by Becky Tailweaver
Uzumaki Naruto was, if nothing else, highly observant of things which were out of place--especially where the people around him were concerned. As immature, unheeding, and flat-out dense as he might have seemed to most, he did possess a rather uncanny empathy that allowed him to see beyond the facades of most people--into their hearts, where truth slept. He knew when his friends were putting on a smile but hurt inside; he knew when someone was hiding something in an attempt to look strong. As thoughtless as he might have been in general, he nonetheless knew when things were wrong with someone.
The fact that he had never seen that boy in Konoha Village before was also a large clue that something odd was afoot.
Naruto was willing to let it slide that some newcomer was sitting in his favorite place at his favorite ramen stand; after all, whoever-it-was couldn't have known. But when said newcomer sat staring into a perfectly good bowl of ramen, just picking at it and obviously not appreciating it at all--while constantly putting on a cheery smile for whoever looked or spoke to him--Naruto began to wonder.
If someone was feeling bad enough that they could ignore ramen, it had to be something big.
Spending a large portion of his life as a virtual outcast in the village--the reason for which he had only just this year found out--he was used to being ignored, and used to fading into the background whilst around those doing the ignoring, so as not to draw the attention of their stares of dislike and whispers of disdain. As loud as he was when he wanted attention, even his own teammates would be surprised at the number of times he had slipped under their radar when he didn't. And in his lonely life, he had by necessity become quite a people-watcher. It wasn't something he did consciously any more; mostly it was habit, so that he would know when it was okay to act out and when it was time to slip into "invisible mode," to avoid the contemptful gazes of the others.
And that boy, sitting there at the counter poking at his half-eaten ramen--there was something terribly familiar about him. Perhaps the far-too-wide grin and the laughter to hide the sadness beneath; perhaps the way he sat, small and hunched in his seat as if hoping no one would notice him. Not many did; a few patrons walking by perhaps, and especially the ramen vendor--the boy always had a quick grin for the man whenever he was addressed.
Naruto knew what it was like, trying to be invisible. Trying not to let anyone see him, really see him, for fear of their stares--for fear they might see what lay beneath his smile.
When the boy finally paid his tab and got up from his seat--what a waste, leaving so much ramen in his bowl!--Naruto had long since finished his own serving. Still curious--and, not that he would admit to anyone, a little concerned--he left his empty bowl with payment on the table and shadowed the lone figure out into the street.
The boy didn't seem to notice he was being tailed--but then, Naruto was smart enough to keep his distance and the street was a bit busy. Hands in his pockets, the blond-haired ninja kept his eyes on his target as he flowed between passersby on the street.
Standing, Naruto was privately pleased to note that the stranger boy stood even shorter than himself--but then again, he did seem just a little bit younger. He wore a somewhat odd outfit, shaded mostly dark green, part ninja uniform and part something out of a history book--slightly flowing, loose and tight in different places. It was all covered over by a rough cloth traveler's poncho of a drab brown, a bit tattered at the edges, but there were no crests or symbols anywhere on his clothing to indicate where he came from or what clan he belonged to.
Even the boy's red bandanna had no insignia whatsoever, tied around his forehead as if to keep his rather spiky hair out of his eyes. Slightly longer than Naruto's own blond locks, it was just as unruly, and though the bandanna made a stalwart attempt, it wasn't nearly enough to control the mass. Though it could almost be called blond--although definitely a very dark blond--the boy's hair was shot through with copper and gold, making it a strange orangeish-reddish-brown color that Naruto couldn't name, though he could've sworn he'd seen it somewhere before.
What Naruto had seen of the boy's face in the ramen stand did place him as younger; round-cheeked, innocent-looking, with a smile that was rather sweet--when it happened--and eyes that disappeared when he grinned. That grin, though a mask, carried an impishness to it that almost made the boy's cheeks seem whiskered. All in all, a rather familiar look that made Naruto vaguely wonder if this boy was as much of a prankster and troublemaker as himself.
Even through his concentration, Naruto did not miss the fact that they were headed out of town. The lack of crowds would make following more difficult, and if the boy left the village entirely then shadowing him would become a real ninja operation--nothing he couldn't handle, though. The boy certainly didn't move like a real warrior or anything; his stride was light and balanced, more like a runner than a fighter.
No one stopped either of them as they left the gates; out in the shadows of the forest, it was quiet and there were no people about. It was nearing the end of the day, and everyone would be heading home, not leaving the safety of town.
As Naruto let more distance come between them and kept himself to the shadows, the boy kept walking until they were out of sight of the village gates. Then, the young stranger stopped and searched around--as Naruto quickly put himself in a tree to avoid detection--his eyes scanning in all directions and his body absolutely still. Glad for the greater distance he'd chosen to allow, Naruto suddenly got the feeling that the younger boy was much more aware than he'd realized--the urge even to hold his own breath was strangely strong.
His throat went dry when the boy's gaze lingered in his direction just a little too long. Was his own pounding heart giving him away...?
No, that wasn't possible. And as if to confirm that, the stranger--apparently satisfied--turned off the road and into the woods themselves. With a brief, soundless curse, Naruto hurried after him, not wanting to lose him in the twisting paths of trees and underbrush. Something was most definitely up with this boy--being this sneaky, was he from some enemy clan or village? A spy wouldn't wear his own insignia--would he wear his target's, or not? Unfamiliar with formal warfare, Naruto had no idea--but he was certain that this was not a normal situation.
In his haste to ensure he didn't lose contact with his target, he did not pay attention to exactly which direction the boy had taken off in.
And as he silently trailed the stranger boy through the fading light of the forest, he still didn't pay attention to where they were headed. His thoughts were focused on trying to figure out the who and why, not the where--and on his skills as a ninja, to keep from being spotted himself.
He didn't notice until he almost stumbled out into the clearing, stopping frozen just inside the borders of the forest thickets to avoid being seen, as the boy continued on into the open expanse. It took Naruto a stunned heartbeat to realize where they were, exactly, even as he stared at the smaller figure that made its way into the clearing.
This was...That Place...where, thirteen years ago, a horrible battle had been fought...
His hand flew to his stomach, even as he stood motionless near the treeline--suddenly feeling ill, realizing where he was standing. That Place--a location he had always avoided, always, even before he knew; coming here made him feel awful, made him feel angry and sad and afraid and made his stomach hurt and he'd never known why, and ever since he'd stumbled upon this place as a child once he had never, ever come back--not since he'd found it and those feelings had exploded behind his eyes, into his belly, and he'd thrown up and cried and dizzily ran away, never to return...
Now he knew why, and that terrified him even more.
He swallowed hard against the churning in his guts, trying to steady his suddenly-shaking hands, fighting down the echoing emotions that reverberated in the back of his mind. He wasn't sure who they belonged to...
The stranger boy was out there, in the middle of this vast, open space. It wasn't really a clearing, Naruto remembered, letting his eyes stray from the boy to the ravaged environment around him that seemed to go on and on--it had to be more than a hundred meters across. It wasn't a natural break in the trees; it was a place that looked like a tornado had come through--like a massive forest fire had burned the land dry and bare. As close as it was to sunset, the orange light made the land look as though it was still bathed in blood and fire.
Countless numbers of the forest's ancient, giant trees lay dead on the ground, uprooted and torn away like so many twigs; further from the center, some were even snapped off like matchsticks. Even boulders had been wrenched from their moorings in the earth to be flung to the outskirts of the wreckage, and the soil radiated outward from what seemed to be the epicenter--almost a crater, really--blasted away as if by an explosion. Everything was blackened, burnt; the land itself was scorched, and even now nothing had grown back--testament, it was said, to the evil and fury that had taken place here. Only a few blades of grass and bits of moss and fern dared to show their green heads here and there.
This place looked as though a god had flung down his wrath on the land, power so awesome and raw destruction so massive that Naruto wondered how, how by everything holy had the people of his village ever managed to stop that horrible monster...
Briefly, his hand tightened on his stomach. Gulping once more, his eyes tracked back to the stranger boy, who was now kneeling near the center of the former battleground.
Something compelled his feet forward. Maybe it was the part of him that wanted to know who that boy was, why he was here, why he was sad...maybe it was to conquer his own fear of That Place, to find out where he stood and who he was...
It seemed like such a long way, to get to where the younger boy was. Maybe it was; maybe it was just his perception. As he drew closer, he saw the boy tense; when he was no more than four meters away, the boy turned sharply around, never getting up though his eyes were keen with alarm and he remained poised to flee.
Naruto stopped in his tracks; for a long second, they just stared at one another. Up close, he could see the boy's eyes clearly, and there was something about them that tried to raise a flag--something he couldn't put his finger on. They were bright and round, brownish red-amber, with faint streaks of baby blue toward the centers--slightly metallic and sort of coppery, oddly luminous in the sunset. He was startled to note that the boy really did have whiskers--strange marks, like those on his own cheeks when he looked in the mirror.
He tried to remember--had those been there when he'd seen the boy in the ramen shop...?
"A-ano sa...gomen..." Naruto's voice creaked, seeing the boy's wary look was not subsiding. "I...I didn't mean to bother you, I was just..."
The stranger boy blinked, his posture faintly relaxing. "You're...from the village."
"Aa..." Shifting in his place a little, Naruto managed to take an un-shaky breath. "I, uh, saw you leaving town and...I was just kinda wondering why you were coming out here all alone..." Rather lame, and not the truth--not all of it--but if curiosity was a passable excuse...
"Oh..." The boy appeared to relax some more, his wary look fading to a bit of smile, a bit of chagrin. "I guess I am a little suspicious-looking, huh? You tailed me all the way out here?"
Naruto scratched his head, embarrassment creeping through his previous nervousness. "I...haven't seen you in the village before, so I was curious..."
"I'm not from the village," the boy replied, his pleasant manner almost startling, considering the degree of fear and suspicion that had marked him moments before. He really did seem no older than Naruto himself--probably a year or less younger. "They don't like us in the village."
"Oh." Mentally kicking himself for his nosiness, Naruto took a few more steps forward, within a meter of the boy. He knew what it was like to be disowned and forsaken by everyone around him... "Sorry."
"It's okay," the boy replied, turning back to what he'd been doing. "It's not your fault."
"If they don't like you in the village, why did you come?" Naruto blurted, before his brain caught up to remind him he was being nosy again.
"I was hungry," the boy replied easily, as he began to remove items from inside his cloak and pockets. "It's not just this village. I actually live a long way from here, and when I finally got here I was pretty tired and hungry. I thought it would be okay. And I like ramen."
Naruto managed a tiny grin. "Me too."
The boy glanced back at him, mirroring the grin. Still curious, his fear and apprehension draining away, Naruto stepped a little closer, almost even with the boy, to look over his shoulder at what he was doing. The boy sat in an odd-shaped depression in the blasted ground, fiddling with some small items.
Naruto's curiosity got the better of him again. "Ano sa...if you don't mind me asking, what's that for?"
The boy glanced up again, briefer this time, his face a little less animated as his hands worked. "I came to pay my respects," he said softly, looking down, as the scent of incense began to whisper through the air. "My tousan fought here."
Suddenly, reflexively, Naruto's hand went to his stomach, as if to hide what was already hidden there. His fingers dug into the fabric of his jacket, his jaw clenching; he knew what had happened back then--he'd heard too many tales of the deaths. He knew, and it still somehow hurt like a knife wound whenever it hit him in the face--the death and destruction that thing had caused...it was someone's son, someone's brother, someone's father...so much pain for so many people he knew, even his best friends...
"It was an awful fight," the boy went on, voice shading to sadness, not seeing Naruto's reaction. "And he never came back. They never even found his body..."
His fingers tightened into claws, straining his coat's fabric, as if they could rend the flesh beneath, tear away that horrible thing inside him... "I-I'm sorry," he husked. The incense--it wasn't any kind he had smelled before, but it was oddly familiar. "I'm so sorry..."
The boy glanced back at him, faint wariness returning with a measure of puzzlement. "It's not your fault," he said again.
Naruto swallowed hard. "I...guess you miss him..."
Pain buried itself behind an eye-crinkling smile on the boy's face. "Nope! Not really. I'm okay. I never knew him--he died before I was born."
Still clenched in his jacket, Naruto's hand twitched faintly. "Oh..."
"My kaasan's gone too--they killed her later," the boy went on, horrifyingly matter-of-fact, though there was sadness in his eyes as he stared at the smoking incense. "I don't remember her very well, either. But Ojiichan takes care of me, and we're happy."
Something about the boy's words was trying to sound faint alarms in the back of his mind; whoever "they" were, he didn't know, but he didn't want to cause more pain by asking. This boy was just as alone as he was...outcast...and he knew how it felt...
"This is the first time I've been old enough and strong enough to come all the way here," the boy volunteered, speaking as if Naruto were the first person he'd ever been able to share with. "It's kinda hard being out here this long. And it's dangerous to go near the villages by myself. Ojiichan's probably gonna be mad when he finds out where I've been. I...didn't tell him I was leaving."
"Sounds like...he loves you a lot."
"Aa." The boy's smile became a little more genuine. Naruto blinked; had the boy's eyes changed somehow? The pupils looked...
"I don't have any sake," the boy went on, turning back to the incense and lifting up a small water bottle. "Just some incense I sort of borrowed. I don't have much of the right stuff at all, but I hope this is enough. I wish I could make him a headstone or something...but they'd just tear it down...so I guess this is as good as it can be."
The younger boy began to pour the water out on the ground around himself, around the strange depression in the soil. As the clear water trickled out, Naruto watched it flow, startled to note at last that there really were growing things here--there were flowers in the scorched earth, tiny dark blue ones and happy yellow ones and pretty little white lillies. They were sparse, but they were there, and the boy shared the water for his father's "grave" with the thirsty little flowers.
Perhaps he thought the flowers were marker enough...
When the water was gone, the boy set the bottle down and sat silently. One hand reached out, smoothing over the damp, blackened soil with strange tenderness, running along the strange bumps and depressions in the spot where he sat.
"It's not much," the boy whispered. "But I've always wanted to come here. To do...something. I never knew him, but...just sometimes...I wish..."
Eyes suddenly burning, Naruto turned quickly away to hide it, dashing any traces of moisture from his cheeks. "I'm...really...really sorry..." he said hoarsely again, feeling woefully inadequate to atone, or even to explain...
"It's okay," he heard the boy say behind him. "There was a mistake. Everybody got angry, and Tousan was angry, and nobody stopped to listen--and a lot of people died, not just Tousan. It's all really sad. Ojiichan says it's because we don't understand each other, and ningen are afraid."
The warning bells in Naruto's mind were a cacophony; there was something wrong with what the boy was saying, and between his hitching breaths he tried to concentrate through the confusion, tried to make sense of it--
"But it's not your fault," the boy restated. "It was a long time ago. It's nobody's fault now. Ningen are still afraid of us, but I can't change that by getting mad at anybody. And you're nice; I like you. I was surprised, but you're really nice, and you're not afraid of me. I don't blame you for my tousan dying. Not you...or your village."
The warnings rose to a scream, and all the jumbles fell into place with a resounding snap that made his breath lock up and his heart slam against his rib cage in a mind-freezing moment of pure shock--the confusion disappeared, and suddenly it was all so completely, terrifyingly clear--
"Thank you," the boy whispered softly, "for listening to me."
But he couldn't talk, couldn't move; he had to fight for even a single gulp of air as his mind burned with the knowing of it--the clarity of who the boy was, why he was here--and he wanted to answer, wanted to say something, but nothing would come out and his jaw was slack and his whole body shook so hard that no matter how he tried he still couldn't even move...
His hand was so tight in his jacket that it hurt--it hurt just as much as the knowing, hurt almost as much as his heart...
With enormous effort, after what seemed like an eternity, he managed to move his leaden feet, to power his rigid muscles--turning himself around again, to look down--
--but the boy was gone.
He had disappeared as silently as if he'd never even been there. As if he were just a ghost--just a dream. There were only footprints in the dry blackish soil, the dwindling incense, and the abandoned water bottle to mark that he had ever existed.
Shock jolted him again when he looked at the place the boy had been sitting. Without the boy blocking his view, his mind clearly saw what the impression was--a massive footprint in the ground, belonging to some animal...and he knew beyond a shadow of doubt it was that of a fox...
A flicker of motion caught his eye in a flash of light and shadow. He stared across the clearing ahead, to the border of the forest where a shape moved--quick and agile, wolf-sized, far too large to be an ordinary fox, far too dark; a familiar strange brownish-reddish color with not a trace of white...
His breath caught in his throat once more as the shape stopped, just there, at the edge of the trees--caught for a moment in one last fading scarlet ray of sunset, the light wreathing it like red foxfire; their eyes met for that moment, blue and coppery red-amber, and in that instant the truth was never more real, never more terrifying, never more amazing...
As if the creature was smiling, those luminous eyes were bright with friendship, and a heartfelt gratitude--for his apology, for his presence, for his kindness...for being a listening ear to another boy--even a kitsune boy--with a hurt that needed to be shared...
Then, in the time it took to blink, the last of the sunset faded and the shape bounded away, vanishing into the shadows of the trees just as the sun vanished beneath the horizon.
A tiny sound came from Naruto's throat as the ghostlike form disappeared; a hand almost reached out--as if to call out, call him back somehow...as if to reply, or to say something, anything at all that would be adequate...
He stood there, very still, for a long time--trying, somehow, to sort it all out. And as he tried, as the tears fell unheeded and the sky faded to twilight-purple, he managed a shaky smile in the direction that impossible shape had gone. Out of the terror and the wonder of all this, at least one thing was clear.
"You're welcome," he whispered into the evening wind. "And...thank you..."
And as he turned, still shaky and slow, to make his way back home, a single regret--one of many--made itself most poignantly known.
I wish I knew his name...