The wind was full of whispers, but they grew more distant with every step he took. Naruto heard the river before he saw it, growling like some feral beast. The dark water reflected the night sky and churned in a roaring torrent, crashing against the mossy concrete that lined either side of the canal.
He sat down on the damp grass just above the brush of the white swash and could feel the water soaking into his navy blue shorts. He didn't care. His head swam with desolation like the murky green waters, shifting and swirling as they passed by. Part of him wished that the river would rise up and snatch him away, that it would carry him to some faraway place where everyone loved him and no one ever looked down at him with those ugly glances.
That would certainly drown him though, Naruto never did learn how to swim. He was not entirely sure if he had ever learned how to live either. His mornings were stolen away by haunting dreams that kept him asleep even through his alarm, his afternoons and evenings were spent wandering the streets like a lost cat, looking into shop windows at ninja tools he could never hope to afford, or watching the other children play together at the park.
Once in a blue moon, Naruto would go into one of those shops to buy something, most often the flower shop as the tall man with the long ash blond hair was always kind to him and never gave him any wilted flowers.
One day Naruto had even gone up to the man and asked if he was his father, they did have the same hair after all. The blond man looked at Naruto strangely then, in a way he had never seen anyone look at him before. He had smiled at him, yet his smile seemed sad. How someone could smile yet still look so sad had puzzled him until the day he had pulled his first prank. Naruto was the one smiling then, laughing so hard tears filled his eyes, but the cold judgmental eyes of the villagers made him shiver and want to crawl away somewhere dark and lonely.
Feeling is not always the same as showing, he thought, feeling the moist touch of the stems of grass beside him. The rain had pasted an hour before, but the grey clouds remained along with the wet mark they left on the green earth. A steady wind blew through his blond spiky hair and the leaves of grass danced in the dim greyness of the overcast sky.
It had been a long while since he'd pulled any sort of prank, but the stares never stopped. Only when Naruto meet their glares with his own did they bother themselves to look away. Perhaps that was why he caused so much havoc, to spite them and all their glares, or perhaps it was because he had no one to teach him otherwise.
His soul was untamed, unbalanced, he was unsure why he'd even been born. Sometimes the pointlessness of all his pranks, all his flowers, all his everything made him feel so insignificant and lost he felt the lightest tap of wind might blow him away. At the same time, the lack of purpose weighed him down like a thousand boulders, so he knew he would fall as soon as the wind began to carry him.
In a few weeks, he would begin his training at the ninja academy. Night or day, Naruto's mind was plagued by misgivings. There was little else he thought of. Sometimes he would sit for hours on end, imaging just what it would be like to be a ninja. The admiration and respect, the adventure and excitement, that he wanted more than anything.
All he needed to do was show up, to walk through the crowds of eyes, and sit in a classroom where children just like him would be waiting for him with the same contempt for him that their parents held. He'd never wanted something so badly, and had never felt so afraid of something.
His fingers pulled on the grass, ripping it from the ground and tossing it towards the river, but the wind stole it away before it could touch the water.
Naruto suddenly spotted a beetle crawling on his leg and flicked it away. A moment later he realized why he had not seen the beetle until then.
Fingers of pale moonlight pried open the clouds. There was a strange beauty to it, that of which Naruto did not know the words with which to describe.
Only the upper half of the moon could be seen, a lonely curve of light piercing out of the clouds, but it was the stars which drew his eyes and kept them. He had never seen so many before it seemed. One moment he thought he saw them form the shape of the leaf of Konohagakure, but when he blinked they seemed more the hourglass of Sunagakure, then the four-lined waves of Kirigakure and then the two rocks of Iwagakure.
So many. They were far, far away, he knew, but Naruto still felt like he could reach out and grab them. He knew he'd have to travel all the length between where he sat now and where they stood far above, but for all the distance between them, Naruto would walk it a hundred times over if it meant he might escape the endless sets of eyes that despised him for nothing. Or maybe all he needed to reach them was a pair of shoulders to stand on.
A profound silence fell over the world, the canal calmed, the wind subsided, and Uzumaki Naruto bathed in starlight for a time, until he walked off to find his shoulders. Not at the academy, after all, he didn't want to be just an academy student.
Sarutobi Hiruzen blinked his eyes open. The pounding on his door had been so frantic he had not had any time to clear them of crust, but instead of urgent news, he found Uzumaki Naruto waiting outside the Hokage's quarters.
His first thought of how the boy had gotten past all his ANBU. Weasel has the watch tonight, he thought, and understood immediately.
"Is there something you want, Naruto?" the Sandaime Hokage asked.
The young blond flashed a toothy grin, his mouth opened and closed. For half a heartbeat, Hiruzen thought this was another one of his pranks, but he knew that couldn't be it when he saw that the boy's face showed more bravado than mischievousness.
"I'm gonna be H-"
Hiruzen silenced him with a single forefinger to the boy's lips.
"There are people still sleeping here, Naruto," he whispered. After a moment the blond looked down at the finger over his lips, then back up at his Hokage, and then nodded. It was only then that Hiruzen let the child speak again.
"I'm gonna be Hokage," the boy spoke the words Hiruzen had heard him say so many times before in an urgent whisper, "and I need you to show me how to do it!"
That was something he hadn't heard from the boy before. His exclamations of ambition were usually followed by a grin or a finger pointed at the Hokage Monument. Consideration of how exactly he planned on becoming Hokage as well as seeking out the current Hokage for advice was nothing extraordinarily brilliant, but for Naruto, it was a start.
Perhaps he has some of his father in him after all, Hiruzen thought. Still …
"Naruto, if you are going to become Hokage then you should know how busy our lives are. If I had the time to teach you how to throw shuriken and kunai or show you how to perform powerful jutsu, I would," he knelt down to Naruto's height, "but I don't. Besides you're entering the academy soon, you'll learn much and more there."
Naruto frowned, his lips pushed forward in a pout. "They don't like me, just like everyone else. They won't teach me anything, but you like me, right Ojiisan? And you're the Hokage so you can teach me way more than they ever could!"
"Promise me, Hiruzen," Minato had begged, his voice weak and words echoed in his mind whenever he glimpsed a flash of yellow hair passing through the streets and he remembered the promise that he and a dozen others had made on that terrible night, and had failed to keep.
He is too young for me to teach and far too reckless. At times Hiruzen wondered if Naruto would or should even be accepted into the academy, but Danzo had insisted that the boy was of far too great value to be wasted as a carpenter's apprentice. He would've been safe then, and watched, but even more than Danzo, Naruto himself would never have accepted it.
His successor's words pounded in his head like a great drum. "Promise me, Hiruzen."
"Perhaps I could teach you a thing or two, if you have the wits to learn," the Sandaime finally said. "Since you woke me up so early, I won't have anything to do for a few hours."
Naruto's eyes sparkled with tears of joy. "Really?" he exclaimed, forgetting the need for quiet until Hiruzen reminded him with a frown. "Thank you so, so much, Ojiisan!" he whispered cheerfully. "Let's go to the training field, there's this spot where no one else goes that I always … "
Before he could finish the Sandaime had turned around and gone back into his apartments, leaving the door open for the boy. "Come drink some tea with me."
Anxiously, Uzumaki Naruto made his way into the Hokage's apartments. They seemed oddly plain for a man who the ninja world named a "God of Shinobi". A chestnut brown trestle table with a chair at either end was positioned just beside a casement window and below a fluorescent lamp. The room smelled of wood and lilacs, of home.
One day, it will be my home.
"Sit," the Hokage's voice called from another room. Naruto could hear the sizzle of steaming water and smell the ginger and ginkgo. He sat.
After a minute or two, the Hokage returned with two empty red cups. Naruto's leg began to shake with impatience as the old man left again to get the teapot. He poured his own first, then walked over to Naruto to pour his. Eager to finish the tea and be done with it, Naruto grabbed the cup and held it up for the Hokage.
The brown tea came out in a gentle pour, but did not stop pouring even when the tea came spilling out and singed Naruto's hand.
Naruto gave a yelp of pain and wrenched his hand back. The cup bounced off the oaken wood floor, but did not shatter.
"What was that?!"
"You," said the Hokage. "There's always so much happening, so much entering and leaving all at once, so much splashing and spilling. It retains nothing." He bent down and picked up the fallen cup, setting it on the table. "See here now." His finger gestured to the empty cup. "It is empty, yes, but it is only then, when it is still and unmoving, that it can hope to retain anything."
Naruto arched an eyebrow at the red cup. "So I should stand still to become Hokage?"
The Sandaime sighed, and poured Naruto his tea again, this time not spilling a drop. "Tell me, Naruto," the Hokage began as he walked back to his own chair and tea, "why do you even want to become Hokage? Look what it has done to a mighty warrior such as myself." He drew one long finger across the dark wrinkles that gathered below his right eye.
"To prove all those nasty people wrong, to show them I'm just as good as any of them!" Naruto exulted, yet as soon as the words came out he knew they were wrong.
The Hokage looked thoughtful then, as ponderous as if he were tasting the quality of a food dish set before him. "A noble enough goal I suppose, rebelling against an injustice done against you. A valid enough reason for wanting to wear a hat as burdensome as this one." He lifted the Hokage's hat from his temples, revealing a head of hair that had plainly once been dark-brown but now stood spiked and peppered with grey. "But tell me, Naruto, what makes you so sure that it will fit?"
Naruto's mouth opened and closed. When he saw the Hokage's eyes flicker in amusement at his hesitation, he frowned and said, "I'm going to be a ninja, I'll be so strong and brave that no one will ever attack our village ever again!"
Sarutobi Hiruzen sighed once more, shaking his head. "Naruto, tell me how many faces are carved on the Hokage mountain."
"Four," Naruto said. He didn't even need to think about it, so much time had he spent looking up at the famous grim stone faces of Konoha.
"And how many mountains would the world need to carve upon them the faces of every ninja who had ever been strong and brave?"
Naruto groaned and leaned back in his chair, placing his hands behind his head. "Ojiisan, you said you'd teach me, not lecture me on mountains, dattebayo."
The old man took a sip of tea. "If you had the wits to learn, I also said." He held the steaming cup just below his bearded chin. "Is a ninja simply someone who can fold his fingers and toss knives?"
Naruto did not reply, but his silence seemed to give the Hokage all the answer he needed.
"I suppose you cannot be faulted for the sins of a generation. No doubt you've overheard some chūnin or genin who've never seen a war bragging about the newest way to breathe fire," the Sandaime sighed and placed the cup down. "A ninja must have more than strength and bravery. He must be loyal and clever, attentive and open-minded, disciplined and just, and patient, Naruto. And a Hokage must be even more." His small brown eyes considered the blond-haired boy who sat across from him. "Your heart cries out for adventure, excitement, but these are not the wants of a Hokage, not the needs of a village."
Naruto rested his elbow on the table, his hand cupping his cheek as he looked out the Hokage's window. From where he sat he could see all across Konohagakure, every shop he'd entered or street he walked, he saw now. Dawn had begun to creep over the edge of the world, sending a fiery orange haze to meet with the shades of deep blue that still darkened the sky above.
"I've known you since you were just a baby, Naruto. Even when you took your first steps, I saw the same thing I see now." The old man sighed, but Naruto's eyes were still fixed on the village and its surrounding forests. "A young boy, still innocent and needing of love and protection, yet always … looking. For parents, for siblings, for friends, and most of all, his future. Always looking ahead, eyes fixed on the horizon … and never here, where they needed to be!"
The shift in tone made Naruto turn his attention back to the old man, only to realize that his elbow had tipped over his cup of tea, spilling it all over again. Naruto jumped back before the hot liquid could touch him, knocking back the chair he'd sat in. The tea streamed across the old wooden table until dripping off its edge.
The way the Hokage stared him down made him want to go away inside like he'd done so many times before, but this meant too much to him to run away. "I'm only six, you can show me how to be all those things you said. No one else will, not the academy, not anyone!"
The Sandaime Hokage, God of Shinobi, looked at Naruto strangely, until he stood up and went to stare out the window, to look over his village. For a long time he did not speak nor move, only stared as Naruto stood there and the tea fell from the table in a steady drip, drip, drip.
"As I told you before, a Hokage's time is scarce," he finally said, and Naruto felt his heart thump, "but … when I find myself undisturbed by my duties, I will call upon you."
Naruto could have leapt for joy then, he could have shouted at the top of his lungs in a great triumphant cry, but he remembered how the Hokage had shushed him before, and simply ran over to hug the old man. As his arms wrapped around the Sandaime's stomach, Naruto heard a sharp wheeze, and soon a hand on his shoulder pulled him back.
"Before you thank me, you should know there are terms to this … arrangement." The Hokage cleared his throat. "I will only be doing this for as long as you are undergoing the process becoming a ninja, so if you were to drop out … "
"I won't, I'll ace every class, dattebayo!"
The Hokage looked at him the same way one might look at a fish who had proclaimed its ability to fly, but simply continued on with, "This goes as well for when you graduate. Your Jōnin instructor should take over my roll just as well, and you'll be almost a grown man by then. I doubt you'll want some ancient old man talking down to you then as much as you do now."
Naruto gave his Ojiisan a toothy grin. "No, I won't. Besides that won't be until forever."