As the moon reached its peak in the sky, its silvery beams found Ken Uzumaki in arguably the strangest place he'd ever been. Up until now, that spot had been held by camping in the bamboo and great mushroom forests of the Land of Flora. That had been strange, even though he himself loved mushrooms.
But tonight found him lying on his bedroll … on the floor of a room in an orphanage. The evening was like a haze to him, one of his oldest and least-likely dreams having come true in a most unexpected way. He still had family! Family that had been in Konoha this whole time!
'Told you so, Grandfather,' Ken thought, faux smugness mixed with aching grief. If only his grandfather had agreed to come to Konoha … could they have reestablished the fledgling clan even earlier? As the night wore on and sleep continued to elude him, Ken thought over everything that had happened after the Lord Hokage had introduced the long-lost cousins.
Naruto, unsurprisingly, had been a mix of joyous and furious with the news. He had tackled Ken in a hug, which then devolved into pounding him with his little fists as he begged and demanded with tears streaming from his eyes where he had been, why had he never met him, why now to show up out of nowhere?
When Naruto had calmed down, Ken had explained the broad strokes of his story, the ones that were not immediately painful. He and his guardian had stayed away from Konoha for personal reasons, ones that Ken himself disagreed with but respected. That was also why they had never met until now. And now that his guardian had passed away, he had decided to finally come to the village and set down roots.
After his explanation, Hiruzen had formally offered Ken legal custody of Naruto, as his only living relative. Ken, predictably, had been stunned. Sure, he was in his twenties, but he had no experience in raising a child. But one look into those big, blue eyes had had him agreeing without even realizing it.
And so here he was, in Naruto's room at the local orphanage. Much of Naruto's belongings were packed already. The caretakers of the orphanage had been … remarkably helpful in that regard. Suspiciously helpful, given the odd glares they had shot the child all through the process. Frankly, had the Hokage not needed at least several hours to arrange the assigned house for them he would have moved them out immediately.
A particularly loud snore drew Ken's attention to his new cousin. "Clansman" may have been the more accurate term for those as distantly related as them (that would be his assumption until he had time to consult the genealogy scrolls), but the Uzumaki clan had never been much for formality. Cousin it would be.
On impulse, Ken sat up and examined the boy. His face was in profile, the other side mashed into his pillow and thin blanket. Ken's gaze was naturally drawn to the boy's blonde hair, a sharp contrast to his own scarlet locks. Part of him was disappointed that Naruto didn't bear the red of an Uzumaki, but that was easily brushed aside. If the stories were to be believed, Uzumaki red had always had a hard fight against blond genes. Tsunade of the Sannin, granddaughter of the famed Mito Uzumaki, was further evidence of that idea.
The next thing he examined was the strange marks on Naruto's cheeks. Objectively, they resembled whiskers. It was highly unlikely that they were birthmarks, at least natural ones. Birthmarks were never so symmetrical, especially in numbers of six. Curious …
Finally, he looked over Naruto as a whole. This boy, like him, embodied the last hope of the all-but-lost Uzumaki clan. He had clearly had a hard life given the glares they had received from the villagers on their brief trip to the orphanage. But perhaps now … Ken felt pressure build in his throat, his eyes beginning to burn, and a tear rolled down his cheek. He gently ran his fingers through the blond spikes on Naruto's head. Just as his grandfather had done to him as a boy.
'We are family, Naruto,' Ken thought with conviction. The forgotten legendary conviction of the Uzumaki. 'And I will not let anyone hurt you.'
With that, Ken brushed the heel of his hand over his eye to wipe away the tears and settled back into his bedroll. It was late, and the Hokage had requested that he have another visit in the morning. Something vague about "things he needed to know about the village."
After dropping Naruto off at the Academy section of the campus, Ken made the short way to the administrative doors of Hokage Tower for his appointment. He passed the front desk with no incident, though he did receive a nasty look from the ninja manning it. One of those that he had beaten up yesterday, if the bandaged nose and pair of black eyes were any indication.
After passing the ANBU guards, Ken found the Hokage writing something, apparently taking the first crack at the mounds of paperwork on his desk. Ken took a seat and removed a small book from his coat, deciding to read to pass the time. But no sooner had he found the correct page than Hiruzen put aside his form and fixed Ken with a firm look.
"Good morning, young man," he said, warmth somehow bleeding through his faint scowl. Was he angry or just uncomfortable? Ken replaced his book and sat up.
"Any word on when I can become a ninja?" Ken asked. Above everything else, he needed to start making an income.
Hiruzen cracked a faint smile at that, something in his gaze saying he knew Ken's reasons for the inquiry. "As I said yesterday, you will be tested tomorrow morning. I have arranged for our Jonin Commander and a pair of Academy instructors to test you out." His faint grin faded. "But this is not why I have summoned you here. There are things you must know to be a shinobi of Konoha, and even more so if you are to be Naruto's guardian."
Ken lifted his eyebrows in surprise. The ninja thing, sure, he could understand needing specific knowledge for that. But … what did any of this have to do with Naruto?
"I am certain," Hiruzen continued, "that you are somewhat familiar with the Nine-Tails attack almost eight years ago?" Ken nodded, eyes narrowed in confusion. "Well, there are parts of that night that the village has carefully kept hidden." With those cryptic words, the Hokage launched into a detailed account of Naruto's parents, particularly their backstories and even more so their roles in the village. This was followed by a detailed account of everything he knew about the Nine Tails' attack.
By the end of it, Ken was more speechless than he'd ever been in his life.
Naruto had never been the most quiet or still student even at the best of times. He had more energy than he knew what to do with and could never seem to keep still for more than a few moments. In addition, he had a rather short attention span in regards to anything he deemed "uncool," which was about ninety percent of the Academy curriculum.
But today he struggled to focus on the lesson for an entirely different reason than boredom. Quite the opposite, he was excited beyond belief! He had FAMILY! As sudden and as unexpected as his arrival was, Naruto was thrilled beyond belief to be able to say that.
True, Cousin Ken had asked him, very clearly and firmly, to keep his existence a secret for now. When Naruto had asked why, Ken had huffed a laugh and asked him to just humor a paranoid fool. Naruto had laughed and agreed to keep quiet until Ken said otherwise.
"Naruto! Pay attention!" Iruka barked, drawing his focus back to the present.
Naruto grumbled, but did as he was told. But even as he tried to absorb the lesson, this one on geography of the continent, he couldn't help but think about Cousin Ken and what would happen after class. He'd said they would be moving into a house owned by the Old Man, and that soon Ken would test to become a ninja!
When Naruto had asked if he could be tested, Ken had fixed him with a stern look and asked him what chakra was. Naruto had paused and tried to recall the word that he'd definitely heard in the Academy, but had come up short. Ken had chuckled and ruffled Naruto's hair with promises that graduation would come sooner than he thought. When he was ready, and not a moment earlier.
"Now, class, you'll be meeting instructor Daikuko in the training yard for taijutsu practice," Iruka announced. Naruto brightened at that and hurriedly packed his things before racing out of the classroom, chased by Iruka's cries to stop running. Rather than simply slow down, Naruto had an idea and turned on his heel to, much more slowly, return to Iruka's room.
"Naruto?" Iruka asked in surprise as he straightened his notes. "Is everything okay?"
Naruto took a deep breath and swallowed before speaking. "Instructor Iruka, what exactly is chakra?"
Ken's eye was twitching. In addition, his jaw was clamped shut, his lips were pressed firmly together, and his fingers had a deathgrip on the armrests of his chair. But then, this reaction would be rather typical for anyone who had heard the tale he'd been told. A tale of love and loss, of joy and tragedy, of hope and despair. The story of Naruto's parents, Minato Namikaze and Kushina Uzumaki.
Most of all, the story of how they had died and the secrets that surrounded that night.
Ken took a deep breath and let it out, slowly easing his grip on the chair. Only after several repetitions and finally releasing the wooden rests did he allow himself to speak. "After seven years, do you really think your laws have had the desired effect?" Ken bit out, just barely keeping his voice level.
Hiruzen sighed, smoke pouring from his nose with the action. "Unfortunately, I cannot," he admitted. "While the law of secrecy upon Naruto's status was meant to protect him, I fear I sorely underestimated the tenaciousness of hatred."
Ken growled and massaged his forehead. That was the understatement of the century! But as much as part of him wanted nothing more than to scream at the top of his lungs and hurl insults and profanities at the man before him, he held himself back. For one, Hiruzen had acted with the best of intentions and the faith in humanity that Ken's own grandfather had often tried to keep up. For another, he felt he had already pushed his luck with insubordination the day before and would gain absolutely nothing with empty words.
The past had come and gone, but the future could still be changed.
"Lord Hiruzen," Ken started, weighing each word with as much care as he could, "I formally request that you revoke the law of silence regarding Naruto's status. Immediately."
Hiruzen narrowed his eyes. He'd anticipated the request, though not its suddenness. "On what grounds?" he asked, neither agreement nor denial.
"Pragmatism," Ken replied. "As well as simplicity. It clearly has not worked out like you had hoped, and the fact is that the children of this village hold Naruto in disdain for reasons they don't understand in the slightest. They deserve to know. But far more than that, Naruto deserves to know. He deserves to know why he has been scorned by the village for seemingly no reason at all. Not to mention he can begin to come to grips with his duty as a jinchuuriki."
"And the law regarding his parents?" Hiruzen asked.
Ken licked his lips before answering. "While I don't like it at all, I can understand why you would keep that a secret." Even on the road his entire life, Ken had heard of the infamous Yellow Flash and felt the awe and outright fear the man had instilled in the enemies of Konoha. There was no way in hell that a man who had slaughtered entire enemy battalions by himself didn't have powerful enemies. Enemies Ken was doubtful he could protect Naruto from at this point in either of their lives.
"I don't want it changed toward the public," he admitted reluctantly, "but I would like permission to tell him about his mother and to reassure him about his father. Perhaps give a few details and tell him why he can't know more? That should satisfy him for now. And when I believe he can keep it to himself, then I want to be able to tell him."
Hiruzen considered the young man's request. In truth, he had been considering such a thing for some time now. Ken was right; the law hadn't changed much. Really, all it had done was prevent Naruto and his peers from learning of and appreciating the tremendous service Naruto provided to the village by containing, and someday hopefully channeling, the power of the Nine-Tails. And such secrecy had led to Naruto being ostracized, just as jinchuriki in other villages were, with absolutely no idea why.
After a little more thought, he nodded. "I will announce the dissolution of the Nine-Tails Secrecy Law at the end of next week," he said. "Now my schedule is rather full for the next several days, so if there's anything else you need to know, I'd suggest you ask now." Ken thought for a moment and shook his head in reply. "Very well," Hiruzen conceded, checking the clock on his desk. "Teams will be arriving for missions soon, so I suggest you get some lunch. The Academy lets out after 3:00 PM. After you pick Naruto up," he passed Ken a slip of paper, a bronze key, the check for his loan and a small amount of cash for lunch, "this is the address you will be moving into."
Ken took the proffered items with a respectful nod of his head and left, mulling over everything he had learned. He secured the strip of leather chain-wrapped scroll case across his back and placed a hand at the smaller scroll he had used to store Naruto's belongings in a process that had left stars in the boy's eyes. After wandering for a few moments, he ducked into a small restaurant and ordered the cheapest thing he could find. Ramen and water.
Ken took a wind-up timer from his coat and set it for three hours, about the time it would take before the Academy let out for the day. With that done, he brought out his project book and unsealed his gear to get to work finishing his current pet project.
When his ramen order came up, he sampled it with a smile … one that dimmed a bit as he tasted it. Oh sure, the flavor and consistency were good, but it lacked a certain … something.
'Great,' he thought wryly, 'I think Ichiraku has ruined me after only one meal.'
Naruto swallowed thickly as he sat on a familiar swing at the Academy and watched his classmates being picked up by their parents. He fixated on a boy from his class whose name he couldn't remember being picked up by his father, the man scooping the kid up with joyous laughter, laughter reflected back by the son. Naruto felt his insides squirm at the sight, his eyes burning with tears he fought to keep from spilling.
A familiar wave of loneliness and sorrow began to rise up … only to be banished by a sharp whistle from the familiar redhead waving at him.
Naruto leapt off his swing and crashed into Cousin Ken, almost-but-not-quite knocking him over. After a chuckle and hair ruffle from him, he took Naruto's shoulder and led them to their new (if temporary) home.
The house was, at first glance, nothing to look twice at. It was situated in a residential district a mere block from the Sarutobi clan compound (judging by the clan symbol emblazoned all along the compound wall) and was a squat, sturdy, single-story affair of red brick and a slate roof. A small yard was shaded by strategically-placed trees and surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Overall, it was way better than the orphanage.
Naruto could hardly contain his excitement at their new home and couldn't restrain himself from running inside as soon as Ken had unlocked the door. He ran through the house to check out the bedrooms, claiming one for himself. There was a nice kitchen, a study, and even two bathrooms. Two! A quick look out the back windows revealed a large backyard surrounded by another fence with trees lining the outside of the fence for privacy.
"Whoa, this place is awesome!" Naruto shouted.
"Well then you should start making your mark," Ken commented, revealing Naruto's freshly-unsealed belongings. "Go start setting up your room."
Naruto grabbed his stuff and bolted, slamming the door shut as he did. He only had time to put a comforter on his new bed when a harsh swear from Ken brought him back to the living room. Ken was trembling and holding a long slip of paper.
"Cousin Ken?" Naruto asked hesitantly. "You okay?"
Ken took a moment to answer. "Yeah, kiddo. I-I'm good. Just surprised, sorry I startled you." Naruto stared at him quizzically before shrugging and returning to his unpacking.
Ken was weird, but that would make him fun.
Ken kept an eye on Naruto's door to make sure he was alright before glancing back at the check from Lord Hokage he hadn't bothered to look at before. He had been raised to be frugal on the road and the amount written on this thing was … well, it bordered on the obscene for two people! He'd be able to pay off half the loan just by returning half the money upfront! (On second thought, maybe he'd just portion that out and pay it in time-and-a-half installments, just in case.)
Ken shook his head and picked up a small stack of papers on the coffee table. Instructions and guidelines for their stay, common to any assigned housing - locations of provided products such as dish soap and laundry detergent as well as towels and the like, also for assigned housing - and a small letter from the Hokage.
Ken opened the letter and read it carefully. It opened up with his hopes they were settling in, followed by instructions as to where and when he was to be examined for his shinobi rank, with assurances that he could bring Naruto to watch as it was a Saturday. Then he had written something he had forgotten to mention in their earlier meeting, the location of a shrine of the Uzumaki clan on the outskirts of the village.
With a mental note to look into that later, Ken removed the scroll from his back and unwound the chains to unfurl it a bit, unlocking the first seal that came up. A tall, bound stack of large sealing tags appeared and Ken picked them up. Carefully examining the layout of the house, he began methodically placing them onto the walls and activating them with long pulses of chakra.
Konoha was supposed to be safe, and he honestly felt he could trust Lord Hiruzen … but paranoia was a hard habit to kick. And who knew what psychos would leap at the chance to get at a true Uzumaki that had wandered through the gates?
In a top secret facility in Konoha, a dark figure examined the report from one of his spies within the village. A young man had entered the village yesterday with bright red hair and a familiar symbol on his clothing. He had met with the Hokage and been taken in.
The figure thought over this development, its implications, possible ramifications … and the ways he could arrange to benefit from it.
Dinner was a somewhat awkward affair in the newly established Uzumaki household. Ken had whipped up a simple meal of rice, roasted chicken and string beans that toed the line between average and genuinely delicious. But Naruto, after getting over his disappointment that it wasn't ramen, had been distracted into silence by the sealing tags that littered the walls.
Seriously, they were so numerous that it was almost like a second layer of wallpaper. And they were on the windows and doors, too!
"Do all ninja houses look like this?" Naruto asked.
"I wouldn't know," Ken answered with a shrug. "I've never been in a ninja's house except for my-" he hesitated briefly, "-my grandfather."
"Your gramps was a ninja?" Naruto asked brightly.
"Yep. ANBU, actually. Had a good and quirky reputation before he had to retire from an injury he couldn't heal up from." Ken smiled a bit at something his grandfather had once said in regards to his "quirks." You could always tell an effective higher-ranked ninja by the presence of odd personality traits.
"Whoa!" Naruto gasped. "So that means you're gonna kick ass at this test thing tomorrow, right?"
Ken straightened up and looked Naruto in the eye. "Teaching moment," he commented, pointing his chopsticks at his little cousin. "Naruto, first rule of being a ninja or anyone else in life: never underestimate your opponents. Confidence in yourself is a good thing, yes. But overconfidence will kill you just as fast as a blade or poison. Faster, even. Do you understand?"
Naruto cast his gaze down. "Yes, Cousin," he said morosely.
Ken winced. Maybe he'd been a bit hard on the kid. He was only seven, after all. "Hey, kiddo. Chin up. I'm not mad, I just want to make sure you don't bite off more than you can chew. That'll come at some point, it always does for ninjas. But not if you can help it, eh?"
Naruto grinned again and dug back into his food. This time, he kept up an almost constant stream of chatter, mostly excitement at watching Ken's examination the next morning. Ken nodded and made the occasional comment, more than happy to let Naruto take the lead in conversation.
All the while, he was planning for after his exam. If he had time off … it was time Naruto began to learn what it meant to be an Uzumaki.
Second chapter, yeah! I might as well mention that I have about thirty chapters already written out - I've been polishing this as a hobby for like a year before I was confident enough that it wasn't a phase. So while I would appreciate praise and respectful criticism, the story will play out as it plays out. Now for behind-the-scenes tidbits:
*The country that houses the Hidden Grass is never given a name in canon, but the nation is described as having lots of forsts, huge groves of bamboo, and giant mushrooms. So I thought Land of Flora would fit the theme.
*For those of you who think Hiruzen decided to dissolve the secrecy to easily, I hope I provided enough reasoning. The Third Hokage is a brilliant man, and he tends to learn from his mistakes. He's been considering it for some time, and Ken's request was just the last nail in the coffin.
*Ken's setting up of security seals is based on Omyodo, the Japanese folk magic that uses paper talismans. He essentially set up an ofuda ward - that was fun to incorporate into seal techniques.
*Ken's comment via his grandpa about ninja quirks is my explanation for why so many high-skill and high-rank shinobi seem to be such delightful freaks.
Anyway, I hope y'all liked this! A little more introduction before the plot starts to roll. Next chapter will have a little more action - and we all love that! If you liked it, leave a review! They always buoy mu spirits.
May your inspiration flow freely!