The River of Red
Naruto tracks down a runaway leaf ninja named Tomoki who'd always been the quiet, 'good' kid at the Academy. But the reasons for his sudden departure are compelling...and may cost both of them their lives.
*This story takes place early in the series, after the Wave Country Arc and before the Chunin Exams.*
Chapter 1 – The Unearthed Grave
Tomoki tried to still his racing thoughts as he sat and waited on the trunk of a fallen tree. The boy's legs twitched restlessly as he tightened his grip on the dirt-caked shovel that rested across his knees. His open-toed boots and clothes - a pale grey, multi-pocketed vest worn over midnight-blue fatigues, were filthy; his calloused hands raw. Beads of sweat rolled down his young, grime-streaked and partially sunburned face as he looked up over the treetops at the blazing, late afternoon sun to check the hour, squinting and raising his hand to shield his eyes of lusterless brown against the glare.
Plenty of time, Tomoki thought pensively and hung his head.
The clearing where the boy sat, bounded by tangled forest, steamed in the summer heat. From over the ridge that rose up behind him whispered the sounds of a rushing stream. All around, flies flicked and clouds of gnats swarmed. The air was thick with the scents of earth and verdure but was fouled by something pungent.
So this is what it's come to. This is where it finally ends, he concluded and was overtaken by a fit of nervous laughter. Stop it, stop it! Get a hold of yourself…calm down! he urged himself and fell gradually silent.
Tomoki dropped his eyes and gazed around at the mounds of freshly-dug dirt and the tangles of undergrowth, the shards of broken stone and all the things he'd brought with him: compass and map, sledgehammer, rope, pry bar, and haversack. Atop it all sat his weapons: a pair of curved, short swords; scores of triangular-bladed and double-edged kunai knives, and an ample supply of shuriken throwing-stars.
The corner of his mouth rose. Yeah, I'll be needing those soon enough, he guessed with near certainty then drew a deep breath to settle his ragged nerves.
Think now…strategy, remember your strategy. The boy tried to focus, but it was hard.
Tomoki thought back to all he'd learned during his training at the ninja academy of the Village Hidden in the Leaves and the rest that he'd discovered on his own. Most people would regard him as extraordinarily dangerous for a boy only twelve years old but the truth was that he was very good at some things but only marginally so at others – the jutsus and techniques that his teacher, Iruka-sensei had struggled to teach him. That effort had not been totally wasted however for Tomoki had gotten stronger over the years…in body, mind and spirit. He'd graduated, after all, and was now a genin – a fully-fledged ninja of the lowest rank.
It bothered him now that he'd never given the good-hearted man or his challenges a full effort and regretted that he would, most likely, never see him or any of his classmates again. As Tomoki considered this he doubted he'd be missed much.
The boy reached up and took his headband from around his closely-cropped, brown-haired head then stared at the swirled leaf sigil that represented his adopted home. His fingers closed around the hitai-ate as he nursed a sentimental pang then set it aside.
It's no good to think about what's passed or what might have been, he advised himself. You've got plenty to worry about right now. Tomoki took out his canteen and opened the top, then fished inside one of his vest pockets for the little paper bundle Ichi, the fortune-teller and practitioner of traditional medicines, had given him. 'It's good for the chakra,' the old man had said.
Tomoki gave the various powders, crumbled leaves and other unidentifiable bits that comprised the prescription a skeptical frown and dumped it in. He took a drink and choked on its bitterness, looked at it with a sour expression then forced himself to take a smaller, more manageable swallow.
Another hour passed as the fledgling ninja sat there…waiting. For a time, he prayed and asked for the help of his predecessors and the great jonin and hokages of the past whose spirits might be inclined to help him now in the hour of his greatest need.
Doesn't seem likely, Tomoki couldn't help but think. He was not like those few he knew who came from the great ninja clans and had the power of potent ancestry flowing in their blood, but only an anonymous, largely untalented orphan. Still the boy hoped his prayers would not be begrudged. After a while he just sat and listened to the sound of the distant stream and the songs of the birds and keening insects, envious of their simple lives.
An odd rustling from the forest drew the rangy genin suddenly alert.
What? he thought, startled as his face paled and his eyes widened with alarm. Impossible! It's still daylight! Tomoki stared hard at the timberline in expectation of whoever or whatever it was that approached. He cocked his head, listened, then considered: Just one person? But who?
Through the forest's thick walls of green leaves and black shadows stepped a figure he recognized - a short, yellow-haired boy clad in orange, who marched toward him with a purposeful expression on his face.
Tomoki gawked in disbelief as the blonde came closer, not at all convinced of his reality. The young ninja searched his classmate's face carefully, sure that it must be someone else using a Transformation Jutsu or some other sort of illusion to disguise themselves, unless, of course, he himself was hallucinating in the heat.
The newcomer stopped a few paces away and his damp, peach-colored face screwed into a grimace. "What IS that stink!" he cried and waved his hand over his nose while Tomoki continued to stare. "So, Tomoki, this is where you went off to," the genin observed triumphantly in a gravelly, high-pitched voice, then pointed. "Everyone's looking for you and Iruka-sensei is pissed, believe it!"
"N-Naruto?" stammered Tomoki, all doubts now dispelled that his visitor was indeed who he seemed to be. The taller boy reassembled the bland, well-practiced smile that had served him so faithfully in the past and managed in an almost-unconcerned tone to ask: "How…how did you find me?"
"That old man fortune-teller told me," replied Naruto with a wide grin. "Yup! You see him once a week; it's the same day as two-for-one ramen at the noodle cart just across the street from his stand, that's how I noticed."
"Ichi-sama…?" said Tomoki, puzzled and feeling deeply betrayed. "He just…just told you?"
"Nooo…I had to use my sexy-jutsu on him. Pretty cool the way I tracked you down, huh? I'll bet you didn't think I was that smart?"
Tomoki rubbed his forehead and dragged a hand down his grimy, sweat-slicked face; his visitor was right. The young ninja looked again at Naruto, at his challenging, sapphire eyes, his blue, hidden-leaf headband that pushed his hair up like some kind of yellow thistle and the unusual markings on his cheeks that made him think of whiskers. "Listen, Naruto," he began, endeavoring to diffuse the situation, "I'm kind of in the middle of something here so…why don't you just go back and tell everybody that I'll be along soon, ok?"
The uninvited guest looked at Tomoki then around at the mound of earth and the deep, branch-filled pit that lay off in the woods behind him, the fragments of stone and, lastly, the arsenal of tools and weapons. Naruto's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Just what are you up to, Tomoki? Are you really expecting trouble all the way out here or something?"
"Something," answered Tomoki flatly as his agitation mounted. "Now would you please go?" His terse request came out sounding far more desperate than he'd intended.
The yellow-haired ninja scrutinized him closely and curiously for a moment before a thin, smug smile crept over the boy's broad face. "Nope," he insisted petulantly and flopped down, taking a seat on an adjacent log. "I think I'll stay."
Tomoki's placid veneer cracked. His teeth clenched and he cursed under his breath. "You want to stay just because I want you to go, is that it?"
"I'm gonna stay 'cause I feel like it."
Tomoki cast another glance at the sinking sun and his expression betrayed the depths of his dismay. "You have to go, Naruto, now."
"Yeah? Why's that?"
Tomoki struggled for an answer to the simple question. Though he would have said anything he felt necessary to make this intruder go, he'd never been very good with outright lies. Would crazy Naruto even believe the truth? he wondered, biting his lip. "Because if you're still here when the sun sets," Tomoki ventured at last, "you'll die."
Naruto took the news calmly then again broke out into a wide grin. "Really? Sounds exciting."
Tomoki's temper flared. He threw aside his shovel and shot to his feet, trying to seem bigger than his scant height advantage of two inches or so granted him. "You don't get it, Naruto!" the genin cried. "You just don't get it!"
"Tell me what I don't get!" barked Naruto who rose to meet him.
"This isn't some training exercise, some mission or some stupid adventure!" the brown-haired ninja shouted angrily into his classmate's unimpressed face. "My whole life has brought me to this moment; to this place!"
"Big deal!" Naruto answered, jacking a thumb into his chest. "You don't think I've faced death before?"
"Not like this!" rasped Tomoki who turned away, then repeated in a softer voice, "not like this." He stood and calmed himself then said without turning. "You have to go, Naruto, and I mean right now."
"And if I don't?"
Tomoki straightened then, unseen by his classmate, his face set with resolve. He'd known from the start that this genin, more than anyone else could possibly be, would be difficult. "Then I'll have to make you."
Naruto blew out a derisive hiss then crossed his arms. "I've seen you fight, Tom-Tom, you're not that tough."
Tomoki smiled grimly. "You've never seen me fight when it was this important." He knelt and took up one of his short swords then pulled it loose from its sheath – just enough to show the honed, razor edge. "You also might not know this: my fencing skills are really very good. That makes me more than a match for you."
Naruto glared at him askance. "So what are you telling me? That you'll kill me so I don't get killed? What sense does that make!" he growled with a wild wave of his arms.
Tomoki quivered with frustration. "If I cut your leg you could crawl away," he explained. "If I took off your arm, with your training and obvious stubbornness, you could still make it back to the Hidden Leaf Village. Either way it's better than if you stayed here."
"Huh…well, that's great except for one little thing."
"Oh, and what's that?"
Naruto's eyes narrowed and he smiled with his inimitable annoying mischievousness. "I don't think you'll do it."
Tomoki goggled with disbelief. "You really are crazy aren't you? It's not just some kind of weird act." The leaf-ninja glared then rolled his wrists and flexed his fingers. "Don't test me on this, Naruto, please. Just walk away; just go home. Don't make me do it," he prodded but the defiant expression on Naruto's face made his position plain enough. "Fine then," Tomoki hissed then asked with a deadly calm: "which arm would you like to loose: left or right?"
Naruto held both straight out from his sides and dared him confidently, "You pick."
"Left it is," answered Tomoki and with that he leaped forward; his blade hissed from its scabbard and whirled upward in a deadly arc.
Naruto gasped, his eyes widened with surprise. The speed and power of Tomoki's motion implied a spray of blood and a cleanly-severed limb sent spinning through the air. The stunned ninja looked left and his expression flickered with relief as he found that his arm was still attached though there was a small slit in the orange fabric of his sleeve. "Hey!" Naruto protested, blue eyes bugging. "You cut my jacket!" He examined the cut carefully and worried it with a finger.
Tomoki looked away dejectedly and let his sword fall to his side. "Sorry," he mumbled and paced away.
"You'd better be! Now I'll have to get this stitched up!"
"Not about your stupid jacket," clarified Tomoki. "I mean, I didn't do you any favors by not taking your arm. If I can't make you go then what happens to you will be my fault." The taller shinobi looked away and muttered introspectively: "If only I was better at this kind of thing, a little stronger -."
"Why don't you just tell me what's going on?" interrupted Naruto with a scowl. "Are you 'strong' enough to do that? Would that be so bad?"
"Yes, Naruto, it would," replied Tomoki curtly as he resumed his seat on the fallen tree. "It's a little personal, you know?" He frowned then his expression squirmed with consternation. "You've never said more than two words to me in all the years we've trained at the academy. I barely even know you. Now I'm supposed to just, what…pour out my life story?"
A rare breeze blew. It stirred through the tree canopies, carrying with it a brief respite from the late-afternoon swelter.
Naruto sat down too then broke the tense silence. "Well, you've never said more than two words to me either, or anyone else that I can remember. You're always so quiet and polite that no one even notices you, just 'yes, sensei; no sensei', and everyone thinks you're SO good. Me: I'm always in trouble and people think the worst about me but at least they know what I think. Everyone was SO shocked when you just left, everyone but me – I thought it was funny! So here we are, just the two of us, whether you like it or not. Tell me or don't tell me, I don't care either way!"
Tomoki gave him a wary look, stared into space for a moment then sighed.
He long ago felt that he'd had Naruto Uzumaki completely figured out and that his classmate was exactly what he seemed: wild and emotional; wanting desperately to be a ninja but without either the ability or disposition to become one; and scarred by the effects of a horrible rumor that circulated among the old people about him.
Naruto had changed though. He'd graduated, and defeated the traitor Mizuki with a powerful jutsu; he'd been on dangerous missions. Then too, how easily had it been for Naruto to find him when he'd been sure that he'd covered all his tracks?
Tomoki looked again toward the sun – an orange ball that drew ever closer to the horizon's edge. "Once upon a time," he began with tired sarcasm, "there was a small province in the mountains. It was a peaceful place, mainly because it was so remote and had nothing that anybody wanted." A distant smile passed ghostly across the young shinobi's face. "It belonged to a small-time daimyo, a reasonably competent lord from a long line of reasonably competent lords. But the thing is – this one loved stories of adventure, heroes, duels and honor, and great battles with samurai and ninja. One day, he got to feeling that somehow he'd missed out. What had he done that was so great? Why were there no stories about him?
"The glory he dreamed of he thought could only come from war and so he set his sights on the neighboring provinces below - in the richer fields and foothills. Understand this though: the war he wanted was not the kind we know, where warriors bleed real blood and all the victims have names. He wanted the pretty kind you see in paintings and tapestries and hear about in songs, where all the soldiers ride perfect horses, carry colorful flags and wear armor that shines in the sun." Tomoki glanced at Naruto who nodded that he understood.
"But there was a problem," Tomoki continued. Though the young ninja could hardly believe who it was he was sharing his story with, he pressed on reluctantly. "Though this lord's soldiers were as loyal as any, he didn't have near as many as his neighbors did. Now, while that would put the idea of attacking right out of a normal person's head, for this lord it only made him more desperate! It was from that desperation that he did something –," the boy paused as he sought the right word, "unthinkable…he made a pact with Xiaomei."
Naruto looked up. "The witch?" he piped incredulously. "I thought she was just a story."
"So did I," replied Tomoki, "at one time. It would have been better for everyone if she had been. That stupid bastard of a daimyo's dream would have stayed just that, a dream, if it wasn't for her. As you can guess, things didn't work out the way he wanted. "It wasn't long after their 'arrangement' that the lords of the other provinces found themselves beset. Their crops failed, their livestock died and the witch's creatures preyed on their people. The lord of the small mountain province invaded and had his great battle against armies that were half-dead, starved and dispirited. He won, of course," Tomoki reported then shut his eyes, "for whatever that was worth.
"Maybe it was out of that disappointment that our daimyo made things even worse." His brown eyes flickered up. "Whatever it was that he'd promised Xiaomei, he chose not to honor."
Naruto frowned seriously and shook his head. "Doesn't sound like a smart thing to do," the blonde offered, surprising Tomoki who hadn't expected from his guest such a thoughtful or sympathetic inflection.
"It wasn't," agreed Tomoki. "But he only paid part of the price…since he only had one life to lose. An army of monsters more horrible than anything you could imagine descended on that tiny mountain province. When they were done there was not one building or blade of grass left. I lost everything that day: my home, my -," Tomoki stopped himself sharply, overcome with an onslaught of emotion, and bit down hard against tears. He turned his head away, unwilling to let Naruto see him in such a state. Never would he have imagined it would be this hard to simply make himself speak. "No one came to our aid either," the young ninja recounted in a trembling voice once he was able. "I guess I can't blame them. Hadn't we just gotten what we deserved?
"The only people who lived were those who fled - a miserable sea of unwelcome refugees that included me," reported Tomoki. "After awhile," he managed, "that sea spit me up in the Country of Fire and the Hidden Leaf Village. I entered the academy just like you did and trained to become a ninja but all that time all I could think about was how I could use what I was learning to put an end to Xiaomei for what she had done. No matter what new techniques and jutsus I mastered or how hard I tried, it was always clear to me that I was nowhere near being able to match her power. If I could have I would have given up," he admitted sadly but unrepentantly. "I'd have let it go but I just couldn't. It got to be where I couldn't eat or sleep because I'd be thinking about her and her monsters.
"That's when I started to go to that soothsayer, Ichi. I thought, maybe, he could set me on another path. I really didn't expect much but was glad I went because one day he told me something interesting, something I hadn't thought about before: 'how had Xiaomei become so powerful?'" Tomoki straightened then looked at Naruto meaningfully, his mood transforming. "It's a basic question, isn't it? If magic was easy, wouldn't you find witches everywhere? That's when he told me that her powers came from her ancestors. Tell me, Naruto, have you ever heard of geomancy? No? Well neither did I. It's like this: the earth has a network of flowing energy, meridians and pressure points just like the human body. Xiaomei's ancestors had all been laid to rest after they died in particular places and sealed with spells that channeled the supernatural energies they'd amassed in life to their living descendant." The narrator mugged a funny look at his audience of one as he added: "Cool, huh?
"And it came to me in a flash. If I could break that chain of ancestry then I could break the witch's power…or most of it anyway. If I picked the right moment like today, the day of the summer solstice, the longest day and shortest night of the year when her dark powers are at their weakest, then…THEN I might even have a chance!" A hard expression came over him. Tomoki looked again at his visitor and began to chuckle.
"I guess you really are more clever than I thought 'cause I can see by the look on your face that you're way ahead of me now. Yes, Naruto, Ichi-sama also knew where these meridians lie and so I came here and found the resting place of Xiaomei's great-grandmother's, great-grandmother. There's a word for that, did you know?" added the genin parenthetically. "It's 'tritavia.'
"Anyway, I smashed the stone markers that held the spells then dug up the body which I found wrapped in linen and covered with talismans. Then I defiled it with pig feces and kicked it down the hillside back there into the stream!" Tomoki broke into a fit of manic snickering which evolved after a few moments into an eruption of uneasy, disconcerting laughter, as if not even he could really believe what he'd done.
Naruto's eyes flickered. "So what happens now?" he asked.
Tomoki grinned back with satisfaction as he imagined the naïve boy's mind struggling to take in what he'd just related. "I suppose that she'll come here to see what's happened, bringing along her army of monsters and demons. And then," he supplied in a matter-of-fact tone that only just hinted at what he was about to face, "I believe she'll do her best to kill me."
"So why stay?"
"Huh?" Tomoki went blank.
"Why not just go? You've already taken away her power, right?"
Tomoki felt taken aback at this and bit his lip. He brooded for a moment then answered, "I have to stay, Naruto." His words sounded hollow as he explained, knowing in his heart-of-hearts that it was only half the truth. "If I go, I'll be looking over my shoulder for her all the days I'm alive. She will come tonight because of what I've done, and I will face her."
The boy looked again at Naruto and marveled at how absorbed he seemed. It was so odd! Normally you couldn't get this hyperactive baka to shut up or remain still for an instant! Instead it was Tomoki who fidgeted uncomfortably and felt strangely compelled to say more. "I don't want you to think that this is just about revenge. It's more than that. Since that day she killed my family and destroyed my home, I've thought that she must have half-killed me too because nothing seems real to me. Even you, though you're sitting right there…it's like you only half-exist.
"Naruto, you're always saying that you want to be hokage one day. All I want is…is not to feel this way. If I can't have that -," Tomoki stopped short, shrugged and smiled. "That's about all of my 'sad tale' that I can stand, and it looks like just about another hour until sunset. You can be long gone by then." He drew a dirty sleeve across his brow and offered peaceably, "You know, you're a lot different than I thought you'd be. If I get through this maybe I'll join you for a bowl at that ramen cart…or that other place you're always talking about."
Naruto's brilliant, blue eyes drifted toward him then locked. "Like I said before, I'm staying. I got my reasons."
Tomoki stared at him, tested a number of arguments, then conceded with a shrug and said, "Suit yourself."