in the other, Ringorou stumbled unsteadily. He was covered in blood, a good deal of which was his own, and more that wasn’t.
Despite his steadily diminishing chakra and blood, Ringorou roared and dashed toward the Samurai. Naruto couldn’t hear his sensei over the thunder, but he could see the rage in the man’s eyes. Naruto wanted desperately to move, to rush to his sensei’s aid, but he couldn’t.
He could only watch, helpless, as Ringorou fought his way through Samurai after Samurai, trying to reach their commander.
One of the Samurai took advantage of Ringorou being forced to block two of his companions at the same time and stepped up behind him. Naruto finally rose to his feet, his scream of terror drowned out entirely by another clap of lightning.
His katana gleamed in the bright flash of light from the lightning, and then he drove it through Ringorou’s back. Naruto stared, his Byakugan locked on his sensei’s face.
Ringorou coughed up a mouthful of blood and pushed the two Samurai in front of him away. The one that had run him through retreated out of range, leaving his katana in Ringorou’s chest.
His sensei weakened quickly, and within a few seconds, fell to his knees. The anger in Ringorou’s eyes was gone, replaced with a look of regret that Naruto had seen many times but never understood. The burly ronin looked down at the blade jutting from his chest, a rueful expression on his face.
Naruto saw the exact moment in which Ringorou died. He saw his sensei’s heart stop beating, and the chakra flowing through him fade and vanish.
Whatever had been holding him back broke, and Naruto’s body thrummed from the chakra that surged through it. Shingles exploded in all directions.
Killing a child, even one that was trying to kill him, was something Hoshino Eisen wasn’t willing to do. When the pale-skinned boy had appeared next to the fallen ronin leader, he had immediately been on guard.
The boy’s scream had been full of anguish and pain as he knelt beside the ronin, and Eisen realized the dead man might have been the boy’s father or sensei. He felt a pang of regret, but it didn’t last. The man had been a traitor to the Shogun, although Eisen didn’t hold that against him.
Eisen saw several of his companions shake their heads and begin to turn away. None of them had wanted this. There was no joy in killing fellow Samurai, even ronin.
He had just sheathed his katana and was about to turn when he noticed the boy reach for something lying in the grass. Eisen hesitated as the boy lifted the fallen ronin’s katana, observing.
His caution ended up saving his life. Eisen had seen the boy use chakra when he’d appeared next to the ronin. Whirling sharply, the boy dashed toward him, hatred and anger on his face.
Eisen backed up quickly, giving himself enough space to draw his katana and block the boy’s swing. There was far more power behind the blow than he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t enough to be a threat.
Despite the boy’s repeated attacks, Eisen didn’t strike back. He continued to give ground with every blow, blocking each swing. His companions spread out around them, watching. It was obvious that dealing with the boy had fallen on him alone. He gritted his teeth.
He had seen the madness in the boy’s eyes before. Blow after blow rained down on him, and he noted that the boy had been trained in Kendo. Eisen wasn’t in danger, but the strength behind each attack was steadily climbing.
Still, he hesitated. He didn’t want to take the life of a boy who was only trying to avenge his fallen sensei. However, the boy’s momentum only continued to climb, and he was inevitably forced to retaliate.
With a flick of his wrist, Eisen pushed the boy’s strike back. Not expecting the sudden resistance, the boy was briefly thrown off balance, and Eisen struck. He tried to only wound the boy enough to stop him.
However, his blade never reached the crazed pale-skinned boy. With incredible speed, he leaped over Eisen’s katana and immediately began backpedaling. He observed the boy, realizing the fluidity with which the boy had evaded wasn’t something a Samurai would know.
It reminded him of a Shinobi, which worried him.
His suspicion proved correct when the boy leaped into the air a second later, twisting through the rain to bring the katana down on Eisen from above. He blocked the strike with his own blade and turned around, prepared to defend himself again.
Instead of attacking as Eisen expected, the boy simply stood still, the tip of the katana lying on the ground, his face mostly obscured behind his long hair. Eisen grit his teeth, flooding more chakra through his body as two red eyes glared at him.
There was pure hatred in the boy’s eyes, and Eisen abandoned his previous reservations. The boy was a Shinobi and if he wasn’t careful, could kill him.
He blocked the boy’s sudden punch with his forearm and shoved him away. Smoothly sheathing his sword, Eisen dropped into a stance, his hand on the grip of his weapon. There was no happiness in his face, only acceptance.
Chakra poured through his body, not to strengthen it but to enhance his speed and coat the edge of his blade. In one quick, seemingly effortless draw of his sword, he cut through the boy’s descending katana and immediately sheathed his weapon.
Eisen closed his eyes and sighed.
The boy glared at him with demonic red eyes that burned with hatred, but Eisen could see pain and confusion as well. He bowed his head, trying to apologize in some way for what he had done. He didn’t take any pleasure in striking down a child, Shinobi or not.
With a look of disbelief and shock on his face, the boy looked down at his chest, observing the gash Eisen’s Laido had made. It started at his left hip and ended at his right shoulder, and blood gushed out profusely. The boy stumbled back, looking as if about to fall. However, once again, the peculiar boy surprised Eisen. Turning unsteadily, he dashed toward the forest with an incredible burst of chakra, vanishing within moments.
Eisen shook his head, resigned.