Naruto is five when he first notices the shrub ninjas. They dress in all black and wear weird painted masks, but they are always in trees or shrubs so they’re shrub ninjas. Naruto makes sure to say hi to them now that he knows that they’re there, and they look sort of upset because he hadn’t said hi to them before, so he makes sure to always say hi to them.
It takes him a while to tell them apart, mostly because they don’t always wear the same mask, but he practices because Sandaime-jii says that he shouldn’t be rude and it seems rude to not be able to tell them apart.
His favorite is the one who’s in a mask that looks like someone tried to make it look like a dog, even though it doesn’t really look like a dog, because one time when he waves to them and shouts, “Hi, shrub ninja,” it looks like they almost wave back.
They do talk to each other, even if they don’t talk to him, and it looks like ninja hand symbols but they’re not ninja hand symbols, or they’re different ninja hand symbols, like how people from different people talk differently, and he can’t figure out most of them but he can figure out the one that means ‘hi’ and the one that means ‘go away’ and the one that means ‘fuck this kid’, because it looks a lot like how people look before they say that about him.
He asks Sandaime-jii what ‘fuck’ means, once, and Sandaime-jii gets really mad and makes him scrub the floor, which makes him think it might mean a bad thing because the only other times when Sandaime-jii gets really mad at him are when he does something stupid or he’s out really really late at night like when he got lost and there were a bunch of shrub ninjas around and then Sandaime-jii comes and brings him back home and tells him to go home earlier, but Naruto had only wanted food because food hadn’t show up in his apartment that week, but Naruto didn’t say that because Sandaime-jii was already really mad, and maybe Naruto wasn’t supposed to have food because no food showed up.
But then the next day there’s ramen sitting in the kitchen, and he’s pretty sure it’s from one of the shrub ninjas, so he waves at the nearest shrub ninja and shouts, “Thanks, shrub ninja,” even though the shrub ninja is actually in a tree.
It takes him a while to realize that not everyone has shrub ninjas, not until he mentions his shrub ninjas and someone tells him that he’s stupid. But Hinata Hyuuga says that she has shrub ninjas, even though hers are Hyuuga shrub ninjas, and so maybe some people have them, or maybe that person is just stupid and has never noticed his shrub ninjas, and he doesn’t even end up as a genin even after he passes the Academy exam so Naruto’s pretty sure he’s right.
Kakashi-sensei is the first shrub ninja that Naruto actually has a conversation with, even though Kakashi-sensei looks at him like he’s stupid when he calls him a shrub ninja, so Naruto figures it’s a secret and doesn’t mention it again. Maybe that’s why they wear masks.
It takes him even longer to connect the ANBU with his shrub ninjas, even though he knows what ANBU are, and even longer to get exactly why ANBU would have been following him around the village as a child, and he can’t help feeling like that taints it, somehow, taints that one good piece of his childhood, those people who were his when nobody else was.
But then Kakashi-sensei buys him a bowl of ramen, and Naruto remembers the ramen in his apartment when he had no food, and he thinks that maybe they were his shrub ninjas after all.