The first time the boy saw one, the air was crackling with the anticipation of a storm.
He liked to lie around on those days, watching the sky get darker and darker until his mother came out shouting for him to come back—because she knew he’d stay out in the rain all day and night if she didn’t. He liked the feel of it, the way it tingled in his spine and made the air thicker. He knew of course, that the sky was going to break, crack open like an egg and flash brightly; dragging the sound of thunder behind it. He liked it, liked knowing it. And it confused his parents to no end. Little kids were supposed to be scared of storms but there he was, their strange boy on his back by the side of the road, stretching himself out as long as his little limbs would go, and watching the skies get darker, and darker. No one knew what to make of him. No one human, anyway; the farm dogs understood him just fine, lounging out next to him with their tongues lolling in an equal state of ease. Somehow that worried people more.
He was in such a state, on such a day, head pillowed on the heaving flank of particularly hairy and grizzled old beast, when a shadow fell over him, and he found himself peering puzzled up into the face of a grinning stranger.
The man was young, and dusty, and the boy knew instantly he must’ve come from very far away, because no one smiled like that in the farmlands, without a crease or a care in his face. No one in the farmlands dressed like that either.
And he carried a traveler’s load on his back.
“Odd time to take a nap,” the man said. “Are you out here alone?”
The boy was wary, but he made sure not to look it as he pushed himself onto his elbows and shrugged. “No. My house is just down the road there,” he lied, pointing in the opposite direction that he’d come from. It was for the man’s own good. The last stranger who’d visited from the road had come with bad intentions—and hadn’t lived to regret it.
“Ah.” The stranger ran his hand through a shock of bushy blonde hair that was rare at best in those parts. “Well, I’m out here alone—mind if I sit?” The boy shook his head, and the man set his pack down. “That’s better. Heh, haven’t been too kind to my feet, lately. Nice to take a bit of a break. Good weather, too.” He gazed up at the clouds as they gave their first rumble. The dog’s ears twitched and the man reached down absently to scritch them. The boy watched this all very carefully.
The old dog’s tail thwumped against the grass.
“He likes you.”
“He usually bites people who do that.”
The man’s eyebrows jumped. “I’m glad I’m an exception then,” he laughed, and didn’t hesitate a moment in stroking the dog’s head. “He yours?”
“Belongs to himself.” The boy looked up then. People didn’t like it when he watched them too closely. Such confidence in someone his age was a little peculiar, he’d learned. Still, he stuck his chin up and, because he was curious, asked, “What country are you from?” Without blinking
The stranger looked impressed. He leaned back, lips curved like a cat’s. “This one,” he said, and tapped his headband absently, fingers clinking on the metal of it. “Guess it is pretty hard to believe. There are places in this country as different as night and day—ever seen a forest?”
The boy had only ever seen the fields; long stretches of waving grass and dirt and crops that extended as far as one could squint. Trees were emaciated, bent
figures, knobby and clawed and scattered. “No.”
“Oh. You should someday,” the man advised, and yawned, wiggling his toes. His smile just looked to get lazier, but his eyes were a sharp blue that, the boy realized, had been watching him the entire time.
“So, kid…..Ever seen a ninja?”
Lightning crashed on the yellow horizon, and the old dog shifted, whimpering.
The boy’s gaze was tired and fixed. “Well,” he said, as the rain began to fall with a whisper, “I guess I have now.”
* * *
The ninja was invited home for dinner, of course.
He was grateful, and surprisingly well-mannered in everything he did. Maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising, but the boy had only heard the stories that drifted into their parts second and third hand. Tales of bloody battle and secret, legendary power. The Shinobi. Mythical creatures that certainly didn’t cut their meals into perfect squares or compliment his mother for her cooking with a sheepish smile to apologize for being a burden on her.
“It’s the least I can do,” she answered. “It’s…..A very good thing, that you passed by here.”
The ninja tipped his head curiously. An expression almost childlike, although his eyes were as cunning and cautious as ever. “That so?” he said. “Is there something you might need from me? My stomach and I are greatly indebted to you…Haven’t had a warm meal in a long time.”
Silence was at its most uncomfortable when it came unexpected. The boy’s mother bowed her head, dark hair, so unlike her son’s, falling in her eyes and casting shadows across her beautiful, worn face. “There is something,” she murmured. Her son looked up.
“Oh?” the ninja said, smile skittering away to something solemn and set. He lay his hands against the rough grain of the table. “What might it be?”
She set another plate down in front of him. “My husband will be back soon,” she said shortly. “We are honored to have you as our guest. Please, eat all you’d like.”
Her eyes lingered on her son.
She bid him to bed early, that night.
* * *
“……A few months ago,” the woman began, her hand pressed to the window, “We weren’t so lucky to have this rain.”
Her husband, his hat low across his face, grumbled. “Worst drought in years,” he explained, like a man who had seen and worked through many droughts to compare. That said, he returned grimly to his meal. He already knew the story.
“You must know,” his wife said to the ninja, as the young man sat intent with his cheek resting in one palm. “How desperate, some get…When they’re hungry. People took to the roads. We saw many travelers those days. People left their farms. Headed towards the villages. The cities. We didn’t though. We were luckier than most.”
“But…..You must know,” she whispered. “The danger, of so many people moving in one direction.”
“Bandits,” the ninja supplied, softly.
“Yes. One morning, a man wandered off of the road. He was alone. And looked like he’d come from another farm up the ways. I thought to invite him in.” She closed her eyes. “It was a mistake. He was one of those desperate men. And it was only me, and my son. My son–He came in, when the man began to shout…..”
Her hand slid from the pane.
Her husband tipped the brim of his hat up. “He’s buried out in the back somewhere.” His lips pulled back into a cracked, creased, and humorless smile. “The bandit, that is.”
The ninja’s face registered neither surprise nor confusion at this, just nodded once, “Your son killed him.”
“Yes,” the woman said like she was about to cry. “So you see it.”
“Miss,” said the ninja, gently. “I wouldn’t be worthy of my forehead protector if I didn’t see it. Your son is very gifted–”
“Huh. Gifted.” The husband growled, rousing himself in his seat with a snort. “That’s what you call it?”
The ninja’s smile was strained. “Yes. That’s what I call it.” He looked to the woman, who stood with her hands pressed together. Her lip trembled, and in the flash of lightning from outside the patterns on the window seemed splashed across her face. He asked, for the second time that night, “What do you need of me?”
He looked like he already knew.
The woman didn’t flinch, although the tears must’ve stung behind her eyes, “Please…Take him.”
“You’ll probably never see him again.”
“It won’t be an easy life.”
“I understand that.”
“…..Then,” the ninja said slowly, exhaling heavily. “Are you sure? That’s what you want?”
Then the ninja looked up, and found the crack in the ceiling. He met the boy’s eyes through beams he spoke, “All right, then. If he’s still here in the morning…..He can come with me.” He nodded up at him, and the boy, not so well hidden in the attic, nodded back. It was fair enough. As far as those things went.
“Thank you,” the woman breathed gratefully. “Thank you.”
She would never be his mother again.
* * *
Morning came, and the storm had rained itself out. The boy was nowhere to be found, and ninja left the house alone.
He found him waiting at the fence by the road, saying goodbye to the farm dogs. His arms barely fit the neck of the smallest of the pack, but he made sure to fling them around each before he looked up.
“So,” said the ninja, with grin that bordered on anxious.
“So,” said the boy, standing.
“You’re coming with me?”
“I guess so.”
“You know,” the man shrugged. “You could say you missed me.”
“I could,” the boy admitted. “But I didn’t. Fair’s fair.”
The ninja shouldered his pack, and under the curious eyes of the dogs began to walk. The boy watched him for a few steps, feeling the wind gathering at his back, before taking off like a bolt, catching the man’s heels, and nearly tumbling into his leg.
“Woah. Careful there,” the ninja whistled, resting a hand on his shoulder. “It isn’t always, you know.”
“Fair. Where I come from. Are you ready for that?”
This time, the boy stopped. He crossed his arms, and ducked his chin, giving the matter some thought.
“….Are there dogs where you come from?”
Nodding, resolute, the boy began to walk. “I’m ready.” He glanced back, “Are you coming?”
“Should hope so,” the man chuckled. “I’m the one who knows where we’re going.”
“Where is that anyway?”
“Ah! You don’t know?”
“You didn’t tell me.”
And the noon sun illuminated the new green in the fields by the time either spoke again. The ninja started it, swinging his one free arm and watching the boy out of the corner of his eye. He watched carefully. Always carefully, but the sky above matched the color of his gaze, and even more so when he laughed at his own expense. He did it a lot—it was something the boy would learn, in the years to come. Among other things.
“Um, hey. This is going to seem sort of funny but, ah….. What’s your name? I don’t think you gave it to me.”
“…..Would you like to? Or do I call you ‘kid’ until we get you registered?”
‘Kid’ didn’t really seem right, so the boy told him.
“Oh. I see. You know,” he observed lightly, tucking that free arm behind his head and looking away innocently. “That’s not a very good name for a boy who likes to sit out during thunder storms…..”
“Can’t help that.”
“No,” the ninja allowed. “I guess you can’t. Well er, Kakashi-kun, we’re not quite there yet. But I’d like to be the first so…..Welcome-” He gesture grandly, to the road before them. It seemed long and endless, but somewhere on it there was a place, with forests and most assuredly dogs, where ninja came from, and returned-
“-To the Hidden Leaf Village.”