The Valley of Unrest
Tomoki walked the bustling, agreeable streets of Konoha with eyes downcast and hands in pockets. Though he was a genin, a ninja of the lowest rank, this day he wore no uniform, carried no weapons and wandered instead accoutered in baggy jeans and a black t-shirt emblazoned with the lurid, white, jolly-roger logo of his favorite manga series.
The afternoon sun shone brightly and the sky was a brilliant blue – colors that failed utterly to match his dolorous mood. He continued along the clean, concrete and wood-sided apartments and shops with their cheery window boxes, metal overhangs and winding runs of un-self-consciously exposed conduit and crooked downspouts. Most people paid him no mind as they walked past, but every now and then their conversations slowed, their laughter stopped or their children gawked at the great mottled and swollen bruise that bloomed over the right side of his face.
Tomoki took a breath and looked up ahead with his amber eyes through the crowds, the colorful banners, and advertisements that were strung over the streets. In the midst of all those brown and black-haired heads that bobbed up and down, he spotted one that was bushy and bright yellow. The genin squinted his eyes, looked closer and saw the flash of white collar, blue shoulder and bright orange sleeve – clothing he knew could only belong to one person. The boy frowned and turned aside before Naruto Uzumaki could see him, then quickened his pace down a side alley and headed in the opposite direction down another street toward the bazaar.
Crowds of shoppers and browsers, dense clusters of vendors' stalls, and low, fabric overhangs, awaited him. The dark edge of the bazaar's shade passed over him as he entered. At once he found himself surrounded by wares, produce and people from all over the Land of Fire and beyond. Voices called and people haggled over prices. Everyone here was engrossed in the performance art of commerce and all the ways it played on the senses: the textures of textiles, the heft of tools and cookware; the sound of flutes and mandolins, the barkers' insistent cries combined with snatches of conversations conducted in strange accents; the scents of meat cooking and pastries baking mingled with perfumes, garbage and animal musks; and finally, the sights of all the jewelry, clothing, and crafts. People were all far too occupied to pay his marked face any attention, and so he slipped again into blissful anonymity.
He wandered for awhile, pausing here and there to listen to music, watch the plate jugglers then inspect a collection of swords, before he moved on through the crowds -- his stride purposeful though he had no particular place to go. A girl wandered in front of him, holding up before her a blue dress on a hanger. He stopped short and bumped gently into her, then slid by. "Excuse me," he muttered distantly.
"Tomoki?" her familiar voice called to his back and he turned.
"Oh," he replied as he recognized her face, "Hi, Sakura."
Sakura Haruno gave him a good-natured smile. She was pretty, pink-haired, and wore the deep garnet dress piped with silver that Tomoki had come to associate with her. "I hardly recognized you in those clothes," she said, then her jade eyes fell to the side of his face and her expression melted with sympathy. "Wow," she began, "Does it hurt?"
"Only when I breathe," he replied, then put her at ease, "it's nothing really."
Sakura nodded then glanced upward with resignation. "I guess there's always next time…for both of us."
"Sure," agreed the genin more pensively than he'd intended. "You really fought well, though, Sakura. I shouldn't say I was surprised, but I was very impressed."
"Really?" she asked in a doubtful tone. "You think so?"
"Oh, yeah," he agreed hurriedly, "absolutely."
She frowned, but looked at him again with hope. "Really?"
"I don't know how else to say it," he affirmed with a chuckle. "You were beating Ino so bad, I thought she must've stole something…"
Sakura laughed at his emphatic delivery. "Hardly," she corrected him. "After all, it was a draw."
The boy waved away her objection. "Never mind that," he insisted. "It was still a great fight. And I know I could never have gotten out of her mind-transfer jutsu like you did."
"Thanks, Tomoki," she said with genuine gratitude, then after a moment added: "Hey, your fight was great too!"
The boy shook his head and shut his eyes. "That's nice of you…but you don't have to say that."
"I mean it," she said and her brow narrowed. "Kenshiro's tough! And it must have been hard, having to go up against your own teammate."
"Yeah," he muttered with his face downcast.
The girl draped the dress she carried over one arm, then reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "There's always next time," she assured him.
He shrugged with affected nonchalance. "It's all…water under the bridge now."
An awkward pause ensued, and both inched back from the thoroughfare as people flowed past them. Sakura's face lit. "Oh," she said as she remembered. "You're a guy, right?" she asked playfully.
The genin raised an eyebrow and smiled as he played along. "'Last time I checked."
"What do you think?" She inquired, then raised the dress before her, pressing it up to her neck and gathering it at her waist. It was a shimmering, midnight blue.
Tomoki, out of his depth, nodded agreeably. "It's nice," he offered.
"Does it make me look beautiful?"
Her eyes darted up at him crossly, her ample forehead creased with anger. "No?!"
Tomoki held up his hands. "I didn't mean it like that!" he explained in a panic.
"Well how did you mean it?"
"I…it's just that," he stammered as he rubbed the back of his closely-cropped head, "you're beautiful all the time, you don't need a dress just for that."
Her expression softened at once. "Oh…that's so nice of you." She gave him a clever smile, then asked: "When did you get so good at flattering a girl?"
He shrugged shyly and lifted his hands. "So…are you going to get it?"
"No," she admitted. "I'm just looking. That reminds me, Naruto's looking for you."
Tomoki knitted his brow for a moment before he smiled and said, "Thanks for the warning."
Sakura looked at him with surprise. "Oh," she began, then ventured, "I thought that you were friends."
"We are," affirmed the genin guiltily. "We are, but…it depends on the day sometimes."
The girl nodded sagely. "I do know what you mean."
Being that she was Naruto's teammate, he had no doubt that she did. Tomoki raised his eyes to her. "He is a good guy, though," he stated, "seriously."
"Yeah," she agreed thoughtfully. "I know."
"And he's got a thing for you," he ventured with a hint of trepidation in his voice as he suggested: "Maybe you should give him a chance?"
She looked at him pointedly, rising to his audacity. "I'll think about it," she replied cagily then studied his face. "Did he put you up to this?
"No!" he promised and held up his hands. "And please, don't tell him I said anything. I don't know how he'd take it."
Sakura stood straight and tall. "Your secret's safe with me," she vowed with pretended gravity.
"I should probably get going," said Tomoki who bowed politely then raised a finger toward his face. "I need to get a raw steak or something…you know."
Sakura chuckled. "Take care of yourself, Tomoki," she said tenderly, then added fiercely, "and train hard, 'cause the next chunin exam will be here before you know it!"
Tomoki smiled broadly as he turned to go, then vanished into the crowd.
The young ninja wandered, absorbed in introspection, until a powerful hand suddenly gripped his face, jerked him into an alley and slammed him into the wall. The impact rattled through him and pain pulsed through his wounded cheek; his arms flailed helplessly against the crushing force while his legs dangled high off the ground. At last the monstrous hand released him and he fell limply to the pavement, landed on his backside and clutched his throbbing face.
"What was that?" The memorable, demanding voice of Esmeralda-sensei rang like a gong in his ears. "I spend all that time training you and what happens: you fall apart like a wet paper towel!" The boy looked up at his teacher from where he huddled, caught between resentment and resignation. She towered over him, broad-chested and thick limbed, and pointed her finger accusingly while she stormed: "You're supposed to be a shinobi, a warrior; not some weakling too paralyzed with sentiment to fight!"
His teacher then set into him for the better part of half-an-hour about his faults and failings, her disappointment, and the many broader implications.
"You don't have to tell me," Tomoki informed her testily when she was through, "I was there, remember?" His face fell into his hands and he heaved a disgruntled sigh. "Is that what you came to say?"
The jonin scowled at him, her brow furrowed beneath her blue, hidden-leaf headband, then she paced up and down the alleyway. "In part," she said. "I know it sucks that you had to fight Kenshiro, but you screwed up your chance to become a chunin." She frowned and squeezed her knobby, scarred chin. "You screwed him up too -- the way you sent him on with a tainted victory because you didn't give your best."
"I know, sensei," Tomoki admitted as he draped his arms over his knees, "and I'm sorry for that."
Esmeralda hissed out a breath and leaned against the wall. Tomoki knew her well enough to know that she'd said plainly all that was on her mind, and though she'd expect him to be mindful, she would not dwell on this or mention it again unless it was relevant. He gathered his breath then ventured, "What's the other part?"
The big woman glanced down at him, and her mood changed perceptibly. "The Hokage sent me to get you," she said in a serious, halting voice, then turned toward him. "So is there anything you want to tell me? Did you do something else stupid?" Her ebon eyes narrowed.
"No!" Tomoki pleaded, then amended softly, "at least…not that I remember."
Esmeralda frowned and cocked her head. "All right," she muttered with a wince as she pulled him up and helped brush off scraps of litter that clung to his pants. "I guess we'll both find out what this is all about." A couple of young kunoichi academy students turned into the alley just then, froze at a single look from the jonin, turned, then wisely headed back the way they came. "Well, come on, do your jutsu and take us to the Hokage's hall," she urged then looked at him and shook her head. "Just look at you…not even in a decent uniform either."
The boy wove his fingers together. "Shadow-gate jutsu," he announced without enthusiasm and the shadows deepened at once into pure, pitch black. Teacher and student exchanged brief looks, then Tomoki stepped into the darkness and vanished with Esmeralda following close behind.
The genin waited uneasily, stationed in a chair with chin in chest and arms folded. The room was easily big enough to accommodate a class, but was entirely empty except for the single chair, a long table at the front, and three chairs behind it. The floor's expanse of polished, orange hardwood stretched between bare, wainscoted walls. Esmeralda-sensei waited at the open window with her back toward him, hands clasped behind her, as she gazed out into the long-needled pines beyond that swayed gently with the wind – a dark outline struck against bright sky and cris-crossing evergreen boughs.
The Hokage didn't keep them waiting long, and entered without fanfare through the open door. Tomoki looked up at the old man – the great ninja lord of the Village Hidden in the Leaves. His face was weathered, wrinkled and spotted with age, and his chin was adorned by a small, white and neatly-trimmed, pointed beard. He wore voluminous white robes and a shallow, conical, red and white hat – a mantle indicative of his office. A pipe hung unlit in his mouth.
Esmeralda turned crisply and bowed, while Tomoki pushed himself to his feet and did the same. Though Naruto always spoke with brazen, sometimes shocking, irreverence about their master, Tomoki felt immediately unsettled by his presence and wished he could be anywhere else.
"Esmeralda," the Hokage acknowledged respectfully in his gruff, sure voice, "thank you for acting so quickly. Tomoki, I appreciate your coming." Tomoki watched glumly as the ninja lord took the center seat at the table, then pressed his hands together and gave him an inscrutable glance. "You fought well at the chunin exams. Though it's certainly regrettable that your progress ended the way it did," he remarked, then continued cryptically, "perhaps that's just as well."
The boy's expression flickered, uncertain of his meaning, and he gave a nervous perfunctory nod.
"Well then," said the Hokage, "I'll get right to the point. Tell me, Tomoki…can you think of any reason why anyone would wish to abduct you?"
Tomoki's eyes lifted with astonishment then he leaned forward. "What!?" he gasped blankly. "No, Hokage," said the boy with an anxious chuckle as he shook his head. A meaningful silence and raised eyebrows prompted him to reiterate more vigorously: "No, really," he began. "I…can't think of anyone who'd want to kidnap me. It's not like I have any money or anything."
The old man looked at him from beneath the broad brim of his hat. "I believe you, Tomoki, but still I felt it would be remiss not to ask the obvious question." He gave the genin an avuncular smile, which did nothing to set him at ease, then took his pipe in hand. "I expect that you'll be surprised then to learn that there's a team of ninjas here in Konoha, whose mission is to take you."
"A team of…!" The genin again shook his head with disbelief. "How…how do you know this?" he asked in a creaky voice. "I mean, how do you know they're after me?"
The Hokage seemed to accept this as a reasonable question. "The roads to our village are patrolled by sentries," explained the ninja lord. "One of them came upon the three on their way here. Exercising discretion and stealth, like any good chunin, she learned of their plans and promptly informed me."
"Huh…," remarked Tomoki who bobbed his head. Noticing how his breath had quickened, he paused a moment to calm himself before he asked: "So…what happens now?"
The Hokage grinned. "I thought I would consult you about that."
"Me?" the genin piped.
"Indeed," he affirmed. "You see, although we now know what, that is to say, who they're after…we don't know who they are or who dispatched them." His ashen brows lifted in thought. "It seems to me that the best way to uncover those answers fully is to allow their mission to succeed."
Esmeralda whistled, appreciative of the situation, then all fell quiet as a breeze coursed through the trees outside and filled the room with its whisper.
Tomoki frowned with puzzlement. "So…you want me to let them kidnap me," he expressed with some trepidation.
The Hokage's eyes lifted toward the genin's teacher. "Please, Esmeralda," he began gently. "Would you give us a moment?" With barely a flicker in her expression, the jonin bowed then departed. Tomoki's eyes followed her out the door. The ninja lord then rose slowly from his chair, came around to the front of the table and leaned against it. "Tomoki," he said unhurriedly as if to the air, "Maeda."
The boy's mouth fell open. He couldn't recall the last time he'd heard the sound of his own last name. He hardly even thought it since that terrible day six years ago when it had become irrelevant. His mind froze as it tried to encompass what it meant that this man could pull a fact like that from the ether. How vast were his powers? What else might he know? Could it be that he had not passed through the academy as unnoticed as he'd always believed?
"Do you love this country?" the Hokage continued abruptly, reigning-in the boy's wandering thoughts.
Tomoki blinked uncertainly, still completely unbalanced. "Love?" he muttered, perplexed and surprised by the question. "I don't know…never really thought about it." The genin closed his eyes then straightened. "I wandered as a refugee for a long time. The Hidden Leaf Village took me in when nowhere else would…so I guess I do feel a sense of obligation."
The old man nodded. "Well put," he granted. "I appreciate that you respect me enough to tell me the truth." The Hokage then wandered abstractly toward the open window and gazed out. "If I may share a moment of honesty with you, it is no easy thing for me to send my ninja into danger, especially those as young as you. This mission that I feel…compelled to send you on, if it leads where I think it might, promises great danger and perhaps much worse for you but also offers the possibility for Konoha to gain information and even insight about a region of which we know little," he explained then turned back toward the boy. "It is for this reason only that I would entertain the idea of sending a genin on what I consider to be a 'B'-rank mission."
Tomoki's eyes widened. "A…a 'B'-rank?" he gasped. The very definition meant that the task was so crucial and dangerous that jonin or chunin level ninja were required.
"It will, do doubt, require a great deal of improvisation and judgment on your part, therefore I shall give you a wide latitude in terms of the details." The Hokage smirked at him. Tomoki's eyes lit, but he bit at his lip. "I can see it in your face that you're eager enough for the challenge…but maybe a little daunted and still stung by your defeat at the hands of Kenshiro." The genin looked away, unable to look his master coolly in the eyes the way he thought he should – the way a real ninja would. If the Hokage was disappointed, he gave no outward sign of it and instead returned to the boy's side. "Maybe you're thinking to yourself: why me? Why not send somebody bigger, stronger, older or more experienced? My answer to that is: why not you? If you have survived so far, your missions as well as Esmeralda's punishing tutelage, then you must be doing something right. Then, finally I would tell you that I've been around for a long, long time and can say with some certainty that we could do worse."
Tomoki's features pinched in thought. He felt weightless and insubstantial – a feather balanced upon a windy precipice.
"I take it," the Hokage went on before the boy could drown himself in thought, "that Esmeralda has talked to you about your loss at the chunin exams, and has explained to you that a ninja rarely has a choice about who they must kill. It is often not someone evil, that they dislike or who otherwise 'deserves' it – for whatever that means."
The boy nodded then managed to rasp: "yes, Hokage…she did."
The ninja lord nodded with curt finality then bowed, a slight gesture of his head, then moved toward the doorway. Tomoki rose and bowed deeply, then froze as the Hokage paused at the threshold where he stood for several moments in silence. The genin shut his eyes, feeling dizzy as he awaited the ninja lord's final words to him. At last the Hokage said without turning, "It does not upset me, however, to know that there are Hidden-Leaf ninja who would not cut their way through a friend merely to advance themselves."
Only after the ninja lord had left could he speak again. "Thank you, Hokage," Tomoki muttered. "I won't let you down."