Part 6 – The Fowls of the Air and the Beasts of the Field
Cries of horror and disbelief washed through the crowd of workmen and disciples as they realized what the Abbot's brother and sister were about to do. The Abbot himself, still shaken by the ruin that had befallen his monastery, trembled and sweated in disgust at the sight until he cried out: "Wait!"
Hsien and Inakaya's heads swiveled toward him both leveling incredulous glances.
"By no means," answered the boar-spirit with a cruel chuckle, "will I delay my satisfaction any longer."
"Truly, brother," agreed Inakaya. "Look around you, Brother Lin! Look at your fallen pagodas and broken walls!" she growled and pointed angrily at Tomoki's quivering form then fired a savage kick into the boy's ribs before he could compose a jutsu. "Remember too what this rodent has done to your own poor brother and sister!"
"I haven't forgotten," Lin replied solemnly, shut his eyes then added, "have you? Have you forgotten what you were and what you aspired to be?"
His big-brother's eyes widened into saucers as he rose and took a step toward the Abbot. "Don't presume to tell me 'brother'," the giant declared snidely then puffed out his massive, barrel chest. "I know what I am and what I wish to be – nothing like you!" Hsien lowered his brow, at which many of the disciples retreated with instinctive fear, then brushed back his bristly hair. "This one was right about one thing," he explained and gestured at the gasping ninja, "you are a fraud, as ridiculous as a man as a man would be pretending to be an animal!
"Look at you, looking back at me with such distaste. Look at your silly followers who stand there still uncomprehending! We both take from them what we want. You want their affection but Inakaya and I are much more honest…we want only their flesh!"
In an instant Hsien had un-slung his weapon and let it fly - over his smaller brother and into the crowd where it landed and locked on the head of a surprised disciple. "Brother, no!" screamed Lin, too late as the boar-spirit ripped his arm back on the guillotine's chain, bringing it and the poor disciple's severed head back to him. Chaos erupted then as most of the disciples and all of the tradesmen bolted in stark terror. Hsien laughed, discarded the head to clear his weapon then slung it again – this time at a porter who stood frozen, too frightened to flee. Again the terrible, bladed basket of the flying guillotine descended and caught the poor man's head but the Abbot lunged and caught its chain before Hsien could pull it away.
"Let go, brother," warned the boar-spirit.
Lin remained firm, with both pale, slender-fingered hands grasped tightly around the steel links. The Abbot stared at his 'big-brother' and blinked his eyes against the tears. "It's true then," the white-haired boy accused bitterly and struggled for the words. "The pair of you are…killers…worse than any animal because you kill for pleasure!" He gasped and shook his head. "And you've deceived me all this time when you professed that you'd forsaken your primitive origins and become noble; that you wished to walk the spiritual path.
"Has nothing I've ever said, nothing I've ever shown you, and nothing we've accomplished here together meant anything to you at all?"
The two animal-brothers exchanged looks: Lin's melted before a horrible epiphany, the scope of which was only now fully taking shape in his mind; Hsien's was hard with icy indifference. "Bird…you squawk too much," Hsien hissed then heaved upon the guillotine's chain.
In a blur of motion the chain wrested from the Abbot's tenuous grip and the dreadful apparatus spun, decapitating another of the crane-spirit's disciples. But before the headless body could fall limply to the ground, one of Lin's followers jumped behind the Abbot, offering her back to take the place of his as the weapon and its spinning blades sped toward him on its way back to the boar-spirit's hand. Both she and the Abbot fell to the ground in a whirl of her brown robes and his white, joined by angry sprays of red.
"Hsien!" yowled Inakaya. "What have you done?"
He looked back at her, took up the severed head from his guillotine like a trophy in his hand, and raised an eyebrow. "Oh, not you too?"
Unimpressed, the leopard-spirit drew up to him and pushed him hard. "We need him!" she shouted and waved her hand, "to keep the herds quiet!"
Hsien looked down at her reprovingly. "Nonsense, sister," he ventured. "All we need do is show that we are powerful and they will come along easily enough when they see they have no choice." He looked over to where Lin knelt over the body of the murdered woman; where some disciples still stood by awaiting his direction. "First the bandits and now us," the boar-spirit told her. "To be preyed upon is their nature."
"You have learned nothing," replied Inakaya who went on to explain: "The Dancing Stones had to work hard for their meals, laying hours or even days in wait, fighting armed guardsmen, prowling dangerous mountain trails – they were fools!" Her fingers gripped Hsien's vest and she looked at him confidingly. "Hasn't it been easier doing things our way, when we can take whatever we want from them and they don't even know it?"
"Hmm," the giant agreed after a moment's thought, "good point." He exhaled a tolerant breath as he looked again toward his grieved brother. "Very well, go and see to him," he said then looked back toward where Tomoki lay and grinned. "In the spirit of our enduring concord and cooperation, Inakaya, I'll leave you half."
"You're too kind," his sister gushed.
Even in his wounded haze, Tomoki could feel Hsien's heavy tread come toward him over the paving stones. Mustering energy, he threw himself over and managed to scrabble to his feet but the giant's huge hand seized his shoulder and pulled him around before he could get far. The open-handed cuff that followed almost broke the boy's neck and left him seeing nothing but speckles of light and dark.
"Pain and fear," observed Hsien as he looked curiously into Tomoki's face and laughed, "are natural to a rodent's short life." He looked upward abstractly and secured his prey with an imprisoning grip. "What did you think to accomplish here? You could never have defeated us; in truth, escape would have been as close as you could have come to victory but you chose not to accept it." The beast then looked down at him and took a deep, loathsome and predatory sniff. "In the end, you could have escaped your fate…but you could not escape what you are."
Tomoki's vision swam as Hsien opened his tusked, stained jaws wide then lowered them toward his throat. The boar-spirit's breath steamed on his skin; the raw stench of it, like a slaughterhouse, filled his nostrils and the ninja's resolve shattered.
The squirrel cannot run long with the fox, Ichi had tried to warn him and he hadn't wanted to believe it. Maybe this was all his own fault for trying to be more than he was.
The genin struggled futilely one last time in Hsien's monstrous grip and looked away but then suddenly the demon released him and he slumped to the ground.
Quickened by the shock of impact, Tomoki looked up as an orange blur flew through the air and smashed the boar-spirit's face. Hsien staggered back as he tried to regain his footing. Tomoki blinked his eyes rapidly and tried to focus them then gaped in surprise as did Hsien who now found himself confronted by another boy barely half his size, this one yellow-haired and blue-eyed.
"N-Naruto?" Tomoki sputtered then spun around toward the center of the courtyard where a humbled and humiliated Abbot Lin stood with one hand raised. Atop those slender fingers rested the enormity of the Great Bell as if it possessed no more than a feather's weight. Almost stunned with disbelief, Tomoki turned back as Naruto gave forth with a savage snarl that made even Hsien flinch.
Tomoki stared at Naruto, still unsure of his reality. The yellow-haired boy stood like a terrible vision, legs bent and fists balled, lips pulled back around bared teeth. Though pale and gaunt from his imprisonment, with his clothes dirty and blond hair matted, his eyes blazed with savage vitality and Tomoki could see the faint glow of his chakra as it crackled like blue electricity, flowing around him and raising patterns in the dust.
Naruto burst forward, right and left fists pounding with sledgehammer force into the boar-spirit's belly and ribs. As the giant started to double over, the genin leaped up suddenly and smashed the top of his head into Hsien's chin which cracked at the impact. Naruto then dropped low and rolled between the monster's legs, coming up at the last moment with his heel which whipped through Hsien's groin but still Naruto wasn't finished. Catching himself on his hands, the orange-clad genin coiled his body back and slammed both feet into the back of Hsien's knees which sent the boar-spirit sprawling to the ground.
Tomoki's jaw fell slack. It…it's impossible! he thought. How can he fight like that after four days trapped…no food…no water? Quickly, he put the thought aside, gathered himself and wove his fingers together for the Five Elements/Eight Harmonies Jutsu and healed himself, recovered his swords then staggered forward.
"Naruto?" he stammered uncertainly as he approached.
The boy turned on him with a fearful scowl on his face. Tomoki saw Naruto's hand arc toward him, its fingers curling together as it came. The oncoming punch connected solidly with the young ninja's jaw forcefully enough to send him spinning across the courtyard and then down to the ground.
Tomoki sat up dazedly and pressed his hand against the fresh bruise which hurt more from the shock than anything else. "Ow!" he cried out in hurt, betrayed surprise then screamed at Naruto who marched toward him: "What did you do THAT for!"
The blond looked down at him furiously. "I don't have to explain anything!" he shouted back as he jacked a thumb into his own chest.
Tomoki stared at him, mystified and panting for breath then pushed himself up. "I came out here, all this way, just to get you back!"
"Oh, yeah?" barked Naruto acrimoniously, "well, you shoulda saved yourself the trip!"
Red-faced and pulsing with rage, Tomoki marched up to Naruto until they were nearly nose-to-nose. "Yeah, I should have!" he spat, cursed then shouted into the blond boy's face, "I shoulda left your worthless carcass to rot under that stupid bell!"
Naruto shoved him back. "I guess you'll know better next time!"
Tomoki stared back as his hot anger gave way to cold. "Yeah," he declared bitterly. "I guess next time I will."
The two ninjas glared at each other and their hatred seemed to take on a life of its own. It coursed between them boring a tunnel through the ether, connecting the two to the expulsion of all else.
"Excuse me," a harsh voice interrupted and the leaf ninjas turned to see Hsien rise and limber up his throwing arm, with his sister, Inakaya at his side, "but if anyone's going to kill anybody around here…it's going to be us!"
Tomoki grimaced then said to Naruto coolly, "Let me guess…you'll take the big guy." Naruto drew a pair of kunai knives and charged the giant; Tomoki took that for his answer. The taller boy shrugged and shook his head then turned to confront Inakaya who strode before him, spun her spear around crisply then brought it to a stop. The genin watched the point vibrate and thought: She must have a thousand of those things in a warehouse somewhere…
"Hey, Inakaya," he said. "I could swear we've done this before."
Her lips narrowed and formed a wry smile. "Third time's the charm," she quipped surely. "Brother laid you out not more than a few minutes ago and even though you know some kind of healing jutsu I can tell that you're on your last legs while Hsien and I are all refreshed by brother Lin's spell. You won't last long this time, then I'll help kill that orange fox friend of yours and we'll both have a delicious feast!" A shiver passed through her body as her face lit with glee.
Tomoki frowned. "You've got a real one-track mind," he offered critically, "do you know that?"
"Unlike you humans," Inakaya observed with a wry wink, "we animal-spirits are very easy to please."
The genin nodded obligingly, sparing a look toward where Hsien and Naruto were engaged in a pitched battle. The boar-spirit slashed and slung his guillotine in sweeping, body-slicing arcs while the diminutive ninja leaped and rolled, occasionally slipping through to stab at the monster's legs and vitals.
Tomoki's features twitched then fell into an expression of reluctant concern.
"So tell me, little rodent," asked Inakaya, "you've fought well so far but are you ready to die at last? Are you ready to meet your destiny!"
"I could use a bite to eat first," Tomoki confided, "how 'bout you?" The leopard-spirit gave him a sour look. "Oh, right…" he pretended to realize then knelt to collect his weapons and cradled them both in the crook of his arm. "Hold on a 'sec," the boy said then reached down to pick a wedgie from his ill-fitting pants. "Ok, now I'm ready."
The leopard-monster's lithe legs bent then she snarled as she sprang and battle was joined.
All around the Courtyard of the Great Bell the four battled while the fifth of their number returned to mourn the loss of his disciple. To one side, Naruto ducked and dodged away from Hsien's furious swipes, the lethal casts of his flying guillotine and the snarling, steel coils of its chain. On another, Tomoki darted and sidestepped Inakaya's furious stabs with her spear which came as fast as arrows. Having learned the hard way from two bloody defeats, the leopard-spirit remained aloof and sought instead to patiently whittle away at her foe.
On and on the two genin fought – Tomoki using the relaxed, flowing strategies and movements of ai, while Naruto depended on his explosive, unpredictable ferocity. Both were worn down and weary from their recent travails and were soon forced to retreat before their magically restored adversaries.
At length they came together, back to back. Both panted heavily for breath and bore cuts and tears in their clothing. Tomoki held back his surprise, hardly believing that anyone could contend with a true monster like Hsien after a four day fast within the lightless prison of the Great Bell. In that instant the glimmer of a strategy formed and he muttered a few words to Naruto who nodded curtly and barked out a quick, "right!"
Both ninjas spun as one, unleashing a barrage of shuriken and kunai-knives at Inakaya who, caught off-guard, leaped madly and whirled her spear to shield herself and deflect the oncoming missiles from the air. Naruto switched opponents to circle her and press his assault while Tomoki rushed at Hsien who hurled his flying guillotine in reply. The genin dodged aside, threw both swords at the giant then wove his fingers back and forth in a complex pattern. "Fire-Spirit Jutsu!" he cried as his blades clattered off Hsien's upraised forearms.
The hanging paper lanterns, whose light had faded before the dawn, now exploded through their fragile houses into brilliant blooms of white and blue flame then blazed like comets toward the boy's beckoning hands. Gathering the flames together, Tomoki compressed their destructive energies until he lunged forward and projected them in a single, blazing shaft toward the surprised boar-spirit.
"Brother!" shouted Inakaya in alarm as Tomoki's jutsu overwhelmed Hsien, exploding in a blinding blast of white. The genin covered his face and threw himself to the ground to ride out the explosion then rolled to his feet and tried to clear the spots from his vision.
"Tomoki!" he heard Naruto's gravelly tenor warn him, "watch out!"
The genin flinched away just in time to avoid the leopard-spirit's skewering stab. He reeled, flatfooted, as the incensed Inakaya came after him, wild with fury. The point of her spear slashed and darted at him like a vengeful, living thing. It cut toward his legs, and Tomoki was completely taken in by the feint as it changed directions in an instant and vectored instead up for his neck. A blur of orange, blue and yellow flashed before him as Naruto intervened, knocking the spear aside with his kunai.
"Naruto!" barked Tomoki.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," he answered as Inakaya slashed at him again.
Tomoki spun away, making straight for his abandoned swords, while Inakaya stabbed furiously at Naruto then broke off to rush after her original prey. Begrudgingly, the blond genin allowed her.
Tomoki urged himself to greater speed as he sprinted, then sprang into an all-out leap as a shadow passed overhead and Inakaya landed before him right between his two weapons. But the young ninja had already set aside his plans to regain his swords and instead landed on his palms, pushed off and thrust both feet into the dumbfounded leopard-spirit's chest.
Inakaya yowled as she rode the force of Tomoki's double-kick and landed in a crouch, balancing herself on the butt-end of her spear, then tore after the genin who raced now toward the shadow of the courtyard's scaffold-covered wall, making hand-signs as he went. The shadow darkened and deepened as Tomoki passed into it, followed immediately behind by the fearsome leopard-monster.
Inakaya emerged from the darkness, disoriented momentarily by her sudden transport though space, and saw her prey facing her but yet somehow gliding away as if by magic. The woman puzzled for an instant before she realized that she'd been in this exact spot before. Her feet struck the ground then flew out from under her; she landed hard and flat on her back with an unceremonious splat of oil. The leopard-spirit looked up at Tomoki, who offered a salute as he hopped onto solid ground and backpedaled away, not even attempting to take advantage. Shadows then fell over the woman and Inakaya looked around in dismay at the multitude of Narutos that now surrounded her. They smiled or scowled intently. Some nodded in appreciation of the violence to follow while others spared a moment to smack their lengths of 2 x 4s, shovels, picks, bricks, or short lengths of steel reinforcing bars against their eager palms; after a brief, preparatory pause, they attacked en masse.
Tomoki couldn't help himself but grin at the spectacle while blow after blow rained down on Inakaya who wriggled and thrashed wildly like the animal she was. The ninja then felt a rush of air and suddenly his vision was obscured by a metal screen. Tomoki's momentary jubilation came to an immediate end as he felt the weight of the steel basket thud, heard the click of the gears and felt the blades poke into his neck. Sheer terror flashed through his mind like lightning across a dark sky, knowing at once that this could be nothing else but Hsien's flying guillotine. Desperately, the boy sought for the chain and wrapped it around his arm twice as he got a grip with his other hand to back up the firsts'.
His eyes flicked up and saw though the guillotine's mesh-like veil the distant boar-spirit's demonic visage. Hsien's body was blackened and burned. All his clothes and hair had singed away and in the center of his chest, a charred, gaping wound revealed white breastbone and ribs. The implacable monster's snarling face, reddened and blistered, widened into a gruesome smile as he laughed – his victory at hand, and he pulled back on his weapon's chain with all of this strength.
In a surreal haze, as time seemed to slow, Tomoki ran toward Hsien as fast as he could in three great, chakra-assisted strides then leaped just as the chain pulled violently tight. As he flew through the air his grip remained firm and kept a little, precious slack between his locked hands and the terrible apparatus clamped around his head. The force of Hsien's pull took him back to its source, Hsien himself, and Tomoki twisted in the air, cocked his knee high into his chest as he pivoted, then smashed back with his heel as hard as he could. The kick exploded through the boar-spirit's burned face, knocking him back and dropping him to the ground. The genin landed on his feet and stumbled, off-balanced by the weight on his head, then hurriedly reached up for the lever that sat atop the flying guillotine and pulled it in the opposite direction. The weapon's actuator clicked, the points of its shark-tooth blades retracted and Tomoki pushed it off just as Hsien regained his senses enough to pull again on the weapon's leash.
The beast cried out angrily at being denied then blared, "It's only a matter of time before your luck and your tricks run out, rodent!"
The genin staggered and clutched at his neck, having come within a moment of decapitation. Hsien glared at him then looked away, distracted at last by the brutal, brutal beating Inakaya was still receiving at the fists, feet and improvised weapons of Naruto and his multitude of shadow-clones.
The boar-spirit's eyes flickered from out of the broken and burned ruins of his face, and Tomoki could see how furiously he thought. What will he do, wondered the young ninja, attack me while I'm still weaponless or help his sister? Surely sentiment would not play a role in Hsien's decision but only cold practicality. Whatever internal arguments had passed though the boar-beast's mind, he reached his decision. Hsien leaped away from Tomoki and unleashed his flying guillotine toward Naruto and his duplicates.
"Naruto!" Tomoki shouted as the weapon hissed and spun into their midst. Shadow-clone Narutos leaped away from its path while others were slashed and vanished into puffs of dispersed chakra. Tomoki sped at Hsien and flew into a kick – a low, flying, heel-kick directed towards the side of the boar-spirit's knee but the giant turned at the last moment and Tomoki's heel cracked instead against the meat of the giant's thickly-muscled thigh.
Hsien barked in pain then glared down at Tomoki who, stuck in a bad position, tried desperately to work a scissor-style takedown. The man-beast lurched across with his other leg and booted the ninja in the stomach sending him rolling over the paving stones. Focused once more on Tomoki, Hsien took up his guillotine and readied it to hurl but then winced and arched as his back and legs were peppered with shuriken and kunai knives.
Hsien turned and his eyes widened in shock at the sight of a dozen Narutos charging. The giant backpedaled a step then another then fled, pursued by the small, orange army. One after the other, they ran an obstacle course over stacks and barrels, construction machinery and piles of rubble where the collapsed crane had tore its way through the Shining Summit Monastery's walls and towers. The desperate boar-spirit lead his hunters toward the perimeter wall, where he slashed at one of the remaining scaffolding's supports and collapsed it in an attempt to bring it down on top of them. Hsien scrambled away then cast his guillotine and leaped, up atop a ziggurat of boxes, then all the way to the top of the outer wall.
Tomoki, meanwhile, lay on the courtyard's pavement and gasped for breath as he tried to recover from Hsien's blow. At last he pushed himself to all-fours. Red-stained drool poured from the boy's mouth as he saw, high above upon the Courtyard of the Great Bell, Hsien and Naruto locked in battled. Tomoki stumbled as he made his way toward them then fell to his knees, overcome with dizziness.
Hsien fought with the fury of a cornered beast. His great, long arms lashed out at Naruto and his remaining clones. Sometimes his wild blows connected and the unfortunate clone disappeared but in the meantime the remaining ones swarmed over him like ants. Their knives sank into his already-breached skin; they grabbed his legs to trip him up and slow him down, and gripped doggedly around his bull-neck. Suddenly, the boar-spirit seized one by the neck and all the clones vanished. Tomoki's eyes widened at the sight as he fought again to rise.
Hsien bellowed a cry that echoed throughout the courtyard and the mountains beyond as he tightened his grip, seized Naruto by the leg too and hoisted him high over his head.
"Naruto!" Tomoki shouted as he remembered his own plunge down the mountainside at the boar-spirit's hands.
The blond genin wriggled and thrashed in his foe's grip, grabbed Hsien's thick wrist, jerked his neck free then bit deep into the giant's burned forefinger. The beast squealed with pain and drew his hand back but Naruto grabbed the finger tight with both hands and kicked his other leg free.
Tomoki watched anxiously, trying desperately to muster the energy for another jutsu, then froze with shock as Naruto fell from Hsien's grasp and both tumbled over the parapet and out of sight.
Tomoki stood there mute with horror as his hands came up and clutched around his head in dismay. Oh, no! the ninja thought numbly then swallowed hard as the wind blew through his tatters of his borrowed clothing. Oh, Naruto… The boy forced his eyes shut as he tried to gather himself. You don't know he's dead, he reasoned at last. You don't know that he went down the mountain…don't jump to conclusions…don't jump to conclusions…don't jump to conclusions, Tomoki repeated to himself over and over like a mantra as he worried his lip. He slowly paced forward and looked for a good shadow he could use for his Shadow-Gate Jutsu which he would use to take him to the top of the wall.
One appeared before him and, as he looked up, he saw it was attached to the savagely-beaten but still standing form of Inakaya, the leopard-spirit. She looked at him tiredly then observed: "Looks like we're the only ones left."
"'Seems that way," Tomoki admitted. As much as he wanted to believe otherwise, his pessimistic nature denied him that hope. "So…I guess you still want to fight?"
Inakaya nodded. "If we don't, then I'll always kinda wonder how it would've turned out."
Tomoki looked at her startled then his lips rose into a genuine, though sardonic, grin. "Curiosity killed the cat, you know."
"Yeah, yeah," said Inakaya who rolled her eyes at the quote, "and satisfaction brought her back. Listen, I think we've put each other through enough that we can spare ourselves the one-liners. What do you think?"
The genin shrugged agreeably then the two eyed each other and began to circle. Inakaya attacked first, leaping forward with an eviscerating kick toward Tomoki's midsection. The ninja sidestepped and swatted it aside with a sweep of his arm then coiled his hips and snapped the ridge of his hand at her neck. Sensing what was coming, the leopard-spirit dropped down and kicked back with both feet, but Tomoki read the attack and continued his motion all the way through, which took him around and he spun away just out of reach.
"Wait!" cried a booming voice and both looked up to see Hsien's form, posed victoriously atop the courtyard's wall – the boar-monster's black shape raised against the brightness of the fully risen sun.
"Brother! You're Alive!" greeted Inakaya with a fanged smile, "welcome back!"
Tomoki's face turned ashen. He tried to remain composed and formulate a strategy but this time he couldn't quite manage it. "SHIT!" he spat, cursing his own luck as well as Naruto's.
High into the air rose Hsien who then descended towards them, landing in a crouch. Blood poured from his wounded body which still glistened with fluid from his burns. "You're not going to finish him off without ME, leopard-lady?"
She gave him a curious glance but replied, "no, brother."
"Well…good," he growled then turned toward Tomoki and flexed the rippling muscles of his arms. The boy's expression twitched as he made himself ready to confront both animal spirits but then Hsien looked at him curiously and his eyes narrowed into slits as his mouth upturned into a wide, mischievous smile. "Where…," he crowed, "where did you get those clothes!" the boar-monster asked suddenly then burst out with laugher. "I can't believe I didn't notice before. You look like such a tool!"
Tomoki's mouth fell open. "Shut up!" he remonstrated. "I'm sick of hearing it, plus you're one to talk, you're not wearing -." The ninja fell silent as the realization came over him. "So," he ventured cagily, "how do you want to handle this?"
Hsien smiled. "Just like Iruka-sensei?"
"Fine," Tomoki agreed then wove his fingers together.
Inakaya startled suddenly. "Watch out, brother!" she cried. "He's using a jutsu!"
Hsien turned around fully toward her. "So what?" he argued. "So am I."
The leopard-spirit gaped in shock then as her brother's uppercut slammed up under her chin just as Tomoki sprang up from the depths of her own shadow, spun, and his leg sweep thundered through the backs of her ankles. Just like Iruka-sensei, Inakaya jackknifed from the force. The savage woman's back and the back of her head struck the stone pavement with a harsh crack then she unfolded limply… completely unconscious.
Tomoki looked at 'Hsien' and couldn't help but think: nice work…wish I'd have thought of that.
The boar-spirit vanished in a blur of dispelled chakra, replaced by Naruto, who stood with a grim, self-satisfied grin on his face.
Tomoki stepped away a pace and retrieved a thick, plastic strap that had once secured a palette of bricks, and tied Inakaya's hands behind her back with it. He then dragged her up, hauled her to the center of the courtyard and rolled her un-gently beneath where the Great Bell hovered balloon-like. "Lin!" he called out.
The Abbot's tear-streaked face looked up from where he knelt and the white-haired boy slowly stood.
"You know what to do, right?" the genin asked.
The shaky crane-spirit, his robes streaked and spotted with red, turned away, unable to stand the sight, but raised his hand then brought it down sharply to his side. At his command the Great Bell lowered slowly and unstoppably, like the setting sun or the ebbing tide of the ocean, until it came to rest, immovable, over the fallen leopard-spirit.
The three remaining figures looked at the Great Bell for a moment then Naruto turned toward the Abbot. "Only one more thing to do," he snarled, sprinted and his fist caught the crane-spirit right on the jaw and sent him flying; the Abbot's white robes flowing like sails in the wind. Lin landed in a sprawled heap and looked up dazed and quivering as Naruto advanced toward him.
The sound of Tomoki's slapping footfalls rang in the courtyard's stillness as he came around Naruto and blocked his way, breathing hard. "Don't, Naruto," he asked, "please."
"Out of the way, Tomoki," the genin ordered as his blazing blue eyes stared holes through his classmate. "I mean it," he reaffirmed darkly, "you won't like what I'll have to do to you if you don't."
Tomoki searched his expression, either for humanity or the demonic spirit that resided within him, then abruptly stepped aside and ushered him through with an outstretched arm. "So…what?" he asked as Naruto marched by. "You're just going to kill him? Are you going to kill him because you think it's the right thing to do or just 'cause you're mad? Is that a good enough reason?" he shouted and the sound of his desperate voice echoed through the courtyard.
Naruto stopped, quivering with anger, then turned back suddenly towards him. The shorter ninja glared at Tomoki, exhaling gusts of breath through flared nostrils and bared teeth before storming away.
The taller ninja wiped his forehead with relief then rubbed his hand over his face. The Abbot canted his head toward him. Slowly the white-haired crane-spirit's disconsolation vanished, replaced with rage as he looked past Tomoki towards Naruto's departing back then shot to his feet.
"Don't do it," Tomoki cautioned him quietly. "Just don't." Lin met his eyes and his fury melted away. He took a random step then collapsed to all fours. "Do you deserve to die?" the genin wondered aloud. "I don't know the answer to that…but I definitely think you had that punch in the mouth coming." Lin refused to look at him. "If it was me that you'd trapped under that bell, well…," Tomoki's voice trailed off. "I'd like to think I'd let you off that easy."
"How has it come to this?" Lin asked desolately as he surveyed his scarred, blood-smeared courtyard strewn with bodies and wreckage. "All I wanted was to be human, to make a difference. Where did I go so wrong?"
"I'm willing to bet," offered the genin, "right from the start."
The Abbot's brow furrowed for a moment then let his long-haired head fall. "What is this I feel…worse than any pain I've ever experienced before? It's hollow – a great sucking emptiness but still more real and solid than anything I've ever felt, like not even death could bring it to an end."
"Disappointment, betrayal…grief. You're human after all," Tomoki ventured stoically then added almost as an afterthought: "congratulations." The Abbot gave him a heartbreaking look which drew the boy's sad smile. "You didn't think it was easy, did you, being human?" The crane-spirit gasped, tried to compose himself and sat back on his heels. Tomoki followed his gaze toward the horizon then asked: "So, what will you do now?"
"Go back," Lin answered finally. "I'll go back to my marshlands…return to the life I left behind."
"Yes," the boy agreed half-heartedly and nodded. "You could do that."
Moments passed while the Abbot considered. "You don't think so?"
Tomoki shrugged. "It's up to you," he explained. "You're the one who has to decide and deal with the consequences of that decision, right?"
Lin nodded then asked, "What would you suggest?"
"Well," said the boy who made a thoughtful face, "running away IS a very human thing to do."
"Alas, but unsatisfying," the crane-spirit commented. "What else?"
"You could stay here," Tomoki began. "I'm sure you could make up some pretty-sounding lie about how evil ninjas attacked your monastery and turned your brother and sister against you. A good number of your followers would believe that without question. Lying is also pretty common among us."
Lin looked at him in shock. "I…I hadn't thought about it like that."
"It's ok; you're new to being human."
The Abbot frowned seriously. "No. I couldn't do it," he concluded. "My followers deserve more than that, they deserve better…and they deserve the truth. An Abbot who practices such deceit - that's not the man they chose to serve, that's not the man they died for…that's not the man she died for."
Tomoki looked over to the body of the woman who'd given her life for Abbot Lin, who'd thrown herself before the saw-like blades of Hsien's flying guillotine, and paled at finding that was none other than Anura Pakri – who'd guided him when he'd first arrived. "No," he said firmly as he turned away before grief could get a hold of him, "I guess it's not."
"Maybe I could stay," Lin extrapolated hopefully, "if they decided I could. If I confessed all to them and faced their justice."
"Would you really do that," Tomoki challenged, "even if they judged against you?"
Lin tilted his head. "I guess I'll have to trust them," he said then looked at Tomoki and managed a smile, "the way they trusted me."
After leaving Abbot Lin to whatever fate might eventually befall him, Tomoki lead the starving Naruto into Shijun and from there to the Luck and Happiness Teahouse. The pair entered through a gauntlet of widening eyes, cryptic looks and whispers – some encouraging but most not. With so many witnesses, word had spread of what had happened within the monastery's walls but the stories those actual events had evolved into, the genin could only guess.
The pair fell into blocky wooden chairs at a table with uneven legs near the middle of the teahouse's great room. A dapper-dressed waiter appeared almost instantly and asked for their order, eager to send the two on their way but unwilling for obvious reasons to upset them. Tomoki looked at the man's discomfited expression, searched through all his pockets then asked as he produced the only coin he had left, "What'll this get?"
The waiter gave a woeful look as he took it then walked away.
Tomoki and Naruto waited tensely, avoiding both eye-contact and conversation. Tomoki tapped his fingers on the tabletop while Naruto's knee bounced up and down impatiently, his stomach rumbling loud enough to shake the rafters.
After only a couple of minutes the waiter returned and set down a board of fare that disappointed both of them. Tomoki looked down at the cups of thin, black tea, the two small bowls of mutton broth speckled miserly with minced meat and vegetables, and a plate of mounded, white rice.
Half-starved, Tomoki's expression cried out his frustration. Why did I have to give Wakana all of my money? I should've kept more, he rebuked himself. For that matter, why couldn't I be one of those really evil ninjas, he mused dourly, and just take what I want? It was a cynical idea and he shook it away then quickly drained his tea and slurped down his bowl of soup which did little to sate his hunger.
Disgusted and tired, he'd looked away then settled back on Naruto who'd similarly finished his tea and soup and was starting in with his share of the rice. What am I doing here? Tomoki wondered. What, to save this guy…this dirty, ungrateful, crazed… His eyes studied Naruto critically, his smudged and strangely-marked cheeks, grimy hair, and sweaty clothes, the drips of spilt soup on his loud, orange clothing and grains of rice that stuck to his mouth. And why, because he 'saved' me from Xiaomei's demon, Tsao-Tsao? He didn't do it for my sake, he just likes to fight!
Tomoki picked up his chopsticks and took a pinch of his rice then another. And I thought he was soooo noble. What a joke! His memories took him just then to all he'd been through, the countless injuries he'd suffered and vicissitudes he'd endured but then recalled the kindnesses he'd received too, Wen's and Wakana's, and how she'd cared for and fed him. Meanwhile, that whole time, Naruto was under that bell. That whole time…
Tomoki's hunger stayed but his appetite left and he could no longer eat another bite. He lifted his plate of rice and dropped in front of Naruto. It rattled as it hit the table and the genin's blue eyes flickered up for a moment in surprise then returned to his meal. "Thanks," he grumbled tersely.
Tomoki ignored him and cast his eyes longingly toward the doorway. This place had suddenly become oppressive to him. He couldn't stand to remain even a minute more. Thankfully, in the time it had taken to finish his thought, Naruto had wolfed down his rice and was also anxious to go.
Tomoki set a brisk pace as he walked up the mountain trail, grateful that each passing step put more distance between himself and the Shining Summit Monastery. Naruto followed behind him at a generously anti-social distance, looking out vaguely at the scenery with his hands in his pockets, and the two 'enjoyed' a silence that was not at all companionable.
"So," began Naruto glumly after awhile, "Hsien, Lin and Inakaya were just animals pretending to be people."
"Basically," replied Tomoki.
"Huh…'Abbot Lin'," Naruto muttered scornfully. "All that stuff he went on about…it was all just a ridiculous act."
Tomoki gave forth with a weary sigh. "Lin was wrong to treat you like that but don't hate him too much. He's trying to follow his dream the same way we're trying to follow ours," he illuminated. "His brother and sister knew the difference and chose to be animals but Lin just wanted to be human, a good human, the same way you want to be Hokage."
"Are you saying I'm the same as that…that bird-brain?" Naruto fumed.
The sound of the blonde's voice grated in Tomoki's ears. "Forget it!" he demanded as he picked up his pace. "Just forget I said anything!" The ninja waited for Naruto's undoubtedly insulting reply and was surprised when it didn't come. Tomoki settled back into his stride and hoped that silence would reign for awhile yet so he could walk and regain some strength before having to use his Shadow-Gate Jutsu again. The trip that brought him here a few days ago had pretty much wiped him out. Now he'd have to transport two.
"Tomoki," ventured Naruto gruffly. "You're not mad just 'cause I punched you, are you?"
The genin's head drooped. "No, Naruto," Tomoki lied unconvincingly and knew he had but still hoped that Naruto hadn't noticed.
"Hit me back," the orange-clad ninja suggested but Tomoki just hissed a curse under his breath and kept walking. "Come on, I mean it!" Naruto insisted and ran around to stand in Tomoki's way.
The genin stopped and looked at him direly as Naruto closed his eyes and offered his chin, looking stupid the entire time. At length, Tomoki frowned, blew out a breath, put his hand to Naruto's awaiting head and pushed it and him aside. "Maybe next time," the taller genin said and walked on.
He hadn't gone far when Naruto's strident shout stopped him, "Hey!"
Tomoki turned and stared back. "What?" he yelled back. "What is your problem?"
Naruto stood there bristling; his brow dark with anger. "You're just like the rest!" he cried and pointed at him. "You think I'm a loser 'cause those animal guys grabbed me so easy! Well listen to me, I don't need anyone to fight my fights FOR me and the last thing I need is YOU to come save me!"
Tomoki stared at him for a moment, blinked and marched up to him. "Is that what I think, Naruto?" he asked with icy resentment. "Then it must have slipped my mind that those 'animal guys' had strange powers, outnumbered you and probably took you by surprise. And if YOU'RE a loser because of that then what does that make me when those 'animal guys' nearly killed me, not just once, but TWICE!" he vented hotly as he threw two fingers up before Naruto's face. The two exchanged baleful looks before Tomoki turned and stalked away, adding over his shoulder: "Oh, yeah, and, for the record, I didn't save you - Abbot Lin did. I washed out!"
At last the trail rose up, turned and opened out. The carved Buddha awaited them there, just as forlorn and man-handled by time as Tomoki remembered it. The votives were all still there too but the boy felt sure that there were no new ones. Whatever his shortcomings that had been laid bare over the course of this little adventure: as a ninja, a person or a friend, at least Hsien and Inakaya's depredations had been brought to an end and that definitely counted for something…actually, it counted for a lot!
Realizing that, his disposition brightened. Though he hadn't (technically-speaking) saved Naruto or the children of Shijun, who could now enjoy their lives un-eaten, at the end of the day they DID get saved. Wasn't that what was really important, however it happened?
Tomoki grinned glumly, remembering storyteller Wen's borrowed tales of daring-do. It would have been nice if that could've been me too, the young ninja mused philosophically. And as for Naruto, it's not like you didn't know that being friends with him wasn't gonna be easy…
The pile of stones remained as well and the genin knelt and picked up a stone for him and one for Naruto then added them to it as their offering to the spirit of this place.
The late afternoon sun's slanting light lit the mountains in rivers of yellow, casting their back sides in shade. Tomoki drew a breath of the crisp air then paused introspectively as he and the Buddha exchanged a glance. On impulse, he walked over to the old carving and knelt before it.
I've never trusted in any kind of higher power, he thought. After Chi-ling was destroyed, I figured…never mind that now. Still, I have to admit that I've felt something…it brought me here, and saved my life at least a couple of times when I should have died. The genin raised his head up. Whatever my failings, I don't want to be ungrateful too…so thank you. Slowly he rose to his feet and turned toward the shadows…the very same spot he'd entered through what seemed to him like a long, long while ago.
"What was that all about?" Naruto grumbled curiously.
Tomoki shook his head inscrutably and didn't answer. "Ready to go?"
"More than ready," the blond asserted. "Hey! You could've gotten us home though any shadow, right?"
The genin's features tightened; he couldn't deny it.
"Well then why did bring me all the way back here, huh?"
Tomoki brushed the observation aside. "It made more sense to me to go out the same way I came in," he dissembled. "Besides," the genin added and gestured at the breathtaking mountain vistas that stretched around them, "just look at the view." Naruto frowned, gave him a reproving look and opened his mouth to speak but Tomoki cut him off before he could make more out of it. "Ninja art: Shadow-Gate Jutsu," the boy announced as he gathered his chakra and crisscrossed his fingers into a seal.
The shadow's grey veil turned to jet black and the genin said to Naruto: "go ahead, I'll follow you."
Naruto paced up to the darkness' shore then looked at Tomoki uncertainly. "It's just like before, right?"
"Yep," said the ninja. "Just like in the woods, only this time we're going farther…a lot farther." Naruto moved toward the darkness again and braced himself tentatively. "Come on already," urged Tomoki as he drew up behind the shorter ninja. "Just walk. There's nothing to be scared of. I do it all the time." He looked at Naruto's pained look of concern then rested his hand in the center of the blonde's back. "On the count of three," he intoned then immediately shoved his classmate through.
Tomoki paused a moment to roll his eyes then followed. In the dark, narrow alley in the Village Hidden in the Leaves where he appeared, Naruto awaited him – eyes narrowed to slits and a simmering, disgruntled frown on his face. That sour, petulant yet deeply earnest expression struck Tomoki at once as absolutely the funniest and most hilarious thing he'd ever seen and he snorted then started to laugh. The more he laughed, the deeper Naruto's irritation became until the yellow-haired boy was nearly seething.
Suddenly, Tomoki's laughter trailed away as his vision went blurry. His arms and legs lost feeling and seemed as if they were miles away. "Uh-oh," he had just time enough to blurt before that Konoha pavement came up to welcome him home.
The needle's point moved slowly over Tomoki's skin then hovered for a moment before Ichi's professional fingers tapped and twisted it into position.
"Come ON, tell me!" urged Naruto from where he looked on impatiently, sitting backwards in a chair with his elbows resting on its back, "is he -?" A hard glance from the old man silenced him, having been twice chastised already.
Ichi turned back to his young patient, settled on a spot along the unconscious boy's clavicle and tapped a needle in with a flat stick. "…Going to be all right?" he finished the blond ninja's question. "Yes, I think so." The doctor's non-committal tone brought little comfort. The old man straightened then stretched his back and looked over Tomoki who lay motionless and bare to the waist on his treatment table. Long needles protruded from his shoulders, along his upper chest, at the elbows, forearms, hands and periodically down his midsection.
Naruto's expression narrowed with frustration. "So what's wrong with him, anyway?"
"Nothing's 'wrong' with him," Ichi corrected. "He's used too much chakra, so this is what happens. It's a perfectly natural reaction."
Naruto grunted with disbelief. "I don't see how. I mean, Tomoki really freaked me out when he just - just fell over like that!"
"You traveled a long way through his Shadow-Gate Jutsu, clear across the continent it sounds like. Think about it – the kind of energy that takes."
Naruto leaned back slightly in acceptance, if not approval, of what Ichi had told him. He looked up at the man dubiously. "This is going to make him better, right?"
"It always has before," Ichi explained tiredly then offered, "acupuncture is proven effective, you know. It goes back thousands of years."
"Hmph," the blond genin replied then his blue eyes widened as he remembered something. "Hey, uh, Itchy…I hope you'll tell that old lady I'm sorry."
"Ichi," the man corrected him and blew out a tolerant sigh. "And don't worry about Madam Wu; I think she's become accustomed to getting burst in on." He gave his work one last critical look-over then rose and shuffled his way to a small table where a small sandglass stood then overturned it. "You did right, bringing him here," he allowed then settled into a chair to wait.
Awkward silence passed as the sand dribbled through the timepiece's narrow throat. "I should thank you too," said Ichi, "for helping Tomoki against Xiaomei. I did not expect him to survive."
Naruto glanced at him. "Why'd you let him go?" he asked pointedly with cool disapproval. "Why did you help him? It seems like a pretty stupid thing to do if you thought he was going to die."
Ichi gave him a cross look then shrugged. "It's not as if I could have stopped him," the old man answered. "And he would have gone after her anyway with or without my help so I figured he'd be better off with it. I don't know if you've found this out for yourself yet or not but Tomoki can be a bit hard to distract once he has his heart settled, unfortunately…which reminds me -."
Gesturing for the boy to wait a moment, the doctor rose then went to Tomoki's vest which hung on a peg nearby and retrieved a blue hitai-ate from one of its pockets. "There you are. I believe this one's yours," said Ichi as he presented it to the genin whose face lit with joy and relief.
"My headband!" Naruto gushed, grasped it dearly then quickly tied it on.
Ichi couldn't help but smile. "Tomoki told me that something had to be wrong; that you'd never just leave that behind. I guess he was right after all."
The genin's eyes widened for a moment then sank plaintively, mired in guilt, while Ichi excused himself. When he returned, he carried with him a steaming teapot and a plate of biscuits. "Please, help yourself," the old man offered his guest as he poured him a cup. "It looks like you could use something more substantial but this is all I have on hand."
Naruto looked up at him gratefully as he took and ate the biscuits by the handful, gulped down his tea then abruptly made a face. "What's this stuff?" the boy asked. "It tastes like perfume smells."
"Chrysanthemum tea," answered Ichi with a reflective smile. "It's my favorite. I suppose it takes an acquired taste."
"It's ok," conceded the boy. "Thanks."
"Not at all," Ichi replied. "To serve a guest is only proper."
Naruto's eyes fell again on Tomoki's lifeless form. "Propriety," he muttered out of the blue.
The genin turned toward him. "It's a martial virtue."
The sage looked at him curiously. "Ah, Wu-De: the five martial virtues," he acknowledged. "You're quite right." Ichi looked over as the last grains of the sandglass trickled down. He stood then went to Tomoki's side and began to remove the acupuncture needles one-by-one then returned them to a tray.
"What now?" muttered Naruto anxiously when he had finished.
"What now is," said the old man who found his coat and put it on, "that I'm going home…to my wife and my two visiting grandchildren who always behave and thankfully leave all this ninja nonsense to the much more mentally-unbalanced little boys and girls." He gave Naruto a smug smile but the boy startled with alarm.
"What!" the blond protested, shot to his feet and waved his arm sharply toward the prostrate patient. "You're just going to LEAVE Tomoki like that! What kind of doctor are you?"
"An experienced one!" Ichi protested then his voice softened. "All he needs now is rest, Naruto, and he's more than capable of doing that on his own."
"Fine, go home," said Naruto with a frown. "I'm staying."
Ichi shook his head and grunted. "Naruto, that's…," he stopped himself, gave the boy an appraising look then continued, "unnecessary. Listen, this is far from the first time Tomoki's spent a night on that treatment table. Since the time he started at the Academy I can't even count the number of times he's come here with his hands bleeding from too much swordplay, or requiring sutures, stitches, a liniment or an antidote.
"And look at you!" he added and waved his hands over Naruto's disheveled form. "You're clearly in need of some good rest yourself, not to mention a meal, a laundry and definitely a bath." The old man raised his palms against Naruto's blistering look. "I'm just pointing it out. Go home, Naruto, he'll be fine. I give you my word."
Without a word further, Naruto scowled, paced back to his chair, wheeled it closer to where the unconscious Tomoki rested and sat down with arms crossed – the definition of immovability as he began his vigil.
Ichi scratched his cheek; his posture acknowledging bewilderment as well as defeat. "It seems like you're a tough one to distract once you have your heart settled too," muttered the doctor as if to himself. "Well, I don't have any jutsu, sexy or otherwise, to ply you with so I imagine I'll see you in the morning," he said then waved his farewell and turned to go out the beaded curtain that lead to the main room of his shop. "Oh, and Naruto," Ichi added as an afterthought, "it really is nice to have you back."