Spirals Hidden in the Leaves
The Land of Fire was truly beautiful as autumn settled in. The swaths of groves and forests slowly changed from light and dark greens to blazing red, orange, and gold. The chill in the air was perfect, a fine balance between the heat of summer and the cold of winter.
Had the single traveler on the road to Konohagakure, the Village Hidden in the Leaves, been in a proper state of mind, he would have enjoyed it. But he was not in a proper state of mind — no, grief weighed upon him like a lead blanket. The hood of his shirt was drawn up, a neckerchief wrapped around his face to keep out the dust. And even then, any passersby would have felt the haze of sorrow.
In the traveler's long-lost culture, it was said that death was not an end. Rather, it was a metamorphosis. Like the emergence of a butterfly from its cocoon, a chick growing into a swan, even the recoloring of the leaves, it was simply a form of change. It was shedding the husk of the material and taking one's place in the Pure Lands.
But that didn't make the loss for the still-living any less painful. Especially as this loss was the traveler's only known blood.
The traveler clenched his fists and forcibly stood straighter, his strides longer. What was he doing? Had the departed seen him like this, he would have gotten an earful about self-pity and enduring and moving forward. Which was what he was to do. Now he was free to do as he wanted, as were the departed's final wishes.
So the traveler straightened his coat and secured the large, chain-wrapped scroll hanging across his back. It was only a few miles away, the Hidden Village. He would make a new life for himself there. And he would slowly begin to rebuild ...
The village of Konohagakure was, to all intents and purposes, a strong and vibrant community. It's ninja were powerful, its economy stable, and its people generally friendly. Had it not been known beforehand, few would guess that a great tragedy had befallen the village a mere seven years previous.
On that forsaken day, the terror known as the Nine-Tailed Fox had appeared in the village and unleashed its hateful fury. Only the bravery and power of Minato Namikaze, the Fourth Hokage, had been able to defeat the beast, to minimize the damage. If one could call all the destruction and death that had still been inflicted "minimized."
The darkest day in the village's history was a sore point for most of the village. Everyone had lost someone to the Nine Tails that day. But the damage had been repaired, and grief had started to heal. The only problem remaining, at least to most of the populace, was that the Fox was still alive. Sealed away inside a small boy.
Said boy could be found, as per usual for him, sitting at the Ichiraku ramen stand. What was not usual was the air of melancholy that had settled over the usually energetic boy. Rather than scarfing down his favorite meal, he stirred his chopsticks in the broth, only occasionally taking bites, and even then with far less gusto.
Young Naruto had started at the Shinobi Academy last year, the standard age. He didn't really care for the Academy, finding most of the classes boring and constricting. He wanted to be a ninja, already! To learn awesome ninjutsu and protect the village! To prove to the villagers that seemed to hate him for no reason, once and for all, that he was worthy of their praise.
Of anyone's praise.
To that end, he had chosen to strive for the most respected position in the entire village: the mantle of the Hokage, the Fire Shadow. The most powerful ninja in the village, the leader who guided the village into prosperity. He knew that if he could become the best, that if he could earn that wide hat, he would finally earn the respect he craved.
And while on any day he would loudly proclaim his goal with pride and utter confidence … today was different. Try as he might, he couldn't get those damned words out of his head.
You'll never be the best! You barely have a name, much less a clan! You're a nobody!
Naruto winced as the memory returned yet again, clenching his eyes shut against the faint sting of tears. Those words had been spat at him by a girl in his class, not to his declaration that he would become Hokage, but to his near-daily challenge against Sasuke Uchiha. Sasuke, who had a veritable club of fangirls at the ripe age of newly eight years, who was strong, and cool, and … everything Naruto secretly wished he himself could be.
But it was the last part that had hit him the hardest. "Nobody." He had a name, Uzumaki. One that he was determined to spread across the Elemental Nations as a name of pride, respect, and fear from the enemies of Konoha. But now … it was just a name. He wasn't even sure it was really his since his parents were dead and he knew precious little about them. It may have come from his father, or his mother … or it may have been made up for his sake as a baby.
As Naruto slowly worked through his emotions, he could only wonder one thing. What did his name really mean?
As the sun hit the midway point between noon and the horizon, the gates of Konohagakure were manned by a pair of newly-minted chunin. Both were only part-way through their shift and completely bored. Gate duty was generally dull at the best of times, and today foot traffic had been slow.
As one chunin lightly dozed, the other straightened as he caught sight of a single person on the road. He tossed a metal ball bearing at his partner, jarring him from his nap to stand at attention. It took a few minutes for the stranger to finally reach the gate, which gave the guards plenty of time to assess him.
Average height, slender build beneath a blue neckerchief, hooded shirt and leather coat, with a large leather scroll case wrapped in chains slung across his back. The aforementioned hood and a neckerchief kept them from catching anything else until he was right before them. The stranger gently removed his hood and pulled down his neckerchief to reveal a brunette with brown eyes and a darkly tanned complexion, a bandage on his right cheek.
"Good day, gentlemen," the man said solemnly.
"Identification," one of them said, his dull tone bred from repetition. The man nodded and produced a few sheets of paper. The chunin's eyebrow rose at the sight of, not a passport, but a library card. A library card from the Land of Cliffs with a photo that matched the man before him. The chunin winced at the irregularity but sighed and handed it back. While passports were the general form of identification, official documents such as checkbooks, birth certificates, and even library cards were technically allowed.
"Enjoy your time in Konoha," the chunin said. The man nodded and moved along. The other chunin guard watched the man carefully as he moved down the road, eyes narrowed. After a few moments he shrugged it off. If the stranger caused trouble, the ANBU would handle it.
So self assured, neither chunin noticed the stranger wander off the main road of the village and into the shadow cast between two buildings. So hidden, he peeled the bandage off of his cheek, revealing the underside to bear an intricate ninja seal.
The stranger produced a lit match and burned the tag, destroying the seal and the Transformation anchored to it. His appearance wavered for a moment, only to resettle onto fair skin and blue-grey eyes. But what really stood out was his hair.
Hair of a bright scarlet hue.
After a while, Naruto was able to work his way out of the funk he'd been in since class ended. He hardened his resolve, determined to prove any of his doubters in class or the rest of the village wrong. Few may know his name now, but that would change. When he became Hokage, the name Uzumaki would ring with awe and respect throughout the land!
Naruto pumped his fist and dove into his tragically lukewarm ramen. But hey, lukewarm was better than nothing, and he wasn't so monstrous as to throw away perfectly good food — especially ramen. Naruto chomped down on his food, already thinking about challenging Sasuke the jerk to a fight tomorrow to show him who was boss, when someone sat beside him.
"What is that delectable smell?" the man asked.
Naruto's mouth fell open, letting half-chewed noodles fall back into his bowl. "This is Ichiraku ramen, y'know! It's the best food in the world, the food of the gods!"
"Naruto, calm down," said a lovely teenage girl behind the counter. Ayame, daughter of the owner and one of the few people who treated him right. She wagged her finger at him before smiling at the newcomer. "What can I get you, kind sir?"
The man tapped his chin for a moment, eyes wandering the menu, before nodding to himself. "I think I'll take salt ramen with mushrooms and garlic," he said simply.
"Coming right up," Ayame replied before heading back into the kitchen.
As they waited, the man glanced at Naruto, then at the non-steaming bowl before him. "Hmm, I've never met someone who preferred cold ramen," he commented. "But then again, who am I to judge?"
Naruto frowned and glared at his cold noodles before slumping down. "I don't like it cold. I got all broody and ignored my bowl. But cold ramen is better than nothing."
The man quirked an eyebrow and smiled, drawing a small book from his pocket. He opened it to the inside cover and pressed a thumb to a seal emblazoned in the leather. With a pulse of chakra, he produced sealing paper, a brush, and chakra-infused ink. A few deft strokes and another chakra pulse later and he resealed all of his gear, leaving only the tag.
Naruto had watched all of this with wide eyes. This guy was a ninja? Before he could follow this line of reasoning, the newcomer had slipped the sealing tag under his bowl. The seal flared with orange light and, within seconds, the broth and noodles were steaming again.
"Whoa! Cool!" the boy said before digging in.
"Guess that counts as my good deed for the day," the man said with a faint smile. As if on cue, Ayame returned with a steaming bowl, the man's order. He nodded his thanks and clasped his hands, uttering the traditional "Itadakimasu" before taking a bite himself. A single bite was all it took for the man's eyes to balloon. After a second, he was scarfing it down like his life depended on it.
When he was done, the man gave a contented sigh. He waved for Ayame's attention and asked for her name. Upon receiving it, "I have travelled all over the world and tasted ramen from pretty much anywhere that isn't too far east. And this may very well be the best ramen I have ever had!" The man grinned. "My sincerest compliments to the chef."
Ayame smiled kindly. "I'll be sure to tell my father," she assured before returning to the back.
Naruto had to clamp his hands over his mouth to keep from laughing. "So you liked it?" he squeezed out.
"I did," he said. "Very much. I'll have to come back here soon." The man stood and pulled on the leather coat that he'd kept over his lap. As he settled it around his shoulders, Naruto caught a familiar symbol etched into the left breast. The swirly thingy that lots of ninja wore on their backs or shoulders.
Naruto's thoughts were interrupted by a hand thrust into his view. One that was attached to the newcomer. "Thanks for the recommendation," he said. "The name's Ken. What's yours?"
Naruto paused before answering. Was this guy not afraid of him? He wasn't glaring, and he was actually being friendly, like Ayame or Teuchi or the Hokage. He smiled as he resolved not to think about it too hard. He took the man's hand in a firm grip, or as firm as a seven-year-old could muster.
"Naruto!" he answered, deciding to omit his last name for some reason. "The name's Naruto!"
In his office, Hiruzen Sarutobi tapped his favorite pipe on his desk, settling the tobacco before returning it to his lips. When he'd woken up this morning, he had expected a rather typical day. Paperwork mostly, handing out missions, judging the economic and emotional state of the village at large. You know, the usual.
He had not, in any way, expected the emergence of one of his greatest regrets.
Before him, sporting a bruised cheekbone and split lip, sat a young man in chakra-suppressing manacles. When they had clicked over his wrists, the boy had examined the seal-work on the manacles, clearly interested. After a few moments, he had abandoned his examination and settled to return Hiruzen's stare with minimal flinching.
How he had ended up here was quite the odd story, according to his ANBU guards. The young man had arrived at Hokage Tower and asked, quite politely according to the shinobi at the front desk, to see the Hokage on a matter of utmost importance. She had, with equal courtesy, informed him that the Hokage was busy and offered to set him up an appointment a few days from now.
That, apparently, had been the wrong thing to say. The young man had strolled past the front desk with a scowl on his face and attempted to find him on his own. After ignoring warnings, he had engaged a number of administrative chunin in hand-to-hand combat. Intermixed with kicks and punches, he had planted unusual seal tags on several of the shinobi, which had blocked their chakra and caused severe disorientation.
If he was right, such skill in sealing techniques was not a surprise.
After the administration had failed to bring him down, the ANBU had gotten involved. And when ANBU got involved, things tended to move along much faster. As per protocol in such situations, the ANBU had escorted him to the T&I Department, where he was to be held until a high-ranking shinobi could interrogate him as to his motives. Upon being apprehended and locked in this very chair … only then had he delivered the phrase that had shaken the Third almost to his core.
"The Whirlpool has returned to the forest."
The ANBU had dutifully delivered this message to him in hopes that it would lead to cooperation in the investigation, the one that had brought Hiruzen such shock. On his command, the ANBU had escorted the man to his office and left, sealing the room behind them. That had been fifteen minutes ago, during which Hiruzen had examined as much of the situation as possible. Very few knew exactly how much meaning was behind the elements of that single phrase, and even fewer still of this young man's age. Which means he had to have learned from the source.
The young man before him was of average height and slenderly muscular build. His skin was pale and his eyes, a bright blue-grey, were firm and unyielding. He was dressed in a long-sleeved grey hooded shirt with drawstrings, a familiar symbol sewn into the left breast, with a blue neckerchief, rust-red cargo pants and leather boots. A large scroll case wrapped in chains sat beside him, something he'd had on him when he'd been arrested and refused to part with.
But what drew attention more than anything else was his hair. A bright shade of scarlet that was just long enough to hang at the line of his shoulders and pulled back in a loose tail — a color that brought memories from several times in his life to the forefront of his mind. It brought to mind a noble and dignified woman whom he respected almost as much as her husband that was his own teacher. It also brought to mind a young spitfire who had taken all who knew her by storm.
And it brought to mind a tragedy in the Hidden Leaf's history, one that the modern populace had tragically forgotten.
Hiruzen took a moment to mould sensory chakra, to expand his perceptions and examine the boy further. And what he felt left no question. The boy's chakra was shining, vibrant, and overflowing with vitality. The signature was different, of course, but everyone had subtle differences. It was also too similar to those he'd known before to be a coincidence, and the manacle on his wrists would prevent him from disguising that signature, even if he could have hoped to falsify that sheer sense of vitality.
"I know of your people, boy," Hiruzen said, finally breaking the silence. "So why, after all this time, have you come here?"
"For permanence," the boy replied evenly. "Ever since I was born, I have known nothing but change, never living anywhere for longer than a year. This village and mine were once allies, long ago. I had hoped that you hadn't forgotten old friends."
Hiruzen pressed his lips into a thin line at the boy's tone. It wasn't accusatory, per se. But he was still pressing the concept of "allies" and "old friends" fairly thickly. And though he had expected this, it still hurt a bit. After all, he was far from wrong.
"And what, pray tell, do you hope to do here?"
The boy gave a sardonic smile. "I would prefer to be a ninja, Lord Hokage. But if that is not possible, I have an alternative. I am quite familiar with my clan's famed skill set and would be open to becoming a … consultant of sorts in that area."
Hiruzen sat a bit straighter at these words. Assuming he was being truthful, and his examination of his manacles gave credence to his honesty, it would be a significant asset to the village. But first …
"You thought it would be a good idea to begin a prospective shinobi career by forcing an audience with their leader? Your hypothetical commander?"
The boy paled a bit but pushed on. "I have precious little money, Lord Hokage. How was I to live even a few weeks in this village? No, I thought expedience would be a better course."
Hiruzen chuckled at that, reminded once again of lost friends. He tapped his fingernail against the stem of his pipe as he thought over the situation. Whether as a shinobi or a sealing specialist, the boy's apparent talents would be of great use to the village. And he was right … A great debt was owed to this boy, to his bloodline if not to him personally. And deeper than that, he felt that this boy — this young man — meant no harm to him or his own. He truly wanted to serve to the best of his ability. To serve something greater than himself.
After several minutes of silent deliberation … "Very well," he said.
The young man's eyes widened. "What?" he asked.
"I will allow you to test for skills as a shinobi. Should you meet our expectations, you will be placed into our ranks as a genin, subject to examination through your mission record. For all intents and purposes, you will be a shinobi of Konohagakure."
With a single hand sign, he summoned an ANBU to unlock the manacles from his unexpected guest's wrists. After that, he removed a set of blank registration forms from his desk and handed it to the redhead. "Fill these out, please," he said with a grin.
The young man nodded and took a pen, making quick work of the forms. After taking them back, along with a folder with the young man's previous mission records, Hiruzen looked them over, committing each and every word to his impressive memory. After finishing the forms and signing off, Hiruzen stood and shook the young man's hand.
"Welcome to Konohagakure … Ken Uzumaki," Hiruzen said warmly. The young man, Ken, nodded with a smile.
Over the next ten minutes or so, the two hashed out Ken's living arrangements for the time being. In the end, he was to be given an assigned house owned by the Sarutobi clan (in effect making the Lord Third his de facto landlord) and an advance on his pay from the Konoha government to live off of, to be paid off after he began either taking missions or filling commissions on seals. Preferably both. His examinations to determine his fitness to be a shinobi were to be given two days from now, after which he would be assigned to a team to help him adjust to Konoha.
After everything was settled, Ken swallowed thickly, one last question on the tip of his tongue. "Lord Hokage, I thank you for your support … and patience and lenience. But I have to ask …" He winced faintly, but took a deep breath and soldiered on. "Have I any relatives here?" He closed his eyes, clearly in preparation for disappointment.
Hiruzen grinned. "There is a single Uzumaki here, a resident of the village." Ken's eyes shot open and he stared at the old Hokage in disbelief. "Would you like to meet him?"
The silence from Ken was answer enough.
Hiruzen summoned one of his ANBU and ordered him to locate the boy and bring him here immediately. The ANBU left without a word. After a quarter-hour of waiting, the ANBU returned to the office, carrying a struggling boy over his shoulder. "Hey! Put me down! I mean it, this is no way to treat your future boss!"
The ANBU unceremoniously dropped the boy, bowed to the Hokage, and disappeared. The child stood up and angrily brushed the dust off his black shirt, adjusted his goggles, and turned to face him.
"What's the big idea, Old Man? If you wanted to talk, you could have just had your guy say so, or meet me at Ichiraku's. I'm all for spending time with ya, y'know! So what's so important that I get friggin' kidnapped?"
"Naruto," Hiruzen said with a tone that bespoke saintly patience. "Perhaps you would like to meet your cousin?"
Naruto froze and looked to the other person in the room, the one who had turned around at the sound of his name. Someone that Naruto recognized. "You?" he asked.
"You," Ken replied, stunned at the sheer coincidence that they had met earlier in the day. The two stared at each other for a few moments, neither blinking.
Hiruzen coughed into his fist to break the silence. "Ken Uzumaki, meet your little cousin. Naruto, this is Ken."
Good day to all, and thank you for checking out my latest long-term work.
For those of you who have issues with major OCs, you may not enjoy this work. I myself don't typically enjoy such stories in settings with such varied casts, such as Naruto, so I hold no hard feelings. But for the story I wanted to tell, I couldn't find any canon characters that fit the bill.
^This story was originally conceived to address facets of the Naruto setting that I feel were tragically underrepresented, and so I will be focusing on them quite a bit here in my own way. These include:
* The Uzumaki clan, their sealing and hiden techniques, and bit bit of application of sealing arts in general. The Uchiha got the definite lion's share of development, and the Hyuga, Nara-Akimichi-Yamanaka trio, and Aburame got decent representation, too. By contrast, I always thought the Uzumaki were tossed some bread crumbs and left in the dust.
*The Sarutobi clan. This is another I feel was neglected by canon. Seriously, the only clan members we have named are directly related to Hiruzen, either parents (name-dropped Sasuke Sarutobi), spouse or childrens' spouse (Kurenai, Biwako), or children or great/grandchildren (Asuma, Konohamaru, Mirai). But a single panel from the 4th War arc implied the clan is quite large, and I want to explore that. Side note: As Hiruzen bears a striking resemblence to Sun Wukong, the monkey king from "Journey to the West" - and not just because of Monkey King Enma - a lot of details of the Sarutobi will be inspired by him.
* Nations and villages unseen or hardly seen in canon.
*** Naturally, this is an incomplete list and will be expanded over time.
^For those of you who are concerned about Ken, I assure you I will be doing everything I can to keep him from being OP. Naruto will ALSO avoid OP status to the best of my ability. Yes, Naruto has talent. But he's also a book-dumb late bloomer.
^Due to Kishimoto's focus on meaningful names - and my own fascination with the idea - I will be giving original characters as meaningful names as I can. "Ken" as a Japanese name means "healthy" or "strong", appropriate for an Uzumaki, whose clan bore powerful life forces. It is also a common English name and doesn't trip up my word-correction.
At any rate, I hope you all liked this intro. More is to come. Leave a review if you liked it - I'd love to know what you appreciated most.