Five Animals Play

By Jonohex

Naruto's missing and Tomoki, a new genin, has been sent to find him. His search leads to a city living in fear and a strange monastery where all is not what it seems. This story takes place very early in the series - after the Wave Country arc and before the chunin exams, and is a follow-up to my first story River of Red.

How will you know the difficulties of being human,

if you are always flying off to blue perfection?

-Jelaluddin Rumi

Part 1: Strange Wisdom

Tomoki stood ready with knees slightly bent and fists raised level with his chin. Beads of sweat flowed around his brow and his chest heaved with breath. The young ninja allowed himself a quick swallow to ease his dry throat as he tried to formulate some kind of strategy that might bring this contest to an end…though at this point such a thing seemed impossible. The boy's vision swam for a moment then focused on the determined expression on the flushed face of his shorter opponent, Naruto Uzumaki, who waited confidently just a few paces away.

"Give up yet?" piped Naruto in his high, gravelly voice. His sapphire eyes burned and a smile crept over his face which raised the strange, whisker-like markings on his cheeks that had been there before the fight along with the various scratches and swellings that had not. The genin's vivid orange and blue clothing was smudged with dirt and torn slightly at the knee and along the high, white collar while strands of grass clung to his blue headband and stuck in his shock of yellow hair.

Alright, alright, I give…enough already! Tomoki's fatigued body begged him to answer but the idea was dismissed outright by the few remaining citadels in his brain where pride still held sway.

The boy took a deep, calming breath of the summer air and wiped a sleeve over his closely-cropped, brown-haired head and ruddy face as the two circled each other warily on the grassy hillside.

Despite his inventory of aches and pains, Tomoki couldn't help but smile too. When his new friend had asked him along to practice tai-jutsu, he'd no idea what he was getting into. For the first few minutes Tomoki had been relaxed, spontaneous, and had countered Naruto's fearless, explosive and usually excessive attacks easily using the principles of ai he'd cultivated through fencing.

But a long time had passed since then and Tomoki now found himself tiring and getting sloppy. His timing had slipped, he'd already used his most reliable combinations and his clever feints were no longer very convincing.

What added to his woes was that his friend possessed a tireless, implacable spirit, and had vast reserves of internal energy – chakra, while his own endurance waned. Tomoki bit at his lip as he considered for a moment and remembered, with some apprehension, the sinister and preternatural source of that energy.

Tomoki put aside the memory for now of the monster sealed up inside his strange classmate. This was not the time to dwell on it. Besides, beyond bruises and a collection of other superficial injuries, neither one of them was really hurt. Both he and Naruto were ninja of the Village Hidden in the Leaves and had enough control over their arsenals of strikes, joint locks, throws and other techniques that they could rein back their destructive powers.

Even so, it was all Tomoki could do to stop his hands from dropping away and his legs from buckling out from under him. He was exhausted! But knowing that even one weary look from him would fire Naruto's resolve to a white heat, his expression betrayed nothing.

The genin couldn't help but observe that, for someone who was not at all considered smart, he always learned something from his blond classmate. Such as, he thought, fights aren't always as easy to get out of as they are to get into!

"Well?" demanded Naruto. "Are we going to fight or just stand around?"

Tomoki detected a trace of frustration in his classmate's voice, and his thoughts flickered with hope. "We'll fight," the taller ninja replied with forced vigor, "since you've got your heart set on it."

Naruto grinned fiercely and charged.

Relax! Relax! Relax! Tomoki urged himself as he waited.

Naruto spun, leaped in the air, and sent the edge of his foot rocketing around toward Tomoki's head. Acting on instinct alone, Tomoki dropped and whipped his back leg low with what he suspected were the last reserves of his strength; its arc brushing a trail through the grass.

Just at that moment, a blue and gray blur appeared between them and a familiar, insistent voice cried: "Stop!"

Both ninja felt a rush of alarm but it was too late. Naruto's kick crashed into the unlucky newcomer's chest while Tomoki's sweep thundered through the backs of his ankles. The figure twisted from the double-impacts and spun heels-over-head to the ground where he landed with a dull thud.

The two genin rose and their faces froze with shock as they looked down at their academy instructor, Iruka-sensei's motionless form.

Birds called.

Insects keened.

Neither boy could speak as a breeze rose and stirred through their fallen former teacher's brown, pony-tailed hair.

"Uh-oh," mumbled the startled Tomoki awkwardly between ragged breaths.

Naruto's blue eyes widened with alarm as he gasped and paled. "Oh, NO!" he cried, doubling over. "We just k…k…KILLED Iruka-sensei!"

Tomoki loped off to retrieve his canteen from where it rested at the base of a nearby maple, next to his swords, while Naruto knelt beside the motionless figure and cradled his teacher's head tenderly in his arms.

"Sensei?" he pleaded with a rising tone of desperation in his voice. "Sensei!"

"Come on, Naruto," Tomoki called back raggedly, "we couldn't have killed him!" The ninja hurried back to Iruka's side and poured a little water into the man's rugged-featured face. "See that, he's still breathing!" he offered hopefully but the blond remained inconsolable. "Come on, Naruto," Tomoki tried again, "he's a chunin, so you know he's taken way harder hits than that." As if in response, Iruka stirred slightly. "There…you see?"

The man's eyelids fluttered opened. His pupils shrank, his eyes rolled for a moment then wandered between the two contrite genin who smiled back at him guiltily.

"Iruka-sensei!" gushed Naruto with sincere relief. "Are you ok?"

The man coughed and rubbed his chest as he sat up then the two students helped him to his feet. "Uh, sure…Naruto, I'm fine," replied the older ninja who frowned, brushed himself off and drew up to his full height – a head and more taller than Tomoki. His dark eyes, underlined by a long scar, narrowed. "Just what are you two fighting about anyway?" asked Iruka crossly.

Tomoki and Naruto exchanged puzzled glances then looked back at him blankly.

"Oh, we weren't really fighting," explained Naruto who laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. His face flowered into a toothy, Cheshire-cat smile. "Is that what you thought?"

Iruka raised an eyebrow then turned his full-bore skepticism on Tomoki, who raised his palms and confirmed hurriedly: "No, really, Sensei, it was only practice."

"Oh…," the chunin replied, apparently satisfied, then let out a breath. "Hmm, I kind of wish I'd known that."

"Hee-hee, sorry about that, Iruka-sensei!" Naruto offered, barely containing his laughter.

"Me too, Sensei," added Tomoki gravely with a deep bow

The instructor's frown melted away. "No, it was my mistake," he admitted then said with a chuckle: "I suppose I should have known better." The leaf-ninja shrugged away the last effects of the blows he'd taken and looked at the pair. "Well, you two better not wear yourselves out. You both have joint-training exercises tomorrow. Neither of your new instructors will be very happy if you show up tired."

"Oh, I haven't forgotten about that, Iruka-sensei, believe it!" Naruto reassured eagerly. "I'll get to impress two ninja teams with my skills instead of just one like usual!"

Both Tomoki and Iruka looked at him and let the remark pass.

"Um, yeah…but you're right, sensei," said Tomoki. "We'll need to be well rested."

The three sat for awhile beneath the maple which shaded them from the late afternoon sun, and talked while they rested. Tomoki took a deep drink of water from his canteen then poured some over his head, savoring the coolness. Hard experience had taught him that a little food and water can go a long way in desperate circumstances and he'd never regretted his habit of always bringing some along. And right now he was desperately thirsty!

The genin was about to finish off the remainder when he saw Naruto's eyes widen slightly then return to their baseline squint. Tomoki grinned, capped the top and tossed it to the yellow-haired ninja who pretended indifference as he took a drink, then gave the last of it to Iruka.

After they'd all recovered a bit and the two genin had collected their gear and weapons, they all walked down the hill headed back toward the Hidden Leaf Village.

"Hee-hee, that was fun!" Naruto asserted loudly as he jumped up into the air and pumped his fist. "Except for that LAST part, huh, Sensei?"

Iruka glanced at him askance. "Well, it's good that you practice hard," the older ninja replied agreeably. "It's the only way to improve, and I can tell you've improved a lot."

Naruto snickered. "It was more for Tomoki…he needs it WAY more than I do."

"Hey!" cried the taller boy who elbowed Naruto's shoulder but then confessed: "I guess you're right. My tai-jutsu should be a lot better than it is."

"Yeah, you can't always count on having those fancy swords around!"

Iruka looked at Tomoki and gestured to the pair of short swords he wore at his waist. "I meant to ask if you knew how to use those. Two swords are difficult to master."

Naruto answered for him, blurting: "Oh yeah, Sensei, he's great!"

Tomoki's alarmed eyes flickered towards his classmate, then he smiled sheepishly. "I…I'm still just learning."

"A wise man never stops learning," advised Iruka, patting Tomoki's shoulder reassuringly. "Come on, let's see what you got."

The boy grimaced slightly but gave in and took a couple of steps back. His blades hissed as he drew them smoothly from their scabbards, practiced a few parries and thrusts, whirled them around in a series of lethal-looking figure-eights then froze in a deep stance with imaginary opponents on either side of him impaled.

Iruka nodded with appreciation. "Looks pretty good to me," he attested then canted his head sharply. "Let me see."

Tomoki offered him one of his blades, hilt first.

"Hmm," the chunin grunted then raised his eyebrows as he inspected it, judging its weight and balance. "I've never seen a sword pitted as bad as this," he observed critically. "It's worse than a lawnmower blade. You must really be practicing a lot."

"Oh, well…" The genin looked away awkwardly, grinned and nodded. "I try to, Sensei."

"What's the matter, Tomoki," said Iruka as he handed him back his weapon and leveled an eye at him, "standard-issue kunai knives not good enough for you?"

"Oh, no, Sensei," the genin explained in a wavering voice, "it's not that! I-."

"Come on, Tomoki," interrupted Naruto who pushed his way between them. "Can't you see he's joking?"

Tomoki looked at him then at Iruka who grinned and burst out laughing.

The three leaf-ninjas made their way through the streets of Konoha – the Village Hidden in the Leaves. In all reality it was a city more than a village, crouched amidst forests and rocky promontories. Parks and plazas spaced themselves between grey, concrete buildings which sprouted balconies and overhangs of wood and painted metal, runs of electrical conduit, serpentine gutters and downspouts.

They passed along plank fences festooned with posters and advertisements, where power lines and banners criss-crossed overhead and birds perched on laundry lines. Beyond the strange-shaped towers and gabled roofs of metal and tile loomed the reassuring visages of the four Hokages – great ninja lords of the past and present who looked down from the rocky face into which they'd been carved.

Naruto and Iruka, being well-acquainted, did all the talking as they walked until they came close to Naruto's apartment.

"I'm going to have a big dinner then go right to bed," the blond ninja announced eagerly, "so I'll be all fresh tomorrow morning. That Sasuke won't know what hit him!" He balled his fists and rushed up before Tomoki with the exultant, nearly-maniacal gleam in his eyes that the taller genin still hadn't quite gotten used to. "You'd better be at your best too, Tomoki! See you there!"

"Can't wait…," answered Tomoki with forced enthusiasm as Naruto waved goodbye and ran off; he was already starting to feel sore.

Left alone with his former instructor from the academy, Tomoki turned back and smiled blandly at Iruka then took at step in the direction of his own dwelling. The boy did his best to hide his discomfiture when it became clear to him that the man was headed the same way.

Iruka walked next to him in companionable silence for a time before giving the graduate a sidelong glance. "So…," he ventured, "you and Naruto are friends now, is that right?"

"Mmm-hmm," affirmed Tomoki, lost in thought, then quickly corrected himself: "I mean, uh, yes, Sensei."

"That's good," the elder ninja opined casually, obviously having expected more. "How did that happen?"

Tomoki's expression flickered. "Oh, uh, well…there's nothing much to it, really."

Iruka gave a thoughtful hum. "I don't think he's ever had a friend," said the teacher in passing, yet his concern and affection for the wild, blond-haired boy who'd pushed his patience to the edge and often FAR beyond it for years was clear in his tone. "For that matter, there aren't many people who don't get on his nerves either. You must have made quite an impression."

Tomoki nodded mechanically at the observation and thought to say something but nothing came to mind.

The chunin looked away and took a breath. "You know, Tomoki, you've always been the quietest one of the bunch…very polite, very self-controlled or so it seemed. I suppose, with all the trouble I had with Naruto and some of the others, well…mostly Naruto, that I should be grateful."

Tomoki's expression wavered uncertainly as he started to wonder what his former teacher was getting at. "You have nothing to be grateful to me for, Sensei."

Iruka amended abruptly, "Maybe 'appreciative' would be a better way to put it." The genin's eyes flickered for a moment, now mystified and a little discomfited by his former instructor's sudden interest and mounting frustration.

"It's like they say," the man added with atypical inscrutability, "that you can't always hear the lute when the kettle drums play."

The corner of the boy's mouth twitched at the odd analogy. "I…I have no complaints, Iruka-sensei," he ventured curtly, a bit insulted at the insinuation.

"I'm glad for that, Tomoki, but still…," now the ninja's voice hovered direly between an invasive question and an outright accusation.

Tomoki stopped short and asked in a tone sharper than he'd intended, "'But still'…what?"

Iruka paused and the two stared hard at each other. After years at the academy this was the first confrontation they'd ever had.

"It bothers me," the chunin announced, this time plainly, "that I know nothing more about you today than the day you walked into my classroom all those years ago."

The genin's lusterless, brown eyes widened, then he pursed his lips to enforce his silence while Iruka waited. At last, the boy replied, "And you're telling me this NOW…after I've already graduated?" Tomoki rubbed his hand down his face then studied his former teacher's stern expression as tense silence unfolded.

"It's not your fault; it's mine," Iruka allowed though begrudgingly. "And I know it's too late. I should have paid closer attention to you. I don't know why I didn't. I guess…I guess it was just that you never seemed to need it. I-I don't even know why it's so important to me all of a sudden. Maybe it was seeing you and Naruto fighting – a student I know a lot about and one I know little."

"So what do you want me to do?" replied Tomoki. This time he didn't bother to hide his resentment.

Iruka frowned and started to pace then spun suddenly toward his former student. "Just say something! Tell me anything so that I'll know something more about you other than just your name!"

The genin stood, teeth clenched, and shut his eyes as he struggled with his temper. "I see," he said tensely, feeling genuine anger rise. "It's suddenly dawned on you all the things you've taught me over the years. Do you think I'm a traitor then, a spy like Mizuki was! Is THAT it?"

Tomoki breathed hard and knew he should say nothing more but the flood gates had opened and it was no longer in his power to close them. "I'm sure everyone you teach gets this kind of examination, right?" he rasped with exasperation. "Kiba, Ino, Sakura, Shino, Sasuke?"

Passers-by on the street cast curious looks at the pair and bowed their paths to veer around them as Tomoki continued loudly: "But they didn't, did they? Some get the benefit of your doubt and some don't! Obviously, I don't…but even then I was so unworthy of your notice that you waited until now, after I've passed all your tests and graduated, after you looked at my swords and knew that I'd done a lot more than just practice with them!

"You taught us what we needed to know to defend our country, the Land of Fire, but that was never the reason I wanted to be a ninja. You want to know the real reason? You want to know why I ran away that time? You want the TRUTH? Well -," the boy stumbled and fought for the words but then straightened defiantly and barked: "I JUST FLAT OUT DON'T FEEL LIKE TELLING YOU!"

Iruka, who'd listened carefully the entire time, drew a slow breath. "Fair enough; you don't have to. Maybe at this point I shouldn't expect you to," he replied then looked at his former student with a surprisingly charitable expression and added, "So what now?"

Tomoki shrugged and turned aside. He was all warmed up for a fight but now Iruka had just left him standing there with nothing to argue about. "I don't know," the young ninja confessed then turned to meet the chunin's thoughtful frown. "That's no answer but it's all I have. The path I followed before ended," his expression screwed, "kind of unexpectedly. Now I got no idea what to do."

Iruka nodded. "Any guesses?"

"Like I said, I don't know," answered Tomoki with a shrug. "But I think Naruto might."

"What?" Iruka coughed.

"I know it sounds weird," the boy admitted quietly.

The older ninja shook his head and put his hands on his hips. "I like Naruto a lot, but I have a little trouble seeing him as any sort of guide." He chuckled at the idea.

"It's kind of hard to explain but I saw something in him." In a blur of motion, Tomoki drew one of his swords and sliced the air. Iruka, startled slightly, was utterly quiet when the boy looked up and said: "Just like that, someone's dead. It's just that easy. It doesn't take much strength either because the power comes from the kinesthetic connectivity generated through the entire body and the extension of the chakra through the blade."

Tomoki looked up cleverly and quipped: "See? Even though I never said much, I did pay attention in class."

"I never doubted it," said Iruka who mugged a look.

The former student returned his weapon expertly to its sheath. "Helping somebody…that takes real strength, Iruka-sensei," the genin muttered. "I know that's gotta sound pretty hopelessly stupid, and I wouldn't have believed it either.

"Naruto…helped me. He was willing to risk his life for me even though he didn't even know me. There was no…reward, no one around to impress, nothing to gain at all and still he was willing to risk everything. I-."

Tomoki shook himself free of his thoughts then looked at Iruka. "Sorry, Sensei," he said, embarrassed but resolute. "You wanted answers and all I've got is this…stuff."

Iruka stared at him speechlessly then managed: "That's fine, Tomoki. It'll do for now." He looked down at his former student and buoyed him with a grin. "After all, that's the most you've said to me in five years."

"I know," Tomoki said and glanced away. "I didn't mean anything by it. I just had…other things on my mind."

"It's ok," said the teacher who nodded sagely in apparent satisfaction. "But you shouldn't ever let yourself get so caught up by any one thing. The world's a big place and there's lots of other stuff you might miss."

The genin nodded. "I know that now."

"Well, I need to be going, and you need to get some rest!" the chunin said as he ran a hand over the boy's brushy head then stepped back and bowed.

Tomoki happily returned the gesture and stood there frozen as his sensei walked away. "Sensei," he announced suddenly after a moment's thought, "You should know: those walls you made me build after I ran off – I had help. I cheated."

The former student wasn't sure what he'd expected from this confession but he definitely expected something and could only stare curiously when the man kept walking.

"Do you feel better now that you told me?" Iruka's good-natured laughter rang back at last. "You must've thought I didn't know."

The genin, having dreaded wrath or disappointment, looked at him nonplussed. "But…but you never said anything," Tomoki said with a confused shrug and took a couple of steps after him.

"I am an academy instructor, you know," answered Iruka, who kept walking, "so it did occur to me that you had help…either that or that you'd mastered some incredible wall-building jutsu no one's ever heard about before!"

The boy rolled his tongue around the inside of his cheek. This was a tough idea to grasp. "You're not mad?"

Iruka cocked his head and slowed his stride as he approached a corner. "It was never a punishment. I even told you that it was a test, remember?" he called loudly. "I just never said what for. Did you ever think I was testing you on something other than your tolerance for manual labor?"

Tomoki grimaced at Iruka's unexpected explanation but then figured it was better all the way around if he just accepted it. The boy shouted as the retreating figure disappeared from view: "Thanks, Sensei!"

Tomoki waited with the rest, gathered around the pylon-monument to those ninjas who'd been killed in action. Sasuke Uchiha sat on the edge of its stone plinth and stared, raven-like toward the horizon in contemplation of whoever or whatever someone with his clan's storied past would contemplate while his pretty, pink-haired teammate, Sakura Haruno, paced with increasingly petulant impatience. Their leader, Kakashi-sensei, stood by calmly with his arms folded.

Come ON, Naruto, thought Tomoki intensely and chewed his lip. Where ARE you?

The genin again looked around, hoping to catch sight of him. He would almost find Naruto's absence amusing being that their summons was for dawn yet Kakashi-sensei hadn't arrived until well into mid-morning.

Tomoki's teammates: Kenshiro, broad, dark-skinned, muscular and covered with sigils from head to toe; and Chiaki, petite and pale, made no secret about their boredom and broke out a deck of cards. Tomoki thought that he'd play too if he wasn't so distracted. Chiaki looked at him curiously and spared him a smirk while Kenshiro, who didn't care either way, dealt.

Their team's sensei waited with perfect unconcern. Tomoki glanced at her furtively to gauge her mood. She was easily the most masculine and second-most fearsome woman he'd ever met. Wild hair crowned a scarred face that would have been right at home in a barroom brawl or descending upon a hapless frigate upon the high seas. Her limbs and waist were thick; her head was at all times canted at an oblique angle and, though she deferred to Kakashi Hatake on most things, all feared her great strength which could snap necks and backs like soda-crackers.

For all of that it puzzled Tomoki to no small extent that her parents had given her the lyrical and evocatively romantic name of Esmeralda.

"Kakashi," she ventured with a surprisingly tactful tone. "Need I state the obvious?"

The tall, silver-haired jonin blew out a breath through the cloth mask which concealed almost all of his face. "We're one short," he observed while Esmeralda flexed her bowling-ball shoulders. "Ok, teams!" Kakashi announced at last with his usual sanguinity at which the five genin present stopped what they were doing and gathered around.

Tomoki took one last long look toward the village then joined them.

"As with any mission," Kakashi continued smoothly, "you must learn to deal with the unexpected. Sometimes things don't go your way and you must be flexible and inventive enough to proceed in spite of setbacks," he lectured then turned toward his colleague, "If that is acceptable to you, of course, Esmeralda?"

The kunoichi frowned, inspected her short, ragged-edged nails and offered in her harsh voice: "It seems a shame, that's all."

Kakashi regarded her with the one eye he let show; the other being concealed by his canted hitai-ate. "How so?" he inquired.

"This exercise is set up to be especially grueling. I see no reason why your sleepy-head should be spared."

The jonin set his hands on his hips and looked upward abstractly. "I hadn't thought about it that way."

"We're already running late; a little more won't hurt," Esmeralda advised. "Let's send someone to fetch him."

Kakashi turned to the group and proposed: "any volunteers?"

Tomoki knew where this was headed as soon as the question was asked. Sasuke turned his brooding stare back toward the far horizon while Sakura rolled her eyes and folded her arms. Kenshiro and Chiaki exchanged glances which met then swiveled slowly and purposefully towards their teammate.

"I'll go," offered Tomoki preemptively.

"Thank you, Tomoki," said Esmeralda with a polite smile. "Don't waste a moment! Bring that Naruto right to this spot even if he's in bunny-rabbit pajamas!"

His teammates both broke out in laughter while Tomoki bowed to his sensei then raced off.

Tomoki's thoughts fumed as he leaped from treetop to treetop then raced through the village streets toward Naruto's aerie apartment.

Have you lost your mind, Naruto! he wondered with a scowl on his face. You knew when our training exercises were going to start; you were looking forward to it!

Buildings and pedestrians flew past the young ninja in his haste. The genin cut through alleys and sprang from balconies to parapets and sped across rooftops.

You couldn't have overslept! There's no way! Tomoki thought and suddenly felt guilty. Though he hadn't known Naruto very long, he'd learned that many of the boy's seeming flaws could be understood as virtues from a different perspective. And, after all that Naruto had done for him, the least he deserved was the benefit of a doubt.

By the time Tomoki stood outside Naruto's door, he was almost sick with concern.

Naruto would never miss a chance to train and maybe show everyone up, the boy considered and of this he was certain. The genin licked his dry lips and knocked.

"Naruto?" he called out and listened for an answer, "I'm really going to be disappointed if you just overslept!" Tomoki knocked again more insistently then pressed his ear to the door but heard nothing. "What? Did you eat some bad ramen?" the boy shouted, paced for a second then tried the knob which, to his surprise, offered no resistance.

Naruto's room was as he remembered it – neater than anyone might expect, with everything in order and some healthy-looking plants spaced evenly on their shelves. The bed was unmade and dishes lay on the counter but all of that seemed normal.

The boy took a step inside then stopped suddenly at the strange scents that lingered in the air, a putrid, animal stench. A thousand jokes and crude comments came to mind but Tomoki shoved them aside.

Suddenly, instinctively wary, his hand fell to the handle of one of his swords while his eyes searched the room for any outward sign of anything amiss. They settled quickly on the floor and the headband that rested there. Tomoki crouched and picked it up – a blue hitai-ate with a thin metal plate affixed to it, embossed with the crest of the Hidden Leaf Village. If he hadn't been sure before he knew now that something was very, very wrong.

Tomoki brooded as he walked down the street, passing along shops and apartments with Naruto's headband clutched in his hand. It occurred to him that there could be hundreds of conventional explanations for his friend's disappearance but one after the other, he dismissed them. As idiosyncratic as Naruto was, there was no way he would just leave, especially without his hitai-ate which announced to the world the accomplishment he'd worked so hard to attain.

The boy rounded a corner and made his way past rows of vendors' stalls and carts that displayed flowers, produce and hot lunches. Just for the sake of being thorough, Tomoki cast a long look toward the ramen carts and stopped in at Ichiraku's but was disappointed for his efforts. Finally, deciding to seek council, he turned down an alley then marched up a flight of uncertain wooden stairs to a small upper floor shop that had no sign but only a painted chart of the human body that had each organ charted by its characteristics and association with the five elements.

The boy knocked then went in without waiting to be received, ducking his head under a blue drapery that was ornamented with mythical creatures, dragons and phoenixes. The shop had a small table and three sturdy, unvarnished wood chairs. Shelves lined two of the walls and were packed solid with small boxes, pouches and glass jars filled with powders, twigs, leaves, insects, dried organs and other substances that Tomoki never could identify.

"Ichi-san?" the boy called but received no answer. He heard noises and voices from the treatment room which was separated by a curtain of beads, and went toward it.

As his hand opened the way he saw Ichi's bent shape huddled over the body of a nude, old woman who lay prostrate on his massage table. Rows of clear, glass jars covered the figure's broad, bare back, and her skin welled up red and swollen into each one. Ichi shot him a devastating glare, under which Tomoki retreated aghast and embarrassed. "Excuse me, Madam Wu!" he cried in a full cringing-dog retreat back through the beads. "I'm very sorry!"

"Not at all, Tom-tom!" the woman answered without moving. "Don't worry about it."

The ninja winced slightly. "Ichi-san, please, I need to talk to you. I'm afraid it can't wait."

"One moment," the man grumbled then added pointedly, "I'm in the middle of something…as you can well see."

The planked floor creaked under Tomoki's impatient footfalls as he paced and fretted, until Ichi emerged at last through the beads and gave him a sour look.

Ichi Watanabe had many talents ranging through herbal medicine and acupuncture to fortune-telling and calligraphy. As anyone might expect from a man with such diverse talents, Tomoki had found his mind full of obscure wisdom that was often extremely useful. None of this, however, was apparent from a casual glance. The man's face was flat with a low forehead and sunken cheeks. His hair was dull black, speckled with grey as were his slightly overgrown eyebrows and struggling mustache. And those rheumy, slate-blue eyes gave no clue whatsoever of the expansive libraries stored behind them.

Tomoki's eyes flickered between him and the other room. "What are you doing to her?" he inquired quietly with subdued alarm.

Ichi frowned. "It's a treatment that's good for the chakra," replied the old man defensively, making quite clear his annoyance at the genin's ignorance. "It brings the stale energy to the surface and refreshes and strengthens its flow."

Tomoki shook his head in disbelief but smiled weakly.

"So," said Ichi with a stern note, "what's so important that you would burst in on a middle-aged woman undergoing a medical procedure, hmm?"

A voice erupted from the other room: "Who are you calling middle-aged, you old goat!"

Ichi's eyes widened. "A very well-kept and deceptively youthful, early middle-age, I should have said!" he amended hastily, grabbed and drew his visitor to the further corner of his shop then sat in one of the chairs.

"It's Naruto," the genin began tentatively as he took a seat. "He's missing, and I think something's happened to him."

Ichi winced at the mention of the yellow-haired ninja's name and set both hands on the table. "I don't like this…association you've developed with that boy."

"I know," replied Tomoki quietly. "You said so before."

The old man shrugged and looked away. "But you didn't take my advice."

"Please, Ichi-san…"

The soothsayer shook his head. "Tomoki, you're not my son. Really, you're only my customer but sometimes I think of you as if you were my son. I want you to know that I wouldn't warn you away from Naruto unless I had good reason too."

Tomoki bit at his lip and nodded. "I know, Ichi-san," he repeated.

"No, you don't know!" his advisor scolded suddenly. "You have no idea -," Ichi broke off and Tomoki knew why, though he wasn't supposed to: the Hokage's prohibition about ever speaking of the nine-tailed fox demon whose spirit had been interred within Naruto from birth and sealed with a powerful ninja spell.

"Ichi-san," the boy said firmly as he met his gaze. "I do know. I know all about it."

"The whole story?" replied Ichi sharply.

Tomoki's gaze wavered. "I know enough."

"Fine, ignore me then," Ichi hissed and waved his hand. "But know this: the squirrel cannot run long with the f-."

"Don't say it!" barked Tomoki who then managed in a more moderate tone, "He's my friend, Ichi-san; I have to find him. When I fought Xiaomei, he saved my life. Even if it ends up that he kills me, I'd still owe him for all the days in between." The young ninja's brow narrowed and his fingers tapped tensely against the tabletop. "One more thing, Ichi," he added, a little insulted, "I'm no squirrel, so don't take me for one."

The sage rose from table angrily and started away but Tomoki seized his wrist and their eyes locked. Ichi was the elder - an old, learned man who deserved respect but he'd never played that card with Tomoki.

Tomoki was a ninja - a warrior, expert in martial arts and mysterious jutsu techniques who could be called upon at any time by the Hokage to face death but he'd never played that card either…until now.

The old man relented and sat back down. "What do you wish of me?"

"Help me find him!" Tomoki begged, his boy's voice cracking with desperation. "He saved my life, Ichi-san, and I can't…I won't just abandon him."

The soothsayer sighed and rubbed his forehead. "You don't think he just…," he paused to illustrate with a wave of his hand, "wandered off? That boy is kind of strange, you know."

Tomoki shook his head.

"Do you know anyone who'd want to harm him?"

Tomoki gave him an incredulous look.

"Oh, right, forget I asked." Ichi leaned back and pinched his pale, thinly-whiskered chin in thought. "At your academy, did you ever practice the far-sight?"

Tomoki shook his head.

"Well, there is a theory that everyone already knows all there is to know, but it's blocked out by the five physical senses, the distractions of the body and of the conscious mind. You might give it a try. I have a feeling you're predisposed to it," Ichi said, departed, then returned with an inkwell, brush and roll of paper.

"How does it work?" asked Tomoki curiously as his advisor folded then tore off a length of the paper. "What hand seals should I make?"

"It's not like that," Ichi explained with a shake of his head then dipped the brush into the black ink and put in it Tomoki's hand. "Just close your eyes, clear your mind and think of your friend."

The boy looked at him uncertainly but did what he asked. "I don't see anything."

"Relax!" the man chided. "Concentrate, you have to give it some time and you have to trust yourself. Don't think too much…better still, don't think at all! Just draw what you feel." He leaned close and turned his ear toward Tomoki's still face as if listening for his thoughts then said: "That's better. Keep at it. In the meantime I have to finish up with Madam Wu's treatment."

Tomoki heard the man rise and hasten into the other room with a rattling of beads. He relaxed and looked deep into the darkness. Awhile passed then slowly his hand began to move. The brush crept across the paper, curving upward to a point, then down, up…and down. After a few moments he opened his eyes. Upon the paper appeared a series of rolling crests around a large, rounded mass.

The puzzled leaf-genin was still staring at it when his mentor returned, bringing with him two china cups and a steaming teapot.

"So…what do you think?" Ichi asked casually.

"Waves," Tomoki answered, "and an island." He looked up sharply. "The Land of Waves!" he blurted then turned thoughtful. "Naruto went on a mission there with his sensei, Kakashi, and his team not too long ago. He told me they were in a messy fight with a rogue ninja named Zabuza and his follower Haku."

Tomoki's features pinched with thought and he waved his hand at the drawing. "But that doesn't make any sense. Why would he go back…or why would anyone want to take him there?"

Ichi shrugged and joined his young, frustrated guest at the table. "I'm sure I don't know. But it's not wise to jump to conclusions like that – it's your conscious mind again."

Tomoki stared at his rendering one more time as if it had suddenly materialized there. He surrendered to a mirthless chuckle. "I really don't know anything," the ninja observed bleakly then let his face drop into his hands. "What should I do - go look for him in Wave Country?"

Ichi smiled politely and poured the two cups full. "Tomoki, for most people, what you can do right now is nothing less than magic – the way you fight and move, your Iron Vest, Fire Spirit and Shadow Gate jutsus. Many would like to learn such things but they won't. They won't sacrifice the time and they won't risk the failure."

Tomoki lifted his head, slowly took up the small cup of steaming tea, blew to temper it then took a tentative sip.

"My boy, you've learned so much already and know even more than you might realize." Tomoki looked at him, hanging on his every word. "If I was to search for Naruto, there are a few things I would try but they would all be uncertain. But, I think if you follow your heart, it will lead you to your friend."

The young ninja nodded solemnly then folded up the drawing and put it in his vest.

"Thanks," Tomoki offered simply but sincerely, bowed to his advisor then went.

It was early afternoon by the time Tomoki stood at the mouth of the alley with all his traveling gear assembled and ready to go. The sun was high and bright in the sky. The angle and high walls of the surrounding buildings insured that the alley was cloaked in deepest shadow. The young ninja blew out a breath and cracked his neck knowing he was about to push himself to the limit.

"Here we go," he muttered to himself and then: "ninja art – Shadow Gate Jutsu!"

The boy's hands and fingers flew as they pieced together the complex sequence of seals needed to get his inner-energy, his chakra, to flow correctly and make the technique work. The shadow responded to his urging and rippled; its depth deepened from a diaphanous shade to an impenetrable, inky black.

Tomoki nodded with satisfaction then froze dismayed as he felt a presence rise up unexpectedly from behind him, approaching like a great, unseen wave. He pressed his eyes shut and grimaced.

"You know, Tomoki," issued the smooth voice of Kakashi-sensei," I couldn't help but notice when you didn't come back. Of course, you've done that before, so maybe it's my fault for letting you go in the first place."

It was hard to tell what the jonin's mood was from just the tone of his voice but it seemed sincere when he commented: "That's an interesting jutsu, by the way."

"Sorry, Sensei," intoned the boy, who'd totally and completely forgotten about the two teams waiting for him, "but you and Esmeralda-sensei wanted me to bring Naruto back and that's what I'm going to do." He considered his intended undertaking for a moment, frowned then added: "It's just…going to take me a little more time than I thought."

There was a moment of pause and then, "What's happened to him?"

"I don't know, Sensei."

"Do you know where he is?" Tomoki raised both hands and shrugged. "I see," said the jonin with only a hint of sarcasm. "So you really don't know anything, do you?"

"No sensei," the genin had to admit.

"Don't you think that maybe you're being a little foolish to just set off like this?"

Tomoki swallowed hard and couldn't help but think he had a point. This venture was stupid, ill-conceived from the start, but the boy shook his head as if to dispel all doubt. "If all the facts were known and the reasons were clear then anyone would go," he stated but then his voice rose with emotion. "But it's not like that. Naruto's gone and he didn't just wander off. He didn't run away like I did that time. Foolish or not, I'm going."

Moments passed. Tomoki wasn't sure at all how Naruto's enigmatic sensei would react to a declaration like the one he'd just given and half expected to get a stunning chop to his neck, a swift kick to his ass or maybe both!

Kakashi Hatake, Tomoki considered, had always been hard to grasp. It was almost as if the jonin prided himself on being aloof, venturing occasionally past the point where he seemed merely cryptic. Those few perfunctory encounters the genin had had with the copy-ninja led him to assume that there was no way to tell what the man really thought or felt. Despite all that, Naruto really, really liked his new sensei and trusted him without reservation.

And that, the boy considered, has to count for something.

"And you really believe you can find him?" asked Kakashi flatly.

"Yes, Sensei," Tomoki managed to sound confident then awaited judgment as the jonin considered.

"Hurry back, Tomoki," Kakashi agreed after a few moments, "and this time I mean it."

Tomoki smiled, focused his thoughts on the image he'd drawn, then stepped forward and vanished into the pool of black.

Reappearing on a rocky, well-worn trail couched in the shadow of a ridge of jagged mountains, Tomoki's vision blurred with spots and streaks of light as he staggered and almost fell. The young ninja had never pushed his Shadow Gate Jutsu so hard or traveled so far before and the effort left him weak and dazed.

Suddenly, light blazed before him in a glorious fountain of prismatic hues and when he looked up, his jaw fell open and all feeling drained from his body as the divine presence of Buddha Himself towered before him.

The boy stared at the deity, awestruck; stared at his robes crafted in gold and blazing light, his round, powerful belly and massive palms – one beckoning toward heaven, the other invoking the earth. High above the little ninja the serene, infinitely kind, features of Buddha's benevolent face smiled and looked down.

Tears sprang to the genin's eyes and his shoulders quaked as he stood there frozen, with limbs trembling and shivers passing up and down his body.

Moments passed like an eternity spent hurtling through the cosmos before the ninja blinked and let himself fall slack. Buddha was still there but Tomoki let out a breath, raised an eyebrow then rested his hands on his hips. As his eyes adjusted, this divinity turned out to be only an image - a giant relief carved into the mountain's rocky face. The perplexed boy shook his head then rubbed his face and chuckled at himself.

"Huh…and I really thought -," Tomoki mumbled breathlessly then, after awhile, shook with laughter. "Yeah, right!" he cried. "I mean….wow, ha-ha!"

He looked again at the monument which was stained with time, rain and minerals. Moss clung to the stone folds of its robes, and small weeds and trees grew in the black, lightning-bolt shaped cracks.

"Ya got me!" the ninja admitted between gusts of weary laughter and blew out a breath in a great, relieved whoosh, "But there're no hard feelings." The genin pulled out his canteen, toasted his stone host, took a long, thirsty drink then wiped his lips with his sleeve.

"I guess getting here took even more out of me than I thought," Tomoki concluded, rubbed the back of his head then began to look around.

His paces took him to the edge of precipice that plunged down tree and rock studded slopes toward a river choked with boulders and debris. A sweep of his gaze left then right took in breathtaking mountain vistas. Peaks of bleached rock and stubborn green vegetation lead out toward the horizon in every direction the boy could see.

"This isn't right!" the wanderer complained loudly and his voice echoed back to him. "I'm supposed to be near the ocean!"

Pulling out the sketch he'd drawn, Tomoki scanned it then made a face and spat his disgust. I can't believe I bought into all that 'trust your instincts' stuff, he thought then added aloud: "What was I thinking! I'm so stupid!" The young, leaf-genin walked in rapid, frantic circles which took him back toward the Buddha. "See - sea!" he explained to it as he held up his drawing to the image.

The boy noticed then that at the carving's sandaled feet sat a collection of curious objects along with a pile of small stones.

Tomoki let out a breath and shook his head but eventually gave in as he remembered the custom from the little mountain village where he'd grown up. The ninja found a pebble of appropriate size then walked over and added it to the pile. This was his offering to the spirit of the place and he bowed his respects.

When he was through, the genin knelt and looked over the other objects. These were votives – pleas for Buddha's intervention, and varied from written scrolls and drawings that expressed their owners' wishes for health, wealth and long life to small engravings and figurines that pleaded for a successful journey or an end to a sickness.

The traveler sat down and rested his back against the stone. He hadn't planned on eating for a while but opened his pack and rummaged through it for some of the food he'd brought. Taking a bite of the bread, he found it crusty and flavorful but the peach was so far from ripe that it stuck in his teeth.

After Tomoki rested for awhile he moved to rise but found it difficult. He was completely exhausted from the effort of transporting himself here and his chakra hovered near zero. Though he hated the idea of delay, the genin gradually resolved to rest the night here and continue refreshed in the morning. Wandering in these unfamiliar mountains at night was unwise even for a trained ninja.

As the boy sighed and looked out at the mountain vistas lit in palettes of yellow and orange, Tomoki absently picked up a small carving of a human figure. It was rough textured by the knife that had crafted it and stained with garish colors. By the time the ninja had turned it over and over in his hand a few times, its intention had become clear – it was a plea for the return of a missing child.

The newcomer cast his gaze at the multitude of like carvings - the votives that scores of parents, brothers, sisters, friends, classmates and playmates had left in desperation with all worldly means exhausted.

So…so many kids! How could that happen?

In a rush, Tomoki felt suddenly overcome, as if all the grief that had been deposited there now flooded to take up residence within him. He shut his eyes solemnly, hung his head and almost immediately fell asleep amidst the votives there at the Buddha's feet.